51 years ago this week, NBC aired the first professional football game

By Jess Cagle
Updated October 19, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

No one’s sure how many people stopped by the RCA pavilion at the New York World’s Fair on Sunday, Oct. 22, 1939, but those who did were treated to a fuzzy glimpse of history: the marriage of America’s favorite sports couple of the future, television and football. At 2:30 p.m., NBC kicked off the first broadcast of a professional football game, covering the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Philadelphia Eagles at Ebbets Field.

The equipment and techniques that were not on hand that day would fill a book — and have: Phil Patton’s history of TV football, Razzle-Dazzle. There were just two cameras, one in the 40-yard-line box seats and another in the upper deck of the stadium. There was only one announcer, Allen ”Skip” Waltz, who called the game for $25. The contest ran 2 hours, 33 minutes, and 10 seconds (the average game today lasts 3 hours and 2 minutes), and at halftime the St. John’s University band serenaded the 13,000 fans in the bleachers with ”The Washington Post March.” The Eagles lost to the Dodgers 23-14 but had the last laugh: Unlike their opponents or the stadium, they’re still around.

”I saw a big trailer thing outside the stadium, but I didn’t know it was being broadcast,” recalls Dodger fullback Harrison ”Slammin’ Sam” Francis (above, No. 10), now 77. Francis went into the Army and stayed in when a leg injury during World War II ended his playing days. Retired, he lives in Springfield, Mo., and plays golf al alt daily. So does his former teammate quarterback Clarence ”Ace” Parker (No. 7) of Portsmouth, Va., 78, who joined the Boston Yanks (co-owned by singer Kate Smith) after the Dodgers faded away in 1945, coached at Duke University for 20 years, and retirerelast year from scouting for the Phoenix Cardinals. He’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with Eagle end Bill Hewitt (No. 56), who died in a 1947 car crash.

”TV changed the game in every way,” says Parker, ”some of it for the better. Everybody’s so much bigger now.”