Saturday, 25 October 2014

ELITE AMERICANS IN THE CFL


It all boiled down to money

During the 1950s--before the National Football League became the multi-billion-dollar business conglomerate that it is today--a number of American college high draft picks, along with several seasoned NFL players, opted for the more-attractive Canadian Football League. Why? Pay was at least the same or even better in many cases on this side of the border, aided by a Canadian dollar worth ten cents more than its counterpart, combined with the possibility of off-season Canadian jobs.  So, who were some of these American players who came here during that time? Here’s a few…


1951 Bowman football card of Chuck Hunsinger,
Chicago Bears (United States Public Domain)
In the first round of the 1950 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears chose powerful running back Chuck Hunsinger from the University of Florida at Gainesville third overall. He played for the Bears until 1952, then the Montreal Alouettes from 1953-1955. Unfortunately, he will always be known for one play--the “Hunsinger Fumble” during the 1954 Grey Cup when he was hit hard and dropped the ball on the Edmonton Eskimos 10-yard line with three minutes to go and the Als up by five points. Esks rookie Jackie Parker picked the ball up and raced 90 yards for a TD and an Edmonton victory.

In the second round that year, 17th overall, the Green Bay Packers took Houston’s Rice University quarterback Tobin Rote, who struggled with a less-than-mediocre Packer team around him for the next seven years before winning a championship with the Detroit Lions in 1957, Detroit’s last NFL title. Rote  was the highest-paid CFL player from 1960-1962 as he aired it out for the Toronto Argonauts, where he threw for 4,247 yards and 38 TDs in his first season, creating CFL records at the time.

Also, in the 1950 NFL Draft, Oregon State’s tailback-receiver Ken Carpenter was picked in the first round, 13th overall, by the Cleveland Browns. He played as a Pro Bowl All-Star in 1951, and after two more years with the Browns, he too went north and starred for the Saskatchewan Roughriders from 1954-1959, where he won West All-Star honors three years plus a conference MVP award. Credited with 54 TDs lifetime rushing and receiving combined, he also punted and place-kicked for the Roughriders.

In 1951, fullback Johnny Bright was fifth in balloting for the Heisman Trophy honors once he finished his college career at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. The first pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, fifth overall, he went north, instead, to the Calgary Stampeders. Traded to the Edmonton Eskimos in mid-1954, Bright went on to be a Hall of Famer and the CFL’s top lifetime rusher upon his retirement with 10,909 yards in 13 star-studded seasons. Schenley Award winner as the league’s MVP in 1959, Bright played a major role in three straight Eskimo Grey Cup championships from 1954-1956. He was a five-time Western All-Star and scored 71 touchdowns.

Oklahoma Sooners halfback Billy Vessels won the Heisman Trophy in 1952, then signed with the Edmonton Eskimos, instead of the NFL Baltimore Colts who drafted him second overall in the first round. In 1953, his only year in Canada, he rushed for 926 yards on 129 carries for a 7.1 average, impressive- enough numbers to win the inaugural Schenley award given to the league’s MVP. Vessels was then drafted into the US Army for two years. He played for the Colts in 1956, but suffered a leg injury in mid-season and never played pro football again, seeking other ventures.

University of Maryland graduate and future CFL Hall of Famer Bernie Faloney was another first round NFL pick who came north. He was fourth in the Heisman balloting in 1953, then was drafted in the first round, 11th overall, by the San Francisco 49ers, who offered him $9,000 to play defensive back and quarterback. Two-way football was the norm in the Fifties. However, Frank “Pop” Ivy, the Oklahoma Sooners coach (Maryland’s opponent in the Orange Bowl) was heading to Edmonton and asked Faloney to go with him, offering him $12,500.

Faloney quarterbacked the Eskimos to a Grey Cup victory in 1954, then was drafted into the US Army for two years. Declared a free agent for the 1957 season, Faloney returned to Canada, signed with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, and became their number one quarterback until 1964, taking the Cats to seven Grey Cup appearances. The league MVP in 1961, he retired in 1967 after playing with the Montreal Alouettes, then the BC Lions.

For the eighth pick in the first round of the same 1953 Draft, the New York Giants took tough 200-pound fullback Bobby Marlow, a University of Alabama standout. Instead, he jumped to the CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders and played there eight years. He held the team’s lifetime rushing record at 4,291 yards until an icon named George Reed appeared on the scene and passed him a decade later. Marlow was a hard runner and a hard hitter, thriving on the two-way game as a Western defensive All-Star five times at the linebacker and halfback positions. On offense, he scored 31 touchdowns total.

Drafted in the fifth round, 55th overall (low compared to the others mentioned), by the Washington Redskins in 1958, after coming out of the University of Michigan, Jim Van Pelt opted for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he and Kenny Ploen combined to quarterback the team to two straight Grey Cup victories over the Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1958 and 1959. In his two seasons, Van Pelt threw for 40 TDs (31 in 1959), over 4,000 yards total, as well as place-kicked. Unfortunately, his pro career came to a skidding halt in 1960 upon receiving his draft notice for the US Air Force, where he spent the next three years.
1953 Bowman football card of Ken Carpenter,
Cleveland Browns (United States Public Domain)

In 1955, the Blue Bombers grabbed yet another player a few rounds down who didn’t consider his NFL drafted team--the Baltimore Colts. Picked in the sixth round, 64th overall, CFL Hall of Famer Leo Lewis headed straight to Winnipeg after he graduated from Lincoln University of Missouri. Nicknamed the “Lincoln Locomotive,” Lewis was a huge part of four Grey Cup victories in an 11-year career that saw him rush for 8,861 yards with a 6.6 yard average and an amazing 29.1 average on kickoff returns. His lifetime rushing yardage remained a Bomber team record for 41 years.

Bomber head coach during Lewis’ time, Bud Grant, who also spent 18 years as head coach of the NFL Minnesota Vikings, considered Lewis the best player he had ever coached in either the NFL or CFL. From the University of Minnesota, Grant, himself, was taken 14th overall in the first round of the 1950 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, in the same year as Ken Carpenter and Chuck Hunsinger.  Grant played two years for the Eagles, then signed with the Bombers, playing there from 1953-1956 as a defensive back and an All-Star receiver before coaching Winnipeg to their best years ever from 1957-1966.

The 1959 NFL Draft exploded with four first-round picks who eventually bolted for the Canadian Football League. First overall was the highly-touted quarterback Randy Duncan taken by the Green Bay Packers. The Washington Redskins chose quarterback Don Allard as their number four pick. Number seven went to the Chicago Bears, when they chose running back Don Clark. And number ten went to the New York Giants, who picked quarterback Lee Grosscup.

Randy Duncan
quarterbacked the University of Iowa to two Rose Bowls in 1957 and 1959, then inked a contract with the BC Lions for $2,000 more than the Packers were offering, plus a $2,500 signing bonus. Duncan played two years for BC where he passed for a combined 3,480 yards and 25 TDs, then left for the new American Football League.

The highest-ever NFL pick from Boston College until the Atlanta Falcons chose Matt Ryan in 2008, Don Allard jumped straight to Saskatchewan, played there two tough years for a bad team, throwing twice as many interceptions as TDs, then went to the Montreal Alouettes for two more equally-frustrating CFL years.

The third quarterback in the 1959 group, Utah University’s Lee Grosscup, started his pro career in the NFL and AFL, then played briefly as a back-up with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1963, the same year that Ron Lancaster had arrived from Ottawa to take the QB spot and eventually become a living legend in Regina. Grosscup was known more for his 20-year stint as an ABC college football analyst and later a college and pro football broadcaster.

Don Clark
was the cream of the four 1959 first-round picks. With the Ohio State Buckeyes, he starred on the 1957 Rose Bowl Championship team. Rejecting the Chicago Bears, he played for Ottawa in 1959, was traded to Winnipeg, who traded him to Montreal before he could put on a Blue Bomber uniform. With Montreal, he excelled. In 1960, he rushed for 902 yards, and another 1,143 yards in 1961, then left the game the good after two injury-laden seasons at age 27.

So, what changed in the 1960s and after that to eventually widen the gap between the CFL and NFL?

One game, actually, had a lot to do with it. Millions liked what they saw in the televised 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, a nail-biting affair that went into overtime and won by Johnny Unitas’ Colts. Due to the TV exposure, the National Football League grew to become a larger than life entity. Another factor was the popularity of the rejuvenated Green Bay Packers under the tutelage of coach Vince Lombardi who turned the team into a powerhouse dynasty in the 1960s, after being the laughingstock of the league for over a decade. These two factors plunged the NFL into a new era of huge television deals and sold-out stadiums.

Once again, it all boiled down to money. Only this time it worked in the NFL’s favor.

Monday, 13 October 2014

A STAR AMONG HALL OF FAMERS



1954 Bowman card of Carl Furillo
(United States Public Domain)
That’s exactly what the strong, talented, handsome Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Carl Furillo was--the overlooked man on a team that has seen Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider each achieve Cooperstown Hall of Fame status. Pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax also made it to the Hall, but more in relation to their years once the Dodgers fled west to Los Angeles than their terms in Flatbush.

But what about Furillo, a .299 lifetime hitter with some pop, a batting champion in 1953, and the most feared outfield arm in the game during the 1950s? Dodger fans used to arrive at Brooklyn’s bandbox Ebbets Field an hour or two before game time just to see him throw pin-point bullets from right field. To them, Furillo was “The Arm.”

Why isn’t he enshrined at Cooperstown? Was he a star on the fringe or…was it because he tried to sue his own ball team after they released him in 1960?

Carl Furillo was born 8 March 1922 in Stony Creek Mills, Pennsylvania to Italian parents. He left school after completing the eighth grade, working at various jobs. Growing up, he always loved baseball. At 18, he turned pro with the independent Pocomoke City Chicks of the Class D Eastern Shore League, where he played center field and even pitched in eight games. He ended the season playing for the Reading Chicks  of the Class B Interstate League. The Brooklyn Dodgers were so impressed with Furillo that they purchased the entire Reading team, including the bus and all the equipment just to get him.

With Reading in 1941, Furillo didn’t disappoint his Dodger superiors by batting .313 and throwing out 25 base runners. Now known as the “The Reading Rifle,” he also acquired another nickname--“Skoonj,” short for scungilli, an Italian dish containing large snails, a Furillo culinary favorite. However, some baseball people attributed the latter nickname to his cautious base running--at a snail’s pace. In 1942, the Dodgers sent Furillo to the AA Montreal Royals where he hit .281. For the next three years, Furillo faced combat conditions with the US Army in the Pacific Theatre and received 3 battle stars for bravery.

By 1946, with the war over, the 6-foot, 190-pound right-hander was ready for the Dodgers. With the cantankerous Leo “The Lip” Durocher managing, Furillo appeared in 117 games and hit .284, playing center field. But from the start, he and Leo were at odds. The manager preferred to platoon the right-hand hitting Furillo and told him to “take or leave” his first major league contract of $3,750. It was not until Durocher left the team in mid-1948 that Furillo turned into a star.

In 1949, he became the full-time right fielder in order to make room for Duke Snider in center. Furillo responded with 18 homers, 106 RBIs, a .322 average, 13 outfield assists, and a trip to his second World Series. He followed up with years of 18 homers, 106 RBIs, .305 average, and 18 assists in 1950; and 16 homers, 91 RBIs and .295 average with a whopping 24 outfield assists in 1951. One of those assists occurring 27 August 1951, when he threw out Pirates pitcher Mel Queen at first base by two feet on a line drive bounce to right field.

Furillo owned right field at Ebbets Field, playing it as if it were a work of art. While opposing outfielders found it a hell on earth, Furillo faced it as a challenge for his unmatched work ethic. He had teammates Billy Cox and Preacher Roe hit fly balls off the wall, and Furillo would watch carefully. The right field wall was 19 feet of concrete with a 19-foot screen on top. And, it sloped at an angle starting half-way up the concrete, then went straight up the rest of the way. Towards the power alley, in between this concrete-screen combination, stood the flat scoreboard with the Schaefer beer sign and a small section of screen on top of that to complete the near 40 feet of wall height. There were dozens of angles that a ball could carom off all the different sections.

With practice, Furillo knew them all, from the 297 feet down the foul line out to the 376-foot power alley, where he approached Duke Snider’s territory. If the ball hit the screen, Furillo knew he’d have to  run  like mad towards it because the ball would drop dead. If the ball went off the concrete wall, Furillo would run towards the infield because the ball would come shooting out like a rocket. 

In 1952, Furillo started off slow at the plate. Dropping from the top of the order to the eighth spot, he struggled around .220 for most of the year, before finishing the season at .247, his lowest batting average since joining the Dodgers. In the off-season, he was diagnosed with cataracts, and went under the knife. As a result, in 1953, Furillo saw the ball “as big as a balloon” and he never let up on opposing pitchers, hitting 21 homers, 38 doubles, and a league-leading .344. The only year he won a National League batting championship, Furillo had the highest average by a Dodger righty in nearly 60 years.

Ever since 1948, when Durocher left the Dodgers to manage the crosstown rival New York Giants, Furillo and Durocher had developed a dislike for each other that over time became an all-out feud similar to the Hatfields and the McCoys. On several occasions, Furillo was deliberately thrown at by Giants pitchers. In 1949, Sheldon Jones decked Furillo, sending him off the field on a stretcher and to the hospital with a concussion. In 1950, Sal Maglie threw two pitches a little too close to Furillo. In response, Furillo chucked his bat at the mound, barely missing Maglie who had to do a dance step to get out of the way.

Early 1950s postcard of Ebbets Field, Brooklyn (United States Public Domain)

The feud reached a climax on 6 September 1953 when Giants pitcher Ruben Gomez had orders to “stick it” in Furillo’s ear in the second inning. Hit on the wrist by a Gomez pitch, Furillo jogged to first, glaring all the way at Durocher in the New York dugout. A few pitches later, with Billy Cox at bat, Furillo charged the dugout, made a B-line for the manager and grabbed him in a headlock. Within seconds, Durocher’s face and bald head were starting to turn blue. One of the infield umpires was heard uttering, “Kill him, Carl!” Furillo might have chocked Durocher to death, if not for the two falling to the dugout floor, where a player--some claim it was New York’s Monte Irvin--“accidentally on purpose” stepped on Furillo’s hand, breaking  his little finger. Furillo didn’t play again until the October World Series.

Two years later, in 1955, the Dodgers won their one and only World Series championship in Brooklyn. Furillo contributed with 26 homers, 95 RBIs and .314 average, plus .296 in the World Series against New York Yankee pitching. Furillo remained consistent the final two years the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, hitting .289 and .306. Even the first year in Los Angeles, 1958, while the team aged and fell to seventh place, Furillo remained a rock at the plate with a .290 average, 18 homers and 83 RBIs in only 122 games. It would be his last year as a regular. Early in 1959, he tore a calf muscle running to first base on a ground ball. After that he played in constant pain.

He was used sparingly in the 1959 World Series championship year, appearing in only 25 games in right field, and for 25 pinch hits. But he did come through with a 12th-inning single that scored Gil Hodges from second base in the second and last game of the National League playoff against the Milwaukee Braves. In Game Three of the World Series that the Dodgers won over the Chicago White Sox in five games, Furillo stroked a pinch-hit single in the seventh inning with the bases loaded to put his team in the lead to stay at 3-1.

In May 1960, while on the injury list, Furillo was released by Dodgers GM Buzzy Bavasi to make way for power-hitting outfielder Frank Howard. Furillo, a man of principle and the fighter that he was, read his contract and found a clause that stated should a team release a player while injured, they would have to pay the player for the entire season. When he was let go in May, Furillo had received only $12,000 of his $33,000 seasonal contract. He also felt they released him to avoid the full 15-year pension had he completed the season. He sued the Dodgers and won $21,000 as compensation in 1961, but was blackballed from the game, never able to get a job in baseball. He tried, though. Every team. Even the minors.

Furillo did various jobs for the rest of his life. He owned a butcher shop in Queens, New York, then installed Otis elevators during construction of the original World Trade Centers in New York City. For years, he stayed away from Old Timer’s Games, but eventually softened enough to be an instructor at adult fantasy baseball camps in Vero Beach, Florida, the spring training home of the Dodgers. His last job was a security guard in Stony Creek Mills, his Pennsylvania hometown. He died there in 1989, a heart attack victim at age 66.

In his 15-year MLB career, Furillo was only one hit away from technically hitting an even .300. He actually finished one point better than Mickey Mantle lifetime. In 1,806 regular-season games, Furillo hit 324 doubles, 56 triples, 192 homers, and 1,058 RBIs. A .300 hitter five times, and at least a .290 hitter twelve times, he was a major part of seven pennant winners and two World Championships. Defensively, he threw out 151 base runners foolish enough to run on him.

Although he was an outstanding hitter, he’ll always be known for that arm. It was a howitzer.