The memory man strikes again. Volume 49: “Wouldn’t it be nice if … we could see ... again … in person, live, before our very eyes … without the clutter and mindless babbling of TV commentators assaulting our senses and ringing in our ears … and minus the stupid look-at-me planned, contrived yet spontaneous (?) celebrations and lack of sportsmanship that is applauded but nevertheless erodes what, in the good, old days, was the very foundation on which we based our games people play … ?”
Johnny Unitas taking his trademark quick, four-step drop, pulling up and mechanically — like he could do it with his eyes closed — throwing the quintessential down-and-out pass to Raymond Berry, making a sure-handed catch with toes from both feet firmly planted inches from the sideline. It was always the same execution, near-perfect by design and repetition.
For that matter, how about a return to the old press box at Memorial Stadium, listening to the Colts Marching Band on the grass below or Baltimore News American sports editor John Steadman announcing his arrival by blowing — loudly, if not well — on an old bugle? Quite the character, complete with the bushiest of eyebrows, he later got in a rowboat with Hall of Fame sportscaster Chuck Thompson to give the instrument a proper burial … in the Chesapeake Bay.
Your Washington Football Team without Daniel Snyder. Dream on! Well, it almost happened when a small group challenged the man in a bid for ownership of the franchise that suddenly became available on the death of sports team mogul Jack Kent Cooke in 1997. His son John was the face of the six-man consortium that — little known — included Richmonder E. Claiborne Robins Jr.
“We got out when [the bidding] reached $800 million,” Robins recalled recently. “I think [Snyder] would have gone to $3 billion if he had to.”
When he passed at age 84 of congestive heart failure, Cooke left the Redskins and the stadium he was building for the team near Landover, Md., to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, with instructions to sell the above within five years. In 1999, Snyder bought the team — and stadium — after borrowing $340M to complete his $800M offer, at the time a record for a sports franchise.
A season ticket holder, Robins recalled the first home game under Snyder. “It was like a state fair … [advertising] signs everywhere,” he said. “He was trying to get back his money as quickly as possible.”
By 2003, faced by mounting debt, Snyder sold 35 or 40.5% (both numbers have been reported) of the franchise to three other investors for more than $400M. What a difference 18 years makes! The minority stockholders learned recently they will more than double their money when Snyder buys back their shares in the team for almost $900M. A year ago his net worth was said to be $2.6 billion by Forbes, which listed the value of the Washington Football Team as $3.4B.
WFT is the subject of an NFL investigation for workplace misconduct, and numerous people, including the aforementioned minority investors, have called for Snyder to sell the team. To date he has refused, showing no signs of weakening. In July of 2020, he finally relented and dropped the Redskins name.
Max “The Touch” Zaslofsky, pulling up and drilling a long jumper for the Basketball Association of America’s New York Knickerbockers. That was pre-NBA and pre-3-point field goal. Surely you remember Max, The Touch?
OK, then how about the BAA, later NBA, Knicks’ Carl Braun bombing away with a trademark shot that was so unique no one before or since has done it his way. A slim 6-5, the Brooklyn, N.Y., product would hold the ball above his head then jump and flick it two-handed at the basket, going in often enough that Braun averaged 13.5 points (13.0 shots) in 13 pro seasons (788 games).
When William & Mary football was Division I. The stories go on and on, and nobody tells them better (almost always punctuated with a chuckle) than our go-to man when it comes to all-things W&M, Barry Fratkin.
Last week, in our little tome about Weldon Edwards, the University of Richmond’s first Black athlete to suit up for football — any sport, for that matter — said he would have played for Temple if he hadn’t already signed with UR. The year was 1970 when Wayne Hardin took over as Temple coach … after being the front runner to replace Marv Levy at William & Mary a year earlier.
Levy left to join the Redskins as special teams coach. Hardin was selling tractors and hadn’t coached since running the defunct Philadelphia Bulldogs of the defunct Continental Football League in 1966. Nevertheless, he persuaded the selection committee and W&M president Davis Y. Paschal he was the best available candidate and had every reason to believe the job was his.
On Hardin’s trip to Williamsburg, ostensibly to be introduced as Levy’s successor, Fratkin, the school’s sports information director, was asked by Dr. Paschal to take Hardin to dinner. He was accompanied by long-time friend, Steve Belichick, who had been an assistant coach with him at the Naval Academy during the glory years (1959-64) that included Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino (1960) and Roger Staubach (1963). Yes, the father of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Fratkin: “Hardin brought Belichick down to scout some things, including the campus, nose around ... see what he could find out,” Fratkin recalled. “So we go to dinner … and Hardin says to me, ‘Is there any speed on the team or on campus?’ I said the fastest guy around is my brother [sprinter Mike Fratkin], and Hardin says, ‘I want you to get him out for football,’ and I say, ‘He’s 145 pounds!’ And Hardin says, ‘He’ll never be touched in practice … I’ll promise you that.’ I told him, ‘He’s not going to play football.’ Hardin says, ‘Don’t you want good football at William & Mary?’”
Fratkin told him there was a good high school sprinter in Charlottesville, Kent Merritt, who also played football … “and Hardin says, ‘I want you to recruit him for me [because] you know something about track.’ And I said, ‘Who’s going to do my job?’ Hardin says, “One of my assistants will do it, don’t worry about it.’”
After dinner, Hardin continued his interrogation of Fratkin. “He asked me about a house on the Golden Horseshoe Golf Course, and I told him the property is owned by Colonial Williamsburg, there are no houses [for sale]. Anyway, it must be 10:00 at night when he goes in to see the president, and Hardin says, ‘I’ll accept the job … but I want a house on the Golden Horseshoe.’ Paschal says, ‘There is no house on the Golden Horseshoe,’ and Hardin says, ‘OK, I won’t take the job,’ and walks out.
“Paschal turns to me and says, ‘Call that other guy.’”
Just like that Lou Holtz, “that other guy,” became the 28th football coach in W&M history. They already had scheduled a press conference for the following day but hadn’t told the news media who it would be. It was pushing midnight when Fratkin called Holtz, then on Woody Hayes’ staff at Ohio State, and asked, “Can you be here by noon tomorrow?” He said, “I’ll be there.”
“And no one knew. It was one of the best-kept secrets. George McClelland, sports editor of the Virginian-Pilot, thought it was Hardin, and he told me after all that, ‘If he got the job, I would not cover you any more.’”
During his coaching days at the Naval Academy, Hardin remained at war with reporters who learned first-hand he wasn’t … shall we say … one of the good guys. He had this big, tough-looking guard stand outside the locker room and dare anyone to get in. There were stories of writers who tried — their mistake. But, in doing his due diligence, Fratkin had called Navy to ask about Hardin, “and they had glowing things to say … nobody would say anything bad about him.”
Later, Fratkin called his sources in Annapolis again: “’Why didn’t you say something?’ They said, ‘Well, he was about to sue us because we had bad-mouthed him. So we were under strict orders not to say anything bad about Wayne Hardin.’”
By the way, when he died April 12, 2017, at age 91, Hardin was living in Oreland, Pa., in a house near the sixth hole at Manufacturers County Club. An avid golfer, he had 10 holes-in-one and first shot his age at 86.
The Armadillo, Washington & Lee lacrosse coach Jack Emmer’s solution to frustrating a favored opponent. We’re talking shortly after he came to Lexington, Va., in 1973. The native of Mineola, N.Y., had his players surround their teammate who had the ball and dare the other team to take it away. Any attempt would result in a foul. The Generals did it for as long as 10 minutes, possibly more, if our memory serves correctly.
It was an imaginative, if over-the-top, strategy that resulted in a lot of laughs — unless, of course, you were the other team or, even worse, a lacrosse purist. How dare he make a mockery of our fine game!
Emmer named the ploy after the smallish mammal, with leatherly armored shell, found mostly in Central and South America. The real thing has a life span of 12 to 15 years. Emmer’s Armadillo died after one season, thanks to a no-fun rules committee.
Frank Soden. OK, so there were better sportscasters — maybe — but no better people than the legendary play by play man for all seasons who died in 2010 at age 91. There were so many highs during a career than began in his native New Jersey but really took hold on arrival here in 1948.
Recently, we were reminded of a low that, frankly, hurts (literally) just to think about it. One evening at Parker Field, prior to a Richmond Braves game in the early 70s, Soden fell down the dugout steps and was injured severely. Son — and retired district court judge — Denis takes it from there:
“There was a bat on the steps, and dad didn’t see it. He stepped on it, tumbled down … and severed the big thigh muscle. They had to wire it back into his knee. He was in severe pain, I remember that, and was out of commission for quite a while. He had to use those crutches you attach to your elbows for many, many years. Physically it took its toll. I don’t think he went down any dugout steps after that.”
F. Soden, meet Dave McKay. In Tempe, Ariz., earlier this month, McKay, 70, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ first base coach, tripped on the lower step of the dugout, crashed into the bench, and suffered a broken rib and lacerated spleen. Bet he didn’t say ouch!
Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Rex White, Cotton Owens, Lee Petty and the rest of the good, old boys broadsliding through the turns on the old State Fairgrounds’ half-mile dirt. Watching NASCAR’s latest fiasco trying to drum up more interest had to leave old-timers shaking their heads.
Imagine putting dirt on a high-banked asphalt track, and what do you get? Figure-8 racing, with drivers running into each other for more than four hours. If they thought it was a good idea to leave the regular over-the-wall pit crews at home, it might have been just as smart to put a bunch of amateurs behind the wheel. Who would have known the difference?
And what was with all that dust? I saw a whole bunch of races, modified, Grand National as well as motorcycles, before promoter Paul Sawyer went uptown and covered the track at Strawberry Hill with asphalt in 1968. Sure, we always left two-showers-worth grimy, but not once was the visibility marred as it was Monday in Bristol, Tenn.
Of course, seldom is heard a discouraging word in NASCAR these days. Do it at your own peril. Orders are orders. So the Fox booth of Mike Joy, with former drivers Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, yukked it up start to finish. (If only we could have heard what they really thought.) Too bad Darrell Waltrip wasn’t there. Old “Jaws” wouldn’t have held back. Not his style.
Any time you resort to gimmicks — with more to come — you’re admitting the once great product is in trouble. Better they should dump all those suffocating rules, stop penalizing drivers for going too fast on pit road or sliding below a white line on the track for crying out loud and just let them race.
After a late-race announcement that Bristol would do it again, Bowyer said, “It will only get better.” Translate that any way you will. Our take: It can’t get any worse. Better they should wait another 51 years. Or go to a regular dirt track where they know what to do. What about it, Tony Stewart, any suggestions?
Eddie Robinson. The 13-year MLB first baseman, whose post-playing career included general manager of the Atlanta Braves (1972-76), celebrated his 100th birthday Dec. 15, 2020. He is the last living member of the 1948 World Series champion Cleveland Indians, who haven’t won one since.
Robinson passed through my life briefly when I was Times-Dispatch beat writer for the Triple-A Richmond Braves. To tell the truth, we weren’t exactly buds. Every spring he’d say we were going to have a good team here which got a little old when we didn’t. One spring, in West Palm Beach, Fla., over lunch with R-Braves’ manager Clyde King and yours truly, Robinson said it again. King knew better but couldn’t say so. I could — and did.
Robinson didn’t take kindly to my remarks. A year or so later, my father and mother died a day apart in Reading, Pa. Naturally, we got all kinds of flowers at the funeral, and true confession: None touched me as much as the large arrangement signed Eddie Robinson. Not in a million years would I have expected that from him. It really is true it’s times like that when the true measure of a man shines through. Thank you, Eddie. Thank you!
Until next time ...