November 29, 1890 Singing Second

In 1944 and ’45 with the country at war, Army and Navy both entered that final game of the season,with perfect records.  Army finished both of those seasons, undefeated.

Bull Reeves
Admiral Joseph Mason “Bull” Reeves

Sometime during the 1893 football season, a navy doctor told Midshipman Joseph Reeves that another kick to the head could result in “instant insanity”, even death.

Reeves commissioned an Annapolis-area shoemaker to build him a leather covering, thus making himself the father of the modern football helmet. Years later, this man of the battleship era became an ardent supporter of naval air power. Today, Admiral “Bull” Reeves is widely known as the “Father of Carrier Aviation”.

The naval academy’s football program is one of the oldest in the country, dating back to 1879.

The Army got into the game in November 1890, when Navy challenged Army cadets in what was then a relatively new sport.

First College Football Uniform
The naval academy introduced a canvas jersey in 1879, believed to be the first college football uniform, in history. Photo by Caspar W. Whitney – Whitney, Caspar W. (May 21, 1892). “The Athletic Development at West Point and Annapolis”. Harper’s Weekly XXXVI (1848): 496., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51990735

That first Army-Navy game was played on November 29, when the Midshipmen humiliated the Army cadets at West Point, 24-0.

The Black Knights had their revenge the following year, defeating Navy at Annapolis, 32-16.

The two teams met some 30 times between 1890 and 1930, when the game became an annual event.

More than inter-service “bragging rights” are at stake.  Only 17 schools can boast Heisman Trophy winners. Army and Navy, combine for five.

West Point and Annapolis fielded some of the best teams in college football, during the first half of the 20th century.  In 1944 and ’45 with the country at war, Army and Navy both entered that final game of the season,with perfect records.  Army finished both seasons, undefeated.

Today, size and weight restrictions combine with a five-year military service commitment, while dreams of NFL careers draw some of the best football talent in college ball away from the service academies.  Since 1963, only four seasons have seen both teams enter the Army-Navy game with winning records.   Yet, the  game remains a college football institution, receiving radio coverage every year since the late ’20s, and broadcast on national television, since 1945.

The first instant replay in American football history, made its debut during the 1963 Army–Navy game.

Arguably, the Army-Navy game may be the purest such event, in all of college sports.  These are the kids who play for the love of the game, knowing that their next years are unlikely to lead to careers in sports, business, or academia.  These young men have given the next few years of their lives, to the United Sates military.

Staubach
Roger Staubach

Five-year post-graduation military service commitments preclude the NFL career aspirations of most Army-Navy game veterans, but not all.  Notable exceptions include Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Roger Staubach (Navy, 1965), New York Giants Wide Receiver and Return Specialist Phil McConkey (Navy, 1979), and (then) LA Raiders Running back Napoleon McCallum (Navy, 1985).

President Dwight Eisenhower earned the distinction of being the only future President in history to play the Army-Navy game in 1912, alongside future General of the Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and teammate, Omar Bradley.

Most games are played in a neutral city, almost always on the east coast. Most often in Philadelphia.  The Army-Navy game has appeared west of the Mississippi only twice, first for the national dedication of Chicago’s Soldier Field, in 1926.  The second was in 1983, when the Department of Defense earned Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire’s not-so-coveted “Golden Fleece” award, for spending $100,000 to transport cadets, midshipmen and mascots, to play in Pasadena, California’s Rose Bowl.

HeismanOh, for the days when the government pretended to look out for our money.

With capacities of only 38,000 and 34,000 respectively, Army’s Michie Stadium and Navy’s Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium are far too small, to hold the assembled crowd.  Out of 117 games, only six have been played on either campus.  Two of those (1942-’43), were due to WWII travel restrictions.

In 1963, the Army-Navy game was canceled in observation of a 30-day period of mourning, following the assassination of president John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Knowing her now-deceased husband to be a big fan, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy requested that the game go on, and so it was, quarterback Roger Staubach leading his #2 nationally ranked team in a 34-14 Navy romp.

Kennedy, army navy game

For most seniors, the “First Classmen” of either academy, the Army-Navy game carries special meaning.   Some may go on to play in a bowl game, but for most, this is the last regular season football game, each will ever play.  In times of war, they and others like themselves will be among the first to go, in defense of the country.  Some will not return home, alive.

Navy FootballThe game is particularly emotional for this reason.  Despite intense rivalry, it would be hard to find a duel in all of  sports, where the two sides hold the other in higher respect and esteem.

The game is steeped in tradition.  As their opposites cheer them on, each side takes the field in a spectacle of precision drill, unmatched in any venue outside of the military.  After the game, both teams assemble to sing the almae matres (‘On Brave Old Army Team’ and ‘Anchors Aweigh’) of each institution, to the assembled students and fans.

Precision
Navy marches on the field, 1950

The first such serenade is always performed for those of the losing academy, hence the coveted position of “singing second”, signifying the victor of this, the oldest sports rivalry in service academy history.

Respect and tradition is all well and good, but such rivalries do not come without a share of debauchery. During junior year, selected “Middies” and Cadets attend courses with the opposite military academy. On game day, each is restored in a “prisoner exchange”, returning from their semester in “enemy territory”.

Billthegoat
“Bill the goat”, mascot of BB-17 USS Rhode Island, circa 1913

Goats have a long history with all things maritime, having gone to sea since the age of sail and eating all manner of garbage and other undesirable food, in exchange for which, usually “she”, provided companionship, milk and butter. Sir Joseph Bank’s nanny goat was the first creature two-legged or four, to circumnavigate the planet, twice.

Navy had multiple mascots during the early years, including a gorilla, two cats, a bulldog, and a carrier pigeon. Legend has it that a beloved goat once died aboard a Navy cruise, and two ensigns cavorted about wearing the skin during half-time, before making their way to the taxidermist.

Navy won that game, and a live goat named “El Cid” (The Chief) appeared at the fourth Army-Navy game, in 1893. Navy won that game too, its third victory of those first four games. Small wonder that Billy goats have been the Navy mascot, since 1904.

The 2016 matchup was attended by “Bill” the Goat #XXXVI and his backup, Bill #XXXVII.bill-01

Small wonder too, why Army cadets will go to any length, to kidnap that goat.  The first such kidnapping of the modern era, took place in 1953.

On November 5, 1995, US Military Academy cadets staged a pre-dawn raid at the Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, Maryland, kidnapping Bill the Goat #s XXVI, XXVII and XXIX.  The Pentagon was notified, and the goats were returned under a joint Army/Navy policy, stipulating that the “kidnapping of cadets, midshipmen or mascots will not be tolerated”.

Cadets pulled off the caper in 2002, disguised in Grateful Dead T-shirts.  “Operation Good Shepherd” launched in 2007, to kidnap Bill #XXXII, XXXIII, and XXXIV.   The whole thing was posted, on You Tube. 

It’s been said that only the Army, would mount a military operation to kidnap a goat, and only the Navy would involve the Pentagon, to get him back.

Army MuleThe Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot decided in 1899, that Army needed a mascot in response to the Navy’s goat.  Mules have a long history with the United Sates Army, going back to George Washington, the “Father of the American Mule“.  The question was self-answering.  Little is known of the “official” Army mules prior to 1936, when former pack mule “Mr. Jackson” (named for Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson), arrived from Front Royal, Virginia.

Mr. Jackson served twelve years, the first of seventeen “official” Army mules. Only one, “Buckshot”, was a female. Currently, the “Mule Corps” consists of “Ranger III”, the son of a Percheron mare standing at 16.2 hands (66″) high, his only slightly shorter half-brother “Stryker”, and “Paladin”, a half-thoroughbred, standing a full two hands shorter than either of his counterparts

Army FootballAlways the last regular-season game in Division I-A football, the next four Army-Navy games are scheduled in Philadelphia. The game site will then move to Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford New Jersey, to mark the twenty-year anniversary of the Islamist terror attacks on the World Trade Center. The 2022 game moves back to Philadelphia, marking the 91st time Army and Navy have played there.

To date, Navy leads Army in the series 60-50-7, with Army’s Black Knights ending Navy’s 14-game winning streak in 2016.  The 2017 edition is scheduled for Saturday, December 9, at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

This son and grandson of Army veterans going back to the Revolution and beyond, is compelled to say,  ‘Beat Navy’.

Meeting of the mascots
Meeting of the Mascots, 1939

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November 1, 1959 Goalie Mask

On this day in 1959, Jacques Plante decided that he’d had enough. It was three minutes into a game with the New York Rangers, when he took a puck to the nose on a shot fired by Andy Bathgate. The puck broke his nose, opening a wound which required seven stitches to close.  When Plante returned to the ice, he was wearing a fiberglass mask.

Jacques Plante-original maskStanley CupIn the Netherlands, ice hockey began sometime in the 16th century.  North Americans have played the sport since 1855.   For all that time, flying hockey pucks have collided with the faces of goalies.  The results could not have been pretty.

The name of Montreal Canadien goal tender Jacques Plante is engraved five times on Lord Stanley’s cup, once for each of their five consecutive championships between 1956 and ‘60.  For a lifelong Bruins fan, that isn’t easy to say.

Jacques Plante Putting on Mask
Original caption: 11/1/1959-New York, NY- His face and shirt bloodied, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante puts on a special plastic mask after being treated for a facial cut received in the opening period of the Rangers-Canadiens hockey game. Plante suffered a severe gash on the left side of his face when he was struck by a shot off the stick of Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers. After donning the mask, which he had designed himself, Plante returned to the game. November 1, 1959 New York, New York, USA

Plante literally wrote the book on NHL goal tending. He was the first to take the position outside of the crease, making himself the third defenseman. He was the first to take the puck behind the net, and the first to bring anything like stick handling to the position. Before Plante, a Goalie’s job was pretty much to deflect the puck and let the defenders take it from there.

On this day in 1959, Jacques Plante decided that he’d had enough. It was three minutes into a game with the New York Rangers, when he took a puck to the nose on a shot fired by Andy Bathgate. The puck broke his nose, opening a wound which required seven stitches to close.  When Plante returned to the ice, he was wearing a fiberglass mask.

Coach Toe Blake was furious. He had allowed the mask during practice, but this was regulation.  Nobody wore a mask.  Coaches believed they cut the goaltender’s field of vision, and, besides.  These were supposed to be the “fearless” guys, who jumped in front of the puck.

Easy for him to say.  It wasn’t his face.  Plante was adamant, and Blake wasn’t about to bench the best goalie in the NHL. There would be one more game when Plante played without the mask, the only game the Canadiens lost in that series, and that was the end of it.  For Jacques Plante, the mask had now become standard equipment.

terry_sawchuk_face_of_goalie_1966
NHL Goalie Terry Sawchuk

In 1966, Life Magazine published an image of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Terry Sawchuk, “a face only a hockey puck could love“. “Re-created here, by a professional make-up artist and a doctor” read the accompanying article, “are some of the more than 400 stitches he had earned during 16 years in the National Hockey League. Terry Sawchuk’s face was bashed over and over, but not all at one time. His wounds healed. The scars weren’t easily seen – except for a few of them. The re-creation of his injuries was done to help show the extent of his injuries over a span of years”.

Gerry Cheevers
Gerry Cheevers

During a 1968-’69 season playoff game against the Boston Bruins, a puck fired by Phil Esposito hit Plante in the forehead, knocking him out, cold.  He later said that the mask saved his life.  He’s probably right.

Gerry Cheevers, who played for the 1970-’72 Bruins, famously had his mask marked up with stitches. That started when a puck hit him in the face during practice. When Bruins coach Harry Sinden followed Cheevers to the dressing room, he found him enjoying a beer and smoking a cigarette. Sinden sent Cheevers back out on the ice, and John Forestall, the team trainer, painted stitches on his mask. Every time Cheevers was hit after that, he would have new stitches painted on. The mask became one of the most recognizable symbols of the era, and now hangs on the wall of his grandson’s bedroom.

clint-benedict
Montreal Maroon’s goaltender Clint Benedict, 1930

Jacques Plante wasn’t the first NHL goaltender to wear a face mask.  Montreal Maroons’ Clint Benedict wore a crude leather mask in 1929, to protect a broken nose.

It was Plante who introduced the face mask as everyday equipment, now a mandatory fixture for all goaltenders.

I’m not sure if NHL goalies are any prettier these days, but I do believe they have a lot more teeth.

October 6, 1945  Curse of the Billy Goat

It was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.

For a Red Sox fan, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory ending the “Curse of the Bambino”. Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren and even great-greats, and still the drought wore on.  It was 86 years, one of the longest World Series championship droughts in Major League Baseball history.

Yet the suffering of We who love the Red Sox™ pales in comparison, with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs, since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908.

They say it’s the fault of Billy goat.

billy-goat-curseIt was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.   Anyone who’s ever found himself in the company of a goat understands the problem.  Right?

There are different versions of the story, but they all end with Billy and Murphy being thrown out of the game and casting a curse on the team.  “Them Cubs”, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more”.

Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”

cubs-goatBilly Sianis was right.  The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series.  They’ve been losing ever since.

Billy Sianis himself tried to break the curse, prior to his death in 1970, but no dice.  Billy’s nephew Sam brought a goat out onto the field in 1984, 1989, 1994 and again in 1998.  All to no avail

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese calendar, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named “Virgil Homer” to Houston, during the division championship series.  They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

That got them through the series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the National League championship.  It was Cubbies 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6.  Chicago was ahead in the series, when a lifelong Cubs fan named Steve Bartman deflected what should have been an easy catch for Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou.

Steve BartmanAlou slammed his glove down in anger and frustration.  Pitcher Mark Prior glared at the stands, crying “fan interference”.  The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning.  Steve Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

For fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across a statue of Harry Caray.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings.  Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

Five fans and a goat set out on foot from the Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012.  Calling it “Crack the Curse”, the group hiked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field.  The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but did nothing to lift the Curse of the Billy goat.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the infamous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the gag “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson?  They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”.  With due respect to Mr. Buckner, he was better than that story would have you believe, there’s something my fellow Sox fans may not know.  The former Cub 1st Baseman was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt.  For “luck”.

Curse_of_the_Billy_Goat_and_Chicago_Cubs_cookies_2016

In 2011, a philanthropic enterprise sprang up called “Reverse the Curse”, selling goat milk lip balms, soaps and more, and, according to their website, “[C]ollaborating with an institution that provides technical cooperation for agriculture in the U.S., Dominican Republic and Haiti to develop goat breeding centers, vegetable gardens, and chicken farms for small producers”.

2015 was once again the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac.   That September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in a Bag”.  The goat was gone.  Surely that would work.

The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run.  Mets fans joked that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.), but he wasn’t the first.

As the 2017 season draws to a close, the Chicago Cubs find themselves champions of the National League Central division, and defending World Champions.  That’s right.  On October 22, 46 years to the day following the death of Billy Sianis, the Cubbies defeated the LA Dodgers 5–0 to win the 2016 National League pennant.

Steve Bartman ringThe mother of all droughts came to a halt on November 2 in a ten-inning cardiac arrest that had us all up Way past midnight, on a school night.  I even watched that 17-minute rain delay, and I’m a Red Sox guy.

The drought has ended, the curse is broken.  Steve Bartman has emerged from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by the 108 diamonds of his very own World Series ring.  Billy Sianis and Murphy may, at long last, rest in peace.

In reading up for this story, I learned that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, named Fatima.  Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

1913 Brewers
1913/14 Milwaukee Brewers.  And Fatima.

September 28, 1920 Chicago Black Sox

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.  There was no response.

The scandal started with Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the first baseman with ties to Chicago gangsters. Gandil convinced Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, a friend and professional gambler, that he could throw the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. A New York gangster named Arnold Rothstein supplied the money through his right-hand man, the former featherweight boxing champion Abe Attell, and the “fix was in”.

blacksoxPitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams, along with outfielder Oscar “Hap” Felsch, and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg were all principally involved with fixing the series. Third baseman George “Buck” Weaver was at a meeting where the fix was discussed, but decided not to participate.  Weaver handed in some of his best statistics of the year during the Series.

Star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson may have been a participant, though his involvement is disputed. It seems that other players may have used his name in order to give themselves credibility. Utility infielder Fred McMullin was not involved in the planning, but he threatened to report the others unless they cut him in on the payoff.

The more “straight arrow” players on the club knew nothing about the fix. Second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitcher Red Faber had nothing to do with it, though the conspiracy got an unexpected boost when Faber came down with the flu.

Eight Chicago Black SoxRumors were flying when the series started on October 2. So much money was on Cincinnati that the odds were flat.  Gamblers complained that nothing was left on the table. Williams lost his three games in the best-out-of nine series, which I believe stands as a World Series record to this day. Cicotte became angry, thinking that gamblers were trying to renege, and he bore down, the White Sox winning game 7.

Williams was back on the mound in game 8.  By this time he wanted out, but gangsters threatened to hurt him and his family if he didn’t lose the game. The White Sox lost Game 8 on October 9, ending the series 3 to 5.

Rumors of the thrown series followed the White Sox through the 1920 season and a grand jury was convened that September.  Two players, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, testified on September 28, 1920, both confessing to participating in the scheme. Despite a virtual tie for first place at the time, club owner Chuck Comiskey pulled the seven players then in the majors (Gandil was back in the minors at the time).  The damage to the sport’s reputation prior to the 1921 season was profound.

Franchise owners appointed a man with the best “baseball name” in history to help straighten out the mess. He was Major League Baseball’s first Commissioner, federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

blacksoxKey evidence went missing from the Cook County courthouse before the trial, including Cicotte’s and Jackson’s signed confessions. Both recanted and, in the end, all players were acquitted. The missing confessions reappeared several years later in the possession of Comiskey’s lawyer. It’s funny how that works.

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.  There was no response.

The Commissioner was unforgiving, irrespective of the verdict. The day after the acquittal, Landis issued a statement: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball”.

Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Felsch, Weaver, Williams, Risberg, and McMullin are long dead now, but every one remains Banned from Baseball.

black-soxIronically, the 1919 scandal would lead to a White Sox crash in the 1921 season, beginning the “Curse of the Black Sox”. It was a World Series championship drought that lasted 88 years, ending only in 2005, with a sweep of the Houston Astros. Exactly one year after the Boston Red Sox ended their own 86-year drought, the “Curse of the Bambino”.

The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper published a poem back on opening day for the 1919 series.  They would probably have taken it back, if only they could.

“Still, it really doesn’t matter, After all, who wins the flag.

Good clean sport is what we’re after, And we aim to make our brag.

To each near or distant nation, Whereon shines the sporting sun.

That of all our games gymnastic, Base ball is the cleanest one!”

August 20, 1938 Lucky Man

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean.  I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The Lane Tech High school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920.  10,000 spectators had assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field.  New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park.  No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

GehrigCUGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record. The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who had been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands, landing at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the NY Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season, in 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

Murderers--Row

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

Ruth, Gehrig

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean.  I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The team was in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”.  It’s “for the good of the team”.  McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it.  The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Yankees Tigers Gehrig Ends StreakGehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19.  It was his 36th birthday.  It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

The Iron Horse appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939.  Gehrig was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers.  He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them up.   Addressing his fans, Lou Gehrig then described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, at the age 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium a while back, and thought of Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. With it was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.

I’ve always been a Boston guy myself, I think I’m required by Massachusetts state law to hate the Yankees. But seriously, what a Class Act.

August 11, 1919 America’s Team

No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

The story begins with a sidewalk conversation sometime back in 1919, between Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun. It went something like this: “Why don’t we start up a football team?” “Ok, what do we need to do”.

Curley LambeauLambeau worked for the Indian Packing Company in those days, making $250 a month as a shipping clerk. The two went to Lambeau’s employer and got a commitment for $500 for team uniforms, provided that the team use the company’s name. Today, “Green Bay Packers” is the oldest team name still in use in the NFL.

The team was founded on August 11, 1921, when Lambeau and Calhoun gathered with a group of young athletes, in the editorial room of the old Green Bay Press-Gazette building.  The team did well that first season, playing on an open field with no fences or bleachers. The money came from spectators “passing the hat”, while watching the team play to a 10-1 record.  You can imagine how that worked out.

The Packers became a professional franchise when they joined the newly formed American Professional Football Association on August 27, 1921. The league revoked their franchise at the end of the season, when the Packers were revealed to have used college players in a game. It turns out that the man who told the league about it was George Halas of the Chicago Staleys, which became “Da Bears” the following year. The incident began one of the most intense sports rivalries in history, one which rivals the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and lasts to this day.

1919-team
1919 Team

In 1922, Lambeau obtained additional funding from a group of Green Bay businessmen, “The Hungry Five”, and bought the franchise back for $250, including $50 of his own money. Financial troubles continued through 1922. One game was rained out, and the insurance company wouldn’t pay off because the official amount of rain was 1/100″ short of the amount specified in the policy.

The Green Bay Football Corporation was formed to run the team in 1923, and continues to do so to this day. Other teams are owned by publicly traded corporations, such as the Atlanta Braves [Liberty Media, previously Time Warner], New York Rangers [Cablevision], and the Seattle Mariners [Nintendo of America], but the Green Bay Packers are the only franchise in American professional sports, directly owned by the public.Green Bay Uniforms

Financial troubles and micro-management persisted through the war years.  The club posted a dismal 1-10-1 record in 1958, one of the worst in league history. They hired away an assistant coach from the New York Giants that year, to be the new Head Coach.  His name was Vince Lombardi.  The first day on the job, Lombardi said “As of now, I’m in charge”.  The era of the front office running the game, was over.

The 1959 season got off to a good start, shutting out Chicago in the opener, and finishing 7-5 for their first winning record in 12 years. A 21-0 shutout of Washington on November 22 of that year, was the last Packers game to this date that didn’t sell out.

Green Bay has a population of only 105,139 according to the 2016 census, making it less than 1/10th the population of the typical NFL city. The Packers following comes from well beyond Green Bay, drawing crowds from all over Wisconsin and the Midwest. In fact, as late as 1995, the Packers played three home games a year in Milwaukee, one in pre-season, and two regular season.

SportsIllustrated_10jan1966No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

Green Bay won in 4 out of 5 Super Bowl victories, tied at 3rd with the New York Giants, behind the Pittsburgh Steelers with 6, a three-way tie at 5 each for the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers & Dallas Cowboys.  They’ve won 13 championships since the ‘20s, more than any team in professional football history.  Chicago comes in second with only 9.  The last three seasons have been rough on Da Bears, where rumor has it that a recent game was called due to an unknown white substance on the field.  Play was resumed after it was determined that it was only the end zone.  It was unlikely that anyone from Chicago was going to run into it again, anytime soon.

August 6, 2011 NFL Films

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve delivered a tribute to his father, explaining the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol came home from WWII and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent living for his family, but his heart was elsewhere.  What he liked more than anything, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film the games. He found that he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong that it blew the ball off the tee three times before opening kickoff.  Despite all that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

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The league’s 14 owners rejected commissioner Pete Rozelle’s proposal to buy Sabol out, instead giving him $20,000 apiece in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight film for each team.

NFL Films production style is unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way that let you hear every hit, every sound, as if you were on the field.

With the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.”  NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

Sabols, 2004 Sports Emmys
Steve and Ed Sabol at the 2004 Sports Emmys

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small relative to the $18 billion in revenue the NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promotes the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at the time, a condition which would take his life the following September.   In delivering his tribute to his father, Steve Sabol explained the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.

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