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Bonesetter Reese: The first sports doctor?

The summer before the 1921 NFL season, George Halas, the Chicago Staleys’ player-coach, started having trouble with his knee. So off he went to Youngstown, Ohio, to “spend a few days with Bonesetter Reese,” the Decatur Daily Review reported.

Doc Reese was the Dr. James Andrews of his time . . . except for one thing: He didn’t have a medical degree — just the know-how he’d picked up watching lay healers ply their trade in the steel mills of his native Wales. But he was such a miracle worker that the Ohio legislature granted him special permission to do, well, whatever it was he did.

A 1925 newspaper cartoon.

A 1925 newspaper cartoon.

John D. Reese functioned much as a chiropractor or physical therapist might today, manipulating bones and muscles until he achieved the desired effect. Countless athletes sought him out to cure what ailed them — nonathletes, too. Indeed, traveling to Youngstown could be like making a pilgrimage to Lourdes. There was something almost mystical about the man with the “million-dollar hands,” as newspapers described them, and his secretiveness about his techniques only added to the mystery.

“Large, sinewy and knotty, [his hands] were the sort you’d expect to see upon a steel worker,” Bill Jones wrote in the Syracuse Herald.

The very sight of them created the impression of power, but gives no hint of the wonderful delicacy of touch that enables him to locate instantly a displaced muscle or a tiny broken bone.

A callus on the knuckle of each middle finger is [indicative] of the great number of cases Reese has treated. These calluses, about the size of a five-cent piece, and as hard as a stone, are the result of his bonesetting practice. It is with the knuckles of his middle finger that Reese forces broken bones together. These calluses, his sensitive fingers and powerful arms and shoulders are his only instruments.

Bonesetter’s backstory goes like this: Orphaned at 11, he came to America in the late 1800s and got a job in a Pittsburgh mill. One day a worker fell from a ladder and lay on the ground, writhing in pain. None of the first responders had a clue what to do. So Reese stepped in, applied his Magic Fingers to the man’s back and had him on his feet in no time, good as new.

Word of the incident traveled far — to the other side of the Atlantic, even. Before long, the Doc “had so much business in alleviating pain and curing cripples that he set up professionally in that line and has been at it ever since,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1922.

Halas went to Bonesetter several times over the years to fix various hurts — of both the football and baseball kind. (George was a good enough outfielder to get a brief trial with the New York Yankees.) The Doc was renowned for his ability to revive pitching arms; Cy Young, Ed Walsh and Smoky Joe Wood all sought out his services, as did boxers, jockeys and circus acrobats.

Once, David Lloyd George, the British prime minister (and a fellow Welshman), showed up at Reese’s door, complaining of strain caused by shaking so many hands on his U.S. tour. Bonesetter cured him with a “gentle handshake and quick wrench,” according to Time magazine. (Another of the Doc’s patients was the daughter of Charles W. Fairbanks, Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president.)

Reese generally avoided publicity, though, despite his occasional mention in Time. In a rare interview in 1913 he said, “I despise notoriety, and I don’t know what I can say that will be of interest. I know very few ballplayers. While it is true enough that I have treated hundreds of them, I rarely ask a player’s name. In fact, I haven’t asked a man his name since 1908.”

But then, there was little about Reese that was orthodox. He didn’t, for instance, charge his patients set fees. “If you feel like giving me something,” he would tell them, “whatever you like will be all right.” Thus payment could range from a 10-cent cigar to a luxury car. No one was ever turned away from 219 Park Avenue. At his peak, he saw 80 patients a day.

Among the healed was a young girl named Elma H. Wilkins, who wrote about the experience years later in the Washington Post. The picture she painted: “My father and I boarded the Youngstown train. We found ourselves members of a little army of cripples. Some hobbled and leaned heavily on canes; others slumped still more heavily between crutches. There seemed to be a sort of ‘misery-loves-company’ spirit among us. Before long we became acquainted, and spent the time telling stories about the different accidents which had brought us together on that particular train.”

Sitting in the waiting room outside Reese’s office gave you the willies, Wilkins reminisced. “Nerve-racking shrieks” were intermittently heard through the door, and patients wondered what the heck was going on in there. But then a girl, on crutches not long before, walked happily out with her mother — the first of a “succession of miracles” performed by the Doc.

Pittsburgh Press headline, 1911.

Pittsburgh Press headline, 1911.

“What Bonesetter’s powers are is a puzzle to scientists who are always bent on determining the wherefore of everything which the ordinary run of man on the street might ascribe to divine power,” E. J. Hamilton, the Chicago newspaperman, wrote. “They’ll tell you that divine power is a lot of hokum. Then, when they come across such a man as Reese, modest, without technical training of any sort, performing miraculous things, they’ll shrug their shoulders as did Gibbon, the great historian, in one of his attempts to explain the working out of a biblical prophecy, and concede that perhaps, after all, there may be something divine in the world guiding the destinies and powers of men.”

In 1921, when Halas paid him a visit, Bonesetter was 66 years old. His hair — what was left of it — had turned white, and his bushy mustache, round features and ruddy complexion gave him an avuncular look. His wife, Sarah, had passed away, but he had five daughters to dote on him. The youngest, Gertrude, was said to have inherited his gift for healing.

Reese never entirely understood athletes. He and his daughter attended to them “night and day, getting the ballplayers’ muscles and bones fixed up,” he said in 1927. “Then we turn them back to the leagues in perfect condition and go off to recuperate from our strenuous efforts while they are getting themselves smashed up again.”

It particularly troubled him that he would prescribe rest for a player and “the next day I would pick up the paper and see his name in the box score.” By the end of his life he had stopped treating athletes, he claimed — though some, no doubt, still sneaked unannounced into his office. His celebrity had raised expectations so high, he said, that players would “feel that I should guarantee a sure cure. I have enough work to keep me busy without treating [them].”

When Bonesetter died in 1931, testimonials poured forth. Nobody “could unkink snarled muscles and joints and break and reset broken fingers” quite like Reese, said syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler. The Doc “contributed to the fame of Youngstown . . . almost as Schlitz contributed to the renown of Milwaukee.”

Revised from my 2012 book, The National Forgotten League (University of Nebraska Press).

Thousands flocked to this house in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bonesetter Reese worked his magic.

Thousands flocked to this house in Youngstown, Ohio, where Bonesetter Reese worked his magic.

George Halas’ premature “death”

A hundred years ago tomorrow, George Halas “died.” The word is in quotes because, well, he didn’t really die. At 20, he still had the Chicago Bears to found, the NFL to establish, the game of football to transform. But he easily could have died if he’d stuck to his original plan on July 24, 1915 to take the SS Eastland across Lake Michigan to the annual Western Electric Co. picnic. Indeed, one Chicago newspaper listed him among the 844 fatalities when the ship, packed with three times that many passengers, flipped over on its side while docked.

It’s one of the great what-ifs in sports history. What if Halas had boarded the Eastland that gloomy day — and suffered the fate so many did? What would pro football in Chicago look like today? Would the NFL still have climbed to the top of the sports mountain? Would teams be running souped-up variants of the single wing instead of Papa Bear’s baby, the T formation? Terrific cocktail-party questions, each and every one.

The Eastland disaster is Chicago’s version of the Titanic — all the more haunting, perhaps, because it happened not in the dark of the distant North Atlantic, where the cries for help couldn’t be heard, but on a Saturday morning in the Chicago River, smack downtown. The tragedy unfolded right before the city’s disbelieving eyes. Photographers shot picture after harrowing picture of passengers clinging to the side of the ship, victims being pulled from the water, bodies lying silently side by side in the 2nd Regiment Armory, where a makeshift morgue was set up.

The next day in the Chicago Tribune, a local theater chain ran an ad that said: “[It] has [been] decided that, “owing to the horror of the Eastland disaster, no motion pictures of the catastrophe will be shown.” (Interestingly, this past winter, the first known footage of the fiasco was discovered in a Dutch newsreel.) Here’s The New York Times’ story about it. And here’s the clip itself:

At first, there was wild speculation about the death toll. The Times reported that 1,800 had drowned.  The Boston Post put the number at 1,500, the Syracuse Herald at 1,300. The high, that I’ve seen, was 2,000 (Salt Lake Tribune, among others), the low 919 (Chicago Tribune). It probably depended on when the paper went to press.

7-25-15 Chi Trib p. 1

7-25-15 NY Times p. 1

Halas, a rising sophomore at the University of Illinois, was working that summer in Western Electric’s payroll department in Cicero. It was invaluable experience for a future NFL owner. As he wrote in his autobiography, Halas, “I learned to be precise and to keep meticulous records.” During the lean early years, especially — when franchises were always failing — his ability to keep the books balanced would serve him well.

The company picnic was held in Michigan City, Ind., on the other side of the lake from Chicago. Five boats, leaving one after another, were to ferry employees, family and friends to the event. Halas was booked on the first to depart, the Eastland, and over the years he offered two explanations for why he wasn’t on board when it capsized.

The first was that he’d been delayed at home by his brother Frank, who’d stopped him as he went out the door and told him to step on a scale. George was trying to put on weight for football — he’d been a wiry 140 as a freshman — and Frank wanted him to add 40 pounds before the next season.

“I never won an argument with Frank,” George wrote, “so off came the clothes.” He weighed in at 163, certainly an improvement.

“Just do everything I tell you and you’ll be OK, kid,” Frank told him. “Now get dressed and catch that boat.”

Anybody buy that story? Me, neither. After all, how long does it take to weigh yourself, even when you have to strip down to the bare essentials? George would have had to be cutting it awfully close to miss his boat.

In a 1967 series for the Tribune, he gave another version of events. He was supposed to play for the company baseball team that day as part of the festivities, he wrote, and “I had my ticket and my name was on the list of Western Electric employees slated for the Eastland. But the ballgame was scheduled for late afternoon, and I decided to take another boat leaving an hour after the Eastland.”

This sounds more plausible. Still, there’s at least one other possible scenario. Ralph Brizzolara, a lifelong buddy of Halas’, also worked at Western Electric that summer and he, too, was booked on the Eastland. (Brizzolara later owned a small piece of the Bears and helped run them when Halas enlisted in the Navy during World War II.) Anyway, after waiting in vain for George at the dock, Brizzolara boarded the ship – and was fortunate to escape with his life.

“My father was pulled through a porthole [to safety],” his son, Charles, says in Jeff Davis’ book, Papa Bear.

Charles, who’s heard all the stories, has his own theory about why Halas wasn’t aboard: “George just overslept.”

Impromptu weigh in, schedule change, inability to rouse himself — take your pick.

The Monday evening after the disaster, a couple of Halas’ fraternity brothers showed up at his house. They had seen Halas’ name in the paper — “a reporter had obtained a list of Western Electric employees assigned to the Eastland and assumed that I was on board,” George wrote in the Tribune series — and came to pay their respects to his family.

“I’ll never forget the shocked look on their faces when I opened the door,” he said. “When I missed connections with the ill-fated Eastland, I realized I was a very lucky man. Nothing which has happened since has given me any reason to think otherwise.”

Amazingly, that might not have been the only time Halas and the Eastland crossed paths. After being raised, the ship was sold to the Illinois Naval Reserve, which turned it into a gunboat and renamed it the USS Wilmette. In fact, it was used as a training vessel at Great Lakes Naval Station when Halas served there during World War I. Did George actually ride the waves on the Erstwhile Eastland when he wasn’t playing football for the Great Lakes Bluejackets (who, by the way, won the 1919 Rose Bowl)? There’s a good chance, yeah.

If so, he survived that encounter with the “death ship” as well. Though the Wilmette managed to stay afloat until it was sold for scrap in 1946, it was hardly a monument to engineering. Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, had this memory of it from a reserve-duty stint in the ’20s: “It was still in sinking condition, I assure you. It constantly shied to the right, and once in a while felt as though it wanted to lie down in the water.”

Halas Yankees BoxOnce discharged from Great Lakes, Halas briefly played major-league baseball, getting 22 at bats with the 1919 (pre-Babe Ruth) Yankees before settling on pro football as a career. The rest, as they say, is history — volumes of it. It’s reasonable to wonder, though, how differently the NFL might look today if he’d caught the first boat leaving for the picnic.

Would the Decatur Staleys, the first team he ran, even have joined the league — and would they have moved to Chicago when A.E. Staley’s starch company, trimming expenses, stopped sponsoring them? The Windy City, after all, already had an NFL franchise: the Cardinals. Besides, how many towns could adequately support two clubs, particularly during the Depression?

So maybe, under another man’s direction, the Decatur Staleys would have remained an independent team — of which there were many in that era. And maybe, without Halas’ boundless energy and ambition, they would have disbanded when forced to go it alone in 1922. That’s right, the Chicago Bears might never have existed . . . and the Cardinals might be playing at Soldier Field.

Then there’s Halas’ pet project, the T formation. It turned the game on its head with its spread alignments, direct snap to the quarterback and man-in-motion. Nobody in the pro game — absolutely nobody — was tinkering with the T in the early days except George, who had played it in college at Illinois. Every other club was running the single wing and/or double wing. Heck, even the Bears included some single wing in their offensive mix. Without Papa Bear and collaborators Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, would the T have evolved, taken root the way it has? There are no guarantees.

It was also Halas who brought Hugh “Shorty” Ray into the league as a technical advisor. Ray, a former Big Ten official, had a huge — if below-the-radar — impact on pro football’s development. He tidied up the rulebook, increased the pace of the game and made it much more of an offensive show.

“Shorty Ray was the greatest thing I ever did for the National [Football] League,” Halas once said. “He was the smartest man in rules ever. He was a genius.”

Remove Ray from the equation and there’s no telling what shape pro football would be in today. In the single-platoon era, before he was hired, the games could be ponderous, low scoring and, in many ways, held back by the rules. By the time he was done, pro football was no longer a rattletrap of a Model A. It hummed. (Shorty, for instance, was the guy who told officials to speed things up by throwing the ball back to the line of scrimmage instead of carrying it back, which ate up time and cut down on the number of plays in a game.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. A century ago, five years before the NFL was born — when the pro game was decentralized and teams like the Massillon Tigers and Fort Wayne Friars roamed the earth — George Halas missed the proverbial boat, a boat that, for 844 cursed souls, took them only to The Hereafter. Exactly how and why this happened will never be fully known, which is part of the fascination of it. Something to think about as the league, America’s most successful by several touchdowns, gets ready to kick off its 96th season. What if.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.

The scene at the 2nd Regiment Armory.

A lost record?

There isn’t much in the NFL record book that dates to the 1920s — as far as individual marks go, especially. Ernie Nevers’ six touchdowns (since tied) and 40 points (still unmatched) in a single game survive, but not a whole lot else. It’s just a long time ago, you know? Besides, the league didn’t start keeping official statistics until 1932. Any record before that got grandfathered into the book, so to speak.

So I was happy to receive an email the other day from Gary Selby, who’s come across a potentially intriguing piece of history. Gary mentioned the item in my book, The National Forgotten League, about the Bears’ Joe Zeller possibly intercepting six passes in a game against the Eagles in the ’30s — two more than the current record. I say “possibly” because it happened before the NFL kept track of individual INTs (and before newspapers made much note of them in their game stories). So I wasn’t able to confirm Zeller’s feat; all I could do was throw it out there as a Great Big Maybe.

My source was the 1935 edition of Who’s Who in Major League Football, a kind of media guide published by the league. Zeller’s entry read like this:

Joe Zeller in Who's Who in Major League Football 1935

Selby, however, had this to add to the discussion: “Last summer, while doing some research for the Pro Football Researcher’s Association, I found an interesting article in the Milwaukee Sentinel. It reported that Milton Romney of the Racine Legion intercepted six passes against the Minneapolis Marines on Dec. 2, 1923. It was the last game of the season for both teams.”

Here’s the first paragraph of the article Selby was talking about:Just opening graf of Romney

The two franchises are long gone, of course, but they were indeed members of the NFL in Year 4. As an added bonus, Milton Romney, otherwise known as Mitt, is related to the Mitt Romney who ran for president in 2008. Cousin Milt broke in with Racine before spending the bulk of his six-year pro career as a quarterback for George Halas’ Bears.

Anyway, in this case — unlike Zeller’s — we have at least a bit of corroborating evidence. The thing is, it’s hard to know how reliable that bit is. After all, there often was confusion in the early days about who did what on the field. Jersey numbers weren’t as visible then as they are now, and dirt and mud could make players even harder to identify. Then, too, there was no television coverage . . . and thus, no instant replay to help a sportswriter confirm what he thought he saw. I’ve researched games in which three different players were given credit for a touchdown, depending on which paper you read.

The Milwaukee Journal’s account of the game notes only one Romney pick — and doesn’t say anything about any others. “On the first play after the kickoff,” it reports, “Romney intercepted a forward [pass] on Minneapolis’ 35-yard line and Rollie Williams got away for a touchdown on the next play.” The score increased the Racine lead to 17-0.

So who knows, really? As Selby pointed out, it was the season finale for the two teams, and some strange things have happened in these games over the decades. In 1937, for instance, the Cardinals’ Gus Tinsley caught a pass in the early December darkness and went 97 yards for a touchdown before the crowd — and many of the Bears — realized he had the ball. (It was, at the time, the longest TD catch in NFL history.)

Still, Romney’s “feat” is fun to think about. And let’s face it, if a player was ever going to rack up six picks in a game, it was in the ’20s, when the ball was fatter and harder to throw and INTs were epidemic. Consider: Six interceptions would have been almost enough to lead the league last season. (Lions safety Glover Quin was tops with seven.)

Sources: Google newspapers, pro-football-reference.com.

Quarterback Milton "Mitt" Romney in his Bears days.

Quarterback Milton “Mitt” Romney in his Bears days.

Players behaving badly

It’s a natural question to ask, given the antics of some NFL players in recent years — Prince Shembo’s drop-kicking of a dog, Ray Rice’s slugging of his Significant Other, etc.: Have players always been this out of control? What kinds of things did they get arrested for in the alleged Good Old Days?

Rest assured footballers have always been footballers, though their crimes of choice decades ago tended to be different from today — more typical than terrible. I’ve gathered a bunch of them so you’ll get a feel for the scope of their misbehavior. Remember: This is just a sampling. There’s plenty more where these came from.

● 1926: Jim Thorpe gets drunk in the midst of Prohibition.

This happened during Red Grange’s postseason barnstorming tour with the Bears. As you may have heard, ol’ Bright Path had a weakness for the bottle. His drinking buddy, according to the story below, was C.C. Wiederquist — a great football name. But I’m pretty sure it’s misspelled and that The Associated Press was referring to Chester Carl “Chet” Widerquist, who played six seasons in the NFL (and didn’t, near as I can tell, attend the University of Minnesota).Jim Thorpe intoxication 1-5-26

● 1938: Shipwreck Kelly breaks up a marriage.

Kelly, the toast (literally) of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a legendary Man About Town. Three years later he married heiress Brenda Frazier, who once graced the cover of Life magazine. What I wouldn’t give to follow Shipwreck around for a night and see where it took him. Nowadays, of course, he’d get killed by the social media. The whole world would take a selfie with him and post it on Facebook. But back then you could disappear in the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.Shipwreck Kelly 1-18-38 Eagle● 1946: Double disaster.

I’m not sure the you-know-what ever hit the fan in pro football like it did in December 1946. Before the NFL title game, a fix attempt was uncovered that involved two Giants, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes. Both were banned indefinitely from the league. Before the championship game in the rival All-America Conference, meanwhile, three Browns got a little rowdy and one of them, team captain Jim Daniell, lost his job because of it. How does this compare with, say, the Falcons’ Eugene Robinson getting charged with solicitation the night before the Super Bowl?'46 fix attempt and Danielle head side by side 12-16-46

FYI: Daniell and his two running mates were later acquitted. But then, so were the Black Sox.Daniell and 2 others acquitted 12-23-46● 1959: Another DUI charge for Bobby Layne.

I say “another” because the Hall of Fame quarterback had one two years earlier when he was with the Lions. He managed to escape conviction on both occasions, as I posted about a while back. It’s pretty comical. The first time, his lawyer argued that police had mistaken his Texas drawl for slurred speech, and in this second instance, his lawyer said Bobby’s “extreme hoarseness, which may have led the police to suspect intoxication, was the result of a severe case of laryngitis.” (Then again, maybe he just had a shot glass stuck in his throat.)Layne DUI 8-25-59● 1960: John Henry Johnson falls behind on his child-support payments.

Fortunately for Johnson, who’s also in Canton, the term Deadbeat Dad hadn’t been invented yet. Five kids. Can you imagine how that would play in 2015?JH Johnson alimony 3-10-60● 1972: Karl Sweetan tries to sell his Rams playbook to the Saints, one of his former teams.

Sweetan wasn’t much of a quarterback, but he gained eternal infamy for this pathetic move. Like most of his passes — 54.4 percent, to be exact — it was incomplete.Sweetan 7-8-72

So there you have it, a sampling of off-field trouble from pro football’s first 50-odd years. Moral: These guys have always acted up. In the 2000s, it isn’t necessarily the magnitude of their misconduct that’s bigger; sometimes it’s just the microscope they’re under.

Postscript: NFL players haven’t always been on the wrong side of the law. I leave you with this story about John Kreamcheck, a Bears defensive tackle in the ’50s, who became a detective:Kreamcheck arrests suspect 7-6-67Sources: Google newspapers, Brooklyn Eagle archives, Chicago Tribune archives, pro-football-reference.com.

Johnny Siegal, 97

There’s macro NFL history — George Halas, television, expansion, The Big Stuff — and then there’s micro NFL history . . . as personified by guys like Johnny Siegal. Siegal, a two-way end from 1939 to ’43, was the oldest living former Chicago Bear when died earlier this week at 97. That made him older than the league, and how many ex-players fall into that category anymore?

Though he was part of three title teams, Siegal had, by any other measure, a modest pro career. He was mostly a backup behind George Wilson, who later coached the Lions to a championship, and in five seasons had 31 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns. His obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times was downright perfunctory.

But Siegal had another role with the Bears — involving Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman — that probably left a bigger mark on pro football. Why don’t I tell you about it?

In 1939, Johnny’s first season, Halas and his assistants were trying to reinvent the wheel. That is, they were developing the first modern offense: the T formation with man-in-motion. But they desperately needed a quarterback to run it, one who could really throw. With this in mind, Papa Bear traded end Eggs Manske for Pittsburgh’s first-round choice in the ’39 draft, and used the pick to select Luckman, the Columbia star.

But there was no guarantee in those days that a college player would move on to pro ball. It just wasn’t that glamorous a profession – or the greatest paying necessarily. Luckman’s first inclination was to go into the family trucking business, which had been suffering because of unusual circumstances: his father, who had mob ties, had been hauled off to prison for murder.

El Sid

El Sid

After the draft, Sid said, “I discussed the possibilities of professional football offers with [Columbia coach Lou] Little several times, and he advised me against it. I don’t know exactly what Mr. Little has in mind for me, but if he says it’s good that’s good enough for me. It wouldn’t have made any difference if the Giants or [Brooklyn] Dodgers had drafted me. I still would turn down any offer to play professional football.”

But Halas was a persistent man, and the following July, just before camp opened, he talked Luckman into signing for $5,000. The decision came as a surprise even to Sid’s family, who were kept out of the loop until the deal was finalized.

Hoping to ease Luckman’s transition, Halas made a little-noticed trade three weeks later. He sent guard Gust Zarnas to Brooklyn for its 17th-round pick in the  ’39 draft. The 17th-rounder was Siegal, who just so happened to be Sid’s favorite receiver at Columbia.

Halas knew the pressure his young quarterback would be under. Luckman would be joining a veteran team, one of the most successful franchises in sports, and – to complicate matters further – would have to make the difficult switch from single-wing tailback to T-formation QB. George just wanted to make Sid more comfortable, give him somebody familiar to throw to and, just as importantly, to talk to. Veterans in that era could be merciless on rookies, especially rookies who were making more money than they were.

How much Siegal helped Luckman survive the bumps and potholes can be debated, of course. What’s clear, though, is that — at the beginning, at least — Sid had few friends on the roster. Indeed, when he struggled at his new position, some vets went to Halas and told him he should trade the kid to his hometown Dodgers, who wanted him as a drawing card and could play him at tailback in coach Potsy Clark’s single wing.

Luckman was so overwhelmed those first few months that Halas lined him up at running back — just to get him on the field. Bears back Joe Maniaci told me that during camp, “I went over to Sid and told him, ‘Sid, I don’t know. I don’t think you’re going to hang around. It doesn’t look too good. There’s too many good runners and stuff.’ And he got mad at me, and we broke up as roommates.”

(Luckman and Maniaci, a Fordham grad, had been lifeguards together at Manhattan Beach. Joe had even gone to his wedding earlier that summer.)

Luckman (in my 1995 interview with him): “Dan Topping owned the Dodgers at that time — he eventually owned the New York Yankees — and he offered Halas $50,000 for me. But Halas absolutely refused to do it. The players [who tried to talk George into it] probably figured he could use that money to give them all a raise.

“At that point Halas had me at left halfback, because obviously I didn’t know anything about the T formation. But he brought in a coach named Carl Brumbaugh [one of the Bears’ early T quarterbacks], and every day after practice Carl and I would get together with one of the centers and work on the taking the snap and setting up on pass plays. It was very hard for me to get used to doing that. Over time, though, I won the respect of the players. They knew how hard I was working. They knew I was studying the plays every night. I’d take the playbook home and review everybody’s position.”

10-14-39 Luckman head in Eagle

At late as Week 6, there was still speculation Luckman might get shipped to the Dodgers. On Tuesday of that week came this report in the Brooklyn Eagle: “Topping hasn’t abandoned his quest of luring Sid Luckman away from the Chicago Bears. He intends to wait until Sunday for an answer from the Bears, believing that after the Giants-Bears clash on Sunday, George Halas, Chicago boss, may part with the Chicago star.”

As it turned out, that Giants-Bears clash at the Polo Grounds was Luckman’s coming-out party as a T-formation quarterback. When Chicago fell behind 16-0, Halas put him at QB — and the rest is history. Sid led the Bears to two touchdowns in the final seven minutes, tossing a 68-yard scoring pass to helmetless end Dick Plasman and setting up another TD with completions of 53 and 30 yards. This was no ordinary Giants team, either. It finished 9-1-1 and went to the title game.

Afterward, Halas said, “Not a chance in a million of us letting Sid go. He’s a great player, and he fits in very well with our scheme of things. Besides, he seems to like the city of Chicago very much.”

To which the Eagle added: “Whether Halas was just as intent on keeping Luckman before yesterday’s game with the Giant[s] is something to conjure with. Everyone in football circles knew that Dan Topping, Dodger[s] owner, wanted Sid and wanted him badly. They knew that Dan had the bait out for him and that Halas had taken a little nibble.”

Luckman again: “I was probably more emotional and stressful in that particular game than in any other game I’d ever been in. My adrenal glands were really working. Of course, it was my first opportunity to play quarterback, and my family was there. [Herbert] Hawkes, the dean of Columbia, was there. Lou Little, the [Columbia] players and the coaching staff were there. And Paul Sullivan, my high school coach, was there. The [P.A.] announcer who announced I was coming into the game was a fella named Lou Wilson, who had become sort of a real good friend of mine. He’d come over to the house [in Brooklyn] to visit, and we’d go out to dinner once in a while.

“Anyway, I went in, and one of the halfbacks [Bob MacLeod] told me he could get behind the defender. I would have taken anybody’s play, I was so . . . in another world, you know? So I called his play – the stop and go – and sent him in motion, and he faked out the Giants[s] defender. I was so nervous, though, that I threw the pass end-over-end, and the Giants fella was waiting to intercept it. But [MacLeod] came in from behind and took the ball [away from him]. It was probably the worst . . . pass in the history of sports.”

For Sid Luckman, that’s where it all began. That was his first shaky step on the road to Canton. Two Sundays later he flipped a touchdown pass in the Bears’ 30-27 win over the Packers — who would go on to win the championship — and the next season he quarterbacked Chicago to the title . . . in 73-0 fashion. It was the first of four rings for Luckman in a seven-year stretch.

And it might never have happened if Halas, not always the most patient guy, hadn’t turned down a pile of money for him — in the midst of the Depression, no less. Would Luckman have had the kind of career with the Dodgers that he did with the star-studded Bears? Not likely. He also wouldn’t have transitioned to the T formation, which was made for him, so soon, and he might not have lasted 12 seasons. Tailback, let’s not forget, was a much more physically demanding position than quarterback. You were expected to be a running threat (and occasionally to block).

No, Chicago was the better place for Luckman — the ideal place, really — and Siegal’s presence was a small part of that. Somehow, Johnny found time to go to Northwestern Dental School in his off hours (as did fullback Bill Osmanski). That was Halas for you. He liked players who could win with their minds as well as their muscles.

(When Siegal went into the military during World War II, Hugh Fullerton Jr. of The Associated Press ran this funny item in his column: “Lieut. [jg] Johnny Siegal, former Columbia and Bears end, has left the Bainbridge [Md.] Naval Training Station to take up his new duties as dentist at Annapolis. Maybe Johnny isn’t going to help Navy put in the ‘T,’ but he’ll sure put in the teeth.”)

During the ’42 season, when the Bears came to Brooklyn, Luckman and Siegal spent their Saturday afternoon watching their alma mater beat Colgate. The star of the game was Columbia’s latest tailback sensation, Paul Governali, who hit 17 of 25 passes and threw for three touchdowns.

“He was better than Luckman ever was,” Little told the attending scribes, “and I never thought that would be possible to see. Of course, you must remember that Sid worked wonders with Paul during the summer and showed him how to move and throw. He ‘made’ Governali. Now Paul shuffles and cocks his arm just as Sid does. In fact, I think they are identical passers, or as close as any performers can be.”

While the Baker Field crowd cheered one of Governali’s TD tosses, Siegal leaned over to Luckman. “See?” he said, as only a longtime teammate can. “I told you Governali is a better passer than you are, and now I am sure of it.”

Sources: Brooklyn Eagle archives, pro-football-reference.com.

The NFL’s not-so-benevolent despots

NFL commissioners have acted like dictators — sometimes of the Chaplin variety — pretty much from the beginning. Roger Goodell is merely following established precedent: The Despot’s Playbook. Nobody much remembers today, but the Packers had their franchise taken away after the 1921 season for using three college players in a game. As Chuck Johnson wrote in The Green Bay Packers:

Every team in the league was employing college or high school players under assumed names. Many of the top college stars of the day would play on Saturday under their own names, then play again with the pros on Sunday, using another name.

Joe Carr, first [commissioner] of the league, wanted the practice stopped, not only because he thought it reprehensible to have players using aliases, but because it was hardly endearing the fledgling professionals to the colleges, which Carr foresaw as the league’s source of talent in years to come. So Carr made an example of the Packers.

Who just happened to play in the NFL’s smallest city (and were in their first season in the league). Four years later, Red Grange would gallop hither and yon for the Bears before his college class had graduated — indeed, just five days after his last game for Illinois — but nobody tried to kick George Halas out of the league. And five years after that, Halas did the same thing with Notre Dame fullback Joe Savoldi . . . and lived to tell about it.

But the Packers were almost strangled in the cradle, thanks to the NFL’s questionable concept of justice. (Fortunately, Curly Lambeau applied for a new franchise the following summer — after the original owner bowed out — and Green Bay got a second chance to write its remarkable story.)

The only thing that’s really changed over the decades is that, occasionally, owners fight back now. Al Davis took the league to court — and won — when it sought to prevent him from moving the Raiders to Los Angeles (and back). Jerry Jones exchanged lawsuits with his lodge brothers after having the audacity to sign separate sponsorship deals for the Cowboys’ stadium.

And now we have the Patriots’ Bob Kraft and his quarterback, Tom Brady, ready to go to the mattresses over Deflategate — and the hole-ridden report used as the basis for the team’s whopping penalties. No, it ain’t 1921 anymore.

Frank Filchock

Frank Filchock

And that’s a good thing. In the old days, the commissioner would rule and his “subjects” would simply bow their heads and accept their fate. There wasn’t much recourse. When the Giants’ Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes were banned indefinitely for failing to report a bribe offer before the 1946 title game, their collective goose was cooked. They were free to play in Canada, which they did, but they were persona non grata in the NFL until the commissioner said otherwise. For Hapes, that was essentially forever. Filchock, meanwhile, was out of the league for three years (and played, ever so briefly, in just one game when he returned with the 1950 Baltimore Colts).

“They needed a scapegoat in the whole business and I was it,” he said later. “They dealt me one off the bottom of the deck. They took the easy way out.

“Twice since my suspension I wrote to [Bert] Bell and asked him for the chance to talk this over. He answered me, all right, but just wrote that if I had any new evidence to put it into writing. . . . He’s just got me hanging. [The gambler behind the fix attempt] is out [of prison], isn’t he? What about me?”

Nobody had a bigger gripe than the Pottsville Maroons. In 1925 the Maroons were the best team in the NFL. They proved this by winning 10 of their 12 games, racking up seven shutouts and beating the next-best team, the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, on the Cards’ turf. (And believe me, a 21-7 road win the ’20s was a Serious Skunking.) But you won’t see them on the list of league champions because they made the mistake of playing an exhibition game late in the season in Philadelphia, the Frankford Yellow Jackets’ territory.

The Yellow Jackets complained, Carr suspended the Pottsville franchise — denying it the championship — and, well, it’s one of the low points in league history, if you ask me. Joe, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has a lot of defenders, but I can’t see any reasonable rationale for such a harsh penalty.

I wrote about the whole sorry episode back in 2003 for The Washington Times. Give it a look, if you’re interested, and see what you think. Maybe it’ll help answer the question: Where does Goodell get his chutzpah?

Here it is:

The NFL title that wasn’t

The Pottsville Maroons were in the news recently. That alone is news. The Maroons, northeastern Pennsylvania’s contribution to NFL history, haven’t belonged to the league since 1928, since the days of dropkicks and leather helmets. They’re less a team than a trivia question, a $1 million answer. Name the first coach of the Pottsville Maroons. Name the last. Name anybody who ever had anything to do with the Pottsville Maroons.

The Maroons did have one brief, shining moment, though. In 1925, they won the NFL championship. At least, they thought they did. But then they played an exhibition game in Philadelphia, home territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and got bounced from the league before they could collect their trophy. The title ended up going to the Chicago Cardinals, who Pottsville had beaten by two touchdowns just a week before at Comiskey Park — and who had considerable baggage of their own (as we shall see).

It’s easily the most controversial ending to any NFL season, and Pottsvillians have stewed about it ever since. In 1963 they got the league to reconsider the matter, but the owners decided to let sleeping Maroons lie. At last week’s NFL meetings in Philadelphia, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pleaded Pottsville’s case and convinced the league to take another look at it. The town isn’t asking that the Maroons be declared champions this time, only that they be allowed to split the title with the Cardinals.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the former lawyer, seems to share the sentiment in Pottsville that the punishment exceeded the crime. “People recognize that the passion of fans, not only in Pottsville but throughout Pennsylvania, should lead us to try to do something that’s positive recognition of those fans and the accomplishments of that Pottsville team,” he said. Would that the league had been so judicious 78 years ago.

In 1925, alas, the NFL operated much differently. Its presidency — the commissionership didn’t come until later — wasn’t even a full-time position, and scheduling was left up to the teams themselves. The Duluth Kelleys played three games that year; Frankford played 20. Some clubs, such as the Dayton Triangles, never had a home game; others, the ones that could draw a decent crowd, rarely had a road game. Everybody was scrambling to make a buck, from the Chicago Bears on down.

Late that season, the Bears caused a sensation by signing Red Grange, the celebrated “Galloping Ghost,” after his last game for the University of Illinois. They proceeded to parade him around the country, filling stadiums in Philly and New York (where a record 65,000 watched). Never before had pro football gotten so much attention.

Around the same time, Pottsville contracted to play an exhibition against a team of Notre Dame all-stars featuring the Four Horsemen. This, too, figured to be great for the pro game. Problem was, the Maroons’ field, Minersville Park, seated only about 9,000. If they were going to cash in, they needed a bigger place. So they moved the game to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, home of the baseball A’s.

Joe Carr

Joe Carr

This didn’t sit well with the Frankford club. The Yellow Jackets protested to NFL president Joe Carr, and Carr agreed that the Pottsville game violated their territorial rights. He advised the Maroons not to play the Four Horsemen in Philly — and that there would be dire consequences if they did.

But Pottsville was a tough mining town that tended to play by its own rules. (Six of the infamous Molly Maguires, a group that wreaked vengeance against abusive mine owners, were hanged there in 1877.) There was a state law back then that prohibited sporting events on Sundays; Pottsville, typically, ignored it. As a local historian once put it, “Who was going to tell anthracite miners that they can’t have football on their one day off?”

On game days, the Maroons dressed in the fire station, then ran the two blocks to the stadium. Their field, opponents complained, was covered with more coal slag than grass. “After a rain,” Dr. Harry March wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, “the minerals from the soil were so toxic that little wounds became infected and were dangerous.”

So, no, Pottsville wasn’t going to be dictated to by any part-time NFL president. And really, how much harm did their game figure to do to Frankford, especially if it was a one-shot deal? It’s not like the Maroons were thinking of moving to Philly. They were merely following George Halas’ lead in his handling of the Grange tour. The Bears had switched their game against Providence to Boston (which didn’t have an NFL team) and the one against the Yellow Jackets from Frankford Stadium to Shibe Park — all for the purpose of selling more tickets.

Indeed, in later years, the league would allow the Redskins to shift the championship game from Boston to New York in 1936 and the Cardinals to play the Lions in Milwaukee in ’45. Why? Because the Redskins couldn’t get anybody to come to their games in Beantown, and the Cards couldn’t find an available stadium in Chicago. So for the good of the league, exceptions were made.

Why Carr didn’t see the Pottsville-Four Horsemen game as an exception remains unclear. He was still recovering from an appendectomy when the controversy arose; maybe that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was just the way the NFL worked in those days. Pottsville was in its first season in the league — the first of just four, as it turned out. It was probably viewed as a junior member, if not an intern.

Four Horseman game headlineConsider: Only one Pottsville player, end Charlie Berry, made the 11-man all-pro team that year, even though the Maroons were the best club in the league. (The Bears, who finished with seventh-best record, placed three on the squad, and the Cardinals and Giants two each.) Also, more than a few people think Pottsville back Tony Latone belongs in the Hall of Fame. After the Four Horsemen game, Ed Pollack of the Philadelphia Public Ledger gushed, “[Latone] hit the line like a locomotive plowing into an automobile at a grade crossing — and with the same result.” But Latone, of course, isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, were charter members of the NFL — and are still with us today. That might explain why Carr didn’t revoke their franchise when they ran afoul of league rules late in the season. The stunt the Cardinals pulled, after all, was infinitely more scandalous than what the Maroons did. In their next-to-last game, they annihilated (59-0) an undermanned Milwaukee Badgers club that was supplemented by four players from a Chicago high school. (The kids, one of them just 16 years old, had been recruited by the Cards’ Art Folz, an alumnus of the school.)

Folz was banned from the NFL for life, and the Milwaukee owner was ordered to sell his team. Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien, however, got off with a one-year probation and a $1,000 fine, even though he admitted in a statement, “Just before [the game started], I learned that there were high school amateurs on the Milwaukee team. Now I know the mistake I made was in not canceling the game right then. But there were several hundred people out there to see the game. Things were moving fast. I didn’t sit down and think it out carefully.”

That win — plus another over the Hammond Pros, who hadn’t played a league game in more than a month — left the Cardinals with an 11-2-1 mark to Pottsville’s 10-2. A more suspect 11-2-1 team the NFL has never seen. No fewer than eight of the Cards’ games were against clubs that finished with one or no wins. Their opponents had a combined record of 46-70-13. Oh, and did I mention they had only one road game — against the cross-town Bears?

Granted, the Maroons enjoyed some scheduling advantages, too. Six of their wins were over teams that had played the day before (and presumably had been softened up). Their opponents, though, had a combined record of 71-66-9 — and they did crush the Cardinals 21-7 in Chicago.

O’Brien, to his credit, refused the championship when the league tried to award it to him, but it was a moot point. Pottsville had been banished — it was reinstated the following year — and the Cardinals had the best record of the remaining teams. Amazingly, the Cards’ victory over Milwaukee, the club with the four high schoolers, remains on the books, even though Carr said it would be stricken. Without that win, their record would be the same as the Maroons’, 10-2 (ties didn’t count).

Was Carr within his rights to kick Pottsville out of the NFL (temporarily)? Absolutely. But was his action just? That’s a question the league must wrestle with. And it doesn’t make it any easier that Carr is a beloved figure in pro football history, renowned for his fairness and leadership. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” March wrote in Pro Football. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”

In this case, however, the case of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, ol’ Joe might have blown one.

From The Washington Times, May 29, 2003

Sources: The Pro Football Chronicle, pro-football-reference.com.1925 Maroons

“The greatest O-line in NFL history”?

Because he’s too young to know better, La’el Collins got a little carried away at his first Dallas Cowboys press conference. He was ostensibly there to breathe a 305-pound sigh of relief after signing a 3-year, $1.65 million contract to join Jerry Jones’ ranch hands. After all, he’d projected as a first-round draft pick, but teams had passed on him because of concerns he might be a suspect in the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

Now that was behind him, and Collins was anxious to line up alongside tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, all Pro Bowlers. “This is going to be the greatest offensive line in NFL history,” the people-moving guard said. “Mark my words.”

Consider them marked, La’el — marked and mocked.

Hey, I’m all for rookie enthusiasm, but it’s a little early to be calling this Cowboys line the “greatest” anything, even the greatest in franchise history. Rick Gosselin did a nice job of pointing that out in a column last week. Gosselin also listed his Top 4 Offensive Lines of all time, and I can’t argue with any of his selections. “The 1962 Green Bay Packers, 1972 Miami Dolphins, 1973 Oakland Raiders and 1983 Washington Redskins all await [Collins and Co.’s] challenge,” he wrote.

I’d make it a fivesome, though, and add arguably the greatest O-line of all: the 1940 Bears.

Yeah, yeah, I know: 1940 is a long time ago. But four players from that line are in the Hall of Fame — left tackle Joe Stydahar, guards Danny Fortmann and George Musso and center Bulldog Turner. And the fifth, right tackle Lee Artoe, might be in Canton, too, if he hadn’t jumped to the rival All-America Conference after the war. Several teammates I talked to said Artoe was better than Stydahar (who, besides his playing feats, won a title as the coach of the ’51 Rams).

The '40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears line from L to R: Artoe, Musso, Turner, Fortmann and Stydahar.

The ’40 Bears are most remembered for their revolutionary T formation — the first modern offense — and, of course, for their 73-0 obliteration of the Redskins in the championship game. They also led the NFL in rushing yards that season (165.3 per game) and, when the T got rolling, averaged 50.3 points in their last three games, a ridiculous total for that era.

Granted, we’re talking about the single platoon days. (Translation: These guys aren’t in Canton just for their blocking. They played defense, too.) But they were, by any measure, a fabulous O-line — and a short-lived one, as it turned out. A year later Musso moved into a backup role, and the season after that the military summoned Stydahar and Artoe. Indeed, if the war hadn’t come along, the ’40s Bears likely would have won six or seven titles instead of “just” four — and would be thought of as the dynasty of all NFL dynasties.

Artoe and Turner, by the way, were rookies in 1940. (The others had been playing at least four years.) Lee once told me a funny story about that first season — specifically, about the apartment he rented with fellow rookie Ken Kavanaugh, a terrific receiver (and, after retiring, a longtime Giants assistant). It went like this:

“Ken and I had played in the College All-Star Game [in late August against the Packers, the previous year’s NFL champs]. Afterward we took the midnight train to Pittsburgh, where the Bears had a preseason game the next day. When we got back from that trip, the team just dropped us at Wrigley Field and turned us loose. Well, Ken and I didn’t know where the hell we were. So we walked a couple of blocks down the street, and there was this sign that said, ‘Chateau Hotel.’ It was a hotel of about 100 rooms. We went in, and they charged us $20 a month to live there — $10 each.

Chateau Hotel“We didn’t spend much time at the hotel. Halas kept you pretty busy. You woke up, had practice, had a little lunch, and in the afternoon you might get some time off or have some more practice. Then at night, starting at 7 o’clock, there’d be a chalk talk in the [Wrigley] field house. You’d watch movies of the previous game and stuff like that. After that, you’d go to bed.

“We’d come home at night, and the elevator was right close to the [hotel entrance]. So we’d just step in the elevator and go up to the second floor. This went on for about two or three months. [George] Halas never gave you a day off. You were so tired all the time, you couldn’t wait to hit the sack.

“We did go to functions occasionally, though, and at one of them we were talking to Wilfrid Smith [the Chicago Tribune sportswriter, who used to play in the NFL and still officiated games]. Wilfrid said, ‘Where are you living?’ and Ken and I said, ‘We’re over at the Chateau Hotel.’ And he started to laugh. “That’s one of the biggest whorehouses in Chicago!” he said. It was one of [Al] Capone’s old hotels. How were we to know? I mean, we lived there and everybody knew us, knew we played for the Bears, but we didn’t hang out in the lobby or anything. We did notice, though, that there were always a lot of girls around.”

Artoe, as I said, might have been the fifth member of the line to make the Hall if he’d stayed with the Bears. “He’d knock down anything that got in his way,” halfback Joe Maniaci said. ”He was rough. He was a 60-minute man. In my book, I’d say he was better than Stydahar. But he didn’t get the publicity Stydahar got. And when he went to the All-America Conference [and convinced several other Chicago players to go with him], everything he did was gone.”

It was an unusual collection of talent that Halas had assembled. Musso played without a helmet early in his career and got up to 300 pounds near the end, rare for those days. Fortmann went to medical school at the University of Chicago and later served as the Rams’ team doctor. Then there was Turner, “the smartest football player that ever lived,” according to Sid Luckman, the Bears’ legendary quarterback. “There was never a better all-around football player than Bulldog Turner.”

Another funny story:

“Bulldog snapped the ball back so hard that I [needed] major surgery on my wrist,” Luckman told me. “I used to give with the ball as best I could, but he put that ball in there like it was shot out of a cannon. Boom! The ball was gone, and he was gone.

“I pleaded with him. ‘Bulldog, please, I beg of you, don’t send that ball back so hard. I’ve had two operations. Could you slow it up a little bit?’ He tried to, but he couldn’t do it. It threw his timing off.

“So one time we’re at practice, and he was snapping that ball like he always did — boom, boom, boom! Finally, I knew what I had to do. I moved my hand away, and he snapped the ball right into his nuts. Oh, man! He was down on the ground for a while, but then he chased me for 25 minutes around that goddamn field. But from that time on, he didn’t snap the ball as hard.”

Now that was an offensive line, certainly as good — in its time — as any of Gosselin’s other nominees. Only the ’73 Raiders had as many Hall of Famers as the ’40 Bears (LT Art Shell, LG Gene Upshaw, C Jim Otto and RT Bob Brown). And let’s not forget, the ’62 Packers gave up 11 sacks against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

It’s interesting that all these O-lines come from 1983 or earlier — interesting, but understandable. For most of NFL history, being a great line has meant, first and foremost, being able to run the ball, being able to impose your will on a defense. But with all the rule changes favoring passing, the running game has been devalued. It still has a place, mind you, it’s just different now. Clubs don’t pound away at defensive fronts anymore; they run, much of the time, out of more advantageous spread formations. The ability of a line to protect the quarterback has become as important as its ability to wedge block.

The ’40 Bears and the other famed lines ran the ball more than they threw it. A lot more. Not so with last year’s Cowboys (though they did have more rushes than passes). So if Collins’ bold prediction comes true, if the Dallas line does go on fame and fortune, it figures to be an updated version of A Line for the Ages, a new species. The thing is, teams have to worry about free agency now. Can Jones keep this group together long enough for it to reach those heights?

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Will the addition of guard La'el Collins take the Cowboys' O-line from very good to great?

Will the addition of guard La’el Collins take the Cowboys’ O-line from very good to great?

Before anonymous sources

NFL teams are so secretive now it’s a wonder they don’t use an Enigma machine to communicate with one another. We were reminded of this again in the run-up to the draft, when all sorts of trade scenarios were bandied about — many involving quarterback Marcus Mariota — and none came to pass. Only two of the first 32 picks changed hands, the fewest in the modern era.

Mike Mayock, the NFL Network’s main Draft Guy, is so spooked by Bill Belichick’s talent for disinformation that he was reluctant to guess Thursday night which player the Patriots would take at the bottom of the first round. (Host Rich Eisen shamed him into it, though, and Mayock, to his great surprise, correctly predicted Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown.)

I raise this subject because, in the old days, the NFL was much more of an open book. And really, how much more fun would the offseason be if coaches and general managers didn’t dodge most questions as if they infringed on national security? Anyway, I came across a Pittsburgh Press story from 1940 that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about. It ran just before the league meetings that year in April, and the candor of Steelers owner Art Rooney is stunning by today’s standards. Rooney names 10 players on six different clubs he’d be interested in trading for. Had he done that before this year’s league meetings, he might have been accused of tampering.

Here’s the (brief) story:Rooney talking trades 1940

The Steelers got only two of the 10 players Rooney mentioned — Giants tackle Ox Parry (for halfback Kay Eakin) and Rams halfback Merl Condit (for tailback Hugh McCullough). Condit was probably envisioned as a drawing card because he’d starred in college at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech.

Who doesn’t wish owners — and other decision makers — were as forthcoming nowadays as they were in the ’40s? Then we wouldn’t have as much Reporting By Rumor, as much Smoke Blowing passed off as reliable information. Better still, we wouldn’t have to watch a coach or GM’s nose grow almost every time he opens his mouth.

The Steelers’ early draft follies

For almost half a century — since 1969, when they nabbed Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene in the first round and near-Hall of Fame defensive end L.C. Greenwood in the 10th (!) — the Steelers have drafted about as well as any team in the NFL, especially in the linebacker department. But it wasn’t always thus. In their early years they were atrocious in this area, and in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Buddy Parker was coach, they traded away most of their top selections for veterans. (Here’s a link to their classic ’63 draft, the year they didn’t pick until late in the eighth round.)

The Steelers’ Golden Moment came in 1974, when they drafted four players who are now in Canton: wide receiver Lynn Swann in the first round, middle linebacker Jack Lambert in the second, wideout John Stallworth in the fourth and center Mike Webster in the fifth. That marked the beginning of their historic four-championships-in-six-seasons run. But there were many, many lean years before it — as Jack Sell documented in this tale of woe, which ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the week of the ’53 draft.

Doc Blanchard, the Steelers' wasted 1946 No. 1.

Army’s Doc Blanchard, the Steelers’ wasted No. 1 pick in 1946.

By all means read the whole thing — to get a fuller sense of the Steelers’ draft follies in that era. The gist of it, though, is this:

Exactly nine of the [first] 17 first picks of Pittsburgh failed to see service in Gold and Black togs for various reasons. In addition to [Notre Dame back Bill] Shakespeare, who failed to turn pro [after being taken third overall in the inaugural ’36 draft], fullback Felix (Doc) Blanchard of Army, who chose a military career, and quarterback Bud Avinger, who elected to play in the Canadian League, never donned local togs.

Halfback Bill Daley and end Hub Bechtol were lured by the ill-fated All-America Conference. Quarterback Sid Luckman was really chosen by the Chicago Bears, who had given up end Eggs Manske for Pittsburgh’s first draft choice. And halfback Kay Eakin was traded to the New York Giants for Owen (Ox) Parry, a veteran with a bad leg who never reported here.

Halfbacks Johnny Podesto from Modesto and Paul Duhart came to training camp but couldn’t make the grade.

Lynn Chandnois, right halfback from Michigan State, will be the record-holder for length of service among the No. 1 selections when he reports next season for his fourth campaign.

Barely two decades later, the Steelers were hitting the lottery with Swann, Lambert, Stallworth and Webster. In other words: Yes, long-suffering fans of (insert team name here), It Could Happen To You.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

The Steelers were so clueless in the early years of the draft, they might as well have drafted THIS William Shakespeare.

The Steelers were so clueless in the early years of the draft, they might as well have drafted THIS Bill Shakespeare.

Before combines, computers and Kipers

They weigh them, time them, test them, give them chest X-rays, knee exams, electrocardiograms. They work them out and wear them out, do background checks that are more like body-cavity searches. Heck, for all we know, NFL teams delve into the DNA of draft prospects — on the off-chance one of them might be secretly related to Jim Thorpe.

Then they gather up all this information, feed it into a computer and . . . draft Tom Brady in the sixth round — or James Harrison not at all.

Does anyone else feel this NFL Draft business has gotten to be a bit much? Sure, you want to be thorough, especially with so much money at stake, but as we’ve seen time and again, overanalysis can lead to paralysis — or worse, to Tim Couch.

Or to put it another way, what’s so wonderful about the Wonderlic test? Couldn’t you learn just as much about a guy by playing a quick game of rock-paper-scissors with him?

In olden times, the league did just fine without this microscopic evaluation of talent. Back then – I’m talking before World War II — clubs scouted the old-fashioned way, working their contacts in the college game and counting on recommendations from former players. Oh, they might get to see a prospect in action once or twice, but beyond that . . . .

Poring over game films, such a big part of the process today, didn’t come into fashion into later. (In the late ’30s, most teams were just beginning to pore over their own game films.) No, a club was much more likely to learn about a player by perusing the sports section of the newspaper. Some clubs even enlisted sports writers to do the bird-dogging for them.

One of them, a columnist for The Ogden Standard-Examiner named Al Warden, informed his readers in 1940 that he was “one of the far western football scouts for the Lions.” In fact, he went on, he’d just received a letter from Detroit coach Potsy Clark that said: “Let us have a list of prospective players from your section of the country as soon as possible. We are on the lookout for new finds.”

In those days, the NFL Draft went something like this: Every year, the league compiled a master list of eligible players – with the help of submissions from each team. The 300-odd names were then put on three large blackboards in the hotel meeting room where the draft was held.

Sometimes, if a club felt it had stumbled across a hidden gem, it would “forget” to put him on the master list. The Giants did this in 1939 with Walt Nielsen, a back from the hinterlands of Arizona — then surprised everybody by drafting him in the first round.

Wellington Mara, the 20-something son of owner Tim Mara, served as New York’s player personnel director during the leather helmet era. It’s astounding where the kid found players — and without, I’ll just point out, having any idea what their vertical jump was. Take the Giants’ 1938 championship team, for instance. Among the alma maters listed on the roster were Central Oklahoma, West Virginia Wesleyan, Emporia State (Kansas), Trinity University (Texas), Santa Clara, St. Bonaventure, George Washington, Simpson College (Iowa) and Oklahoma City.

Of course, the Giants took scouting more seriously than many other teams. At the other end of the spectrum were the Steelers of the late ’40s and early ’50s. Their player personnel man “was a full-time mortician named Ray Byrne,” NFL Hall of Famer Jim Finks once recalled. “So, on the side, he subscribed to all the college football magazines and put himself on the mailing lists of all the different colleges . . . [and] collected their press releases. That was the information the Steelers had when they went into the draft every year.”

By the time the American Football League came along in 1960, though, moonlighting morticians had been replaced by full-time scouts who crisscrossed the country in search of the next Bronko Nagurski. Eddie Kotal, Jack Lavelle, Pappy Lewis, Peahead Walker, Fido Murphy — nobody remembers them now, but they helped turn the NFL Draft into the extravaganza it is today.

The 19th-round pick from now-defunct Arnold College.

The 19th-round pick from now-defunct Arnold College.

Kotal liked to joke about his “14-month year” cataloguing prospects for the Los Angeles Rams, right down to the little-known defensive end from Arnold College in Milford, Conn. (the great Andy Robustelli, L.A.’s 19th-round pick in 1951). Let’s face it, you have to be a little nutty to spend all that time on the road — just you and your binoculars — and Eddie certainly qualified. As a back with the Packers in the ’20s, he was one of the handful of players in the league who played without a helmet.

For a while, the Rams had an edge on other teams because they budgeted more for scouting, but that soon changed. So much so that Kotal griped in 1957:

“Even five years ago I could stumble across a sleeper at some small college that no other club knew about. But nowadays, everybody’s scouting system is so exhaustive, there’s no such thing as one.

“I don’t care if the kid is a third-string halfback at Tiddle-de-Wink Tech. By the time I get there to see him, he’ll tell me:

“‘You’re from the Rams, huh? I just got a letter the other day from the Lions and the Bears, too.’”

And so it began, the inexorable march toward five-hour first rounds, the self-celebratory NFL combine . . . and Mel Kiper. The draft, once confined to smoke-filled rooms, has become the Super Bowl of the offseason, and scouting has been elevated to the status of a science — an inexact science perhaps, but a science nonetheless.

Fido Murphy, long dead, would snort at that. To Fido, who shared his bush-beating brilliance over the years with the Bears and Steelers, modern scouts were just “a bunch of office boys with fancy titles! A lot of fakers and phonies! You ask them what do they think of such-and-such a player, and they tell you, ‘Wait till I see the films.’ I don’t need no lousy films.”

Speaking of films, Fido was married to an Actual Hollywood Actress, Iris Adrian. Iris was no star, but she appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows opposite the likes of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. The reason their relationship lasted, she’d tell people, was that he wasn’t an actor — unlike her first two husbands. “If an actor gets a pimple on his butt,” she’d say, “he thinks he’s ruined for life. . . . [It’s] like dating another dame.”

Iris’ glamorous career, meanwhile, enabled Fido, a walking lounge act, to crack jokes like this: “The best field-goal kicker I’ve ever seen is a mule called Gus who kicks a field goal in the last minute of a Walt Disney film starring my wife. . . . Gus plays for a team called the Atoms, and he wears a red blanket.”

Fido had total faith in his ability to distinguish the player from the poser. As he put it, “It isn’t that I’m smarter than everyone else in football. It’s just that I know more. . . . Sam Cohen, the Bridgeport [Conn.] columnist, wanted to call me a genius, but I wouldn’t let him.” Indeed, when Sports Illustrated ran a story about him in 1963, he suggested it be titled “Football’s Greatest Scout” (which it was).

Note: I’d hoped to link to that marvelous piece by Myron Cope, but for some reason it’s no longer available in SI’s archives. It can, however, be found in Cope’s collection, Broken Cigars. A used copy shouldn’t be too hard to find if you’re so inclined. Here’s a brief excerpt to whet your appetite:

Without having to be prodded, Fido takes credit for the fact that Mike Ditka, the magnificent Chicago offensive end, signed with the Bears rather than with the wealthy Houston Oilers [of the rival AFL]. As Fido tells it, Ditka was flying home to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, from the Hula Bowl game in Hawaii and stopped in San Francisco to change planes. “I had him bumped off his plane,” says Fido. “Then I got him a first-class window seat on another flight, and he thought I was a big man. The flight had a 90-minute layover in Chicago, and I had [George] Halas wait for him at the airport with a contract.”

Fido would gladly pit his old-school eyeballs against any team’s computer, any scouting department’s rating system, any cockamamie intelligence test. It was he, after all, who said of the first pick in the 1963 draft, Heisman-winning quarterback Terry Baker, “For carrying around a trophy, he’s got a great arm. For throwing a football, no.”

Sure enough, Baker never tossed a touchdown pass in the NFL and ended his brief and uneventful career as a running back. Wonder what Fido would make of Jameis Winston.

A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the The Washington Times, April 24, 2009.

Terry Baker: a better arm “for carrying around a trophy [than] throwing a football."

Terry Baker: a better arm “for carrying around a trophy [than] throwing a football.”