JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It was Nov. 23, 1982, and Benny Friedman didn’t want to live any more. His left leg had been amputated, his heart was bad and he was feeling, at 77, forgotten, irrelevant, useless. Half a century before, he’d been one of the nascent NFL’s main attractions, the Dan Marino of his day. But the ravages of age had - to his horror - turned him into “the old man on the park bench,” he said in a note later found by his family.
In his apartment on New York’s East Side, Friedman pointed a gun at himself and pulled the trigger. It’s only speculation, of course - who knows what thoughts were going through his mind at the end? - but perhaps the sun on that park bench would have been a little brighter, a little warmer if he’d been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame during his lifetime.
It was about the only football honor that was denied Friedman, an oversight the Hall of Fame selection committee hopefully will correct this morning when it chooses this year’s enshrinees. Indeed, Benny hasn’t even been a finalist since the current voting process was put in place in 1970. Like a number of other worthy players from the ‘20s, he has disappeared in the mist.
Strange given his exalted status in the NFL’s first decade. In an era better known for punts than points, Friedman was a genuine sensation, the game’s first great passer. While other teams were slugging out in two-yards-and-a-clump-of-mud style, Benny’s were slinging the ball all over the lot. Football had never seen a quarterback like him, one who would throw anytime, anywhere, to anybody.
After his Giants dazzled the Portsmouth Spartans in 1930, the local newspaper gushed, “[The home team] could have used a squadron of airplanes, a couple of dirigibles and some blimps as they tried to stop the [Friedman] air raid.” It was like that everywhere the Giants played - Benny went deep, and the crowd went wild.
Red Grange is often thought of as the league’s No.[ThSp]1 drawing card back then, but the attendances at Friedman’s games were just as impressive. In fact, when the Bears and Giants faced each other in 1929 and ‘30, home and home, the games drew 20,000 in New York (the Grange factor) and 38,000 in Chicago (the Friedman factor).
“Benny revolutionized football,” the Bears’ George Halas once said. “He forced defenses out of the dark ages” - by, among other things, making them move the center, the middle man in the then-standard seven-man line, to linebacker so he could help out against the pass.
Because of his ability to put fannies in seats, Friedman might have been the highest-paid player in the ‘20s. (It was either him or Ernie Nevers, the Duluth Eskimos’ rugged runner/passer, who got a percentage of the gate.) Benny claimed he made $22,000 in 1927 alone - counting an exhibition tour with Grange after the season. This at a time when many players were getting $50 a game.
Friedman’s value was so great that Giants owner Tim Mara bought the Detroit Wolverines franchise in 1929 just so he could add him to his roster. (Actually, the deal upgraded the Giants at half a dozen positions - the Wolverines were one of the NFL’s better clubs - but Benny was the main prize. Not only was he a terrific talent, he appealed to New York’s sizable Jewish population.)
His first season with the Giants was one for the ages. In the ‘20s, remember, the rules all but discouraged passing. The ball was fatter, much less aerodynamic, and the quarterback - or, more accurately, the tailback in the single wing - had to throw from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage (which took a lot of the guessing out of it for the defense). Two consecutive incompletions resulted in a five-yard penalty. An incompletion in the end zone cost you possession of the ball.
Worst of all, perhaps, there was no such thing as roughing the passer. He was fair game until the play was over - and sometimes well after that.
Anyway, in 1929, Friedman threw for 20 touchdowns. Nobody else in the league threw more for more than six. It was a record that stood for 13 years - remarkable considering the offensive revolution that soon followed. Look at it this way: Benny’s 20 TDs would have been enough to lead the league in 1977.
The only hole in his resume is that he never won a championship. The ‘29 Giants went 13-1-1 but finished second to the 12-0-1 Packers, one of the most dominant teams ever. (Green Bay allowed 22 points all season.) The next year the Giants went 13-4 but were edged by the Pack again. Those were Friedman’s two best shots at a title.
After that, he began to branch out into college coaching and became more of a part-time player. He spent his last few seasons with middling-to-bad Brooklyn Dodgers clubs before retiring in 1934. He was 29.
It’s hard to make a Hall of Fame case for a player from the ‘20s. There are no game films to consult, and official statistics weren’t kept until 1932. Unless you saw a guy play, you have to rely on the testimony of others - and how many people can reminisce with any clarity about Benny Friedman?
But there’s no question he belongs in Canton, even though he played only seven-plus seasons (which wasn’t that unusual then). Not only was he a deadeye passer, an underrated runner (he once rushed for 164 yards against the Bears), an able defensive back and a competent kicker, he did much to promote pro football at a time when it was considered disreputable - on a par with wrestling.
When Friedman played for the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1927, he and the team’s PR man, Ed Bang, “used to travel in a day or two ahead of time to the city we were going to play in,” he told Bob Curran in “Pro Football’s Rag Days.”
“Ed would buy two bottles of whiskey and walk into a newspaper office. He’d hand one bottle to the sports editor and the other to the sports columnist, he’d introduce me, and then we’d kibitz. That was the way we got our publicity.”
Benny’s biggest problem was his personality. Though a darling of the crowds, he didn’t endear himself to many folks in football. This comes through vividly in a passage from “Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs,” the first book ever written about the NFL. After the author, Dr. Harry March (one of the founding fathers of the Giants), praises Friedman’s football playing, he says:
“Harry Newman [who followed Friedman at the University of Michigan and later with the Giants] is another Jewish boy who is quarterback for the Giants and a good one. He did not know it all when Michigan gave him his degree and he does not know it all now and never will. There is hardly a Monday that he does not come in and discuss the mistakes of judgment he made in the game the day before; he asks one’s opinion of what he should have done.”
For all of Newman’s fame, March adds, he never developed a “big head.” “If he improves as fast in 1934 as he did in 1933, everyone will forget that any quarterback but Newman came out of Michigan.”
Note, by the way, the preoccupation with Friedman’s - and Newman’s - Jewishness. It’s something Benny had to deal with throughout his career. While extolling his virtues, a sportswriter would refer to him, almost reflexively, as “that redoubtable descendant of Palestine” (“that redoubtable descendant of Cleveland” not having quite the same ring to it, apparently). Has this affected his Hall of Fame candidacy? Well, the Hall does rely on surveys of old-timers to find out who might be getting overlooked. And this is the same league, I’ll just point out, that didn’t have any black players from 1934 to ‘45.
Another minus in Friedman’s column is that he actively campaigned to get into Canton. His contemporaries considered this bad form - and Hall officials have never been very receptive to such pleas either. But the larger issue is: Why on earth did he have to? They should have ushered him in soon after the place was opened in 1963.
Instead, he’s had to spend 42 years in the waiting room. Or rather, 20 years in the waiting room and - after putting an end to life’s miseries with a pistol - 22 in the ground.