Jun 292014
 
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1929 New York Giants

1929 New York Giants

by Larry Schmitt for BigBlueInteractive.com

The New York Football Giants have won eight world championships in their 90 seasons in the National Football League, and trail only the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers in that regard. The three franchises post-season histories are intertwined so deeply with one another that they share some of the same DNA. One cannot recount the history of one of these teams without including the others.

The Giants have tangled in the post-season eight times with the Bears and seven times with the Packers. In the 30 year span from the start of divisional play in 1933 until 1963, New York met these two ancient Western Division/Conference rivals 11 times in NFL Championship Games. Unfortunately for the Giants, they only won three of those games. They were twice victorious over Chicago (1934 and 1956) and once over Green Bay (1938). All three wins were in New York. The first two occurred in their original home, the Polo Grounds, and the third in venerable old Yankee Stadium. But the competitive roots of these three flagship franchises go even deeper.

Prior to divisional play, the NFL was stacked top-to-bottom in a heap of random, unbalanced, make-it-up-as-you-go scheduling that was sometimes interspersed with non-league exhibitions. It was such a mess at times that the league didn’t even calculate ties in win percentages. Disputes over final standings were commonplace and interested parties often resorted to politicking for several months after the season closed, lobbying for votes at the spring owners meeting where a ballot was cast to officially declare the previous season’s champion.

The Giants fate was often determined during November and December contests with Chicago and Green Bay. The Giants earned their first NFL title in 1927 after a pivotal December Polo Grounds slugfest against the Bears that was such an epic struggle it rendered the subsequent sweep of the hated New York Yankees anti-climactic.

Some of the Giants strongest teams, ones that set records and had the biggest stars of their day, fell just short of the ultimate goal. This is the story of one of those bitter disappointments. The 1929 New York Giants were remarkable in their own unique way and are worthy of remembrance and celebration of their accomplishments.

The Rising Star

There is little wonder why Giant co-owners Tim Mara and Dr. Harry March were obsessed with passing sensation Benny Friedman. While his NFL-best 20 touchdown passes his first two years in the league may not seem impressive, consider the league’s next highest scoring team in 1927-28, the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Their leading passer, Ken Mercer, combined for nine touchdown passes in those two seasons. Moreover, the Yellow Jackets played 34 games during that timeframe while Friedman’s two teams played 23. Yardage statistics from this era are incomplete and unreliable, but the box scores don’t lie. Nobody has ever questioned the value of a passer who gets the ball into the end zone.

Even more impressive was the fact that Friedman accomplished this with two different franchises. In his rookie season, Friedman and the 1927 Cleveland Bulldogs led the NFL in scoring. However, the financially strapped Bulldogs disbanded after the season. Friedman and several of his teammates signed on with the Detroit Wolverines (most player contracts were one-year deals anyway), where they led the NFL in scoring again in 1928. In those two years, Friedman and his rag-tag squads squared off with the defensive-minded Giants four times without a loss; the best New York managed was two ties. One of the defeats was thoroughly embarrassing, as Friedman torched the Giants with his legs and arm in a 28-0 blowout at the Polo Grounds. Mara resolved this problem with his purchase of the entire Wolverines franchise in early 1929. To ensure Friedman would agree to play for the Giants, Detroit coach LeRoy Andrews was installed as the head man of the Giants squad.

Jack Hagerty, Benny Friedman, and LeRoy Andrews; New York Giants (1929)

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

In an era dominated by power struggles on the line of scrimmage, punts and drop-kicks, it did not take long for Friedman to become noticed with his passing wizardry. He was the lead man in newsreel highlights with the NFL’s two other transcendent stars, halfback Harold “Red” Grange of the Chicago Bears and fullback Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals. While all three played defense as well as offense, Friedman and Nevers were triple threats who handled the bulk of their respective teams kicking duties.

The Giants gained one star but lost another. The indomitable Cal Hubbard, who was a catalyst for the Giants championship 1927 season, was unhappy living amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City. He preferred a quieter and simpler existence. After playing in a Giants-Packers game in Green Bay in 1928, Hubbard decided that was the place for him. He requested a trade after the season and was accommodated.

Warming Up the Engine

The Giants opened the 1929 regular season in front of 9,000 fans at Knights of Columbus Stadium when they visited the Orange Tornados. The results were familiar in that the defensive battle lacked any portent of offensive genius. New York had a golden opportunity to take the lead early in the second quarter when Ray Flaherty, who jumped from the Yankees to the Giants late in 1928, intercepted a pass at the Giants 45-yard line and returned it to the Orange 10. The Tornados thwarted New York on second-and-goal when they intercepted a Friedman throw. The Giants star had an opportunity to redeem himself in the closing minutes of the game. Friedman drove New York into Orange territory, but his attempted field goal was blocked as time expired, and the game ended in a 0-0 tie.

New York Giants Roster (October 20, 1929)

New York Giants Roster – Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Another defensive battle took place in front of a record throng of 14,000 in Providence when the Giants visited the defending champion Steam Roller. The Providence Journal described the contest as “one of the most bitterly fought games ever seen at the Cycledrome.” The Giants first touchdown of the year came early in the first quarter, and it was mostly a Friedman effort. He set the drive up with a 25-yard punt return before completing successive passes totaling 43 yards. Len Sedbrook then scored from nine-yards out and Friedman’s point-after was successful. That was all of the scoring for the day, but there was plenty of action on the field. First-hand accounts described the Steam Rollers defense as being “savage.” The Giants drove twice more into goal-to-go situations, many of the advances coming from Friedman off-tackle slants, but the Giants were halted on the 1- and 6-yard lines, respectively. Providence was never able to harness any momentum offensively, as New York limited them to just 10 first downs. The Giants won 7-0.

Friedman shared the spotlight with Jack Hagerty the following week at the Polo Grounds for the home opener versus the Staten Island Stapletons. Of the 30,000 spectators, approximately 5,000 enthusiastically supported the visitors. Friedman threw the Giants first touchdown pass of the year in the second quarter, but Ken Strong’s 50-yard touchdown rush and point-after gave Staten Island a 9-7 lead at the half. Hagerty sparked New York with a second-half kickoff return to the 30-yard line and two rushes for 11 and 25 yards, setting up a Friedman-to-Hap Moran touchdown connection. In the fourth quarter, Moran caught a scoring aerial from Hagerty to cap off the 19-9 win. So impressive was Hagerty that The New York Times tagged him as “Ghost Hagerty,” a moniker closely associated with the legendary Grange. Future Giant Ken Strong (1933-35, 1939, 1944-47) drew acclaim for his effort both running and kicking. At the close of the third quarter, his punt from the Stapleton’s 18-yard line flipped field position as the ball was downed on the New York 20. The New York Times estimated the ball traveled close to 75 yards in the air.

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

The Giants momentum carried over to next week’s game against the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Former New York Governor Al Smith was among the 30,000 fans at the Polo Grounds who were treated to a rare offensive showcase. “Friedman, the Giants passing wizard, was the man behind the New York surge,” wrote The New York Times. In the second quarter, Friedman “suddenly began to complete passes all over the lot,” which included scoring strikes of 18, 43 and 25 yards. Leading 19-0 at the half, the Giants switched to the ground game, but the big plays kept coming. Mule Wilson romped 55 yards for a touchdown and in the fourth quarter. Then center Mickey Murtagh was given a turn in the backfield and rambled for a 33-yard touchdown. Frankford only completed two passes for 12 yards on the afternoon while the Giants front stonewalled the run in the 32-0 victory.

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

Frankford Yellow Jackets at New York Giants (October 20, 1929)

Full Throttle

Big scoring plays and one-sided wins now became the norm for the Giants. The first four games in November were dominated by Friedman’s passing and an unyielding defensive front wall. Shutouts over aforementioned Frankford (32-0) and Providence (19-0) preceded a tough 26-14 win at Cubs Park over the 4-1-1 Chicago Bears. The road trip resumed just two days later in Buffalo for a Tuesday 45-6 win at Bison Stadium. New York’s first scoring drive took two plays, both Friedman-to-Flaherty connections. Sedbrook later scored on a 70-yard pass from Friedman and Flaherty caught a 50-yard scoring pass from Moran. Things were so bleak for the Bisons that after they scored their only touchdown, Hagerty returned the kickoff 97 yards for another Giants tally. Five days later, the Giants soundly defeated the Orange Tornados 22-0. The Giants overall record now stood at 7-0-1.

The re-match with the Bears at the Polo Grounds was shockingly similar to the game against the Bisons. Chicago came to New York on a skid, having lost to Green Bay and Frankford, and nobody expected anything but a stout effort from George Halas’ squad. The looming threat of bad weather limited the crowd to 15,000, but the ones who braved the elements were rewarded with a record performance. The Friedman aerial circus was unstoppable. The heavy air above the Polo Grounds was filled with 49 New York pass attempts, five resulting in touchdowns. Four of those scoring tosses came from the arm of Friedman, and one by Moran, who was also on the receiving end of two scores.

Glenn Campbell (no helmet, with ball), New York Giants (November 17, 1929)

Glenn Campbell (no helmet, with ball), Chicago Bears at New York Giants (November 17, 1929)

Early on though, Chicago had the edge. The action was mostly on the New York side of the field and Grange, who played with a dislocated shoulder, looked to be the star of the game. After a catch-and-run by the Galloping Ghost gave Chicago a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, New York forced a fumble and recovered. The momentum swing sparked the Giants, whose drive carried over into the second quarter, and ended with Friedman’s first scoring pass. The remainder of the first half saw numerous punt exchanges, including a 70-yarder by the Giants off of the foot of Tony Plansky. The Giants 20-point third-quarter eruption quickly put the game out of reach. Unofficially, Friedman was 13-of-25, four touchdowns, and no interceptions while the Bears as a team were 11-of-24 and intercepted four times. When it was over, New York won 34-0.

Showdown

There was considerable buzz anticipating next week’s match-up against Green Bay. The 9-0 Packers were tied atop the standings with the 8-0-1 Giants (ties did not factor into win percentage.) Green Bay’s strength was their defense. Cal Hubbard had been moved inside to the tackle position where he continued to wreak havoc. Also on the line were future Hall of Fame guard Mike Michalske and All-Pro end Lavvie Dilweg. Halfback Johnny “Blood” McNally, who played end on defense, would also be enshrined in Canton, along with head coach Curly Lambeau, who had finally hung up his cleats and was on the sideline full time.

Benny Friedman, New York Giants vs Green Bay Packers Game Program (November 24, 1929)

New York Giants vs Green Bay Packers Game Program – Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

Green Bay went straight at the Giants on the cold, muddy field. Hubbard punched holes in his former team’s first line of defense for fullback Bo Molenda’s advances. The Polo Grounds crowd of 25,000 remained enthusiastic despite Green Bay taking an early 7-0 on a Verne Lewellen touchdown pass to Herdis McCrary. The Giants had an opportunity to answer when Friedman connected with Flaherty for a 65-yard gain. Flaherty was headed for the end zone until he was caught from behind by McNally and dragged down at the 10-yard line. It was a significant play as Freidman’s next attempt was intercepted and the 7-0 score held. The remainder of the first half was scoreless while both powerful lines slugged it out. Lewellen kept the Packers out of danger with 60- and 70-yard punts. Friedman and the Giants struggled to find the rhythm of their passing game that had propelled their success over the past seven games. Even when Friedman wasn’t feeling the rush of Green Bay’s line, his favorite target, Flaherty, struggled to find open space against his counterpart McNally.

Green Bay controlled most of the first 30 minutes of action, but New York fought back. In the third quarter, Friedman completed three passes, interspersed with several line plunges, on a 70-yard drive. Plansky caught the final pass in the end zone to trim the lead to 7-6, as Friedman missed the point-after attempt. The game resumed its tenor from the first half as the lines engaged in their contest of will. The New York passing attack struggled under the Packers pass rush while Green Bay ran plunges and slants into the Giants defense.

The balance of the game tipped suddenly in the fourth quarter. New York seemed to have stopped an advance on third down and set up for a return. Having witnessed Lewellen boom punts consistently all day, the Giants dropped back on fourth down to ready themselves for a return. Lewellen received the snap, skillfully mimed a punting motion, and then connected with McNally on a 26-yard pass. The gain in field position was secondary to the emotional blow dealt to the Giants – they sagged while Green Bay surged. Molenda and McRary ran with confidence through the Giants front wall and finished the 80-yard drive with a touchdown run and a 14-6 lead.

Friedman’s comeback bid ended in disaster. Harassed in a collapsing pocket, he was intercepted by middle guard Jug Earp. The Packers kept the ball on the ground, consuming both time and yards . They put the game away when McNally went over for the touchdown, finishing the 37-yard drive and the Giants bid for first place. Green Bay left the Polo Grounds with a 20-6 victory and 10-0 record while the Giants slipped to 8-1-1.

Finishing Strong

Bruised and beaten, but not without hope, the Giants had a chance to force a tie if they won out and Green Bay dropped a game. It was a short week for both teams as they both played four days later on Thanksgiving. The Giants handled rival Staten Island 21-7, while Green Bay showed some signs of exhaustion as their road trip continued. The game account from Frankford noted the Packers exhibited signs of fatigue after their strenuous effort at the Polo Grounds. The Yellow Jackets advanced to the Packer 2-yard line in the first quarter before turning the ball over. In the fourth quarter, a final promising drive by Frankford ended with a blocked field goal. The game ended in a 0-0 tie and the Packers still sported a perfect 1.000 winning percentage.

1929 New York Giants

Courtesy of Rev. Mike Moran

The race continued three days later. Green Bay romped over the Steam Roller in Providence 25-0, while the Giants entertained the Polo Grounds faithful in a thriller against Ernie Nevers and the Chicago Cardinals. Bitter cold temperatures held the crowd to 5,000 but New York turned up the heat early with two Friedman scoring passes. Nevers brought his squad back, throwing a touchdown pass of his own. Chicago added a safety just before the half, and trailed at the break 14-9.

Gene Rose went over for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Cardinals a 15-14 lead as the point-after attempt failed. Nevers extended the lead to 21-14 with his plunge early in the fourth quarter, again, the point-after failed. Led by Plansky, the Giants came back. When he wasn’t carrying the ball on the 80-yard march, Plansky was leading the way with clear-out blocks. He carried the ball on three of the four first-down conversions and went over for the touchdown to complete the drive. Friedman’s placement was good and the game was tied at 21. Although a tie score would not hurt the Giants in their race against Green Bay, a victory could only help their cause.

After forcing a Cardinals punt, New York advanced on a long drive. As the clock ran under five minutes, Friedman was intercepted by Rose at the Chicago 10-yard line. After moving the chains for a first down on two line plunges, Chicago lost a chance to run the clock out when Rose fumbled and Joe Westoupal recovered at the 22-yard line for New York. Friedman was thrown for a 13-yard loss on first down, which pushed the Giants out of sure field-goal range. A completion to Len Sedbrook moved the ball to the 24-yard line. Friedman connected with Sedbrook again at the nine-yard line while the clock ran under one minute to play. On first-and-goal, Friedman was thrown for a loss at the 20. There was time left for just one play. Plansky received the snap from center and booted a drop-kick from the left hash on the 32-yard line, which went through the uprights as the timekeeper’s whistle blew. The Giants escaped, pulling out the 24-21 win.

New York rolled through the remainder of their schedule. Back-to-back shutouts over Frankford (12-0 and 31-0) preceded a 14-9 win at Cubs Park again over the Bears. Unfortunately for the Giants, Green Bay held serve and finished their schedule with a 25-0 romp over the Bears to close their unbeaten campaign 12-0-1, just ahead of New York’s 13-1-1 tally. In a league yet without a championship game, the Green Bay Packers were crowned NFL Champions.

The Giants still had much to be proud of. Friedman’s 20 touchdown passes set a standard that would stand until 1942. For the third season in a row, Friedman’s team led the NFL is scoring. The Giants scored 312 points (no other team reached 200), averaging 20.8 points per game while the league as a whole averaged 9.6. The output was the second-highest total in NFL history up until that point. The record of 326 had been set by Frankford in 1924, but they accomplished it in a very different style. Of their 43 offensive touchdowns, 38 came on the ground and only five through the air. The 1929 New York Giants scored 45 touchdowns from scrimmage, 19 rushing and 26 passing. The Giants scoring differential was the best in the NFL at +226. The champion Packers were second with +176.

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1929)

Ray Flaherty, New York Giants (1929)

It is not surprising that the top three scoring receivers in the NFL were all Giants. Flaherty was first with eight, Sedbrook second with six and Moran third with five. Individual honors were bestowed upon four Giants. Named first-team All-Pro were center Joe Wostoupal, tailback Benny Friedman, fullback Tony Plansky and end Ray Flaherty.

The difference in the season was the November meeting between what were clearly the two best teams that year. The balance of power undoubtedly swung with the offseason trade of future Hall of Famer Cal Hubbard. Green Bay was able to control the tempo of much of that 20-6 win with their line play. It was the only contest that season where the Giants were outplayed on the line of scrimmage. Their front could not contain the Packers running game nor protect their passer. It is no stretch to believe that had Hubbard been amiable to staying in New York, the Giants would have won their second title in 1929.

History would repeat itself as Green Bay and New York continued to be the top two teams in the NFL again in 1930. The Giants led the NFL in scoring on Friedman’s right arm while they chased the methodical Packers in the standings. They split their head-to-head meetings that year, with each team victorious on its home field. At season’s end, Green Bay was first at 10-3-1 and the Giants second at 13-4-0. The NFL’s preposterous practice of not counting tie games was significant here. Not counting the tie, the Packers finished with a 0.769 win percentage and the Giants with a 0.765 win percentage. Retroactive application of the current method of calculation where a tie game is treated as a half-win and half loss, the Packer’s win percentage drops them into second place at 0.750. In other words, the Giants would have been crowned NFL Champions using the current formula.

The Giants slipped to 7-6-1 in 1931. Friedman suffered a serious knee injury that forced him to miss six games and limited his effectiveness the remainder of his career. He left the Giants during the offseason in 1932 after a contract squabble with Tim Mara. Friedman wanted the interest in the team that had been surrendered by Dr. March. Friedman moved on to become player/coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers for the next three seasons, while also serving as the head coach for the Yale football team. The Giants drafted tailback Harry Newman from the University of Michigan in 1933 as Friedman’s replacement. The Giants would play in the NFL’s first Championship Game that same year against the Chicago Bears.

Feb 132006
 
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The recent election of Harry Carson into the Pro Football Hall of Fame spurred me to write this article. Carson, one of the greatest middle linebackers ever to play the game, was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1993. He had to wait 13 long years before receiving confirmation of his acceptance. But at least Carson is alive to enjoy his personal triumph. Unfortunately, for another Giant great, Benjamin “Benny” Friedman, the honor came far too late.

Most football fans today, including Giants fans, have never heard of Benny Friedman. That’s too bad because not only was Friedman one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play in the NFL, he, in fact, revolutionized the pro game by becoming the League’s first great passer. There are only four quarterbacks with ties to the Giants in the Hall of Fame: Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton, Arnie Herber, and Benny Friedman. The two longest tenured quarterbacks with the team – Phil Simms and Charlie Conerly – are not in the Hall. Yet Friedman’s induction in 2005 went barely noticed by the media and fans. Even the Giants organization did not publicize it much.

So who was Benny Friedman? Friedman, arguably the greatest Jewish athlete of all time, certainly did not look the part. He was approximately 5’8” and only 170 pounds. But the Giants were so enamored with his skills that they completely dismantled another NFL team in order to acquire him. During the NFL’s early days, no one could throw the football like Friedman.

Friedman was a two-time All-American quarterback at the University of Michigan and nationwide collegiate star of the first order. In 1925 and 1926, he led Michigan to back-to-back 7-1 seasons and first place finishes in the Big Ten. Against the University of Indiana in 1925 (the same year the Giants came into existence), Friedman accounted for 44 points, throwing for five touchdowns and kicking two field goals and eight extra points. At the time, only the legendary “Galloping Ghost,” Hall of Fame halfback Red Grange, received more attention with his decision to turn pro (Grange was as famous an athlete in those days as Babe Ruth). With no NFL Draft in existence, Friedman signed with and started his NFL playing career with the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1927. A year later, the franchise moved to Detroit and became the Wolverines. Following the 1928 season, then Giants’ owner Tim Mara made a strong push to obtain Friedman, who had burned his team a couple of times. But the Wolverines would not trade him. Mara made four ever-stronger offers, yet was rebuffed each time. Mara’s solution was to buy the financially-troubled Wolverines and disband them two days later. He kept Friedman, the head coach (as part of the deal), and a few other players. To make Friedman happy, Mara paid him an annual salary of $10,000 – the most ever for a football player at a time when most players were earning $50-100 a game.

Mara made the move to obtain Friedman both for player personnel and economic reasons. The Giants won their first NFL title in 1927 with an 11-1-1 record (the team’s only loss being to Friedman’s Bulldogs). However, in 1928, the Giants fell to 4-7-2. And worse, with the Great Depression looming on the horizon, the Giants were losing money and in dire financial straits. It was hoped that Friedman would not only turn around the win-loss record, but his star-power would also put the team in the black – and that’s exactly what he did, perhaps saving the franchise. It also didn’t hurt that Friedman was Jewish and would be playing in a city heavily populated with Jews. The Giants reportedly lost $54,000 in 1928. But upon Friedman’s arrival at the Polo Grounds, fans began showing up at Giants games and the team turned a profit in his first year in New York. The Giants made $8,500 in 1929, $23,000 in 1930, and $35,000 in 1931 in Friedman’s three Depression-era seasons with the team.

Friedman only played three years for the Giants. But those three years in New York solidified his status as the NFL’s first great passer. Back in those days, the game’s rules were not conducive at all to passing. Roughing the passer was legal. If a quarterback threw two consecutive incomplete passes, the team was penalized. An incomplete pass in the opposition’s end zone resulted in a turnover. Most importantly, the ball was much rounder and harder to grip. That did not matter to Friedman, who had incredibly strong hands. “I think the most amazing thing about him was the way he could throw the kind of football that was in use in his days,” said Giants’ co-owner Wellington Mara, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 89. “Did you ever see that ball? It was like trying to throw a wet sock.”

Benny Friedman With the Detroit Wolverines

Benny Friedman with the Detroit Wolverines

In each of his first four years in the NFL, including his first two with the Giants, Friedman won first-team All-NFL honors and led the league in passing touchdowns. Although complete statistics were not kept, it is believed that Friedman completed more than half of his passes at a time when a 35 percent completion percentage was considered a very good performance. He led the league in touchdown passes each of his first four years. He twice passed for more than 1,500 yards in a season – an unheard of total for that era. In fact, no other NFL passer would reach that mark until 1942. From 1927 to 1930, Friedman threw for 50 percent more yards and twice as many touchdowns than the next-best quarterback in the NFL.

In his first year with the Giants in 1929, Friedman threw 20 touchdown passes, including four in one game – the first player to do either in the League. No NFL team would surpass 20 passing touchdowns in a season until 1942 and that total would have still led the NFL as late as 1977. The Giants’ 312-point total that year marked only the second time the 300-point barrier had been broken in the League. But it would happen again in 1930 when Friedman quarterbacked the team to 308 more points.

In the multi-tasking, two-way days of the early NFL, Friedman could do more than pass the football. Friedman could run, kick, and play defense. In 1928, the year before he came to the Giants, he led the NFL in both rushing and passing touchdowns – something no other player in NFL history has accomplished. He also led the league in extra points that season. In one game against the Bears, he rushed for 164 yards. Friedman also played defensive back.

Benny Friedman, New York Giants (1931)

Benny Friedman, New York Giants (1931)

Friedman, whose jersey number with the Giants was #1, immediately turned around the Giants’ fortunes on the football field. From 4-7-2 in 1928, the Giants improved to 13-1-1 in 1929, finishing second in the NFL behind the 12-0-1 Green Bay Packers (NFL Championship Games were not played until 1933). In 1930, Friedman led the Giants to another second-place finish with a 13-4 record (a .765 winning percentage), barely missing out on their second NFL title to the Packers again (who had a .769 winning percentage with a 10-3-1 record).

The biggest event in 1930 for the Giants however was the charity exhibition game played on December 14th at the Polo Grounds against a Notre Dame All-Star team of former Irish football greats, including the legendary “Four Horsemen.” The game was played during the season-long pennant chase with the Packers, but many New Yorkers were starving. Despite New York City being gripped in the depths of the Great Depression, 55,000 fans came to watch and Tim Mara donated the entire gate receipt ($115,153 – an astronomical amount of money in those days) to the New York City Unemployment Fund. It was widely expected by many that the Notre Dame team would beat the Giants, but it was the G-Men who thrashed Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish 22-0. Notre Dame never crossed midfield and was held to one first down. Friedman, the team captain for the Giants, scored two of New York’s three touchdowns.

“There are those who say Friedman is the greatest passer of all time,” said Rockne. “They are not far wrong. He could hit a dime at 40 yards; besides being a great passer, he hit the line, tackled, blocked, and did everything – no mere specialty man – that a fine football player should do.”

 

Benny Friedman (1), New York Giants (November 22, 1931)

Benny Friedman (1), New York Giants (November 22, 1931)

“He was the best quarterback I ever played against,” said Red Grange. “There was no one his equal in throwing a football in those days.” Grange later said, “Anybody can throw today’s football. You go back to Benny Friedman playing with the New York Giants…He threw that old balloon. Now who’s to tell what Benny Friedman might do with this modern football? He’d probably be the greatest passer that ever lived.”

“He is the greatest forward passer in the history of the game,” wrote a famed New York Daily News sportswriter. “No other passer has his accuracy, his judgment of distance, his intuitive ability to pick out the best receiver.”

Friedman’s productivity in 1931 began to decline. A knee injury slowed him on the field. He also became distracted as he was also serving as an assistant backfield coach at Yale. Indeed, he missed the first four games of the season because of his coaching duties (the Giants lost three of those games). In 1931, the Giants fell to fifth place in the NFL with a 7-6-1 record. After the season, Friedman demanded that Tim Mara give him a piece of the team. “(Mara) said, ‘No, I’m keeping it all for my sons,’” said Friedman. “That was that. I thought I deserved a piece of the club because I felt I had played a big part in moving it from the red ink to the black ink. And when Tim turned me down I felt I should move along, that I couldn’t stay with him.”

In 1932, Friedman left for the Brooklyn (Football) Dodgers as a player and coach. He led the league in completion percentage in his last full season as a player with Brooklyn in 1933, completing 53 percent of his throws or 10 percent better than the next most accuarate quarterback. He was named second-team All-NFL. Friedman retired from the NFL after the 1934 season at the age of 29. In his eight NFL seasons, Friedman played in 81 games, threw 66 touchdown passes, rushed for 18 touchdowns, and kicked two field goals and 71 extra points. He also caught five passes for 67 yards. His 66 career touchdown passes was an NFL record until Hall of Famer Arnie Herber passed him in 1944, the first of his two seasons with the Giants.

After his playing days, Friedman coached the City College of New York until World War II started for the United States in 1941. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia personally asked Friedman to take the City College position. During the war, Friedman served with the Navy as a lieutenant commander aboard an aircraft carrier. He later became the athletic director (1949-1963) and head coach (1951-1959) at Brandeis University.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame was established in 1963 and Friedman lobbied hard for his inclusion. But by doing so, it is said that he turned off a number of voters. In fact, he was not even nominated from 1963 to 2004. Friedman reportedly became increasingly bitter toward the NFL. In 1970, he criticized the League for “brashness and arrogance beyond belief” for not including pre-1958 players in the NFL’s pension benefit program.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Friedman was a forgotten man living in obscurity. He suffered from heart problems and severe diabetes, the latter causing him to lose a leg. On November 23, 1982, Friedman turned a gun on himself and died at the age of 77. In the note he left behind, Friedman said he didn’t want to end up as “the old man on the park bench.”

Twenty-three years too late and 71 years after his playing days were over, the Seniors Committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame finally honored him in 2005.

At the time of Friedman’s selection to the Hall of Fame, Wellington Mara said of Friedman, “He towered over his contemporaries and set the stage of the development of the passing game we see today.”

“Benny revolutionized football,” the Bears’ George Halas once said. “He forced defenses out of the dark ages.”

Sources:

  • “Battlin’ Benny – The Man Who Invented the Passing Game,” Lively-Arts.com, Willard Manus, March 2002.
  • “The Man That Fame Forgot,” The Boston Globe, January 30, 2005.
  • “A Long Wait That Will End Much Too Late,” The Washington Times, Dan Daly, February 5, 2005.
  • “Hall of a Snub for Carson,” Giants.com, Michael Eisen, February 5, 2005.
  • “Friedman Joining Pro Football’s Pantheon,” ESPN.com, Joe Goldstein, August 2, 2005.
  • “Hall of Fame 2005: NFL Pioneer Friedman Headed to Hall Posthumously,” Associated Press, Barry Wilner, August 4, 2005.
  • The Giants: From the Polo Grounds to Super Bowl XXI – An Illustrated History, Richard Whittingham, 1987.
  • New York Giants: Seventy-Five Years, Jerry Izenberg, 1999.
  • New York Giants: 75 Years of Football Memories, edited by Victoria J. Parrillo of The Daily News, 1999.
  • Wikipedia.com
  • ProFootballHOF.com