For the long-suffering Pittsburgh Steeler fans watching the 1972 AFC playoff game, the season appeared to be over. Trailing 7-6 to the Oakland Raiders, the Steelers faced fourth and 10 from their own 40, with 22 seconds left in the game and no timeouts remaining.
As put by John Facenda, the Voice of God for NFL Films, the situation was “fourth and hopeless.”
Photographer Harry Cabluck was among those who figured that “the game was put away.” Still, the veteran shooter for the Associated Press made sure to position himself in the back of the Raiders’ end zone to capture the final moments of what had been an eminently forgettable playoff game.
“You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Well, this is it. Pittsburgh is done for. This is the last play of the season,’” he said.
A version of this story originally ran on 10/05/17.
Cabluck steadied his Leica camera and focused on quarterback Terry Bradshaw as he took the snap from center and looked for an open receiver. Bradshaw scrambled out of the pocket to avoid being sacked, then launched a desperation pass downfield in the direction of halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
The football, Fuqua, and Oakland’s safety Jack Tatum arrived simultaneously at about the Raiders’ 35-yard line. The ball caromed off the two players and spiraled in the air, back towards Steeler territory.
The photographer nicknamed “The Dancing Bear” kept his camera pointed at the loose ball. The fate of the game–and the future course of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise–was suddenly up for grabs.
Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Harry Cabluck was fortunate to have an uncle interested in photography to mentor him and his younger brother Jarrold (known to all as Jerry). Starting in the sixth grade, Harry took the rudimentary lessons he learned in his uncle’s makeshift darkroom and began shooting for the yearbook and newspaper in junior high and high school.
He landed a gig working for the photographer at the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show (better known as Forth Worth’s annual rodeo) and graduated to using a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera to take pictures of cowboys getting thrown off horses and bulls. Before long, he was freelancing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for $1 an hour.
To find breaking news, Cabluck listened to police and fire department scanners at his family’s wrecking service business. He was “chasing ambulances,” he said, “making pictures of murdered gangsters and automobile accidents.”
The paper hired him full-time in 1958. He attended Texas Christian University and Arlington State College, but he did not finish school.
In November of 1963, President John F. Kennedy scheduled a two-day, five-city visit to Texas, a prelude to the next year’s election campaign. He arrived in Fort Worth late on the evening of November 21. The next morning, Cabluck photographed Kennedy outside the Hotel Texas, where the President spent his final night, and then flew to Dallas.
Hours later, Cabluck was riding in a press bus in the presidential motorcade when Kennedy was assassinated. “I was a good 100 yards behind [Kennedy] when the shots were fired,” he recalled. “I made three frames as the bus went by the triple underpass.”
Upon hearing the news, his brother Jerry rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where doctors were working to save the President’s life. Jerry was rousted by agents before he could take any photos in the trauma room; he then flew his and Harry’s film back to Fort Worth before returning in a helicopter to take aerial pictures of Dealey Plaza.
Their photos continue to be examined by JFK scholars and conspiracy theorists. Often overlooked is Harry’s most poignant photograph from that day: a bouquet of “forgotten flowers” on the floorboard of the limousine that carried Vice President Lyndon Johnson and wife Lady Bird.
In the late 1960s, as the U.S. space program took flight, Cabluck freelanced for the Associated Press during the Apollo 7 and 8 missions at the Johnson Space Center just outside of Houston. The wire-service prides itself on providing exhaustive coverage of breaking news around the world, including pictures that complement, or even enhance, the story-telling. (The AP has won 31 Pulitzer Prizes in photography, many in the breaking-news and spot-news categories.)
The breadth and reach of the AP, where there’s “a deadline every minute,” as Cabluck put it, was an attractive lure. “When you’re shooting pictures for one publication, just that one publication uses your picture,” he said. “But when you transmit on the AP network, it goes around the world to multiple publications – newspapers, magazines, and now websites. There’s no telling how many outlets your picture runs in – hundreds, sometimes thousands.”
In the fall of 1969, Harry joined the AP full-time. Assigned to the Pittsburgh bureau, he arrived in a city enjoying a sports renaissance. The expansion Penguins had recently started play in the NHL, as had the Condors of the short-lived ABA. The bats of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell would lead the Pirates to the 1971 World Series, while newly opened Three Rivers Stadium (1970) served the Pirates and the Steelers.
The Steelers’ rabid fanbase had endured the foibles of the losingest franchise in the NFL: eight winning seasons in their first 39 years, with zero playoff victories. After the team went 2-11-1 in 1968, owner Art Rooney offered the head-coaching job to Penn State’s Joe Paterno. Paterno turned him down. Instead, Rooney hired Chuck Noll, who had been an assistant under coaching luminaries Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, and Don Shula. Noll’s ascension, plus a string of shrewd first-round draft selections who turned into Hall of Fame talents (Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris), reversed the fortunes of the team.
Pittsburgh improved to 5-9 in 1970 and then 6-8 in 1971. The next year, after adding Jack Ham and Dwight White via the draft, the Steelers went 11-3 and made the playoffs for the first time in a quarter-century. On December 23, 1972, they hosted the Oakland Raiders in an AFC divisional playoff game that was blacked out on local TV.
The game was scoreless at halftime as both defenses proved impenetrable. Pittsburgh managed two field goals to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter, only to watch backup quarterback Ken Stabler scamper 30 yards for a touchdown to give the Raiders a one-point advantage, 7-6, with 1:13 remaining in the game.
“After George Blanda kicked the extra point,” Cabluck said, “it seemed like the game was put away. I said to myself, ‘Well, if anything happens that’s significant, it’s going to happen down in the end zone at the other end of the field. That’s the only place to be.’”
Cabluck put a fresh roll of 36-exposure, black-and-white film into his camera and walked to the north side of the stadium. He stood several yards behind the end zone with a 400mm Kilfitt lens and a motor drive attached to the Leicaflex. There were no other still photographers in the area; Cabluck stood next to cinematographer Ernie Ernst, who was operating a super slo-motion camera for NFL Films.
After the kickoff, Pittsburgh took two plays to reach their own 40. Three incompletions later, the Steelers faced fourth-and-10, with 22 seconds on the clock and no timeouts. Cabluck decided that he would just “pull the trigger” on the camera for what was likely to be the final play of the Steelers season.
Some 50,327 spectators were standing as Bradshaw dropped back and looked downfield. Flushed from the pocket, he scrambled to his right. He avoided another would-be tackler before heaving the ball toward halfback “Frenchy” Fuqua, who was running toward the middle of the field at about the Raiders 35-yard line. Bradshaw’s pass reached Fuqua at the exact moment that he was drilled by Oakland’s fearsome safety Jack Tatum. The ball ricocheted back toward the line of scrimmage, end over end, seemingly destined to fall to the artificial turf.
Until, suddenly, it didn’t. Trailing the play was rookie running back Franco Harris, who had played under Paterno at Penn State. In one motion he was bending down and cupping the ball with a shoestring grab at about the Raiders’ 42-yard line, and then without breaking stride he was galloping toward the Pittsburgh sideline, the ball tucked underneath his left arm, Oakland defenders in mad, desperate pursuit.
“When Bradshaw launched the ball, I just held down the button figuring, ‘what the hell,’” Cabluck said. “And, lo and behold, the ball bounced around and Franco came up with the ball and ran right at me. The camera was running almost like a movie camera.”
He kept the camera pointed at Harris as he rumbled down the Pittsburgh sideline looking like “a ’56 Buick with mudflaps and a coon tail hanging from the mirror,” as Tatum described it in his memoir titled They Call Me Assassin. Raiders defensive back Jimmy Warren made a last-gasp effort to corral him at the 10-yard line, but Harris shrugged him off and scurried into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
Screamed Steelers’ radio broadcaster Jack Fleming: “Franco Harris pulled in the football, I don’t even know where he came from! Fuqua was in a collision. There are people in the end zone. Where did he come from? Absolutely unbelievable! Holy moly!”
The roar of the crowd, said photographer Bob Donaldson, who was also shooting for AP that day, was “the loudest noise I’ve ever heard at a sports event.”
“I was so busy making pictures to worry about noise or distractions or anything,” Cabluck said. “I just kept the camera pointed at the ball.”
As fans ran on the field to mob Harris, the officials huddled to discuss what happened. By the NFL rules of the day, the catch would be deemed illegal if Fuqua was determined to have touched the ball first. However, if Tatum was the first player to the ball, then Harris’s catch would be considered legal. (Instant-replay review did not yet exist in the NFL or any other sports league.) Finally, after chaotic minutes passed, and referee Fred Swearingen called up to the press box to consult with NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally, the touchdown ruling on the field was confirmed. Kicker Roy Gerela added the extra point to make the final score 13-7, in the Steelers’ first playoff victory in team history.
The two-days-before-Christmas miracle was quickly christened the “Immaculate Reception.” Raider players and fans, claiming that Fuqua did touch the ball first, dubbed it the “Immaculate Deception.” Either way, the play ranks among the most dramatic game-winning touchdowns in NFL post-season history, alongside Alan Ameche’s run in the 1958 championship game, Bart Starr’s “Ice Bowl” plunge in 1967, Dwight Clark’s “The Catch” in 1981, and Roethlisberger-to-Holmes in Super Bowl XLIII.
Meanwhile, Cabluck’s film was being rushed to the AP’s cramped darkroom in the bowels of Three Rivers Stadium. There, Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Paul Vathis developed and dried the film and made prints of the best shots. Captions were written and pasted onto the prints. Finally, in a process that took about eight minutes per picture, images of the play were transmitted around the world.
The next week, the Steelers lost to the Miami Dolphins (en route to their perfect 17-0 season). Pittsburgh lost in the first round of the playoffs the following year. But, with yet another influx of Hall of Fame talent (Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, Jack Lambert), they beat the Minnesota Vikings to win the Super Bowl after the 1974 season, and won three more titles in the next five seasons. They are the only NFL team to have won six Super Bowls.
“The Immaculate Reception marks the transition of the Steelers from perennial losers to champions,” Donaldson said. “The play is a watershed moment for the franchise and the city of Pittsburgh.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper published Cabluck’s sequence of photos. The image of Harris scooping the ball out of the air has been immortalized on Wheaties boxes. Life-size statues of the play greet visitors at the Pittsburgh airport and at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
However, Cabluck was officially credited with taking only one photograph in the famous sequence: the image of Harris eluding Warren on the sideline. The oversight is attributable to several factors. Wire services were historically slow to credit individual photographers for their work. And, over the years, negatives have gone “missing.” (Old industry joke: What does AP stand for? Anonymous Photographer.)
Cabluck is sanguine about the oversight. “We always considered what we did a team effort, and very rarely would one of us – photographer, editor, darkroom worker, or wire photo operator – be singled out.”
Donaldson, for one, witnessed Cabluck’s work that day. “I had Harry’s film in my hands,” he said. “He had the entire sequence, maybe 12 to 15 frames.
“Back in those days there were no autofocus cameras,” continued Donaldson, who was standing on the Oakland sideline when the play happened and thus had the “worst possible angle in the world” to capture it. “You had to have exceptional hand-eye coordination, and there was no one better than Harry. He saw things that others of us took for granted.”
Cabluck’s one officially credited photo served as the basis for a monument outside Heinz Field, unveiled on the Immaculate Reception’s 40th anniversary and placed in the exact spot where Harris made the catch on what was then the Three Rivers Stadium field.
After I contacted the Associated Press about Cabluck’s work, they searched their files for other photos from the Immaculate Reception. They now credit Harry Cabluck for all four photos you see above.
The AP sent Cabluck all over the country to cover events ranging from the Masters to the Super Bowl to the Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner heavyweight championship bout at Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum (the fight that inspired “Rocky”).
By then, Cabluck had fallen in love with what he called his “magic lens”: a 800mm Leitz lens, manufactured by the same German company that produces Leica cameras. “I wanted the fastest, biggest lens I could get my hands on,” he said. “The quality of the glass is so superior. It’s more like an instrument. You’re not focusing a lens; you’re dialing an optical instrument. It makes you believe that you can do more than anybody else that doesn’t have that equipment.”
Cabluck regularly borrowed the prototype from the company until he and his wife, Ellen, decided to make a significant family financial investment and purchase it outright. Lugging the behemoth lens to assignments wasn’t easy: it measured 39 inches and weighed 32 pounds (in its custom case). “The longer you carried it, the heavier it got,” he said. “I had to find the biggest tripod in the world.”
It is indeed a monster, and the 800 would be responsible for many of Cabluck’s most memorable photos, including Jack Nicklaus jumping with glee after sinking a 40-foot putt at the 16th hole of the 1975 Masters:
The “Smoking Glove” photo of Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen as he received a Larry Demery fastball:
Award-winning photos of the U.S. 4x200m freestyle swim relay team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics:
An iconic shot of President Jimmy Carter at the Salmon River in Idaho:
It was somewhere around this time that colleagues started calling Cabluck the “Dancing Bear.” “When he staked out his position with his 800, he kind of had this bear-like stature,” said former AP photographer Bob Daugherty. “But Harry was fast on his feet, with immaculate reflexes.”
When the AP tabbed Cabluck to cover the 1975 World Series, part of a team that included eight or nine shooters, he packed the trusty 800. He had an alternate motive: He planned to bring his equipment to the 75th anniversary celebration of the invention of the first 35-millimeter still camera, to be held at Leica’s U.S. headquarters in Rockleigh, N.J., immediately after the World Series. Cabluck arranged for his wife to drive their car from Pittsburgh and join him at the party. “Dr. Leitz himself was scheduled to be there,” he said. “It was a big deal in Leica-dom.”
In 1975, the Big Red Machine was the big deal in baseball. Sparky Anderson’s lineup featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey, and George Foster, a group that won 108 games in the regular season and swept the Pirates in the NLCS. But the Reds hadn’t won a World Series since 1940.
The Red Sox answered with Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, and an aging Carl Yastrzemski, and quality starting pitching in Luis Tiant and Bill Lee. (Future Hall of Famer Jim Rice was injured and unable to play.) Boston had defeated the three-time defending champion Oakland A’s in the ALCS, but hadn’t won the World Series since 1918.
The teams split the first four games. The Reds won Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead, with Game 6 scheduled for Fenway Park in two days. Cabluck figured that, even if the Series went the full seven, he would be able to attend the Leica celebration. But heavy rains came and drenched Boston. The Series finally resumed on the night of the party.
Cabluck packed his 800 and his Leica and trundled off to a rickety TV stand in centerfield, located some 450 feet from home plate. He witnessed what Peter Gammons, writing for the Boston Globe, described as “a game that will be the pride of historians in the year 2525.”
The Reds appeared to have the series sewn up after taking a three-run lead into the eighth. With Boston four outs from elimination, Bernie Carbo tied the game at 6, with a pinch-hit three-run homer. The Red Sox loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the ninth, but Reds reliever Will McEnaney wiggled out of trouble. In the top of the 11th, Evans robbed Morgan of a two-run home run with a leaping, one-handed catch at the right-field wall, before throwing to first base to double up Griffey and end the threat.
Cabluck shot every pitch in the see-saw contest. He typically went through a brick of film per game – that is, 20 rolls of 36-exposure black-and-white film (or, 720 shots). “It was just great baseball,” he said. “I’m inhaling and exhaling the same way that I was seeing the batters inhaling and exhaling. It was electric.”
By the time the game entered extra innings, he was alone with the TV camera operator; the shooter for UPI, the rival wire service, had apparently abandoned his post. He was using the largest f-stop available, and the camera was set at the fastest shutter-speed allowable because of the lighting conditions and the film exposure index (film speed/ASA). Later, the technicians in the darkroom would “push the film” – that is, in the days before digital, they over-developed the film to compensate for the lack of proper exposure.
It was after midnight when Fisk led off the bottom of the 12th inning against Pat Darcy. Cabluck loaded a new roll of film into the camera. “He’s either going to hit the ball somewhere or walk or strike out,” he said. “My assignment was to shoot the action, whatever happened. I was ready to let it fly.”
So was Fisk. With a 1-0 count, he swung at Darcy’s next offering, a low sinking fastball that didn’t sink quite far enough, and drove the ball toward the Green Monster in left. He dropped his bat and never took his eyes from the ball, waving his arms to the right like a semaphore operator in an effort to will it fair.
Time seemed to stop as the 35,205 fans in Fenway Park, along with 76 million TV viewers, watched the catcher watch the ball. The stakes were monumental. If the ball stayed fair, Fisk’s walk-off home run would force a deciding Game 7 against the Cincinnati Reds and give the Red Sox an opportunity to end their 57-year World Series drought. If the ball were to curl foul, the game, and Fisk’s at-bat against reliever Pat Darcy, would continue.
Some four hours after the first pitch was thrown, the ball caromed off the inside of the left-field foul pole to give Boston the dramatic victory. Fisk leaped for joy and threw his arms up in the air as if signaling a touchdown. He shook hands with first-base coach Johnny Pesky and circled the bases as the Fenway organist broke into Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Cabluck kept his camera trained on Fisk. “He made the swing, and the ball went away,” he said. “I wasn’t going to follow the flight of the ball. That would be a nothing picture from my angle. I stayed on Fisk because I didn’t know any different.”
But the tumult of Fenway fanatics was threatening his work. “There was no firm base for the camera because the stands were shaking like crazy,” he said. “I knew I was on him. I knew that the exposure was right and the focus was right. But I didn’t know what I was gonna get because there was so much vibration.”
Cabluck handed off the film to a runner, who carried it to the AP darkroom in Fenway. What emerged from the darkroom was the sequence of the indelible moment: Fisk swinging and making contact with the ball, Fisk following the ball, Fisk’s unrestrained exuberance.
Unfortunately, Cabluck’s shots of Fisk rounding the bases and being mobbed at home plate were unusable. They were “full of motion — camera motion and subject motion — because of all the shaking in the stands,” he said. “They were fuzzy.”
Cabluck doesn’t recall when he first saw the famous sequence. “All I knew was, we had it,” he said. “That’s all I cared about. It had been a long day and a long night. I was just ready to pack up and get out of town. But we had a game the next night.”
Boston’s ecstasy was short-lived, of course. Cincinnati clinched the Series the next night after erasing a three-run deficit in Game 7. Cabluck’s contribution was photos of the Reds’ celebration near home plate, taken with his 800mm from center field.
Despite the defeat, the Fisk home run has taken its place among the most unforgettable moments in World Series play, right up there with Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch from 1954, Bill Mazeroski’s Series-winning home run in 1960, and Kirk Gibson’s walk-off in 1988. It’s also become as deeply ingrained in New England sports lore as “Havlicek Stole the Ball,” Bobby Orr’s Stanley Cup-winning goal, and Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX.
“This was one of those cases where you see something, you shoot something, and you just stay with it,” he said. “I was on Fisk because they sent him to the plate to hit a home-run, and he did his job. They sent me to centerfield to make a picture of it, and I did my job. Thank goodness neither one of us screwed up.”
As it turned out, it was a pretty good consolation prize for missing the Leica event.
Cabluck worked out of Pittsburgh for eight years before moving on to Columbus and then Dallas. He spent a decade at a desk job as photo editor, a situation that didn’t agree with him or anyone else, and so he returned to shooting full-time and moved to Austin.
He embraced the transformative changes that roiled photojournalism in the 1990s and aughts. He shifted smoothly to digital technology and moved easily from black-and-white to color, despite the fact that he is colorblind. “Harry always sent in flawless color images,” Daugherty said. “His pictures never needed any adjustment.”
His career as a photojournalist spanned 50 years, including 40 with the AP, before being laid off in 2009. Now 79, he lives in Austin with his wife.
I asked him what the favorite sports photograph he ever took was, expecting his answer to be either the Immaculate Reception or the Fisk home run. But he mentioned an overhead shot of Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, flat on his back, after he surrendered the a game-tying goal by the U.S. in the first period of the “Miracle on Ice” game at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
Cabluck said that he had visualized the shot beforehand and labored on a tight deadline with scant resources to set up the equipment before the game. And then, when the moment happened and he got the shot (via remote) he had envisioned, he was overcome with excitement.
“I get the shakes just thinking about that moment,” he told me. “It was just pure elation. When that photo was printed in all the papers, everybody was saying, “’How in the hell did he get that shot?’”