A hundred years ago, while the Black Sox scandal was unfolding, two small Massachusetts towns got caught up in an insane game of one-upmanship that inflated a local baseball rivalry to major league proportions. It became known as the Little World Series
In the fall of 1919 competing economic philosophies buffeted professional baseball like colliding weather fronts. The game was caught halfway between 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first paid players, and 1969, when Curt Flood martyred himself for the cause of free agency, suing the St. Louis Cardinals in an effort to block a trade. (“I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold.”)
Most team owners steadfastly pulled backward, toward the nineteenth century. They wanted to maintain full control of the players through the “reserve clause”—meaning that once a player signed a contract with a team owner, the team owner controlled the player in perpetuity. The players, agitating for free agency (even if they didn’t call it that), pulled in the opposite direction, toward Scott Boras and the distant 21st century.
Within these two massive systems, the winds shifted in unpredictable directions. Far from acting in concert, players often behaved selfishly. Carl Mays, for instance. Ten months after pitching the Red Sox to victory in the 1918 World Series, Mays stormed off the field, vowing never to play with such a bunch of bumbling incompetents ever again. Rather than exercise the reserve clause and demand that Mays return, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee acquiesced and sold him to the Yankees. This precipitated a round of internecine bickering and legal wrangling on the owners’ side of the divide. (The case also paved the way for Mays’s fellow World Series pitching star, Babe Ruth, to flee Boston for New York in January.)
These swirling uncertainties inside the game made it ripe for exploitation from outsiders. There was no unanimity here, either, but there were two essential types: big-time fixers and small-time barkers. The fixers dwelt in the underworld. Gambling was as deeply entrenched in baseball culture a century ago as it is in football today. Inevitably, that enticed gamblers to bribe players to fix the odds—and because the players weren’t yet making the kind of money that could insulate them from such temptation, some of them gave in.
The barkers, on the other hand, worked aboveboard—more or less. They offered pro ballplayers a chance to supplement their incomes on the barnstorming circuit. A few hundred bucks could lure the biggest of big-leaguers to the smallest of small towns.
As the 1919 season ended, each of these outside forces reached its peak of influence. The result was two extraordinary series of games, which unfolded in parallel. One, the tainted “Black Sox” World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, was so scandalous that it remains prominent in the sporting consciousness a century later. It’s been well documented, particularly in Eight Men Out (both the 1963 book by Eliot Asinof and the 1988 film by John Sayles).
This story documents the other extraordinary baseball event from the fall of 1919, the “Little World Series” between two neighboring Massachusetts towns, Attleboro and North Attleborough. (Such was the extent of their enmity that the two towns couldn’t even agree on the spelling.)
When it began, on September 6, 1919, the Little World Series was no different than hundreds of other “semipro” rivalries around the country. But by the time it had played out, over five consecutive Saturdays, the semi- portion of semipro had vanished. Each side had steadily upped the ante, until the teams that took the field for the decisive fifth game consisted entirely of major-league ringers.
The climax of the Little World Series occurred on October 4, 1919—the same day as Game Four of the Black Sox series. In hindsight, the contrast between those two games is startling. At Chicago’s Comiskey Park, the White Sox lost to the Reds, 2–0, to fall into a three-games-to-one hole in the World Series. And lost to puts the emphasis in the right place. Having received $10,000 from gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan to help throw the series, White Sox starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte did his part to ensure the Cincinnati victory. The only runs resulted from two Cicotte “errors”—a misnomer, since as Cicotte later confessed to a grand jury, the errors were “deliberate.”
Meanwhile, some 840 miles away, the largest crowd in the history of Attleboro’s Brady Field had gathered to watch what amounted to a de facto major league game. Like the Black Sox scandal, the Little World Series was fueled to an extent by selfishness and greed. But the results were manifestly different. The Little World Series was a sunny yin to the Black Sox series’ dark yang. Instead of a little boy’s plaintive plea—“Say it ain’t so, Joe”—there was the “curious specimen of [a] giant on boy’s legs.”
That was Joe Martin’s description of Babe Ruth.
Joe Martin published the North Attleborough Chronicle, the local evening paper. The Chronicle competed with the Attleboro Sun, the local morning paper. In their unabashedly biased accounts, the two papers did much to gin up interest and escalate the intensity of the Little World Series. They spun two tales of two cities.
And why not? It was a fascinating and multifaceted story. Sharing it was good for business—never more so than when the Chronicle published a telegram announcing that Babe Ruth was coming to town.
What the Chronicle’s account didn’t say was that its own publisher was paying Ruth’s way. Joe Martin declined to publically reveal that little detail until 1961, when he published a book called My First 50 Years in Politics. By then Martin had served in the U.S. Congress since 1924, including two stints as Speaker of the House. His name had even been bandied about as a possible presidential candidate.
In his memoir, Martin casually noted that he had once “hired Babe Ruth [and] paid him five hundred dollars.”
The Babe also got a diamond ring out of the deal. But that wasn’t the perk that Martin found most painful to deliver. “When the game was over I took [Ruth] to the Elks Club and bought him a steak,” Martin wrote. “He devoured it like a polar bear and asked if he might have another. The second disappeared as fast as the first. ‘Would you mind if I had another?’ he asked. ‘Go ahead,’ I said, weakly, signaling the waiter. After the third he had a fourth, and I cannot imagine how many more he would have eaten if I had not finally hustled him out of the place.”
Ruth’s prodigious appetites only added to his appeal. Due in part to his charisma, he would become the most transformative economic force in professional baseball. Like Carl Mays, he had come up through the Red Sox system at a time when teams played “small ball,” and the pitchers were the stars. Accordingly, Ruth became a pitcher—and a very good one. Like Mays, he had won two games for Boston in the 1918 World Series. Like Mays, he’d become disgruntled as the 1919 season wore on. And like Mays, he eventually talked his way out of town.
But unlike Mays, Ruth had recognized new possibilities for himself beyond simply being an accomplished pitcher. He was also the game’s most feared hitter. In 1918, playing in fewer than half of Boston’s games, he led the American League with eleven home runs. In 1919, still playing only part time in the outfield, he had shattered the major league record with 29 home runs. The rest of the Red Sox had hit four--combined.
But it wasn’t just the quantity of home runs that Ruth hit, it was their quality. His elephantine strength enabled him to propel the ball right out of the park and “into real life,” as a commentator once noted.
Wrote Martin, “It was as if all the steaks he had ever consumed had gone into his chest, shoulders, and arms.”
In 1920, Carl Mays and Babe Ruth, the two preeminent “free agents” of 1919, would continue on divergent paths. Mays would achieve infamy, and seal his reputation as a pariah, by striking the Indians’ Ray Chapman in the head with a pitch and killing him. Ruth would cement his status as the game’s greatest player by blasting 54 home runs while playing in America’s largest city. His days of small ball and pitching were done. He was now the great Bambino. He was on his way to making more money than the President (and joking about it, which increased his appeal still further).
But all of that was still in the near distance on the afternoon of October 4, 1919. All that mattered to Babe Ruth that day was the goings-on at Brady Field in Attleboro, Massachusetts, where the Babe was playing left field and batting cleanup for Attleboro’s archrival. On the mound, pitching for the home team, was Carl Mays.
As Ruth stepped to the plate in top of the first, with two outs and a runner on, the buzz in the crowd reached a crescendo. Two months earlier, not many people thought the annual battle of the Attleboros was even going to happen. Absolutely no one foresaw it happening like this.
In 1919 North Attleborough, like most of America, could hear the Roaring Twenties approaching. All aspects of life were changing. There were more entertainment options than ever. (You could go to the moving pictures in your automobile!) But people had less leisure time for leisure-time pursuits. The Chronicle reported that more and more men were spending Saturday afternoons working rather than lounging at the baseball grounds.
That was bad news for Frank Kelley, general manager of the town’s threadbare semipro baseball team. He was having a hard time sustaining enough interest to keep the team viable.
Stifling weather didn’t help. On July 5, with the temperature pushing 100, only 200 fans showed up at North Attleborough’s home park, Columbia Field. Many of those had come to support the visiting Quincy team, which won the game, 3-1.
A few days later the Chronicle reported that the local team was in financial trouble. “Fans will be given another opportunity of demonstrating just how strong they are for having a ball club in town,” the story said, “and if the response is not better all of the games will be played away from home.”
The ultimatum failed to stir interest. A week later the Chronicle announced that the town team had ceased operations.
Attleboro’s baseball cognoscenti sensed a ruse. They suspected that North Attleborough had folded its team not to save money but to save face. If it had no team, North Attleborough wouldn’t have to risk a third straight humiliation in its annual series with Attleboro. An editorial in the Sun questioned everything from the neighbors’ manhood to their financial acumen. “It is an open secret that a series between the two towns will pay, so why under the sun North doesn’t show signs of life is mystifying,” the Sun wrote. “It is hoped that Attleboro will not have to believe for another 12 months that North men are affected with coolness to the pedal extremities.”
North issued no public response to this teleprinted trolling. At least not right away.
In the meantime, Attleboro’s ball club stayed sharp by beating up on other teams from the area. The Attleboro team, a formidable collection of college kids and moonlighting minor-leaguers, was backed by jewelry magnate Bill Saart, a 52-year old native of Germany who had moved to Attleboro in 1881. In 1904 he founded W.H. Saart Company, which specialized in manufacturing silver novelties. Within ten years the company had several hundred employees and had opened offices in New York and on the West Coast.
Player/manager Dan O’Connell, an Attleboro native, was the team’s sparkplug. O’Connell had been a major league prospect who had once roomed with future Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville on the New England League’s New Bedford Whalers. Although an ankle injury had ended O’Connell’s dream of playing in the majors, the local boy still had game. With O’Connell running the team and playing centerfield, Attleboro handled all comers all summer. Until August 23, that is, when Marblehead came to Brady Field and left with a 7-3 win. “The visiting aggregation was by far the best seen here this year,” the Sun noted.
Frank Kelley and the moribund North Attleborough team noted how good Marblehead was, too. Kelley would later serve in the state legislature, and he displayed a politician’s gift for bald-faced opportunism. Shortly after the Marblehead game, Kelley announced that North Attleborough would field a team for the best-of-five intertown series after all. The first game was set for Brady Field on Saturday, September 6.
These were the terms, as reported in the Sun: “There will be no limit to the players, and every man who ever donned a uniform will be eligible.” Kelley exploited the liberal rules by recruiting six starters from the Marblehead team to play for North Attleborough.
The undisputed star for Marblehead—and now for North Attleborough—was Chick Davies. A standout at Amherst Agricultural (now UMass–Amherst), Davies had had two extra-large cups of coffee with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, in 1914 and ’15. Although primarily an outfielder, the 145-pound Davies had pitched in a handful of spot starts for the A’s, with a complete-game victory. He had put his versatility on full display at Brady Field in August, holding the potent Attleboro lineup to three runs on 12 hits while supplying much of Marblehead’s offense with a double and a homer. “He is still the property of the Philadelphia team,” the Sun reported, “[but] prefers semi-pro ball and a business life.”
In other words, for some players, professional baseball circa 1919 was just another job.
Kelley’s comic scheme—raiding the only team that seemed capable of beating his archrival—took a sober turn on the morning of Game One, when Davies’s father “dropped dead,” in the Sun’s insensitive phrase. Davies withdrew, of course, and without its star pitcher, North Attleborough stood no chance. Attleboro blew the game open with eight runs in the bottom of the third, en route to an 11-7 win.
In the bottom of the eighth, with his team up by five runs, Dan O’Connell couldn’t resist ribbing some North Attleborough fans in the crowd of 1,662. Said O’Connell, “Going to have the Marblehead team next Saturday?”
“It was,” the Sun reported, “a body blow.”
North Attleborough did not, in fact, have the Marblehead team for Game Two. With the minor league season ending, the pool of available players was deep. Given a full week to work with, Kelley had ample time to revamp his lineup. He brought in seven new players, including several Eastern Leaguers with major league experience.
It didn’t help. Attleboro scored four runs in the top of the second and coasted to a 7-2 win. The Columbia Field crowd of 1,500 was dispirited, and the local paper captured their frustration. “Men hired to knock the ball out of the lot were lucky to hit dinky flies or push out easy rollers,” the Chronicle sneered.
Trailing the best-of-five series two games to none, North Attleborough was but one inevitable loss away from what the Chronicle called “the snow ball league.” Again.
It wasn’t an influx of Hall of Famers that pushed this rivalry to its critical mass. It was a pair of utility players.
Having sufficiently recovered from the shock of his father’s death, Chick Davies agreed to pitch Game Three for North Attleborough. But Frank Kelley didn’t end his recruiting effort there. “Manager Kelley has been in the Red Sox office three days this week,” the Chronicle reported the day before the game. “[Red Sox first baseman] Stuffy McInnis has been working in conjunction with the local boy and asked Manager Kelley to hold off from getting any other players until he has a talk with Eddie Collins, who arrived in Boston today with the White Sox.”
The upshot: Kelley signed Red Sox reserve first baseman Del Gainer to play for North Attleborough. He also landed Fred McMullin, a backup third baseman for the first-place White Sox. (McMullin would soon be accused of making an extracurricular deal of a darker sort; he became one of those “Eight Men Out” charged with throwing the 1919 World Series.)
According to Dan O’Connell, these two signings violated a gentlemen’s agreement. As O’Connell wrote in a memoir of the series, later excerpted in the Pawtucket Times, “It was understood that … no player under a major [league] contract would be eligible. It was in this game that the fun began, and the big-timers followed.”
North Attleboro’s pair of Sox had an immediate impact. “The playing of Del Gainer will never be forgotten,” the Chronicle wrote. “The Red Sox man fielded perfectly and at the bat all he got was three singles, a double and a triple. … McMullin, the Chicago player, didn’t make any noise at the bat, but he fielded brilliantly. He had a number of difficult chances and his throwing–Oh Boy, but it was great.”
In the first two games, a trio of North Attleborough third basemen had combined for four errors. With McMullin patching that hole in Game Three, Gainer supplying the offense, and Davies scattering five hits, North Attleboro built a 5-2 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. At that point a seemingly easy win became a Buckneresque burlesque. Two hits, two errors, and two outs later, the game was tied and O’Connell stood on second, representing the winning run. Bill Glennon, Attleboro’s power-hitting third baseman, stepped to the plate. A hit from Glennon, and Attleboro would complete a devastating comeback and a three-game sweep. Brady Field was in a frenzy.
The normally unflappable Davies served up a fat one. Glennon connected on one of the longest drives ever hit at Brady Field, far beyond the fence down the left field line. “A well known ball fan, who had left the game, was within five feet of the ball when it struck,” the Sun reported. “He says it landed near a hen house on North Main St.”
O’Connell rounded third, anticipating the sweet moment when his foot would touch the plate and complete the sweep. His memoir describes what happened next: “Halfway between third and home I noticed the ump rule the ball foul. I turned around to return to second base when one of the North fans hit me a sock in the jaw and I went back at the fan, with police and players and everybody all up in arms.”
The Sun, which estimated the crowd at 2,000, described the scene as a “near riot.” Thinking their team had won, Attleboro fans had stormed the field. “Ask a thousand about the hit,” the Sun wrote, “and they will immediately say that it was ‘easily fair.’ Ask the other thousand, and they will say at once, ‘Foul by a mile.’ ”
Home plate umpire Jack Finnell’s ruling stood. And the lengthy delay required to clear the field apparently allowed Davies to regain his composure. He struck out Glennon to end the ninth. After North scored in the top of the tenth, Davies retired Attleboro in order, sending the series back to Columbia Field for Game Four.
According to a North Attleborough history prepared in 1986 for the town’s centennial, Bill Saart confronted Frank Kelley after the game. “You tried to show me up today,” Saart said, while allegedly poking Kelley in the shoulder. “You’ll regret this. From now on, watch out.”
Neither town’s newspaper reported the exchange. The Sun carried just a single terse quote from the Attleboro owner: “Wait until next week.”
Added the Sun’s unbylined writer, “Those who know the local backer are confident he will put a team on the field next week that will make Frankie Kelley travel along.”
The week between games three and four was a hot stove season in miniature. “Baseball was the sole topic of discussion yesterday in town,” the Chronicle reported on Tuesday. “The most frequently asked question of the day is, ‘Who will North have next Saturday?’”
Kelley knew he would need players of an even higher caliber than Gainer and McMullin to counter Saart’s expected moves. And he knew he would need more cash to pay for them. “A flood of money has gone into the coffers of the Attleboro club,” the Chronicle reported, “and the slogan there is ‘Win if it takes a million.’ ” Attleboro’s jewelry trade was thriving, and Saart had several deep-pocketed supporters in the industry.
In contrast, the Chronicle claimed, North Attleborough’s team relied on ordinary citizens rather than well-heeled businessmen. (In reality, Joe Martin was using his connections, and his newspaper’s profits, to help bankroll the team.) The town’s fundraising effort included a “Big Base Ball Carnival” the night before Game Four. An ad promised “Band concerts, cabaret singers and 100 other attractions.” The tag line: “Kelley says, ‘Attleboro will not win the series.’ ”
A Chronicle story asserted that the local fan base was rallying around the team “in appreciation of their courageous stand last week in placing a club on the field that cost more than both Attleboro’s and North Attleboro’s end of the gate.”
Kelley hoped that the hype would generate a much higher gate in game four. Said the Chronicle, “All the chairs and settees available in town will be taken to the grounds.”
Attleboro was just as busy preparing for the showdown. With the taboo against active major leaguers shattered, Dan O’Connell decided to look up an old friend and former teammate. Rabbit Maranville was now a slick-fielding shortstop with the Boston Braves, who were playing out the final homestand of a losing season. It was a slog: back-to-back doubleheaders against the New York Giants on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by single games against the Giants on Friday and Brooklyn on Saturday. With nothing to play for in Boston, Maranville decided to forego the final game at Braves Field and join the cause in Attleboro. If nothing else, the Little World Series would provide a more charged atmosphere than a season-ending game between two National League teams that were going nowhere. (Hard as it is to believe, teams that had been eliminated from contention sometimes allowed players to barnstorm before the season was over.)
Maranville brought three of his teammates with him: pitcher Dick Rudolph, utilityman Red Smith, and outfielder Jim Thorpe. Rudolph and Smith, like Maranville, had starred on the 1914 “Miracle Braves,” who had rallied from last place on the Fourth of July to win the World Series, in what one 1950 poll called the greatest sports upset of the century’s first 50 years. Thorpe, the multisport star of the 1912 Olympics, was coming off his best season in the big leagues, having hit .327. (Ironically it was also his last season in the big leagues; thereafter he concentrated on professional football.)
Also joining Maranville were four members of the Braves’ opponent that Saturday, the Brooklyn Robins (later called the Dodgers): outfielders Zach Wheat and Hy Myers (both of whom hit over .300 that year), and infielders Ivy Olson and Jimmy Johnston.
Back in Boston, the depleted Braves and threadbare Robins would combine for eight errors, winding up the season up with what the New York Times called “a game that everybody concerned refused to take seriously … the cold and the lack of anything at stake keeping the attendance down to the smallest figures of the year.” This in a season in which the Braves averaged just 2,500 fans a game.
In trying to outdo one another, Kelley and Saart had trumped the local National League franchise in the process. “This is without question the classiest lineup ever announced in a semi-professional game,” the Sun declared in a story that carried the unfortunate headline ‘LITTLE DICK’ VS JOHNSON TOMORROW.
That would be Walter Johnson. Knowing he didn’t have the money to match all of Saart’s moves, Kelley opted for quality over quantity. He blew much of his budget—a reported $500—on a single player: the Big Train. Pitching for a lousy Senators team, Johnson had gone 20-14 that year, with a 1.49 ERA. Kelley hoped Johnson would even the odds, no matter how many major league hitters Saart brought in.
Kelley rounded out his battery with Giants catcher Lew McCarty. “The fans could hardly believe that such stars will appear tomorrow,” the Sun reported on Friday. “All roads will lead to Columbia Field.”
Those roads became gridlocked. “Never before were there so many automobiles in North Attleborough,” the Chronicle reported. “Several hundred machines came out from Rhode island. All of the neighboring towns and cities as far away as Boston contributed to the big crowd.”
A man named Jack Tweedy came up from New Canaan, Connecticut, but “the best he could do was to get a place on top of an express wagon.”
Mr. Tweedy wasn’t alone. “The paid admissions numbered 4,700,” the Chronicle reported, “and at least a thousand more unable to gain admission stood on neighboring hills or on top of wagons.”
Said the Sun, “When there was no more room, over 300 persons came in and stood in places where they could not even see a ball pitched.”
Those 300 fans missed pretty much the whole show. Johnson lived up to his billing, and both papers gave him glowing reviews. “To hold the slugging Attleboro team to five hits, two of them scratchy, and to strike out seven while only issuing two passes, is some stunt, and that is what Peerless Walter did Saturday,” the Sun wrote.
In truth, Rudolph was every bit Johnson’s peer over the first five innings, holding North Attleboro scoreless on two hits. And he scored the game’s first run, in the top of the third. After drawing a one-out walk, he advanced to third on Olson’s double and scored on Johnston’s sacrifice fly. Johnston figured in the next run as well, scoring on Wheat’s single in the top of the sixth. In this tense pitchers’ duel, those two runs “looked as big as the Alps,” the Chronicle reported.
But North scaled that mountain in the bottom of the sixth. Johnston was in the middle of the scoring again. With runners on second and third and one out, the Attleboro second baseman booted a grounder from Eddie Eayrs, a Blackstone native who normally manned centerfield for the Eastern League’s Providence Grays. The tying runs scored. “The field became a riot of cheering,” the Chronicle reported. “Hats were tossed high in the air. Staid businessmen performed acrobatic stunts. A roar swept through the field that resembled the cannonading of the American army in the Argonne.”
Two innings later, North Attleborough took a 5-2 lead on a bases-loaded double from McCarty and a disputed balk on Rudolph. And neither side expected a repeat of Attleboro’s game three rally. Said the Chronicle, “Everyone knew that the master of the situation was Walter Johnson.”
Over the final three innings Johnson allowed only an infield single to Thorpe. (The Sun: “Thorpe’s base running was worthy of more than passing comment. He went down to first base the fastest ever seen on the grounds.”)
Red Smith, who had fanned against Johnson in his first three at-bats, grounded out to end the game. “Thousands rushed onto the field,” the Chronicle reported. “Johnson and McCarthy [sic] were hustled up onto the shoulders of a cheering mob and carried off the field. It was a new experience for the Washington star [who had yet to taste postseason play with the woeful Senators] and he appeared to rather like the good will that was thus displayed.”
McCarty, a veteran of seven National League seasons, had worked with dozens of pitchers, including future Hall of Famers Rube Marquard and Christy Mathewson. This was the first time he had caught the Big Train, and he was duly impressed. “He’s the daddy of them all,” said McCarty. “Not only of this generation, but for all time.”
The Chronicle summarized the day: “Some talent, some ball game. Victory doesn’t always go to the side with the most money.”
I will surely be on hand next Saturday to play with the North Attleboro team.
The Chronicle published this telegram, allegedly sent to Frank Kelley, four days before the deciding game of the 1919 intertown series. Babe Ruth was already the game’s biggest draw, especially in New England.
With major league baseball’s regular season over, the Red Sox and Yankees were liberally represented at Brady Field that October afternoon. Five of Ruth’s Boston teammates joined him on the North Attleborough roster, while fellow Yanks Wally Pipp, Duffy Lewis, and Chick Fewster played behind Carl Mays for Attleboro. The lone player to cross party lines was Yankees pitcher Bob Shawkey, who took the mound for North. (Kelley had hoped to bring back Walter Johnson, but Johnson chose to honor a commitment to appear at a benefit for World War I veterans—forfeiting another $500 payday.)
Also in the North lineup were Indians infielders Eddie Foster and Larry Gardner, and Senators outfielder Sam Rice. (The odd man out in North’s Hall of Fame outfield was Boston’s Frank Gilhooly in right.) Joining the quartet of Yankee starters on Attleboro were future Hall of Famer Dave Bancroft of the Phillies at short and his teammate, Harry Pearce, at second; Indians catcher Steve O’Neill; Tigers outfielder Chick Shorten; and Giants third baseman Heinie Zimmerman. “What a team it must be when Rube Marquard and Dick Rudolph are kept on the bench,” the Sun declared.
The Chronicle’s pregame assessment was even grander. And in comparing the battle of the Attleboros to the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and Reds, the paper coined a phrase: “The two greatest ball nines ever gathered on a single field will face one another tomorrow afternoon on Brady Field in the final game of the little world series. Chicago may be the scene of the season’s classic, but the ball players who will be in Attleboro tomorrow would defeat either team.”
The hype had a predictable effect. Although the game wasn’t scheduled to start until 3:15, the crowd began to gather “as early as 10 o’clock in the forenoon,” the Sun reported.
Which was also around the time that Babe Ruth arrived in North Attleborough. “Babe made the trip from Boston in his car and was accompanied by his wife and secretary,” the Chronicle reported.
Ruth was escorted to a reception at the Elks Home, then “was taken to several of the jewelry factories and shown how North Attleborough’s famous products are made.”
And then on to Brady Field, where the largest crowd in the park’s history awaited. Along with Game Five of the Little World Series, Attleboro was also hosting a “Welcome Home” celebration for World War I veterans. “There were 7,219 paid admissions,” the Chronicle reported, “in addition to the 1,000 servicemen and those who came in by the old-fashioned route of ‘over the fence.’ ”
The Chronicle claimed that Ruth hit one of his patented moon-shot homers in batting practice. But he wasn’t able to replicate the feat during the game. In the first inning Mays gave him no chance, taking much of the drama out of the moment by issuing an intentional walk. “Ruth could have walked every time if he had so elected,” the Chronicle claimed, “but he was anxious to show his appreciation of the North Attleborough fans and reached out for the old apple.”
Ruth ended up 1-for-4 with a single, along with the intentional walk.
As is often the case in such games—think Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone, Dave Roberts and Steve Pearce—the result turned not on the stars but on the supporting cast. When Red Sox utility infielder Mike McNally was unable to play short as planned, North Attleborough turned to Jimmy Cooney, a Giants prospect who had spent much of the season with the Providence Grays. Cooney drove in the game’s first run with a groundout in the second. He then drove in another run in the fourth with a double and scored on a single by Shawkey, as North built a 3-0 lead.
On the mound, Shawkey cruised through the early innings, holding Attleboro hitless until the fifth. But in the sixth, Attleboro tied the game on a two-run homer to right by Chick Shorten, a double by Wally Pipp, and a single by Heine Zimmerman. (Zimmerman had three hits on the day and also stole three hits from North in what the Sun called “the best exhibition of third base playing ever seen on Brady Field.” The Chronicle estimated that “Zimmerman’s wonderful defensive work saved Mays at least six runs.”)
The tie game created a tense atmosphere, not only among fans of the longtime rivals but also among the many out-of-towners who had wagered on the outcome. “Thousands of dollars changed hands on the result, sporting men coming from all over New England,” the Sun reported. “One man waved a thousand dollars in the air, offering to bet it even on either side, saying, ‘It’s a gambler’s chance, gentlemen.’”
North Attleborough first baseman Stuffy McInnis, the team’s primary conduit to the Red Sox, took a gamble of his own in the top of the eighth. McInnis was North’s captain, and he shared the field manager’s job with former Sox shortstop (and future Sox manager) Heinie Wagner. Gardner was on second and McInnis on first with two outs in the eighth when, according to the Chronicle, “McInnis and Wagner held a consultation.”
The pitcher’s spot was due up. Although Shawkey was still pitching well, and had already contributed a single and an RBI, McInnis decided to lift him for a pinch hitter. Braggo Roth, an outfielder whom the Red Sox had acquired in a midseason trade with the A’s, came to the plate. With Gilhooly, a lefthanded hitter, on deck, Mays worked carefully, running the count full. This was the Chronicle’s description of his payoff pitch: “Mays burned over one of his famous submarine balls. Roth swung savagely, caught the ball on the trademark and the old apple rode out of the park over the centerfield fence. The scene that then ensued was beyond description. North came to its feet and gave the greatest exhibition of cheering that has ever been seen this side of Cincinnati”—an apparent reference to the Reds’ 2-0 win over the White Sox that day.
North had to rely on journeyman spitballer Allen Russell—whom the Red Sox had acquired from the Yankees in the Mays deal—to hold the 6-3 lead for two innings. “He had terrific speed,” the Chronicle wrote, “and his spitter was working great.”
Even so, a single by Zimmerman and a walk to O’Neill brought Fewster to the plate as the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. But Russell concluded the exhilarating series with a final moment of drama: “Fewster struck out,” the Chronicle wrote, “missing the third strike by a foot.”
And thus North Attleborough completed the unlikeliest of comebacks, from not having a team at all, to trailing the best-of-five series two games to none, to rallying behind some of the greatest players in the game’s history to make Attleboro, in the Chronicle’s words, “take the count in the classiest series that has been played in New England in many years.”
Meanwhile, in Chicago and Cincinnati, the most notorious baseball series ever played anywhere slinked toward its preordained conclusion. “If baseball’s appeal, beyond the immediacy of the game itself, lies in its history and its mythology, then the Black Sox scandal represents a pivotal moment,” Stephen Jay Gould wrote in the introduction to the 1987 edition of Eight Men Out.
Among the changes the scandal wrought, Gould asserted, was that it marked the end of the game’s innocence—which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
As an example, Gould cited Babe Ruth, who “visited sick kids in hospitals, but he also did more than his share of drinking and whoring—and his play didn’t seem to suffer.”
True enough. And if Shoeless Joe Jackson—banned from the majors for life and reduced, ironically, to playing semipro ball—endures as the tragic symbol of the Black Sox scandal, then Babe Ruth is the ideal face to represent the Little World Series. The Babe didn’t make his side deals in the shadows, he made them in plain sight. And he would just as soon play for North Attleborough as for the Red Sox or Yankees—as long as you paid him what he was worth and let him devour all the steaks he could eat.
The same spirit that had spawned the Little World Series in 1919—an inability to recognize reasonable limits—also led to the ill-advised decision to reprise the format in 1920. Not that Bill Saart and Frank Kelley felt they had much choice. “The local fans want the same kind of ball which was presented last year or nothing at all,” the Sun reported.
So the two rivals agreed to hold a best-of-three series in October, when the pool of available major leaguers would be much deeper. With more time to prepare, Bill Saart assembled a roster of even higher caliber than the year before. The Attleboro team that won Game Three to take the 1920 series was among the best in baseball history, at any level. The starting nine featured five future Hall of Famers: Sam Rice, George Sisler, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville, and pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, who commanded the highest salary: $750.
But interest flagged and attendance lagged. The 1919 Little World Series had erupted spontaneously, fueled by authentic anger and fierce competitiveness. The 1920 version was too contrived. It was a business deal, and that’s how it felt. But there would clearly be no going back to the old days, either.
In 1923 the Attleboros gave the rivalry one last shot, with a format that’s noteworthy because it prefigured major league baseball’s All-Star Game by a decade: Attleboro chose players from the National League, North Attleborough from the American League. Pirates third baseman Pie Traynor (Attleboro) and Senators outfielder Goose Goslin (North) brought the total number of Hall-of-Famers to participate in the series to 18 (counting Jim Thorpe, who wound up in Canton).
But attendance in 1923 was far less than expected. Frank Kelley reportedly lost $1,000. Still he received kudos from an unexpected source: the Attleboro Sun, which called him “the little world series hero of 1923” for his efforts to revive interest in the rivalry.
Kelley’s name lives on in the Attleboros—though not because of his role in the Little World Series. In 1924 he followed his mentor, Joe Martin, into politics, winning election to the Massachusetts legislature as a Republican. He served until his death in 1950. Kelley Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, was named in his honor.
If you follow Kelley Boulevard south, it becomes Main Street in Attleboro and wends past Veery and Upland roads, which comprise the parcel of land where long-gone Brady Field once stood. (How many people in that neighborhood realize that Babe Ruth once played in their back yards—literally?)
Columbia Field still stands. Nestled safely off the beaten path, between the North Attleborough Public Works department and Whiting Pond, it has a trio of diamonds that host youth baseball games in the Little North Attleboro League.
After 42 years in Congress, Joe Martin was voted out of office in 1966. He died two years later. “Among those of us who knew him well and worked long hours at his side,” said President Lyndon Johnson, “he will be missed but affectionately remembered.”
Three years after Martin’s death, his beloved Chronicle merged with the Sun to form The Sun Chronicle.
Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
February 1, 2015
The Patriots finally won their fourth Super Bowl, thanks to an MVP performance from Tom Brady, perhaps the best coaching performance of Bill Belichick’s career, and a stunning play from a guy America had never heard of
He came from nowhere. Malcolm Butler, New England’s rookie defensive back, was an undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama. Nothing odd about that; the Patriots coveted unrefined diamonds. Take wide receiver Julian Edelman, whose three-yard touchdown catch gave New England a 28–24 lead over the Seattle Seahawks with just 2:02 left in Super Bowl XLIX. Edelman was a seventh-round pick from noted football factory Kent State. And the guy who threw Edelman the go-ahead TD was the most famous sixth-round draft choice in NFL history.
But for Edelman and Tom Brady the transition from nobodies to somebodies was gradual. Fifty-nine minutes into Super Bowl XLIX, Malcolm Butler was still anonymous even in New England. On media day no one chased him—not with Rob Gronkowski on one side and “Beast Mode,” Marshawn Lynch on the other. Even among the defensive backs Butler was obscure. The game featured two shutdown corners: Richard Sherman, leader of Seattle’s Legion of Boom, and New England’s Darrelle Revis.
So even as the decisive, cortisol-soaked moment unfolded—Seattle with a second-and-goal from the New England one-yard line, the clock hemorrhaging—Malcolm Butler was still under the radar. His primary assignment was pass defense in a situation that screamed for a run. With Lynch in the Seattle backfield, the big bodies up front would decide the game, not a 5’11”, 190-pound cornerback.
While most of America tensed in anticipation of a climactic goal-line scrum, Patriots coach Bill Belichick sensed something else. “We put our goal-line defense in probably around the same time they were sending in their multiple receiver group,” Belichick said later. He could have called timeout. That would not only have left the Patriots almost a full minute to counter a near-certain Seattle touchdown, but it would also have allowed Belichick to alter his defense. Instead, he let both the dice and the clock roll: “It just seemed like in the flow of the game that we were OK with where we were.”
Where they were was this: Coming right at Malcolm Butler was the Super Bowl’s first legitimate win-or-lose play in 24 years. And it summarized a backstory that ran almost as long.
Pete Carroll was the wrong head coach at the wrong time for the Patriots. That became apparent in just his third game. September 14, 1997. The “Tuna Bowl,” with a side of heavy hype. The Pats were hosting Bill Parcells and the Jets. Parcells had led the Patriots to the Super Bowl the previous season before deciding he’d rather shop for groceries in New Jersey. Jilted Pats fans anticipated not just a win but also a rout. It was a reasonable expectation; the Jets finished 1–15 the year before. But before succumbing on an Adam Vinatieri field goal, the Jets pushed the defending AFC champs to overtime. This was largely because the Jets defense stayed a step ahead of Carroll’s game plan.
The Jets defensive coordinator was Bill Belichick.
Back then, had you known that Carroll would soon get the boot, that Belichick would replace him, and that the two would subsequently face off in a Super Bowl, you would have assumed that there would be big-time media blather in the run-up.
And you would have been right. What you could not have foreseen was that the big-time blather would involve the air pressure readings of a dozen NFL-approved Wilson footballs. And that Carroll vs. Belichick would be an almost inconsequential plotline. Pumped and Jacked Pete—trumped by Deflategate.
Deflategate was a story with legs. Marshawn Lynch-like legs. And like its sister “scandal,” Spygate, it had legs in large part because of the way the NFL handled it. At least with Spygate, the Patriots were clearly in the wrong. They were caught recording Jets defensive signals in September 2007. Three days later the Pats acknowledged their wrongdoing and the NFL announced its punishment. That should have been that. But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn’t let it go. He demanded that that Patriots turn over additional video recordings, from past seasons, which he subsequently destroyed without a clear explanation. That fueled speculation that the Patriots’ three Super Bowl wins were somehow tainted.
Goodell was miffed that Belichick had released a statement regarding Spygate instead of submitting to the Walk of Shame before the media. As Goodell later said, “He went out and stonewalled the press.”
Well, duh. Stonewalling the press was part of Belichick’s coaching philosophy. He felt no need to explain himself to the media. That’s why the press treated Spygate as a gift from the football gods—or at least the football gods’ corporate headquarters. When the Patriots were repeatedly frustrated in pursuit of a fourth championship, the media had a readymade storyline. The Pats were getting their karmic comeuppance. They lost a perfect season because Eli Manning completed a miraculous pass to David Tyree, who glued the ball to his helmet as Rodney Harrison delivered a WWE-style suplex. They lost Brady to injury for an entire season. Then they lost another Super Bowl when Eli Manning made another ridiculous completion, to Mario Manningham.
See! Haven’t won a title since Spygate….
Finally, Super Bowl XLIX gave the Patriots a chance at redemption. But the AFC championship celebration had barely ended when the rumors started. Again, the NFL leaked ambiguous information. And while reports of underinflated footballs didn’t prove the Patriots had cheated, they allowed the media to insinuate as much. This was Goodell’s gotcha moment. Belichick couldn’t make Deflategate go away simply by issuing a statement or declaring “On to Cincinnati” (as he had after a 41–14 loss at Kansas City in week four). Not at the Super Bowl, with its 5,500 press credentials and almost as many mandatory interviews. Deflategate was the ultimate distraction—and Belichick hated distractions above all else. So Belichick did what he always did when an opponent neutralized a strength. He adjusted. He called an “unscheduled media availability” before the Pats departed for Glendale, Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. And he gave the media the last thing it expected: full disclosure. He was by turns defiant and self-deprecating. He made a My Cousin Vinny reference. This was not a no-comment. This was not a claim that the Patriots had misunderstood the rules. This was a flat-out denial. It was also a challenge, to both the NFL and the media: Put up or shut up.
And a surprising thing happened. They shut up. Deflategate didn’t disappear, but it receded to the point where the Patriots could focus on the game.
And what a game. Belichick’s Patriots and Carroll’s Seahawks were studies in contrast. Unlike Brady, who couldn’t get rid of the ball fast enough, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was a read-option specialist who was most effective when he held the ball and made the defense commit. He also threw a good deep ball, while Brady’s passes rarely traveled more than ten yards. The Seahawks were loud and brash (except Lynch, who out-Belichicked Belichick in terms of reticence). They were a reflection of Carroll. After being run out of New England, Pumped and Jacked Pete refined his extroverted coaching style at Southern Cal, where celebrities like Snoop Dogg prowled the sidelines during practice. (Snoop: “Pete understands players. He’s all about letting players be themselves.”)
And so the Super Bowl became a contest of coaching jujitsu. Against the NFL’s best pass defense, Belichick all but abandoned the run (the Pats set a Super Bowl record with just one rushing first down). Brady threw a Super Bowl-record 50 passes, with a Super Bowl-record 37 completions. Brady hit Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski for second-quarter touchdowns, giving the Pats a 14–7 advantage just 36 seconds before halftime. At that point Carroll could have played it conservatively rather than risk a turnover at his own twenty. Instead, he turned his offense loose, and it devoured 80 yards in 30 seconds. The last eleven yards came on a pass from Wilson to Chris Matthews. It was Matthews’s first career touchdown and just his second career catch. The first, for 44 yards, had come five minutes earlier against Kyle Arrington, who also surrendered a big catch to Ricardo Lockette.
Matthews’s emergence forced the Patriots to make a halftime adjustment. They put the taller, more physical Brandon Browner on the 6’5” Matthews. And they substituted Malcolm Butler for Arrington.
But the Seahawks adjusted, too. They held the Patriots to just one first down in the third quarter. They picked Brady off for the second time. And, after trailing 14–7, they scored seventeen unanswered points.
Down 24–14, the Patriots remained poised and patient. They had to; this was not an offense designed to throw haymakers. They were more like Muhammad Ali, wearing the opponent down with quick jabs. And over a ten-minute span that culminated with Edelman’s go-ahead touchdown at the 2:02 mark, Brady was indeed Ali-like. He completed 13-of-15 on a pair of touchdown drives, including 8-of-8 on the last one.
But if Brady was Ali, Russell was Frazier. First-and-ten from the Patriots 38, with less than a minute and a half left. Wilson lofted a pass down the right sideline for Jermaine Kearse. Butler stayed step for step and deflected the ball. But as Kearse lay on the ground at the five-yard line, the pigskin became a pinball. It ricocheted off an assortment of body parts before Kearse corralled it.
First-and-goal at the five. The Patriots were on the brink of a third straight Super Bowl loss abetted by a fourth-quarter circus catch good for more than 30 yards. Maybe there was something to that karma talk after all. Even the receiver’s name suggested as much: Kearse.
But for all the derring-do the Seahawks displayed, they also committed a couple of derring-don’ts. They burned two timeouts while the clock was already stopped. So when Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower dragged Lynch down at the one-yard line on first-and-goal, Belichick turned the Super Bowl into a game of chicken.
A minute remained. From Seattle’s perspective—knowing Tom Brady was on the opposing sideline—that was an eternity. So, as they pondered the next play call, the Seahawks coaches fixated on bleeding the clock. Belichick helped them by not calling time. That made the plodding clock pick up its pace. Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was bedeviled by details. “There were twenty things going through my mind that we could do,” he said later.
As the clock approached 00:30, Bevell realized that one thing he could no longer do was the one thing everyone thought he ought to: just hand the ball to Lynch—three times if necessary. With only one timeout left, that would have been too risky. If the Pats stuffed Lynch twice, the clock might run out before Seattle could get a final play off.
Carroll: “So we decided on a passing play essentially to waste a down.”
Like Belichick, Malcolm Butler was a step ahead of the Seattle coaches. He had a quick word with Browner when he saw the Seahawks stack Kearse and Lockette on the right. At the snap, Browner tied up Kearse, preventing him from setting a pick. Lockette ran a quick slant toward the middle of the field, which was open as Wilson cocked his arm. “When I threw it,” Wilson said later, “I was like, ‘Touchdown, second Super Bowl ring, here we go.’ And it didn’t happen.”
It didn’t happen because Butler beat Lockette to the spot. He charged with such abandon that he not only intercepted Wilson’s pass but also flattened Lockette, who outweighed him by fifteen pounds.
With the Super Bowl on the line, Bill Belichick made a gutsy call. Malcolm Butler made it pay off by out-booming the Legion of Boom. The play, like the player, came from nowhere.
Although Tom Brady had nothing to do with Butler’s interception, Butler’s interception had everything to do with Brady’s legacy. That one play transformed Brady from a three-time Super Bowl loser to a four-time winner and three-time MVP.
Boston College 47, Miami 45
November 23, 1984
Boston’s most memorable college game ever
As the cliché has it, no one would have dared to write a script for a scenario as implausible as this one. But the cliché is wrong. Leigh Montville did write the script. Doug Flutie just added some notes.
For years, Montville wrote an NFL column called “Pro Picks” in the Boston Globe on fall Fridays. He led each column with his prediction for that Sunday’s Patriots game. But because the Patriots had played in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day in 1984, Montville led the next day’s “Pro Picks” column with his forecast for the BC–Miami game, a Black Friday matinee in the Orange Bowl. There was keen local interest in the game, which pitted a pair of Heisman Trophy contenders at quarterback: Flutie for the No. 10 Eagles and sophomore sensation Bernie Kosar for the Hurricanes, the defending national champions.
This was Montville’s prediction:
BOSTON COLLEGE 44, MIAMI 43—Night is arriving. The Orange Bowl lights are on. The game has gone forever with all of those passes. Flutie takes the Eagles down the field and scores with zero seconds left. The Eagles go for the two-point conversion. Flutie scores on a rollout.
The score is about right. And I love the “zero seconds left” part. But instead of rolling out for two points, how about if I throw for six? (Remember, I’m still trying to convince the doubters that I’m a “real” quarterback.) And it can’t be a short pass—there has to be a believable explanation for why the Miami defense would leave a receiver open in the end zone. So how about if I heave it farther than anybody thinks I can—say, 65 yards into the rain and wind? It will be the perfect answer to all those critics who think I’m too small and don’t have enough arm strength. (Oh, and for that “Hollywood” touch, let’s have my roomie, Gerard Phelan, catch it.)
The Miracle in Miami sealed the deal for the 1984 Heisman Trophy, with Flutie winning by a comfortable margin over Ohio State running back Keith Byars. (Kosar was a distant fourth.) Flutie then closed his brilliant college career with a 45–28 victory over Houston in the 1985 Cotton Bowl.
The NFL Players Association announced on Sunday that it would “not pursue additional appeals” in the Deflategate case. Most of America is delighted about that. And while diehard Pats fans aren’t happy with the outcome, most are suffering from sufficient levels of Deflategate fatigue that they’re ready to move on. And really, is there anything left to say about this absurd morality play?
Actually there is. In fact, all the hot takes and op-eds about the Deflategate denouement this past summer missed the most important aspect.
No, it wasn’t the Ideal Gas Law, or that Tom Brady actually did better in the second half of the 2014 AFC Championship Game than in the first, or that Roger Goodell shows no consistency in his rulings. As the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals noted in its April 2016 decision, which reinstated Brady’s suspension:
“Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act.”
Fair enough. So let’s review the outcome through the lens of labor law. And in particular, let’s consider the court’s attitude regarding Brady’s “destroyed” cellphone:
“The Commissioner consequently drew an adverse inference that the cellphone would have contained inculpatory evidence and concluded … [that] Mr. Brady willfully obstructed the investigation by, among other things, affirmatively arranging for destruction of his cellphone knowing that it contained potentially relevant information that had been requested by the investigators.”
And: “It is well established that the law permits a trier of fact to infer that a party who deliberately destroys relevant evidence the party had an obligation to produce did so in order to conceal damaging information from the adjudicator. These principles are sufficiently settled that there is no need for any specific mention of them in a collective agreement...”
That passage shows a stunning lack of judicial foresight.
Forget the stuff about “deliberately destroys relevant evidence.” That’s a red herring. The key phrase is: “had an obligation to produce.”
My question is: Why did Tom Brady have an obligation to produce his personal cellphone? This was a civil proceeding, not a criminal one. So this isn’t the equivalent of Aaron Hernandez trying to conceal his cellphone in a murder investigation. (More on this distinction in a moment.)
Further, I take issue with the court’s breezy contention that this issue is “sufficiently settled.”
The ever-shifting boundaries that define personal privacy in the Internet age make this issue anything but settled. The court was presented with an opportunity to examine a serious labor question: With more and more people commingling personal and professional communications on their private devices, where does an individual’s right to privacy end and his employer’s right to monitor company-related correspondence begin?
Far from answering that question, the court didn’t even think to ask it. During the hearing, Judge Barrington Parker had told Brady’s lawyers that by destroying his phone, Brady had shifted the entire focus of the case “from air in a football to compromising the integrity of a proceeding that the commissioner had convened.”
Judge Parker then said this: “So why couldn’t the commissioner suspend Mr. Brady for that conduct alone?”
With all due respect to Brady’s top-notch legal team, I’d like to field that one: Because US labor law ought to protect an individual’s right to do whatever the hell he wants with his private cellphone without affecting his standing at work.
Just think about the implications of Judge Parker’s line of reasoning.
For starters, there’s this: In a 2014 case (Riley v. California), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it is unconstitutional for police to search the contents of a cell phone without a warrant. Which means, by Judge Parker’s line of reasoning, that Tom Brady deserves less legal protection in a civil investigation by a sports commissioner than a criminal suspect like Aaron Hernandez would have in a murder investigation.
And maybe, given the ultimately trivial nature of the Deflategate charges, you’re OK with that. Maybe you think a murder suspect should have greater legal protection than a guy accused of probably knowing that somebody who sort of worked for him might have let a little air out of a football.
But forget for a moment that we’re talking about Tom Brady and Roger Goodell. Let’s say that we’re talking about you and your boss. And let’s say that one day a colleague at a different branch within your company accuses you of an egregious breach of ethics.
You think you’ve done nothing wrong, so you’re not especially worried at first. Your boss conducts an investigation, which includes examining all emails that you sent and received using the company’s server while you were at work. You’re a little uncomfortable with that—sometimes you make jokes that don’t translate well to people who don’t know you—but you concede that the boss has the right to read all company emails.
The process is awkward and embarrassing, but after several weeks your boss can’t find any evidence to support your accuser’s charges. You figure that’s the end of it.
But no. Even though no one else—not even your original accuser—wants to pursue the matter any further, your boss persists. He seems obsessed with proving that you did something. He says that he also wants to quell the ongoing water-cooler speculation because it’s hurting the company’s morale. Never mind that he’s the one fueling all that speculation by prolonging the investigation and discussing it openly instead of handling it quickly and quietly.
You love your job and just want to go back to focusing on your work. The constant questions and requests for documents are creating a distraction and grinding you down. It feels as if the boss has gone from conducting an investigation to pursuing a vendetta against you.
Finally, after another day of lost productivity, your boss says there’s only one way to ease his mind so he can fully trust you again. He needs to examine your personal cellphone to make sure you didn’t send any incriminating text messages.
You decide that enough is enough. You don’t want your boss having access to private messages that you sent to your wife or your parents or your friends or your broker or your doctor. That would be far too invasive, especially given the ham-handed, adversarial way your boss has conducted the investigation so far.
So you refuse to give him your phone.
He fires you on the spot. His McCarthyesque logic is that you must have done what you’ve been accused of doing, otherwise you would have seized every opportunity to prove your innocence.
You sue for wrongful termination, figuring you have a slam-dunk case.
But you lose.
Why? Legal precedent. Just read the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in NFL v. Brady, April 2016.
Boston's 100 Greatest Games, No. 35
Bruins 5, Maple Leafs 4, OT
May 13, 2013
In the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bruins pulled off the greatest Game 7 comeback in hockey history
Could the Bruins win a tight playoff series with Tuukka Rask in goal instead of 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas? That was a major question heading into the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After their first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs it essentially remained unanswered, even though the Bruins had executed the most electrifying Game 7 win in hockey history. Because for most of the crucial sequence, a 31-second span late in the third period, the Bruins had no goaltender at all.
Funny thing was, it was almost predictable—both that they found themselves in such a predicament and that they escaped from it. The 2013 Bruins were as difficult to read as Finnegans Wake (powerplay, still anemic, passing from curve of blade to bend of board, brings us by recirculation of blackish discus back to point of nevercoming triggerpull). This was due, in part, to the lockout-shortened season, which limited the sample size to 48 games. The Bruins began by winning eight of ten. They ended by losing six of eight, squandering an opportunity to win the Northeast Division. Even so, there seemed little reason to fear the Maple Leafs, Canada’s answer to the Chicago Cubs. After Game 4, which David Krejci won by completing the hat trick in overtime to put the Bruins up 3–1, the series seemed as good as done. Then the Leafs ground out consecutive 2–1 decisions to even the series at three each. Still the Bruins rated a significant edge, based on experience alone. This was Boston’s fifth Game 7 in little more than two years. It was Toronto’s first Game 7 since 2004. And the Leafs hadn’t won a seventh game on the road in twenty years.
Yes, the Bruins were banged up. They started Game 7 minus a pair of defensemen, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden, and lost Dennis Seidenberg after just 37 seconds. But when Matt Bartkowski stepped in and scored his first career goal just 5:39 into the first period, the Bruins appeared ready to break out of their offensive funk.
Instead, it was Toronto that found a rhythm. With Zdeno Chara off for high sticking, Cody Franson tied the game halfway through the first period. Franson scored again at 5:48 of the second. Phil Kessel made it 3–1 early in the third. And when Nazem Kadri stuck in a rebound 3½ minutes later, he also appeared to have stuck a fork in the Bruins. NESN play-by-play man Jack Edwards, noted for his outpourings of black-and-gold bombast, offered a clear-eyed appraisal: “The Toronto Maple Leafs, unless they suffer a colossal collapse, are going to eliminate the Boston Bruins.”
One colossal collapse, coming up.
The first cracks in the Toronto facade formed at 9:18 of the third period, when Milan Lucic fed Nathan Horton from behind the Leafs net. Horton buried it. It was 4–2.
According to a mildewed hockey adage, a two-goal lead is the most difficult to protect. That sounds absurd; obviously a one-goal lead is more difficult to protect. (PuckScene.com actually went to the trouble of analyzing an entire season’s worth of NHL games to confirm this.) But safeguarding a two-goal lead can present a psychological challenge, depending on how much time remains. A team that goes up two goals in the first minute of the game won’t try to sit on the lead for the rest of the night. A team that’s up two goals in the last minute of the game will.
But what should a team that’s up by two goals with 10:42 remaining in Game 7 of a playoff series do—in particular, a young team playing on the road, which has just allowed a confident team and a hostile crowd to come to life? It would be foolish to try to sit on a one-goal lead for that long—but a two-goal lead? That might be doable.
Consciously or otherwise, the Leafs started playing like an NFL team in a prevent defense. (Toronto forward Matt Frattin did manage a breakaway with about 3½ minutes left, but Rask denied him.) And although they maintained that two-goal lead for more than nine minutes, they did so knowing that the worst stress was yet to come. That was because of a stratagem unique to hockey: the extra skater. By the time Bruins coach Claude Julien called Rask to the bench, with two minutes left, the Leafs were wilting. The Bruins, on the other hand, had their sense of urgency reinforced by that extra attacker. And hockey players, perhaps more than any other athletes, are adrenalin-driven.
For the Bruins, this was the ultimate high-wire rush. They were working without a net—or at least without anybody to guard it. After a Toronto dump-in, the goalmouth gaped as Chara gathered the puck in his own end with just 1:45 on the clock. All the Leafs had to do was execute a simple poke check, and they could have iced the game with an empty-netter. But by then Toronto had become so tentative—not risking any penalties or turnovers—that they were having difficulty even getting a blade on the puck. They looked like stand-ins, just occupying space while the Bruins ran a drill designed to overcome a two-goal deficit with less than 90 seconds left.
Once he reached the offensive zone, Chara camped out at the right point. He lurked unguarded, stick cocked, as Patrice Bergeron fed him the puck from across the ice. No Leaf was within twenty feet of Chara as he one-timed a shot. Toronto goalie James Reimer stopped the puck but couldn’t contain it. Lucic pounced on the rebound and flicked it in with 1:22 left.
Toronto no longer had to worry about protecting a two-goal lead.
Boston now completely controlled the flow. Bergeron won the ensuing faceoff, which allowed Rask to immediately retreat to the bench again. The Bruins carried the puck into the offensive zone with no resistance. With just under a minute left, Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk had a shot at a loose puck along the boards, but he pulled up and Lucic beat him to it. Moments later, with Chara providing a screen the size of a drive-in theater, Bergeron drilled the puck just under the crossbar from just inside the blue line to tie the game.
Rask, having joined the TD Garden’s 17,565 spectators for that historic two-goal flurry, did his part less than two minutes into overtime by stoning Joffrey Lupul twice in five seconds. Meanwhile his Toronto counterpart, Reimer, couldn’t contain the puck—he could only hope to stop it. Add his teammates’ sudden inability to outskate the Bruins to loose pucks, and you had a terminal combination. Six minutes into overtime, Bergeron collected yet another puck that squirted out of the crease and drilled it past Reimer to complete the most dramatic Game 7 comeback ever.
After advancing to the Stanley Cup Final and taking a two-games-to-one lead over the Chicago Blackhawks, the Bruins dropped three straight, culminating in a Game 6 loss in which a 2–1 lead with 1:17 left became a 3–2 deficit a mere eighteen seconds later. Despite this dispiriting end, the 2013 Bruins will undoubtedly be remembered as one of Boston’s all-time favorite teams. In addition to the Game 7 miracle against the Leafs, there was also the inspiring image of Gregory Campbell finishing a shift against the Pittsburgh Penguins on a broken leg in the Eastern Conference Final, and the revelations that Patrice Bergeron had played Game 6 against Chicago with multiple injuries that should have kept him in the hospital, including a collapsed lung.
Excerpted from Boston's 100 Greatest Games, available on Amazon.
The insidious side effects of technology creep (candlepin bowling edition)
In 1880 a man named Justin White of Worcester, Massachusetts invented candlepin bowling. White bought a combination tenpin alley and billiard parlor and essentially blended elements of each game into a new one.
In candlepin, the felled pins are playable. Players get up to three rolls per frame instead of two. The pins are straighter and skinnier than tenpins (which explains the name). The balls (which have no holes) are about the size of softballs.
When it began, candlepin bowling was not dependent on technology in any way. The only things that moved were the balls, the pins, and the bowlers. All the work was done manually. Candlepin houses employed pinboys who reset the pins by hand and returned the balls on a track that operated by simple gravity. The balls rolled down a ramp at one end and up a ramp at the other end.
The game remained unchanged for almost 70 years.
The automatic pinsetter arrived in 1949. Now the bowler could reset the pins with the push of a button. The machines were much faster and more consistent than pinboys. Also, the proprietor didn’t have to worry about whether an automatic pinsetter would show up for work.
For anyone who has tried candlepin bowling since the 1950s, the automatic pinsetter has been part of the experience. But it’s not an intrinsic part of the game.
By the time I discovered candlepin bowling, in 1985, it already seemed retro. The pinsetters—antiquated, Rube Goldberg contraptions consisting of various belts, pulleys, chains, and electric motors—broke down frequently. Bowlers kept score using No. 2 pencils and sheets of paper or, in league matches, grease pencils and overhead projectors.
The next innovation, automatic scoring, arrived with the new millennium. Computerization made it not only easier to keep score, but also to keep track of league standings, bowlers’ averages, and so on.
After a couple of years I noticed that the increased convenience had a downside in my weekly league. People paid less attention. It turned out that keeping score was also a good way to keep your head in the game. Absent that responsibility, many bowlers checked their phones or wandered away and weren’t ready when it was their turn. Also, when the computer made a scoring error, only a few tech-savvy people knew how to correct it. Candlepin bowling, never much of an action sport to begin with, became even more passive.
One night as my league began, the scoring computer wouldn’t boot up on one pair of lanes. Because the computer was synched with the pinsetters, the pinsetters wouldn’t power up, either. After about fifteen minutes, the two teams scheduled to bowl on those lanes were ready to give up and go home.
I proposed a work-around. Having once worked at a bowling alley, I knew that the pinsetters were equipped with override switches that the mechanics used when servicing them. I suggested to a league officer that she ask the mechanic to activate the pinsetters manually. The computer would still be down, but the teams on that pair of lanes could keep score with a pencil and paper.
The league officer gave me a blank look. I might as well have suggested that she ask the mechanic to invent a time machine to transport us all back to the 1940s.
A game that had originated in the nineteenth century, and which at first involved no technology, had evolved to the point where people could no longer imagine playing it without the aid of a computer.
Boston's 100 Greatest Games: No. 68
Red Sox 3, Mariners 1
April 29, 1986
With one record-setting outing from Roger Clemens,
the Red Sox were suddenly relevant again
It was early. Early in the evening. Early in the season. Early in the bloated melodrama that was the career of Roger Clemens. But the potential for something special was already evident.
Clemens had just struck out Jim Presley, the Seattle Mariners number-five hitter, on three pitches. Now he had two quick swinging strikes on Ivan Calderon, the Seattle right fielder. It was only the top of the second inning, in a matchup of the 9–8 Red Sox and 7–12 Mariners, on a Tuesday night in April. Just 13,414 people were at Fenway Park. (This was roughly 1,400 fewer than were jammed into Boston Garden that night for Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Celtics and Hawks.) But when the count reached 0–2 on Calderon, the noise level spiked among the small but savvy Fenway crowd. As play-by-play man Ned Martin noted on the NESN broadcast, “Fans are starting to get excited early.”
Calderon took the next pitch. Home plate umpire Vic Voltaggio rang him up. The crowd erupted. Clemens had five strikeouts in two innings. This was an irresistible force versus an eminently moveable object.
Clemens had missed the last two months of the ’85 season with a torn labrum. Following surgery, he had gradually regained the velocity and the confidence he had shown as a 22-year-old call-up in 1984, when he had fanned fifteen Kansas City Royals on an August night at Fenway. He was 3–0 in three starts so far in the 1986 season. His strikeout totals had climbed steadily, from two to seven to ten. Moreover, he was working on a full week’s rest, thanks to a Sunday rainout and an off day on Monday.
The swing-and-miss Seattle Mariners, in the throes of a 2–9 slump, were the perfect foil. During their eleven-game funk they had hit a sickly .137 and scored just 21 runs while striking out 101 times. As the Globe’s Larry Whiteside noted in his series preview, the ’86 Mariners were on pace to shatter the single-season strikeout record set by the ’68 Mets. Now, after a cross-country flight from Oakland, they had to face an amped-up young fireballer on a cool New England night with a brisk wind in their faces.
Clemens had had trouble with his control in the top of the first—a result, no doubt, of the extra rest. Eye-level fastballs had dropped Mariners leadoff hitter Spike Owen into the dirt on successive pitches. But the high heat also delivered a not-so-subtle message: With Clemens on the Fenway mound, no visiting hitter should get too comfortable at the plate—not even an old friend like Owen, Clemens’s former University of Texas teammate.
From the second inning on Clemens had almost flawless command, to go with high velocity and wicked movement. The Fenway crowd was more energized when the visitors were up than when the Red Sox were. Any time a Seattle hitter put a ball in play, even for an easy out, fans reacted with palpable disappointment.
Another oddity: A Red Sox error turned into a cause for celebration. Don Baylor, normally a DH, was playing first base for just the second time in three years. (Bill Buckner, the starting first baseman, had taken Baylor’s spot at DH with a sore elbow.) Baylor dropped an easy foul popup on a 3–2 pitch to Mariners DH Gorman Thomas with two outs in the fourth. Clemens got Thomas looking on the next pitch. That was the third of eight straight whiffs—a Red Sox record.
To add to the drama, Clemens got no run support through the first six innings. After two more strikeouts to start the seventh, Clemens got ahead of Thomas, 1–2. But his next pitch caught too much of the plate. Thomas, an all-or-nothing swinger, got all this time, for a home run to center. Suddenly Clemens was in danger of losing the best game he had ever pitched. After getting Presley on a groundout to end the inning, he hurled his glove into the dugout in disgust. But the downer didn’t last long. Dwight Evans answered with a three-run shot in the home half, and after that the focus shifted from the scoreboard to the record book. In the eighth, Clemens got Calderon and Dave Henderson (who was destined to become a Sox hitting hero within six months) to pass Bill Monbouquette (seventeen strikeouts) for the Red Sox single-game record. Owen became victim number nineteen leading off the ninth, as Clemens equaled the major league mark. Then came the record-breaker—the most telling K of the night.
Left fielder Phil Bradley had struck out three times already, all swinging. In the first he was late on a fastball up and away. In the fourth he was late on a fastball down and in. In the seventh he was late on a letter-high fastball right over the heart of the plate.
In the ninth Bradley didn’t swing at all. He got ahead in the count, 2–0, then watched three straight strikes sail past. He looked like an overmatched Little Leaguer just praying to draw a walk. But Clemens hadn’t walked a batter all night, and he didn’t start now. Instead he rang up his twentieth strikeout. In 110 years of major league baseball, no pitcher had ever done that before in a nine-inning game.
Afterward Cooperstown came calling, soliciting mementoes for an instant shrine. Clemens, still just an impressionable 23-year-old kid, was thrilled to comply. “I’m in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “That’s something nobody can take away from me now.”
The 1986 Red Sox season took on a different character after that night. Clemens’s gem was the second game of a 12–2 streak that propelled Boston from an 8–8 team in third place to a 20–10 team in first. The Red Sox went on to make the postseason for the first time since 1975. Clemens ended up at 24–4, with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts, to win the first of his seven Cy Young Awards. As for the Hall of Fame, well….
Boston’s 100 Greatest Games: No. 39
The 1985–86 Boston Celtics finished 67–15, the second-best record in franchise history. They were 37–1 at Boston Garden, the best home record in NBA history. (They also won three “home” games in Hartford.) In the opening round of the playoffs, Boston faced a Chicago Bulls team that had finished 30–52. That was (and still is) the worst record of any playoff team since 1968.
And yet the Bulls were a tough draw. Forty-three of Chicago’s losses had happened while Michael Jordan was sidelined with a broken bone in his left foot. But Jordan had returned a month before the playoffs. He was healthy. He was hungry. And the challenge of facing the greatest Celtics team ever, on their home floor, inspired the first sustained display of his legendary competitive fire.
Chicago coach Stan Albeck’s strategy was obvious in Game 1—maybe too obvious. Isolate Jordan and let him do his thing. Jordan scored 30 first-half points and the Bulls built an early twelve-point lead. But in the second half Boston clamped down on Jordan (he still finished with 49 points) and pulled away for a 123–104 win.
In Game 2, Albeck again gave Jordan the green light—but within a more conventional offensive structure. The result was a revelation. Jordan again came out firing, scoring seventeen first-quarter points as the Bulls again built an early lead. This time, Chicago sustained that lead for most of the game. When at last the Celtics surged ahead, in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, it happened on a play that would have broken the average player’s will. With the shot clock about to expire, Larry Bird nailed a long three that put the Celtics up 93–92 and took the roof off the Garden.
Instead of wilting, Jordan got better. He collected a pair of free throws on a drive to the hoop to regain the lead. Those were the first of eighteen fourth-quarter points. Five times Jordan’s shots either tied the game or gave Chicago back the lead. Only one other Bull, Dave Corzine, hit a field goal in the fourth quarter—and that was on a feed from Jordan with three minutes left.
Almost as telling as Jordan’s point total were the Celtics foul totals, which climbed in direct proportion. Bill Walton and Dennis Johnson fouled out. Bird, Robert Parish, and Danny Ainge each had five. So it’s not as if the Celtics weren’t trying to stop Jordan. They just couldn’t do it. Said Bird, “I didn’t think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us the past two games.”
The clearest sign that Jordan had already achieved a rarefied status among NBA players came at the end of regulation. With the Bulls down 116–114, Jordan attempted the last shot just before the buzzer. He didn’t take the ball into the paint to go for the tie. He pulled up for a three, going for the win. It was his first attempt from beyond the arc all day.
It was no good. But referee Ed Middleton whistled Kevin McHale for a foul, on what could generously be termed a borderline call.
To review: With a playoff game on the line, an official gave a 23-year-old second-year player on a 30–52 team the benefit of a critical call over a veteran team with a 40–1 home record playing on their own floor.
Still, Jordan needed to deliver under intense pressure. At the time, a shooter was awarded just two free throws when fouled on a three-point attempt. Jordan, all alone at the foul line, with all zeroes on the clock and 14,890 Boston Garden fans trying to rattle him, needed to sink both to send the game into overtime.
The first one nearly rolled out before dropping. The second one was all net. It was Jordan’s 54th point of the game.
The game seesawed through the first overtime and into the second. With 1:12 left, Jordan again tied the game, 131–131, with a short jumper. That gave him 63 points, breaking Elgin Baylor’s playoff record of 61.
Baylor had set the record at Boston Garden 24 years earlier. The Lakers had won that game, but the Celtics won the 1962 NBA Finals (see Game No. 11). Even paired with the great Jerry West, Baylor couldn’t overcome a balanced Celtics team that featured seven future Hall of Famers.
And so it was with Michael Jordan in 1986. The Celtics had five future Hall of Famers, and it took every one of them to overcome Jordan’s singular performance. Bird had 36 points, twelve rebounds, eight assists and two blocks. McHale had 27 points and fifteen rebounds. Johnson had fifteen points and eight assists. Parish had thirteen points and nine rebounds. Walton had ten points and fifteen rebounds.
Two guys who were not destined for the Hall also came through at crunch time. Danny Ainge had 24 points, all after halftime, as Boston battled back from a double-digit deficit. And when the Celtics needed one last answer for Jordan, it came from backup guard Jerry Sichting, who hit a jumper from the top of the key to break the final tie.
Afterward Jordan professed to be unimpressed with his performance. “I wanted to win the game so badly that the points don’t even mean anything to me,” he said. “Maybe fifteen years down the line I can look back and be happy about it. But not now.”
The Celtics completed a first-round sweep of the best-of-five series with a 122–104 win at Chicago. (Jordan fouled out of that game with just nineteen points.) Boston coasted to the 1986 NBA championship with a 15–3 playoff record, including 10–0 at the Garden. No other team pushed them as hard on their home floor as Jordan’s Bulls did.
After winning the World Series three times in four years, the Red Sox finished sixth in 1919. Boston Herald columnist Bob Dunbar was sanguine: “Probably this is the best thing that could happen to the Hub. There is such a thing as a surfeit of World Series, and a year off now and then will only increase interest in the grand old game right here in the Hub. Anyway, next season’s another year.”
Boston fans know better now. That next championship could be a long time in coming. That’s why the Pats’ AFC title game loss smarts so much.
I still remember Pat Summerall’s narration on This Week in Pro Football: “Sixty-three yards to the Hall of Fame.”
In typical NFL Films style, the ball descended in slow motion, to a sweeping orchestral score. As the ball cleared the crossbar—barely—the official in the background exploded from a half crouch and actually jumped into the air as he signaled that the kick was good.
I was eleven years old. I was not a Saints fan. But something about Tom Dempsey’s record 63-yard field goal, which gave the Saints a 19–17 win over the Lions, lodged inside me and lingered. The NFL Films presentation of it gave me goose bumps.
I’m sure part if that was due to anticipation. I’d waited six days to see that kick. (Yes, back then you had wait until the following Saturday to see a wrap-up of Sunday’s games.) And some of it had to do with the inspiring notion of a bad team emerging triumphant under desperate circumstances. Down a point, with time for one more play, the Saints lined up for a field goal in their own territory. (The goalposts were on the goal line in 1970, so the spot for Dempsey’s record-breaking kick was the New Orleans 37.)
But mostly the thing that captured my imagination about that kick was the kicker.
I knew that Tom Dempsey had been born with just half a right foot and half a right arm. And I just thought, in a simplistic, kidlike way, it was cool that he had overcome those limitations to not only make it to the NFL, but to also set a record.
But during the week following Dempsey’s record-setting kick, I discovered that not everyone shared my sense of wonder. Dallas Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm, who was head of the NFL’s competition committee, declared: “I feel the record should have an asterisk by it.”
The issue was Dempsey’s kicking shoe, which had a large, flat front surface. His detractors said the shoe gave him an unfair advantage over other kickers. Supposedly his “club foot” turned his powerful right leg into an actual club—like a golfer’s driver.
There was a picture of Dempsey’s shoe in the paper. It sure didn’t look like an “advantage” to me. I thought the people who were complaining sounded like crybabies.
Scroll ahead 40 years. In 2010 I was working on a proposal for a book (never published) with the working title Further Review: An Annotated History of NFL Rules. The idea was to start with the official NFL Rulebook, in all its 295 pages of complexity, and work backward in a sort of forensic examination to determine how the modern game of pro football had evolved from its crude beginnings.
Most rule changes, I determined, were slow and incremental, a response to long-term trends. But a few could be traced to specific plays—and specific players. This was one:
Rule 5, Section 4, Article 3G
Kicking shoes must not be modified, and any shoe that is worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking toe.
The Tom Dempsey Rule, it was called.
Turned out that Schramm got his way with the competition committee, although it took seven years to approve the change.
Why Schramm had a vendetta against Dempsey is hard to say. Maybe it was because Schramm hated the old AFL, and it bothered him that an AFL reject (Dempsey had broken in with the AFL’s Chargers) had set an NFL record. Further, it was Chargers coach Sid Gillman who had suggested Dempsey try a custom-made shoe. (Before that, Dempsey had kicked barefoot.)
But the thing that puzzled me most about the Tom Dempsey Rule was that it apparently had never applied to Tom Dempsey. I’d seen photos of Dempsey when he played for the Buffalo Bills, after the rule change, and it looked like he was using the same style shoe he always had.
I wondered why that was. Had he been grandfathered in? Or was it a matter of semantics? Technically, Dempsey’s shoe wasn’t “modified”—it had been custom made to fit his foot, by a company called Rgp Orthopedic Appliance in San Diego. Nor did Dempsey have an “artificial limb.” He derived his impressive power from the leg he was born with.
I tracked down a phone number and called Dempsey for an explanation.
I’m happy to report that the impression I had formed of Tom Dempsey when I was eleven years old still held up in adulthood. For instance: He told me that, out of consideration for his mother, he had never bothered to research the cause of his birth defect. “I didn’t want to put that on her,” he said. “I just figured I was born that way and there was nothing I could do about it, so let’s just get on with life.”
And as for whether his custom-made shoe gave him an advantage, Dempsey said: “When I missed a field goal no one said I had a disadvantage.”
In that same spirit, Dempsey told me he was prepared to fight the NFL—in court, if necessary—if they insisted that he use a shoe with a “normal kicking toe.” His lawyer was prepared to sue the league for unlawful discrimination.
But it never came to that. Why? Because of a short, simple conversation between Dempsey and then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Said Dempsey, “He just told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, Tom.’”
And that was that. Tom Dempsey continued to wear the same shoe he always had, and the NFL took no action.
“Pete was a good guy,” Dempsey said. “He was maybe the last commissioner that liked the players and the fans.”
This conversation took place more than five years ago, long before Deflategate. But a controversy was already brewing about the NFL’s handling of the issue of concussions and player pensions. Since then Dempsey has gone into seclusion, at the Lambeth House in New Orleans. He suffers from Alzheimer’s.
This week, as the 45th anniversary of that landmark kick approached, I reviewed the notes of my brief conversation with Tom Dempsey. I was struck by what he’d said about Pete Rozelle—and, by implication, about the commissioners who followed.
I thought, naturally, of Roger Goodell. And I thought of Deflategate.
And I saw an obvious parallel.
Some might see this as a false equivalence—maybe even an offensive one. Tom Dempsey used a nonstandard shoe because of a birth defect. Tom Brady is accused of being “generally aware” that team employees allegedly reduced the air pressure in Patriots footballs per Brady’s preference.
Still, in each instance the NFL commissioner had to make essentially the same call. Presented with a dubious case involving allegations that altered equipment provided a competitive advantage, both Pete Rozelle and Roger Goodell had to decide whether to risk millions of dollars in legal fees and a potential public-relations nightmare in order to placate a handful of team owners.
It’s clear that Pete Rozelle made the right call and Roger Goodell did not. Really, it’s that simple. Last spring, with the same five simple words that Rozelle used, Goodell could have made this whole Deflategate mess go away:
Don’t worry about it, Tom.