Pro athletes, once upon a laborious off-deason
In this age of mega-contracts for professional athletes when so many earn in a single year more than the average American worker could earn over the same number of lifetimes accorded the proverbial cat, it’s difficult to remember a time when players actually worked off-season jobs.
I thought about that a while back when my pal Bob Seggerson wrote a column on his unwavering support of the Cleveland Browns following their immaculately imperfect season. In that column Bob recalled a childhood memory of his attending a game with his father, Jack, at the old Municipal Stadium and meeting Joe Morrison. Morrison, the former South High School star, was in the midst of a long career with the New York Giants as perhaps its most versatile player. But at the end of several of those seasons, he also had an off-season career, working at the Ohio Steel Foundry with Jack Seggerson.
In all three major sports in the 1950s, ‘60s and even into the ‘70s, it wasn’t all that unusual for pro athletes to take off-season jobs to supplement their incomes once the game checks stopped at the end of each season. While athletes still earned more than the average worker in those days, they certainly didn’t earn what, say, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw will be paid for the upcoming baseball season, 33 million dollars.
Take, for instance, one of the NBA’s first great jump shooters, Paul Arizin of the Philadelphia Warriors. In the 1950s when the season ended, even that 1955-56 season when Arizin and his mates won the NBA title by defeating the Fort Wayne Pistons in the finals, within days of the triumph, Arizin was clocking in at a scrap metal company in Philadelphia.
As for baseball, most players, even those who’d established themselves as stars, also worked off-season jobs. Baseball-crazy St. Louis fans in the late 1940s and early ‘50s just may have purchased a Christmas tree off a parking lot from a couple of men that were dead ringers for their team’s All-Star second baseman, Red Schoendienst, and their three-time MVP outfielder, Stan Musial.
In the 1960s, Al Jackson, a member of the expansion Mets of 1962 that lost more games (120) in baseball’s Modern Era than any other, in the off-season sold men’s suits at Howard Clothes in New York. And, right after his Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series, Jim Palmer, who in the Series, at 20 years old, had become the youngest pitcher in World Series history to toss a shutout, also found himself in a Baltimore men’s clothing store as a salesman for 150 dollars a week.
As far as the Detroit Tigers, Al Kaline, already an American League batting champion, was a sporting-goods salesman in the off-season. Meanwhile, his teammate, slugging first baseman, Norm Cash, in 1961, picked the wrong time for his career year when he hit .361 with 41 homers. Despite such an accomplishment, Roger Maris is the one fans will remember with his 61 homeruns. In the off-season, Cash took jobs as a rancher and an auctioneer of hogs.
By the 1970s, the Pirates Richie Hebner took off-season work digging graves back in Norwood, Massachusetts, earning not just a paycheck but one of baseball’s memorable nicknames, Gravedigger.
As for football, Lima’s Morrison was hardly alone in seeking work once the off-season began. Not only was this a time long before the big-money era but it was also a time when seasons were shorter. Additionally, in these far simpler times, once the season did end, players had no contact with their teams until they reported in late summer for pre-season camp. There were no OTAs (organized team activities) they were required to attend in the intervening months between seasons.
As Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Bill Lubinger wrote in his 2010 piece recalling the off-season jobs of the 1950s and ‘60s Browns, “Off-season once meant players slipped out of their helmets and pads and into the uniforms of teachers, preachers, farmers and salesmen, not to return for at least six months.”
While many will remember Chuck Noll as the four-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, following his graduating from the University of Dayton in 1952, in his playing days for the Browns from 1953 through ’59, the golden era for Browns fans that saw their team win three NFL titles, when he wasn’t one of head coach Paul Brown’s messenger guards carrying plays to quarterback Otto Graham, he was an off-season salesman for Trojan Freight Lines in Dayton to make his ends meet.
Contrast that with another UD graduate, some three decades and three years after Noll, John Gruden, who recently signed a contract to coach the Raiders for 100 million dollars over the next ten years. It’s doubtful Gruden will feel the need to look for off-season employment.
In the late 1950s, the Browns had a defensive end that they unwisely traded to the Green Bay after the 1959 season. But, before Willie Davis went on to become a dominant defensive force for Lombardi’s Packers on his way to his eventual enshrinement in Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, once his Browns seasons concluded in ’58 and ‘59, he could be found teaching mechanical drawing in high school.
Offensive guard John Wooten, an off-season junior high math teacher, told the Pain Dealer scribe Lubinger, in recalling those off-season days from long ago, “Nobody just sat around and ‘worked out.’”
Besides Davis and Wooten, in the 1950s and 60s, there were also other Browns who took to the classroom once the season concluded. Ernie Kellerman, a Browns safety from 1965 through ’71, was also, at Cleveland’s Beachwood High School, Mr. Kellerman.
Of course, without question, when it came to off-season teaching, no one had quarterback Frank Ryan’s classroom pedigree. The signal caller certainly was one of the stars of the Browns’ 27-0 win in the 1964 title-game over the Colts when he found Gary Collins for three touchdown passes. However, he was also a star in the classroom, earning a Ph.D. in math at Rice University and then teaching in Cleveland in the off-season at Case Western Reserve. He even taught a class during the season.
For the player many feel is the eternal face of the Cleveland franchise given his 21-year career and his contributions as both a defensive tackle and as a placekicker on four Browns NFL championship teams, Lou “The Toe” Groza, he was an insurance salesman in the off-season as was Browns linebacker Jim Houston, who eventually added financial planning to his off-season resume.
As for the preacher in the off-season, that would be Bill Glass. The All-Pro defensive end and stalwart on the Browns’ 1964 championship team worked with Billy Graham in the off-season before turning his attention to prison ministries.
Even the great Jimmy Brown in the off-season was a marketing rep for Pepsi-Cola, that is, when he wasn’t on the set filming The Dirty Dozen.
The late Steve Sabol, the award-winning documentarian whose work contributed mightily to the rise in popularity of NFL football, once recalled going in the off-season to future Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry’s house for an interview, and there was a linoleum installer there at the time putting in a kitchen floor. The installer’s name was Johnny Unitas, whose passes so often were directed toward the man who Sabol came to interview.
Yes, these were far simpler times. Consider the fact that Art Moddell bought the Browns in 1961 for around four million dollars. Nowadays, according to Forbes, the average NFL franchise is in the very fancy neighborhood of 2.5 billion dollars.
For some, that type of economic divide has distanced today’s athletes from the fans who cheer their exploits, especially those fans old enough to remember watching Stan Musial tie down that perfect Scotch pine to the roof of the family sedan in St. Louis or, closer to home, remember hometown Joe returning from another Giant season running the ball, catching passes from Y.A. Tittle and returning punts and kickoffs to work with his friend, Jack Seggerson.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist and frequent feature writer for The Lima News, a freeklance writer and editor and author of two books. He can be reached at email@example.com.