Wednesday, March 3, 2021
A couple things about The Years’ Best Sports Writing, the new annual collection of sports writing. For one, I’m thrilled that a collection of sports writing will continue, following The Best Sports Stories series, which appeared from 1945 thru 1991, and The Best American Sports Writing from 1991 thru 2020, meaning that the first edition of The Years’ Best Sports Writing will mark the 76th year such a collection has appeared. I thank everyone at Triumph for their faith in the concept, and for reaching out after the demise of BASW. It is not “my” book, and never has been. Although I will serve as editor of this inaugural edition – until this year – I have never made a selection of a single story for the collection, and in subsequent years a new editor will be chose by the Publisher each year. There will be no “Series Editor,” the role I filled for The Best American Sports Writing. An eight-member Editorial Board made up of both staffer and freelancers covering the full spectrum of contemporary sports writing will make recommendations to the Annual Editor each year and we will ask that Editor to take a much more active role throughout the year in the selection process. This, I think, will ensure the Series will not only be sustainable but will include as many diverse viewpoints and styles as possible. I’ll stay on in only an advisory capacity for the next few years to make sure the train keeps running. Then I’ll step away. The book belongs to its readers and the writers who make such a collection possible. More than anything, I thank the many, many readers whose enthusiasm for these books has meant so much – I’ve lost track of the number who have sent me photos of their collections of the earlier two series. I leave the collection in the hands of the writers whose work will be responsible for its success.
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
You're researching another book, a long time ago. You come across a headline, two headlines, ten, a hundred. And two names: Tiger Girl and Candy Kid. They work their way in slow at first, first just tapping at your brain's back door, then start hitting like a hammer. Who are these people?
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
(This column first appeared in the July edition of Boston Baseball)
My older brother wasn’t much of a ballplayer, which I guess is really a nice way of saying he really didn’t like baseball at all. It’s understandable - he was left-handed and for some reason grew up trying to throw and bat right-handed. I was not much older than a toddler and remember watching him in Mosquito League wearing the old wrap-around earmuff batting helmets. When he didn’t want to play the next season, my parents, who weren’t big fans, were fine with that. Besides, somewhat inexplicably, by then I was crazy about the game and sucked up all the baseball oxygen in the house.
Yet he’s always recognized my baseball obsession, something I’ve grown to appreciate. He spent his career as a graphic artist and if something interesting and baseball-related passed his way, he always made sure I heard about it.
Since retirement he’s kept himself busy diving into the rabbit hole of our family genealogy so deeply that, well, if he’d have put that effort into baseball, he’d be in the Hall of Fame – I tell him he should become a professional genealogist. He gets lost in history and that’s where we intersect. When we talk, most of the conversations are about some arcane relative he’s just discovered which opens up some obscure fact about what was happening elsewhere in the world four or five hundred years ago.
Over the years he’s had some surprising finds, such as the fact that my high school band director, who I didn’t much care for and who I don’t think thought much of me, was something like my third cousin. And he’s discovered other remote ancestral connections to people as diverse as Maria Shriver, the actor George C. Scott, Chicago’s Mrs. Catherine O’Leary (whose cow was blamed for starting the great Chicago fire), one of murderer Whitey Bulger’s victims, a turn-of the century congressman, and two former major league ballplayers. Clyde Shoun, winner of 73 games (including a no-hitter) as a pitcher with the Cubs, Cards, Reds, Braves and White Sox from 1937 to 1949, is a not too distant cousin. Through marriage I’m also related to Denny Galehouse, notable in Red Sox history for pitching, and losing, that 1948 playoff game to the Cleveland Indians. In 1988, long before I knew this, I interviewed Galehouse and was surprised when he told me I was the first writer to interview him about that game in forty years.
A few weeks ago my brother came up with the mother lode. He identified my 8th great grandparents as Johan Peter Wagner, (1677-1742), and Eva Marie Heinz, (1677-1751), from the town of Dirmingen, in the Saarland, southwestern Germany. They had several children and daughter Ana’s lineage, after an immigration to the U.S. in 1837, leads directly down to my father, and hence to my brother and I.
He generally cross checks with other genealogies, and was surprised when he came across another very thorough and apparently accurate genealogy that included the same two names. Turns out they also had a son, John Valentin Wagner.
Here’s where it gets interesting. In 1866 his direct descendent, Johannes Peter Wagner (1838 –1913), also immigrated to U.S. His son, also named Johannes Peter Wagner, was born in 1874 in the borough of Chartiers, in what is now Carnegie, Pennsylvania. According to genealogists, that makes Johannes my 5th cousin, four times removed, sharing a tiny shred of the same DNA.
But you don’t know him as Johannes. If you know any baseball history you know him as “Honus” Wagner, the shortstop for the NL Louisville Colonels from 1897-1899 and the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1900-1917. He figures prominently into Red Sox history because in 1903, the Sox and Pirates played in the first World Series, Boston winning in eight games when Nuf Ced McGreevey’s Royal Rooters (who I’ve written about at length) famously re-wrote the words to the song “Tessie,” mocking cousin Honus and his teammates without mercy.
Wagner recovered from the lass to win a total of eight batting titles and become a charter member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the first five men selected in 1936. He is considered the game’s greatest shortstop and his 1909-11 T206 baseball card is the most valuable card of all time. In 2016 one sold for $3.12 million dollars.
Apart from that twisted little strand of deoxyribonucleic acid and an outsized love of the game, I’m afraid that’s all I share with my esteemed cousin. While I must have inherited whatever remained of the baseball gene in the family, the closest I got to Cooperstown was a few visits to the Hall and an afternoon playing at Doubleday Field with my old over-30 team. Maybe I should have batted with my hands apart, like cousin Honus, and earned my way inside.
But if anyone wants to leave me a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, I promise I’ll keep it in the family.
Glenn Stout recently assisted Red Sox groundskeeper David Mellor with his memoir One Base at a Time: How I Survived PTSD and Found My Field of Dreams.
Monday, June 10, 2019
(from Boston baseball, June 2019)
You’ve seen him at the ballpark, an hour or two or three or four before the games in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, sometimes carrying a rake or dragging a hose, walking across the field. You’ve likely seen Drago, his almost supernaturally well-behaved German Shepherd service dog, too, either at his side or not very far away, ready whenever he is needed.
I’m talking about David Mellor, Fenway’s Superintendent of Grounds, aka the groundskeeper. He and his staff have been responsible for maintaining Fenway’s field since 2001, and he’s also behind the designs you see mowed and rolled into the outfield grass that make Fenway’s field the most distinctive in the major leagues. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
I met David a few years ago to help him with a book project, and in our first conversation we realized we had more than a few things in common. Like David, I grew up in small Ohio town and as a kid was all about baseball. Like David, I was a high school pitcher dreaming of the majors, at least until I blew out my shoulder. But there’s more. Twenty years later I played for an over-30 team in East Douglas, Massachusetts. David told me his grandfather, Big Bill Mellor, who played first base for the 1902 American League Baltimore Orioles, later coached Douglas team in the semi-pro Blackstone Valley League. I played on the same field as his team, and Dave and I discovered we both had a copy of the same team photo, one that not only included his grandfather, but also a nineteen-year-old Hank Greenberg, and Will Jackman, the Satchel Paige of New England.
David was a better pitcher than I was and had a chance to play in college after high school, hoping to one day take the mound with his favorite team, the Red Sox. Then one summer evening he was walking across the parking lot of McDonald’s and a car roared into him, ripping up his knee and pinning him up against the restaurant wall. That began a long and often tortuous journey that would one day bring him to his current role with the Red Sox, where he’s probably spent more time on the field than any player on the roster. I won’t give away the rest of his story, but the next twenty-nine years of his life were dominated by nightmares, anxiety attacks, and flashbacks and other symptoms. He didn’t know why, suffering in silence even as he experienced even more traumas, including, remarkably, being struck by another car in the outfield of Milwaukee’s County Stadium.
It took David twenty-nine years before he realized he had PTSD. Once he did, he sought the help that has changed his life. David wanted to write about his experience to help others understand that PTSD isn’t just something that afflicts veterans of combat, but by a variety of traumas, physical and emotional. More importantly, David wanted readers to understand that a PTSD diagnosis isn’t hopeless, that it’s never too late to get help and seek treatment. His book, One Base at a Time, comes out this month.
But I’m here to tell you that his story is about more than PTSD, and that you need not suffer from PTSD or have been hit by a car and have your dreams crushed in order to benefit from reading the book. You see, in the process of helping David, which entailed hours of extensive interviews and conversations as David entrusted me with his story, I experienced these benefits first hand. I’ve been pretty lucky in my life and am fortunate not have experienced David’s kind of pain and trauma, but life hasn’t always been as smooth as the infield dirt at Fenway Park, either. When I helping David shape his words into a book, I wasn’t in a very good place either, deep in a hole I wasn’t sure I’d ever escape, feeling as vulnerable and alone as I ever have. But, one word at a time, in David’s story I found little parts of my own, and in David’s journey toward healing I found the confidence and strength that I, too, would one day find my way back out. I eventually did, and I think readers of this book, in their own way, may have a similar experience. Inspiration can be very powerful.
I also learned that David is one of the nicest guys on the planet. Every time we speak or email each other, without fail, he thanks me over and over and over again for helping him out. Well, I don’t think I ever really told David that that as much as he thinks I was helping him, for much of that time it was really the other way around. By trusting me to help share his life with others, he was really helping me recover mine. Today, David is proud to call himself a PTSD survivor, and as the very first reader of his book, I am proud to call him my friend and brother, and prouder still to have been fortunate enough to be the first person One Base at a Time helped find healing.
So buddy, this time it’s my turn: Thank you, David. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
David Mellor will be signing copies on June 11 @ 5:30 p.m.at the Red Sox team store at Fenway.. Glenn Stout’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller The Pats. His last baseball title, The Selling of the Babe, winner of SABR’s Larry Ritter Award, provided the definitive account of the sale of Babe Ruth and its impact on the game. www.glennstout.net
Tuesday, May 21, 2019
This story first appeared in the May issue of Boston Baseball
There was more to it than “Little Red Scooter.”
While it once appeared that Tony Conigliaro would take his place along alongside Foxx, Williams and Yaz in the pantheon of Boston sluggers, for a brief period of time it seemed as likely he’d be on Billboard’s “Hot 100” as in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
At the end of the 1964 season, his rookie year, Conigliaro, only nineteen and never particularly shy, jumped on stage with the band at the Escape Lounge, a Hopkinton nightclub, and started to sing. A rep from Mercury Records heard him, and before long former Boston DJ turned promotor Ed Penney partnered up with the budding young heartthrob. Just before Christmas, swinging Tony C was singing in a recording studio in New York.
Penney was serious and didn’t skimp. Over the course of two days, Tony C, backed by session musicians, cut four songs. The two A-sides, baseball-themed “Playing the Field” and “Little Red Scooter,” were penned by Ernie Campagna, an East Boston native who later went on to a long career as an executive in the recording industry. Only nineteen himself, Campagna was already the musical director of WMEX. He’d been enamored with music since he inherited his grandmother’s piano, which had to be hoisted into a third-floor window of the family’s East Boston triple-decker. Penney had already Selected, “Little Red Scooter,” a song Campagna wrote while in high school. But Campagna also knew Tony C as a ballplayer. He had played Pony League baseball against Conigliaro and remembers him arriving for a game behind the wheel of a white convertible. Tony’s father was in the car too, but Campagna recalls “He was already Tony C,” a kid who already had a “man body,” handsome, charismatic and already ticketed for the big leagues. When he learned Penney was recording Tony C, in just a few days he wrote the baseball pun-filled tune “Playing the Field” which he refers to today, jokingly, as “My Rhapsody in Blue.” Due to his role at WMEX, however, Campagna wrote under the pseudonym, “Ernie Camp.”
Tony C’s burgeoning music career was no joke and Penney pulled out all the stops for the session, making use of some of the industry’s top talent. Producer Al Kasha was a veteran Brill Building songwriter/producer who later won Academy Awards for co-writing the themes to the films The Poseidon Adventure (“The Morning After”) and The Towering Inferno (“We May Never Love Like this Again”). The arranger was another well respected figure, Charlie Calello, the bassist for The Four Seasons. Calello eventually worked on over 100 Billboard chart records, including Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” And the B-Sides on those first two releases were no less impressive. “Why Don’t They Understand” penned by Joe Henderson and Jack Fishman, had been a hit in 1957 for George Hamilton IV, and “I Can’t Get Over You,” was credited to Edna Lewis and Ernest Salters – she also wrote the Connie Francis hit “Lipstick on my Collar.”
Penney thought the recording industry was eager for “a real All-American boy.” Penney found contemporary rock and roll “sickening,” saying of Tony C that “unlike so many Rock ‘n Roll singers, he isn’t a bad singer,” adding that even “The Beatles look mild now. There are the Zombies, the Detergents and lately The Pretty Things and the Fairies.” Kasha compared Tony’s voice to Ricky Nelson’s and predicted “Why Don’t They Understand,” might sell 100,000 copies.
Penney and Tony C created their own label “Penn Tone” and a short time later released “Playing the Field” in the Boston market. The girls went ga-ga, and within six weeks it sold upwards of 15,000 copies, earning far more than the cost of the session and pressings.
Those numbers got the attention of RCA records. The Beatles had invaded and every record label in the country was looking for young talent. Tony C had it all, and they signed him a four-year contract with a $25,000 guarantee, greater than his $17,500 salary with the Red Sox, big money at a time when rookies were lucky to earn $5,000 and the major league average was only about $15,000. The contract was structured so that Tony C’s musical responsibilities were confined to the time period between the World Series and spring training, because, as Tony explained “You never know what can happen in baseball.” Those words, sadly, would prove prophetic.
For a while, it looked as if RCA had cashed in. In 1966 “Little Red Scooter” was another local hit and Tony C headed back to the studio to cut a third single. The A-side, “When You Take More Than You Give,” was written by one-time teen crooner Jimmy Curtiss, who later penned both the cult classic "Psychedelic Situation," and King Harvest’s 1973 hit “Dancing in the Moonlight.” The B-side, “I Was There,” was no throwaway. Written by Brill Building legends Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it was also recorded by Lenny Welch, Paul Anka and Johnny Mathis.
But musical tastes were changing, and soon all the shaggy-haired groups Penney found “sickening,” were selling way more records than guys who crooned like Tony C. Despite appearing on The Merv Griffin Show and Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, the record flopped outside the Boston market and RCA cut Tony C loose.
It was back to baseball – mostly. Tony C had led the AL in home runs with 32 in 1965 and became the youngest hitter ever to hit one hundred home runs. He cut one more record before the 1967 season, backed by The All-Night Workers, a Syracuse University garage band that had recently relocated to Boston. But before they did, in 1965, they had recorded a song written by Lou Reed and John Cale, later of the Velvet Underground (Reed had attended Syracuse University and friends with the band). The song, “Why Don’t You Smile,” allegedly featured Cale on guitar.
“Limited Man,” the A-side, was written by Bill Carr, who also co-wrote the Monkees’ “Hold On Girl,” and Joan Meltzer, who later became a pioneering female DJ. The B-side featured Carr’s “Please Play Our Song.”
The 45 was released just as the “Impossible Dream” was coming into focus, only a few weeks before the August beaning that changed Tony C’s life, and reached number one locally. But after the beaning, sales of “Limited Man,” which included the haunting line “I don’t wanna life my life as limited man,” fell flat – after the beaning, Tony C was a “limited man,” his baseball career at risk. As Tony C sat out the 1968 season he briefly tried to restart his musical career, appearing on Merv Griffin again with The All-Night Workers, covering The Rascal’s “I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.”
By then, clean-cut swinging Tony C was an anomaly in the music world. He returned to the Red Sox, was traded to California, retired in 1971, made a brief comeback with the Red Sox in 1975 and then, after recurring vision issues, retired from baseball for good. He cut one final demo, by Ellison Chase and Bill Haberman, (who among other sings also penned Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”), “Poetry” backed by the instrumental “Midnight in Boston.” But Tony C’s time on stage was nearing the end. Hits of any kind were no longer in his future.
After becoming a San Francisco sportscaster, Tony C’s heart was still in Boston. He returned in 1982 to audition as a Red Sox broadcaster only to suffer a heart attack that put him into a coma and resulted in brain damage. Two more previously recorded songs were released privately under the direction of Dionne Warwick for a 1983 fundraiser at Symphony Hall. Both were written by Michael Gately, who recorded two albums himself, and Robert John, who later wrote and recorded “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and in 1979 scored a number one hit with “Sad Eyes.” One was a cover of the Whispers’ “You Fill My Life with Music,” the other “We Can Make the World A Whole Lot Brighter,” previously recorded by television’s “The Brady Bunch.”
By then, swinging, singing Tony C’s world had grown dim. He passed away in 1990.
Recordings of many of Tony C’s songs can be found on YouTube, and Glenn Stout’s 1990 profile of Tony C, “Summers of Love,” can be found online at thestacksreader.com. Glenn is the author of The New York Times’ bestseller The Pats. www.glennstout.net
Thursday, April 18, 2019
OUCH!!! or Baseball Hurts
By Glenn Stout
And they say football is dangerous.
Now that I’m entering the later innings, let me tell you, the injuries have added up. Each morning every little ache and pain and scar is like looking at an old box score of my body. These days I generally start at my feet and work my way up the roster.
Right heel #1, 1970, age 11. Missed part of a season with a bone bruise. Those Converse All-Stars looked cool, but they were hell on the feet.
Right heel #2, 1996, age 38. While playing Men’s Senior League Baseball, my right Achilles started bothering me - like “bring me to tears” bothering me. Kept playing and developed a calcium deposit on the back of my heel, and now my right foot is a half-inch longer than my left. Makes shoe buying fun.
Left ankle, 1972, age 13.The first year I was allowed to wear genuine metal spikes. I’d read all about Ty Cobb and was a terror. Then, while sliding into third, I foolishly did not try to spike the third baseman. He jumped for a high throw and landed on my ankle, leaving two lovely diagonal puncture wounds. Since I’m allergic to tetanus shots, this was almost life threatening. Note to enemies: If you want to kill me, just stab me with a rusty nail.
Right knee, 1967, age 8. I’d slide into the three maple tree in the backyard that served as bases. You might notice that in the big leagues they don’t use trees as bases, probably because when you slide into trees, THEY DO NOT MOVE. This explains the small bend in my right leg.
Right hip, 1971, age 12. I liked to slide. A lot. In my last year of Little League I had a seeping open wound on my hip all season, and now a lovely circular scar.
Left hand, 1969, age 10. Went a whole season with a black and swollen left hand because I was a catcher and Jay Greiner threw harder than Sam McDowell. Our Little League coach finally gave me a falsie to put in my mitt, which didn’t really help, but inspired puberty and caused me to look at Jay’s sister. A lot.
Right elbow, 1970, age 11. My first year pitching, and my elbow would swell up like Sandy Koufax’s. But I was a gamer and Mom swathed it in ice after every game. Hitting other kids with pitches that caused them to quit baseball forever made it all worthwhile.
Right side, circa 1998, age 39. Got hit with a pitch in Senior League. Shook it off. Went home and almost threw up. It didn’t hurt, but the bruise on my right side was as big as a dinner plate and the color of concord grapes. Over the next few weeks it turned many other colors.
Left side and left elbow, 2001, age 41. My reflexes were starting to slip, and a one-hopper right back at me came off the baked earth like a howitzer. I pinned it between my elbow and my side, and threw the guy out, but it felt like I’d been folded in half. The stitches on the ball left a bruise on the inside of my elbow that dovetailed seamlessly into a bruise with more stitches on my ribs. Very attractive.
Right elbow, 2002, age 42. A broken limb on a tree in my backyard hung down like a guillotine. I put an eyelet in a ball, tied a rope to it, and threw it into the tree until it wrapped around the limb and I pulled it down. But that took about 200 throws. I strained my ulnar ligament and lost my curve ball.
Right shoulder, 1975, age 17. The Big One. After a summer in Australia as a foreign exchange student before my senior year, I played in a fall league, threw too hard too fast, and got a sore shoulder. I stole some leftover Percocet my brother had after his wisdom teeth were pulled and kept pitching. After a few games like this, after the pills wore off, I wanted to amputate my arm. The result? A Class-4 rotator tear. Didn’t play baseball for the next 17 years, but did learn to comb my hair left-handed. Also started writing. See, IT’S ALL BASEBALL’S FAULT!!!
Right temple, 1966, age 8. First year of T-Ball. We went undefeated, usually destroying the opposition by scores of 37-12, but before one practice some idiot discarded chunks of concrete block all over the field and we had to clear it off. As soon as our coach said “Don’t try to throw a chunk of concrete over the backstop,” Dave Mayer, our Aaron Judge, did just that. That chunk landed on my right temple and I went down like a cartoon character. I ended up with a concussion, a half-dozen stitches and a scar I’ve since used to track my receding hairline.
I’d do it all again. Except for the Percocet.
First published in Boston Baseball. Glenn Stout’s most recent book, with Richard Johnson, is the New York Times and Boston Globe best seller, The Pats.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
This Sunday won't be the first time the Chargers and the Patriots have met with a potential championship on the line - they played for the 1963 AFL Championship. If you're a Pats fan, you better hope that this time the Chargers aren't on PEDs, there's no spying and a reporter and a coach don't spill the beans ahead of time... because in 1963, the Pats didn't have a chance.
Excerpted from THE PATS: An Illustrated History of the New England Patriots. Copyright © 2018 by Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
South Boston native and Boston Globe football writer Will McDonough, a graduate of Northeastern University, covered prep sports for the Globe before moving to the Patriots beat in the summer of 1962 as backup to John Ahern. Like Patriots owner Billy Sullivan, McDonough made a career aligning with those in power. His reporting, both with the Globe and later as a television analyst for CBS and NBC, focused less on the players and what took place on the field than on what went on behind the scenes, in the locker room and front office, covering the inside power struggles among the men who owned and coached the Patriots and those who ran professional football.
In quintessential McDonough fashion, he later liked to tell a story — which he never wrote — about the 1963 AFL championship game in San Diego, the kind of story that enhanced his reputation as someone who knew what was really happening. After the Pats beat Buffalo in a playoff to take the AFL's Eastern Division and earn the right to the Chargers in San Diego for the championship, the Chargers arranged for Boston to practice at a nearby Navy base, a presumably secure facility that would allow them to work out in private. Yet, according to McDonough, “the Chargers had several people dressed as Navy guys watching practice all week long,” although, as a reporter who bragged he never took notes, he never provided a source for that information. According to McDonough, the Chargers thereby learned exactly what the Patriots planned to do during the game and adjusted accordingly. The Patriots were beaten before they ever took the field. Receiver and kicker Gino Cappelletti later remarked, “You know, the way the Chargers played, especially on offense, it was as if they knew just what we wanted to do.”
In two earlier meetings that season, the Chargers and Patriots had played to a virtual standoff, the Chargers narrowly winning both, 17–13 and 7–6, even as the Patriots shut down the potent San Diego offense, particularly the running game led by backs Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln. In fact, the Patriots had angered the Chargers before the game at Fenway Park when the home team “accidentally” forgot to cover the outfield during a rainstorm. The resulting quagmire left Lincoln and Lowe running in place. Fortunately for the Chargers, flanker Lance Alworth caught 13 passes, including the winning score. But San Diego coach Sid Gillman did not forget.
He did not just want to beat the Patriots—he wanted revenge, a victory so complete and thorough that the NFL would agree to an interleague championship game. With two weeks to prepare for Boston, Gillman, considered one of the most creative offensive coaches in the history of professional football, installed what he referred to as a “Feast or Famine” game plan, a scheme he felt would either work to perfection or fail miserably. If it failed, well, there was also the “East Formation,” which put both Alworth and split end Don Norton on the strong side of the field, another wrinkle the Pats hadn’t encountered. Today the schemes seem simple. In 1963 championship, they were a revelation.Over the course of the season, the Patriots’ defense earned a reputation for what Boston defensive end Larry Eisenhauer called their “Ban the Bomb” defense — a gambling, near-all-out blitzing attack keyed by linebacker Nick Buoniconti and safety Ron Hall. It worked because their linemen, Bob Dee, Jim Lee Hunt, and Houston Antwine, were quick in pursuit, able to tie up runners at the line or in the backfield before they could reach the secondary and exploit any gaps abandoned by the blitzing defenders or in between the Pats’ slow-footed defensive backs, whom Gillman derisively referred to as “old ladies.”
The new scheme was designed to exploit the Patriots’ defensive strengths. Based on men in motion, traps, misdirection, and surprise, the new plays, some of which weren’t put in place until a day or two before the game, were calculated to thwart what the Patriots planned to do and free up Lincoln and Lowe.It wasn’t the first time the surprise use of the “man-in-motion” had been used effectively in a championship game. In 1940, Chicago and Washington met for the NFL championship. Three weeks before, Washington had defeated the Bears 7–3. But in the championship game, the Bears surprised Washington by unveiling the T-formation — something that hadn’t been used in decades — and putting backs in motion. Chicago rolled to a record 73–0 victory as the Washington defense spent the whole game reversing field.
As game time approached, if Gillman was wondering whether the Chargers would enjoy a scoring feast or famine, or if the Patriots would plan some changes of their own, his questions may well have been answered. A few days before the game, McDonough had interviewed Holovak about Boston’s game strategy and presented it in a story with a subhead “What to Look for on TV.”
But on defense Holovak really gave away the store. He revealed that he planned to use the Patriots’ blitzing reputation as a ruse, faking safety blitzes with Hall, then having him drop back to double-cover Alworth. He said that the Patriots had drilled the defensive front to focus on pursuit and follow the flow of the play, using their speed to contain Lowe and Lincoln and then shut down Alworth deep. A confident Holovak was almost giddy with excitement.
It was as if Muhammad Ali had told Howard Cosell before “the Rumble in the Jungle” that he planned to lie against the ropes until George Foreman punched himself out. Although the Globe wasn’t widely available in San Diego, it’s hard to believe that Gillman didn’t learn about the story — there were telephones, after all, and Gillman was well connected in the football world. Whether Holovak knew McDonough was planning to run with the story or whether the information was given on background is uncertain, but at that point any trepidation Gillman had over his feast-or-famine approach would have evaporated.Yet perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. As ESPN’s T. J. Quinn reported in 2009, the 1963 Chargers were the first pro football team known to supply players with steroids. After the Chargers’ 4-10 finish in 1962, Gillman hired pro football’s first strength coach, Alvin Roy, a man the New York Times later called “the guru and godfather of the weight-training field.” Roy had trained US Olympians and learned about anabolic steroids from his Russian counterparts. During camp before the 1963 season, players were ordered to lift weights and, for at least five weeks, provided with Dianabol, the first steroid developed solely to impact athletic performance, and still one of the most effective. They were given 5 milligrams of the drug three times a day, a dosage that experts agree is more than enough to impact performance. It remains the standard starting dose to this day.
The players did as they were told, and didn’t know any better anyway. Neither did Gillman or Roy. No one really knew about the long-term effects of the drugs, nor did they worry much about their health impact or even whether their use was fair — US Olympians were using it too. One Charger estimated that all but 5 percent of the Chargers took the drug. As lineman Walt Sweeney told Quinn, “It was like the wild, wild West. Everything went. There was speed, painkillers, steroids.” Half the league was jacked up on something, but only the Chargers had the magic steroid pills. Ron Mix recalled that “they showed up on our training table in cereal bowls.” They worked too. Quarterback John Hadl said the Chargers linemen “started looking like Popeye.”Mix and a few other players eventually complained, but even though the “mandatory” program was discontinued in 1964, the drug remained available to any player who wanted it throughout the 1963 season. One thing is certain: the 4-10 Chargers of 1962 went 11-3 in 1963. And as the season went on, as other teams seemed to lag, the Chargers seemed to get stronger. Including the championship contest, they’d score a total of more than 100 points in their final two games. And let’s not forget that because of the Eastern Division playoff between the Patriots and Buffalo Bills, the Chargers had an extra week before the championship to heal and “prepare.”
Or maybe the Patriots had just simply left it all on the field in the playoff versus Buffalo the week before. . . and then left a little more behind during a week of partying. After all, they hadn’t really expected to reach the championship game, and when fans had greeted them on their return to Boston, they had suddenly found themselves popular overnight in a city that had been searching for a champion.They continued the celebration under the warm California sun in San Diego, where the players stayed at the Stardust Inn, a “Mad Men”–era hotel that allowed patrons of the Mermaid Bar to gaze through an enormous window at bathing beauties cavorting underwater. In one famous incident, several Patriots—among them Larry Eisenhauer and Ron Hall — entered the pool themselves. Eisenhauer mooned his teammates. . . and everyone else in the bar. Suffice to say that the team’s focus entering the game was not particularly sharp. Most observers installed the Chargers as narrow favorites.
Even before kickoff, the game was already something of a letdown. Despite the 71-degree temperature, Balboa Stadium, with a capacity of 34,000, looked barely half full. Though official attendance was announced to be 30,127, thousands of empty seats said otherwise. That was understandable. The uncomfortable stands featured concrete bleacher step seats and half of San Diego could pull in the TV feed from Los Angeles. It was easier to watch from the couch. Since the players’ bonuses were based on attendance, by the start the Patriots knew that, win or lose, their bonus would be far less than they expected. A lot of mink coats turned to chinchilla.
The Chargers received the opening kickoff and got right to work. On the first play, San Diego quarterback Tobin Rote read an attempted blitz, then faked a toss to Lincoln and a handoff to halfback Paul Lowe. The Pats bit on both, and Rote tossed a short pass to a wide-open Lincoln for a 12-yard gain. The Patriots were playing just as expected.
The next play set the game in stone. Ron Hall faked a blitz, but Lowe went in motion. Bob Dee jumped offside, and then jumped back. As Gillman later noted, that one small change caused every Patriot player to “reset.” Suddenly caught leaning, the Patriots backfield had to scramble, overloading one side of the field. Rote took the snap, the blockers went one way, the Patriots overpursued, and then Rote handed the ball off to Lincoln on an inside trap. The running back burst through the line. . . and there was no one. Fifty-six yards later, the Chargers had the ball at the 2-yard line. Rote snuck in for a touchdown.The game was effectively over; as the Boston Herald’s Joe Looney later noted, the Chargers “simply out everything-ed” Boston and the Patriots couldn’t adjust. Time after time Lowe went into motion, Buoniconti shifted, Hall either backed off to double-team Alworth or burst through a hole into the backfield and tackled a phantom, while Rote either pitched to Lincoln, sent him inside in the opposite direction, or found him on a swing pass. Every so often, as if bored, Rote got the ball to Lowe, who was just as effective. The Chargers quickly scored a second touchdown on a 67-yard pitch to Lincoln, and after the Patriots came back to score on a seven-yard run by Garron after a long pass to Cappelletti, Lowe scored again on a 56-yard run.
Fullback Garron then went out with a concussion, star halfback Ron Burton was hobbled, and that was the ball game. Five minutes after kickoff, the Patriots were as ineffective as a punched-out George Foreman. Forced to throw, Parilli spent most of the game retreating from the San Diego defense. By the end of the first quarter, the Chargers led 21–7 and Lincoln already had more than 200 yards rushing and receiving. As the Globe’s Bud Collins later wrote, “Every time San Diego scored, a platoon of young things in barebacked costumes threw them around in a triumphant dance. . . this kept the touchdowns from getting tedious.” With a 31–10 halftime lead, Gillman was so confident that he left the locker room early to catch the end of the Grambling College band’s halftime show.
The Chargers never let up in the second half, even trying a couple of onside kicks in the eventual 51–10 rout. Eisenhauer noted that “from the very first play, they were in high speed and we were in slow motion.” The Globe’s Harold Kaese wrote that “it was the sorriest breaching of a vaunted defense since the Maginot line.” Parilli said it was like “they wanted to kill us.”
Gillman and the Chargers gloated after the game, and with 610 yards of offense, they deserved to. On the way back to Boston, some Pats joked about wishing their plane would be shot down, a better fate than facing Patriots fans after the loss. But when asked if the defeat—which had dropped Boston’s record to 8-7-1 for the season—would inspire wholesale changes on the team, Holovak indicated otherwise.
“We need a touch here and a touch there,” he said. “Nothing major.”