Pass­ing Game: Ben­ny Fried­man and the Trans­for­ma­tion of Football

Mur­ray Greenberg
  • Review
By – January 3, 2012
Eth­nic heroes are exalt­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly among minor­i­ty groups. This is under­stand­able, for heroes play an impor­tant role in help­ing its mem­bers iden­ti­fy with the majority’s val­ues and cul­ture. We have made it,” they make us feel, and we are as good as every­one else.” 

Often, these heroes con­tra­dict accept­ed stereo­types, so among Jews ath­let­ic heroes have been box­ers who wore the Magen David in the ring, strong and fleet base­ball play­ers, and even crim­i­nals who in a per­verse way were admired for their mox­ie. But foot­ball play­ing heroes were usu­al­ly beyond the reach of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty for most of the last century. 

One did stand out, not only for his excel­lence but also as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fig­ure. Before there was a Mari­no, or a Uni­tas, or even a Luck­man, there was a Fried­man. In his care­ful­ly researched book, Pass­ing Game, Mur­ray Green­berg recounts the ster­ling career and com­pli­cat­ed life of Fried­man, which spanned the Gold­en Age of Sports (the 1920’s), the growth of pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball (the 40’s and 50’s), and the devel­op­ment of Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty (the 50’s). So out­stand­ing was Fried­man that in 1928 Tim Mara bought an entire team, the Detroit Wolver­ines, to acquire him to become the New York Giants’ quar­ter­back when an offer to trade for him was rebuffed. 

Fried­man was an accom­plished and accu­rate pass­er of what today we regard as a mis­shapen bal­loon, hard­ly rec­og­niz­able as a foot­ball. The first great pass­er, he was an excel­lent foot­ball play­er — tough, fast, cere­bral — whose prowess led to an aero­dy­nam­ic reshap­ing of the foot­ball and a sim­i­lar redesign of the game’s rules to per­mit for­ward passing. 

Green­berg pro­vides the foot­ball fan with rich mate­r­i­al about many of the game’s leg­endary fig­ures. He also explores the sub­tle anti-Semi­tism which per­vad­ed soci­ety in Friedman’s time, and he con­veys how Fried­man embraced his Jew­ish roots. Com­pre­hen­sive­ly researched and cogent­ly orga­nized, this book pro­vides a good intro­duc­tion to an Amer­i­can hero whose increas­ing embit­ter­ment in his final years could not be eased by the ear­li­er recog­ni­tion he achieved as a trans­for­ma­tion­al figure.
Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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