The ‘Hebrew QB’ Is Hall of Famer

By Murray Greenberg

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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More than two decades after his death and half a century after he revolutionized the forward pass, Benjamin “Benny” Friedman — the so-called “Hebrew quarterback” — has been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Friedman, the gridiron wizard from Cleveland’s Jewish ghetto whose unprecedented passing skills forever changed the game of football, was elected February 5 along with Fritz Pollard and more recent quarterbacking legends Dan Marino and Steve Young.

The enshrinement ceremonies will take place in Canton, Ohio, on August 7.

Friedman’s selection comes after a push from the former players that he coached until the plug was pulled in 1960 on Brandeis University’s short-lived football program.

Playing for the New York Giants and three other teams from 1927 through 1934, Friedman propelled the pro game with his singular talent for throwing the football.

In Friedman’s day, rules that discouraged passing, coupled with a roundish, heavy ball, made passing a rarity reserved for desperate situations — for everyone except Friedman. The sculpted, square-jawed Friedman would throw on any down, from anywhere on the field. “[I] was able to get my thumb around the ball and I was the first one to start to throw the ball from my ear, where everyone else was throwing it in a half-sidearm fashion because they’d have to palm the ball, ” Friedman said many years after his playing days.

Friedman’s startling talent inspired the NFL to adopt passing-friendly rules and a slimmer, easier-to-throw ball. With the benefit of these changes (not adopted until 1933, Friedman’s last full season), the passing game soared on the arms of such stars as Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman. But Friedman was the pioneer.

The great passer was a hero to Jewish fans, as New York Giants owner Tim Mara was well aware. After the 1928 season, Mara tried to trade for Friedman, thinking the quarterback’s appeal to local Jewish fans would give the financially troubled Giants a boost at the gate. When the Detroit Wolverines wouldn’t trade Friedman, Mara bought the entire Wolverines franchise and got his man. Mara was right: The Giants turned a profit in Friedman’s first season with them.

It’s hard to imagine a player more dominant at his position in his time than Friedman was at quarterback. In 1929 he threw 20 touchdown passes, a record that stood for 13 years. The second-highest total that year was six.

Though the NFL didn’t start keeping official statistics until 1932, numbers that have been carefully compiled from sources such as newspaper game accounts show that in Friedman’s first four years, he passed for 5,653 yards and 55 touchdowns. During the same period, the various second-ranked players totaled 3,770 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Red Grange, the most celebrated player from Friedman’s era, called Friedman the greatest quarterback he ever played against. Legendary coach Knute Rockne said in 1930 that Friedman was “the greatest quarterback of modern times.”

His delayed recognition at the hall has been attributed, alternately, to antisemitism, his perceived arrogance and his battles with the NFL Players Association over several issues, including pensions for former players.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Friedman was born in Cleveland and once attributed his good fortune to Judaism.

He remembered that his mother told him she would put 18 cents — the number 18 symbolizes life, or chai, in Hebrew — into a tzedakah charity box for him.

“I never questioned whether it was my ability that kept me aloof from injury. I let it go that chai was working for me,” he said.

During his coaching tenure at Brandeis, Friedman helped raise funds for the fledgling Jewish university. Friedman left Brandeis a few years after the school disbanded its football program in 1960.

In later years, he suffered from declining health. Ill from diabetes and with an amputated leg, Friedman committed suicide in 1982.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

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