The weather outside is frightful and frigid and I don’t really need to tell you that this is a bleak time of year. That is especially true for local sports fans, some of whom seemed to take out their ongoing frustrations with our local professional teams by booing the wife of former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause at the United Center over the weekend.
In order to give you some relief from the seasonal sports weariness, I happily give you two books that should warm these winter days.
One travels back in time. Charles Billington’s “The 1963 Chicago Bears: George Halas and the Road to the NFL Championship” takes us to a simpler sports time, before Super Bowls, big money and towering egos. The Bears team of that year was a colorful bunch, and included running back Rick Casares, who Billington tells us was one of “the higher paid players in the NFL at $20,000 a year”; halfback and return specialist Ollie Matson; “intelligent, patient” quarterback Bill Wade; linebacker Doug Atkins (“the most feared player in the NFL”) and those “youngsters” Johnny Morris, Mike Ditka and Ed O’Bradovich.
But the focus is firmly on George Halas, team owner and coach.
That 1963 triumph has been eclipsed by the 1986 Super Bowl win and even those of you or tender age will come to understand why this has happened and why that’s a shame.
As Billington puts it in his preface, “The mission of this book is to help readers remember, and gain a better understanding of, the unique year in NFL history. Younger Bears followers have no appreciation for how influential the Bears franchise was in this critical NFL era.”
Billington is a tireless researcher, a talent first displayed a decade ago in his “Wrigley Field’s Last World Series: The Wartime Cubs and the Pennant of 1945.” Here is also a fine writer and, brings us vividly to the games played at Wrigley Field, then the Bears home. As he remembers and writes, “The very idea of going to Cubs’ park in the cold weather was an event in itself, but to sit that close to the field for a pro football game left a deep impression.”
As fine as Billington is at writing about games, he is equally adept at providing historical and societal perspectives. It’s impossible not to be grabbed by his details about a couple of “individuals well known in Chicago gambling circles,” Abe Samuels and Ray Edward. You will learn how Edward picked up the nickname “Zsa Zsa Yitcovich,” and how gambling cast a serious shadow on the game at the time.
Halas is movingly captured by Billington. He tells how the aging coach orchestrated not only this winning season but also made the next year’s remarkable draft picks, in the face of a “signing war between the NFL and AFL heated past a boil,” by selecting and signing a couple of future Hall of Famers named Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus (as well as ill-fated Brian Piccolo).
But he was never able to manage those players into a championship and there is something sad about Halas’ desire to hang on. We get details, with Billington offering this final observation: “One would think the championship in 1963 might be reason enough for Halas to end his legendary career in a blaze of glory … (But) blind envy seemed to overcome Halas’ rational thinking, and for more than a decade his beloved team would pay the price.”
George Ofman gives us some football, in the forms of Gary Fencik, Dan Hampton and others, and he gives us a very different book in “Tell Me a Story I Don’t Know: Conversations with Chicago Sports Legends.” But it is no less satisfying and passionate.
Ofman is, if the name rests just on the tip of your brain, a longtime sportscaster, working for more than half a century in front of microphones, charting the many heartbreaks and fewer triumphs on the local and national sports landscape.
His roots in this career go back to his undergraduate days at Southern Illinois University and onward, as he became one of the original voices of WSCR 670-AM, where he worked from 1992 to 2009 before moving to WBBM 780-AM as a sports anchor and reporter for the next decade.
There have been some other sports media jobs and Ofman is still full of energy, most recently swimming in the increasingly crowded waters of podcasting. His “Tell Me a Story I Don’t Know” podcast has become a rewarding, lively and often enlightening oasis. As is this book, based on 50 of the 100-some people he has interviewed on his podcast. They are former players and coaches from baseball, football, basketball and hockey, as well as journalists and media personalities and a few he classifies as “In a Class by Themselves.” In that latter gang is the estimable and erudite Bob Costas, who says Ofman operates a “podcast where depth, context and nuance are appreciated and encouraged.”
The book’s introduction is by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, once and for a short time a fixture on the local sports scene and he is correct when he mentions the “intimacy” of Ofman’s work.
Don’t make the mistake to think that this is some sort of “best of” from his podcast. It is much more. Each of the short chapters contains what are in essence profiles of various people whom Ofman has interviewed and he brings to each his own well-researched background, a fan’s affection and innate curiosity.
Some of his subjects are well known, but not all. It’s nice to see so many women represented. You will learn that sports journalist Peggy Kusinski is “bold, spirited, a foodie, and a wine geek,” and Cheryl Raye-Stout tells the story behind her getting one of the biggest scoops in the history of our — indeed, the nation’s — sports landscape. Hint: It involved a character named Jordan.