My grandfather took me to my first game at The Stadium. Not baseball: the Cleveland Browns against the New York Football Giants. I lived in Rochester and, as a consequence, I was a Browns fan. As to whether this was right and proper, I thought not at all. I knew nothing about sports marketing and could not have cared less if small-market Rochester had been gerrymandered into the Browns’ TV-turf as a sop to get the Modells’ vote for the television package. I was 14, and I loved Jim Brown.
By modern standards, I was still a casual fan. Football was more fun to play than to watch, and I lived in a neighborhood with wall-to-wall kids. There was a backyard game every Sunday, so I probably missed more Browns’ games than I saw. But even I knew that this would be a big game: December football; the Browns had to win it to get to the championship. It was also a revenge game: the Giants had beaten the Browns two straight (the final game of the season and a special playoff) to get to the ’58 championship, said to be the greatest ever played. I knew the Browns would have beaten the Colts, and, dutifully, I reviled the Giants.
I was stunned by the ballpark. My notion of a stadium was Red Wing Stadium, where the Rochester AAA ball team played. But this was something else—vast and powerful, filled with 60,000 fans, and the tangy scent of smoke mixed with alcohol (which I wouldn’t smell again till I could go into bars), and noise like I’d never heard in my life. I couldn’t even describe the noise—a wailing screech?—ebbing and then rising as loud as a jet plane. I fell silent. I felt tiny.
But the Browns gave me courage. As I remember, the game was tight, with the Browns clinging to a nervous lead by the half—at which point some kind of miracle transpired. Suddenly, the Browns could do no wrong, and for the Giants, nothing went right. Tittle was intercepted for a score. Jim Brown caught a pass and waltzed into the end zone. The Giants fumbled, the Browns scored … and again … and again … and I was whooping and cutting up just as loud as I could, just like the (suddenly silent) New York fans … or so I imagined—it only showed how little I understood.
When the Browns’ backups scored again, and their score climbed to more than 50 points, I asked my grandfather (rather too loudly) if that big Longines scoreboard could show three digits for the visiting team. A couple of New York fans turned around and gave me the look that was my real introduction to Yankee Stadium. I had known for about the last quarter that they probably wanted me to shut up. But their look now didn’t say, “Shut up.” What it said was they wanted to kill me. What is said was this was the worst moment of their lives and if I didn’t shut up they might forget how unutterably sad they were, and have another drink, and kill me for sure.
I shut up. I feared them. But I also respected them. No one I knew felt that way about their team. And they taught me something important, which was the dire seriousness of New York sports—which is what the old Stadium was about.
[Photo Credit: Ross Lewis]