BENNY FRIEDMAN would have been 100 years old when he was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. Why did it take so long for the man who legitimized the forward pass in pro football to make it to Canton? In Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football, first-time author (and former litigator) Murray Greenberg offers possible explanations: Friedman's egotism, his public disagreement with the NFL players' association in 1970 over pension benefits and his outspoken incredulity at the Hall's omission. In '76 The New York Times ran a letter from Friedman saying, "My exploits from 1927 through 1931 and my record put me on a par with or above many who are in the Hall now."
Greenberg's rich, well-researched narrative chronicles the quarterback's rise from bench warmer to All-America at Michigan, his impact on the fledgling NFL and his journey from beloved Jewish icon to a forgotten star who took his own life in 1982, three years after a blood clot forced doctors to amputate his left leg. Born in Cleveland to Russian, Orthodox Jews who initially objected to his playing a violent sport, Friedman was followed closely in the Jewish press and was regarded, as the magazine American Hebrew put it, "[as] symbolic of more widespread tolerance in undergraduate life."
Friedman's skills were so dazzling as a rookie with the Detroit Wolverines in 1928—a year in which he led the NFL in passing and rushing, a feat not matched before or since—that New York Giants owner Tim Mara bought the Detroit franchise to secure Friedman's contract. It paid off: Friedman's 20 touchdown passes in '29 were more than three times as many as any other player's, and his air-first style lured fans. That moved the NFL to alter rules to favor passing and to introduce a slimmer, easier-to-throw ball.
In 1970 Red Grange suggested that had Friedman played under more modern rules, "he'd probably be the greatest passer who ever lived." Says Greenberg, "I look at this book as the rediscovery of a great American innovator."
NEW YORK TIMES CO./GETTY IMAGES (GRANGE AND FRIEDMAN)
PEERLESS PEER Grange, left, placed Friedman among the greatest.