The Bizarre History of the NFL’s First Title Game

The Bizarre History of the NFL’s First Title Game

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On a bitter December day in which the Windy City lived up to its billing, Bronko Nagurski lowered his leather helmet like a battering ram and plowed through both the fierce Chicago snow and the fearsome Green Bay Packers. As the Chicago Bears fullback smashed through the defense like a snarling bull on the loose, the discarded Packers who littered Wrigley Field’s frozen gridiron could only watch as Nagurski’s blue-and-orange striped socks dissolved into the shroud of white flakes as he barreled 56 yards down the sideline to the end zone. To the delight of 5,000 shivering Bears fans, the touchdown sealed a 9-0 victory over the three-time defending champions and ensured Chicago a share of the 1932 National Football League (NFL) regular-season title along with the Portsmouth Spartans, who finished with an identical .857 winning percentage.

With the blessing of NFL president Joe Carr, the Bears and Spartans agreed to face each other the following Sunday in the league’s first-ever championship game. As with the rest of the United States economy, the Great Depression had hit the NFL hard. The league had contracted to eight teams, the lowest in its history, and the impromptu title game promised badly needed cash for both squads, particularly for the small-market Spartans, who had entered the season $27,000 in debt and practiced in roadside pastures and even New York’s Central Park on road trips in order to save money. With Chicago’s population nearly 100 times that of Portsmouth, the penny-pinching Spartans readily agreed to travel by bus from their sooty Ohio industrial town of 40,000 in hopes of a bigger gate.

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As game day approached, however, legendary Bears owner George Halas worried about the potential payoff. Sub-zero temperatures continued to grip Chicago in its arctic clutch, and Wrigley Field was buried underneath waist-high snowdrifts. Fearing that few fans would brave the elements outside, both teams agreed two days before kickoff to move the game inside Chicago Stadium.

The world’s largest indoor sporting arena, home to hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks and both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1932, was a familiar venue to the Bears, who had played a charity football game there in 1930 against their cross town rival Chicago Cardinals. Halas knew, however, that the move from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to the cramped quarters of Chicago Stadium would bring not only warmth but also a huge complication—the hockey rink could only accommodate a 60-yard field as opposed to the standard 100-yard gridiron.

With necessity being the mother of invention, the truncated field required special ground rules. Teams would kick off from the 10-yard line and bring touchbacks out to the 10-yard line as well. Whenever a team crossed midfield, the ball would be moved back 20 yards to artificially lengthen the field. Field goals would be banned, and a single goal post would be erected on the goal line, rather than at the back of the end zone, for extra point tries. Since the field would also be a few yards narrower than normal and ringed by a solid wall near the sidelines, in order to avoid injuries teams would be allowed to move the football toward the center of the field before the next play if a ball carrier went out of bounds or was tackled within 10 yards of the sideline, marking the first use of “hash marks” in professional football.

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On the night of December 18, 1932, the Bears in their home whites and the purple-clad Spartans took to Chicago Stadium’s shoehorned field for the NFL’s first championship game as well as its first regulation indoor contest. However, an important name was missing from the Portsmouth roster printed in the fans’ 10-cent program: All-Pro quarterback Earl “Dutch” Clark. The NFL’s leading scorer in 1932 and future Hall of Famer encountered a problem not faced by modern-day pros—he couldn’t get off from work. Contracted as the head basketball coach at his alma mater, Colorado College, Clark was not permitted by the college president to miss his duties against the University of Wyoming to play in the unscheduled title game.

The players who did play before a near-capacity crowd of 11,198 fans dug into the 6-inch layer of dirt and tanbark that covered the arena’s cement floor and had been used the previous two nights by a circus sponsored by the Salvation Army. Unfortunately, the performing elephants left behind more than just memories, and the manure odor caused at least one Chicago player to get sick on the field.

The game turned into a bit of a circus itself. Players repeatedly lost their footing on the makeshift turf as they tried to run, and instead of stimulating offense, the abnormally short distance between end zones limited long runs and made passing nearly impossible. Interceptions (eight) outnumbered completions (five). With no field goals permitted, the game devolved into a series of goal-line stands and dueling punters, who sent fans ducking for cover as they booted pigskins into the balconies, off the rafters and even onto the keys of the arena’s organ.

The fourth quarter began with the game still knotted in a scoreless tie. With 11 minutes left, Chicago’s Dick Nesbitt intercepted a wayward pass and returned it to Portsmouth’s 7-yard line where the Bears put the ball in the hands of the bruising Nagurski. After driving the ball to the 2-yard line on two runs, Bears quarterback Carl Brumbaugh handed the ball to Nagurski for a third consecutive play. As the Portsmouth defense charged toward him, the fullback saw a purple wall blocking his path. He suddenly stopped, retreated a few steps and tossed a sharp, low pass that landed in the arms of the NFL’s biggest star, veteran halfback Harold “Red” Grange, all alone in the end zone.

As referee Bobby Cahn signaled touchdown, a furious Portsmouth coach George “Potsy” Clark stormed the field to protest that Nagurski was not 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass, as NFL rules required. With instant replay review, let alone television coverage, a futuristic fantasy, the call stood. On the next possession, Portsmouth punter Faye “Mule” Wilson mishandled an errant snap, and the ball rolled through the end zone for a safety, producing the game’s final score of 9-0 and Chicago’s first NFL championship in 11 years. The game may not have been an aesthetic success, but it was a financial one by bringing in a gate of $15,000.

While a Portsmouth Times headline called the game a “Sham Battle on Tom Thumb Gridiron,” the 1932 championship would prove to be one of the most important in NFL history. Before the following season, league owners adopted some of the game’s temporary ground rules, such as the use of hash marks and the placement of goal posts on the goal lines, to open up the game. To prevent the Nagurski pass controversy from being repeated, the NFL also allowed the ball to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, as it is today. Perhaps most important, the owners agreed to split the league into two divisions with the winners squaring off in a scheduled championship game, a tradition that has continued straight through to Super Bowl XLIX.

READ MORE: The Super Bowl Owes Its Name to a Bouncy Ball

The 60-yard field, however, would not be seen again, and after the 1933 season, neither would the Portsmouth Spartans, who were sold for $7,952.08 and relocated to become the Detroit Lions.

The Complete History Of The NFL

How do you rate an NFL team across decades of play? One method is Elo, a simple measure of strength based on game-by-game results. We calculated Elo ratings for every game in league history — over 30,000 ratings in total.

Elo is set so that an average NFL team has a rating of about 1500, although the league average can be slightly higher or lower, depending on how recently the league has expanded — expansion teams start with a rating of 1300. You can read more about our methodology here all game results are from “Championships” include Super Bowl wins and pro league titles from before the Super Bowl era, including the winners of the National Football League, American Football League, and American Professional Football Association (but excluding those of the All-America Football Conference). There are over 90 defunct franchises in pro football history, but only those that played at least 40 games can be selected above.

Choose your favorite team, and zoom in to explore the entire history of professional football.

San Francisco’s Incredible Run

Before the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl win last season, we tried to calculate whether they had become the greatest NFL dynasty ever. The answer, as always, was that it depends on how you count. From 2001 to 2016, the Patriots’ average season-ending Elo rating was 1701, the best 16-season stretch in league history. But the best 17-season, 18-season and 19-season stretches belong to the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and ’90s.

San Francisco’s Elo average from 1981 to 1998 was 1683. During these 18 seasons, the 49ers made the playoffs 16 times, won more than 10 games 17 times, and racked up five championships. The Patriots may have the highest peak Elo rating of all time — 1849, after their 18-0 start to the 2007 season — but if you were born in 1981, the 49ers were among the NFL’s best for your entire childhood. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick aren’t quite there — at least not yet.

The 1990s Cowboys — A Rebuilding Project

On Oct. 12, 1989, Dallas was the worst team in football. With an 0-5 record — coming off a 3-13 season — the Cowboys weren’t giving their fans much reason to be optimistic. Then, The Trade.

The Cowboys sent Pro Bowl running back Herschel Walker to Minnesota in exchange for a bevy of players and picks, which led to the drafting of running back Emmitt Smith, safety Darren Woodson and defensive tackle Russell Maryland. All three became huge contributors for Dallas, while Walker never surpassed 200 carries or 1,000 yards in either of his two full seasons with the Vikings. It was one of the most lopsided deals in NFL history.

The payoff wasn’t immediate. The Cowboys finished the 1989 season at 1-15, bottoming out with a 1271 Elo rating. They’d make the playoffs two years later and win the Super Bowl the following season — the first of three titles in the 1990s. The Cowboys’ Elo rating after that championship game, in January 1993, was 1784, a gain of over 500 points in just three years.

Green Bay Has Been Good For A Long, Long Time

Before anyone cared about the NFL, Green Bay dominated it. The Packers have won 13 championships — more than any other team. But nine of those came before the Super Bowl era, and two more were captured before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The team’s very existence is a living reminder of the NFL’s longevity: If pro football had emerged in the 1960s instead of the 1920s, there’s almost no chance that Green Bay, Wisconsin, would have gotten a franchise.

The Chicago Bears also won a slate of titles (eight of their nine) before the Super Bowl era, reaching their peak Elo of 1804 during the 1942 season (narrowly edging out the 1985 team). But the Packers have had more modern success — their peak of 1791 came in January 1998, when a Brett Favre-led squad won the NFC championship, one season after winning the Super Bowl. Green Bay nearly matched this figure in 2011, when Aaron Rodgers led the team to a 13-0 start.

The Dolphins’ Early Peak

Early fans of the Miami Dolphins — who joined the NFL in 1966 — didn’t have to wait long for success. The Dolphins had their first winning year in 1970, and just two seasons later, they won the Super Bowl with a perfect record, the only team in NFL history to do so. The next year, Miami made it back-to-back championships, hitting an Elo peak of 1783 after the title game.

The team never reached the same heights again. A resurgence in the 1980s led to two Super Bowl losses (one a complete thrashing) and an Elo high of 1754. Miami’s historical curve is in some ways comparable to that of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a lesser Florida team. While the Jaguars have never won a title, they peaked just a few years after their creation, hitting an Elo rating of 1715 in Week 15 of the 1999 season. They went on to lose the AFC championship game, and despite a brief revival a decade later, they have never returned.

Design and development by Reuben Fischer-Baum. Statistical model by Nate Silver. Additional contributions by Jay Boice and Matthew Conlen.

20 NFL playoff facts that would surprise even the most hardcore football fan

1. The Trinity: Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning all have the same exact playoff passer rating (87.4).

2. Mark Sanchez has a higher playoff passer rating than Brady, Eli, Peyton, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Steve Young and John Elway. And the Sanchize (are we still calling him that?) did it in six games. This wasn’t some one-game fluke. He still did this though…

3. Russell Wilson needs only two fourth-quarter comebacks in the playoffs to tie Tom Brady for the most all-time. He is only 28.

4. Julian Edelman, in his seventh season as a pro, already has more postseason receptions than Anquan Boldin, Fred Biletnikoff, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Shannon Sharpe, Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens.

5. Six teams have won a playoff game without scoring a touchdown. The Steelers accomplished the feat on Sunday night. The 2006 Colts were the last to do it before going on to win the Super Bowl.

6. Notable playoff “choker” Tony Romo (93.0) has a higher playoff passer rating than “clutch” hero Tom Brady (87.4).

(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

7. NFL kickers have been perfect (34-of-34) on field goals during the 2017 playoffs.

8. Eight different AFC teams have played in a conference championship game since 2000. Meanwhile, 13 teams have appeared in the NFC championship game over that time.

9. The three NFC teams that haven’t appeared in the conference title game? The Lions, Cowboys and Redskins.

10. Proof that playoff performance has no predictive value: Jake Delhomme had the best passer rating in NFL playoff history after his first six postseason games … he threw eight interceptions over his next two.

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

11. Whenever the Packers and Giants have played in the postseason, the winner has gone on to win the title. The Packers beat the Giants in the 2017 Wildcard round.

12. Only one QB over the age of 40 has won an NFL playoff game, Brett Favre. Tom Brady turns 40 next August.

13. Only three teams have made the conference championship game after starting the season 4-6 or worse. The Packers, who did it this year, would be the first to make the Super Bowl after doing so.

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

14. Only three running backs have rushed for more than 160 yards twice in the NFL playoffs. Terrell Davis, John Riggins and Le’Veon Bell, who is only 24.

15. The Ice Bowl remains the coldest game in NFL playoff history with a kickoff temperature of -13 degrees. The coldest-feeling game, however, was the 1982 AFC title game between the Chargers and Bengals. It felt like -59 degrees that day in Cincinnati.

16. Only one quarterback in NFL history has started multiple playoff games and gone undefeated: Frank Reich, author of the Bills’ famous comeback against the Oilers in 1993.

17. Brady and Peyton are the only two quarterbacks to attempt 1,000 passes in the postseason. No other quarterback has attempted more than 800.

18. In the 2012 playoffs, Tim Tebow averaged 23.8 yards per completion. That’s the highest mark in a single postseason since the merger.

19. In just 21 seasons of existence, the Ravens own the record for most road playoff wins with 10. The Giants have won the most road playoff games in a row with five.

20. The Lions have lost an NFL-record nine consecutive playoff games. Since the merger, Detroit is 1-13 in the postseason.

Dec. 1, 1985 in Green Bay was a lovely day—so lovely that a record 36,000 Packers fans didn't even show up.

When a game keeps the loyal Cheeseheads away from the field, you've earned the right to call it "The Snow Bowl."

Those 19,000 Packers fans that did show up witnessed the Packers defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 21-0, as approximately four to five inches of snow fell during the game alone (about 12 inches fell before the game).

The Packers turned the ball over four times, but the Bucs managed only 65 total yards and five first-downs.

For Every Change, A Reason

The impetus for a rules change can come from almost anywhere — controversies over plays or players, unusual circumstances and trends in scoring, injuries and penalties. That’s been true from the league’s earliest days. Its first playoff game in 1932 — a game forced indoors by deep snow and frigid temperatures — inspired one of the most significant rules changes in NFL history.

In that game, Chicago Bears fullback and future Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski faked a plunge, stepped back, jumped and completed a lob pass to Red Grange for a key touchdown in his team’s 9-0 victory over the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans. The Spartans complained bitterly that the play violated a rule stating passes must be thrown from at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The controversy contributed to the NFL’s 1933 decision to allow passes from anywhere behind the line — a rules change that legendary Bears owner-coach George Halas said he proposed. That change provided a big lift to the passing attack, which boosted scoring and differentiated NFL play from the college game.

Bronko Nagurski
Running Back for the
Chicago Bears

The story behind Dayton hosting the first-ever NFL game

A century ago, the very first NFL game was played in Dayton.

The first game of what would become the National Football League, a matchup between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles, kicked off at Dayton’s Triangle Park on Oct. 3, 1920.

Four thousand people paid $1.75 for admission, according to a 2005 Dayton Daily News story. Each player was paid $50.

Three factories founded by Dayton industrialists Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering sponsored the team first.

A story in the morning newspaper at the time touted the gridiron skills of the hometown team before the game: “Everyone knows that the passing game is one of the strong points of the Triangle team.

But “the Triangles do not need to rely on the passing game alone,” the story went on, “for they have backs who can circle ends and they have Louie Partlow, the demon plunger, who can puncture most any line with his terrific smashes.”

Lou Partlow, the Triangles running back, scored the first touchdown in that game and was known for his unusual and intense conditioning methods.

To stay fit, he ran through the woods bordering the Great Miami River leaping over roots and occasionally ramming his shoulder into a tree, a primitive and immovable form of blocking sled.

His timber training earned him the nickname “the West Carrollton battering ram,” according to the 2005 story.

The spectators at Triangle Park, “the biggest crowd that ever witnessed the opening of the professional grid season in this city,” glimpsed a shutout by the home team that fall day. The Dayton Triangles won 14-0.

The Oct. 4, 1920 edition of the Dayton Daily News summed up the players contributions on the field.

“The old favorites were on the job every minute. The spectacular work of Bacon, the usual ground gaining of Partlow, the squirming of Norb Sacksteder, the generalship of Mahrt, the speed and tackling of Fenner, Thiele and Reese, the defense of Kinderdine and the sturdy holding of the various athletes who were in at guard and tackle made the opening play of the season something nifty for the fans to watch.

“But it was more than a victory which tickled the folks, Sunday. The all-around work of the Triangles was excellent.”

Jan. 12, 2020: Green Bay holds off another Seahawks comeback

The Packers never trailed a Divisional Round game against Seattle. That didn’t mean it wasn’t a stressful finish, though.

The Seahawks clawed back from a 28-10 deficit and got the ball back with just under five minutes remaining. When the drive stalled around midfield, Seattle punted and hoped it could get a stop.

First, Aaron Rodgers connected with Davante Adams for a 32-yard gain on a third down. Then he found Jimmy Graham for a 9-yard gain on another third down. The latter was marked juuust across the line to gain.

Imagine Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Graham playing together in their primes

— Kyle ⚾️ (@KyleNYY) January 13, 2020

After an official review stuck with the call, the Packers were able to kneel out the remaining clock.

The 2020 Divisional Round matchup between Green Bay and Seattle was just the latest chapter in an under-the-radar rivalry that has produced several of the NFL’s most iconic moments of the 21st century.

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On this day, June 26, in Sports Odds History.

1959 (Boxing): Swedish fighter Ingemar Johansson wins the heavyweight title after defeating Floyd Patterson by TKO in the 3rd round. Patterson, who was a -400 favorite, would win back the title from Johansson nearly a year later.

1987 (MLB): In a pick 'em game, Boston Red Sox ace Roger Clemens blows a 9-0 second-inning lead at Yankee Stadium and allows 8 runs in the 3rd inning. New York would go on to win 12-11 in 10 innings as Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs, who was intentionally walked twice, has his 25-game hitting streak come to an end.

2002 (Tennis): 7-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras plays the final match of his career at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club after being ousted by George Bastl, a Swiss ranked 145th in the world, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4 in the 2nd round. Bastl was a +750 underdog for the match as he would go on to lose in straight sets in the next round to David Nalbandian.

2003 (NBA): In one of the most loaded NBA drafts in history, the Cleveland Cavaliers select LeBron James with the first overall pick. James entered the season as the +150 favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award and would go on to win the award after averaging 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game during the regular season.

Odd, but not out: Baseball's most bizarre rule

Orioles ace John Means threw a no-hitter against the Mariners on Wednesday, and the only thing preventing him from a perfect game was … a strikeout? Yes, it’s strange but true. In the third inning, Sam Haggerty struck out but reached base on a wild pitch. Haggerty was later erased on a caught stealing, and Means faced the minimum 27 batters to become the first pitcher in history to throw a no-hitter in which the only baserunner came via the dropped third strike rule. Here’s our story from 2020 on how this unusual rule came to be.

When Justin Verlander notched his 3,000th strikeout in September 2019, the crowd at Angel Stadium rightly recognized that such a milestone is something to be celebrated -- even when the man of the moment is wearing road gray. They saluted Verlander long enough to compel him to doff his cap in recognition of their recognition.

It was a magnanimous moment … mostly. Because even in the midst of Verlander adding to his strikeout total, Angels fans had something to celebrate.

The strikeout victim had reached first base.

Though Kole Calhoun had swung through Verlander’s 88-mph slider for strike three, the ball had dived into the dirt and bounced away from catcher Robinson Chirinos. And by virtue of perhaps the strangest rule in professional sports, Calhoun was able to sprint to first unaffected by the otherwise ineffectual nature of his at-bat. (Calhoun then scored when Verlander’s next pitch to Andrelton Simmons was swatted over the left-center-field wall … but Verlander and the Astros went on to win, anyway.)

Weeks later, when asked how it felt to become the first pitcher to join the 3K Club on a wild pitch that allowed the batter to board, Verlander laughed.

“If I can make a pitch that’s so bad that the catcher can’t catch it but you still swung at it,” he joked, “you probably shouldn’t get to go to first base.”

Ah, but you do, thanks to Rule 5.05(a)(2), which states that the batter becomes a runner when “the third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out.”

The rule echoes that timeless tune we sing in the middle of the seventh at ballparks across the country. C’mon, you know the words. Go ahead and sing along …

“It’s one! Two! Three strikes you’re out … unless the ball is not caught and first base is unoccupied or is occupied with two out … at the old ballgame!”

The dropped third strike rule is one of those oddities you don’t think about until you think about it.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an unfair rule,” said veteran reliever Sergio Romo. “But it’s definitely a wacky rule.”

If advancing on a dropped third strike is wacky, imagine batters advancing on any dropped pitch. The independent Atlantic League temporarily experimented with that concept in 2019 as part of a series of revolutionary rule changes. Tony Thomas of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs became the first player in professional baseball history to “steal” first on a passed ball on an 0-1 pitch.

For the first time in baseball history a player stole first base thanks to the Atlantic League-MLB partnership rule changes! @ESPNAssignDesk

&mdash SoMD Blue Crabs #StayHome (@BlueCrabs) July 14, 2019

“That,” Nationals catcher Yan Gomes said, “is a cheap way of getting to first.”

Dropped first strikes probably aren’t coming to a Major League ballpark near you. But the dropped third strike has managed to hang around since the game’s inception.

How did we get here, exactly? How did this eccentric, indiscriminate scrap of the sport’s rulebook come to be? And does our continued acceptance of this purposeless precedent qualify as an unhealthy marriage to tradition?

OK, there are certainly bigger issues in ball and in life. Especially these days.

But seriously, what’s up with the dropped third strike rule?

The story of this seemingly random rule begins not with Abner Doubleday or Henry Chadwick or Alexander Cartwright or any of the other stateside souls rightly, wrongly or debatably heralded as baseball pioneers.

No, according to an essay by Richard Hershberger of the Society for American Baseball Research, the rule traces back to Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, a German teacher and physical education advocate.

In 1796, GutsMuths published the snappily titled "Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden," which translates to “Games for the exercise and relaxation of the body and mind for the youth, their educators and all friends of innocent joys of youth.”

GutsMuths was known as the “grandfather of gymnastics,” but this book of children’s games expanded to other endeavors, including “Ball mit Freystäten -- oder das Englische Base-ball” (“Ball with freestates -- or English Base-ball”).

The game he describes might sound familiar. Two teams alternate between batting and fielding, with the game divided into innings. A member of the fielding team delivers the ball to a batter, who attempts to hit it. Upon contact, the batter attempts to run around and complete a circuit of bases while the fielders attempt to get him out.

Here's the crucial difference between ball mit freystäten and the game we know and love: There were no walks or strikeouts.

The pitcher, as it were, stood five or six steps from the batter and delivered high, arching tosses intended to induce contact. As such, there was no need to have a defensive player -- a catcher -- positioned behind the batter. But in order to prevent the game from being brought to a screeching halt by an unskilled hitter, the batter was allotted a maximum of three swings to try to hit the ball. And on the third swing, the ball was considered in play, whether the batter made contact or not.

“In the 1790s,” said John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, “they had the right idea that strikeouts are boring.”

With the ball in play even after a third swing and miss, the pitcher could retrieve it and throw it at the batter-turned-runner to try to get the out. Because of the close proximity of the pitcher to the ball, most times, that third swing and miss did indeed result in an out. But every so often, the batter was able to evade the out and overcome his own inability to make contact by reaching base.

Fast forward half a century, and the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club put its rules to writing in 1845. By now, the pitcher was delivering actual throws, not lobs, and there was a catcher positioned to receive the throws.

But the spirit of the GutsMuths rule was still intact. A third strike was in play, essentially a fair ball. If the receiver caught it on the fly or on one bounce, the batter was out. If the receiver did not catch it (a stronger possibility than now, given that the catcher had no mitt or protective equipment), the batter could attempt to run to first base safely.

Things got a little confusing in the 1860s. New rules confined outs on fair balls to catches on the fly, not on one bounce. But foul balls could still be caught on one bounce for an out. Though considered a “fair” ball, third strikes were lumped in with foul balls, in that catchers could still catch the ball on one bounce for an out. Yet third strikes were still similar to fair balls in that the runner could advance if the ball went uncaught.

The rules, in other words, made no logical sense. The third strike was this weird hybrid of fair and foul, taking on certain aspects of each. The Knickerbockers clung to the GutsMuths principle even as so much about the sport was changing.

Ultimately, when further alterations were made in 1879 to eliminate outs on one-bounce catches of foul balls, the one-bounce catches of third strikes for outs were eliminated, as well. This removed the aforementioned logical discrepancy, but it did not remove the dropped third strike rule itself. Batters were still allowed to advance if the third strike went uncaught.

For a time, there was occasional incentive for the catcher to drop the third strike on purpose. With a runner on first, a skilled catcher could muff the catch of a third strike and throw the ball to second to initiate a double play. And as equipment improved, this play became easier to execute. So in 1887, the rule had to be amended to essentially its present form, with a runner on first base and less than two outs removing the dropped third strike rule. (For a similar reason, the infield fly rule was enacted eight years later.)

No longer could wily catchers try to get free outs. But batters could still occasionally get free trips to first.

All these years later, the dropped third strike rule still has not been dropped. It remains a de facto defibrillator capable of resuscitating strikeout victims.

“It is, perhaps, the oldest surviving rule, and it’s an odd rule,” Thorn said. “Except that the game that we love is not called bat ball or pitch ball it’s called baseball. That’s because it was a game designed to feature running around the bases -- running in a daring way so as not to be put out between them.”

When viewed in that context -- as a vestigial connection to the sport’s earliest roots -- the dropped third strike rule is a charming anachronism, akin to a confused time traveler reporting to the ballfield in a collared jersey made of weighty wool.

A Major Leaguer on the mound -- or behind the dish -- isn’t thinking in those terms. To them, the dropped third strike is a bit of a gut punch.

“You’re excited,” Romo said. “You make a pitch, you get the strike. And then it’s … ‘Ugh!’”

They’ve been dealing with it since they were kids, so the idea that a batter can reach first even when striking out is fully ingrained. Nobody is seriously questioning whether the rule ought to exist. It is great-great-great-grandfathered into the rulebook at this point.

Some pitchers even view it as an opportunity.

“It gives you the chance to punch out four in an inning,” Braves reliever Will Smith said with a smile.

Indeed, 88 pitchers -- from Ed Crane of the New York Giants in 1888 to Luke Bard of the Los Angeles Angels in April 2019 -- have turned that trick. The oft-overlooked Orval Overall even did it in a World Series game, in 1908.

So overall (and Overall), the dropped third strike rule has given us some great trivia … even if some of those involved don’t even realize it.

Utility man Gerardo Parra, for instance, had no idea that, until he signed with a Japanese team last offseason, he was the active Major Leaguer who had reached safely on the dropped third strike more than any other (10 times), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“That’s a good note for me!” he said when informed. “I like that!”

Perhaps that’s the way we should all appraise the strangest rule in sports.

Consider: The leaguewide strikeout rate has risen unabated for more than a decade now, and, in a related development, 10 of the 50 lowest leaguewide on-base percentages of the modern era have been logged since 2010. Anything that contributes to more people getting on base (though it doesn’t actually improve their on-base percentages, which is a whole other weird topic for another time) ought to be applauded … even if the occasion, as Verlander can tell you, is occasionally awkward.

This blip in the rulebook, this curious canon, this precious little postcard from baseball’s past has long since outlived the logic behind its creation. But one must admire its persistence and its potential to breathe life into obsolete at-bats.

“It’s lurking there,” Thorn said. “It is fascinating not so much for the merit of the rule but for its survival.”

Please put lawnmowers in the huge fake pirate ship.

Next Q: what’s a “Gasparilla?”

Well, you see, Tampa has an annual event (about a month after this bowl game) called the Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

OK, but what’s a “Gasparilla?”

The theme of the Gasparilla Festival was inspired by the local legend of José Gaspar, a Spanish naval officer who turned to piracy. [. ] Despite this colorful history, there is no evidence that a pirate named Gaspar or Gasparilla ever operated off the Florida coast. [. ] In fact, researchers have found no contemporaneous records either in Spain or the United States that mention Gaspar's existence, and no physical evidence of his presence in Florida has ever been uncovered.

To sum up: the bowl that was mostly known for ugly fake grass is brought to you by an unnecessary lawnmower company that is CERTIFIED BADASS, BABY and has the same name as Diddy’s record label, all in honor of a fake pirate who had nothing to do with Tampa, St. Petersburg, colleges, football, lawnmowers, Bitcoin, USB connectors, Steamy Queso ‘O’ Poppers, or the student-athlete experience.

That’s one of the dumbest sentences ever typed, and I could not possibly love this sport more.

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Share All sharing options for: How a super hungover backup scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history

Maybe you’ve heard this story. It’s been told a lot, although perhaps not like this. The upshot is that before the first ever NFL-AFL championship game (the precursor to the Super Bowl) a 34-year-old backup Green Bay Packers receiver named Max McGee stayed out really late drinking and partying. He figured he wasn’t going to play in the big game, so why not?

And then the first-string receiver got badly hurt. Suddenly a VERY hungover player was called upon to play championship-level football in front of thousands of people. Remarkably, he succeeded, scoring the first touchdown in Super Bowl history and putting up near-MVP numbers in a Green Bay victory.

If you have heard this story, it’s probably been with a chuckle of admiration, but we need to stop and think about how horrifying that must have been. Anyone who’s ever been asked to perform when they were ill-prepared or otherwise unqualified (as it turns out SB Nation's Clara Morris very much has) knows how sickening that feeling must be.

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