- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

"Ninety percent of the players playing today don't know who the bleep I am," Bill Radovich once groused to me. "Not that they should. They don't know where they're getting all this free agency, where they got this and everything else."

Radovich was underestimating his own obscurity. It's a good bet 99.9 percent of NFL players couldn't tell you who Radovich is or rather, was. He died last week at 87 after a brief bout with cancer.

But "Rado," as he was called during his playing days, was a large figure in sports history and not just because he carried 260 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame. It was he who struck the first blow for pro athletes in their never-ending battle with the owners. In 1949 he sued the NFL on antitrust grounds, and nine years later, to the surprise of just about everybody, he won.

That opened the floodgates. Soon enough you had Curt Flood and John Mackey and players associations and strikes and free agency and arbitration and million-dollar salaries a sports world turned upside down. And it all began with Bill Radovich, the son of a Los Angeles butcher.

Radovich was a pretty fair lineman at Southern California, where he played under the legendary Howard Jones, and then for the Detroit Lions. In 1945, after returning from a three-year hitch in the Navy, he made all-NFL as a guard. (There was a funny story in the Detroit News that year about the Lions having three "iches" Radovich, tackle Emil Uremovich and back Buzz Trebotich. "If we only had Sinkwich, too," coach Gus Dorais was quoted as saying. "If we had Frankie [the league's 1944 MVP, who had gone into the service], I would figure Sunday's game with the Bears in the bag.")

Back in L.A. though, Radovich's father was having health problems, and Bill wanted to be closer to home to keep an eye on him and the family business. So he asked the Lions to trade him to the Rams, who had just moved to the West Coast from Cleveland. When they refused this perfectly reasonable request, he signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Conference, a league that was just starting up.

The NFL got its revenge two years later. After Radovich had accepted a player-coach job with the minor league San Francisco Clippers, the team was told it couldn't hire him. Why? The league's working agreement with the NFL prohibited it from signing, for five years, former NFL players who had run out on their contracts. (These were the days of the infamous reserve clause. Clubs considered players their permanent property until, of course, they disposed of them.)

Radovich had been blacklisted. But instead of gently fading away, he sued the NFL for $35,000, charging it with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. It took a lot of guts; after all, the Supreme Court had already ruled, in 1922, that major league baseball wasn't subject to antitrust laws. Why would pro football be treated any differently?

And sure enough, two lower courts applying that very logic refused to hear the case. But by the mid-'50s, the climate was changing. In 1955 the Supreme Court refused to extend baseball's antitrust umbrella to cover boxing and the theater. The 1922 decision was coming to be seen as "an historic accident" (in the words of Philip Elman, assistant to the solicitor general, who joined Radovich's side on behalf of the government).

L.A. Times sports columnist Paul Zimmerman blamed NFL commissioner Bert Bell for the whole mess. It never would have gotten this far, he wrote, "had Bell not placed so much emphasis at the time on the then-insignificant case of an NFL jumper trying to get a comparatively negligible coaching job in a little league that was already destined to die."

In 1957 the Court voted 6-3 for Radovich and threw the case back to the lower courts. At one point during oral arguments, the league's attorney began running Radovich down as a player, but Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former governor of California, put an immediate stop to it. "Counselor, just a minute," he interrupted. "I have to say something. I have watched the plaintiff play personally, and he is above average as a football player. I don't want to hear that [nonsense]."

Radovich's lawyer, Maxwell Keith, hailed the ruling as "the athlete's charter of freedom" and "the most important decision in the history of sport." The final result, he said, could be "the end to the draft system under which athletes are not even permitted to select the teams they play for." A congressional investigation of pro sports and its relationship to antitrust laws soon followed.

Bill wasn't one to gloat, though. All he wanted to do, he said, was prove "that a player shouldn't be treated like a piece of furniture. I'm not out to wreck football or sports. I wouldn't want to do anything like that. I put 22 years in the game. But I didn't like to have a man tell me I could play for one club and nobody else."

The NFL eventually paid Radovich $42,500 to go away. He wasn't thrilled with the settlement and felt Keith could have done better. (Had the case gone to trial, he could have received triple damages: $105,000.) But he figured if he fired his lawyer at so late a date, he would be "just proving what they've said all these years, that I'm a troublemaker." So he took the money.

Radovich wasn't just a football player, by the way. He also acted in films and did some TV. Perhaps you've seen him in "Trouble Along the Way" with John Wayne. Or in "Against All Flags" with Errol Flynn. Or in "All-American" with Tony Curtis. Or in "The Golden Blade" with Rock Hudson. Or in "Father Was a Fullback" with Fred MacMurray. He's the hulking guy who doesn't say much if anything.

"Aaron Rosenberg, the producer, was a friend of mine," Radovich once reminisced. "He graduated ahead of me at [U]SC [and was, in fact, an All-American football player himself]. In 1952, I did a picture of his called 'The World in His Arms' with Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn. The movie was about the gold rush days in San Francisco and seal hunting. I played an Eskimo. My whole dialogue consisted of one line: 'We go.' Raoul Walsh directed. I was supposed to be killed in a fight early in the film, but they liked me so much they kept me alive."

Later on, he said, he was shooting "Back to God's Country" playing "another Eskimo" when "the opportunity came up for a part in 'From Here to Eternity.' But [director] Fred Zinnemann couldn't wait for me, and Ernest Borgnine wound up getting the part [of Staff Sgt. "Fatso" Judson] instead. I saw the film and quit the business. … After that, of course, Borgnine got the lead in 'Marty' [for which he won the Best Actor Oscar]. Marty is a butcher. My father was a butcher. How ironic can it get?"

One last story: After agreeing to settle with the NFL, Radovich made one non-negotiable demand. "I want Bert Bell to write this check out and sign it himself," he told league counsel Marshall Leahy.

"What do you mean?" said Leahy. "This is a certified check."

"I don't want it," said Radovich, and he grabbed it and tore it in half. "If you want this case settled, you tell Bert Bell to send me his own check."

Leahy: "What's the reason behind that? It's going to hold everything up for three days."

Radovich: "Bert Bell will know when he writes that check out what I mean."

"About three days later," Radovich recalled, he received a check written out by Bell. He had made his point. Forty-four years later, as his family prepares to bury him, the sports world is still feeling its effects.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide