50 years ago Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton didn’t have a chance

50 years ago to the day, Monday Night Football debuted on ABC, Sep. 21, 1970. The game featured the New York Jets – led by Joe Namath – against the Cleveland Browns. More than 85,000 fans jammed Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, watching the Browns dismantle the Jets, 31-21, thus completing the opening week of the NFL season.

As NFL football pivoted to primetime, what was the competition that night? CBS had Mayberry R.F.D. on at 9, the spin-off of the Andy Griffith Show with Ken Berry. That was followed by the Doris Day Show and the one-hour Carol Burnett variety show with guests Cass Elliott and Pat Paulsen. NBC ran a movie, “Boom!” It starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. There was no ESPN. There was no Fox News Channel. There was no CNN.

The competition didn’t have a prayer of succeeding. Viewing habits changed forever, when the NFL went primetime. Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Keith Jackson, the first MNF broadcast crew, became household names. ABC, a distant third in the ratings among the three major networks, was third no longer.

Today, MNF is not the same attraction it once was. Our television viewing habits have changed dramatically, thanks to cable television and the internet.  The games still garner solid ratings, but the package has been relegated to ABC’s sister network, ESPN, a cable-only channel. Tonight’s Saints at Raiders game – the debut of the Raiders in Las Vegas – will be televised across the entire ESPN platform, including the ABC network. One reason for that is Disney-owned ABC is reportedly making a pitch to land the Monday night games.

But 50 years ago today, television changed forever, and Doris Day, Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Ken Berry didn’t stand a chance.

Rizzuto and Seaver joined at the hip

Who would have thought that Phil Rizzuto and Tom Seaver would end up being joined at the hip? When Seaver, 75, died on Sep. 2, coincidentally, I had been reading Roger Angell’s piece about the 1969 New York Mets, a piece in which Seaver was prominently figured. (The venerable Angell turns 100 on Sep. 19 and his works are a must read, even for non-baseball fans.)

Rizzuto’s playing days were long over, when Seaver surfaced as one of baseball’s greatest pitchers. Rizzuto, at this point, was broadcasting New York Yankees games. Because there was no interleague play, the Yankees and Mets might have well as been separated by the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Whitestone Bridge. There was very little connection between the clubs, other than the annual Mayor’s Trophy game and the Yankees’ obsession with being replaced by the Mets, as the number one team in town.

Fast forward to 1985. It’s Phil Rizzuto Day. The venerable broadcaster is being honored at Yankee Stadium, saluted by the Yankees and fans as a popular former player and even more popular broadcaster. Who should be pitching that day for the Chicago White Sox against the Yankees? Tom Seaver, going for his 300th career victory, no less. Seaver won the game, and Rizzuto was upstaged.

That might be the end of the story, except the popular Yankees television broadcast tandem of Rizzuto and Bill White was dismantled, when White became the president of the National League. Enter Seaver, who had broadcast experience on both NBC and ABC, even teaming with the estimable Vin Scully, as different a broadcaster from Rizzuto as night from day. Seaver would join Rizzuto, George Grande and Bobby Murcer in the booth, but make no mistake, all eyes and ears were on Rizzuto and Seaver.

How would Rizzuto and Seaver mesh? As it turns out, spectacularly, thanks in large part to Rizzuto’s lack of ego in an ego-driven business. With his birthdays, cannoli reviews, excitable play-by-play delivery and zany commentary, Rizzuto turned out to be the perfect broadcast mate for “Seaver,” as Rizzuto often referred to him. They turned out to be an entertaining listen, which was necessary, because the on-field product was horrible. Rizzuto and Seaver turned out to be the only reason you would want to tune in on WPIX-11 to watch a ballgame. The broadcast team was a hit to the audience, which had to gall the Mets. Here was their “franchise”, across town broadcasting New York Yankees games!

From 1989-93, Rizzuto and Seaver worked Yankees games together. In 1994, Rizzuto was finally elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, joining Seaver in Cooperstown. Seaver would leave the booth, after the 1993 season, join the Mets broadcasting crew for a few seasons, starting in 1999, commuting from his California vineyard. Rizzuto retired after 1996, as the Yankees took over the city, with their dynasty.

But there isn’t a person, anywhere, who could have predicted in 1969 that Phil Rizzuto and Tom Seaver would prove to be a popular, broadcasting duo.