The New York Giants hosted the Washington Redskins on December 3, 1939 in a season-ending matchup to determine who would win the Eastern Division and advance to the NFL Championship game. Head Coach Steve Owen’s Giants were the defending league champions and had an 8-1-1 record, having played Washington to a scoreless tie early in the year. While the offense was effective with QB Ed Danowski throwing the ball and FB Tuffy Leemans (pictured above) running it, the defense was especially tough against both the run and the pass.
The Redskins, coached by Ray Flaherty, were also 8-1-1. A roster that contained outstanding talent in tailbacks Sammy Baugh and Frank Filchock, FB Andy Farkas, tackle Turk Edwards, and end Wayne Milner was supplemented by the addition of talented rookies that included backs Dick Todd and Wilbur Moore. Even though the game was in New York and the Giants had reached the top the previous year, Washington was considered to be the favorite coming into the contest.
There were 62,404 fans at the Polo Grounds, which was the second largest crowd to see a NFL game up to that time. Many of the fans were from Washington, who had arrived by train and paraded to the stadium in colorful array.
There was occasional rain and the field was muddy. In the first series of the game, wingback Ward Cuff had a 26-yard run and nearly went the distance but stumbled and was caught by defenders at the Washington 40. FB Kink Richards ran twice for eight yards and, after an incomplete pass, Cuff kicked a 40-yard field goal. The Giants were up by 3-0 at three minutes into the first quarter.
The Redskins came right back and advanced to the New York 28. However, rookie Bo Russell missed a field goal attempt from 35 yards. Washington was further damaged by a rash of injuries that sidelined several key players in the early going, including Baugh, Farkas, and Edwards. The loss of Baugh not only had an effect on the team’s passing attack, but the punting as well.
In the second quarter, a poor punt by Jimmy Johnston gave the Giants good field position at their own 45. Two plays, one of which was a pass from Tuffy Leemans to end Will Walls for 19 yards, got the ball to the Washington 19. But another pass was intercepted by Dick Todd in his end zone and he got the ball out to the three.
The Redskins had to punt the ball back and Leemans returned it 12 yards to the Washington 33. Reaching the 22, Leemans then threw to back Len Barnum, who was hauled down at the five. The Giants lost yardage from there, however, due to a motion penalty and Leemans was dropped for a loss. That set up a field goal by 33-year-old veteran Ken Strong from 19 yards and the score remained 6-0 at the half.
Cuff missed a field goal attempt in the third quarter after the Giants drove from the Washington 40 to the 14 following another short punt by the Redskins. New York got the ball back in short order when DB Hank Soar intercepted a pass by tailback Jimmy German and returned it 29 yards to the Washington 19. The Giants, again hurting themselves with penalties, couldn’t move effectively on offense from there and Cuff booted a 15-yard field goal for a 9-0 lead.
Heading into the fourth quarter, the Redskins advanced to the New York 26, but Leemans intercepted a pass to end the threat. The Giants pinned the Redskins back at their five with a punt. Washington moved to the 40 before LB Kayo Lunday intercepted a pass for the Giants. However, a sweep by Soar lost yardage and Barnum’s punt on third down was blocked by tackle Willie Wilkin. The ball bounced back 35 yards before being recovered by guard Clyde Shugart at the New York 19. The Redskins finally got on the board with about six minutes to go as Frank Filchock (pictured below) connected with end Bob Masterson for a 20-yard touchdown. Masterson added the extra point and it was a two-point game.
The Giants again had to punt and Todd returned the kick 30 yards to the New York 44. The Redskins were soon down to the eight, the big play being a pass from Filchock to end Jack Spirida for 21 yards. With the fans in tumult, the Redskins ran one more play and Filchock dove for two yards over tackle.
There were now 45 seconds left on the clock as rookie Bo Russell attempted a 15-yard field goal. The ball was kicked high and appeared to go over the crossbar, but referee Bill Halloran, who was standing behind Russell, signaled that the kick was no good. The ball had sailed above the uprights and that made it difficult to gauge, although it was clearly very close.
Bedlam broke out, as many observers thought the kick was good – in particular, those supporting the visitors. There were about 15,000 Redskins fans on hand, and many were seated in the end zone and ran onto the field. A furious Coach Ray Flaherty charged the referee. After fights and fury, the Giants were finally able to run out the clock with runs into the line and won the game by a final score of 9-7.
The officials sprinted for the club house, but that meant going a distance of over 100 yards. Along the way, Washington wingback Ed Justice took a swing at Halloran. There was some question as to whether Justice actually hit the referee, and he was pulled away before he could inflict any real damage (League President Carl Storck later investigated the incident and determined that Justice hit fans, not Halloran).
“I know it was good,” said an angry Coach Flaherty of the climactic field goal try. “The players know it was good. The other three officials know it was good. The Giants know it was good – Ed Danowski and Ed Widseth said so (Danowski denied the claim). The cops who were guarding the goal posts know it was good. If that fellow (Halloran) has any conscience, he’ll never have another good night’s sleep as long as he lives.”
The ugliness over the call on the field goal attempt aside, New York outplayed the Redskins for most of the game. While Washington led in total yards (202 to 164), much of that came late in the going. The Redskins had just four rushing yards in the first half and 38 for the game. They also turned the ball over four times, all on interceptions, while New York gave up two. The Giants had the edge in first downs (10 to 8).
The Giants, finishing at 9-1-1, went to play the Packers the next week for the league title and lost by a score of 27-0. Washington finished second with an 8-2-1 record but came back to win the division in 1940.