Tag Archives: Hall of Famers

Sammy Baugh’s game of games

You can argue into triple overtime how good the NFL’s early players were. But it’s hard not to be impressed with the day the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh had against the Lions on Nov. 14, 1943: four touchdown passes and — as a defensive back — four interceptions in a 42-20 Washington win.

Nobody else in league history has had a game quite like it. Indeed, the four picks are still a record (tied many times). And get this: two other Detroit passes were just out of his reach. That’s right, Baugh could have had six INTs.

You can see most of these plays in the living-color(!) game footage I came across on YouTube. A couple of his scoring throws are snipped out — probably so someone could assemble a compilation reel of TDs — but almost everything else is in there. Why don’t I walk you through it with a series of clips?

Remember: This was the era of two-way players, and during the war years Sammy logged even more minutes because rosters were so much thinner. In fact, he rarely came out of the game. He was so tremendously versatile that he did just about everything but kick (though he did serve as a holder).

Three of his interceptions — he had 11 that season to lead the NFL — came in the second quarter and the other early in the third. So he accomplished the feat in barely more than 15 minutes of clock time. Amazing. How it unfolded:

Interception No. 1: Baugh swoops in to pick off a duck.

Interception No. 2: How’s this for a sideline grab?

Interception No. 3: Not only did Sammy stop the Lions’ scoring threat at the 1-yard line, he picked himself up after getting knocked down and ran to the 10 to give the Washington offense more room to operate. (You could do that back then, even if you were “down by contact.”)

Interception No. 4: More opportunism. (He fumbled at the end of the return, but the Redskins recovered.)

Baugh might not have been the fastest player on the field, but at 6-foot-2 he had unusual wingspan for a safety, which made him hard to throw over. The guy was just An Athlete — one with terrific (and conveniently large) hands. If he could reach a ball, he usually caught it.

Now let’s look at how close he came to two other picks.

Near miss No. 1:

Near miss No. 2:

As you’ve no doubt gathered, games could be pretty wild back then, with turnovers galore. The Redskins and Lions both worked out of the single or double wing, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for imagination — and improvisation. How about a fake jump pass?

As for Baugh’s other duties, here he is returning a punt:

And here is blocking on a kickoff (he’s the No. 33 on the right side of the wedge):

And here he is holding for an extra point:

And here he is punting (which he did about as well as anybody in those days):

(That one looks like a quick kick because he’s only about 6 or 7 yards behind the center. Anyway, it was downed on the Detroit 8.)

Whoops, almost forgot about Sammy’s TD tosses. Here’s No. 3, a 10-yarder to Bob Masterson:

And here’s No. 4, a 4-yard flip to Joe Aguirre (who, by the way, was blind in one eye):

(Again, his first two scoring passes are missing.)

What a player. What a performance. Too bad he had to share the newspaper billing the next day with the Bears’ Sid Luckman, who threw for a record seven touchdowns in a 56-7 wipeout of the Giants:

Luckman Baugh Newspaper Head

Note: If you want to read more about Baugh’s remarkable 1943 season, check out the piece I wrote about it for Peter King’s site, MMQB.

(Sorry for the advertising on some of the clips. It was the only way I could pull this off.)

Don’t let the facts get in the way of . . .

Everybody loves a good story. But you can’t love it so much — as a journalist, at least — that you don’t do your due diligence and verify, verify, verify.

One such story got some play on Twitter and elsewhere a few days ago. This was after Ikemefuna Enemkpali, the Jets’ rookie linebacker, cold-cocked starting quarterback Geno Smith and broke his jaw. NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, who’d dealt with a similar episode during his Cowboys days in the ’70s, tweeted the following: 

(Over 3,000 retweets, folks — for those of you scoring at home.)

Longley brandishes his clippings after the '74 Redskins game.

Longley brandishes his clippings after the ’74 Redskins game.

There’s only one problem: It ain’t true. For starters, nobody in 1976, not even the wily Brandt, was going to — presto chango — trade Longley for the second pick in the next draft. The kid had had a stellar small college career at Abilene Christian, sure, but he was still an unknown quantity who’d thrown just 44 passes in his two NFL seasons, completing less than half of them (19). He had, however, flashed in a 1974 Thanksgiving Day game against the Redskins, coming off the bench to throw two touchdown passes to rally the Cowboys to a memorable 24-23 win. That, and his Dallas pedigree, were what gave him some market value.

But hardly No. 2-overall-pick market value. The deal Brandt brokered actually went like this: Dallas sent Longley and its 1977 first-rounder (24th) to San Diego, and the Chargers forked over their first (14th) and second (41st) selections in the same draft. Got it? The Cowboys came away with a second-rounder and moved up 10 spots in Round 1.

The trade, then, wasn’t really Longley for Dorsett. It was Longley for a couple of the chips Brandt needed to pry the No. 2 pick away from the Seahawks. Dorsett ended up costing Dallas their young QB plus four prime selections: the first- and second-rounders acquired from San Diego and two other seconds — 30th (which came from Buffalo for defensive end Pat Toomay) and 54th (the Cowboys’ own choice) overall. That 30th choice, I’ll just remind you, would be a first-rounder today.

Peter King wrote about the Longley-Staubach scuffle in his Wednesday mailbag. And to his credit, he acknowledged:

“The details in the Cowboys story are a little fuzzy now. Brandt’s recollection differs from the memory of some Cowboy players in a Matt Mosley story for the Dallas Morning News a decade ago. Brandt recalls Longley and Staubach getting into a fight after a training-camp practice in California in 1976, Longley riding Staubach about it being time for him to retire (he was 34 in that training camp), and Staubach saying if he wanted to discuss it, they’d discuss it after practice on an adjacent field. They fought then, and later, in the team’s locker room in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Brandt recalls Longley trying to hit Staubach in the head with a folding chair — just like in the old days of professional wrestling. The players recalled the fight to Mosley, but not the chair. They say that Longley cheap-shotted Staubach when he wasn’t looking in the locker room.

This is not in dispute:

“After it happened,” Brandt said Tuesday night, “Tom Landry called. He wanted Longley traded  immediately.” Brandt, within a day, had Longley dealt to San Diego.

Not in dispute? It most certainly is in dispute — the “within a day” part, that is. Longley wasn’t traded for nearly three weeks (18 days to be exact). But “within a day” sounds so much more dramatic, doesn’t it?

On Aug. 25, 13 days after Longley jumped Staubach, The Associated Press reported:

Longley has been on the trade marts for almost a month, but Landry said, “We’ve had offers for him, but they weren’t good enough to consider. It’s possible he won’t play anywhere this year.”

Landry also added, “I never write off conciliation.”

It wasn’t until Aug. 30, when teams were beginning to set their final rosters, that the Chargers, still not sold on future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, decided they needed Longley as quarterback insurance. (In their defense, Fouts was 5-20-1 as a starter at the time and had a career passer rating of 56.)

A year later, with the legendary Dorsett rushing for over 1,000 yards as a rookie, Dallas won its second Super Bowl. By then Longley was out of the league, never to return. Brandt’s version of events make for quite a tale, but it’s only that — a Texas-sized whopper honed, no doubt, in press boxes and hospitality suites over the decades. Clint Longley slugged Roger Staubach when he had his head turned, and 24 hours later I traded the SOB for Tony Dorsett. How much more brilliant can a personnel man get?

Unfortunately for Brandt, we have the Internet now, and it’s harder to get away with these fish stories — except on websites that are either too understaffed, too overworked or too trusting to double-check basic facts.

Sigh.

(Sorry, I’m just not a print-the-legend guy. When the legend becomes fact, I begin to worry about the fate of civilization.)

Source: pro-football-reference.com, prosportstransactions.com.

How good was The Giffer?

The eulogies have poured forth since Frank Gifford died earlier this week at 84. And deservedly so. He was a New York icon, The Giffer was, a football/sportscasting double threat the likes of which has rarely been seen. Still, I’m not sure enough has been made of how good a back Gifford was. His celebrity as a TV personality tends to share the billing with his football exploits — so much so that you’d think he made the Hall of Fame as much for his talking as for his playing.

Let’s see if I can rectify that.

Gifford with QB Charlie Conerly after winning '56 title.

Gifford with QB Charlie Conerly after winning the ’56 title.

One of the problems for almost any player in Gifford’s era — that is, the NFL’s first 50 years — is that his statistics can seem shrunken. It was just a different time, a different game. The seasons were shorter, the yards were harder to come by (because defense hadn’t been legislated out of existence yet) and the players often went both ways, which kept them from rolling up the ridiculous offensive numbers you see today. All you can do in such a situation is measure a man against his contemporaries . . . and against those, of course, who came before him. By that yardstick, The Giffer was pretty fabulous.

By the way, did you know he holds the record for receiving yards by a running back in an NFL championship game? (Neither did I until I researched this post.) In 1956 he had 131 in the Giants’ 47-7 blowout of the Bears.

FYI: The most receiving yards by a back in the Super Bowl is 101 by the 49ers’ Roger Craig. Heck, a 131-yard receiving day in the NFL title game is unusual enough for a receiver. Since 1970 only a dozen wideouts have reached that total.

That’s the thing about Gifford. He might have played in the era of black-and-white televisions, but he was very much a Back of the Future, one who would have fit in perfectly with the West Coast offense. Indeed, he was as dangerous catching the ball as he was running with it. In his first eight seasons, 1952 to ’59, he racked up 3,347 yards rushing and 3,208 receiving. The NFL had never had a back – of Hall of Fame caliber, at least – who was so perfectly balanced.

That was Gifford’s prime as a running back. (In 1960, you may have heard, he got blindsided by Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik and knocked out of the game for more than a year. When he returned, he transitioned to wide receiver — and even went to the Pro Bowl in ’63.) Anyway, at the end of the ’59 season, The Giffer compared quite favorably to pro football’s all-time backs. At that point, only five of them had gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in their NFL careers. As the following chart shows, Frank ranked second on the list, behind only Joe Perry:

MOST YARDS FROM SCRIMMAGE BY A RB (THROUGH 1959)

Years Player, Team Rushing Receiving YFS TD
1950-59 Joe Perry*, 49ers 7,151 1,271 8,422 56
1952-59 Frank Gifford, Giants 3,347 3,208 6,555 51
1952-59 Hugh McElhenny, 49ers 3,941 2,552 6,493 49
1952-59 Ollie Matson, Cards/Rams 4,194 2,280 6,474 46
1944-51 Steve Van Buren, Eagles 5,860    523 6,383 72

*Also gained 1,570 yards in the rival All-America Conference in 1948 and ’49, which would bring his total to 9,992.

That’s right. At that stage, Gifford had a slight edge over McElhenny and Matson in terms of production (touchdowns included). And Hugh and Ollie came into the league the same year Frank did, so they’re all on equal footing. (Quite a year for running backs, that ’52 draft.)

Problem was, there was no such thing as “yards from scrimmage” in 1959. The NFL didn’t keep track of them yet. To the league’s statisticians, rushing yards were all that mattered. So some of Gifford’s Total Value was probably lost on the fans. (The fans outside of New York, I mean.)

Consider: Through ’59, only six NFL backs had had a 500/500 season – 500 yards rushing, 500 receiving. Gifford was the only one who did it more than once. In fact, he did it three times.

500 YARDS RUSHING AND 500 RECEIVING BY A RB (THROUGH 1959)

Year Running back, Team Rush Rec
1943  Harry Clark, Bears 556 535
1949  Gene Roberts, Giants 634 711
1954  Ollie Matson, Cardinals 506 611
1956  Frank Gifford, Giants 819 603
1957  Frank Gifford, Giants 528 588
1958  Tom Tracy, Steelers 714 535
1958  Lenny Moore, Colts 598 938
1959  Frank Gifford, Giants 540 768

That last figure — 768 — is also worth discussing. After all, 768 yards in a 12-game season is the equivalent of 1,012 in 16 games. Just three running backs, let’s not forget, have had a 1,000-yard receiving season — Craig (1,016) and the Chargers’ Lionel James (1,027) in 1985 and the Rams’ Marshall Faulk (1,048) in ’99. So, again, at his best, Gifford did things modern backs have rarely done, even with all the rule changes favoring offense.

Before becoming the Giants’ starting left halfback, The Giffer made the Pro Bowl as a defensive back — while also getting playing time on offense. After a 14-10 loss to the Steelers in 1953, The New York Times said he “played a whale of a game” and logged “some 50 minutes of two-way action.” (The Brooklyn Eagle seconded the motion, calling it “a brilliant performance as an iron man on offense and defense.”) He scored the Giants’ only touchdown that day on a 6-yard reception and, for good measure, booted the extra point. (Yeah, he could kick a little, too.)

Earlier that season, the Eagle summed up his efforts against the Redskins this way:

[One of] the only bright spots in the New York picture yesterday [was] Frank Gifford, crack defensive back. Gifford almost single-handed[ly] averted a shutout. He leaped high to intercept a [Jack] Scarbath flip to prevent a touchdown, and his runback to midfield paved the way for the Giants’ first score — a safety — after the ’Skins had taken a 10-0 lead.

Then, in the second period, the former Southern California ace took a lateral from Tom Landry [on an interception return] and sped down the sideline for the lone New York touchdown. Tom had snared a heave by Eddie LeBaron.

Gifford, who had been used exclusively on defense, was tossed into the game to pass in the closing moments as a last-minute desperation measure by coach Steve Owen.

That brings us to the Last But Not Least part of this post: Gifford’s arm. He threw the ball about as well as any running back in the modern era — as his 14 touchdown passes, a record for his position, attest. On five occasions he staked the Giants to a 7-0 lead with a TD toss, and in another game he threw for two scores. (What were the Chicago Cardinals thinking?) Here’s a great factoid: The last touchdown of Owen’s Hall of Fame coaching career came on a 10-yard flip from Gifford to Ray Pelfrey.

And here’s another: Frank threw as many TD passes in 63 attempts as Ryan Leaf did in 655 – and one less than Matt Leinart did in 641.

About all that’s missing from Gifford’s resumé is some kick-return heroics. But there’s a reason for that: The Giants had Hall of Famer Em Tunnell to run back punts (though Frank did average 25.8 yards on 23 kickoff returns). Besides, no sense in spreading the guy too thin, right? He was already doing everything but sweeping out the stadium.

Running back, receiver, defensive back, passer, kicker — there haven’t been many modern players as multitalented as Frank Gifford. Just wanted to drive home that point a bit more forcefully as we look back on his career and pay our final respects.

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Related content:

Chuck Bednarik’s famed hit on Gifford in 1960.

Gifford’s appearance on the What’s My Line? game show during his 1956 MVP season.

The Giffer cuts upfield against the Baltimore Colts in 1955.

The Giffer cuts upfield against the Baltimore Colts in 1955.

Papa Bear’s sip of coffee in MLB

More than a few players in pro football’s early years dabbled in major-league baseball — including, by my count, seven Hall of Famers. Jim ThorpeGreasy NealePaddy Driscoll, Ernie NeversRed BadgroAce Parker — all made it to the big leagues. Heck, Neale led the Reds with 10 hits in the infamous 1919 World Series.

George Halas was another one. In that same 1919 season, Papa Bear briefly auditioned for the Yankees as a switch-hitting right fielder. He was 24 and had just been discharged from Great Lakes Naval Station, where he’d served during the war. This was the year before Babe Ruth came to New York from the Red Sox in the most regrettable trade (from a Boston standpoint) in sports history. The Yanks had yet to win an American League pennant, but they were good enough to finish third with a veteran core consisting of shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, Hall of Fame third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker, first baseman Wally Pipp, second baseman Del Pratt, outfielders Ping Bodie and Duffy Lewis and 20-game winner Bob Shawkey.

Halas, who played his college ball at Illinois, had flashed at Great Lakes and drawn interest from MLB clubs. During spring training, The New York Times said he looked like “the find of the season as far as the Yanks are concerned” — such an impressive prospect that “he may be chosen to cover right field and have the distinction of being leadoff batsman for the Yanks this season.

An April 1919 headline in the Times.

An April 1919 headline in the Times.

It is an unusual thing for a college player to jump into the big leagues and become a regular the first season, but this is just the thing that Halas threatens to do. He is swift of foot and is a heady and proficient base runner. He covers lots of ground in the outfield and, best of all, he has a world of enthusiasm for the game. As a batsman Halas has his faults, but he can sting the ball hard, and the defects in style which [manager Miller] Huggins has discovered can easily be adjusted, as Halas is a willing worker and by following the advice of Huggins has already improved his stick work.

Halas is young and is an all-around athlete. At the University of Illinois he played baseball and football and was a star in both sports. Early in the war he enlisted at Great Lakes Naval Station and was one of the best athletes in the thousands of promising young men who were developed at the station. It was his great speed and strength which first attracted Huggins’ attention, and if he fails to make good his first year it will only be because he needs a little more experience in major league tactics.

As it turned out, Halas played only 12 games in the bigs and batted just 22 times. But they were an amazingly eventful dozen games, as you will see. A brief summary of his “exploits”:

May 6, Shibe Park (L, 3-2 to Philadelphia Athletics)

Halas batted first, played right field and went 1 for 4 with a single.

May 6 boxThe Times: “With the score tied in the eighth . . ., the New York team fell asleep while opportunity pounded on the door. [Bill] Lamar’s double, putting runners on second and third with one out, was the signal for the recall of [Socks] Seibold, who had succeeded Scott Perry. [Miller] Huggins took out Halas, who was playing in his first major-league game, to let [Sammy] Vick bat against southpaw Walter Kinney. Vick fouled out.”

The A’s won it in the 10th on Red Shannon’s run-scoring single.

May 8, Shibe Park (W, 2-0 over A’s)

Halas, still in the leadoff spot and still in right, had a single in four ups against Bob Geary.

The far bigger story was Shawkey, who after walking the leadoff man proceeded to allow just one other base runner — on a single by Braggo Roth. How close did he come to a no-hitter? “From the stand it seemed that he shot a third strike over on Roth . . . ,” the Times reported, “but Umpire Owens called it a ball. On the next pitch Roth singled to left.”

May 11, Polo Grounds (T, 0-0 with Senators, 12 innings)

Three days after Shawkey’s gem, Halas got to witness an even shinier one — by the legendary Walter Johnson. The Big Train retired George on a fly out in the bottom of the first, gave up a single to Peckinpaugh, then proceeded to retire 28 straight batters and throw 9 2/3 hitless innings. Poor Walter. He didn’t even come away with a win, never mind a perfect game or no-hitter, because the game was halted — erroneously, it turned out — at the end of the 12th and declared a tie.

5-11-19Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, it seems, was mistaken about the Sunday curfew. He reportedly thought it was 6 p.m. — and informed plate umpire Bill Dinneen of this. But “the game could have continued for some time,” the Times said, “and might have ended in a decision. When the game was called the light conditions were just as favorable as when the game started. The new Sunday law provides that baseball games may be played after 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but makes no provision about what time they shall end.”

As for Halas, not only did he make the Yankees’ first out, he also made their last when he grounded to first in the 12th. In between, he fanned twice and popped to third to finish 0 for 5.

Soggy conditions limited the attendance to 3,000. According to the Times, “Even [the crowd-pleasing] Nick Altrock, coaching at first base [for Washington], refused to come out of the melancholy state into which he had been driven by the dreary, bleak weather . . . [which was] more favorable for football than baseball.”

May 12, Polo Grounds (T, 4-4 vs. Senators, 15 innings)

Just think: Halas started a mere four games in the majors, and the last two — on back-to-back days — were extra-inning ties. What are the odds of that? Indeed, how many times has big-league baseball even seen such a freak occurrence? (A foreshadowing, perhaps, of all the deadlocks George would have to deal with in the pre-modern NFL. His 1932 championship team, let’s not forget, posted a 7-1-6 record.)

5-12-19Unfortunately, George’s fourth game was worse than his third — and he didn’t have Walter Johnson to blame it on (only the less remembered Jim Shaw). As the Times put it: “Halas, the gob from Great Lakes, played in right field, and, as he struck out three times, it was taken for granted that his name is pronounced to rhyme with alas.”

He ended up going 0 for 4 — and in the late innings another rookie was sent up to bat for him. The pinch hitter, little known at the time, was none other than Lefty O’Doul, who was making just his second major-league plate appearance. O’Doul’s career got off to a slow start — the Yankees were trying to develop him as a pitcher — but a decade later with the Phillies he would bat .398, rack up 254 hits and come in second in the National League Most Valuable Player voting. So even when George got replaced in the lineup, it wasn’t by some nameless schmo, it was by a guy who almost joined the hallowed .400 Club.

(He also might have learned a few things from his manager that day about How To File A Complaint. In the ninth inning there was a dispute about a call at the plate, and Huggins got tossed when he stormed out of the dugout “and punctuated his oration by pounding his hands on the umpire’s chest protector,” the Times said. That was pretty much how Halas dealt with NFL officials — and I’m exaggerating only slightly.)

At this point Halas was 2 for 17 with six strikeouts, which caused Huggins to bench him. The only action he saw the next seven weeks was as a pinch hitter or late-game fill-in. (Final numbers: 22 at bats, 2 singles, .091 average.) The highlight — historically speaking, that is — was probably when the Yankees were in Chicago, his hometown, and he got to bat against Eddie Cicotte. Cicotte, of course, was one of the eight White Sox banned from baseball for fixing the 1919 World Series. (He whiffed George on three pitches.)

In early July the Yankees sent Halas to the St. Paul Saints, their top farm club. He finished the season with them, batting .274 in 39 games with just three extra-base hits. In the years that followed, a myth took root — one that George seems to have perpetuated — that a hip injury dashed his big-league dreams. When he died in 1983, The Associated Press reported:

In his 12th major-league game, Halas suffered a severe hip injury as he slid into third on a triple. . . .

“It was probably the biggest break in my life,” [Halas] said. “Not too long after that the Yankees acquired a guy named Babe Ruth to play right field.”

The Ruth part is right; the Red Sox sold him to the Yankees at the end of the year. But as the statistics show, Halas never hit any triples in the majors. He did get hurt, though. In his autobiography, Halas, he claims it happened when he tripled against the Dodgers’ Rube Marquard in a spring training game. “I slid in hard,” he writes. “I was safe but when I stood, my hip was painful. I managed to get home on a long drive, but every step hurt. The trainer thought I had a charley horse.”

Halas was still slowed by the injury when the Yankees went to Cleveland in mid-May. So he asked Huggins if it would be OK if he took a quick trip to Youngstown, Ohio, to get checked out by Bonesetter Reese, “a man with no formal training but a genius in treating injuries.” (To read more about this miracle man, click here.) George had gone to Reese a couple of times when he was at the University of Illinois and gotten instant results. More from Halas’ book:

Huggins approved another visit to this marvelous man. I caught the 5:30 a.m. electric train to Youngstown, an hour and a half away. I found a line of people stretching down the block, but Bonesetter had a soft spot in his heart for athletes and took me right in.

I told him my story.

“Get on the table,” he said. “Lie on your face.”

He felt my derrière. “When you slid into third base,” he said, “you twisted your hip bone. It is pressing on a nerve.”

He pushed his steely fingers deep into my hip, clasped the bone and gave it a sharp twist. The pain vanished.

I dashed out of his office, down to the street to the station and, in Cleveland, back to the ballpark. In the afternoon I raced around like a wild horse.

Maybe so, but he didn’t play again for several more games — until the aforementioned cameo appearance in Chicago. Still, the reason he chose football over baseball likely came down to money rather than injury. We’re talking, after all, about a player who returned a fumble 98 yards for a touchdown in 1923, an NFL record that stood for 49 years. His hip couldn’t have been that bad.

Besides, in Halas, he says St. Paul wanted him back the next season, “but at a reduced salary. I objected.” A short time later, A.G. Staley, the starch magnate, made him a much more enticing offer: Come work for my company in Decatur, Ill., and put together a football team that will help promote my product.

You know the rest. The Staleys became the Bears, the Bears became the Monsters of the Midway . . . and over the years, George’s hip injury got progressively worse until it ended his baseball career.

FYI: In case you’re wondering — and it would be perfectly understandable if you were — this isn’t George Halas Month at Pro Football Daly. It’s just that, sometimes, one post leads to another . . . and another.

Added treat: The play-by-play of Johnson’s “perfect game”-within-a-game against Halas’ Yankees (courtesy of the Brooklyn Eagle).Johnson's perfect game

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 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?