Forbes recently valued the Dallas Cowboys franchise at $4 billion. How did the NFL evolve from a “localized sport based on gate receipts and played by oversized coal miners and West Texas psychopaths” to eclipse all other sports — specifically baseball — and become America’s game? That’s the theme of MacCambridge’s tome, which succeeds as the definitive history of the National Football League, an afterthought in the sporting landscape prior to the 1958 Championship Game and the proliferation of television. While baseball’s owners squabbled amongst themselves for the next few decades, visionary commissioner Pete Rozelle steered the NFL to the top by promoting “league think” above selfish interests.
MacCambridge focuses primarily on owners, coaches and legendary players, weaving the NFL’s story through the sociological and cultural backdrop of 20th century America. It’s a book that appeals to novices, casual football fans and aficionados alike, chronicling a sport that has graduated from Sunday afternoon entertainment to a behemoth that dominates the news cycle through the calendar year.
“In the great books of history, it will go down as little more than a cultural footnote: in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, pro football’s popularity as a spectator sport grew to eclipse that of Major League Baseball.
But within the narrow spectrum of American popular culture, the rise of pro football and relative decline in the popularity of Major League Baseball seems more momentous, a demarcation between past and present, not merely in sports but in the culture itself. This is true for several reasons, among them the speed with which pro football surpassed baseball, and the fact that well into the 1950s, so few people saw it coming.
To say that baseball was the number one sport in America at the end of World War II is to imply a hierarchy where none existed. Baseball towered above the sporting landscape like a colossus, the unquestioned National Pastime, the only game that mattered. Most fans had come to accept baseball’s primacy as something immutable, as much a part of the natural order of things as air and water.
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better know baseball,” wrote Jacques Barzun in 1954. Barzun’s words earned him a place in Bartlett’s, and were still being quoted enthusiastically a half-century later. But in the span of two generations in postwar America, pro football became a truer and more vivid reflection of the American preoccupations with power and passion, technology and teamwork, than any other sporting institution in the country.
As pro football rose in stature and popularity through the ’60s, it was logical to look for the simplest explanation to account for such a startling change. Many critics viewed pro football’s rise as the inevitable sign of the quickening (and perhaps coarsening) of the culture or, at the very least, a simple product of one sport being better on television than the other.
Indeed, it was on television that the differences between baseball and football were most evident. The writer James Michener’s Sports in America marveled at football’s “almost symbiotic” relationship with television, and in 1970, when the sport became a hit on prime-time television, its incursion into the entertainment culture freed all sports to follow suit.”