John Eisenberg is a former newspaper journalist, current Baltimore Ravens columnist, and the author of 10 books covering horse racing, baseball, and football. His football books include That First Season, about Vince Lombardi’s Packers debut, Ten-Gallon War, on the Cowboys-Texans rivalry of the 1960s, and his latest, The League, the story of the early days of the NFL and five key figures who shaped its destiny. The League was published on October 9, 2018.
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George Halas and players, circa 1935
You mention a little about how the book came about in the acknowledgments, but tell me more about being asked onto the project and your reaction.
Dan Gerstle, an editor at Basic Books in New York, wanted to publish a book about the early days of the NFL. Dan asked my longtime literary agent, Scott Waxman, if he possibly had a writer for such a project. Scott mentioned me. This was in 2014, not long after I had published Ten-Gallon War, my book about the AFL-NFL rivalry in Dallas. I was excited about the subject because I had long eyed the early days of the NFL as a possible writing topic. The characters are just so original, the times so vivid. I wrote a proposal and Dan liked my vision for how the story should unfold. A deal was struck. It’s my tenth book but the first to originate that way. Usually it’s my idea.
Further reading: The League review
The book focuses on five figures – how did you decide on those five? Was there anyone who almost became one of the central figures?
The goal was to identify the first rank of team owners who really took pro football by the lapels and shaped it, I mean as a decision-making body. George Halas, Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall, Bert Bell, and Art Rooney were obvious choices. They constituted the league’s inner circle. The other guys in that circle were Curly Lambeau and Charles Bidwill. They’re influential figures and also in the book, but I left them out as main subjects. Curly didn’t actually own the Green Bay Packers – they’re publicly owned – and he eventually was fired and was out of the league when some key decisions were made. Plus, when you study the minutes from the owners’ meetings in that era, he didn’t have such a big hand in impacting policy, as the others did. The same was true for Bidwill, who was brought into the league by Halas and basically did what George wanted.
You open the book in 1934 and don’t focus that much attention on the NFL’s first 15 years. Tell me a bit about the process of choosing the book’s timeframe.
I start with an owners’ meeting in 1934 because it was the first time Halas, Mara, Marshall, Bell, and Rooney were in the owners’ room together, and the book is about how they worked together to save the league and shepherd it through tough times. Marshall didn’t get into the league until 1932, and Bell and Rooney joined in 1933. But I certainly couldn’t leave out the 1920s, which were a crazy, slapdash time in the NFL. They came up organically. I start the book with a biographical chapter on each of the five guys, detailing how they grew up and got into pro football. In Halas’ case, that took me back to 1920, when he started the Bears. So the first years of the NFL are covered through the creation story of Halas and the Bears. The same thing happened in Tim Mara’s chapter because he started the Giants in 1925. But while the NFL’s first decade is covered, the real business of moving pro football forward didn’t begin in earnest until the five lead characters came together in 1933 and started changing rules.
How difficult was it to research the period? As you mention, newspapers often ignored the NFL in those days. Were there good records and sources to go back to?
It was easy to find anything involving scores and numbers at Pro Football Reference. I’m a big fan of those sites. As for news and game coverage, the Chicago Tribune did a nice job of covering the league then, and the New York Times also was solid, as one would expect. So there was enough research material. But the key move for me was taking a couple of trips to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. They have a nice research library there with extensive newspaper clip-and-microfilm files on everyone. There’s also a book containing the official minutes from every league meeting going back to 1920. It doesn’t leave the library, so you have to go. That volume was exceedingly helpful. As for live interviews, all of the major characters are long dead, but their children and grandchildren were interested in the project and very helpful.
What were the most significant new insights you gained from researching the book?
It is widely assumed that television’s arrival in the 1950s is what put pro football over the top as a successful sport. But the seed was planted long before then, and that seed is the game itself. The NFL was a dull, unimaginative league in the early 1930s. Games were low-scoring and run-oriented, and the men in charge just followed whatever rules were in place in the college game, which was far more popular. The success of the NFL can be traced to when Marshall, Halas and the others decided to break from the college game and liven up their sport with more passing, exciting rules, a draft and a postseason. They constantly endeavored to make the NFL more interesting and competitive. Halas’ daughter, Virginia McCaskey, who owns the Bears, told me the lesson of their success is the game always comes first, as opposed to the business side. When you study the history of the league, you see how true that was. These guys weren’t trying to get rich; there wasn’t enough money on the table for them even to consider that possibility. But they wound up getting rich because they focused on their product.
What’s your favourite anecdote from either the book itself or the writing process?
Times were tough for the owners at the depth of the Great Depression. No one had any money. George Halas had so little that he couldn’t afford to pay his players one year. He had already borrowed from everyone he could ask and had even taken the money out of his kids’ college savings accounts. But he didn’t want to fold the Bears. What did he do? He offered the players IOUs, pledging to pay them when he could. These were some of the biggest names in football history – Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski. Halas offered them IOUs instead of salary, and they took his offer, going without pay for a year — an amazing show of faith in Halas and the sport’s future at a time when such faith was blind by definition.
Thinking of writing more generally, how long does it generally take you to write a book and what’s your writing process like?
It generally takes from 18 months to two years from beginning to end, from the start of my research to the end of final edits. My process is to get as much research done as I can before I start to write, so I know what I have. That tends to take about six months, and it’s a fun time. I enjoy the research. When I start to write, my MO starts with getting a first draft down on paper – a basic footprint, so to speak. Then I go back in and add color, detail and the findings from any subsequent research. There’s a ton of polishing. I’m addicted to re-writing. I never stop until they tell me I have to stop.
What are the best and worst parts of writing a book?
The hardest part, for sure, is getting that first draft down on paper — pulling together my research from so many sources and crafting a narrative that flows. Those are the months when I don’t sleep as well because everything is floating around in my head. I don’t know that I would describe it as the “worst” part, but I’m always glad when it’s over. The rewriting is more fun because you can see the book getting better. And as I said above, I enjoy the research. Some people hate it, but I see it as a detective story of sorts where you’re going down dark alleys looking for clues and answers. Also, I’m a newspaper guy at heart so I love interviewing people and getting information out of them that makes the book better.
What makes good writing, in your opinion?
Detail. Description. Simplicity. Clarity. No extra words. No clichés. No strange turns. A manuscript that flows.
Do you have a writing hero or mentor?
I grew up in Dallas reading the famous sports columnist Blackie Sherrod. When I was old enough to understand, I appreciated his original language and his sense of humor. It was an honor to work with Blackie for a few years when I was starting my career. My writing heroes are mostly from that generation of newspaper columnists – Jim Murray in Los Angeles, Edwin Pope in Miami, and subsequent guys such as Dave Kindred in Washington and George Vecsey in New York. They all had an amazing grasp of narrative, a touch of whimsy in their prose, and made their point without shouting at you, like so many people do now. That’s the style I like and have tried to emulate.
There are lots of stories in football, obviously. What does a story need to have for you to want to turn it into a book?
I want all of my books, regardless of the subject, to serve as a window to a larger theme. The League, for instance, includes major narrative threads about race, economics, class, and immigration, just to name some. It’s also basically a business book, exploring how people armed with nothing more than an idea can stick with it and eventually succeed. Bottom line, I want a book to say something more than just who won.
Without giving away any future plans, is there a football book you would like to read that hasn’t been written?
For sure. I’ve written a lot about pro football history, but there are still many interesting, untold historical stories to unspool. I’m also intrigued by the current state of the NFL, where a lot of tough issues are on the table, including the very survival of the sport. One of these days I may want to tackle all that.
What is the first football book that you remember reading?
Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay.” I was a huge fan of the Dallas Cowboys, attended the 1966 title game at the Cotton Bowl and had my heart broken by the Ice Bowl. So Lombardi’s Packers basically ruined my childhood. But I was a football fan first, because when Kramer’s behind-the-scenes narrative came out, I grabbed it and couldn’t put it down.
What’s your favourite football book and why?
The best football book I’ve ever read is “America’s Game” by Michael MacCambridge. He used exhaustive research and great writing to dissect how the NFL became so popular in the quarter-century after World War II. It’s the definitive account of a big story. You simply can’t do a better job with a book. “The League” is a prequel of sorts, focusing mostly on the years before those MacCambridge covered.
What football book would you say deserves to be better known?
I’ve always been interested in the sport’s counter-culture side, probably because I came of age in the late 60s and 70s when so many accepted notions were being challenged. As a teenager I devoured “Meat on the Hoof,” by Gary Shaw, and “Out of Their League,” by Dave Meggyesy. Both were decades ahead of their time in exposing football’s cynical underbelly.
And thinking about books in general, what are the five books you would take to a desert island?
“The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe, “Breakfast of Champions” by Kurt Vonnegut, “What Is The What” by Dave Eggers, “Semi-Tough” by Dan Jenkins and “Libra” by Don DeLillo.
Top photo: Matt McGee