When the NFL came to Bangor …
In 1959, National Football League exhibition games were no big deal. The league now considered by many to sit atop the American sports world was still in its adolescence. There was no Super Bowl, no multimillion-dollar contracts for players and coaches, no satellite television packages or fantasy leagues. Each of the 12 teams back then played half a dozen games before the regular season began. About the only people who paid attention to the contests were the coaches trying to put teams together and the players trying to make the teams. So why, half a century later, is one NFL preseason game in Bangor between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers still remembered so fondly by those who attended and — in some instances — by those who played? Well, when one game brings together 12 future Hall of Fame players from two storied franchises accounting for 10 NFL championships led by two eventual Hall of Fame coaches and one Hall of Fame owner, it was a rare chance to witness in small-town America some of the best the sport had to offer. Pat Summerall, the Giants’ offensive end/kicker and, later, CBS-TV announcer, had to think a bit but recalled the game in Maine in which he kicked two extra points. “I remember I caught a pass,” Summerall, 79, said in a telephone interview this week. “After, we got together with some Packers in our hotel and drank beer.” Summerall, who came to Bar Harbor for a vacation a few years back, came up with another specific Bangor memory. “We stayed at the Penobscot Hotel,” he recalled, referring to the former landmark on Exchange Street. “There were no closets in the room so we hung our clothing on the pipes overhead.” Jerry Kramer, Green Bay’s five-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman, also recalled the contest recently. He said Bangor had to be the smallest place he ever played an NFL game. “I remember going out to warm up. The grandstand wasn’t too big and it was obvious it was a high school field,” said Kramer, 73. “I think the Giants’ hotel was nearby and it seemed to me like it was leaning.” As it turned out, it would be the only chance for Mainers to see an NFL game played in the Pine Tree State. The league hasn’t returned since that uncommonly hot and humid September Saturday evening when an estimated 12,000 to 13,000 people crowded Garland Street Field to witness history. The favored Giants won 14-0 on two Alex Webster touchdown runs 50 years ago today.
How it happened
It would never happen in 2009. Today, preseason NFL games require stadiums that seat 60,000 fans or more, not to mention the fact that those exhibition contests are tied to season-ticket packages that would make moving such games to more remote areas problematic for the fans who pay the extra money to ensure access to the regular-season contests. But 1959 was a different time for the NFL. The league was about to be challenged by the upstart American Football League, which in the Northeast would lead to a specific challenge to the New York Giants’ dominance over all professional football fans in New England by the fledgling Boston Patriots. That fact alone wasn’t the primary incentive behind the Giants and Packers squaring off in the Queen City. But the notion that such a game would have been held in Bangor at any point in history remains a rather remarkable moment in the city’s sporting past. “I just remember how easy it seemed to get an event like this to come to a small town like Bangor, when today that would be impossible,” said Gordon Clapp, a well-known local businessman at the time and a key organizer of the event. Clapp chaired Bangor’s 125th anniversary steering committee that developed numerous events throughout 1959 ranging from a winter carnival and a college basketball tournament to parades and, yes, a professional football game. “We felt that usually the 125th anniversary is not an event that calls for a major celebration, but we wanted to use it more as something to help promote the area,” Clapp said. “But it was a rather ambitious undertaking.” Clapp and J. Dan Baldwin, another official involved in planning the city’s 125th anniversary celebration, were instrumental in discussions with P. Ballantine & Sons of Newark, N.J., the producers of Ballantine Beer and one of the Giants’ primary sponsors. “They had played at the Yale Bowl in an exhibition game the year before and it had been successful,” said Clapp. “The Giants were our home team back then, and we felt like it would be a coup to get them to come to Bangor, because this wasn’t a big city like Chicago or New York.” Once the teams did agree to meet in Bangor, it was up to local organizations, particularly the Bangor Jaycees, to work behind the scenes on staging the event. “There were a lot of meetings,” said Ed McInnis, a certified public accountant who was a member of the Jaycees and its game chairman. “We had to deal with concessions, parking, tickets, shuttle buses. We secured parking at the state hospital and at Bass Park, because we didn’t know how much parking we would need.” Turns out they needed parking for 12,000, the estimated crowd. “Most of the draw was from the Greater Bangor area,” Clapp said. “People from the Portland area wouldn’t come up because Bangor was the host, and the same was true with Augusta.” With seating for an estimated 17,670 fans — much of it rented seating placed on the visitors’ side of the field and behind each end zone — and promotional appearances in the area in advance of the game by such Giants stars as Kyle Rote, Andy Robustelli and Alex Webster, organizers hoped for a bigger crowd, especially after some 9,000 tickets were sold in advance. There was also a strong local connection as two University of Maine standouts and rookie pros — lineman Roger Ellis and offensive end Thurlow Cooper — were expected to play. “The only disappointing thing was that we had 12,000 people who came to the game, and we could have had another few thousand because of the seating capacity that had been brought in,” said Clapp, who now lives in Dunn, N.C., 40 miles southeast of Raleigh. “I talked to some people who said they didn’t go because it was an exhibition and the players wouldn’t try as hard. But in football if you let up, you get killed. Mel Triplett, who played for the Giants, suffered broken ribs during that game. You can’t tell him they weren’t hitting hard.”
Hot time in the Queen City
It wasn’t the hard hitting some of the greats who played in the game recalled. “I remember playing that game against the Giants. It was hot and humid. Unbelievable,” said former Packers offensive lineman Forrest Gregg, 75, who went on to coach the Cincinnati Bengals to an AFC title and Super Bowl appearance in 1981. “It was one of the hottest games I ever played in,” said Gregg, a Texas native who was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection in 13 seasons. “That’s what I remember most. I played in heat, but the humidity was unbearable.” As an eight-year NFL veteran, Giants Hall of Fame flanker-halfback Frank Gifford was used to late summer and early fall New England humidity because the team’s preseason facility was located in Winooski, Vt. “I don’t remember [the game in Bangor], really,” said Gifford, now 79 and co-owner of Lamb Chop Productions in Connecticut with his wife, Kathie Lee. “We trained a lot in hot, humid weather up near Burlington, Vermont, so we were used to it.” Hall of Fame Packers fullback Jim Taylor shared his memories of the brief visit to Bangor. “I don’t recall the temperature or anything, but vaguely remember being up there,” said Taylor, 73. “Got there that Friday and left the morning after [the game]. “I’d never been to Maine before, but we’ve been back a couple times on vacation.” None of the players interviewed had particularly poignant memories of Bangor. “Paul Hornung’s a good friend of mine and we couldn’t wait to get the game over with so we could do a little partying, but we never even went out,” Gifford said, referring to the former Packer halfback. Gregg pretty much summed up the experience for all the players and coaches. “That’s the furthest north or east I’ve ever been and we played games all over,” said Gregg. “I can’t remember when we got there but we weren’t there too long. We ate as a team, played the game, went to the hotel and left.”
No replay for Bangor
The disappointing turnout in Bangor led to the game actually losing money for its sponsor. McInnis said revenues for the so-called “Ballantine Bowl” totaled $42,342, which included money from concessions, ticket and program sales. Total expenses, meanwhile, were $66,553, which mostly went to the teams but included a bill of approximately $15,000 for the rented seating. “The revenue wasn’t close to the expenses,” said McInnis, who estimated that 125 of the 200 members of the Bangor Jaycees worked as volunteers at the game. “We got a bill for $15,000 for the seating and that was an unexpected amount. “We didn’t expect it and I don’t think Ballantine Beer did either, but they never blinked an eye.” Indeed, Ballantine made up the difference, leaving both the teams and the city in good financial stead after the game. “A lot of things worked in our favor,” said Clapp. “The Giants were looking for a place to play to fill in their exhibition schedule and Ballantine was insuring the event in a sense, so the teams couldn’t lose money and we couldn’t lose any money. “And Ballantine sold more beer that weekend in eastern Maine than they ever had before.” The Jaycees weren’t quite as fortunate — they didn’t lose money, but they had hoped to generate some income from the game to subsidize other club activities. “We were a little disappointed because we didn’t want to lose any money on the project, we wanted there to be money left over so [the Jaycees] could use it for some of our charitable projects,” said McInnis, who now resides in Phoenix. “But there just wasn’t any.” There was some talk in the immediate aftermath of the contest about a return game the next year, but those hopes quickly faded. “The comments I got were largely positive,” Clapp said. “A lot of people said, ‘Let’s do it again,’ but the Ballantine people were not as interested.” Yet despite the less than bountiful financial rewards, the Giants-Packers clash served its primary purposes — adding to Bangor’s 125th anniversary celebration, promoting the area in general, and bringing a taste of pro football to eastern Maine. “I don’t think we had any real problems, everything was pretty smooth,” said McInnis. “We worked awfully hard at ticket sales, but after a point there wasn’t anything we could do about it. “But all in all, I thought everybody was treated to a pretty good football game and it’s something you’ll never see in Maine again.”