A Tight Grip on the Ball | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

A Tight Grip on the Ball

A Chicago Cardinal Remembers

by

comment

By Michael Marsh

Marshall Goldberg holds up a picture from his days with the Chicago Cardinals football team: a football is tucked in his left arm, and his fingers are wrapped around the end. "That's the way you hold it so you won't fumble," he says. "A lot of the players today grab the ball in the middle--that's why all those fumbles happen. There is no way to knock it out of your hand the way I had it."

Goldberg played halfback, fullback, and defensive back for the Cardinals from 1939 to '43 and 1946 to '48. In 1941 he had seven interceptions, tying for the National Football League lead. When his career ended in 1948 he held the team records for yards gained, rushing attempts, touchdowns, and interceptions; his jersey is one of only four retired by the team.

The Cardinals were founded in 1899 as the Morgan Athletic Association, and the first players were young Irish-American south-siders. Twenty-one years later the team was one of the founding members of the NFL. They played home games at Normal Park, at 61st and Racine, and later at the old Comiskey Park. In 1921 a heated rivalry began with the Decatur Staleys, soon to be the Chicago Bears, who played their home games at Cubs Park (later renamed Wrigley Field).

During Goldberg's first five seasons the Cardinals won only ten games. "[Head coach] Jimmy Conzelman was a great guy," says Goldberg. "He was not a fundamentalist, but he was the kind of coach you would kill yourself for--you'd do everything that you could. We had a good nucleus, but we did not have a complete team. When the war ended, all these players came back, and we got our share of players. That's when we started winning."

The Cardinals won their second and last NFL championship in 1947; Goldberg remembers picking off a Philadelphia Eagles pass late in the title game, which his team won 28-21. Declining attendance and competition with the Bears forced them to leave for Saint Louis in 1960 (they've since moved on to Phoenix). "The newspapers favored the Bears," says Goldberg. "George Halas was more popular at the time. The Cardinals had as much style and class as the Bears. When we played them it was a dog-eat-dog struggle, even when we didn't have much. We beat the shit out of them, even if we didn't win the game."

In Goldberg's day starters played both offense and defense. On the road they were given $2 to buy dinner, and most linemen were paid between $150 and $200 a game. Some had to borrow money to get home after the season. They wore leather helmets without face guards, but Goldberg, who stood five foot eleven and weighed 193 pounds, says he never had a problem with them. "You kept your head up and your eyes open. You blocked with the shoulder. Today they have 300-pound guys blocking and pushing with the hands--grabbing, holding on every play."

Goldberg preferred playing defense because he liked predicting his opponents' moves. When they leaned on their hands, he says, he knew they were going forward. If their hands were slightly back he knew they would go around the ends. "Everybody that plays football knows that people unconsciously give things away, indications of what they're going to do or what they're thinking," he says. During a game against the Green Bay Packers, Goldberg saw receiver Don Hutson, who was inducted into the NFL's Hall of Fame in 1963, pivot his foot. Realizing Hutson would cut across the backfield, Goldberg started running when Hutson did and nailed him seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Goldberg was born in 1917, the fourth of five sons. His father, Sol Goldberg, was a Russian immigrant who ran a movie theater in Elkins, West Virginia. His mother, Rebecca, was a homemaker who died when Goldberg was 14. "She was a very sweet person, always an upbeat personality," he says. "I could make her laugh anytime I wanted to."

He played on his high school football, basketball, and track teams, and some of the locals thought he played basketball better than football. Notre Dame recruited him, but he went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he made all-American playing halfback in 1937 and fullback in 1938, finished among the top three finalists for the Heisman trophy twice, and set a career rushing record that stood for 36 years. The Panthers were named national champions in 1936 and 1937 and won the 1937 Rose Bowl. Goldberg was eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the B'nai B'rith National Jewish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

After graduating in 1939, Goldberg wasn't sure what to do next. But then the Cardinals--a team he'd never heard of--drafted him. He traveled to Chicago to meet the owner, Charles Bidwell, and was charmed by his down-to-earth style. He signed a contract for $6,000 a year and promptly bought a new Nash convertible for $850.

In 1941 he began working for Louis Emerman, who owned a machinery company. During football season he worked in the morning and left at 11 to attend practices. He missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons because he served as a lieutenant in one of the forerunners of the navy SEALs, delivering equipment and ammunition to forces in the South Pacific. After being discharged, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, but after surgery he rejoined the Cardinals. He retired from football after the 1948 season.

Twenty-five years after starting at Emerman's company, Goldberg bought it. He sold it to a German firm in 1974 and continued as vice chairman. Four years later he started Marshall Goldberg Machine Tools, which he dissolved in 1997. He served as a consultant for other machinery firms for two years, then retired from that career.

Goldberg now lives with his wife, Rita, in a Near North condo overlooking Lake Michigan. These days he's working on his biography with Joe Ziemba, author of a new history of the Cardinals, When Football Was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL (he and Ziemba will discuss the book this Tuesday at Borders on North Michigan). Goldberg and his wife travel a lot around the country, and he stretches and walks every day. And he still roots for the Cardinals.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

Add a comment