Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Updike on Williams

John Updike died yesterday. The prolific author published more than fifty books, and won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He also wrote regularly for the New Yorker since 1954, often about baseball. One of his best known columns described the last game in the career of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. It was intended as a rebuke to a Boston columnist who noted the occasion by saying, essentially, that Williams was overrated. Updike countered that argument, not with statistical analysis but with an examination of the love that New Englanders had for their hero. He wrote:

"The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories."

In that final game, in his final time at the plate, Williams capped his 22-year career by hitting a home run. Updike described the scene:

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Updike was 76.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Call to Canton

On Saturday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 44-man Board of Selectors will meet in a hotel conference room in Tampa. When they emerge, they'll announce their selections for the Hall’s class of 2009. Their process for selecting new members is as mysterious and shrouded in secrecy as the selection of a new pope. I'd like to say that I can use by profound understanding of the game's history, my keen insight into the minutiae of the process, and my inside knowledge of specific voter behavior to make a prediction about the outcome. But all any of us can do is make a wild guess. With that caveat, I offer up this quick overview of the candidates and my best speculation as to who will be getting a happy phone call on Saturday afternoon. And invite you to participate as well. Click here for details about my first annual PFHOF prediction contest.

Let's start with a quick overview of the process. In August, the nine-man Seniors Committee nominates two candidates. Anyone who has been retired for at least 25 years is eligible. This year, the Committee gave us Bob Hayes and Claude Humphrey. Following that, the Hall begins with a list of nominees from the modern era. Anyone -- including you and me -- can nominate a player by submitting their name to the Hall of Fame. That list of nominees (133 this year) is released in October and whittled down to 25 semi-finalists in November. This task is handled by a 44-member Board of Selectors, which is comprised of a beat writer representing each of the 32 NFL teams, 11 at-large delegates, and a representative of the writer's union, the PFWA. In January, they slim that list down again to 15. The board meets in person on the Saturday before the Super Bowl to consider seventeen names... the fifteen finalists and the two Seniors' nominees. The rules specify that they must pick between four and seven candidates, but that no more than five can be chosen from the modern era list. Someone will stand up and speak on behalf of each candidate, the assembled members will discuss the candidacy, and then they vote.

I wrote about this process at length in my book, and I don't want to dwell in it too much here. But it's important to understand that the nature of the process has as much to do with determining the candidates as does the consideration their individual merits. Let's start by considering the Seniors Committee. (It was originally called the Old Timer's Committee, but Chuck Bednarik complained about being called an "old timer," forcing a name change. Bednarik is 83, but I suspect he could still whoop me, so I'm not going to use the word "Old Timer" again.) This sub group was formed in 1972 to address the concern that players from earlier eras had been passed over and were not being properly considered. They nominated one candidate each year (although they opted not to put anybody's name forward in 1975) until 2004, when they were asked to nominate two candidates per year.

It would be exaggerating to say that the Seniors’ nominee is automatically inducted, but not by much. Nineteen of the last 21 Seniors’ nominees have been voted through. The success rate overall is 79%, and two candidates that were passed over got re-nominated (Lou Creekmur and Henry Jordan) and made it in. So with that backdrop, let's start with the two Senior nominees on this year's ballot. (Technically, it's not a ballot... but for the purposes of this discussion, that's what I'm going to call it.)

Claude Humphrey was a defensive end who spent most of his career with the Atlanta Falcons. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1968, and would be named first team All Pro five times. Although it didn’t become an official NFL statistic until after he retired, we credit Humphrey with 122 career sacks. He was traded to the Eagles in 1979 and was a key member of a defense that won the NFC title a year later. His candidacy is helped by the fact that the Falcons haven't had a player inducted in Canton (with the exception of brief end-of-career stints by Eric Dickerson and Tommy McDonald). Lahman's prediction: IN

Bob Hayes is a much more interesting case. He's a controversial pick, in part because of the passion with which some of his supporters make his case. They'll say "he changed the game by showing how speed could be a deadly weapon for a receiver." The critics dismiss that argument as hogwash, as if it presumes that nobody thought of using fast players before. Hayes was on the ballot five years ago but wasn't selected, but it says something about the passion for his candidacy that he would be nominated again by the Seniors Committee so soon. Hayes did win two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics, and there's no doubt that his explosiveness made him one of the exciting players of his era. But that argument about his impact aside, I think he belongs based simply on his production. He tallied 7414 receiving yards and 71 touchdown catches. Neither total is enough to make him a slam dunk (or else he'd already be in), but they put him in a healthy conversation. The 71 touchdowns puts him between Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff (76) and Ray Berry (68). His career average of 20.0 yards per catch still ranks 11th overall, comfortably ahead of contemporaries like Lance Alworth (18.9) and Don Maynard (18.7). When the voters decided not to put Hayes in the Hall in 2004, longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman resigned from the Senior Committee in protest. (It's a shame, because there is no one more knowledgeable or better able to advocate for worthy candidates). Hayes died in 2002 at the age of 59, and it's too bad that he won't be around to appreciate the honor when he's eventually inducted. Lahman's prediction: IN

There are six candidates on the ballot for the first time this year. Three are long shots. Three are sure things. ESPN's John Clayton, who is one of the 44 writers in the room, says that if they spend more than 90 seconds discussing Bruce Smith's candidacy, they're just wasting time. I have him ranked as the top defensive lineman of all-time in my book, slightly ahead of Reggie White. He's the all-time sack leader and one of the most dominant defenders ever to play. He's as much of a lock as there can be. Lahman's prediction: IN

Rod Woodson also makes his debut this year, and I think he's a lock as well. He retired with 79 interceptions, second-best all-time and 2 shy of Paul Krause’s career record. His 12 interception returns for touchdowns broke Ken Houston’s all-time record of 9, a mark that was later tied by Deion Sanders. Woodson also had 20 fumble recoveries, the 3rd highest total for a defensive back. Like Smith, I have him rated in my book as the best ever at his position. Lahman's prediction: IN

Tight end Shannon Sharpe is on the ballot for the first time, and he's pretty close to a lock, too. Yeah, it's a strong rookie class. Sharpe retired as the all-time leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end, all marks which were surpassed by Tony Gonzalez a year ago. The tight end was becoming an endangered species with the rise of the West Coast offense, but Sharpe helped to usher in an era when teams looked at their tight end as the primary pass catcher. He was a key part of three Super Bowl winners -- two in Denver and one in Baltimore. I worry that some voters, particularly the older ones, will complain that Sharpe wasn't much of a blocker. That's like complaining that Picasso was a lousy cook. Lahman's prediction: IN

If you're scoring at home, I've got the first five men in, with 12 candidates competing for the possibility of two remaining spots. And that's exactly how I expect the conversation to go inside the room on Saturday.

Next up, a pair of wide receivers. I'm hearing a lot of buzz about Cris Carter, who was widely expected to make it last year in his first year of eligibility. He even had a camera crew following him around to capture the excitement of the moment. Oops. Carter started his career with the Eagles, and was unceremoniously released after three seasons, despite leading the team in touchdown catches in years two and three. When head coach Buddy Ryan was asked why he'd release a guy who led his team in touchdown receptions, he replied curtly: "because all he does is catch touchdowns." And I guess Ryan was right. Carter went to Minnesota and caught 110 touchdowns, leading the league three times. He retired with 130, second only to Jerry Rice at the time, but since passed by Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, with Marvin Harrison (128) likely to wave by this fall. Carter is also third all-time in receptions and seventh in receiving yards. I can't really explain why those credentials weren't enough to get him through last year, but whatever argument was raised last January will come up again this weekend. Someone in the room will also argue against tabbing two receivers, which could hurt the chances for either Hayes or Carter. But my money is on both men being chosen for induction. Lahman's prediction: IN

Now we're down to eleven guys for one spot, and I'm afraid that these simple mathematics will keep everyone else from getting through. I've been stumping for Buffalo receiver Andre Reed, but his numbers don't make him a better choice than Carter. What's that you say? We should judge each candidate on their individual merits rather than weighing them against the other names on the ballot? I agree, but that's not how it works in practice. If Carter is selected, Reed's chances go right out the window. It's a shame, because the competition is only going to get tougher. Jerry Rice and Tim Brown are eligible for consideration next year, with Owens, Moss, Harrison, and Issac Bruce coming soon. Reed has an uphill climb. Lahman's prediction: OUT

There's another grouping of first-year eligibles: center Dermonti Dawson and defensive tackles John Randle and Cortez Kennedy. There are serious cases to be made for each gentleman, but none has an overwhelming case. It doesn't help that 99% of football fans couldn't pick any of them out of a lineup. What hurts them most, though, is that there are other, arguably better players on the ballot at the same position. That's not a recipe that will lead to success in the first year, but all three deserve to be considered again, and I think that Kennedy and Randle have a pretty good shot of getting it soon. Lahman's prediction: OUT, OUT, OUT

Two more defenders return to the ballot for the fifth time, linebacker Derrick Thomas and defensive end Richard Dent. I would have voted for both guys last year, but instead the call went to Andre Tippett and Fred Dean. I still think my two choices are better, but I don't get a vote, and if they didn't make it last year they won't make it this year. Lahman's prediction: OUT, OUT

The next grouping is a trio of guards: Russ Grimm, Randall McDaniel, and Bob Kuechenberg. I'm not sure why Grimm is stuck in limbo. That Redskins' offesnive line of the mid 80s had four Pro Bowlers (Grimm, Mark May, Jeff Bostic, and Joe Jacoby) and their own nickname... the "Hogs". How many other lines can say that? I like McDaniel a lot, but I'm not sure he'll ever garner enough support. Kuechenberg's biggest hurdle is the fact that two of his linemates (Jim Langer and Larry Little) are already in. It's ridiculous, but it's the same argument that has been used against players like Jerry Kramer, Chuck Howley, and L.C. Greenwood. Lahman's prediction: OUT, OUT, OUT

Finally, we have two contributors to consider. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had the misfortune of following in the footsteps of Pete Rozelle, a man who was more influential and more innovative than any league executive in any sport. Tagliabue was responsible for growing the business in remarkable ways, but I think history will view his biggest accomplishments as avoiding the labor unrest and the doping scandals that plagued other sports during the era. The significance of those accomplishments will become more apparent with the passage of time, and I think he'll ultimately be inducted… just not now. Lahman's prediction: OUT

And then there is Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson. I think the strongest argument to be made on his behalf is the urgency that his age creates. He turned 90 in October, and has owned and run the Buffalo Bills since their founding in 1960. His longevity is admirable, and he was a key voice in the early days of the American Football League. However, I think there's a lot of uncertainty about his legacy. He has complained about the challenges that he faces in generating revenue in a small market, yet he disdained the idea of selling naming rights to his stadium, putting his own name on it instead. He flirted with nearby Toronto for years, launching plans to play at least one regular season game their each year starting in 2008. He has shown no interest in selling the team, but also has no succession plan in place. The folks in western New York are resigned to the fact that the team will relocate after he passes away. For me, it comes down to this question. What makes an owner a Hall of Famer? It can't just be longevity. It has to be significant contributions to the league and to the game as a whole. It has to be innovation, either on the field or off. I know what George Halas did to earn his spot, and Lamar Hunt, and Dan Rooney. Not sure I could make such a strong statement about Ralph Wilson. Lahman's prediction: OUT

So to summarize, I predict six new inductees: Cris Carter. Bob Hayes, Claude Humphery, Shannon Sharpe, Bruce Smith, and Rod Woodson. The actual results will be announced Saturday afternoon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Hall of Fame Prediction Contest

The Pro Football Hall of Fame will select the class of 2009 this weekend, and I'd like to know who you folks think will get in. Not necessarily who you think *should* get in, but who you think the board of selectors will actually choose. I'll compile the predictions and post them here after the announcements are made. I'll give a copy of my book (or some other suitable prize) to someone who predicts the results exactly. One entry per person, and I'll post my own predictions later this week.

Here's the full list of nominees. You have to select between 4 and 7 nominees, and no more than five can be from the modern era list.

Bob Hayes & Claude Humphrey

Cris Carter, Dermontti Dawson, Richard Dent, Russ Grimm, Cortez Kennedy, Bob Kuechenberg, Randall McDaniel, John Randle, Andre Reed, Shannon Sharpe, Bruce Smith, Paul Tagliabue, Derrick Thomas, Ralph Wilson, & Rod Woodson

More details on the nominees are available from the Hall of Fame website.

Good luck. Email me your predictions by 8:00 am est on Saturday 1/31.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Radio appearance on Thursday

I'll be back on WHAM-1180 with Bob Matthews on Thursday January 22 from 7:00 to 8:00 pm. This is becoming a semi-regular gig. Bob and I will be discussing the Super Bowl matchup and other topics of interest. We'll also be taking phone calls.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rice and Henderson In: Quick Reaction to 2009 HOF Voting

The Baseball Hall of Fame released the results of their 2009 balloting moments ago, and as I predicted, the writers have selected Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice for induction later this summer.

This was the first time that I've published predictions for the actual vote totals. A quick look at the results shows that most of those projections for the vote totals were pretty close. My forecast for 16 of 23 players was within 3 percentage points. Here's a quick peak at the results, with the actual results first and my projections second.

Actual Lahman Player
95 95 Rickey Henderson *
76 77 Jim Rice
67 62 Andre Dawson
63 60 Bert Blyleven
45 46 Lee Smith
44 41 Jack Morris
32 38 Tommy John
23 29 Tim Raines
22 27 Mark McGwire
17 19 Alan Trammell
12 15 Don Mattingly
15 14 Dave Parker
4 12 Mark Grace *
12 11 Dale Murphy
4 9 David Cone *
6 7 Harold Baines
1 5 Mo Vaughn *
1 4 Matt Williams *
0 3 Jesse Orosco *
0 3 Greg Vaughn *
0 2 Ron Gant *
0 2 Jay Bell *
0 1 Dan Plesac *
It's heartening to see that my projections were a little low for the guys like Dawson and Blyleven, and that (as I expected) my estimate for Mark Grace was way too high. After I've had a chance to digest the data, I'll make another post and talk about why I think some of my totals were off.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Yellow Line is Better

It's been around for so long that we take it for granted, but that doesn't mean it isn't one of the coolest innovations of our era. I'm talking about the computer generated first down marker that appears on most football games broadcast for the last ten years.

It seems like a pretty simple concept, but actually making it work is a complex challenge. According to the website, "it takes a tractor-trailer rig of equipment, including eight computers and at least four people" to pull it off.

It requires both GPS and CGI technology. special camera mounts, 3D models of the field, and special color palletes to help the system understand how to draw the line over the field but not over a player (see image above).

The company behind this technology is called "SportsVision," and they've extended their capabilities into other sports as well. If you've watched a NASCAR race, you've seen the little pointers that identify which car is which, along with real-time telemetry to show the car's speed, lap time, or distance behind the leader. In NBA games, they overlay a shot chart on the floor. For MLB games, you've seen how they track the motion of the pitch and show where it ended up in the strike zone. They've developed applications for golf, hockey, horse racing, soccer... even bowling. They're even responsible for the virtual ads that appear on the screen but not in the ballpark.

During the research for my football book I spent a lot of time watching footage of NFL games from the fifties, sixties, and seventies. I missed having that yellow line across the screen to show me unequivocally where the first down marker was. Growing up, watching games in the seventies and eighties, I don't recall ever feeling that my viewing experience was diminished because we lacked those things. But now, the enhancements are obvious.

ESPN recently re-broadcast the 1958 championship game, and Major League Baseball launched their new network with a showing of Don larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Watching both of them, I was struck by how much better the broadcasts are today. There are more cameras and they're able to get you closer to the field with their zoom lenses. The angles of the shots are better, which is probably not the result of a technological advance so much as it is just learning what looks better. The quality and quantity of in-game data is better... I could go on and on, but the overall experience of watching a game on TV today is vastly superior. The contrast is just as dramatic as comparing the production quality of an episode of the Honeymooners with an episode of Heroes. Whenever you start longing for "the good old days," make sure you know what you're getting.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A Fresh Look at The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola's newly restored version of The Godfather and the Godfather, Part II have just been released on Blu-ray and DVD. The director oversaw a frame-by-frame restoration of his films' original negatives, which were in pretty rough shape. The result is a fresh new look at the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis and a pair of classic films that haven't looked this good since they first played in theatres more than thirty years ago. As Fred Kaplan wrote at
The original DVD box set, released by Paramount in 2001, was a huge disappointment. Dark scenes were murky, bright scenes were washed out, and several shots were marred by the video equivalent of pops, ticks, and static. For instance, in Part II's opening close-up of Al Pacino standing in his darkened office, it looked as though mosquitoes were swarming down his face. Paramount's executives were loath to admit it at the time, but the problem was that the original negatives for both films were in terrible condition, the result of studio neglect and technical mishaps in an era before film preservation became a concern, then a cause.

One of the leading centers for that cause is here in Rochester, at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. It's the home to one of only four film conservation centers in the United States, and to the first school of film preservation in the United States. I went there Sunday for a special screening of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and it was a great treat to see the two films back-to-back on the big screen.

Separately and collectively, these two films are almost universally regarded as among the greatest films ever made. The first film, released in 1972, ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the top movies of all-time. Part II ranked #32. The films are ranked #2 and #3 by users of the Internet Movie Database on their list of the top films of all-time.

Why are these great films? I think the main reason is their timeless story about how power corrupts people, and how the lust for power can become a downward spiral. For Michael Corleone, power is not a tool to be used for some other purpose, it is his main pursuit. He is driven by a relentless desire to extend his power and tormented by the fruitless effort to retain it. All of his efforts are in vain. He sees himself as a creator and protector, but he destroys everything he comes in contact with, including those closest to him, and eventually even himself. It's a compelling lesson made more powerful by the backstory provided in the second film, a series of flashbacks to young Vito Corleone from his youth in Italy to his re-birth as a powerful figure in New York city's immigrant neighborhoods.

As the restoration makes clear, the cinematography in this film is also a major reason why this film remains so popular. It's full of memorable imagery. The Godfather opens with a tight closeup of Bonasera who begins with the simple declaration, "I believe in America." As he continues to tell his story, the camera slowly pulls back. It's a long zoom shot that lasts for three minutes, gradually revelaing the room in which the scene takes place. The use of color and light, particularly in the second film, adds another layer of storytelling. It's quite simply a wonderful film to look at.

Part of The Godfather's enduring popularity owes to the tremendous performances by veteran actors, most notably Marlon Brando, Lee Strasberg, and Sterling Hayden. There are remarkable appearances by some great character actors, including Abe Vigoda, G.D. Spradlin, Troy Donahue, Dominic Chianese. Alex Rocco, Bruno Kirby, and John Cazale.

But more than anything, the Godfather buzzes with the energy of its younger cast members, an astonishing collection of talent unmatched in the history of the cinema. The stars of the films were a group of six relatively unheralded actors:Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert DeNiro, Talia Shire, and Diane Keaton. Duvall was 41 when the film debuted; the other five ranged in age from 26 to 32. None had yet been nominated for an Oscar, but each of them would receive the honor for their work on the Godfather films, and as a group they would go on to earn 27 nominations in their careers.

Coppola had already won on Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Patton (1970), and he won Best Director Oscars for both Godfather films. He would receive 14 total nominations over the next 25 years.

There is a lot of testosterone on screen in the Godfather films, but most reviewers have overlooked the pivotal performance of the two female leads, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire. Each is repulsed by Michael's corruption, but respond to it differently. Keaton plays Kay, the young school teacher who opens the film as Michael's girlfriend. She's frustrated by the way that the circumstances of Michael's life keep them from being together, but she seems to understand and accept Michael's loyalty to his family. When Michael proposes marriage to her, he insists that he's not going to end up like his father.
Michael: I'm working for my father now. He's been sick, very sick.

: But you're not like him, Michael. I thought you weren't going to become a man like your father. That's what you told me.

: My father's no different than any other powerful man, [Kay laughs] any man who's responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.

: You know how naive you sound?

: Why?

: Senators and presidents don't have men killed.

: Oh, who's being naive, Kay? Kay, my father's way of doing things is over, it's finished. Even he knows that. I mean in five years, the Corleone Family is going to be completely legitimate. Trust me.

But of course, Michael's efforts to become "legitimate" prove impossible, and Kay realizes that in the final shot of the the first film. Michael's sister Connie (played by Talia Shire) accuses him of arranging the murder of her husband, which he cooly denies. As viewers, we know that Connie suspicions are right on the money. Kay asks him about this, and he repeats his denial, and for a moment, we see her relief. But a moment later, Michael's new caporegimes enter to pay their respects, and as they close the door, Kay realizes the truth about what her husband has become.

She sticks with him at the start of the second film, despite an assassaination attempt at their house, when someone opens fire on their bedroom. She's faithfully at his side as he's called before Congress to testify about his role as a leading organized crime figure. And she's dutifully submissive when she's confined to the grounds of the family home while he was away on business.

But eventually Kay has enough, and can no longer stand by and support Michael in a life that she can't defend. She tries to take the children and leave, but Michael stops her. He can't see that she's fed up with the lies, the hypcorisy, and the descent into immorality. He thinks she's simply upset because she'd recently suffered a miscarriage.
Kay: Oh, Michael. Michael, you are blind. It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that's unholy and evil. I didn't want your son, Michael! I wouldn't bring another one of you sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it's over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael... no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that's been going on for 2,000 years.

Kay leaves but the children stay, and Connie helps her to sneak in to visit them while Michael is away. When Michael discovers Kay during a secret visit, he doesn't express any anger. He simply and silently closes the door in Kay's face, an echo to the final shot of the first film.

Shire's performance as Connie is also powerful. She is alternately defiant and submissive. Connie
stands up to her husband Carlo in the face of his infidelity, but endures his wrath and his physical abuse, and defends him from her brother Sonny's retaliation.

What options does she have? As a young woman in the 1940s, that's about the only choice available to her. Her brothers inherit some measure of power as their birth right, simply because they are sons of Don Corleone. The daughter doesn't get that. Her husband gets a job in the family business as a courtesy, but Connie isn't even allowed into the outer circle. When the brother's discuss how to retaliate for the attack on her father, she's not invited to the room. She has no role in that aspect of family life because of her gender.

After enduring a beating from Carlo, Connie calls her brother Sonny, sobbing. Sonny finds Carlo on a street corner and beats him savagely, warning him, "if you touch my sister again I'll kill ya." In retaliation, Carlo helps the rival Barzini family arrange Sonny's murder. Michael discovers this, but bides his time. After his father has died, and with the rest of the family out of town, he has Carlo murdered. Connie returns and angrily confronts him.

Connie: Michael! You lousy bastard -- you killed my husband! You waited until Papa died so nobody could stop you, and then you killed him. You blamed him for Sonny -- you always did. Everybody did. But you never thought about me -- you never gave a damn about me. Now what am I going to do?

Kay: (puts her arms around Connie, trying to comfort her) Connie...

Connie: Why do you think he kept Carlo at the Mall? All the time he knew he was gonna kill him. (then, to Michael) And you stood Godfather to our baby -- you lousy cold-hearted bastard. Want to know how many men he had killed with Carlo? Read the papers -- read the papers! (she picks up and slams down a newspaper) That's your husband! That's your husband!

She's right, of course but Michael dismisses her, He tells the others in the room that she's hysterical, that they should take her upstairs and get her a doctor.

At the beginning of the second film, we learn that Connie's rage over her husband's murder has caused her to abandon her family completely. She has drifted through a series of marriages and engagements, and seems to have abandoned her children. But after the death of her mother, she straightens up, and seizes the opportunity to become the new matriarch of the family. At the funeral she tells him:

Connie: Michael, I hated you for so many years. I think that I did things to myself, to hurt myself so that you'd know - that I could hurt you. You were just being strong for all of us the way Papa was. And I forgive you. ... You need me, Michael. I want to take care of you now."

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote: "There is little room for women in The Godfather." I don't think that's the right way to look at the movie at all. The women are the key to the story arc, serving as the barometers for a man who is otherwise without limits or boundaries. Because they can not be tempted by the lure of power, they can stand back and look at what unfolds objectively. There may be no role for women in the Godfather's world, but they play a pivotal role in this film.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Babe Ruth of Football

Sammy Baugh died a couple of weeks ago. If he'd have been a baseball player, Sports Illustrated would have commemorated his passing by putting his photo on their cover, as they did for Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. Instead, SI's first issue after Baugh's death had a dog on the cover, and his passing garnered just a single paragraph thrown into a year end listing of other sports figures who had died during the year.

Fortunately, the legendary quarterback wasn't completely forgotten. Some well-written tributes appeared in newspapers across the country, and hopefully you got a chance to read some of them. Several writers made interesting observations about why Baugh and other great football players from before 1950 had faded from the collective consciousness, while that era's great baseball players... like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio... remained in the spotlight for decades after their playing careers ended.

It's not just that pro football was less popular in the forties. In Baugh's case, he never made an effort to remain on the stage. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reflected on his 1998 visit to Baugh's at his home in Rotan, Texas, where the quarterback had lived since 1941. He noted one reason why the all-time great quarterback had fallen out of the limelight.
"No matter how hard the Hall of Fame tried to get him to return to Canton or how many award banquets he was invited to, Baugh never went anywhere unless he could return home and sleep in his bed every night."

Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post laments the fact that Baugh's name was largely forgotten in the discussion of "Greatest Quarterback Ever." The main reason, Wilbon argued, was that he outlived most of the folks who'd seen him play.
"You have to be approaching 70 years old to have seen him play for the Washington Redskins, and it almost had to be in person. "

Baugh was one of the inaugural members of the pro football Hall of Fame, and he was one of those rare players who could have qualified for the honor on three different grounds. First, he was a great all-around player In addition to being a great passer, Baugh was one of the best defensive backs of his era, and he still holds the record for highest punting average in a season.

Second, he changed the way the game was played. His willingness and ability to throw the ball invented the modern passing game and redefined the quarterback position. He was the first to make the forward pass an effective weapon and regular part of the arsenal rather than just a tool of desperation to employ when all other options had failed.

But what's often overlooked is the impact he had on establishing the Redskins as a powerhouse franchise. As Matthew DiBiase points out at his blog:

Baugh’s presence on the Washington Redskins made the nation’s capitol into the pro football capitol of America. In 1937 Redskins owner George Preston Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington and desperately needed a big star who could draw big crowds to watch his team. Sammy Baugh was that star and when he won the NFL championship in his rookie season (only one of two NFL quarterbacks ever to do that if I’m not mistaken—the other was Bob Waterfield in 1945 with the Cleveland Rams). Baugh made the Washington Redskins a viable NFL franchise.

Baugh would lead the Redskins to five title games in his first nine seasons, including NFL Championships in 1937 and 1942.

He should be rememberd as one of just a handful of guys in sports who weren't merely great athletes but helped to change the style of play and raise the stature of their entire sport. For that reason, he stands alongside transformative figures like Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. He deserved better than a throwaway paragraph in Sports Illustrated.


Baugh was the last surviving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural , and his death leaves just one other living Hall of Famer who played during the thirties -- Ace Parker. In fact, there are only nine surviving HOFers who played during the 40s. Here's a list, courtesy of a great website called "Oldest Living NFL Players"

Oldest living Hall of Famers
Name                   Debut/Team           Birth Date
Clarence 'Ace' Parker 1937 Brk. Dodgers 05/17/12
George McAfee 1940 Chicago Bears 03/13/18
Steve Van Buren 1944 Phil. Eagles 12/28/20
Bill Dudley 1942 Pitt. Steelers 12/24/21
Charley Trippi 1947 Chi. Cardinals 12/14/22
Dante Lavelli 1946 Clev. Browns 02/23/23
Pete Pihos 1947 Phil. Eagles 10/22/23
Chuck Bednarik 1949 Phil. Eagles 05/01/25
Y.A. Tittle 1948 Balt. Colts 10/24/26
George Blanda 1949 Chicago Bears 09/17/27

There are another handful of players born in the 1920s who didn't get to the NFL until the 1950s (in some cases because of military service).

Name Debut/Team Birth Date
Art Donovan 1950 Balt. Colts 06/05/25
Andy Robustelli 1951 L.A. Rams 12/06/25
Gino Marchetti 1952 Dallas Texans 01/02/27
Joe Perry 1950 S.F. 49ers 01/22/27
Lou Creekmur 1950 Detroit Lions 01/22/27
Bud Grant 1951 Phil. Eagles 05/20/27
Hugh McElhenny 1952 S.F. 49ers 12/31/28
John Henry Johnson 1954 S.F. 49ers 11/24/29

The calendar keeps marching on. I wrote about the dillema this poses in my book and in a blog posting on AAFC oral histories. The players from the 1920s and 1930s are mostly gone, and the number of pro football players from the 1940s and 1950s who are still around is diminishing every week.