Recently I read “1941: The Greatest Year in Sports” by Mike Vaccaro, the excellent columnist for the New York Post. Vacaro interweaves vignettes about the year in sports – Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams .406 season, Whirlaway’s Triple Crown, Joe Louis over Billy Conn and more – with the shadow of war hanging over the world in 1941. Excellent read.
My favorite sports year is 1951 – my birth year. That was a great year for sports.
Start with “The Shot Heard Round the World,” Bobby Thomson’s dramatic ninth inning home run off Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds that gave the Giants the National League pennant over the Dodgers. At one point in August, the Giants trailed Brooklyn by 13 1/2 games, yet came all the way back to win a dramatic playoff game on what is generally regarded as the most memorable home run in baseball history,
The Yankees went on to beat the Giants in six games in the World Series. It was Joe DiMaggio’s final appearance in the Fall Classic; while Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays found October’s spotlight as rookies.
The year 1951 saw the first professional championship in North America for a team based West of St. Louis. The Los Angeles Rams beat the Cleveland Browns 24-17, gaining revenge for a last-minute loss to the Browns in 1950.
Earlier in the 1951 season opener, LA quarterback Norm Van Brocklin passed for 554 yards and five TDs in a 54-14 win over the New York Yanks. That record has stood up for more than 66 years.
The world of boxing witnessed the career intersection of two of the game’s all-time heavyweights. Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. In an October bout at Madison Square Garden, Marciano, age 27, knocked down Louis, 37, twice in the eighth round before the fight was called as a TKO.
The great golfer Ben Hogan overcame a near-fatal automobile accident in 1949, winning both the Masters and the US Open.
In the NBA, the New York Knickerbockers nearly overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Rochester Royals before losing in seven games. The Royals won the final game 79-75 on April 21. It was their first, and to date only, NBA Championship.
That same day, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup four games to one over the Montreal Canadians, with all five games going into overtime. Bill Barilko scored the Cup-winning goal; sadly it turned out to be his final goal. Barilko died in a plane crash during the summer in a fishing trip to northern Quebec.
It’s one of the oldest records in National Football League history.
Nearly 60 years ago, on a warm Friday night at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, Norman Mack Van Brocklin passed for 554 yards as the Rams beat up on the New York Yanks, 54-14. The date was September 28, 1951, the opening game of the NFL season,
Van Brocklin broke the single-game record set by Johnny Lujack of the Chicago Bears, who threw for 468 yards in a season-ending win over the Chicago Cardinals in 1949.
Since then, thousands and thousands of pro football games have been played. Rock and roll was invented. We’ve had 10 US Presidents. Man walked on the moon. Oh yes, and lest we forget, the Internet became vogue.
Van Brocklin, who was known as the Dutchman, threw five touchdowns that magic night against the dreadful Yanks, four to Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (41, 47, 26 and 1). He also tossed a 67-yard touchdown to Vitamin Smith. All told, NVB completed 27 of 41 passes that afternoon, and was intercepted twice.
The Rams won the NFL Championship in 1951 with Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield sharing quarterback duties, although Waterfield started the majority of the 12 games the Rams played.
In the 24-17 championship game win over the Cleveland Browns, Van Brocklin threw just six passes. But one of them was a 73-yard bomb to Tom Fears in the fourth quarter to put the Rams in front for good.
History of Van Brocklin
Norm Van Brocklin, who played his college ball at Oregon, was a fourth-round pick (37th overall) of the Rams in the 1949 NFL draft.
He played nine seasons in Los Angeles, then was dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 for tackle Buck Lansford, defensive back Jimmy Harris and a first round draft pick. Van Brocklin may have hastened his departure when he was intercepted six times in a 38-14 loss to Cleveland in the 1955 NFL title game.
Van Brocklin played three years in Philadelphia, and was named NFL MVP in 1960, his final season. That year he led the Eagles to a 17-13 win over Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers for the NFL Championship. It’s the only playoff game a Lombardi-coached team ever lost, and also marks the last time the Eagles won a championship.
Van Brocklin became the first coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961, and later coached the Atlanta Falcons for seven seasons.
A nine-time Pro Bowler, Norm was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
The 500-Yard Club
554 Norm Van Brocklin, Los Angeles Rams, 1951
527 Warren Moon, Houston Oilers, 1990
522 Boomer Esiason, Arizona Cardinals, 1996
521 Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins, 1988
517 Tom Brady, New England Patriots, 2011
513 Phil Simms, New York Giants, 1985
519 Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints, 2006
509 Vince Ferragamo, Los Angeles Rams, 1982
505 Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants, 1962
504 Elvis Grbac, Kansas City Chiefs, 2000
503 Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2009