Franco Harris can tell you exactly where he was on the afternoon of December 23, 1972. Shortly after 3 p.m., he was standing on his team’s own 40-yard line in Three Rivers Stadium, desperate to create a play that would send the Pittsburgh Steelers to their very first AFC Championship Game.
Fourth-and-10. Twenty-two seconds left. The Steelers were down 7-6 to the Oakland Raiders. To Harris, his teammates, coaches, and the members of Steeler Nation — most of whom were listening on the radio because the NFL’s blackout rule had taken the game off local television — a win seemed hopeless.
Everyone knows what happened next.
Well, sort of.
The question still remains of whether the ball Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw bounced off Raiders safety Jack Tatum and into Harris’s hands without first touching his teammate John “Frenchy” Fuqua.1 But this isn’t a story about who touched the ball first. It’s a story about the person — out of the 50,327 people in attendance that day — who touched it last.
Jim Baker was sitting in Box 57 near the 30-yard line that afternoon. He was 26 years old and broke — so broke that to raise the money he needed to start his own insurance business, he’d recently sold his pair of season tickets. He was only at the game because a friend had given him two tickets as a last-minute gift. Just four days prior, Baker’s wife, Mary, had given birth to their second son, Sam. He’d brought the baby home from the hospital on Saturday morning, less than 24 hours before the Saturday-afternoon kickoff, and invited his 13-year-old nephew Bobby Pavuchak to see the Steelers play the Raiders in exchange for future babysitting help.
For the game’s first 58 minutes, the Steelers held a 6-0 lead, their defense suffocating the Raiders. Fans of the black-and-gold were feeling optimistic. But when Oakland went up 7-6 with only 1:13 left, the mood shifted. Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. is said to have exited his box, entered the elevator, and headed for the locker room, believing another season had ended. Without a Terrible Towel to wave, Baker remembers grabbing his nephew’s hand and squeezing it as they helplessly watched the clock tick down.2
Then it happened. “There’s a collision!” yelled Steelers announcer Jack Fleming. “It’s caught out of the air!” The fans went completely crazy. “All you heard was screaming,” recalls Baker. “You seen the deflection of the ball, and you don’t know what was going on other than you could see Franco running down the field.” The crowd’s reaction to Harris’s touchdown — the play that would come to be known as the Immaculate Reception — was like 50,000 people being told, at the same time, that they’d just won the Powerball.
“It all happened so fast,” said Pavuchak. “Uncle Jim yanked my arm and yelled, ‘Let’s go!’” The duo proceeded to jump from the roof of the Pirates dugout onto the field with several hundred other fans.3
As the game’s lead official, Fred Swearingen, worked to confirm the authenticity of Harris’s touchdown, took a call from Art McNally, the supervisor of officials who was in the press box and had access to instant replay on television, and Three Rivers security pushed everyone who was on the field (including Baker and Pavuchak) to the back of the end zone, Baker focused on one thing. “The whole time I was watching that ball,” he says.
It’s difficult to imagine Baker — a guy who wrestled in high school because he was too small to play football — transcending the bedlam that dictated those disorganized post-touchdown minutes, securing a vantage point, and instinctively tracking the ball’s whereabouts, especially when you consider the chaos on the field and Harris’s own recollection of the play’s aftermath.
“People jumped on me,” Harris says. “I had the football in my hand. Someone hit my arm and the football rolled into oblivion.”
Baker makes a point to stress how closely he followed the ball as it was knocked from Harris’s arm, recovered by an official, placed on the field, and used for the extra point. For Baker, it’s crucial that the ball Steelers kicker Roy Gerela used to solidify the Steelers’ 13-7 win is the same ball Harris caught, because after it went through the uprights, hit a cement wall, bounced into the corner of the end zone, and ended up at the bottom of a pile of people, he emerged with it, put it inside his nephew’s coat, and ran out of the stadium.4
There’s an eerie similarity between the voyage the ball made from Bradshaw to Harris and Baker’s account of the ball’s dizzying journey into his arms. Both are wildly improbable. They’re also nearly impossible to prove.
Google Immaculate Reception video and you’ll get more than 1.4 million results. The lack of a clear camera angle, however, makes it difficult to verify exactly whom the ball hit when Fuqua and Tatum collided. For fans who’ve been spoiled by the clarity of high-definition modern television coverage, watching the original broadcast requires a sort of concentrated squinting — a motor skill you’re likely to have developed only if you’ve spent hours scouring the Zapruder Film. At the time, furious Raiders fans insisted the outcome of the game would have been different had it been played in Oakland — the debate continues on message boards to this day.
Adrian Burk, the back judge who followed Harris up the sideline and signaled the touchdown, was, according to Art McNally, the official who “logically would have been the one to pick up Franco’s ball” and place it on the field for the extra point, making it possible for Baker to catch it moments later. For Burk to confirm that he did use the same ball would be like uncovering a previously unseen angle of the play itself. Unfortunately, Burk passed away in 2003.5 It’s curious that no one sought out Burk in an attempt to authenticate Baker’s account while he was still alive. Harris came close. He didn’t talk to Burk directly but remembers, “A few years ago, I asked about the ref and someone said the ref did recover the ball. And I asked, ‘Do you know if he used that same ball for the extra point?’ And they said yes.”
What’s important is that the majority of fans believe in the legitimacy of the Immaculate Reception as much as Baker believes the ball he left the stadium with that day is in fact The Ball. “In 40 years no one has come up with another football or offered an alternative story about this particular football,” says Baker. It’s unlikely anyone will. In 1972, during most games, only one ball was used. “In those years the number of balls was so limited,” says McNally. “The official’s not gonna turn around, go to the bench, and ask for another ball [after the touchdown]. I’m very confident it’s the same one.”
On the way home from the game, Baker stopped to show off his souvenir to friends at a neighborhood hangout called The Seven Knights. In the football-obsessed town word spread quickly, and by that evening the Baker family had become local celebrities. “People were coming over to see the ball and not the baby,” recalls Baker.
Days later, the Associated Press ran an article titled “Miracle Football Not Yet Franco’s.” In the piece Franco says, “A kid’s got it and he’s getting offers.” Some, Baker admits, were less enticing than others. Tony Stagno, one of the founders of Franco’s Italian Army and the owner of Stagno’s Bakery in East Liberty, offered Baker a lifetime supply of birthday cake.6 The Seven Knights owner, Ray Chizmar, offered him $1,000. Joe Paterno, Harris’s former head coach at Penn State, summoned Baker to a meeting at a private social club in Pittsburgh called the Duquesne Club and just flat-out asked him to hand it over.
Despite his financial worries, Baker wasn’t thinking about leveraging the ball into a potential payday. Looking back, he’s not sure why. Maybe it’s because the offers he was getting weren’t that appealing. Or maybe it’s because it would take several more decades for online auctions like eBay to introduce lucky fans to the ease of turning their treasures into cold, hard cash. Either way, he didn’t consider selling the ball. But he did have a plan. “I really believed that Franco should have it, so I put a call in to the Steelers and offered them a trade,” he says. “I asked for season tickets for the rest of my life and maybe an autograph or two.” Baker’s offer made its way through the Steelers’ corporate office. It was flatly rejected. “So I said, ‘OK, if you guys ain’t interested, I’ll keep it forever.’”
He’s proven to be a man of his word. For the past 40 years, Baker has held the ball in a safe at his insurance agency’s Pittsburgh office, bringing it out for Super Bowls featuring the Steelers, public appearances, and an occasional game of catch with his kids. He’s become comfortable with the degree of regional fame the ball’s brought him, and is quick to display the handful of newspaper clippings and magazine articles he’s inspired.
Among fans, the Immaculate Reception has become almost mythological. The play is credited with altering the Steelers’ trajectory as a franchise. It’s seen as the pivot point that nullified their first 40 winless years and ushered in the next 40: a championship era during which the organization has won six Super Bowls, most in the NFL. “I mean, you couldn’t write a better story,” says Harris.
The most enticing proposal came in 1979, when Ray Anthony, the owner of Ray Anthony International — a mass provider of cranes and heavy equipment based in Pittsburgh — offered Baker $150,000 for the ball. To this day, it’s the highest offer he’s received. To put the offer in context, the median price of a house in 1979 in the United States was $61,000. When I asked Anthony why he’d offered Baker so much money, he said, “I thought I could use it to promote my business.” Baker refused. While it’s true that by 1979, seven years after the play, Baker’s business was solvent and he was living comfortably, it’s still difficult to comprehend the logic behind his decision to reject Anthony’s offer. The best explanation Baker can come up with is a stubborn one: “I said the ball wasn’t for sale and I’m gonna keep it forever.”
Content as Baker has been to display the ball (“People are always asking to take their picture with it”), there’s a sense that he feels snubbed by what he perceives to be indifference toward him on the part of the Steelers. The Steelers haven’t invited Baker to participate in any official tributes and have never asked to borrow or display the ball. On December 22, the team will unveil a monument to the Immaculate Reception at Heinz Field. Yet it’s unclear how much Baker would be willing to cooperate if the Steelers were interested in including him. To take part would fuel Baker’s fame and potentially increase the ball’s value, but it would also serve as a reminder to everyone in attendance that the man holding the ball is not Franco Harris.
Baker got a taste of this during the 25th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, in 1997, when he and Harris appeared together at an event in Pittsburgh to commemorate the play. As soon as the session opened up to questions from the audience, a guy stood up and yelled, “When are you gonna give the ball back to Franco?” Baker’s joking response — that he planned to adopt Harris so they could both keep the ball — hints at his desire for a scenario to exist in which he won’t have to make a decision. Whenever he discusses the ball’s future, he seems conflicted by the desire to return it to Harris — who he says is the ball’s “rightful owner” — and the awareness that it’s still worth a tremendous amount of money. In 2005, Sports Illustrated estimated its value at $80,000. One gets the sense that part of the reason he’s kept the ball for so long is that he simply doesn’t know what else to do with it. But Baker is getting older — he’s 66 now — and the legacy of his life, as well as the ball, has been on his mind lately. With the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception approaching, his role as the custodian of what is arguably the most coveted piece of NFL memorabilia on the planet has started to weigh on him.
Compounding his dilemma is the emotional connection he’s fused between the ball and his son Sam, the baby who was born four days before the Immaculate Reception. Sam died in May 2005, at the age of 33, from a rare form of adrenocortical carcinoma. “The attachment to Sam — ” Baker says, before beginning to cry. “Every time I talk about the ball I get to remember him.”
Harris is also sentimental. He saved the shoes he was wearing that day; he owns the trademark on the phrase “Franco’s Immaculate Reception.” Before Three Rivers Stadium was torn down in 2000, he went to the field and cut out the piece of turf where he was when he caught the deflected pass. When I ask Harris if he cares about the ball at this point, if he even wants it back, he laughs. “Is that a trick question?”
Baker would love to be the hero who passes the ball to Harris one final time. “I wish I could walk up to him right now and say, ‘Here you are, bud.’ That would be the best feeling ever,” he admits. “But just as much as this ball is a part of Steeler history, it’s also a part of my family’s history.” At the time of his death, Sam and his wife, Joanna, had two children: Sam Jr., who was 5 years old, and Alex, who was 3. The boys — Baker’s grandsons — are now approaching adolescence, and both will be in college before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception rolls around. To provide for them, Baker has considered setting up a trust. He wonders if the alliance of Steelers fans that would like to see the ball returned to Harris would be willing to contribute. “I’m afraid of the fact that people will say all I want is money,” says Baker. “I just want to generate something for those two boys.”
He has time to decide. But just like on that dishwater-gray afternoon in 1972, the clock is ticking. Whether he gives the ball to Harris, sells it, or finds some other solution, Jim Baker will always have something no one else does: He’s the only person for whom the Immaculate Reception happened twice.
Kim Gamble is a writer and television producer in New York City. This is her first piece for Grantland.