Sunday, September 20, 1964 was the 31st anniversary to the day that the Pittsburgh Steelers played their first-ever football game. Ironically, Those same New York Giants who christened the Steelers back in 1933 were in Pitt Stadium on this day to play the Steelers. The Steelers had revenge on their minds. The Giants had knocked Pittsburgh out of the NFL de facto Final Four the previous year on the last day of the season.
By the second quarter the Giants had stormed to a 14-0 lead and were looking like the defending Eastern Division Champions. New York had the ball deep in their own territory when Quarterback Y.A. Tittle dropped back to pass. John Baker, Pittsburgh's 6-7, 280-pound defensive end, had a clean shot at Tittle and took advantage of it. Baker drilled the entire right side of Tittle's body as he was throwing and in the process knocked Tittle's helmet off, cracked his sternum, pulled his rib-cage muscles and caused a concussion.
This one made the paper. No empty seats in the corner end zone today.
The ball floated aimlessly into the arms of Steelers' tackle Chuck Hinton, who waltzed into the end zone from eight yards out. That play turned the game around, a game which the Steelers would come back to win 27-24. As the Steelers were celebrating their defensive touchdown, a battered and bruised Tittle was kneeling in the end zone, helmet off and blood trickling down from his famously-bald head. Morris Berman, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer, then captured the essence of what was virtually the end of Tittle's brilliant 17-year Hall of Fame career.
The Fallen Giant - A Picture Worth More Than Words Can Say
Interestingly, the Post-Gazette did not print this photo in the next day's paper. The editor didn't think it was anything special and chose four other photos (including the first one above), all action shots. This infamous decision caused the paper enormous embarrassment over the next several months. In fact, the photograph was judged the number one sports photo of the year and also won numerous other awards.
Adding tragedy to embarrassment, the Post-Gazette decision also cost Morris Berman a golden opportunity at a Pulitzer Prize. Because the photo was not published at the time of the event, it was technically ineligible under Pulitzer criteria. It was of no consolation to Berman that others in the profession told him he had a great shot at the coveted Prize. Sports Illustrated received permission to publish the photograph and soon it had a national life of its own. To this day, it remains on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Tittle gimped through a 2-10-2 season and called it a career. He then established Tittle Insurance and Financial Services and still readily admits that the photograph brought him more acclaim than all his efforts on the football field. The 81-year-old Tittle still displays the photograph on his office wall. Can you imagine an athlete prominently displaying a picture of himself at the darkest moment of his illustrious career?
John Baker also cashed in on the photograph's popularity. In 1978 he ran for sheriff of Wake County in North Carolina. He featured the photograph on his campaign posters with the slogan, "If you don't obey the law this is what Big John will do to you." Baker won the election and became the first African-American sheriff in Wake County. He remained as sheriff for 24 years until he lost election in 2002. Big John Baker died in 2007 at the age of 72.
I doubt the delinquents of Wake County messed with this sheriff
If you don't obey the law this is what Big John will do to you.
The essence of the photograph lies within the story that it told. Up until that time, sports photography was all about action. The reason why the editor of the Post-Gazette didn't publish the photo was because it wasn't action; therefore, it was nothing special. But it was special. Words could never describe the anguish of what was captioned "The Fallen Giant." Y.A. Tittle played quarterback for the better part of two decades. In just the past two seasons, he led the Giants into the NFL championship game both years. But at that one moment, frozen in time by one Morris Berman, it had all come to an end. Yelberton Abraham Tittle would never be the same again.
Nor would sports photography, and therein lies the significance of the photograph. Sports photographers began to expand their craft beyond action shots. Scenes behind the scene gave photographers a new dimension with which to work. Morris Berman gave us much more than an award-winning photograph. He gave sports photography a whole new way of thinking.