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The day the NFL had 8 officials on the field

The 1948 Championship had an unusual circumstance in officiating.



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1948 NFL Championship: Chicago Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles

From all appearances in the city of Brotherly Love on Dec. 19, 1948, there was not to be a football game that day. With a thick fresh blanket of snow on the ground, Eagles halfback Steve Van Buren thought for sure that the NFL Championship game was cancelled.

The league was forging ahead with the game as planned, so Van Buren took a bus and two trolleys to get within blocks of 20th and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. There, sandwiched between row homes from which residents watched World Series games from their rooftops, was Shibe Park, an ornate cathedral of sport. NFL commissioner Bert Bell, a former owner of the Eagles who sometimes ran league operations from his kitchen table in nearby Narberth, Pa., insisted that the game be played, despite the fact that there was already 4 inches of snow on the ground with an unrelenting assault of a storm continuing. Not only had thousands of people come from out of town to see the Eagles battle the Chicago Cardinals, but this game was to be the first televised championship game. The ABC television network, which first went on the air only a few months earlier from the Philadelphia station, was broadcasting to a few stations in the northeastern states and a handful of television viewers.

The Cardinals, who arrived by train an hour late the day before, got in a halfhearted practice, and probably wouldn’t have minded postponing. The Eagles also had trouble getting practice in, as coach Greasy Neale opted to work out across the street in what is now Reyburn Park, rather than roll up the tarps at Shibe Park. On gameday, the tarps were rolled back, with the assistance of players from both sidelines, to reveal a freshly lined grass field. The kickoff was delayed half an hour, and by the time they started the game, the field had already been covered end-to-end in snow.

Ron Gibbs was the referee that day, one of the best officials the NFL had. He called 15 of the 20 championship games from 1941 to 1960. He knew right away that the chain crew could not operate effectively on the sideline. So, it was up to Gibbs to make the call if a team made the line to gain.

“I told that head linesman, ‘When I signal, you move,'” Gibbs later recalled. “Under the conditions I didn’t want him standing around to get into any arguments.”

In fact, Commissioner Bell addressed that to both coaches. Seeing as there would be difficulty for the crew, he made the coaches agree not to dispute any spots or first-down calls. I can just hear a coach today responding “I don’t know about that” to such a request.

Gibbs also took a further step, and improvised a crew of eight officials — something seen now at the college level and in a few NFL preseason games. But this was the first and, to date, apparently the only time the NFL had eight officials on the field for a regular- or post-season game. In 1948, there were 5 officials, as the T formation might have been the most exotic of the era. The referee was in the standard location, the umpire in the defensive backfield. At the snap the head linesman was in bounds closely monitoring the line and the back judge was 2-3 yards behind the line monitoring the offensive backfield and transitioning to receivers; both were responsible for all 100 yards of sideline on their side of the field. The field judge worked up the middle. (The position names for field judge and back judge were swapped in the NFL in 1998.) The line judge wouldn’t be added until 1965 and the side judge in 1978.

Assigned to the game were three alternate officials who would come into the game in case of an injured official. Gibbs pressed them into service. He placed two as sideline assistants to key on boundary calls. The goal line assistant would always work behind the defense to monitor the end zone. Football Zebras has determined, through film and newspaper accounts, the other officials that assisted on the 8-man crew, and now, 70 years later, the full crew and their positions are finally presented here:

      Yrs* 1948 crew College Birth-Death
R 5 Ron Gibbs 10/24   St. Thomas 1900-1985
U 18 Samuel Wilson 4/12 Emil Heintz Lehigh 1896-1978
HL 31 Charlie Berry 9/22 Emil Heintz Lafayette 1902-1972
FJ 26 William McHugh 3/11 William Downes DePaul 1897-1973
BJ 24 Robert Austin 4/12 William Downes St. Ambrose 1912-2000
SLA 7 John Glascott 2/13 (R) Pennsylvania 1899-1966
SLA 11 Joseph Crowley 3/12 John Glascott (U) Muhlenberg  
GLA 21 Henry Haines 6/12 John Glascott (FJ) Penn State 1898-1979

*Yrs shows both the number of seasons up to 1948 and for the official’s entire career. Gibbs and Haines have years of discontinuous NFL service.

Gibbs said, “It was the first game I know of where eight officials were used. We had five regular officials there, and three alternates. We needed them all.” While the crew of eight scampered around the field with improvised mechanics, they could be seen overlapping from time to time. Some of the crew wore their striped shirts, others were in their warmup jackets that were acceptable for game use at the time. Gibbs recalled that the footing was not too bad with cleats. From the film footage that exists of the game, there wasn’t an issue with the officials getting in the way at the sideline, but umpire Samuel Wilson got knocked down by a Cardinals defender as Eagles quarterback Tommy Thompson faked a pitch, and ran it himself. Also, the rope used to keep the sideline visible sometimes ensnared a player or two.

[Note: in the video below, both the All-America Football Conference Championship and the NFL Championship games are shown.]

On the opening play of the game, the Eagles struck first, calling an “81 Special,” which was a 65-yard touchdown pass to end Jack Ferrante. He slipped and fell at the 20ish-yard line, got up and scored. The play was called back on an offside penalty. Ferrante immediately went to head linesman Charlie Berry, demanding to know which of his teammates wiped out his touchdown run. “Who the hell was offside?” he said. Berry replied, “You.”

Down-by-contact rules existed at the time, but required more than just a touch, which is why Ferrante sprang to his feet and was able to gain extra yards. In addition, the foul on Ferrante would now be a false start, and the official would blow the play dead.

Despite being played in the middle of the afternoon, the stadium lights were on throughout the game, which was also a concern for Gibbs.

That was another situation that had me worried. I had arranged to signal for the lights, if I thought they were needed, by taking off my cap and waving it around my head.

I did that just before the game started — and it was a good thing they helped.

I hadn’t arranged for any signal to turn them off, and you know how it is sometimes at night when driving through snow. Lights are worse.

It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the scoreless stalemate was broken. Van Buren had run for a touchdown on the third play of the fourth quarter, taking advantage of a Cardinals fumble on their side of the field. Kicker Cliff Patton cleared a short path in the snow for a two-step, head-on toe-baller kick that was the style of the era, adding the extra point. Philadelphia would get its first NFL championship on the 7-0 victory.

Some 62 years later, the Eagles were set to host the Minnesota Vikings when a coastal winter storm threatened the city. Rather than play on Sunday night and strain the resources of the city, the game was postponed to Tuesday night.

It was not just the 9 inches of snow that made the 1948 NFL Championship a historical game, but also the goldmine of trivia it provides, even for officiating buffs.

Berry, the head linesman, was also a Major League Baseball umpire and pulled off the rare feat of working the World Series and the NFL title game in the same year, 1958. It was that 1958 Championship — “the Greatest Game Ever Played” when the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in overtime — that is often reckoned as the launchpad for football to surpass baseball in popularity. He would work five World Series and 12 NFL Championships.

The goal line assistant, Henry “Hinky” Hanes, was the first player to be on a World Series and NFL championship team. He was on the same lineup card as Babe Ruth with the New York Yankees in 1923 and was quarterback for the New York Giants in 1927.

Samuel Wilson and Bob Austin eventually would become supervisors of officials. In 1956, the NFL appointed Wilson, the umpire, as the first supervisor of officiating, after several years of having a technical rules adviser who assisted the commissioner. Austin, the back judge, joined the upstart American Football League in 1960 as their first supervisor of officiating.

There was also a future official on the field. Pat Harder, the Chicago Cardinals kicker who missed on 3 field goals, was an NFL umpire from 1966 to 1982. In a 1972 playoff game, he was one of the officials who ruled on the legality of a catch by Steelers running back Franco Harris, the Immaculate Reception.

And, of course, in the 99 seasons of the NFL, it was the only time they had 8 officials on the field at one time.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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