SMITH COLUMN: Remembering Red Grange
Published 10:30 am Thursday, June 1, 2023
Red Grange, the great Illinois halfback, who scored six touchdowns against Michigan on Oct. 18, 1924, lived out his life in a place called Indian Lake Estates in Central Florida, about a hundred miles south of Orlando.
On a trip to Knoxville in the early eighties, I looked up Lindsey Nelson, the highly regarded broadcaster and asked him if he knew the whereabouts of the famous Galloping Ghost. He and Grange were network television partners for many years.
Not only did Lindsey know where Grange lived, he handed over his telephone number. At the time, I had begun making annual trips to the major league baseball training camps. For a period of about five years, I would show up at Grange’s home in March for mid-morning coffee with him and his wife, Muggs. We always spent a couple of hours reviewing his life and career — anything he was willing to talk about.
He was a very engaging conversationalist. He was very knowledgeable and intelligent, generous with his time and a colorful storyteller. When I told him that Charley Trippi, Georgia icon, was a buddy of mine, I became an instant friend of ‘ol No. 77. “Charley Trippi,” he told me on our first meeting, was the greatest football player I ever saw.” From that point on, the great Red Grange welcomed his guest with open arms.
I thought of Grange recently when a story credited Calvin Coolidge as the first President to host a sports team at the White House. That had to do with the Washington Senators winning the 1924 American League pennant. After the game, the players went by the White House for a handshake and photos with the President.
However, based on one conversation with Red Grange, Coolidge was certainly not a sports fan. Grange related how the senior senator from Illinois at the time called him when Grange’s team, the Chicago Bears, was in Washington for an exhibition game.
The senator thought it would be nice to invite the Bears’ great star by the White House to meet the President, who at that time was Coolidge. Grange shows up to meet his friend, the U. S. Senator, who would introduce him and a teammate to the President of the United States. When Coolidge came out to meet the two players, the senior senator from Illinois, introduced Grange and his teammate to Coolidge and said, “Mr. President, they are with the Chicago Bears.”
With that Coolidge smiled and said, according to Grange, “Hi ya fellows, I always did like animal acts.”
Those familiar with Grange’s legend are aware that with his great success as a college halfback (he also excelled at defense despite having injured a knee in his first year of pro football), that his legend had great market value. A clever promoter, Charles C. Pyle, made a deal with Grange to sign with the Chicago Bears for the unheard-of sum, for the times, of $100,000. To bring cash to the table, Pyle, who had the nickname, “Cash and Carry,” took Grange on a tour of major cities in the Midwest and the East. When they got to New York, Grange was taken out to Yankee Stadium to meet the legendary Yankee star, George Herman “Babe” Ruth. After introductions, Grange recalled the Babe’s sanguine advice.
“Don’t pay no attention to what they write about you, Kid, good or bad and don’t pick up no checks.”
What would happen in that era, when a Superstar like Ruth went out to dinner, a big crowd would gather around to eavesdrop on the conversation. Additionally, they would order drinks as if they were a member of the star’s official party.
Babe had been a victim such scam often enough to pass on to Grange sage advice with regard to sports stars who had big money. There is no shortage of leeches in the sports world. That still exists today, but more often than not it is unscrupulous agents who make paupers out of rich sports stars.