Anybody who skips Richard Whittingham's What a Game They Played (Harper & Row, $15.95)—anybody who doesn't care to sit down with Red Grange, Johnny Blood, Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson and others like them and listen to their stories of the early days of pro football—just about has to be un-American. Whittingham turned on the tape recorder for 17 oldtime players and Wellington Mara—whose bookmaker father, Tim, paid either $500 or $2,500 for the New York Giants franchise—and the result is pure pleasure, nostalgic if you're an old crock yourself, instructive as well as entertaining if you're under 40. Between full chapters given over to each player's reminiscences, Whittingham has included short takes by other football greats—they're equally good.
One striking aspect of the sporting scene 60-odd years ago is the diversity of the routes by which kids became professional athletes. Blood (born Johnny McNally) never played football in high school in New Richmond, Wis. He went AWOL from River Falls (Wis.) Normal and St. John's (of Collegeville, Minn.) and was kicked out of Notre Dame. But for 15 years he was one of the NFL's best runners and pass catchers; he was named All-Pro in 1931, the team's third consecutive championship season, and is a charter member of the Hall of Fame. By contrast, Mel Hein had played six years of organized football in Bellingham, Wash, by the time he finished high school. What he really wanted to do was pull an oar at the University of Washington. Washington offered no scholarships for crew, and when the football coach at Washington State made Hein an offer, he ended up at Pullman. Hein played in the '31 Rose Bowl and was the best center—on offense and defense—in the NFL for more than a decade. He, too, is a charter Famer.
Blood was working for a newspaper in Minneapolis and still answering to the name McNally when he and a friend, Ralph Hanson, heard they could pick up extra money by playing football for a semipro team in a city league. They decided to try out under fake names, to protect their amateur standing—in case Notre Dame agreed to take McNally back someday—and headed over to the team's practice field on McNally's motorcycle. "On the way there," he says, "we passed a theater on Hennepin Avenue, and up on the marquee I saw the name of the movie that was playing, Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino. Ralph was behind me on the motorcycle, and I turned my head and shouted, 'That's it. I'll be Blood and you be Sand.'" McNally/Blood made the team, but it was a few years before he made football history with the Packers and five other NFL teams.
From this book you'll learn all kinds of strange and wonderful things:
•Curly Lambeau, concluding his account of the first season in Green Bay (1919), "We put the take from each gate into a bag and stowed it in a safe. At the end of the season we split the pot. We each got sixteen dollars and fifty cents."
•Red Grange on a visit to Washington, D.C.: "The senator from Illinois, McKinley I believe it was, arranged for us to meet the President, Calvin Coolidge. We were taken in and I was there with George Halas. The senator introduced me as 'Red Grange, who plays with the Bears.' Coolidge shook my hand and said, 'Nice to meet you, young man. I've always liked animal acts.' "
•Don Hutson was the first Eagle Scout ever in the state of Arkansas.
•Sammy Baugh: "When all the teams started using blacks, I think that's when football picked up a great deal...."
•Benny Friedman, at a cocktail party in New York in the '30s, talking to a lady who said she hated violent sports like football but had allowed her son to play soccer and now regretted it because he was continually getting kicked in the shins: "Don't worry. Tell him to do like the pro football players do. Tape copies of Liberty magazine over them to act as shinguards." "Mr. Friedman," she said, "we don't subscribe to Liberty. Do you think The New Yorker would do?"
•Jimmy Conzelman: "In 1925, Joe Carr, the head of the NFL, asked me to bring pro football to Detroit. He said the franchise fee was a thousand dollars, but he'd let me have Detroit for fifty.... I said fine."
The price of franchises has gone up a bit since 1925, but these memories are already priceless.