By Mark Kriegel. Viking. 512 pp. $27.95 Until recently biographies of sports figures were written primarily for adolescents, or adults suffering from arrested adolescence. With two notable exceptions -- Robert Creamer's biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel -- they were brief, worshipful and unfailingly discreet. The "heroes" about whom they were written never swore, never whored and always played fair; they were Ragged Dick in sweatpants, All-American boys, Dink Stover at Yale and Tom Brown at Oxford.
Then, four years ago, Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life was published. Its prose was execrable -- showy, self-indulgent, marginally grammatical -- but it sure delivered the goods: The "hero" was revealed as a lout, the details of his crummy, money-grubbing life laid out for all the world to see. Following in Cramer's footsteps, Leigh Montville published Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero earlier this year; once again, the "hero" turned out to be decidedly unheroic, especially in his treatment of his wives and his children.
Now we have Mark Kriegel's Namath. It is not quite as elephantine as Cramer's and Montville's books and not quite as badly written, but it's cut from the same cloth. Though Kriegel finds things about Joe Namath to like and even to admire, and though he somehow manages to keep "hero" out of his subtitle, at its core this is another exercise in balloon-puncturing. To be sure, plenty of puncturing took place in the press during Namath's career as quarterback of the New York Jets, and Namath himself never made any secret of his boozing, his womanizing or his gambling, but Kriegel brings it all together in one big, sordid lump. At times it makes for modestly amusing reading, but it is rarely pleasant.
Full disclosure is in order. For about a decade beginning in the fall of 1962, I was an ardent fan of the New York Jets. I was at the Polo Grounds for the very first game they played as the Jets (they had previously been the Titans), and I rejoiced when, three years later, they signed Namath at the end of his remarkable career at the University of Alabama. When, four years after that, Namath made good on his "guarantee" that the Jets of the lowly American Football League would beat the Baltimore Colts of the mighty National Football League in the Super Bowl, I was ecstatic. I celebrated for days in a style of which the bibulous Namath surely would have approved.
To this day I retain a fondness for Namath and thus am pleased to find the reasons for it validated in certain ways in Kriegel's account. It may be a bit over the top to say, as he does, that Namath matured into "a magnificent demonstration of virtues associated with masculinity: gallantry, strength, stoicism, confidence," but on the playing field Namath indeed displayed all of those qualities at one time or another, and one of them -- stoicism -- almost constantly. In football terms if not all others, he possessed "unusual intelligence," with a "genius for football [that] was as much mental as physical." Within his own family and among his circle of friends, he was (and still is) notable for generosity and loyalty, and when, well into his forties, he at last became a father, he turned out to be attentive and loving.
All in all not a bad guy, so why does one come to the end of Kriegel's biography more in sorrow than in celebration? Because the portrait he draws is of a man who won one Famous Victory but lost in a lot of more important ways. Despite that great win over the Colts, and despite rolling up enough statistics to find his way into the Football Hall of Fame, Namath really didn't have a great professional career. He mostly played for losing teams -- the Jets went to the playoffs only once after the 1968 season, and were defeated -- he was regarded with suspicion and resentment by many of his teammates, and he lost a lot of playing time because of his fragile right knee. He may well have been the most naturally gifted quarterback ever to play the game, but he went only part of the way to fulfilling his gifts, and one rather suspects he knows that.
As to the personal stuff, the womanizing was no big deal; it happened before he was married, it doesn't seem to have hurt anybody, and the women -- many of whom pursued him aggressively -- seem to have enjoyed their brushes with sports-page immortality. But the boozing was another matter; Kriegel leaves no doubt that it was far more serious than amusing, that it probably affected his playing -- he occasionally boasted about starting games half or fully loaded -- and led to embarrassing public incidents, such as the one late last year in which he told Suzy Kolber of ESPN that "I want to kiss you" while on air. His marriage ended unhappily, at his wife's initiative, and he became a part-time father to the two daughters he loves so much. Now, in his early sixties, he travels the Joe Louis circuit, a has-been jock picking up gigs as a TV pitchman or an actor on the straw-hat trail.
Scott Fitzgerald overstated the case when he said that there are no second acts in American lives, but that's often true of American sporting lives, especially the lives of stars and superstars. What do you do when you're still in your thirties and your best days are behind you? For every Whizzer White or Roger Staubach -- great athletes who went on to successful and presumably fulfilling post-football careers -- there are all too many who never get over the tumult and the shouting, who desperately spin their wheels but never get a grip on the road to real-world adulthood. Namath, a good guy in so many respects, gives every evidence of being one of these.
That is a pity, but at least the videotapes are still around to remind us how extraordinary a player he was, and Kriegel adds to the record with a thorough -- too thorough, unless you go for game-by-game replays -- recapitulation of his career. He gives us Namath the boy, in the tough western Pennsylvania steel-mill town called Beaver Falls, "the most competitive kid I ever met," according to a childhood friend. He gives us Namath in Alabama in the early '60s, appalled by the segregation of everything from restaurants to water fountains but learning how to play football from the irascible, domineering coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Kriegel recreates that exciting time from the founding of the AFL in 1959 to its merger with the NFL in 1970, a victory for the AFL and one for which Namath was in great measure responsible. The $427,000 contract he signed with the Jets in 1965 had shown the NFL that the AFL was a serious competitor and, once other players began commanding similar contracts, forced the smug, conservative NFL to capitulate. The Super Bowl victory to which he led the Jets in 1969 -- followed by another AFL win, by the Kansas City Chiefs, the next year -- left no doubt that the upstarts could play ball with the old guard, and opened the way for the phenomenal success that the merged and further expanded NFL has enjoyed ever since.
Namath did all that and more. He was Broadway Joe: pub crawler, bon vivant, swinger. He was a hustler and a con man and a gambler, though in the last capacity he seems to have skirted the pitfalls into which Pete Rose tumbled. He brought show biz to football and ultimately to all professional sports. Where sports and American popular culture intersect he didn't play as large a role as, say, Jim Thorpe or Babe Ruth or Arnold Palmer or Michael Jordan, but his influence was significant and lasting. Whether this was for good or ill certainly can be debated, but one thing is certain: When he was on his game, he was something else. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.