What follows is very much a work in progress. But with the NFL situation what it is right now, I figured that I’d share what I have so far with you. Enjoy.
Athletes make millions of dollars today. Tom Brady makes $18 million dollars a year. Kobe Bryant makes $23 million. Alex Rodriguez makes $33 million. Some may complain that these stars are overpaid, but they split a pie with owners. As Chris Rock once said, “Shaq is rich. The guy who signs his check is wealthy.” No one pays to watch Jerry Jones, they pay to watch the Cowboys. The players should get a big piece of the pie. It wasn’t always this way. How did these big salaries come about? They once called the Philadelphia infield the “$100,000 infield” because $25,000 a man seemed like a gaudy sum 100 years ago. Not that these guys actually made that much back then.
Frank Baker Became Home Run Baker with two deep blasts to right field in the 1911 World Series. Home runs were rare those days and he hit them while on a national stage. Baker was the best American League third baseman before George Brett’s Royal reign from the Seventies to early Nineties. He was part of the Philadelphia Athletics $100,000 infield along with Stuffy McInnis at first, Eddie Collins at second, and Jack Barry at short. But the team broke up after 1914. Connie Mack couldn’t compete because of higher salaries caused by the outlaw Federal League.
Wild Bill Donovan was a turn of the century fastballer who mainly pitched for the Tigers. Like teammate Ty Cobb, he was also fast with his legs. Over his career, he stole 36 bases. That’s a record for any hurler who started his career after 1893. That’s when baseball moved the mound to the modern distance of 60’6″ and pitchers became more specialized. Donovan once threw over 200 pitches in a game on two day’s rest. It was September 30, 1907 at Philadelphia’s Columbia Park. The Tigers and A’s were battling for the pennant and were scheduled to play a doubleheader. Fans poured over the walls of the park into the field of play. There were two brass bands and other brought noisemakers.
After nine innings, the game was tied at 8. The teams traded runs in the 11th, but there was no end in sight. In the 14thy, Harry Davis hit a Donovan fastball to deep center. Sam Crawford was playing center that day (where was Cobb?) and went back to the rope holding back the crowd. Right then, a policeman in a bobby hat obscured Crawford’s view and the ball bounded into the crowd for a ground rule double.
Chaos erupted. Connie Mack argued with the umpires and a fight involving the two teams, fans, and umpires turned centerfield into a battlefield. Things eventually calmed down and the game went to the 17th tied 9-9. By then, it was two dark and the game was called. The Tigers would go on to Washington and clinch the pennant by beating the Senators and Walter Johnson.
After his career with Detroit wound down, Donovan managed the Yankees for three years. Like many managers of the day, he occasionally took to the field of combat. One of his teammates was Home Run Baker. Donovan later coached the Tigers for a season then managed the Phillies for part of 1921. He was set to manage Washington in 1924, when he perished in one of the most famous train wrecks of the time.
If Wild Bill Donovan and George Weiss didn’t switch berths on the 20th Century Limited back in December of 1923, Weiss might have been the one to die instead. A Hall of Fame career might have ended before it began for the future Yankee executive. The Senators weren’t hurt by the tragedy. They won the World Series anyways and finally got Walter Johnson a championship. The Big Train, as he was called, was the fastest and best pitcher of his time; although some folks still mourn the abridged career of Smoky Joe Wood and wonder what would have happened had he not injured himself.
Ty Cobb was a big celeb. He would hunt with Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway thought that Cobb was “the greatest of all ballplayers – and an absolute shit.” During the Great War, Cobb was in the Chemical Corps. Hemingway was an ambulance driver. Papa wasn’t the only writer who drove a meat wagon. So did Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was the man who turned pulp fiction into an art form. Raymond Chandler praised him for bringing murder back from the drawing room to the criminals. Hammett was an influence on Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlowe books. The Big Sleep was made into a movie and William Faulkner collaborated on the screenplay; as he did on the adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not.
Jack Dempsey worked in a shipyard during the Great War. Some folks thought that he was a slacker, but the Army turned him down. He was heavyweight champ from 1919 until 1926 when he faced Gene Tunney. The state of New York wouldn’t sanction the bout. Powers there wanted another challenger to fight Dempsey. Bert Bell caught wind of this while up in Saratoga for the annual racing meet and arranged for the fight to take place in his hometown of Philadelphia. John Ringling backed the fight financially. Bell was a scion of a Main Line family, went to Penn where he played football, but was more interested in sports than high society. Ringling was the circus magnate.
Twenty years earlier, he and his brothers bought the Barnum and Bailey Circus. They ran it while also running their own Ringling Brothers Circus. In 1919 they merged the two. The Depression hit Ringling hard and he died almost penniless, but his nephew John Ringling North would revive the show with acts like Gargantua the Great; a real life King Kong. Frank Buck, a famous hunter and animal collector, would introduce him.
Ty Cobb was a Tiger, but he finished his career with the 1928 Athletics. Connie Mack built a superteam again in the late Twenties. He had youngsters like Lefty Grove and Jimmy Foxx. He also had old-timers like Cobb and Tris Speaker. Both were available because of game fixing allegations that also tainted Smoky Joe Wood. Eddie Collins returned to Philadelphia after many years with the Chicago White Sox. He was on the infamous 1919 team, but the gentlemanly Collins was above suspicion. He suspected that something was afoot during the regular season and he wasn’t part of the Black Sox clique.
Chicago lost the 1919 World Series to Cincinnati 5-3. But the Reds weren’t shrinking violets. They had some good players including Edd Roush who later made the Hall of Fame. Greasy Neale led the team with ten hits in the World Series. He also had two walks, but was wiped off the bases four times when he got caught stealing. The reason the Black Sox scandal was so huge was that baseball truly became the National Pastime right around the end of the World War. Attendance took off in 1919. Gambling had been part of the game, but as it became mainstream, some puritans were offended. This was the generation that prohibited alcohol, too. Oddly enough, the war popularized boxing, which has a seedy reputation, as well as baseball. Fistics were part of Army basic training.
Collins was a preppie. Before his baseball career, he went to Columbia University. He played on the gridiron as well as the diamond. His backup quarterback was Wild Bill Donovan. This was a different one. The pitcher was already in the big leagues. This one went on to become a colonel in World War I and later went on to bigger things.
Some of the early NFL entrepreneurs came from the sporting crowd. Tim Mara was a bookie. George Preston Marshall would hang out with Bert Bell at Saratoga. Art Rooney bought and ran the Steelers with his winnings from the track. During the formative years, the league wasn’t competitive. The Giants and Redskins had a stranglehold on the East, while the Bears and Packers reigned in the West. Bell proposed a player draft to give cellar dwellers like his Eagles a chance. George Halas was conflicted. This would help him control player wages more easily, but it was a threat to Bear dominance. Eventually, he consented and the draft started in 1936. But most of the 81 collegians chosen in the draft didn’t sign. The pay was low for a college man. Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger didn’t sign. Neither did Gerald Ford or Bear Bryant. But the draft became a rousing success over the years and became the model for all sports leagues. Major league baseball eventually adopted it in the Sixties to combat growing bonuses for amateur players.
Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail. This attitude and an isolationist streak explain the lack of military and political intelligence in the United States prior to World War II. The country need to catch up and fast. Before the war, Wild Bill Donovan was a DA in western New York and a real life Elliot Ness when it came to enforcing Prohibition. FDR tabbed him to run the Office of Strategic Services (OSS.) The OSS had a number of notables on its payroll. Julia Child was a secretary in Asia. Actor Sterling Hayden operated in the Balkans. There were some folks with a baseball connection; polymythic Moe Berg, future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and Mike Burke.
Berg was a teammate of Eddie Collins. The White Sox ran out of catchers one day, so they erstwhile infielder volunteered to catch. He caught for over a decade; mainly in the bullpen. He was well read, knew a few languages, though not as well as he’d lead people to believe, and appeared on quiz shows. During the war, one of his missions was to assassinate Werner Heisenberg if he thought that the Germans were capable of building an atom bomb.
Meanwhile, life went on in the United States. The circus still travelled the rails from town to town, although tragedy took place in Hartford when the big top caught on fire and killed hundreds (my father and uncle were supposed to go see the show. Luckily, one of them got sick and they stayed home.) FDR famously gave baseball the green light to go on during the war. The NFL continued to play. Bert Bell hired Greasy Neale as head coach of the Eagles. He had been an football assistant at Yale while Smoky Joe Wood coached the baseball team. Neale was the first coach to use four defensive backs instead of three with his Eagle defense.
The most celebrated case in baseball’s legal history was Flood V. Kuhn. It went all the way to the Supreme Court. The defendant was Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The plaintiff, Curt Flood, was a centerfielder for the Saint Louis Cardinals who felt that his rights were violated when he was traded without his consent by that team to the Philadelphia Phillies. His attorney? Arthur Goldberg.
Gale Sayers and Bo Jackson were two of the most exciting running backs in NFL history. Joe Posnanski has the ranked 8th and 9th respectively. Jackson was a pop culture phenom with memorable Nike ads costarring Wayne Gretzky and Bo Diddley among others. Bo was also an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals. This was right after KC won their only World Title. George Brett was a mainstay on those Royals teams. In 1983, Steve Renko was a Royal. It was a return to his roots as he was a Kansas native and went to KU. Played football there. Renko was a quarterback and shared the backfield with Gale Sayers.
Bill Cosby wrote the intro to Sayers autobiography I Am Third. In it, Cosby said that there was a play in the Pro Bowl, where the elusive halfback split himself in two and left the half without the ball with the defender. He was a dominant player, albeit for a short period of time. Sayers scored six touchdowns in one game; a record that still stands in this higher scoring era. Sayers was a Bear when tough guy and bourbon legend Doug Atkins was on the team. Atkins was one of the first specialized edge rushers in football. He had been on the Bears long enough to be a teammate of George Blanda. Blanda had been around long enough that he played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky. Blanda is the epicenter of the pro football universe. The quarterback/placekicker had a 27-year career that neatly straddled the middle of NFL history. He went on to the Raiders where he was a teammate of Ben Davidson. Davidson was the first mustachioed football player and this was years before the Oakland A’s became the Mustache Gang. Blanda was later a special teammate of Ray Guy. Guy was still punting when Howie Long joined the team. And Long was a teammate of Bo Jackson.
Blanda was on the Raiders during the Heidi Game. The game was a turning point in AFL history. Oakland and the upstart Jets were powerhouses that year. New York was led by another Bear Bryant product, Joe Namath. Oakland’s comeback victory wasn’t seen by most of the country because NBC cut to a children’s movie. The ensuing torrent of complaints to the network showed how popular the AFL in particular and football in general had become. The Jets would get their revenge on the Raiders in the AFL title game and go on to upset the Colts in the Super Bowl. The courting of Joe Namath may have revolutionized sports forever. Because the AFL and NFL were competing for players football salaries went up. Before even taking a snap, Namath made close to half a million dollars. This showed athletes what they were worth on an open market. Baseball players at least had the chance to originally sign with whatever team they wanted (although that team owned them afterwards,) but they lost this right in the Sixties with the draft.
One of the bigger Renaissance men in baseball was Mike Burke. He was a veteran of the OSS and the CIA. Donovan recruited him directly. Before that, he was a football star at Penn. Afterwards, he worked for the Ringling Brothers. But that wasn’t enough of a circus, so he joined CBS. William Paley put Mike in charge of the New York Yankees after they bought the team.
It was The Sixties. Most people think of stuff like Vietnam or the Civil Rights movement or hippies when they think of that decade. But it was also the age of the holding company and I’m not talking about Janis Joplin. Conglomerates were a big thing on Wall Street in those days as companies would purchase other companies outside of their core competencies. CBS was no exception. They purchased the guitar maker Fender and the New York Yankees among other businesses.
Buy low; sell high is the investing mantra. But CBS got that wrong; waaaay wrong. They bought an aging team with no farm system right when it went into a tailspin. Then they sold out to George Steinbrenner not long before the team returned to glory. This era in Yankee history was typified by players like Joe Pepitone, Roger Repoz, Tom Thresh, and Jim “Bulldog” Bouton.
Bouton was kind of a flake; an outsider in the clubhouse. Although he once won twenty games in a season, he is best known for co-authoring Ball Four. The book was entered as evidence in the Flood V. Kuhn court case. What isn’t well known is that CBS turned it into a short-lived sitcom. Bouton was in it along with Ben Davidson. Davidson also appeared in the movie M*A*S*H. Elliot Gould established a working relation ship with Robert Altman in that movie, playing Trapper John. He’d go on to play a quirky Philip Marlowe in Altmnn’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Sterling Hayden played a Hemingwayesque writer named Roger Wade. Jim Bouton played Terry Lennox. Bouton appeared as a sportscaster on an early version of Eyewitness News. The Yankee, Pilot, Astro, and Brave also invented Big League Chew.
Bouton also co-wrote a book called Strike Zone with Elliot Asinoff. Before that, Asinoff wrote Eight Men Out about the Black Sox scandal. John Sayles adapted the book into a movie and had a bit part as Ring Lardner. Lardner was a Chicago sportswriter of the era. He also wrote stuff like You Know Me, Al and Alibi Ike. He had four sons, John, James, Ring Jr., and David. Incidentally, Hemingway was a fan and would use the pseudonym Ring Lardner Jr. when writing for his school’s paper. The real Ring Lardner Jr. wasn’t a Black Sock, but he was part of the Hollywood Ten. He was a screenwriter for four decades and adapted the book M*A*S*H for the big screen.
What are the odds that a one year major league franchise would have two actors in their midst? Pretty long, but there was another Pilot who went Hollywierd. Greg Goossen was on one of the early Mets squads. Once, he was coming back to the hotel after curfew and a bit schnockered. He ran into Casey Stengel, who was managing the Mets at the time. “Drunk again, Goossen,” said the septuagenarian skipper. Goossen replied, “Yeah, me too, Casey.” But he’s more famous as part of a Stengel quote. It goes something like “There’s Ed Kranepool, who is 20. In ten years he has a chance to be a star. And there’s Greg Goossen; in ten years he has a chance to be 30.”
The Mets traded Goossen to the Pilots and he played for them, the Brewers, and Senators before hanging up his spikes. Afterwards, he got a job as a stand-in for Gene Hackman in movies and ended up getting some bit parts as a result of this.
Larry Gelbart turned M*A*S*H into a TV show. Although not as good as the movie, it was great television until it jumped the shark when a number of cast members left. Frank Burns was a better character than Winchester, Trapper John was better than B.J. Hunnicut, and Col. Blake was better than Col. Potter (that last one is less of a blowout than the others.) Then Alan Alda got more creative control and got too preachy. But it was still better than most shows out there.
Alda’s father was an actor, too. Robert Alda got his start in vaudeville and burlesque. He later went on to stage and film. He’s perhaps best known for playing George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue. He also appeared in a wartime espionage thriller called Cloak and Dagger. This was a movie starring Gary Cooper and it was loosely based on Mike Burke’s exploits in the OSS during World War II. In fact, Burke acted as technical adviser on the film.
Circus life wasn’t what it used to be by the Fifties. Mike Burke went from spymaster to ringmaster because he knew the Ringling family. He had served with John Ringling North in the OSS. But trouble with the railroads and the Teamsters forced the family’s hand and they sold the show. The Feld brothers and Judge Roy Hofheinz purchased the operation. No longer would it be held under the big top. The circus was moved indoors to places like the Cow Palace in San Francisco and other arenas that were becoming more common in those days as open space was disappearing from the cities.
The Feld family had a Nixonian streak. They hired former CIA operatives to spy on investigative journalists and groups such as PETA. One of these was Clair George. George was an indictee in the Iran-Contra affair. Years before he served in Greece during the Metapolitefsi era; a time of transition as Athens changed from a military dictatorship to a democracy. One of his fellow agents at the time was Gust Avrakatos.
Avrakatos has been referred to as the blue-collar James Bond. He went from operating in Greece to being a player in Afghanistan. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed him in Charlie Wilson’s War. While George was originally from Beaver Falls, home of Joe Namath, Avrakatos was also a western Pennsylvania product. He hailed from Aliquippa. Many famous folks escaped this steeltown. One of them was Henry Mancini, but many were athletes like Doc Medich, Pistol Pete Maravich, and Tony Dorsett. Even today, folks such as Ty Law and Darrelle Revis come from there. Avrakatos was a high school classmate with one of the best; Mike Ditka.
Ditka was a Bear and teammate of Sayers and Atkins. He revolutionized the tight end position. While others played it before him, he was the first to become a prolific receiver as well as a blocker. He later became a coach and was the first to win a Super Bowl ring as player, assistant, and head coach. He fell from the Tom Landry coaching tree along with folks like Dan Reeves, but he was first coached by and later coached for George Halas.
Halas made football better. He introduced daily practice and film review. He placed assistants in the pressbox to act as spotters. He convinced Red Grange to play in the NFL and developed the T formation. As a player, back in 1923 he recovered a fumble at the 2 yard line and returned it all the way for a touchdown with the ball carrier in hot pursuit. This was a record that would stand until 1972. The ballcarrier was none other than Jim Thorpe. During WWI, Halas joined the Navy and was an ensign. The 1919 Rose Bowl was played between two service teams, as was the 1918 game. Halas played for Great Lakes Naval Training Station and was the MVP as they shut out marines from Mare Island 17-0.
This brings us back to the beginning. Before he helped start the NFL and change Sunday forever, Halas played right field for the 1919 New York Yankees. He was one of two Hall of Famers on that team. Also on that team was Home Run Baker.