Benny Friedman '27, the 'Babe Ruth of Football,' may finally get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
By Willard Manus
What would pro football be like today without its dynamic passers, quarterbacks such as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and ex-Wolverine Tom Brady '00? Following in the footsteps of sharpshooters like Johnny Unitas, John Elway and Dan Marino, these players are responsible for much of the game's popularity and excitement, its swift pace and aerial razzle-dazzle.
Forgotten in all the attention the passing game has received in the past 50 years is the man who invented modern aerial strategy, Benjamin (Benny) Friedman '27.
Friedman, born in 1905 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Cleveland, grew up playing high school football, basketball and baseball. He was the fourth of six children reared by his Russian-immigrant parents, Louis and Mamie Atlevonik Friedman. His father worked as a furrier and a tailor, while his mother worked at home bringing up the children.
When Benny Friedman went out for football as a sophomore at Cleveland's East Tech High, the coach cut him after two weeks of pre-season practice. His family moved shortly thereafter, and in 1921 he made the varsity at Cleveland's Glenville High.
During his senior year, Friedman led Glenville to a 13-0 victory in the 1922 city championship game, defeating his former school, East Tech. And during the regular season Friedman led his squad to a 31-0 white wash of East Tech, whose coach had deemed him too small to play.
Glenville went on to lay claim to the mythical national high school championship by defeating suburban Chicago's Oak Park High in a post-season game. College recruiters flocked to Cleveland to meet Friedman. Penn State had the inside track, but again coaches shied away, thinking at 5' 8" and 170 pounds, he was too small.
A group of Michigan supporters suggested a visit to Ann Arbor, and Friedman entered U-M in the fall of 1923. To earn spending money, he played drums in a Chinese restaurant, worked as a theater ticket-taker and as a clerk in the University bookstore.
By the time he left U-M, the 5' 10", 175-pound Friedman not only had led his team through two near-perfect seasons and twice been honored as an All-American but had revolutionized the gridiron game.
From its 19th century beginning and into the 1920s, football did not feature the forward pass as a major offensive weapon. The ball was a heavy, melon-shaped thing designed for lugging and kicking, not tossing. The rules worked against the forward pass: The passer had to stand at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and if he threw two consecutive incompletions, his team was penalized. An incomplete pass in the opposition's end zone resulted in the ball being forfeited. Because passing was considered a sissyish maneuver, roughing the passer was not only legal but encouraged. The game was about as compelling to watch as a Greco-Roman wrestling match.
Friedman changed all that. As he said in his 1931 book The Passing Game, during his freshman year at U-M he prepared to improve the aerial attack because "if Michigan were to succeed in football, she would have to depend on the forward pass."
So Friedman began developing his fingers, wrists and hands. Following the lead of neophyte piano players, he would carry a tennis ball or handball wherever he went, constantly gripping and releasing it. He'd also spread his hand over railings and armrests, squeezing and stretching with all his might, trying to increase the size of his fingers, a fraction at a time. "It all helped," he said. "Before I finished my freshman term I was able to wrap my hand around a football and grip it as firmly as a pitcher grips a baseball."
Because his youthful ambition had been "to become the world's champion strong man," Friedman had lifted weights and exercised hard as a kid, giving him physical attributes that later served him well on the gridiron. "To be a successful forward passer you must have sturdy forearms and shoulders. To stand the physical gaff of four periods of football, you must be in tip top physical condition and your legs, above everything else, must be strong."
`Like picking grapefruit from a tree'
In this fashion, Friedman could be remarkably accurate. His short passes were thrown hard, but on medium and long tosses he threw high and soft, so that the ball would drop from its highest arc into the receiver's hands with a spin that was easy to catch. "When a Friedman pass reaches the receiver it has gone its route," sportswriter Paul Gallico declared. "The ball is practically dead. The receiver has merely to reach up and take hold of it like picking a grapefruit off a tree. That is Benny's secret, and that is why so many of his passes are completed. He is the greatest forward passer in the history of the game."
Friedman also attributed his good fortune to his family's faith in Judaism. "On the wall at home was a pushke [charity box]," he said. "I noticed when I was a high school player mother would go over after serving me lunch and drop some coins in the box. I would see her lips moving as though she was saying a prayer. I asked what she was doing and she said she was protecting me by putting 18 cents in the pushke. I asked why. She told me that 18 in Hebrew stands for chai, which means life.… I never was hurt and throughout my high school, college and pro career mother continued her vigil. I never questioned whether it was my ability that kept me aloof from injury. I let it go that it was chai working for me."
Despite his success and renown, Friedman intended to study law after graduating with a BA in literature, but when his father fell ill and could not work, Friedman decided to earn some quick money by turning pro.
Louis Friedman certainly hadn't pushed Benny in that direction. Like most immigrant parents, especially those born in an East European ghetto, Louis had very little interest in football and did not see his first game until 1926, when Michigan took on Ohio State before a full house. Looking around at the tens of thousands of spectators, he asked, "Who gets all this money?" It was explained that the two universities split the gate receipts.
Just then two mammoth Ohio State linemen attacked Benny as he was throwing the ball, knocking him dizzy. Time was called and the Michigan trainer came in and gave Benny a whiff of smelling salts. Benny got up woozily and slipped his leather helmet back on.
"The players, they get nothing?" Mr. Friedman asked. Not a dime, he was told.
"For this my Benny went to college?" Mr. Friedman cried incredulously.
A passer, kicker, runner and blocker
Numerous professional teams wanted the talented Benny Friedman. ("He was the complete player as a passer, kicker, runner and blocker," said sportswriter Grantland Rice), but he signed with the Cleveland Bulldogs because they played in his hometown.
Pro football in the 1920s and '30s was anything but the highly popular and successful sport it is today. As the famed runner Red (The Galloping Ghost) Grange said, "Outside of your franchise towns the people hardly knew anything about pro ball. You'd get back into the hinterlands and tell them that pro football was a good game, that the pros blocked hard and tackled hard, and they'd laugh at you. A US Senator took me to the White House and introduced me to Calvin Coolidge and said, `Mr. President, I want you to meet Red Grange. He's with the Chicago Bears.' I remember Calvin Coolidge's reply very plainly. He said, `Well, Mr. Grange, I'm glad to meet you. I have always liked animal acts.'"
After Friedman's first year the Bulldogs moved to Detroit and changed their name to the Wolverines after Friedman's team at Michigan. In his first two pro seasons, Friedman became a star attraction. Still throwing that big blob of a ball, he completed passes from all over the field and, as the Chicago Tribune said, "ran with the kind of reckless, knock-them-down abandon that never fails to excite a crowd. As far as football goes Friedman has IT and is IT."
Tim Mara, owner of the Giants (and a bookmaker), knew a good thing when he saw one. The Giants, like most barnstorming pro teams in those days, had lost money every year. Having Friedman on his team, a Jewish quarterback in a largely Jewish city, was the key to turning his fortunes around. Trouble was, the Wolverines would not sell or trade Friedman. Mara's solution was to buy the entire Wolverines franchise and pay Friedman $10,000 a year, an unheard-of sum in those days when most players earned $100 a game.
In 1928, the year before Friedman joined the Giants, the team lost $54,000. In 1929, the first year he was with them, the Giants earned $8,500. Next year, profits soared to $23,000 and the year after that $35,000. Mind you, this was in the middle of the Depression.
The NFL kept few records in those days. Sports historians have had to rely on newspaper accounts and other sources to compile reasonably accurate statistics for the years Friedman spent in the league (1927—33). These statistics show that in those six years, the second-ranked passers, year by year, threw for aggregate totals of 3,770 yards and 27 touchdowns. Friedman, however, passed for at least 5,653 yards (50 per- cent more than the runners-up) and 55 touchdowns (more than twice as many).
As Stephen Fox comments, "His nearest peers were barely visible in the distance. Friedman easily passed for more than 1,500 yards in a season; even under the soon-liberalized passing rules, no other NFL quarterback managed it until 1942. He threw three touchdowns passes in a quarter, five in a game, 20 in a season: all records, probably, that outlived his era. In 1933, his final season, he played less but still completed 53 percent of his passes.... And today he is mostly unknown, a phantom with missing numbers."
He wanted a piece of the Giants
In 1931, Friedman went to Mara and asked for an opportunity to invest in the team, but Mara said he was keeping it all for his sons. Feeling wronged, Friedman decided to move along. Bill Dwyer, owner of football's Brooklyn Dodgers, had already approached him to quarterback and coach the Dodgers, and Freidman agreed in 1932. Never happy with the Dodgers, Friedman accepted Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's request that he coach the City College of New York's team after the 1933 season. "I didn't know pro football was going to progress as much as it did," Friedman said. "If I had, I might have stayed in."
Friedman enjoyed his nine years at CCNY, however, taking a perennially losing football program and turning it around on a salary of $4,500 a year. "It was quite a job," he recalled later, "because few of the candidates had ever played football. Many boys needed a good meal."
Friedman left CCNY when WWII broke out, joining the Navy as a lieutenant commander. He served aboard an aircraft carrier and then as backfield coach at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. After the war, Friedman accepted an offer to become athletic director and football coach at Brandeis, the secular Jewish university in Waltham, Mass. Friedman's challenge was to build a sports program from scratch at the fledgling school. By 1950, he was able to field a freshman football team that held its own against such major schools as Harvard, Boston College and Boston University.
In spring 1960, Friedman took another hard blow when Brandeis dropped intercollegiate football. He stayed on as athletic director for two more years, then resigned in 1963.
Seven years later, Friedman fought and lost another bitter battle, this one with the NFL. The league that Friedman had revolutionized with his innovative passing game—a league that in 1932 not only tossed out all its restrictions against passing but changed the shape of the ball to make passing easier and more accurate—refused to include pre-1958 players in the pension benefits negotiated with team owners.
Accusing the league and its players of "brashness and arrogance beyond belief," Friedman pointed out that "there's no reason why we pioneers shouldn't benefit too."
The NFL paid Friedman back by refusing year in and year out to elect him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Friedman, a two-time All-American, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the man Paul Gallico called "The Babe Ruth of Football," was denied its highest honor by the game he helped make what it is today. Nor was he ever offered a coaching job.
A depressed Benny Friedman committed suicide in 1982, at the age of 76. Suffering from diabetes, he'd had a leg amputated four years earlier. In the note he left behind, he said he didn't want to end up as "the old man on the park bench."
Freelancer Willard Manus of Los Angeles is an author whose works include the comic novels Mott the Hoople and The Pigskin Rabbi.