By James Trefil,
who is Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football
By Murray Greenberg
Public Affairs. 358 pp. $26.95
Ever notice that when intellectuals want to establish their credibility as men of the people, they write about baseball? They never write about football, even though, as journalist Murray Greenberg says in this engaging book, it is "the most American of American games." I guess football is just too blue-collar, too violent, too . . . masculine for them.
Fortunately, we are starting to see serious books that look at the game for what it is, a vital part of American culture. In "Passing Game," Greenberg wants to revive the reputation of a man who was famous in his time but whose name is all but forgotten. Benny Friedman was a tough Jewish kid from an immigrant neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side. After earning All-American honors at Michigan, he joined the nascent National Football League as a member of the now-defunct Cleveland Bulldogs and went on to play with the New York Giants. Friedman's contribution to the game was to bring the forward pass to prominence as an offensive weapon, paving the way for later greats, such as the Redskins' Sammy Baugh.
Some background: At the turn of the 20th century, football was a college sport. It was a brutal game, basically gangs of men trying to run over each other. In 1905, no fewer than 18 college students died on the nation's gridirons. President Theodore Roosevelt decided he had to intervene, and his pressure resulted in major changes in the rules, including, for the first time, the legalization of the forward pass -- the idea was that if defensive players had to hang back in case a pass was thrown, they wouldn't be piling up on the runners.
Thus, when young Benny Friedman entered the University of Michigan in the 1920s, the game was ready to be opened up. Friedman had been a bodybuilder and had paid special attention to strengthening his hands and forearms. Thus, he was ideally suited to throw a football, which in those days was shaped more like a watermelon than today's sleek, aerodynamic missile. He rode the passing game to fame and headlines in college and the professional leagues, finishing up his career as the coach at Brandeis University.
And then, strangely enough, he was forgotten. Greenberg's book is littered with names that will be instantly recognizable to any football buff: Red Grange, Knute Rockne, George Halas. Why isn't Friedman included in this roster of all-time greats?
Greenberg wrestles with this issue. The 1920s were the zenith of American anti-Semitism. Yet then, as now, Americans seemed to be able to come closer to their ideals on the football field than in real life. There were many Jewish football players and, in Greenberg's words, "If you could play -- Jewish or not -- there was a jersey for you." My favorite story to illustrate this point was a game against Minnesota in which Friedman helped his team to victory by intercepting the defense's signals, which were being called in Yiddish!
In the end, Greenberg suggests that it was Friedman's personality, rather than his religion or ethnicity, that impeded his acceptance by football fans. He was not, to put it mildly, a man who hid his light under a bushel. Reading the book, I began to think of him as an early version of Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens, an amazing athlete whose egocentrism and self-absorption simply turn people off. Other players -- Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, for example, and Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets -- seem able to connect with their public much more easily.
In any case, Friedman was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 2005, along with Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, another great quarterback. I wonder if Marino knew how much he owed to the scrappy kid from Cleveland.