Michael Phelps’ second DUI arrest the other day got me thinking about Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, another member of the Drinking and Driving Club – and a classic example of how much attitudes toward such behavior have changed. In the ’50s and ’60s, when Layne was weaving down the road, an athlete getting pulled over was more likely to elicit eye rolls from fans than the condemnation being directed at Our Most Famous Swimmer. A different time, to say the least.
Like Phelps, Layne had multiple vehicular episodes — all coming not in his youth but toward the end of his career, when he was one of the most high-profile players in the NFL. Indeed, they seemed to happen every other year:
● A drunk driving arrest in Detroit in 1957, just before the season got underway.
● Another DUI arrest in Austin, Texas, after a 1959 exhibition game.
● And finally, an incident late in the ’61 season in which he drove into a stopped street car in Pittsburgh.
Nothing came of any of these screw-ups. Not a blessed thing. Layne ran a bootleg on the legal system the first two times — details to come — and talked his way out of it the third. And this being the boys-will-be-boys era in pro football, neither the league nor his teams (the Lions in the first instance, the Steelers in the other two) took any action.
You can imagine what the reaction would be today if, two weeks before the opener, a star quarterback was stopped at 2:10 a.m. for “traveling without lights . . . [and] straddling the center line,” then refused to take a breathalyzer test, according to reports. But Bobby skated because no jury in Detroit was going to convict the home-team QB, not one who’d led the Lions to two championships.
And so what started out with this . . .
. . . and progressed to this . . .
. . . conveniently ended up like this:
All you need to know about this Great Moment in Jurisprudence is that, according to The Associated Press, “One woman juror, leaving the courtroom, remarked, ‘Bobby ought to give us women a big kiss for letting him off.'”
A few years later, Dave Lewis, the sports columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Independent, wrote:
After [Les] Bingaman quit playing for the Lions following the 1954 season, he bought a half-interest in a bar, which immediately became a financial success.
When Layne was arrested on a drunk-driving charge a couple of years ago in Detroit, it developed during the trial that part of his tour that evening included Bingo’s watering trough.
Bingo gallantly took the stand and testified that the scotch he served had practically no alcoholic proof whatsoever, and he served it in glasses that measured less than an ounce.
After this was recorded in the newspapers, Doc Greene, one of Detroit’s top scribes, observed: “Greater love hath no man than he should ruin his business for a friend.”
As for the DUI case in Austin, it was dropped when the county attorney couldn’t get three key witnesses to voluntarily return to Texas to testify. (He couldn’t subpoena them because the charge was only a misdemeanor.) The three witnesses, by the way, were Steelers teammate Len Dawson and two Cardinals players, all of whom were in Layne’s car when he “struck a parked auto, then left the scene . . . and transferred to a taxicab,” AP reported.
Bobby’s lawyer suggested police officers “may have mistaken hoarseness for intoxication,” the wire service said. That was pretty funny, because in the Detroit trial, his lawyer argued that officers mistook his Texas drawl for intoxication. (Which is it, barristers?)
The run-in with the street car also happened in the wee hours: 2:30 a.m. Even better, the car Layne was driving belonged to Steelers running back Tom Tracy. Another teammate, Hall of Fame defensive lineman Ernie Stautner, once gave this version of the story to the Pittsburgh Press:
At Stautner recalled it, Layne got in the accident because he left a Thursday night “Last Supper” party at Dante’s [restaurant, one of Bobby’s favorite hangouts] earlier than everyone else. In fact, coach Buddy Parker later criticized Stautner for not being with Layne at the time of the accident.
Police said Layne lost control of his car on the street car tracks, which were wet, and hit the front of the trolley. Whatever. Anyway, that Sunday, the Steelers finished their season against the Cardinals in St. Louis, and Bobby — “playing with a patch over his left eye, which was cut in an auto accident last week,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported — was terrible, throwing two interceptions, fumbling twice and contributing mightily to a 20-0 loss.
He’d entered the game with 187 career touchdown passes, tying him with Sammy Baugh for the NFL record. But because he was blanked by the Cards, it wasn’t until the next season — the last of his 15 — that he overtook Slingin’ Sam, finishing with 196.
So ends the saga of Bobby Layne Behind the Wheel. But again, that was 50 years ago. In the 2000s, after two strikes, Michael Phelps might be left to twist in the wind. For one thing, it doesn’t sound like the Hoarseness Defense could be of much use to him.