Features

Interview: Ralph Hickok

Ralph Hickok has been a sports historian for more than 50 years. In 2008 he was awarded the Professional Football Researchers Association’s (PFRA) Ralph Hay Award for “lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography.” In 2017, the PFRA gave him the Nelson Ross Award for his book about Packers legend Johnny ‘Blood’ McNally (pictured above), Vagabond Halfback (2017). His previous books include The Pro Football Fan’s Companion (1995) and the Bibliography of Books About American Football 1891-2015 (2016). The latter is an essential reference work for any fan of football books and Ralph is currently working on an updated edition.

I know that you’ve written and researched football for decades. Tell me a little about how your career has unfolded? What have been the highlights?
I grew up in Green Bay, so football, more specifically pro football, is my first love, but I’m actually a sports historian and most of my books have been more generally about sports history and biography.

I became a sports historian more or less by accident and it happened because of football. Back around 1966 or 1967, it was obvious that pro football was replacing baseball as the most popular sport in the U.S. I thought a book explaining the sport to new fans would be timely. I outlined the book, calling it The Pro Football Handbook, and wrote a couple of sample chapters.

I found a literary agent, Max Gartenberg, who liked the idea and showed it around to a lot of publishers. None of them bought the idea but Hawthorn Books was looking for someone to write a book called Who Was Who in American Sports. I told Max I’d be willing to do it, so that was my first book… basically a collection of about 1500 obituaries!

Researching the Who Was Who was very difficult because there just weren’t many resources available back then. There was a book titled The Encyclopedia of Sports, but it was very unreliable, full of errors and inaccuracies. To cite one example, the author asserted that the ancient Egyptians played billiards; his authority was Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra says to her maid, “let’s to billiards”!

I said something about this to Max and he suggested that I write a new encyclopedia of sports. He sold the idea to McGraw Hill and Presto! I was a sports historian!

Your first football book, at least according to the bibliography, was The Pro Football Fan’s Companion. How did that book come about and what was it like to write?
Actually, it was my first sports book… it just wasn’t published first. After The New Encyclopedia of Sports, I wrote The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History for Facts on File and A Who’s Who of Sports Champions for Houghton Mifflin.

My original editor at Facts on File had moved on to Prentice-Hall. She decided she wanted a book explaining pro football and she wanted me to write it. Max called to tell me about her idea and he said, “This sounds a lot like the book you originally proposed to me about 25 years ago.”

And it was. The editor’s original idea for a title was Total Pro Football, but I told her that wasn’t a good idea because there was already a reference book called Total Football. Her next idea was Everything Football, but I really didn’t like that and I countered with The Pro Football Handbook—which, of course, was the title of that original book idea from the late 1960s.

Tracy didn’t like my title idea. She suggested A Fan’s Companion to Pro Football and we finally settled on The Pro Football Fan’s Companion. Then I dug out my old outline, reworked it a bit, Tracy approved it with a few minor changes, and I wrote the book. I think it took almost as much time to decide on a title as it did to write it!

What was the biggest challenge when it came to compiling the bibliography? How long did the process take?
I didn’t set out to do it by myself. I originally thought of it as a project for the Pro Football Researchers Association. But before presenting the idea to PFRA, I wanted to figure out how such a bibliography could be compiled.

I don’t want to bore you with the mechanics, but I eventually learned that two websites, WorldCat.org and Easybib.com, could help immensely. I began working with them, got into a kind of a rhythm, and decided I’d just go ahead on my own.

The biggest challenge, I think, was deciding how much information to include. For quite a while, I was including brief summaries with each entry, based either on the publisher’s description or on my own knowledge of the book. Well into the project, I realized that including summaries would over-inflate the bibliography, so to speak, so I went back and cut out most of them. I did leave a few, in cases where the title of the book doesn’t give a good idea of what the book’s subject is.

It’s hard to say how long it took. At a guess, a little more than a year, but I didn’t work at it full time. I did a lot of other things during that period.

Your most recent book is about Johnny Blood. A lot of younger fans won’t know much about him; why is he an important figure in football history? And what made you want to write about him?
Johnny Blood was the NFL’s first great pass receiver. In 1931, he led the league in scoring with 84 points on 14 touchdowns and 11 of those touchdowns came on pass receptions. He caught more TD passes than any TEAM besides the Packers. And, all by himself, he outscored five of the NFL’s ten teams that season.

In 1973 we went to the 10th-anniversary celebration of the Pro Football Hall of Fame so I could interview George Halas, Red Grange, Ernie Nevers, and Art Rooney, among others.

He was also a very intelligent guy who rebelled against authority and often drove coaches crazy. John was known as much for as his off-field exploits as for what he did on the field.

Again, my interest in Johnny Blood goes back to growing up in Green Bay. My dad was the news editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette and he was also the official scorer for the Packers. From the age of seven until I went off to college, I was in the press box at every Packer home game, helping with the play-by-play account and statistics.

I heard a lot of players and coaches, former players and coaches, scouts, sportswriters, and sportscasters talk about the great Packer players of the past. The name that stood out was Johnny Blood. There were so many stories about him from so many people. I later learned that some of those stories were apocryphal, but a lot of them were true.

When I was 12 or 13, I decided that someday I’d write a book about him if nobody else did. After my first book was published, I felt I had the credentials to approach him so I wrote to him, telling him about my background and suggesting that we collaborate on a biography.

He showed up almost on my doorstep a few days after I mailed the letter. John and I then worked on the book for more than four years. He was living in Minnesota at the time but he would come to Massachusetts several times a year to talk about his life and his career.

We also went on a trip through Wisconsin and into Minnesota and Michigan to visit places and talk to people who were part of his life. And in 1973 we went to the 10th-anniversary celebration of the Pro Football Hall of Fame so I could interview George Halas, Red Grange, Ernie Nevers, and Art Rooney, among others.

I finished a first draft and John liked it. But he then told me that he didn’t want the book to be published during his lifetime. So I put it aside for the time being. This was way back in 1975 or 1976, I’m not exactly sure.

John died about 10 years later. I reworked the book and sent it to Max, but he couldn’t sell it. The New York-based publishers all felt there wouldn’t be any interest because he’d never played for a New York team, so I put it aside once again.

Four books later, I was invited to be the guest speaker at my high school reunion (Green Bay East, the alma mater of Curly Lambeau and Jim Crowley, who was one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and Vince Lombardi’s football coach at Fordham). I chose to talk about some of my experiences with Johnny Blood while we worked on the book

Afterward, several classmates asked, “Where’s the book?” I belatedly realized that I was no longer dependent on New York publishers—I could publish it myself! So I did.

What’s your favourite story from writing the Johnny Blood book?
There are so many stories about him, true and apocryphal, that it’s hard to pick just one. But I guess my favorite has to be something that happened when he and I went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1973.

John nudged me and whispered, “You and Pete Rozelle are the only guys in here who aren’t wearing green badges.”

It was very important for me to interview Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, because John had spent three years as Pittsburgh’s player-coach. But Rooney was going to be in Canton for such a short period that it looked as if it was going to be impossible to talk to him.

“You can interview him at the reception after the induction ceremony,” John said.
“But that’s for Hall of Fame members only,” I objected.
“Don’t worry about it,” John said, blithely.

So, after the induction ceremony, we headed to the reception. There was a security guard outside and a big sign next to the door proclaimed “ONLY HALL OF FAME MEMBERS ADMITTED (GREEN BADGES)!”

Of course, John had a green badge but I wore a yellow badge as a member of the media. John started to enter the room with me right behind him, but the guard put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “but you’re not allowed in there. See the sign? Green badges only.”

John whirled around. “You mean to say you won’t let my son come in with me?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but this event is for Hall of Fame members only.”
“Do you want to go in there and tell George Halas and Red Grange and all those other people that Johnny Blood didn’t come to the reception because you wouldn’t let his son in?”

The guard thought for just a moment and said to me, “Okay, you can go in.” So I went in and John introduced me to Art Rooney and I talked to him for nearly an hour.

When it was about time for the reception to end, a back door opened and the NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, stepped into the room. As he spoke briefly, thanking the Hall of Fame members for being, there John nudged me and whispered, “You and Pete Rozelle are the only guys in here who aren’t wearing green badges.”

John nudged me and whispered, “You and Pete Rozelle are the only guys in here who aren’t wearing green badges.”

An obvious question to ask the author of the bibliography of football books: how many football books would you say that you have read? What’s your personal collection like?
I honestly couldn’t say how many I’ve read. As a wild guess, maybe 500…but I have no idea if that number is too high or way too low.

As for my collection, I can do a quick estimate based on the number of shelves instead of actually counting. I have ten bookshelves devoted to sports and about half of them are football books. I figure about 30 books per shelf, so that’s 300 books about sports and 150 that focus on football.

David Harris wrote a book titled The League in 1986 [and] brought the knowledge and skill of an investigative reporter to football history.


What are your favourite football books and why?
I particularly like biographies that shed light on the history surrounding the book’s subject. There are some very good recent examples that I’ve enjoyed very much: Kate Buford’s Native American Son, about Jim Thorpe; Jeffrey J. Miller’s Pop Warner, which tells us a lot about football’s formative period in the early years of the 20th century; and two biographies of NFL commissioners, Chris Willis’ Joe Carr: The Man Who Built the National Football League, and Robert S. Lyons’ On Any Given Sunday, about Bert Bell. Those two books have a lot of information about how the NFL grew and changed during its first 40 years.

Is there one particular football book that you would say is an overlooked or forgotten gem?
David Harris wrote a book titled The League in 1986 that was a real breakthrough, I think. Up until then, almost every book about football history had taken the “great teams, great coaches, great players” approach.

Harris focused instead on the inner workings of the NFL for about 10 years starting in 1974. He barely mentions any players or teams and it’s a fascinating book. In effect, he did for pro football what Harold Seymour did for baseball in his groundbreaking history. Seymour brought the knowledge and skill of an economist to baseball history; Harris brought the knowledge and skill of an investigative reporter to football history.

There’s one other book I’d like to mention here: David M. Nelson’s The Anatomy of a Game. It’s a history of college football rules changes that goes into detail about why important changes were made and the effects the changes had on the game.

What’s the first football book that you remember reading?
The first one I really remember is a book about the split-T formation written by Don Faurot, who invented it. I was 11 or 12 years old at the time and very interested in what you might call the mechanics of football. About the same time, I also discovered books by Pop Warner and Knute Rockne about their systems.

And thinking about books in general – what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island (assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners.)
Hmmm… frankly, I don’t think I’d want any football books with me. Instead, I’d want mostly rather heavy, thought-provoking novels. I think I’d start with The Brothers Karamazov, then add Moby Dick, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, and Gaddis’ JR. The fifth book would be a tossup between Joyce’s Ulysses and Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. I might literally flip a coin to decide between those two!

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