A Distant Fabled Land
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.