I am a sporadic sports fan — at best — these days, and have only ever had a real passion for college football and basketball, and never much tolerance for professional sports (the pay scale seems to me problematic, the kvetching by players is more than I can take, and then there's that whole doping thing). So when a book about a forgotten Jewish football star named Benny Friedman crossed my desk, I didn't think it was so unusual that I hadn't heard of him. But because author Murray Greenberg makes some fairly grand claims about his subject in his Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football, recently published by Public Affairs, I thought I'd ask around first and do some googling as well.
Avid Jewish sports fans knew the name, though they were a bit skeptical about crediting him with as much as Greenberg does. When I consulted Google, though, I found a number of entries, all of which noted that in 2005 Friedman was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So I guess the guy had been pretty much misplaced, and Greenberg was lucky to take up the subject when he did and get himself a book contract. (A former litigator, Greenberg seems to have fled the halls of justice for a journalistic career.)
Right in the opening pages, Greenberg starts flinging around superlatives that some may find hyperbolic. He states that when Friedman was at the University of Michigan, the "uniquely talented" quarterback "startled defenses with his spectacular passes. At that time, defenses stacked their players at the line of scrimmage to smother the run, all but ignoring the threat of a pass. But Friedman's passes came on any down and from anywhere on the field. Then Benny went to the nascent NFL — where fan interest and press coverage were scant in the shadow of the sporting behemoth called college football — and stunned the pros. Coaches devised formations to thwart Benny's passing attack; defenders were forced to play off the line and spread the field. 'Benny Friedman was responsible for changing the entire concept of defense,' insisted the great [Red] Grange, Benny's frequent rival."
Once Friedman got into the pro game, Greenberg notes, the football was slimmed down, which made it easier to throw, and, in one fell swoop, the rules that discouraged a passing game were eliminated. Writes Greenberg: "Thus did Benny Friedman help launch football toward the passing-dominated modern era during which the NFL became an American obsession. He revolutionized his sport, much as Babe Ruth (Benny's Roaring Twenties contemporary) revolutionized baseball with his towering home runs and Bobby Orr revolutionized hockey by popularizing the 'offensive defenseman.' "
Greenberg also makes claims for his subject as a beacon of hope for American Jews in an era of increasing anti-Semitism. "The handsome son of working-class Orthodox Russian immigrants was in his day as inspirational to American Jews as were the two most celebrated Jewish-American athletes, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. He was hugely popular in his prime and the highest-paid footballer of his day: the New York Giants paid him $10,000 a season when most players were lucky to make $150 a game."
More Than Just a Braggart?
The author makes it clear that he has no idea how such a dominant figure became "largely forgotten" by the end of the 20th century. He does suggest that Friedman's personality might have had something to do with it.
"He had an ego nearly equal to his prodigious talent," writes Greenberg, "and such a degree of self-appreciation is generally not one's best friend. His efforts later in life to remind others of his greatness seemed only to hasten, and deepen, the fading of his star. In 1982, sick and anguished and feeling forgotten, he took his own life."
Friedman's suicide adds a note of pathos and complexity to a man who might just have been assumed to be a braggart. Greenberg admits that his subject had otherworldly talents, but they were also beset by his considerable "human frailties." And yet, whenever we might question the biographer's assessment of his subject, he quotes contemporaries who saw Friedman play — especially several storied sports writers — who go on to describe the footballer as something stellar indeed.
Because of my own predilections for amateur sports — and because the latter portion of Friedman life was a fairly sad ordeal marked by monstrous ego, failing health and continued recriminations about his lack of status (luckily the author keeps all of it brief) — I prefer the early sections of the book, where Friedman is trying to prove himself in high school, especially, and on into college, and even in his early years in the nascent NFL. As always, it's far more fun to watch people claw their way to the top than see how discomfited they are when they have to deal with success or the inevitable lack of the spotlight.
Friedman's is a somewhat unusual Jewish story, mostly because of its locale. This is not a West or East Coast story, but one that occurred in the heart of the Midwest. According to the author, Friedman's father was one of any number of Orthodox Jews who settled in the Jewish section of Cleveland known as Woodland. He'd come to the United States from Russia in 1890 and found work in the city's garment district. He also found himself a wife, another Russian immigrant, who'd arrived in America in 1894. The couple had six children: two daughters, Betty and Florence, and sons Harry, Jerry, Sydney, and Benjamin.
Friedman's parents, like most immigrants of the period, knew nothing about football — and wanted to keep it that way, the author imagines, probably because of the game's innate violence. "The seemingly random slamming of bodies into the ground or into one another didn't resonate with their notions of appropriate leisure-time pursuits. Sometimes — too many times — the violence of the sport would take a life. Eighteen men died from football-related injuries the year Benjamin was born. Benny's parents and their contemporaries were in no rush to embrace such mayhem."
The children of these immigrants were another story altogether. In the school system, they were exposed to many secular endeavors; and when it came to sports they were enticed, and wanted to get involved and test themselves.
According to Greenberg, "The growing popularity of football in turn-of-the-century Cleveland coincided with the explosive growth of the city's Jewish population. Local press coverage of the football-crazed Ivy League helped the sport gain traction in the city by the lake. Cleveland high schools began fielding teams. Cleveland schoolboys began reading about the teams' exploits in the sports sections of local papers. If you were a kid at East High or East Tech or Central High or the University School or other high schools comprising the Athletic Senate, a league organized by Cleveland school administrators, playing football had become a very cool thing to do."
For Jewish kids, says Greenberg, playing football had an added cachet. It was a great way to fit in, an effective antidote to stereotypical thinking and even helped to cut down on anti-Semitism.
But when Friedman entered East Tech High, he had trouble convincing coach Sam Willaman to take him on the team. Willaman couldn't get past Friedman's lack of size; the coach's players, who had "steamrolled" their way to the Cleveland city championship, were known for their bulk. Because he was "so small," Friedman was advised by the coach to go to Glenville High if he wanted to play football.
As Greenberg notes, Willaman may have thought steering the young Jewish player to the far weaker team was good for both of them, but, according to the author, Willaman had "just made the biggest mistake of his coaching life. Many years later, a high-school basketball coach in North Carolina would make a similar mistake, cutting a sophomore who was 'too small' to play. The boy's name was Michael Jordan." On Glenville's team, Friedman took off, and his scrappy play led him on to Michigan and beyond.