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"Elegantly told ... Kriegel has written a remarkable book: a feel-good sports story still abundant with insight and social commentary." —Publishers Weekly, starred
"...a story so taut and true it pulls at your heart." —Richard Ben Cramer, author of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life
"Mark Kriegel has written an extraordinary biography of an extraordinary American." —Pete Hamill
"Irreverent and highly entertaining." —Los Angeles Times Book Review
On February 11, 1911, after nineteen days at sea, the RMS Pannonia dropped anchor in New York Harbor. The steamer had accommodations for 40 passengers in first class, 800 in steerage. Immigration officers directed their transfer to ferries, on which they were literally packed and delivered to Ellis Island. Among those bound for the Great Hall was Joe Namath’s paternal grandfather. The ship’s master entered his name in the manifest: Andras Nemet. He was Hungarian, of the Magyar race and the peasant class. He had been born a subject of Franz Josef, emperor of Austria and apostolic king of Hungary, and lived in a place called Raho, a village of several hundred on the Rima River in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Andras Nemet was darkly complected with gray eyes and stood five-five, which, compared with others in the Pannonia’s manifest, was a healthy height for men whose diet did not include much meat. He was thirty-nine, with the equivalent of $34 in his pocket. He swore he was neither a polygamist nor an anarchist. He was not crippled. He was in fine mental and physical condition, save for a common ailment known as Amerika-laz, American fever.
Magyar society—emanating from two classes, nobles and serfs—hadn’t changed much through its first millennium, which had been celebrated in 1896. Hungary’s national anthem proclaimed: “Here you must live and here you must die.” Emigrants were denounced in Parliament and the press. American fectris were said to be so dangerous that real Americans wouldn’t even work there—“not even Negroes,” according to the Budapest Notifier. America’s mills and mines represented nothing more than a new kind of servitude. A Magyar folk song warned of perils “in a distant fabled land.” “We have lived and died here for a thousand years, Oh! Why, at your own danger, do you want to leave here now?”
America was not to be confused with El Dorado. Mines collapsed. Mill furnaces exploded. Men drowned in a lava of molten steel. Still, one didn’t need theories of probability to understand the lure of the distant fabled land.
More meat, more money. Better odds.
Andras Nemet took the bet. Years later, Janos, the third of his four sons, would remember: “My dad came to this country when I was a year or a year and a half old, and I stayed behind. The reason I stayed behind was because my older brother was learning the blacksmith trade and had two years to go, so my father wanted to leave him behind for those years. He asked my grandparents to remain with him and be his guardians. They said that they would do it only if one of the younger children also remained with them. So I was the one that was elected to stay there. That way they figured that my mother would come back and they would get to see their daughter again. My grandparents were wonderful.”
Wonderful as they might have been, this couldn’t have been an easy period for Janos, who grew up without a father. Two years went by, then two more, and so on, until almost a decade had passed. Finally, on December 4, 1920, Janos arrived at Ellis Island. He was eleven. The ship’s master entered his name as “Nemeth.”
Janos was accompanied by his kid brother Lazlo, nine, and their mother, Julia, who had traveled back to Hungary to reclaim him. Janos answered the same questions his father had. He was not a polygamist, an anarchist, or a cripple. But there was still one more question: How long would he be staying in the United States? Most immigrants left Hungary with ambitions to return, already dreaming of a glorious homecoming. Not Janos, though. The officer inquiring as to the length of his stay checked the box marked “Always.” World War I had redrawn national boundaries; Janos’s hometown was now part of Czechoslovakia. But his fate had nothing to do with politics. Or money. Or even the American fever.
For Janos Nemeth, repatriation wasn’t a matter of country, but of kin. It was about making the family whole again. Janos wasn’t ever going home. He was home.
By now his father had signed a “Declaration of Intention,” a petition for citizenship, renouncing forever his allegiance to Charles, emperor of Austria and apostolic king of Hungary. Andras had settled in a place called Beaver Falls, about thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh, where he worked as a laborer for the Armstrong Cork Works. It was in Beaver Falls that Andras Nemet became Andy Namath.
The oldest of his four sons, Andy Junior, had given up blacksmithing to work in the mill, pouring molten metal for a living. The three other boys still lived at home. There was Steve, a machinist at the Keystone Driller Company; Lazlo, better known as Lester, and Janos, who quickly became John.
“When I first came here my father told my brother to take me amongst the boys,” John Namath would recall. “He didn’t want to hear me talking Hungarian. Learn to talk American, he says, and learn it right.”
John Namath mastered more than the language; he learned, quite quickly, to live American as well. Something about him was exquisitely adapted to life in the hardscrabble precincts of Beaver Falls. “He was tough,” said Jeff Alford, whose family, descended from slaves, had come from Alabama. “Guys like that just didn’t take no shit. You had to be tough to survive around there. Shee-it, lot of white guys could fight they ass off back then.”
What young Namath evidenced was a kind of rugged egalitarianism. Race and religion were like athletic talent: granted by God. But you didn’t judge a man by how God treated him; you judged him on how he treated you. This was a practical philosophy in a town like Beaver Falls, whose many tribes were known by pejorative proper nouns: Hunkies, Coloreds, Wops, Polacks, Micks, Krauts, Yids, even Chinamen. For each tribe, there were several churches and as many bars.
Prohibition never stopped anyone from getting a drink in Beaver Falls. Drink was a man’s reward for breathing the exhaust fumes of progress. Just about everyone’s father worked in a factory. Beaver Falls made glass, china, enamel, cork, steam drillers, and doors. But mostly, like all those towns along the Beaver River, it made steel. Moltrup made cold finished steel. Union Drawn made bars and rods. Standard Gauge produced crankshafts and taper pins. Babcock & Wilcox, the town’s biggest employer, was known for seamless tubing.
After a shift in the mills, most men were too tired to do anything but drink. Their sons, however, could avail themselves of other amusements. Basketball was in its infancy, but still popular enough that the standings of club teams were dutifully printed in the local paper. Football, another very young game, had been popularized by college kids. But as it skirted the line between athleticism and violence, the sport seemed less suited for a bunch of swells than the rough-hewn sons of mill towns like Beaver Falls.
Still, basketball and football were mere curiosities compared to baseball. The Beaver Falls Athletics, the town’s first entry in organized ball, had been around since 1896. In 1921 and ’22, the Beaver Falls Elks were the reigning champions of semipro ball. There was a city league and a county league and any number of industrial leagues. The town had at least six ball fields, showcases for local legends with names like Heinie and Bennie and Lefty and Babyface.
Kids were crazy for baseball. In 1920, the year Janos became John, Babe Ruth hit fifty- four home runs, more than any single team had hit the season before. Baseball embodied an almost absurd sense of possibility, decidedly un-European, but no matter how Andy Namath tried to assimilate, the game and its value would remain beyond his comprehension.
That didn’t stop John from playing. He just learned to sneak around, keeping his glove and his uniform at a friend’s house. “My parents never allowed none of us to compete in any sport at all,” John would remember. “They said, ‘We didn’t raise you boys up to go out there and cripple yourselves up.’”
America didn’t want cripples. They were turned back at Ellis Island. Cripples couldn’t work.
Zoltan Kovac, a Hungarian immigrant who came to know the Namath family, explains: “To an old-fashioned Magyar family, sport was wasting time. You have to work, to earn a living. They don’t want you playing ball or painting pictures. You worked. That’s how they were brought up. That’s what they brought with them from Hungary.”
All the Namath brothers left school early to get jobs. “I had a doctor change my birth certificate so that I could quit school when I was 15,” John said.
He got a mill job, a standard fifty-five-hour week at 23 cents an hour. He worked in a glass factory for a quarter an hour. Then he worked as a “heater boy,” heating rivets at the Penn Bridge Company. He worked at the Union Clothing Company. He worked at Armstrong Cork. He was still a kid.
What, then, made you a man?
Was it loss? Or the ability to endure it?
On November 10, 1926, Andy Junior died of septicemia—blood poisoning—not uncommon among America’s industrial class. He was twenty-six, survived by his wife and young daughter. The cost of the funeral, including limousine, floral arrangements, and a deluxe “Belmont” casket, came to $643.50, a considerable sum at a time when steelworkers made about 50 cents an hour. Still, all the expense afforded the Namaths little peace. The poison would linger in the family’s blood.
From the lead story in the Beaver Falls Tribune, May 17, 1927:
Answering an alarm of fire which came over the telephone this morning shortly after 9:30 o’clock, the Beaver Falls fire department discovered upon arriving at 1315 Twenty-Third street, Mt. Washington, Beaver Falls, that instead of there being a fire, the man living in the house, Andy Namath, aged 56 years, had taken his life by hanging himself to supporting beams in the cellar of his own home. . . .
It is said that the man had been in ill health for several weeks past and had brooded considerably over the death of his son about one year ago as well as his wife’s present illness. Procuring a clothesline, he threw one end of it over the supporting rafter in the cellar while standing on the lower cellar steps, after which he stepped off. He then evidently bent his knees, causing slow strangulation.
There would be no $385 Belmont casket this time; the entire burial cost less than that. As a gambling man would say, why chase after bad money? Andy Namath lost the bet he made as Andras Nemet. So much for those great odds in this distant fabled land.
In a little more than eight months, on January 30, 1928, Julia Namath would remarry. Her new husband, William Bartus, was a mill worker who had been widowed ten years before. They lived at 316 Ninth Avenue, on the lower end of Beaver Falls, a block populated by Americans of African, Polish, and Magyar descent. Suddenly, there was a family of ten: six children from his first marriage and two from hers. The 1930 census counts Lester and John Namath as Bartus’s stepsons. By then, John was twenty-two, ready to go out and start a family of his own.
He didn’t have to look far for a bride. Rose Juhasz lived on the very next block, at 408 Ninth Avenue, the second of four children from a good Hungarian family. The Juhaszes owned their own home, valued at $3,500. Both mother and father, a mill worker, were naturalized citizens. Their children had been born in this country. On April 11, 1930, when the census worker knocked on their door, Rose was still ten days shy of her eighteenth birthday.
She had attended St. Mary’s, run by the Sisters of Divine Providence. But to her everlasting dismay, her schooling was cut short by her household duties, which included washing, cleaning, sewing, and tending to the furnace. She was also employed as a domestic for a well-to-do family up in the Patterson Heights section. “Women in mill towns were expected to work just as soon as they could, then find a husband,” she would recall.
Rose, later described as a “handsome” woman, would not disappoint. Not only could she keep house, she was a talented cook and a devout Catholic. Rose was a very qualified spouse. And as she saw it, so was John Namath.
He had given up his great passion, baseball, but still played industrial league basketball and semipro football for the Beaver Falls Cardinals. Still, Rose wasn’t marrying John for his athletic prowess. “He had a good job at the Moltrup Steel Company as a helper on a hot furnace, and he was a big, good-looking, hardworking man,” she recalled. “But from my point of view, I was honestly less concerned about getting married than I was with the fact that at last I was finished with all the hard work around the Juhasz household.”
John and Rose were married on April 14, 1931, at St. Ladislaus, the Hungarian Catholic church. Later that year, on December 1, John Alexander Namath was born. They’d call the baby Sonny. Sonny had great timing; the Great Depression was now in full swing.
Their newlywed years were a season of hardship. A good week was one that saw John get two days’ work at the mill. He tried to make up for it by working as a salesman at Sedicoff’s shoe store. Rose worked as a maid on Saturdays, nine hours for a buck. She stretched the family budget by making everything from scratch: soup, bread, apple butter, even soap from scraps of animal fat. She cooked a lot of rabbit, which they raised for food. Sometimes John would fish the Beaver River for their dinner.
He had finally retired from the Beaver Falls Cardinals with a bad ankle. For entertainment, the young couple would play cards, pop popcorn, and listen to the radio. Rose loved Amos ’n Andy.
On October 6, 1934, Robert Namath was born. Another mouth to feed. Another baby wailing to suckle at two in the morning. Another set of diapers. After Bobby, the young couple decided not to have any more kids, at least not for a while. This moratorium came to an end on January 5, 1938, with the birth of a third son, Franklin.
Fortunately, the worst of the Depression was over. The family had survived. Soon enough the mills would thrive as never before. Beaver Falls would be a boomtown.
There was just one thing bothering Rose Namath. She wanted a girl.
On May 31, 1943, Rose went to see her doctor. She was near the end of yet another pregnancy, though this one would conclude differently. Unlike the three boys, all of whom were born at home, the Namaths had arranged for this baby to be born in Providence Hospital.
“I thought little girls deserved something special,” Rose would say. She had no doubt. In anticipation of the infant princess, Rose had already painted the baby’s room pink. There was a pink crib, pink blankets, pink sweaters.
Dr. James Smith assured her that everything was fine, right on schedule. In another two weeks or so, she would be reporting for a shift of hard labor in the delivery room. And yes, Rose Namath would indeed be having a girl. Maybe it was the way she was carrying. Perhaps it was Dr. Smith’s many years of experience. Whatever the case, the physician was absolutely certain as to one thing: The baby would be a girl.
“I guarantee you,” he said.
Later that day, after hanging the laundry out to dry, John and Rose walked the three blocks to Providence Hospital.
The baby was dimpled, but dark. Very dark. Almost Spanish-looking.
“Oh, no,” Rose told the nurse. “This couldn’t be mine.”
Congratulations. It’s a boy.
|1.||A Distant Fabled Land||1|
|2.||The Lower End||7|
|4.||Boy at the Top of the Stairs||18|
|13.||Of Southern Comforts and the Schoolhouse Door||86|
|17.||Harry Wismer's Titans of New York||114|
|18.||Sonny, as in Money||120|
|19.||Happy New Year||130|
|20.||Four Hundred Grand||140|
|21.||Now Appearing on Broadway: Mistress Meniscus||147|
|25.||Booze and Broads||187|
|27.||The Star System||209|
|28.||The Beauty of Joe||216|
|30.||Student of the Game||233|
|32.||Disheveled but Happy||249|
|37.||The Joe Namath Show||302|
|38.||Bigger Than the Game||313|
|39.||The Agony of Defeat||322|
|42.||Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty||349|
|45.||Garden City Joe||369|
|48.||Sound of the Soul||392|
|53.||A Vinculo Matrimonii||423|
Barnes & Noble.com: Why did you write this book?
Mark Kriegel: Joe was the first player I remember idolizing. I must have been about seven or eight, and I had a Joe Namath poster and a Joe Namath uniform, and later I went to a Joe Namath football camp. Later on, I spent ten years as a sports columnist for the New York Post and the New York Daily News -- and every story seemed to come back to him. To me he summed up everything I learned about fame and masculinity. Then I heard about Namath trying to cope with life. It certainly is not the destination most people would have envisioned for Joe Namath. [After his playing career, Namath sought treatment for alcohol problems.]
B&N.com: What is the main idea of the book?
MK: The main thrust of the book deals with the notions of fame and masculinity in the Baby Boom. I think that the central event in Namath's life is not the Super Bowl victory [Super Bowl III] but his own parents' divorce. And that informs his own emotional life from his adolescence to today.
B&N.com: Namath didn't directly cooperate, didn't do interviews for the book. Did that surprise you?
MK: Initially, yes. I would have thought if someone is doing a biography and you have a naturally sympathetic bent toward the character, he would cooperate. Looking back, I am not sure that Namath would want to submit himself to a process that is that emotionally invasive. Beyond that there was a financial problem, in that his representative saw the book as a licensing agreement and I saw it as a biography. I didn't see it as a business agreement, and I don't think of it as that. I don't blame the representative for asking for money, but I didn't think it was appropriate.
B&N.com: What did you do to compensate for Namath not cooperating, that is, not being interviewed? Did that make it especially challenging?
MK: I compensated by being as voracious a reporter as I could. The key to overcoming his lack of participation was investigative reporting. I became less and less concerned with Namath as I went on. One good thing about writing about sports figure is there is a good record. Joe started appearing in the papers from junior high school. Joe has been so famous for so long that there is an abundance of material out there on video, paper, books, and magazines. And some of the older material is more revealing than his reminisces would be.
B&N.com: How many people did you interview?
MK: I did about 180 on-the-record interviews. I also looked at court cases, video, and advertising.
B&N.com: How long did it take you to do the book?
MK: I started in earnest in October 2001, and I finished the first draft in December 2003. I did not take a day off. I did not understand what a biography entailed when I started.
B&N.com: How did Namath end up at the University of Alabama?
MK: By accident. He wanted to go to the University of Maryland, but his SAT scores were under the cut. He went through the summer thinking about playing professional baseball. At the last minute a recruiter on behalf of Coach Bear Bryant and the University of Alabama arrived in Namath's hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and invited him to visit. He wound up staying. He loved Bryant and playing there. Bryant could be a very tough guy to play for, but he was exactly what Namath needed in the wake of his parents' divorce. Bryant became a kind of father to Joe.
B&N.com: Just as he was to revolutionize pro football, do you think he also revolutionized college football?
MK: No. Because even with his enormous talent -- and Bryant did adjust his offense for Namath -- the change wasn't a radical one. What you see in Joe's college career, if you want to look at a harbinger of change, look at the first prime-time bowl game [the 1965 Orange Bowl, between Alabama and Texas]. The idea of putting a prime-time game on was done in large deference to Namath's talent. He turns in not just a great performance but a supremely dramatic performance. Someone tells Sonny Werblin -- the owner of the New York Jets and boss of MCA's television division -- after the game that you have just seen a great pilot for your series. Alabama was always Coach Bryant's team the way the Jets were Joe Namath's team. The harbinger of change is how big this sport is going to become by putting it on in prime time. What distinguishes Namath as a ballplayer and celebrity is TV. He is the first ballplayer to become famous through television.
B&N.com: He was a pro star before he even played pro football. Why was that, and what was it about him that gave him star quality?
MK: His charisma was authentic, it was natural. The "Broadway Joe" character wasn't phony -- it was an amplification of who he was. This was a kid who learned about playing ball and hustling through life in pool halls back in Beaver Falls. He had a great natural wink to him. The charm is real. And he was a great hustler.
New York and Joe were a great match, as the nightlife in New York was changing. There were available women all over the place. Joe was not bound by conventions of appearance like Joe DiMaggio, the former Yankee baseball player. He did not have to pretend he was a teetotaler. Namath was encouraged to play the role of Broadway Joe by Jets owner Sonny Werblin. The swashbuckling role helped the Jets, the American Football League, and eventually the National Football League after the two leagues merged.
B&N.com: You seem to say in this book that Namath revolutionized pro football with the Jets. How did he do so?
MK: He elongated the game's dimensions. He made fans and players alike more conscious of the long pass -- the "bomb." Although I think Namath's career resists the notion of quantification, he was the first player to pass the career mark for 4,000 yards thrown in 14-game seasons. This was a monumental achievement. There is a beautiful sense of geometry in his game. In the Super Bowl, he beats the Colts by the small game -- short passes and the running game. Namath obviously had physical talents in throwing the long ball, but there were other things that were spectacular in his deceptive talents and sleight of hand. What people forget about Namath is that in addition to throwing such a long ball, he was a masterful faker.
B&N.com: Everyone still talks about Super Bowl III as the greatest Super Bowl. The Jets were big underdogs, yet Namath had the gumption to guarantee the win.
MK: Absolutely, he believed it. The guarantee was given at a banquet in response to a heckler but was given in public before. He believed it, and by the third quarter of the game, the Colts believed it.
B&N.com: What is his greatest legacy as a pro player, as a New York Jet? Was he overrated?
MK: He was not overrated, because he probably did more to change pro football than anyone. There are two parts of his legacy, one is the Super Bowl; he did make that particular game and the Super Bowl in general what it is. Second part, he is the guy through whom football and showbiz became one. He helped to change the way people looked at sports, especially through television. He created a kind of excitement that can't be quantified in a mere quarterback rating.
B&N.com: After his career, why did he spend so much time acting rather than, say, being a football coach?
MK: I don't think that he wanted to put the time in that is required of being a big-time football coach or a front-office type. He loved the game enough to play for many years in an enormous amount of pain. He spent a few years trying to basically find himself in show business. Personally, I think he found himself and his calling when he became a father.
B&N.com: What is the explanation for his alcohol problem, and how is he coping with it?
MK: I think that one of the things that happened to Joe as a result of playing with enormous physical pain is that he started, like many athletes in the '60s, to use alcohol as an analgesic. He used alcohol to medicate himself. He had pain that was constant, and I think that over the years he lost the ability to distinguish between physical and emotional pain. So, he started treating sadness in the same way that he would treat an injured limb. When he was married, he was sober. One of the things I find most endearing about Namath as a character is that the guy who was cast as the ladies' man of his generation turned out to be an incredibly dedicated father. A kind of Mr. Mom. He is sober through his marriage, but when the marriage breaks up, he goes back to drinking, because, as I understand it, he is in pain. By his own admission, it was a very dramatic hurt. He has been in outpatient treatment for alcohol abuse.
B&N.com: What will your next book be?
MK: I am kicking around a number of ideas, but the one I keep returning to is the late Pete Maravich, the basketball player. Another possibility is the boxer Barney Ross. Richard Price, the author, once told me that you don't always choose a subject but that the subject chooses you.
Posted October 7, 2011
This Biography was basically the story of how the famous Joe Namath came about.Just because of one radio mix-up he has been called an alcoholic,pervert, and a junky.However if you read this book you will find that he his much more than that. That he is an intelligent and caring man with a great story. He is just a man who loves football with all of his heart. Unlike many others, I enjoyed the detail into his family background that was given by Kriegel. It showed how his family life was which I found very interesting.One thing I didn't like is how little depth they covered about his trade from the Jets and how many different emotions were being tossed around. The major themes from Namath's life story is to never give up on your dreams, no matter what other people think or tell you.For example, In the 1969 Superbowl everyone told Namath that there was no way he could beat the Baltimore Colts. But look who has a superbowl ring. The book related to me because not only did his grandparents come straight from a european country, but he is and is apart of my favorite football team of all time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 13, 2010
This book was a biography of Joe Namath. It was good in most ways but I felt that it went too far into background information, for example it told of how his grandfather came to America for the first two chapters. It follows Namath from his birth all the way until the book was written. One of the better aspects of the book was how well is personified Joe and showed his true character. Many believed him to just be an alcoholic party boy, which he was, but he had a much better side to him. Through reading this book, I learned about the life of Joe Namath, an interesting football player and person.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 28, 2008
this book was good it was in depth with a full discription into namtahs life i would recomend this book to anyone who wants to know about joe namath it had full color pictures and full report on season in football i liked this book this book is good and not many pages eitherWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 13, 2004
It is with great sense of irony that I read this biography. Growing up with a football-mad father and high school-star-quarterback brothers, I was able to make the leap between the sport and the near-spiritual devotion it inspires. As a school girl during Super Bowl III, I was crazy about the New York Jets, much to the dismay of my father and brothers, who seemed to think that football is something akin to the military and should be reconized as such. I understood early on that football players need not necessarily be dumb; they game they play is complex. And indeed, if Joe Namath is any example, so are those who play it. His brash, scotch-and-sex-fueled public persona is contrasted with a deeply-held Catholic faith; his love for his family proved to be the stabililizer that drew him back from the edge more than once. Through the writer's eyes, Joe Namath is at turns a man to be admired, disliked, envied and pitied. He is fully human, complete with the ying/yang union of boldness and strength, surfacing out insecurity and fear. For those who have any memory of Joe Namath, this is an thorougly insightful look at the country's first fully-marketed sports peronality, a brand to be sold and resold to a never ending line of bidders. What's more, no punches are pulled. Despite his inability to interview Namath himself, the author has been able to access information that allowed him to create a well-developed look at a complicated, loveable American sports hero -- a true reflection of the enigmatic country his father came to as a young man. It is worth the time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 26, 2008
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Posted April 2, 2011
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Posted February 20, 2010
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Posted December 4, 2010
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