Goldberg on the gridiron, part I: football’s great Jewish running back

By Bill Simons

The year 1938 was brutal for world Jewry. It provided a lens to the genocidal horror that was to come. The Germans carried out the first mass deportations in that year. On November 9-10, the Nazis unleashed violent riots in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. The term Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) attached itself to these pogroms marked by physical assaults on Jews, causing serious injury and death. Fires and sledgehammers destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues and cemeteries. In the United States, Father Charles Coughlin, the Catholic radio priest, condoned Kristallnacht as retribution against both Jewish avarice and promotion of anti-Christian practices. 

Confronted by antisemitism at home and abroad, American Jews found pride in the achievements of athletes who served as standard bearers against canards asserting Jewish passivity in the face of antisemitism, and 1938 was a notable year for Jewish athletes. World welterweight boxing champion Barney Ross, fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage, his trunks emblazoned with the Star of David, fought courageously, remaining on his feet for 15 punishing rounds before losing his title to the great Henry Armstrong. In 1938, Detroit Tiger Hank Greenberg slugged 58 home runs, coming within two of Babe Ruth’s season mark of 60, then the most cherished record in sport. “I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run,” avowed Greenberg, “I was hitting one against Hitler.” Another Jew, Columbia passing sensation Sid Luckman, finished third in the voting for the 1938 Heisman Trophy, awarded to the season’s top collegiate football player. And Marshall “Biggie” Goldberg, football’s great Jewish running back, finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. 

Culturally and geographically distant from the ethnic concentrations of New York and other urban centers, the mountains of West Virginia, setting for a Ku Klux Klan revival, would appear an anomalous venue for a Jewish coming of age during the interwar years. Nonetheless, Elkins, WV, population 7,500, and 1,900 feet above sea level, was where Marshall Goldberg was born in 1918 and grew up, along with his four brothers, the sons of Jewish parents, Saul and Rebecca. Family networking brought Saul to Elkins; his older brother owned a department store and, in time, Saul owned his own business, featuring women’s clothing. Although there was no synagogue in Elkins and the Goldberg family was assimilated, the family fasted on Yom Kippur, held Passover seders and, beyond the reminder provided by their last name, affirmed their Jewish identity. Surprisingly, in a coal-mining community of this time, Goldberg did not encounter antisemitism in Elkins. Captaining the track, baseball and football teams, Biggie, Marshall’s nickname, despite his modest 5’11”, 183-pound size, was the star running back on the football team and dated the prettiest cheerleader. 

Accounts of Goldberg’s gridiron exploits circulated well beyond the West Virginia hilltops. From Pittsburgh, PA, 170 miles north of Elkins, Jock “Doc” Sutherland, the University of Pittsburgh’s legendary football coach, made the trip to Elkins, scholarship offer in hand, and successfully recruited Biggy Goldberg to play for the Pitt Panthers. As the sophomore sensation of Pittsburgh’s 1936 team, the halfback ran for a 76-yard touchdown and gained over 200 yards in the first game of the season, trouncing Ohio Wesleyan 53-0; led the Panthers to victory over mighty Notre Dame with 117 yards gained on the ground plus a touchdown pass; and finished the 1936 campaign with 886 rushing yards, guiding Pitt to a 7-1-1 record, followed by a 21-0 triumph over Washington in the Rose Bowl and a national championship. 

Colorful press accounts made a celebrity of the fast, deceptive and hard-driving running back, propelled by powerful legs that could stop on a dime and switch directions. “Mad Marshall” and “Glittering Goldberg” augmented Biggie’s sobriquets. In addition to his iconic running game that centered Pitt’s “Dream Backfield,” Goldberg was an outstanding blocker and a standout defensive safety. 

As a junior in 1937, Goldberg led Pitt to a 9-0-1 repeat national championship season. Biggy gained 701 yards in 1937 and would have had more, but Doc Sutherland, a classy coach, did not believe in running up the score to humiliate an overwhelmed opponent and benched Goldberg and other stars, bringing in the second team, when the outcome was clearly decided. His dominant play earned Goldberg first-team All-American honors and the third spot in Heisman Trophy balloting. The Associated Press gushed, “The big Jewish boy for two years has paced the most ferocious offense in the United States. Coaches say he is the fastest man they have observed in years… equally dangerous off the tackles or around the ends.”

For the good of the team, Goldberg moved to fullback as a Pitt senior in 1938, meaning that he did more blocking and less running than he had as a halfback. The switch in position, coupled with torn ligaments that necessitated donning a heavy brace, probably cost Goldberg the Heisman Trophy in 1938. Even so, he gained 375 yards running, completed a surprising number of passes for a fullback and enabled the other running backs with outstanding blocking. In the Panthers come-from-behind victory over Fordham, Biggie bulled his way for two touchdowns in the final 15 minutes of the game. He finished second in the Heisman balloting and repeated as a first-team All-American, one of the few players to achieve that singular honor at two different positions. By putting the team before personal statistics, Goldberg was instrumental in Pitt’s 8-2-0 record in 1938. 

Over three varsity seasons, Goldberg paced the Panthers to an astonishing 23-3-2 record. Until the advent of Tony Dorsett in the mid-1970s, Biggie held the all-time Pitt record for running yards, having pounded out 1,957. The Panthers retired Goldberg’s number 42 jersey and enshrined him in the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame. And the College Football Hall of Fame inducted Biggie Goldberg in 1958. 

Part II of this series will examine Marshall Goldberg’s National Football League exploits, military service and business ascent. 

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.