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Today's Tidbit... The First Televised Football Game
Many football history buffs know the first televised football game was the 1939 season-opening contest between Fordham and Waynesburg. Still, fewer know why they chose that game for the first televised football game or other aspects of the game. Don't worry. We've got you covered.
RCA president David Sarnoff introduced commercial television to the world at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, after which RCA began broadcasting fifteen hours of content per week. Like some later Silicon Valley companies that made good, RCA lost their butts on early television, but they had to prove their value to some consumers before others would adopt the new technology.
RCA's early content was mostly studio-based musical acts, discussions, and similar content with isolated content shot on location, particularly sporting events. During the spring and summer of 1939, RCA broadcast a Columbia baseball game, cycling and track events from Madison Square Garden, a prize fight from Yankee Stadium, and tennis from the Westchester Country Club. Each event occurred in metro New York for two interrelated reasons. First was the greater Gotham City area's installed base of 1,000-some televisions -more than anywhere else in the country- so content of interest to New Yorkers made sense. Second, New York was home to the Empire State Building, which housed RCA/NBC's only transmitter. The relays of the era that sent the video signal from a remote location to the Empire State Building could only send the signal a limited distance, so New York locations were a requirement.
September 30 was the opening day of the college season, and with NYU playing at Colgate and Manhattan visiting Holy Cross, national power Fordham's game with Waynesburg was the only local game available. Played at Triborough Stadium on Randall's Island, which sits in the East River at the intersection of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, the stadium was an appropriate venue for a game expected to be a blowout. Fordham had opened its seasons with bunnies for decades, outscoring their opening-day opponents 877-17, and had beaten Waynesburg the last three years 20-6, 48-0, and 53-0.
By all accounts, the players and others paid little attention to the camera and the two television equipment buses along the sideline, though a few reportedly tripped on the cables. Television was not yet a big deal, with many players likely never having seen a television.
Entering the game as significant underdogs, the Waynesburgers shocked the 9,000 attendees when they had the ball on their 37-yard line four minutes into the game when they gave the ball to halfback Bobby Brooks on a run off left tackle. Brooks, of course, took off and scampered 63 yards for a touchdown to become the first player to score a televised touchdown. His fellow halfback, John Stefanic, converted the kick to become the first to kick a televised extra point. The game saw many other firsts, seconds, and thirds, which you conjure to your heart's content using the box score below.
A look at the box score also shows that John R. "Jack" McPhee was the head linesman for the game. McPhee entered the football history record book two years later when he handled the Youngstown State-Oklahoma City game, which saw game officials' first documented use of penalty flags. McPhee kept his flag following the game and continued using it. He did so for the 1943 Ohio State-Iowa game attended by Maj. John Griffith, the conference commissioner. Griffith mandated penalty flags for all league games the following week and their use spread.
For those wondering about the second televised football game, it came a week later when Manhattan College played St. Bonaventure, also at Triborough Stadium. The Jaspers beat the Bonnies 6-0, with the game's only score coming in the first quarter when Castiglione, a Manhattan halfback, tossed the ball to right end Surullo, who then lateraled to his quarterback Gnup, who took the hook-and-lateraled ball in for the score. That made Gnup the first quarterback and player to score on a trick play in a televised game. I could go on, but I won't.
So, now you know how the first televised football game came about and why they selected the Fordham-Waynesburg game for the premier event.
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