By Bill Simons
As discussed in a previous issue of The Reporter, Marshall Goldberg acquired national celebrity as a dominant football running back in the late 1930s. Twice, he led the University of Pittsburgh to national championships (1936 and 1937); received First-Team All-American honors at two different positions, halfback (1937) and fullback (1938); and finished second (1938) and third (1937) in Heisman Trophy voting. Enshrined in the College Football, Pitt Athletics and International Jewish Sports halls of fame, “Biggie” Goldberg was selected to Sports Illustrated’s 1930s College Football Team of the Decade. Cursory examination of Goldberg’s subsequent NFL career, however, brings to mind an observation attributed to novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Clearly, Goldberg’s professional football career didn’t match his exploits on the collegiate gridiron. Over 77 games during seven plus seasons with the Chicago Cardinals (1939-43, 1946-48), Goldberg gained an unremarkable 1,644 yards rushing. Many college superstars have faltered in the pro game. Usually, however, the performance deficit derived from either an Achilles heel in their skills set and/or the differences between the pro and collegiate game. For example, Tim Tebow, the Florida Gators’ Heisman Trophy sensation, excelled in the collegiate game as a scrambling quarterback, but lacked the arm prowess necessary for a NFL pocket quarterback. Goldberg, however, had the explosive power, speed, agility and size (filling out to 195 pounds) requisite for an NFL running back of his era. In Goldberg’s case, the answer lies in the difference between the indomitable Pitt Panthers and the hapless Chicago Cardinals.
The Chicago Cardinals, year after year, were the football equivalent of baseball’s artless 1962 New York Mets. Football is a team sport, and running backs, no matter how good, need blockers. Most contemporary football fans have never even heard of the Chicago Cardinals (1920-59). The team moved to St. Louis in 1960 and then relocated to Phoenix in 1988, taking on their current Arizona Cardinals designation in 1994. The Cardinals’ won-lost-tied record during Goldberg’s first four plus seasons, typically prime time for a running back, was so abysmal that it looks like a typographical error: 1939 (1-10), 1940 (2-7-2), 1941 (3-7-1), 1942 (3-8) and 1943 (0-10). Although Goldberg was the best player on the inept and scorned Cardinals, he did not even have the distinction of being the best Jewish footballer in Chicago, that honor went to the great Sid Luckman, quarterback of the NFL championship Bears.
Despite the indignities of playing for Chicago’s other team, Goldberg carved out a substantive NFL career with the Cardinals, much of it as a 60-minute man – offensive running back, defensive safety and kick/punt returner. Given the supporting cast, he had credible seasons in 1939 and 1940. Named to the NFL All-Star Game in 1941, his best season, Goldberg, with 117 carries in 11 games, gained 427 yards rushing, third best in the NFL. During the 1941 campaign, he also gained 313 yards, receiving as well 152 on punt returns, an NFL-high 290 on kick returns, and another 54 from his league-leading 7 interceptions. For the 1941 campaign, Goldberg paced the NFL with an impressive 1,236 all-purpose yards on the ground, with 110 more passing. Mad Marshall was also stellar on defense. Another stalwart Goldberg performance followed in 1942, but a fractured left ankle limited Biggie to a single game in 1943. And then came World War II service, with Goldberg donning a different uniform, that of the U.S. Navy.
Following demanding Scouts and Raiders training, Goldberg served on a Navy cargo ship in the Pacific during World War II. Two months after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Lieutenant Goldberg walked the remains of that devastated city. Although he believed dropping the bomb may have shortened the war and saved lives, including his own, he wished that future policymakers could witness what he could never forget.
Testicular injury and cancer, related to military service and possibly Goldberg’s exposure to radiation at Hiroshima, necessitated surgery. Nonetheless, he returned to Cardinals in 1946, four years after this last full football season.
Although Goldberg accounted for 527 all-purpose yards in 1946, he evolved into an outstanding defensive specialist during his final years in the NFL (1946-48). Perhaps the best safety in the game, he intercepted four passes in 1946. Biggie’s dramatic interception against the Philadelphia Eagles sealed the much-improved Cardinals only NFL Championship in 1947. The 1948 Cardinals paced the Western Division, but, by then, Goldberg was primarily a defensive substitute, and he retired from the game at the end of the season.
Post-football, Chicago remained Goldberg’s home. After a stint in the insurance field, he purchased a used machine-tools business. Marshall Goldberg Machine Tools evolved into one of the largest firms in its sector.
Goldberg’s first marriage produced two children, but ended in divorce. Cancer claimed his second wife. With his third wife, Rita Berger, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, Goldberg found marital happiness.
Goldberg’s Jewish identity found expression in Passover seders, contributions to Jewish charities, raising money as chairman of the Illinois Committee for the Maccabiah Games, support for Israel and pride that fellow Jews knew that a Goldberg played a tough brand of football.
Playing in the era of the leatherheads, Goldberg took a lot of hard hits to the head during his gridiron career, sustaining perhaps 15 concussions. The term Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy was just emerging as part of public dialogue prior to Goldberg’s April 3, 2006, death at age 88, and there was no postmortem examination of his brain. It appears likely, however, that the old football hero’s final years were beleaguered by a form of dementia symptomatic of the disease. His family established The Marshall Goldberg Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury Research to honor his memory by providing assistance to other athletes threatened by cognitive maladies.
The Marshall Goldberg Fund is a good legacy, complementing Biggie’s memorable run as a standard bearer during a difficult passage in Jewish history.
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.