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The Day War Came to the Polo Grounds


In the early morning hours after Harry Greb had outpointed Mickey Walker in 1925, the two fighters were reported to have met again outside a New York speakeasy and resumed hostilities, this time without benefit of padded gloves. The story was quickly repeated, usually by someone who claimed to have been an eyewitness. At the end of a couple of weeks it became apparent that if all of these night owls had actually been on the spot the unsanctioned Greb-Walker brawl was the best-attended sports event in history.

This attendance record stood unchallenged until Dec. 7, 1941. On that day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, pulling the U.S. into World War II. In succeeding years the number of people who have assured us that they first heard the infamous news while watching a professional football game at the Polo Grounds has steadily mounted. As the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor draws near, I offer this summary of events as a public service, to refresh the memories of the untold millions who spent that afternoon at the Polo Grounds.

It may unsettle forgetful New Yorkers to be reminded that once they were preoccupied with not one, but two inter-borough feuds between the Giants and the Dodgers. The baseball rivalry retains substance, because it has been picked up and beamed toward eternity by San Francisco and Los Angeles. But only the Mara family's Giants remain to attest to the football feud.

During the 1930s, while the Daffiness Boys kept Brooklyn baseball fans chuckling through their tears, their football counterparts provided no such diversion. Ebbets Field autumns were never lightened by laughter and seldom by victory.

But by 1941 the rivalry was no longer a mismatch. The Giants, under Coach Steve Owen, were as formidable as ever. Alphonse (Tuffy) Leemans, Ward Cuff and speedy George Franck, their paths suitably cleared by one of the most celebrated of all blocking backs, Nello Falaschi, moved the ball with efficiency. Center Mel Hein anchored a defense that was among the best of its time. The Giants had already clinched that season's Eastern Division Championship.

The difference lay in the Dodgers. A year before, Jock Sutherland, who had fashioned man-eating teams at Pitt, was appointed Brooklyn's coach. New hope fluttered the hearts of the faithful. Sunday's hero in Brooklyn invariably was Clarence (Ace) Parker, a triple-threat halfback from Duke. Parker was supported in the Brooklyn backfield by Clarence (Pug) Manders, the NFL's leading ground-gainer in 1941, and young Merlyn Condit. And the Dodger line was led by Bruiser Kinard.

Under ordinary circumstances, the game scheduled for the Polo Grounds on December 7, the last of the regular season, would have been anticlimactic, but ordinary circumstances never prevail when Giant faces Dodger. If the Giants held formal claim to the division championship, they had not proved it to Brooklyn's satisfaction. Ace Parker had led the Dodgers to two straight victories over the Giants, one in the final game of the 1940 season and another (by a score of 16-13) after the Giants had won their first five games in 1941. The Giants approached this game with a record of 8-2. The second-place Dodgers were 6-4.

To reach the New York sports pages, a reader that weekend had to pass over some pretty glum dispatches. Great concentrations of Japanese troops had been observed in Indochina. Menacing notes flew between Tokyo and Washington, and Australia had the jitters.

On that Sunday afternoon 55,051 people (in addition to the uncounted phantoms) pressed into the Polo Grounds. Before the game started the Giants docilely assembled on the field to watch a ceremony honoring the most illustrious member of their team: December 7 was Tuffy Leemans Day before it became Pearl Harbor Day.

A moment before the speeches began the first Japanese planes dropped their bombs on Pearl Harbor. No report was audible at the Polo Grounds. The ceremonies were concluded, the two team began knocking heads. Though there was no score in the first period, the players assaulted each other with uncommon ferocity, and the wounded began to pile up around the Giant bench.

The Giants, in fact, were being racked up. Parker, passing occasionally, slanting off the tackles more regularly, kept them off balance. Manders was all over the field. In the second period he intercepted a pass, spun up the middle for a first down on the Giants' four, then took two more cracks at the line, finally hitting right guard to score from the three. In the third period Leemans, who was to gain only 18 yards rushing all day, tried to change his luck with a pass. The ball tipped off Len Eshmont's fingers into the arms of Manders, who returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.

Meanwhile a steady hum of curiosity could be detected under the roar that distinguishes an assemblage of professional football fans. An urgent call for Colonel William J. Donovan to get in touch with his office was relayed over the public-address system. There were several other calls for military and government officials. The boys in the press box saw the bulletin of the Japanese attack on their ticker, but the fans, who were obliged to follow a game in those days without transistors, were left to speculate on the nature of the crisis. Many of them did not learn of the attack until they reached home. Perhaps the management feared that an announcement during the game would cause an exodus before the stocks of hot dogs and beer had been consumed.

On the field, the slaughter continued unabated. A threat mounted by the Giants early in the fourth period came to nothing, when Manders intercepted one of Hank Soar's passes. A few minutes later the Dodgers, set in motion by Parker's 19-yard run, drove 59 yards for a touchdown. Manders scored from the two. The Giants finally scored with 23 seconds to play, when Soar passed 38 yards to Kay Eakin.

The final score was 21-7. Three Giants, Hein, Falaschi and Franck, were taken to the hospital, half a dozen others were put under doctors' care. The Dodgers remained in second place, but they had softened up their old tormentors to the extent that the Giants were pushed over 37-9 by the Bears in the NFL championship game. I have never talked to anybody who saw that one.