October 22, 2011

1939: Dodgers Defeat Eagles in First Televised NFL Game

Today, pro football on television is big business and a very big draw. Bringing the game to the viewing public had a huge effect on its growth, especially from the 1960s on. It got its start at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York on October 22, 1939 in a game between the host Brooklyn Dodgers and visiting Philadelphia Eagles. While there were 13,051 fans in attendance at the stadium, there were also two cameras and a crew of eight for the first televised pro football game (as opposed to a minimum of six cameras and a crew of some 200 for a telecast today).

Station W2XBS, forerunner of the NBC network, televised the contest with Allen “Skip” Walz handling the broadcasting. The production was largely an experiment and followed up the first college football telecast, between Fordham and Waynesburg, three weeks earlier. There were only about 1000 television sets in New York City (the telecast could also be seen on monitors at the RCA Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair) and the resolution of the small black-and-white picture was grainy. When clouds rolled in and decreased the available light, the quality suffered accordingly – to the point that the crew had to revert to a radio broadcast when it became too dark.

The matchup of teams was nothing special. The Dodgers, under Head Coach George “Potsy” Clark, were 2-2-1, including 0-2-1 in their last three games (there was a scoreless tie at Philadelphia). The Eagles, with owner Bert Bell also acting as head coach, had yet to win a contest and were 0-3-1.

In the first quarter, HB Ralph Kercheval intercepted a pass and returned it to the Philadelphia 30 yard line. The Dodgers gained two first downs thanks to the running of FB Pug Manders and tailback Ace Parker. Parker threw to end Perry Schwartz, who reached the eight. Two plays later, Manders bulled in for a touchdown.

The Eagles came back to tie the score thanks to a 44-yard drive in the second quarter. Diminutive rookie tailback Davey O’Brien (5’7”, 150), newly inserted into the lineup following the opening period, threw three completions and was helped by two penalties on the Dodgers. Rookie HB Fran Murray ran around end for a one-yard touchdown and Hank Reese converted.

In the third quarter, Kercheval put the Dodgers back in front with a 44-yard field goal. Shortly thereafter, Parker connected with Schwartz again for a 47-yard touchdown. Kercheval kicked two more field goals in short order in the fourth quarter, from 38 and 44 yards.

O’Brien provided some excitement in the final period as he threw to end Bill Hewitt (pictured at left) for a 22-yard TD to close out the scoring, but the result was a 23-14 win for Brooklyn.

Three players (Parker, end Waddy Young, and tackle Bruiser Kinard) played a full 60 minutes for the Dodgers. Brooklyn outgained the Eagles, 268 yards to 170, while each team had 10 first downs. Ralph Kercheval kicked three field goals in five attempts and added two extra points for Brooklyn. Pug Manders, moving from blocking back to fullback for the Dodgers, ran for 113 yards on 29 carries. Ace Parker was successful on 8 of his 19 throws for 116 yards and a touchdown. For the Eagles, Davey O’Brien completed 11 of 25 passes for 140 yards with a TD and one intercepted.

All of this occurred with broadcaster Walz adding his commentary (and often correctly forecasting Coach Clark’s calls) while sitting in a mezzanine seat along the railing with an iconoscope camera over his shoulder (the other camera, placed at field-level at the 50 didn’t work well and was little-used in the telecast).

“I did my own spotting, and when the play moved up and down the field on punts and kickoffs, I’d point to tell the cameraman what I’d be talking about,” said Walz later. “We also used hand signals for communication. Producer Burke Crotty was in the mobile unit truck, and he’d tell me over the headphones which camera he was using.”

For the most part, the players were unaware that they were being televised (Brooklyn FB Sam Francis said he noticed “a big trailer thing” parked outside the stadium), and the newspaper accounts didn’t mention it at all. The significance would come in retrospect, once television became a far more important medium and its role in the development of the sport more apparent.

Brooklyn went on to finish third in the Eastern Division with a 4-6-1 record. The Eagles ended up tied with Pittsburgh at the bottom at 1-9-1. And from the modest beginning broadcasting in obscurity to some 1000 people, pro football on television was watched by nearly 208 million viewers in 2010, with an average of almost 18 million per game and some 162.9 million for Super Bowl XLV.