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The Giants beat the Packers 23-17 in 1938 and then lost four straight title games before demoralizing the Bears 47-7 in '56, their first season in Yankee Stadium, after 30 years in the Polo Grounds. Once again, the field was frozen, but this time the Giants started the game wearing sneakers. Future coach Webster scored two touchdowns, and Kyle Rote and Frank Gifford each caught touchdown passes from Charlie Conerly in what was clearly a rout. Giants coach Jim Lee Howell called it "the closest thing to a perfect game I've ever seen." And as the Bears struggled unsuccessfully to mount any sort of attack, the fans at the stadium set up a chant that demonstrated to a national television audience what knowledgeable students of the professional game they had become. "Dee-fense...dee-fense," they roared. You can hear that exhortation on any elementary school playground now, but it was a new sound in '56 and a far cry from "Hold that line."
The Giants were back in the title game on Dec. 28, 1958, before 64,185 at Yankee Stadium, this time against Johnny Unitas and a magnificent Baltimore Colts team. New York scored first on a 36-yard Pat Summerall field goal, but the Colts came back on a two-yard plunge by Alan Ameche and a 15-yard scoring pass from Unitas to Raymond Berry, and they led 14-3 at the half. In the third quarter the Giants held on downs at their own three-yard line and started a drive of their own. Gifford gained five and Webster three on running plays, and then Conerly hit Rote on a long pass to the Colts' 25. Rote fumbled there, but Webster scooped up the loose ball on the run and carried it down to the Baltimore one. Mel Triplett took it in. In the fourth quarter, a 15-yard Conerly-to-Gifford pass gave New York a 17-14 lead. The Colts got the ball for the last time in regulation play on their own 14 with 2:06 to play. Unitas worked painstakingly down the field, finding Berry again and again in sideline patterns, and Steve Myhra kicked the tying field goal with seven seconds left. What was to become known as the two-minute drill had been worked to perfection.
Baltimore won the first sudden-death game in NFL history when Ameche plunged across from the one on third down, 8:15 into overtime. Colt supporters piled on the jubilant Ameche in a hysterical frenzy. The home crowd sat stunned. But even in their disappointment, Giants fans realized they had witnessed something special. Indeed, almost 30 years later, there are those who insist that this was and always will be, as SI's Tex Maule described it then, "the best game ever played."
The same two teams met again for the championship the following season, but this was far from the best of anything, the Colts winning 31-16. on a 24-point burst in the fourth quarter.
Near the end of the 1960 season the Giants lost one of the stars of that exalted era, Frank Gifford. After catching a pass in the fourth quarter of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Gifford was flattened on a vicious—and controversial—blind-side tackle by Eagle linebacker Chuck Bednarik. Gifford left the field on a stretcher and entered the hospital with an acute brain concussion. When Gifford retired at the end of the season, Arthur Daley wrote in The New York Times, "If the jolt from Bednarik did not knock Giff into retirement, it was at least a nudge in that direction."
In 1961 the Giants made what still must be considered the most lopsided trade in NFL history when they dispatched Lou Cordileone, an obscure and not terribly adept guard, to the 49ers for Y.A. Tittle, a future Hall of Famer. Tittle, then 35 and a 14-year veteran, was considered expendable by the 49ers because coach Howard (Red) Hickey had committed himself, foolishly, to the shotgun offense. Hickey's shotgun didn't last the season, and Cordileone stayed only one year. But Tittle took the Giants to three more title games before he retired to the insurance business.
Y.A. could never bring home a championship, however. In 1961, Vince Lombardi's first great Packer team walloped the Giants 37-0, a bitter pill made even harder to swallow because Lombardi had left an assistant's job with New York to go to Green Bay. "What was frustrating for me," says Tittle, "was that it took me 14 years to get to my first championship game, and then we lose 37-0. But the Packers were just a better team."
In '62 the Packers won again, 16-7, in the cold and wind at Yankee Stadium. Temperatures dipped below 10° during the game, and a wind that achieved gusts of 35 mph made a wreck of the passing game. "The chill factor must have been minus 40 that day," Tittle says. "You couldn't throw the ball at all. It would go 10 yards and then just break up on you. I knew we were in trouble when we left the hotel downtown for Yankee Stadium and saw that vans had been blown over on the street." Tittle completed only 18 of 41 passes that afternoon, and Bart Starr only 10 of 21.
Tittle had one last shot at the title, in '63 against the Bears. He had thrown 36 touchdown passes that season and had gained 3,145 yards. But in this game he had five passes intercepted, two of them screens, by a strong Bear defense coached by George Allen. Y.A. had also badly twisted his left knee in the second quarter and had to leave the game for a time in the second half. But after his backup, rookie Glynn Griffing, established that he was unequal to the task, Tittle limped back on the field for a final effort. With 10 seconds left in the game and his team trailing 14-10, he threw for Del Shofner 39 yards away in the Bear end zone. But Richie Petitbon intercepted. Dejected, the end of his career plainly in sight, Tittle ripped off his helmet and slammed it to the Wrigley Field turf, a picture of anger and frustration. Y.A. would never get his championship. Both teams would have to wait, as well. It would be 22 seasons before the Bears would appear in another title game. The Giants would take even longer.
Wellington Mara was nine years old when his father bought the Giants and became not a bookmaker but a "sportsman." Timothy J. Mara had never seen an NFL game, but as his son told author David Harris in The League, "an empty store with chairs in it" would be worth $500. Although his father's creative bookkeeping had made him an officer of the franchise when he was only 12, Wellington didn't start working full-time for the Giants until he had graduated from Fordham in 1938. Tim died in 1959, leaving equal shares of the team to Wellington and his older brother. Jack, the team president. When Jack died in 1965, he left his half of the Giants to his son, Tim II. Jack and Wellington Mara had been "as close as two people can get," says Lou Spadia, former 49ers president and a longtime friend of the Mara family. "They had great love for each other."