Thursday, January 31, 2013

From the Frommer Vaults: Jackie Robinson Remembered


Jackie and Mr Rickey making history.
He was born in Cairo, Georgia on the last day of January in 1919, and died on October 24, 1972 in Stamford, Connecticut. A chilly April 15, 1947 was the day he broke baseball's color barrier at  Ebbets Field, the lone black man wearing the ice cream white uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The man they called "Robby" attended UCLA, where he won letters in three sports. He was in the Army during World War II and then played briefly in the Negro Leagues when the war ended. He was signed to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals in 1946 by Branch Rickey, and the following year came up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke baseball's age-old color line.

He played in the major leagues for a decade. He won the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, and he helped the Dodgers win six pennants and one world championship.

Despite all the pressure he played under, he was still able to record a lifetime batting average of .311. His base-stealing ability and hustle won many games for the Dodgers. He set several records for fielding for second basemen.

His influence on sports is immeasurable. His breaking of baseball's color line against the greatest of odds is still one of the most dramatic stories in all of sports history. And there are those who still have special memories of the man and the legend. Here is how one from that time still remembers the great player Brooklyn Dodger fans called "Robby".

When school was out, I sometimes went with my father in his taxi. One summer morning, we were driving in East Flatbush in Brooklyn down Snyder Avenue. My father pointed to a dark red brick house with a high porch.

"I think Jackie Robinson lives there," my father said. He parked across the street and we got out of the cab, stood on the sidewalk and looked at the house. Suddenly, the front door opened. A black man in a short-sleeved shirt stepped out. I didn't believe it. Here we were on a quiet street on a summer morning with no one else around.

The man was not wearing the baggy, ice-cream-white-uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers that accentuated his blackness. He was dressed in regular clothes, coming out of a regular house in a regular Brooklyn neighborhood, a guy like anyone else going out for a bottle of milk and a newspaper.

Then, incredibly, he crossed the street and came right toward me. Seeing that unmistakable pigeon-toed walk, the rock of the shoulders and hips that I had seen so many times before on the baseball field, I had no doubt who it was.

"Hi Jackie, I'm one of your biggest fans," I said self-consciously. "Do you think the Dodgers are going to win the pennant this year?"

"His handsome face looked sternly down at me.  "We'll try our best," he said.

"Good luck," I said."

"Thanks," he replied."

He put his big hand out, and I took it. We shook hands and I felt the strength and firmness of his grip. I was a nervy kid, but I didn't ask for an autograph or try to prolong the conversation. I just watched as he walked away down the street.   That kid was me.

Monday, January 28, 2013


          Soon Super Bowl XLVII will be upon us all.       
          The date: February 3, 2013. 
          The place: Mercedes-Benz Super Dome, New Orleans.     
          The U.S. TV audience to surpass 100 million.
          An advertising slot during the break (30 seconds), a pricey almost $4 million.
          All of the above boggles the mind.  All of the above is true. And all of the above is a far, far, cry from January 15, 1967 - - the date of the first Super Bowl which was not even officially called “the Super Bowl.” 
          That first game had a TV viewership of 51 million Americans.  A 30-second ad sold for just $42,000. Each winning player received $15,000,each loser $7,500.
            In June 1966, the National Football League and the American Football League announced a merger ending for all intents and purposes a half dozen years of bickering and bad blood. The leagues also agreed to play a post-season game for pro football’s championship. The official name of the game was "World Championship Game, American Football League vs. National Football League."  It was wordy and dull. Some fans and media members were already calling it “Super Bowl.”
          Jackie Gleason, one of the celebrated comedians of that era, the evening before the big game ended his TV variety show the “Honeymooners” on CBS the usual way giving acknowledgment to his fellow stars Audrey Meadows, Art Carney and Joyce Randolph. Then the chubby comic exhorted his loyal and massive audience to be sure and tune in the next day and watch Green Bay and Kansas City compete in a championship gridiron game.
          Gleason bellowed: “It’s gonna be murder!”
          There were those who thought “the Great One” went a bit too far, that he was in the bag for his CBS network that carried the NFL broadcasts.
          The game was staged at the gigantic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a sunny and beautiful southern Californian smog-free day. Top tickets were priced at $12.00 but could be gotten for two bucks on the street. More than 30,000 seats were empty as “just” 63,000 showed up. This, despite a 75-mile TV blackout in the Los Angeles area. NBC and CBS paid $9.5 million to televise the game.
          The field’s west end zone had the word “Packers” spelled out in green on a gold background. On each side was the NFL insignia. The east zone showcased “Chiefs” in red on a gold background. On each side was the AFL insignia.   A large brown football was painted at the 50-yard line. Capped with a gold crown, it sported the NFL insignia in blue and the AFL in red on each side.
          Six officials, three representing the NFL and three from the AFL, were on hand. They were backed by six alternates.  Two different footballs were used – an AFL model and an NFL one.
           The entertainment was billed as “Super Sights and Sounds.” An icon of that era, jazz trumpeter Al Hirt, did his thing. In step were the University of Arizona and Grambling State University marching bands, the Anaheim High School Drill Team. A pair of "rocket men" sporting James Bond jet packs and the insignia of each league, flew a bit and landed at midfield. Halftime saw the release of 10,000 helium-filled balloons and 4,000 pigeons.
          For the record, the favored (12-2) Packers coached by Vince Lombardi had bragging rights to four NFL titles in six years and 10 future Pro Football Hall of Famers on the roster. The (11-2-1) 18-point underdog Chiefs, led by Hank Stram, made a game of it in the first half. However, the “Pack” took over in the second half, winning big, 35-10. Bart Starr tossed two touchdown passes to Max McGee and won the MVP award and a trip to New York City to claim his red Corvette Sting Ray from Sport Magazine
          That was many long years ago - -the “grand-daddy of them all”-- Super Bowl One. "Our goal,” former NFL Commisioner Pete Rozelle said,
“from the first was to make this more than a game, to make it an event."           
                              (to be continued)
***Harvey Frommer is at work on REMEMBERING SUPER BOWL ONE: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY. He welcomes hearing from anyone with memories, perceptions, leads, memorabilia  for his newest book. ****

Saturday, January 19, 2013

“Just Win Baby” and Other Notable Tomes

          From acclaimed and deservedly so sports journalist and author Murray Olderman comes “Just Win Baby” (Triumph Books, $24.95, 203 pages). It is a deftly detailed account of the life and times of Al Davis of Oakland Raider fame. We are there for the inside look at this mercurial football maven from his growing up days in Brooklyn all the way through his triumphs with the silver and black.
          Initially Olderman who knew Davis for more than 50 years was commissioned by the electric executive to write his biography. Somehow, that book never made it into print.  “Just Win Baby” is Olderman’s third person account  - -and what an account it is. It uiilizes a great deal of the material given to Olderman and is enhanced by the prize winning author’s perspective, writing and organizational skills.  HIGHLY NOTABLE
          “The Muhammad Ali Reader” edited by Gerald Early(Ecco, $17.99, 336 pages) has bragging rights to over 30 pieces on “the Greatest” organized by decades. The 16 page photo insights showcase Ali in all his ways.
          “Yacht Clubs of the World” text by Bruno Cianci and Nicolo Reggio (Rizzoli, $100,00, 270 pages) is one of the most beautiful books ever produced by a company that has produced many beautiful books. Page after page in brilliant, bold, color unfolds as one turns the pages of this opulent opus. We are there with twenty storied venues like the New York Yacht Club, the Hong Kong Yacht Club, the Yacht Club de France and on and on. Yachting’s culture is on display and the reader (viewer) is all the better for it. MOST NOTABLE

Monday, January 14, 2013



                   ''The most fun thing was watching the development of the Super Bowl because the game is what it's all about. I really felt a high at every Super Bowl with all the glitz and the spectacular halftime shows.'' – Pete Rozelle
                “The Super Bowl is an invention of American business.  It is American business.”  -  Roger Angell

        The merger of the American Football League and the National Football League led to the need for a championship game. The first contest was played on January 15, 1967. The NFL’s Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers squared off against the AFL’s underdog Kansas City Chiefs coached by Hank Stram.

        That first Super Bowl was played at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles before 61,946. Yes, there were empty seats – the first and only time the legendary event failed to sell out even with ticket prices that topped out at $12.

        The contest was officially known as the AFL-NFL World Championship;however, its unofficial name - the Super Bowl - was used by media, fans and players. The  name stuck.

        One theory for how the high flying name came about is that at an owner's meeting centered on what to call the game, one of the moguls had a "super ball" in his pocket that he had appropriated from his youngster earlier in the day. Not too taken with the long and ordinary sounding suggestions for what would become professional football's ultimate game, Lamar Hunt suggested the name Super Bowl. His suggestion was not greeted with much enthusiasm by the assembled group. Nevertheless, he mentioned the name to a reporter who loved it and, as they say, the rest is history.

        The first Super Bowl witnessed the first dual-network, color-coverage simulcast of a sports event in history, and attracted the largest viewership to ever see a sporting event up to that time. The Nielsen rating indicated that 73 million fans watched all or part of the game on one of the two networks, CBS or NBC.

        In actuality, the game was a contest between the two leagues and the two networks. CBS' allegiance was to the NFL. NBC's loyalty was to the AFL - a league it had virtually created with its network dollars.

          The networks charged $42,000 for a 30 second commercial. Frank Gifford was a sidelines reporter for CBS. Ray Scott handled the CBS play-by play for the first half while Jack Whitaker took over in the second half.  Curt Gowdy and Paul Christman handled the NBC telecast.

        There were many oddities and talking points about that first game.  Two jetpack pilots shook hands at the 50 yard line after landing there. Commercials for McDonald's (then boasting of "Over Two Billion Served") and Muriel cigars ("So much more cigar for just 10 cents") were all the rage.

         According to NFL Films President Steve Sabol, Commissioner Pete Rozelle had wanted to call the game "The Big One."  That never came to be. Neither did “Pro Bowl, another name the NFL head man favored.

         From the start (but not in that first game) there were unique  features to the Super Bowl including its designation with a Roman numeral rather than by a year - a move attributed to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to give the game class and continuity.

        Max McGee of the Packers became an interesting footnote to Super Bowl history.

        "I knew I wouldn't play unless (Boyd) Dowler got hurt," he said later.  So McGee went out on the town the days (and nights) prior to the game. Curfews, it seems, were there for him to break.  Then, the unimaginable happened. Dowler suffered a separated shoulder throwing a block on the opening series.

        In came McGee who had caught only four passes all season. He snared 7 passes for 138 yards, hauling in the first touchdown in Super Bowl history—a 37-yard pass from Green Bay's Bart Starr. He caught another at the end of the third quarter for a 13-yard touchdown. Elijah Pitts ran for two other scores. The Chiefs' 10 points came in the second quarter, their only touchdown on a 7-yard pass from Len Dawson to Curtis McClinton.

        McGee stole the show and set a pattern that would be part of the ultimate game's history of unlikely heroes, strange twists of fate, footballs taking a wrong bounce for some teams, the right bounce for others.

        Quarterback Bart Starr was the first Most Valuable Player  leading the Packers to a 35-10 victory over KC. Starr completed 16-of-23 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns.

         Today more Americans watch the Super Bowl than vote in presidential elections. Municipalities vigorously and ruthlessly compete for the rights to host a game and then work with the NFL, advertising and talent agencies, merchandisers, security personnel, and celebrity party planners more than a year in advance fine tuning myriad details.  A couple of million large-screen TVs are purchased weeks before the game.

        The grandest and gaudiest  annual one-day spectacle in American sports, Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial American holiday  with bragging rights to millions of  parties, betting pools, excessive consumption of food and drink.  TV networks charge as much as $2.5 million for a 30-second spot. Many viewers do not even watch the game itself, content to partake of the elaborate pre-game or halftime entertainment. The 2012 Super Bowl drew a television viewership of 111.3 million.

       It is all a mind boggling situation very different from 1967 when the Chiefs and the Packers clashed. And soon Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans will be upon us. Watch out.

                       (to be continued)

***Harvey Frommer is at work on REMEMBERING SUPER BOWL ONE: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY. He welcomes hearing from anyone with memories, perceptions, leads, memorabilia  for his newest book. ****

Tuesday, January 01, 2013



          Read all about Len Berman’s “The Greatest Moments in Sports” and sporting fare books

          Famed and Emmy-Winning sportscaster Len Berman never seems to take a break and we are all the better for it. His newest effort is a rundown of 25 of the most thrilling upsets and underdogs in sports. The moments range from the Bobby Thomson home run that gave the old New York Giants the pennant to the U.S. Hockey team’s Miracle on Ice, to “A Horse Named Upset” who was the only horse to ever beat Man O’ War, to Althea Gibson, the female Jackie Robinson. All these and many more give insights, new awareness to classic sports moments. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

          In a hockey frame of mind there is “Wayne Gretsky’s Ghost” by Roy MacGregor (Vintage Canada, $19.95, 369 pages, paper). This is a book that will appeal to all generations and all fans of the sport covering as it does stars of the game from Jean Beliveau to Steve Yzerman.

          From Kent State University Press comes “The ’63 Steelers” by Rudy  Dicks, paper). Detailed, definitive in its scope, this terrific tome is a must read for football fans but especially those who root for the Steel City franchise.

          “Notre Dame’s Happy Returns” by Brian O’Conchubhair and Susan Mullen Guibert with photos by Matt Cashore (University of Notre Dame Press, $38.00, 184 pages, 174 color photos) is a winning photographic essay, a travel book, a sports guide. It is all about what makes Ireland special for fans of the Fighting Irish and contains an exploration of the intro of American football in Ireland and the role of Notre Dame enhancing the sport’s existence there.