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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Less Red Zone Than Dead Zone

Professional football playoff time is upon us. No Giants. No Jets. Limited interest here, though chances are I’ll turn on whatever game is on wherever it’s on. Earlier, I had one on ESPN (which is a first for professional football playoffs). The best part of this particular National Football League postseason is it furnishes me with an excuse to pass along and delve into something I read a couple of weeks ago.

According to the site Classic TV Sports, the last time the ultimate television sport known as NFL football wasn’t televised is approaching its 40th anniversary. The date on which it wasn’t televised? November 1, 1975. The place from which it wasn’t televised?

Your first guess is correct. The answer is Shea Stadium. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be bothering you with any of this. The occasion wasn’t a Jets game, however.

This was 1975, the year Shea Stadium was Shared Stadium…shared to within an inch of its life. As you probably know, New York’s American League franchise sublet Shea during the summer of 1975, making for a baseball game there practically every day for six months. Then, when the Mets and that other team finished swapping homestands, the Jets could start playing some home games, though not an inning before. That had been the arrangement since 1964, when the AFL followed the National League to the intersection of 126th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. The Mets held scheduling priority and were quite proprietary of it. When the Mets extended their business deep into October in 1973, they kept the Jets on the road until the seventh week of their season.

But in 1975, when there were no baseball playoffs to keep Flushing football at bay for long, the Jets weren’t the only team with autumnal affairs to attend to ’neath the cover of LaGuardia flights. The Giants discovered Queens for the first and only time that year. Their future home in Bergen County was a year from opening (like Shea’s, Giants Stadium’s construction didn’t necessarily align with publicly announced target dates); their previous home in the Bronx was undergoing renovation; their original home in Upper Manhattan was a distant memory; and their most recent temporary home at a less than NFL-caliber way station was a million miles away from New York.

Eighty-two miles by car, actually, but if it wasn’t New York or very nearby New Jersey, it was a schlep. And make no mistake about it: the Yale Bowl, where the Giants played home games most of 1973 and all of 1974, was a schlep. “Our players have never accepted it as a home field,” owner Wellington Mara said of the Giants’ two-year Nutmeg State residency. “I don’t necessarily agree with that…but if a group of athletes thinks it’s bad, then we’re at a competitive disadvantage.”

The Giants, absent from the NFL playoffs since 1963, went 2-12 in 1974. They didn’t need any more competitive disadvantages. They also didn’t need to try their loyal customers’ patience any further. The Connecticut Turnpike, Mara admitted, was a road too far: “I’ve had many fans say, ‘I’m not giving up, but I can’t make the trip.’”

Essentially, the Giants were out of options, so they did what all the outdoor New York teams were doing in 1975: they played at Shea Stadium. If it was good enough for a righthanded-throwing Craig Swan, it was good enough for a righthanded-throwing Craig Morton. But was it shall we say appropriate enough for NBC on the first Saturday in November?

Saturday? Yes, Saturday. As is the case every fall, there are only so many Sundays. Within the matrix of National Football League scheduling, there were weekends when there was no avoiding a Jets game and a Giants game transpiring at Shea. They couldn’t each play at home on Any Given Sunday, so one of them — the newcomer Giants — had to settle for Saturday, providing no day of rest for the Shea grounds crew or its endlessly trampled grass.

But for the television crew that would have otherwise beamed the game that pitted the Giants and Chargers to New York, San Diego and maybe somewhere in between, it was a different story in what was surely a different world. The Giants could play a home game on a Saturday afternoon in November if they absolutely had to, but it couldn’t be televised in what you’d call a normal fashion. The NFL blackout rule had been altered only a couple of years earlier. Before 1973, you wouldn’t have seen any Giants home game in New York…or any Jets home game in New York…or any home game in any home market.

The NFL was so worried that TV would detract from their live gate that they permitted no home games on the local air. They wouldn’t even show sellouts or sold-out playoff games. Such stodgy thinking couldn’t hold forever, even in the pre-ESPN media age, so spurred in part by the Giants briefly putting down stakes in New Haven — where defining the “home market” was going to be a trick play no matter what — the league decided to allow all home games to be televised as long as they were sold out within 72 hours of kickoff.

Packing Shea Stadium wasn’t necessarily an issue for the 1975 Giants. They drew better than 52,000 for the Chargers on November 1 (the Jets and O.J. Simpson’s Bills would play before 58,000-plus in the very same space the very next day), so in theory NBC, which would have held the rights since it was an AFC team’s road game, probably could have shown it in New York. But the Saturday scheduling presented an immutably thorny sticking point. The NFL’s policy was to stay off the air on pre-December Saturdays in cooperative deference to its high school and college competition. As the Times explained in the spring of 1975, “Federal law prohibits the network-televising of pro games on Fridays and Saturdays during the high school and college seasons (roughly Sept. 1-Dec. 1). The law was designed to protect the latter’s gate receipts.”

What the stylish New York Football Giant wore at Shea the final year there were, geographically speaking, New York Football Giants.

The Big Blue helmet from 1975 and 1975 only. It’s what the stylish New York Football Giant wore at Shea the final year there were, geographically speaking, New York Football Giants. (Image courtesy of Helmet Hut.)

Networks couldn’t get involved, but the teams were all right selling the rights locally. The 2-4 Giants simply opted not to so as to keep from “running afoul of Federal law” while “lessen[ing] impact” on New York-area high school and colleges. And the 0-6 Chargers? They skipped the chance to telecast a 10 AM PST start on their own steam, too. As the Times had pointed out, Shea’s fall 1975 Saturday visitors, like the home team, “would be running the risk of antagonizing the high schools and colleges” in their markets if they infiltrated Saturday morning TV.

Who knew the NFL was so sensitive?

With nobody except those who entered through the Shea Stadium turnstiles watching, veteran Craig Morton outdueled youngster Dan Fouts to chalk up the Giants’ first home win in Queens, 35-24. The festival of scoring obscured a poor all-around display of football, according to the Times’s Murray Chass, who wasn’t yet assigned to full-time bacne monitoring. It “wasn’t pretty,” Chass wrote, “but did it have to be a ‘Frankenstein Meets Dracula’ horror show?”

It seems an unfair assessment — hard to believe, I know, coming from Chass — but I can’t say with certainty it isn’t accurate. I didn’t see the game. Nobody without a ticket did.

Morton would ultimately quarterback the Giants to five wins in 1975, or four more than Swan pitched the Mets to that same year. Baseball Craig earned his only win at Shea against the old New York/now San Francisco Giants, while Football Craig would manage one more home victory, versus the terminally inept New Orleans Saints. It was the 5-9 Giants’ final Shea triumph. The Meadowlands was ready for the 1976 season, and even if it wasn’t (completion was considered no sure thing), the Giants had made arrangements to play at the new “Stadium” in the Bronx for a year if it came to that.

Morton, who had once led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl, lasted one more year as a Giant. Then he’d leap off the scrap heap and lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl. It sounds like something that would happen to a Met with a relatively big name: be good somewhere, be far less good in Flushing, get back to being good elsewhere. But that was par for the course for the Giants in their chasm between contention, which lasted a mere 17 seasons. The post-Super Bowl Jets weren’t such hot stuff, either, by then, but at least they knew (through 1983) which stadium to call home.

The last NFL game not televised took place at Shea Stadium two days after perhaps the most famous headline in New York newspaper history fronted the Daily News: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. While financially strapped New York unsuccessfully lobbied the Federal government for a badly needed loan, its sole municipal stadium worked overtime without adequate budgetary support. Though the phrase “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” wouldn’t gain currency for approximately another quarter-century, the strains on Shea’s physical plant couldn’t be hidden when a facility designed for two teams had to make room for four.

Talk about a “Frankenstein Meets Dracula” horror show.

Come 1976, the Giants were ensconced in East Rutherford; the American League was confined to the other side of the Triborough; every NFL game was televised somewhere; Gerald Ford narrowly lost New York’s 41 electoral votes and thus the presidency; and Craig Swan won six games…or three more than the New York Giants of New Jersey did. In 1978, the first season during which the Mets were no longer contractually empowered to lord it over the Jets every September (the football team got to open its season at Shea for the first time since ’64), I watched the Jets play a regular-season Sunday game from Baltimore on WPIX that sort of looked like an NBC production but was closer in spirit to an exhibition telecast. I clearly remember a telethon-style crawl running across the bottom of the screen that October afternoon informing viewers that tickets were still available for the Jets-Cardinals game at Shea — a potential blackout candidate, apparently — the following Sunday. I also clearly remember thinking, “Why does this game look like it does and why is it on Channel 11?”

It took me 36 years, or until I found the classictvsports.com article, to discern what was up with that.

It was the same rule that kicked the Shea Stadium Giants off TV. Colts home games back then started at 2 PM, or an hour later than everywhere else in Pete Rozelle’s civilized society. Channel 4 would have shown it most Sundays, except Baltimore’s oddball kickoff time would have sent the Jets encroaching upon the approximately 4:30 first pitch of the World Series game NBC was airing later that afternoon. Yes, a different world: baseball taking precedence over football again…and the World Series not pushed to prime time. WNBC didn’t want to show the Jets because they didn’t want it getting in the way of the New York American League team and their Game Five tilt versus the Dodgers, live from the relatively new “Stadium” in the Bronx. So, as the article explains, when a game was “played outside of the normal network TV windows, the NFL allowed the road team to sell the TV rights to a local station.” It’s what the Chargers didn’t do in 1975 the week they lost to the Giants at Shea. It’s what the Jets did in 1978 the week they beat the Colts at Memorial Stadium.

To sum up, then…

Shea Stadium is gone. Memorial Stadium is gone. Giants Stadium is gone. The renovated “Stadium” in the Bronx is gone. Yale Bowl, older than all of them, remains. Dan Fouts is in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Murray Chass claims he no longer votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame, though he still occasionally writes columns that aren’t pretty. And the Jets on Channel 11 on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of October mystery that had sporadically vexed me since tenth grade has been solved.

Back to your playoffs if you’re so inclined.

3 comments to Less Red Zone Than Dead Zone

  • SkillSetsMets

    Yes, I remember the Jets and Giants on TV in the 70s .. the era of America’s Team (Dallas) the Steelers and the Oakland Raid-uhs. Station managers at WCBS-TV and WNBC-TV would go into rages, as they were obligated to carry the Giants and Jets telecasts, what with their poor records and miniscule ratings. They wanted to see ratings-winners like the Cowboys vs. Washington or Curt Gowdy, Sr. calling a Raiders-Chiefs battle from the Oakland ‘Mauze.

  • Dave

    Oh man, football at Shea. I was at what turned out to be the by then barely recognizable Joe Namath’s last game as a Jet in 76. The Jets lost by, I don’t know, 40-50 points, and it probably took a few months for my blood circulation to get back to normal. I once spent a few days in Lake Louise, Alberta in February and it never got above zero the whole time we were there. Shea in December felt colder than that.

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