Did the New York Giants buy a whole team just to get their quarterback?
This past Sunday, Eli Manning won his second Super Bowl MVP after leading the New York Giants to their second Super Bowl victory in four years. While the Giants are surely pleased with their star quarterback, he cost the Giants plenty to acquire. Manning was drafted by the San Diego Chargers with the #1 overall pick in the 2004 National Football League (NFL) Draft. After informing the Chargers that he would refuse to play in San Diego (a tactic that John Elway famously used in the 1983 NFL Draft to get the Baltimore Colts to trade his rights to the Denver Broncos), the Chargers agreed to trade him to the Giants for quite a haul - the Giants 2004 first round pick (#4 overall), the Giants' 2004 third round pick, the Giants' 2005 first round pick and the Giants' 2005 fifth round pick. San Diego used the picks respectively on Phillip Rivers, Nate Kaeding, Shawne Merriman (all three would go on to make the Pro-Bowl) and in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Roman Oben. That is a lot to give up for one player.
However, amazingly enough, the Giants once spent a whole lot more to acquire a star quarterback. In fact, they once purchased an entire franchise just to get a quarterback!
Read on to learn more about possibly the most expensive quarterback purchase of all-time.
Tim Mara was a successful businessman (much of his fortune was built on his bookmaking business, which was legal at the time) when he purchased a New York franchise for the still-new NFL in 1925. Mara, a consummate marketer, was confident that he could eventually turn his professional football team into a success, even though he was not a football fan himself before he founded the franchise. Mara barely made a profit in his first season (due entirely to a single game against the Chicago Bears and their famed player, Red Grange - that one game made enough money to clear Mara of the $40,000 worth of debts he ran up for the Giants that first year) and the Giants followed their inaugural season with three more seasons where the Giants continued to lose money hand over fist.
In 1926, the Giants finished 8-4-1 but lost somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000. Mara felt that an outstanding team would draw a bigger crowd, so he spared no expense in putting out a great tram in 1927. The Giants did, in fact, go 11-1-1 in capturing their first NFL Championship. However, their great success led to them only barely breaking even. So Mara ordered the team to cut costs for the 1928 season. The Giants went 4-7-2 and Mara lost another $40,000. However, two games from that failed season caught Mara's attention. A 28-0 rout of the Giants by the Detroit Wolverines in Detroit and a dramatic 19-19 tie against the Wolverines later in the season in New York. More than the scores in the games, Mara was enthralled with the star quarterback for the Wolverines, Benny Friedman.
Benny Friedman was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended the University of Michigan where he became a star athlete, leading the Michigan Wolverines to consecutive first place finished in the Big Ten Conference in 1925 and 1926. In his senior year, he was a consensus first-team All-American and was named Most Valuable Player of the Big Ten. Friedman was a clear star coming out of college (not quite Red Grange, but close). He decided to join the NFL franchise in his native Cleveland, the Cleveland Bulldogs. Friedman was a rarity in that he was a passing quarterback during a time when players rarely passed (the ball was rounder than it is today and not conducive to throwing). While Friedman played well for the Bulldogs as the team finished a respectable third in the NFL in 1927 with an 8-4-1 record, the team was having trouble financially and 1927 was its last season. It appears likely that Detroit businessman Eddie Fisher purchased the team since many of the Bulldogs played for Fisher's brand new NFL franchise the following year, including Friedman and the coach of the Bulldogs, LeRoy Andrews. In an attempt to cash in on Friedman's popularity in Michigan, the team was dubbed the Detroit Wolverines.
The Wolverines went 7-2, finishing third in the league. The aforementioned 19-19 tie against the Giants in New York showed Mara something other than the effectiveness of Friedman (who drove his team back from a 19-7 fourth quarter deficit), it also showed him that Friedman could work as an attendance draw as the game drew the second-most fans that the Giants had seen at the time (the most being the aforementioned game against Grange and the Bears).
Mara felt that the Jewish Friedman would appeal to New York's large Jewish population. Also, of course, he felt that Friedman would help improve the team and make it a winner and winning tends to attract crowds, as well. Mara approached Fisher about acquiring Friedman. Each time Mara made an offer, Fisher turned him down. This went on for awhile before Mara finally reached a solution. The Wolverines weren't doing particularly well, either (not many NFL franchises were flush during the 1920s), so Mara just offered to purchase the entire franchise from Fisher. Unlike most other NFL owners, Mara was still quite well off (he took a big hit in the 1929 Stock Market Crash, but that was still a year away) so his attitude was that he would use his wealth to make the Giants as attractive an option for fans as possible and eventually his investment would pay off big time. Fisher agreed and Mara purchased the Wolverines franchise and promptly disbanded it (I have not been able to find the terms of the purchase - I've seen some extremely small figures thrown out there, like $3,500, but I find them hard to believe, as Friedman alone would be worth that much).
Besides Friedman (who Mara paid $10,000 for the 1929 season), a number of other Wolverines joined the Giants for the 1929 season (in fact, while Friedman was clearly the impetus behind the purchase, it is not like Mara did not also think that the other Wolverines wouldn’t play a big part in the improvement of the Giants). LeRoy Andrews even came over to become the coach of the Giants. After also adding future Hall of Famer Ray Flaherty from yet another defunct NFL franchise (NFL franchises dropped like flies during the 1920s), the Giants went on to a 13-1-1 season, losing only to the undefeated Green Bay Packers. The Giants turned a small profit in 1929. Friedman, for his part, threw 20 touchdown passes. It would be nearly fifteen years before another NFL team threw 20 touchdown passes, let alone a single player.
While the Giants never won a championship under Friedman (who took over coaching the team in 1930), they continued to be profitable despite the start of the Great Depression, buoyed in part by a highly-publicized charity game in 1930 where they defeated Knute Rockne's famed Notre Dame Fighting Irish (thereby demonstrating the superiority of the professional game from a talent standpoint, something that was somehow still in doubt in 1930). Friedman left the Giants after the 1931 season because Mara refused to give Friedman a piece of the team, insisting that the team was always to be a family business, that it was for his sons (Mara actually had transferred ownership of the team to his sons John and Wellington following the Stock Market Crash, to insulate the team from any creditors. Each brother received a 50% share in the team). The Giants continued to become one of the wealthiest franchises in the NFL and it remains to this day owned by the Mara family, as Tim Mara's grandson John Mara (son of Wellington) was the first person to receive the Vince Lombardi Trophy from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell this past Sunday (Bob Tisch purchased half of the Giants from the son of the elder John Mara in 1991 and Tisch's son, Steve, received the trophy right after John).
Benny Friedman retired from the NFL in 1934. He served as the Athletic Director of Brandeis University from 1949-1961 and Head Football Coach from 1951-1959. He lost his job when the University cut its football program. Late in his life, Friedman was angry that he was not inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He felt that he was a deserving candidate and was quite vocal with his displeasure. In 1982, after losing a leg to complications from diabetes, Friedman took his own life. In 2005, one hundred years after he was born, Benny Friedman was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
So the legend is...
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Photo: Benny Friedman. Credit: profootballhof.com