Fifty years ago, two events changed the landscape of professional sports in America forever.
In 1958, the Dodgers and the Giants left New York behind, kicking off baseball’s presence on the West Coast and ushering in an era of expansion in baseball and eventually other sports. Shock waves were felt from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and from New York to San Francisco.
Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, frustrated in his attempts to get a new ballpark to replace Ebbets Field, decided to pick up and head West, taking owner Horace Stoneham and the Giants with him.
Fifty years later, Brooklyn has not forgotten. When O’Malley was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in July, some boos were heard throughout the Cooperstown crowd. Walter O’Malley may just be the most reviled figure in New York sports history.
Brooklyn native and the radio voice of the Dodgers Charley Steiner once observed: “Walter O’Malley was the guy in the black hat who led the wagon train out of town.”
Later that year, the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts staged a dramatic overtime game in Yankee Stadium that symbolized the rise of the NFL and the establishment of professional football as America’s leading pastime.
The Colts prevailed behind Johnny Unitas, 23-17, in what remains to this day the only overtime championship game in NFL history. A nationally televised NBC audience was captivated by the drama, capped by Alan Ameche’s winning touchdown, shown at right.
Some refer to it as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” It may not have been the greatest….but it may have been the most important game NFL history, for it signalled the rise and popularity of the sport in the national psyche.
Year of Dynasties
1958 was also a year of dynasties, past, present and future.
The Colts won the NFL championship that year, and would repeat in 1959, again knocking off the Giants.
But the real dynasty was rising in Green Bay, where Vince Lombardi, who left the Giants as an assistant coach following the 1958 playoff, led the Packers to a 7-5 record in 1959. A year later the Packers were in the NFL championship game; two years later they were NFL champions, starting a run of five NFL crowns in seven seasons, including the first two Super Bowls ever played.
In baseball, the New York Yankees, in the midst of winning 14 American League pennants and nine World Series in 16 years, rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Milwaukee Braves and win the World Series.
The Braves had beaten the Yankees in seven games in 1957, only to have the Yankees return the favor in 1958, to the delight of Casey Stengel, above, here with Braves manager Fred Haney following the seventh game.
Although the St. Louis Hawks won their only NBA title in 1958. defeating the Celtics in six games, Boston was on the verge of a major roll that started the following year. Beginning in 1959, the Celtics won eight straight NBA titles and 10 of 11 championships overall, a standard unapproached in professional sports history.
Finally, in 1958, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the third straight year, en route to an NHL record five straight titles. Les Habitants have won 23 championships; only the Yankees with 26 have more.