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Through the Wars : New York Giants Are Riding High After a History of Ups and Downs

October 24, 1989|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants started playing football in the 1920s, remains the setting for more fiction than probably any other American stadium. For it was there on Dec. 7, 1941, that the Giants were meeting the Washington Redskins when the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.

In the crowd that day, there must have been a convention of novelists, playwrights, screenwriters and short-story writers. Needing a New York wartime scene, they've thought of the Polo Grounds ever since.

Co-owner Wellington Mara of the Giants also remembers the day well.

"The Redskins were giving us a hard time, and I was wrapped up in the game," Mara said recently as his team practiced at its present home in New Jersey.

"The public address announcer kept telling General So and So or Commander So and So to report to Governor's Island or Washington immediately.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 25, 1989 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 10 Column 5 Sports Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
New York Giants--The New York Giants' National Football League opponents on Pearl Harbor day, Dec. 7, 1941, were football's Brooklyn Dodgers, not the Washington Redskins, as was reported in Tuesday's editions.

"I finally turned to our chaplain and asked, 'What the heck is going on here?'

"He said, 'Didn't you hear? They've bombed Pearl Harbor.'

"I said, 'Pearl Harbor? Who is Pearl Harbor?' "

He found out quickly. Lieutenant Mara was there himself, as a fighter director on a carrier, within a year or so.

But on fall Sundays in New York, the Giants went on playing games at the Polo Grounds--as they had since 1925, and as they would until 1956.

A New York institution for 65 years, they were a Yankee Stadium tenant in 1956-75 before moving across the river to Giants Stadium.

Since the beginning, when their 1925 team packed in 70,000 fans for Red Grange and the Chicago Bears, they have been a pro football symbol.

More than any other institution in the populous East, the Giants have linked the present to the past in the National Football League.

"A Giant fan is a guy who has been a Giant fan all his life," Mara said. "Most of them can't remember a (fall) Sunday without pro football."

That is one Giant reality. Another is that, as their long record testifies, the Giants are good at losing.

They have been on a roller coaster for most of the century, roaring up occasionally to win five NFL championships--but only one in the last 33 years.

In fact, the Giants have been around so long, and have known so much adversity along with their successes, that they've become the emblematic NFL club, illustrating four truths about life in pro football:

--How routinely you can lose.

--How easy it is, nonetheless, to jump from close to the bottom to close to the top.

--How hard it is to win the championship.

--How important management is.

Just in the last 16 years, the Giants have experienced a long slump--an 11-year stretch in which they exceeded .500 only once--and also a five-year period of success.

During the mainly winning years, which started in 1984 and are continuing, their only losing season was a strike-influenced 6-9 anomaly in 1987, the season after their 17-2 Super Bowl season.

Accordingly, what the Giants have been telling us lately is that with intelligent management, a pro club can become a contender overnight and remain a contender regardless of its past.

Good management seems to be the indispensable ingredient.

When George Young moved in as general manager in 1979, after the Giants had endured a particularly barren six seasons, they were only three years away from the playoffs. Largely because of contributions by two of Young's early draft choices, quarterback Phil Simms and linebacker Lawrence Taylor, they became relatively consistent winners.

"Great players like Simms and Taylor make average players look good," Young said.

Throughout the 1980s, even so, the Giants have continued to demonstrate that despite sound managers, cooperative owners, championship-class talent, extraordinary civic support and ample resources, the Super Bowl can be an elusive prize.

Since winning Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena, the Giants haven't even been back to the playoffs--although they were one of the league's seven 10-6 teams last season, when Super Bowl champion San Francisco was another.

"In pro football, you live a lifetime in one or two years," Giant Coach Bill Parcells said. "You're always rebuilding. The key is not to slip too far while you're doing it."

Since 1983, Parcells, 48; Young, 59; Simms, 33, and Taylor, 30, have fought their way to the top, slipped back a little, then started upward again.

For the team that possibly best typifies the NFL's human struggle, is another title now in sight?

In their up-and-down world, who knows?

PLAYBOY TURNS THE SHIP AROUND

Under the stands of Giants Stadium, a small, one-row parking lot is reserved for six or eight of the club's movers and shakers. And in the various parking spaces, there are signs for the privileged few, with G. Young and B. Parcells in the middle.

Far to the left and right--as far as you can separate them--are the signs for W.T. Mara and T. Mara.

These are the feuding co-owners of the Giants.

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