October 13, 2011
On October 13, 1929 Benny Friedman, tailback for the New York Giants, threw his first two touchdown passes of the season against the Staten Island Stapletons in a 19-9 win. The Giants’ record improved to 2-0-1 as a result, but it was also the beginning of an extraordinary achievement for the player who was the first great passer in pro football history.
In an era when the football was less sleak than it is today and the rules tended to discourage passing (which most teams did only out of necessity), Friedman was a revolutionary figure. He played college football at Michigan under Head Coach Fielding Yost, who called him “one of the greatest passers [and] smartest quarterbacks in history”. His contemporary, Red Grange, called him the best field general among the opponents he played against at Illinois, and Friedman honed his talent as a passer and was also a good runner.
The 5’10”, 172-pound passing tailback entered the NFL with the Cleveland Bulldogs to great fanfare in 1927 and set a league record with 11 touchdown passes. The Bulldogs folded and Friedman moved on to the Detroit Wolverines, and once again paced the NFL with nine scoring passes (he also tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns with six). However, the Wolverines weren’t doing well financially despite a 7-2-1 record, and were purchased by owner Tim Mara of the Giants – primarily so he could obtain Friedman for his club (six other Detroit players also started for the 1929 Giants).
The Giants played the Orange Tornadoes to a scoreless tie in their opening game and then defeated the Providence Steam Roller prior to the contest against the Stapletons. It was New York’s first home game and there were some 30,000 fans at the Polo Grounds. In the second quarter, Friedman threw to back Led Sedbrook for a 15-yard touchdown. The second was tossed to wingback Hap Moran and covered 20 yards in the fourth quarter to pace the Giants’ ten-point win.
The next week against the Frankford Yellow Jackets, again at home, Friedman threw three touchdown passes (all in the second quarter) to give him five for the season. It became six two weeks later at Chicago against the Bears. He had eight after seven games with two TD passes in a rout of the Buffalo Bisons.
Following a win in New York’s rematch with the Tornadoes, Friedman had nine scoring passes and the next week at home against the Bears he threw for a season-high four touchdowns in a game. The Giants had remained undefeated through nine contests, but lost to Green Bay in a game that would prove critical to their title hopes. While Friedman threw to FB Tony Plansky for New York’s only points, he was also intercepted twice and the Packers won by a 20-6 score.
The star passer threw two touchdown passes in each of the next two games, a second win over Staten Island and then as part of a 24-21 thriller over the Chicago Cardinals that came down to a drop kick field goal on the last play of the game. His 19th TD pass came in the 14th game, against Frankford, and in the season finale Friedman beat the Bears with his 20th, a 27-yard throw to Sedbrook.
The Giants finished with a 13-1-1 record, which put them second to the one team that defeated them along the way – the 12-0-1 Green Bay Packers. They were easily the highest-scoring team in the NFL with 312 points as the runner-up Packers scored 198. Defensively, New York gave up only 86 points as only three of their opponents reached double figures against them and eight of the games were shutouts.
Friedman’s 20 touchdown passes broke his own record by nine and lasted for 13 years – it was finally broken by Green Bay’s Cecil Isbell, who tossed 24 in 1942 and whose 15 TD passes in ’41 was the closest that anyone came to Friedman’s mark in the intervening seasons. He received consensus first-team All-Pro recognition for the third straight year, and would do so once more the next season, when he led the NFL for the fourth consecutive time with 13 TD tosses.
Friedman initially retired to take an assistant coaching position at Yale in 1931, but returned to the Giants for the second half of the season. He played two more years with Brooklyn (after his wife, not wanting to leave New York, reportedly vetoed a deal that would have sent him to the Bears), plus one last game with the Dodgers in 1934, and finished up with 66 touchdown passes. Not surprisingly, that was the career record and would last until surpassed by Sammy Baugh in 1943.
Statistics from the 1920s and early 30s are too spotty to fully measure Benny Friedman’s performance, but there is no question from the touchdown pass totals alone that he was the most effective passer of his era by far, and likely the most accurate. A student of the game who trained himself to be outstanding at throwing the ball, Friedman went into college coaching and was athletic director at Brandeis University. He also tirelessly (some might say shamelessly) promoted himself for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor that he finally received in 2005 – 23 years after his death in 1982.
Friedman wasn’t particularly well-liked by his peers (he was prone to being arrogant and aloof), but he set the stage for the pass-oriented game that pro football has become and thus is one of the game’s pioneers. The record 20 touchdown passes in 1929 was the crowning achievement of his career.