CHICAGO – In one of the loveliest of father-son traditions, a little boy was given his first football by his dad. Sid Luckman would spectacularly throw that ball and many others through a legendary career that culminated with his becoming the greatest quarterback in Chicago Bears history.
But for a strange time in the 1930s, the son and father both appeared in headlines of New York City newspapers, the youngster for throwing touchdowns, the father for murdering his brother-in-law.
That is but one of the stunning stories contained in a remarkable new book. “Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL” (Atlantic Monthly Press). It’s an artfully organized and deeply researched book, one that alternates the vastly different but united-for-keeps stories of father and son, and is filled with dozens of colorful characters, good and evil, and secrets no longer hidden.
Throughout Sid’s playing career and later life as a successful Chicago businessman, the sins of his father stayed in the shadows. “This was a hands-off time,” said author R.D. Rosen. “It was a very courteous media that observed the fine line between an athlete’s public and private lives. If I were to speculate, I would say that the thinking was, ‘We love this guy, let’s not saddle him in print with the misdeeds of the father.'”
Those misdeeds were significant. Meyer Luckman ran a Brooklyn trucking business and had ties to organized crime, notably a modest association with Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a prolific killer, one-time head of the murder-for-hire outfit known as Murder, Inc. and an energetic labor racketeer.
But the crime for which Meyer was arrested and tried was for beating and strangling his brother-in-law to death. It was a gruesome killing and messy trial, Sid often sitting with other family members in the courtroom. His father and two others were convicted of the murder and sentenced to 20 years to life “of hard labor” at Sing Sing, the state prison in upstate New York.
“Just think of what Sid had to overcome as a kid,” Rosen said. “Walking the halls of school, with classmates whispering, ‘Stay away. His father is a murderer’.”
Sid Luckman had become a football legend at Erasmus High School and became a star at Columbia University, under the father-like mentoring of coach Lou Little.
“As Sid fell under the influence of (Little) … Meyer’s role in his life evaporated,” Rosen writes. After college, George Halas came calling, bringing the young quarterback to his Chicago Bears. They would take the team to four championships in their 12 seasons together, revolutionize the game with the T-formation and spark and fuel the NFL’s popularity. Halas was a strong father figure and shortly before his death in 1983 he wrote a letter to Luckman which said in part, “I love you with all my heart.” Luckman kept that letter in his wallet for the rest of his life.
Luckman quickly became a towering figure here but when he first arrived, Rosen writes, he “thought he was escaping New York City’s climate of organized crime (but) he was in for a surprise.”
There would be many for, as Halas said, “He thought Chicago was cowboy and Indian country.” It was vastly more complicated, and the man Halas asked to show the young quarterback around was Irv Kupcinet, the well-connected newspaper columnist.
Kup introduced Luckman to a world that was, Rosen writes, “in many respects the white-collar extension of his father’s.” It would come to include such notable and shadowy figures as Charlie Baron, a dashing bookie with whom Luckman lived until being convinced by the NFL’s president not to; lawyer Sydney Korshak, “powerful but scandal-plagued … (with) a genius for secrecy and discretion”; a baseball player named DiMaggio and a singer named Sinatra.
His playing days done, Luckman had so many friends and admirers that he would prosper as a businessman and investor.
“He was always protected by his associates. Everybody wanted to be protective of this charismatic young man,” said Rosen. “That allowed for a good life and he loved life. He loved people. He loved women, good food, friends and strangers.”
Rosen was born too late to see Luckman play but so aware of the legend that he was in awe when the former quarterback moved into a “big redbrick colonial house around the corner from my family’s quirky split-level” in Highland Park. “That Luckman now lived a mere 100 yards from my house … didn’t quite make sense to me.”
But, as he pursued a literary career that included nearly 20 books (mystery novels, nonfiction books, humor books and collaborations with other writers) Rosen’s memories of the quarterback faded for decades until YouTube allowed him to “watch Sid in action during the 1940s … and see what everyone had been talking about when I was a child. I was seized with the desire to know more and was amazed to discover there wasn’t very much beyond the playing field.
“Meyer Luckman had been airbrushed from the family history and from memory as well,” Rosen said. “Because Meyer had murdered his own brother-in-law, both sides of Sid Luckman’s clan had been disgraced. No one spoke of the past. And no one spoke of how the past was not spoken of.”
Rosen eventually approached Luckman’s son Bob, “a large, robust presence, just under six feet tall like his father, with a Florida tan, light blue eyes, and a head of silvery hair.”
Rosen realized at that first meeting that he knew more about Meyer Luckman than did the grandson. He writes, “As I drove off, I was torn between excitement about the project and anxiety about taking a good man’s secret into my own hands.”
He made the correct choice and gives us later in the book a Sid Luckman, married with three children, as a vibrant presence in the city. His favorite hangout was Gibsons on Rush Street. He had helped secure financing for the restaurant’s young partners, Steve Lombardo and Hugo Ralli. “He was a great man,” says Lombardo, who talked to Luckman almost daily but knew little about his father. “He was a kind and generous man.”
The private dining room upstairs at Gibsons is Club 42, named after Luckman’s jersey number. And this book’s details about Luckman’s relationship with Gibsons waiter Mohammed Sekhani, and his baby son, Nabell, will warm the hardest heart.
“Luckman made a religion out of generosity,” Rosen writes, offering all manner of examples, some garish. “I don’t think he was trying to atone for his father’s sins. I think he was trying to expunge the shame that he felt. I think he wanted, if some one like me came along to write a book about him, that it could not be written, ‘Well, of course Sid was a jerk. Look where he came from.’ No one could ever write that.”
A Jewish sports hero and role model on the lofty level of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, Luckman still shadows the city. His name is invoked when current Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky plays well. Just recently, sportswriter Will Larkin tirelessly and entertainingly wrote stories about 100 greatest players in Bears’ history. Walter Payton topped the list and at No. 5, nearly 70 years since he last played, was Luckman. As Larkin wrote, “The Bears have never had a better one … the only elite quarterback in franchise history.”
There are still a few Sid Luckman friends and devotees around town. For them, this book is likely to shock. But it should also give them an even greater respect and appreciation for Luckman, for his ability to not only survive but move away from his father’s shadow.
Something like this could never occur today because, as Rosen writes, “We live a world in which privacy has become almost obsolete.”
There are no secrets. And it is good that this one is finally being told, respectfully and stylishly.
Luckman died 1998. His father died in 1948. He never once saw his son play in a football game, never once watched him throw a touchdown.
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com