The First 50 Years
Simon & Schuster, 1969
Out of print – available secondhand
Coffee table books are usually judged on looks. They’re designed to catch the eye and be fun to flick through for a few minutes. The First 50 Years certainly does that but it’s also insightful and well-written. Who would expect a book produced by the NFL to quote Marshall McLuhan and Eric Fromm? This one does. It’s become one of my favourite football books.
The book is credited only to “the creative staff of National Football League Properties”, though the copyright page lists David Boss – who will crop up again on this site – as creative director and Bob Oates Jr as editor. They and their team did a great job.
The NFL’s tipping point in public consciousness is widely considered to be the 1958 Championship Game between the Colts and the Giants. By the early 1970s, surveys were putting the NFL as America’s favourite sport. This book was written with the NFL still growing in prominence but already with a rich history to draw on.
It begins with a chapter explaining why football is “A Game for Our Time” and argues that the American people are “crowded into increasingly unmanageable cities, governed by a seemingly unreachable bureaucracy, given an unwanted war in Asia and the upheavals of racial and educational factions at home, [and] distraught by continuing violence and tragedy”.
Let’s note a few things: first, we’re only on page one of a coffee table book published by a professional sports league and it’s already considering public unrest and racial upheaval. Second, consider how the NFL, come the 1990s and 2000s, wrapped itself in the flag for both Iraq wars and contrast that with the mind-boggling sight of this – an official NFL book – discussing an “unwanted war in Asia”.
Third, this introductory essay goes on to consider the search for meaning in a world where we no longer have to hunt for or farm our own food, as well as the value of art. It distills into eight pages the kind of thoughts that would later fill Mark Edmundson’s Why Football Matters or Michael Mandelbaum’s The Meaning of Sports.
Later, there’s another outstanding essay, titled “A Physical Science”, that provides a concise history of the development of football strategy. Again, it makes some of its points more clearly – through the use of words and play diagrams – than many other authors can in entire books. It quotes Pop Warner on the game’s early development:
“I think passing should be illegal. Something should be done to curtail the wild, promiscuous, glorified football that some teams now indulge in. They throw long forward passes on a percentage basis that if one of these connects they will fluke a touchdown and win the game. That’s what I’m against.”
Alongside those essays are the kinds of things you’d expect – some excellent photographs and stylish drawings, a decade-by-decade guide to the sport’s development and brief summaries of some classic games. There’s an essay on playing equipment, accompanied by drawings showing how NFL uniforms changed over the years. And there’s a guide to some of the top players, including this extraordinary description of Jerry Kramer, of the Green Bay Packers:
“As a schoolboy, he severely wounded himself in the right arm with a shotgun blast, leaving a partially paralysed hand. At the age of 17, he stepped on a rotting plank with shot splinters into his groin, requiring surgery for removal. Football gave him a chipped vertebra requiring surgery in 1956, a detached retina in 1960 and a severe leg fracture in 1961. In 1964, after a series of eight exploratory operations, several splinters from the boyhood accident were discovered lodged in his intestines, creating internal disorders and a disease that almost took his life.”
Stories like that make it well worth seeking out a copy of this book. It’s long out of print but secondhand copies are easy to find, since there were several editions. It’s an essential addition to any football fan’s bookshelf.