Biography of Benny Friedman

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Benny Friedman (1905-1982)


This year, on the 100th anniversary of Benny Friedman's birth, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Friedman had been a two-time All-America quarterback at Michigan and played with the Cleveland Bulldogs, the Detroit Wolverines, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. These were all football teams of the 1920s and 1930s. Friedman was considered the best passer in football, not only of his own day, but also for many years thereafter. He could also run and act as a field general.

During his first four pro football seasons he earned all NFL honors each season. He completed more than half of his passes at a time when 35% was considered a very good performance. In 1927 Benny tossed 11 touchdown passes, in 1928 he tossed nine, in 1929 he tossed 20 and in 1930 he tossed 13 touchdown passes. In those years nobody else in the league threw for more than six passes. Consider that as late as 1977, 20 passes would have led the league. In 1928 Benny Friedman led the league in both rushing touchdowns and touchdown passes, which no other player has ever accomplished.

In 1928 the owner of the New York Giants, Tim Mara, bought the Detroit franchise just to secure the services of Friedman. Mara made that decision because of Friedman's great ticket selling appeal. In 1931 Friedman suffered a knee injury, which ended his playing career. Thereafter Friedman became an assistant coach at Yale. 

During his career as a quarterback for the Giants, Friedman threw anytime, to anybody, anywhere. His performance was so immense that in 1929 and 1930 his ability drew 38,000 fans in Chicago and other cities where the Giants played. In the 1920s such crowds had never existed before. Therefore Friedman became the highest paid player in the NFL. He made $22,000 in 1927 at a time when the average player was paid only $50 a game. We need to know that $1 in 1927 had the purchasing power of $33 today. Consider this: in 1927 a manís suit, including a coat, a vest and two pair of pants cost $15.85. In 1927, an auto worker earned a dime an hour. Today the minimum wage in New York is $6.25 and will rise to $6.75 on the first of January, 2006. Keep in mind also that in 1927 federal income taxes were only 1% and all the other taxes now paid did not exist. So you can see that Benny Friedman made an awful lot of money.

In the 1920s professional football was viewed as a disreputable sport, similar to wrestling. In those days football was mainly a college sport. All that changed in favor of professional football after Philo Farnsworth, age 14, invented television and it became popular after 1945. Therefore a phenomenal player like Friedman helped mightily in giving professional football some publicity.

Because Friedman was Jewish he was labeled by sportswriters as "a descendent of Palestine", "a Jew boy", and other epithets which were commonly applied to the Jewish population of the United States at that time. One need only read popular novels and other literature of that day to find an almost universal labeling of Jews in a most disparaging fashion. In the case of Friedman, who was a culture hero as well as a Jew, this led to cognitive dissonance. Sociologists mean by cognitive dissonance the dilemma of having both a positive and negative attitude regarding the same person or event. An example is where you tell a car salesman that you like his car very much but then refuse to buy it. Or, when the haters say that they don't like Jews at all but think very highly of the Jewish brother-in-law.

Now, because Friedman was a Jew he was not voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame until 2005. As you know, the current voting process was put in place in 1970. For 12 years since then, Friedman, without doubt the Dan Marino of his day, was disappointed year after year. In 1982, when he was 77 years old, his left leg had to be amputated. He also had heart trouble. He considered himself forgotten, useless and irrelevant. And so, on November 23 of that year, Friedman pointed a gun at himself and pulled the trigger. He died a suicide. We will never know how much of his misery was related to his fall from fame and recognition. We know, however, that others who were at one time well known and lost their popularity became equally despondent. An excellent example was Walter Winchell, who at one time ruled the world of entertainment in America. He too "lost itĒ after he was no longer a radio and newspaper personality.

Since everyone gets old, it ought to be of interest to us all to discover how to continue to be productive in oneís late age and not descend into useless depression. To that end I can recommend that we read the book On Our Own by Ursula Falk, as well as Ageism, The Aged and Aging in America, and, Grandparents, both by Ursula Falk and Gerhard Falk.

It is also important that everyone read Football and American Identity by Gerhard Falk, which was published this past April. Although there are over 1200 books on football now in print, there's nothing like Football and American Identity. This should be read not only by people interested in football but should be read by anyone, because it is probably the greatest book ever written.

Shalom uívracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) &  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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