By Bill Simons
American football, “like the country in which it was created, was a rough,… [hybrid] thing that jumped up out of the mud,” observed sportswriter Sally Jenkins. By the 1920s’ Golden Age of Sports, however, college football ranked as the dominant athletic spectacle on campuses. Nonetheless, professional football, in the form of the nascent National Football League, struggled for legitimacy throughout the decade. Enshrined in both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Benny Friedman, the game’s first Jewish superstar, contributed significantly to the outsized ballyhoo of the collegiate gridiron and to the branding of the NFL.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Friedman, born in 1905, grew up in Cleveland. Young Benny resented the time that Hebrew school took from play, as well as a teaching style that taught language without providing an understanding of the text. Benny, however, found other facets of Judaism more appealing. He had fond memories of lighting the Shabbat candles, challah baking and his mother putting pennies – the Hebrew lucky 18 – in the pushke, the small box for charitable donations, to keep him safe on the football field.
Although his mother initially opposed Benny playing football, due to the threat of injury, his enthusiasm eventually won her over, particularly when Benny’s evident skills brought Mrs. Friedman an attention that set her apart from her friends. During his senior year, Benny led the Glenville High School football team to the Cleveland city championship. The University of Michigan recruited Benny to play at Ann Arbor.
Although Friedman arrived at Michigan without an athletic scholarship, necessitating part-time jobs, he was initially elated with the opportunity to play football for the Wolverines. By 1923, powerhouse Michigan teams under the legendary Coach Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost had won six national championships. Playing for the freshman team in 1923, Friedman demonstrated that he was ready for the varsity. In 1924, however, Yost, by then Michigan athletic director, yielded the coaching reins to George Little. The abrasive Little lashed out at Friedman, the only Jew on the squad at the time, with vicious antisemitic tirades and bizarre accusations. Despite Friedman’s brilliant play, Little made his sophomore star feel insecure about his spot in the starting lineup. Fortunately for Friedman, Little, after one season as head coach, departed Ann Arbor and Yost returned as head coach.
With the return of Coach Yost, Michigan football and Benny Friedman would soar in 1925 and 1926. During both seasons, Yost’s Wolverines, paced by 60-minute man Friedman, won Big Ten Conference championships with identical 7-1-0 records. Friedman’s remarkable broken-field running, precision passing, kicking and exceptional play in the defensive secondary brought him consensus All-American honors both years. Save for Red Grange, Friedman, despite his modest 5’10”, 178-pound stature, was arguably the best and most publicized college football player of the 1920s. None of Friedman’s passes were intercepted for a touchdown. Friedman and his primary receiver, Bennie Oosterbaan, made a dazzling Benny-to-Bennie combination. In 1925, Benny ran for a 57-yard touchdown in the opening game, returned a punt over 60 yards for a touchdown the next week, threw five touchdowns against Indiana complimented by a 55-yard touchdown run and nine points kicking, and so the season – and the next – went. Friedman’s 1925 Wolverines outscored the opposition by an incredible 227-3. In 1926, Friedman’s senior year, Michigan and its star were again dominant. In perhaps Benny’s greatest game, against Navy, Friedman accounted for all of the Wolverines’ scoring.
American Jewry took notice of their first football standard bearer. When Michigan named Benny team captain, nearly 80,000 Jews wired their congratulations. And The Jewish Daily Forward sent a reporter to Ann Arbor to interview Friedman.
Although the NFL in its early days lacked the prestige, fan base or stability of the college game, Friedman was not ready to hang up his cleats. He made his 1927 pro football debut in his hometown with the Cleveland Bulldogs, who built their team around Friedman, and the rookie broke the league record for touchdown passes. He followed the franchise when it moved to Detroit in 1928 and changed its name to the Wolverines, and Friedman led the NFL in both passing and rushing touchdowns, the only player to achieve that distinction in the league’s history.
Coming off a 4-7 record, the football Giants, fighting for survival at the gate, lost money. Giants owner Tim Mara purchased the Wolverines in order to bring Friedman to New York, counting on the handsome, charismatic star to fill seats in a city that was then home to over 1.8 million Jews. At the Polo Grounds, Friedman’s uncle, pointing to some young dark-haired fans, said to Benny, “There’s your mishpocheh (tribe).”
Remaining a triple scoring threat as runner, passer and kicker, as well as a defensive stalwart, Friedman again paced the NFL in touchdown passes in 1929 and 1930, leading the Giants to 13 wins both seasons and making the All-Pro team for the fourth consecutive season. Friedman’s 20 touchdown passes in 1929 set a record that endured until 1942 and was as impressive as Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs. Keep in mind that the football was then shaped like a watermelon. Prior to Friedman, passing in the NFL was rare, primarily employed as a desperation play and discouraged by the rules, which then stipulated that an incomplete pass required turning the ball over to the other team. Tailbacks still dominated the offense. The T-formation quarterback lay a decade in the future until finessed by another Jewish passer, Sid Luckman.
Friedman was the NFL’s first great passer and he changed the way the game was played. Spending his last three campaigns with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he retired from active play in 1934. For a number of years, Friedman remained the NFL career leader in touchdown passes and passing yards.
As a player, Benny experienced remarkable success. Part II of the Friedman story will examine the triumph and tragedy of his coaching career.
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.