What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Esther Williams Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Love Letters To Old Hollywood. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been included in several of her events…frankly, she had me at Van Johnson. Speaking of which, there’s another event coming for him soon as well.
You can see all the contributions to this blog-a-thon here:
“Take Me Out To The Ball Game” takes place in 1908 and centers on a baseball team known as the Chicago Wolves (not to be confused with the current non-fictional minor-league hockey team of the same name). Ostensibly, this is supposed to be the actual Chicago White Sox because they play all American League opponents, but the producers don’t want to say that as there’s a not-so-subtle reference to gambling and the whole 1919 “Black Sox” scandal later in the film.
Right off the bat, most will notice this movie is a bit thin on plot. That’s why it works as a musical; a genre where the story-line really only serves to stitch the “song-and-dance” numbers together. To that end, two of the Wolves are also part-time Vaudevillians; Eddie O’Brien (played by Gene Kelly) and Dennis Ryan (played by Frank Sinatra). Obviously, those two are the engine for the “song-and-dance” part of this film (along with Betty Garrett and Jules Munshin).
The plot comes when the team finds out they are getting a new owner. In and of itself, that would upset the club house of any team, but matters intensify when it is discovered the new owner is a woman who intended to take an active interest in running the team. The team envisions the new owner to be some frumpy dowager, but the reality proves to be the exact opposite.
K.C. Higgins (played by Esther Williams) is not only improbably gorgeous, she just so happens to know baseball. After the expected period of adjustment beginning in spring training and stretching into the season, the novelty of having a woman as the owner wears off and the “love interest” complications set in.
First, Dennis has eyes for K.C., but all the while he’s the target of the affections of a “Baseball Annie” Shirley Delwyn (played by Betty Garrett). Eddie eventually falls for K.C. as well, and this “J. Geils-esque ‘Love Stinks'” motif teams with the musical numbers carrying the movie until we get to the real “hook” in the plot.
As far as the songs go, they are standard fare for an MGM musical; light and meant to drive the pace of the movie. Highlights include the require d title track performed by Kelly and Sinatra when they meet the other players in Florida. They also pair for an “All The Girls We’ve Loved Before“-type number called, “Yes, Indeedy.” There’s no way you’re getting an MGM musical starring Frank Sinatra without “Ol’ Blue Eyes” doing what he does best, crooning a love song titled “The Right Girl for Me.” Betty Garrett provides a major dose of comic relief with “It’s Fate Baby, It’s Fate;” sung while she seems to be seriously considering jumping Sinatra’s bones.
Interwoven through the messiness of the love interests is the fact that there’s a lot gangsters around this story, the head thug being Joe Lorgan (played by Edward Arnold). This brings us to the aforementioned allusion of the Wolves as the Chicago White Sox as Lorgan is a thinly-disguised Arnold Rothstein, the man who was indicted but never convicted of conspiring to “fix” the 1919 World Series. Vaudevillian Eddie gets tangled up with Lorgan when he performs in a show bank-rolled by Lorgan and his cohorts who are betting on the Wolves to lose the World Series. Eventually, this leads to a series of events which result in Eddie being kicked off the team.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Much like the Wolves had a incorrect assumption about what K.C. Williams was going to be, if you think the hidden sports analogy here is about baseball, you would be mistaken. Today’s episode is a tale of a real-life K.C. Williams three-quarters of a century after the setting of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” It’s also a story as interwoven as the love interests in that film…come along on a journey which will take us through Hollywood, the National Football League (NFL), and straight-up sexism.
The story starts in 1972 when a businessman named Robert Irsay purchased the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. At the same time, another business giant named Carroll Rosenbloom owned the Baltimore Colts. Rosenbloom amassed his fortune with the Blue Ridge Clothing Company; by 1959, Blue Ridge had grown to include almost a dozen shirt and overall companies and had over 7,000 employees. This led to Rosenbloom being known “America’s Overalls King.”
While Rosenbloom was born and raised in Baltimore, he fancied himself being part of the glamour of Hollywood…and he fit the part as well. An athletic, dashing figure, Rosenbloom cut a larger-than-life presence…he always reminded me of Lorne Greene, and I think Rosenbloom would have been right at home as the patriarch of a TV western family. To that end, he was was one of the largest share holders in Seven Arts Productions Limited, which backed the Broadway musical “Funny Girl,” and the films “Lolita,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “The Night of the Iguana.”
Rosenbloom also had the pedigree for a perfect NFL owner. He had an “Ivy League” education having studied at the University of Pennsylvania and playing halfback on the football team. This is also where his connections to the NFL began; his backfield coach for the Penn Quakers was future NFL Commissioner Bert Bell.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Robert Irsay was bombastic and a heavy drinker who cared little for the glitz of Hollywood. So, in 1972, he and Rosenbloom swapped franchises. Irsay got the Colts and Baltimore, at the time a tough, blue-collar seaport city much more befitting Irsay’s persona…and Rosenbloom got “the team of the stars.”
Carroll Rosenbloom quickly became entrenched in the milieu of Hollywood, and the Rams enjoyed tremendous success during his ownership. The Rams won their division (NFC West) for a then-NFL record seven straight seasons between 1973 and 1979. They even earned the franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl after the 1979 season. However, the relationship between Rosenbloom and the city of Los Angeles was less than rosy.
The home of the Rams, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was 50 years old at the time Rosenbloom bought the team. The aging venue not only lacked modern amenities like luxury boxes, but it cavernous capacity of over 90,000 seats created problems with the NFL’s “black-out” policy of the era. In order to protect ticket sales, games in which all the tickets were not sold 72 hours prior to kick-off were not broadcast in the local market. The reality was it proved difficult to sell that many ticket when even the closest seats were close to 30 yards from the playing field.
The inability to sell-out and the resultant lack of the Rams on Los Angeles television proved to be a vicious cycle with one feeding the other. Without TV, the Rams struggled to keep drawing fan interest, which drove down ticket sales, et cetera…The continual sag in attendance drove Rosenbloom to cut a deal with the city of Anaheim in burgeoning suburban Orange County. The deal involved Rosenbloom agreeing to hold Rams’ home games in the city-owned Anaheim Stadium once it was expanded to approximately 65,000. “The Big A” was located right off a major freeway, was literally in the shadow of Disneyland, and was already home to baseball’s California Angels.
The future looked bright for both sides. Rosenbloom got a newly-remodeled venue for his football team and the more reasonable capacity likely meant the end of television black-outs. For Anaheim, it meant adding another major attraction to it’s growing list to compete with its gargantuan neighbor 30 miles up the Golden State Freeway.
But Rosenbloom would never see his Rams play football in Orange County. In April of 1979 while the deal was still being brought to fruition, Rosenbloom suffered a heart attack and drowned while swimming in the ocean off Golden Beach, Florida.
Rosenbloom’s memorial at his mansion in Bel-Air was attended by nearly 1,000 wishing to pay their respects. The group was an eclectic hodge-podge of NFL owners and dignitaries, the entire Los Angeles Rams organization, and a solid representative sample of Rosenbloom Hollywood connections. Comedian Jonathan Winters was the Master of Ceremonies. Howard Cosell, Ricardo Montalbán, and Ross Martin were among those who delivered eulogies. In a salute to Rosenbloom’s legendary “raucous” sense of humor, Don Rickles did what Don Rickles does. Warren Beatty made an appearance, having just played a Ram in the previous year’s “Heaven Can Wait.” Other attendees included Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Rod Steiger, and Henry Mancini.
But it didn’t take long for the details of Rosenbloom’s will to emerge. His son Steve had been left with the “managerial and operational” duties for the Rams, and Steve his two siblings, Daniel and Suzanne, and half-siblings, Chip and Lucia each received equal shares in ownership of the franchise, totaling 30%. But it was Rosenbloom’s widow Georgia who inherited a controlling 70% stake in the team. Another clause in the will stipulated that the ultimate decision as to who ran the day-to-day operations of the team was entirely a matter of “as long as the successor trustee, in his discretion shall determine.”
In other words, the ultimate control of the Los Angeles Rams was now in the hands of Georgia Frontiere. Would she flex her new organizational muscle, or would she let Steve Rosenbloom run the Rams?
It took less than three months for Frontiere to assume control of the Los Angeles Rams. Frontiere was not the first female owner in the history of the NFL. When Charlie Bidwell, the owner of the then-Chicago Cardinals, died in 1947, the team was left to his widow Violet. In the 1950s, the controlling interest of the San Francisco 49ers was held by two brothers, Tony and Vic Morabito. When they died in 1957 and 1964 respectively, control of the team passed to their widows Jo and Jane Morabito. But none of them ever took over the day-to-day operations of their teams. In other words, Frontiere took the NFL into new territory.
But the main-stream sports media didn’t wait that long to create a demonstrably false narrative about her. Born Violet Frances Irwin to a beauty queen mother and businessman father in 1927 in St. Louis, Frontiere grew up to be a voluptuous blond who aspired to be an actress and singer. Her career started performing alongside her mother in various dinner theaters. She worked her way up through small theater productions, eventually landing on television. She became a local celebrity in Miami in the 1950s as the host of her own interview show, a gig which landed her several appearances on NBC’s “Today” show. It was through television that she met her future husband Carroll Rosenbloom.
In other words, Frontiere was “tailor-made” to have the narrative hung on her about being little more than being the rich, old guy’s younger “trophy wife.” Nothing says part of that couldn’t be true, but the hypocritical ass-loafs in the media never even bothered to discover the reality.
That became clear from the first time Georgia stepped onto the field at the Rams training camp as majority owner and team president. From that moment, it was clear she didn’t give a frog’s fat ass what people thought of her. She gave the tobacco-chewing head coach Ray Malavasi an “air-kiss” greeting and played catch with starting quarterback Pat Haden. The New York Times treated this spectacle with it’s usual pseudo-intellectual hypocrisy, quipping that Frontiere “took Haden’s spirals on the edge of her fingertips in a way indicating that she happened to be a woman who’d been catching passes all her life.” The Baltimore Sun referred to Frontiere as “a rather shapely blonde.” But it was the Orlando Sentinel who cut right to the chase by calling her “a bosomy blonde who jiggles.”
Forget about her gender for a minute. There was hardly a mention of the fact that here was an NFL owner despite being well into their 50s could still throw a football and hang with the players on some calisthenics. While it shouldn’t shock anybody the American media would do a trash-job on somebody; be it 1979 or today, it’s what they do.
To understand why, you need to remember two things about the American media, sports or otherwise. The first is that any semblance of journalistic integrity died with Walter Cronkite, and the second is that no major story in America in the last 50 years has been reported without being shackled to a political agenda of one sort or another.
In Frontiere’s case, this is critical to understanding why the media savaged her as they did. She ascended to the presidency of NFL franchise precisely at the time the deadline had passed for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Upon the failure of that amendment, the American media immediately began beating a drum decrying the “oppression and second-class status” of American women. The problem was that by her very existence, Frontiere was illustrating that much of the media narrative was at the very least conflated.
She made matters worse by not trumpeting herself as some sort of feminist icon; she just wanted to run a football team; the idea being that she wanted to stay busy during her period of grief and believed that is what her late husband would have wanted. That’s also why her successes were downplayed, if not straight-up ignored.
While the media portrayed her as a meddling dowager of questionable competence and limited intellect, Frontiere in fact proved early on to be a decisive and gutsy leader. In the first instance of Frontiere being treated unfairly by the media, there was a portrayal of her as some sort wallet-driver power monger. The headlines were splashed about with a tale of Frontiere storming into the Rams’ offices in July of 1979 and summarily firing Steve Rosenbloom from his inherited duties running the team.
What was overlooked in that narrative was that Rosenbloom had stripped power from his father’s “right-hand man,” Don Klosterman, who Carroll Rosenbloom and many others in the NFL believed to one of the best general managers in football. Rosenbloom did this without telling Klosterman, instead he sent a message to the rest of the league stating that all business dealings with the Rams should be addressed to Dick Steinberg, the Rams’ new director of player personnel.
Naturally, this created a bit of consternation within the Rams’ organization and confusion outside. Frontiere was surprised by the move and when she came to the to the Rams’ training camp to deal with the discord it caused, the media came in sporting dorsal fins. Doing what she normally did, she spent time with the players during which she kicked some footballs off a tee. This was characterized by The Baltimore Sun as “posing for publicity shots with her well-shaped legs.” This ignored the fact Frontiere tried extending the proverbial olive branch to all parties by offering to create a position of “chief advisor,” thus freeing him from many managerial duties to focus on executive-level decisions. But a month later, Rosenbloom fired Klosterman and Frontiere fired Rosenbloom that same day.
Don’t tell me it doesn’t take guts to fire your own step-son…especially knowing what the media is going to say about you..
A week later, Frontiere held a press conference which was attended by more than 20 reporters along with camera crews from ABC, CBS, and NBC. Unfortunately, Frontiere arrived late causing a reporter to state “she must have been out shopping.”
Another shaft-job Frontiere got from the media was her being blamed for the Rams move to Anaheim starting with the 1980 season. Everybody conveniently forgot that move was set in place by Carroll Rosenbloom. But the move was terribly unpopular with the Rams fan base, and it was easier to blame “the woman” than the beloved late owner.
It didn’t help matters that Anaheim Stadium proved to be a horrible venue for football. It was originally built to host baseball, and as we’ve learned time and time again, baseball and football do not fit well into the same stadium. In the case of the Big A,” the sight-lines were awful and many of the seats forced fans to sit at awkward angles to view the field. But the worst part (and I can tell you this first-hand as a California Angels fan) was the stadium being further inland meant the late summer and early fall heat caused by the Santa Ana winds coming off the desert made the “Big A” a 60,000-seat blast furnace.
The awful stadium, the less-than-ideal conditions, and the 30-mile commute from Los Angeles meant the fan base didn’t follow the Rams to Anaheim. The Rams’ years in Orange County were nearly a decade-and-a-half of declining attendance, running gun battles with both the Angels and the city of Anaheim…and Frontiere taking sniper-fire from the media.
Part of the deal between Carroll Rosenbloom and the City of Anaheim was a partnership in land development around the stadium, which in the late 1970s was surrounded by orange groves and other underdeveloped properties. But the California Angels’ owner Gene “The Singing Cowboy” Autry wasn’t about to let that happen. While to this day Autry is the only person to have a star on the Hollywood in all five disciplines (Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, Recording, and Live Performance/Theater), he became a billionaire by investing in real estate. As such, he became one of the most powerful people in Southern California, which meant there was no way he was letting somebody else get rich building hotels next to “his” ballpark. In other words, Autry and the California Angels successfully sued the city of Anaheim and the Rams to kill those development deals.
Eventually, things got so bad in Orange County that Frontiere entered discussions in 1989 to move the Rams back to the Los Angeles Coliseum. That died a quick death because of the 1983 move of the Oakland Raiders into that venue, and they weren’t keen to have “roommates.” That refusal by Raiders’ owner Al Davis, plus his demands for a new taxpayer-funded stadium would lead to both the Rams and the Raiders leaving Southern California within five years.
Naturally, the media blamed Georgia Frontiere for all this.
Maybe that played a role in the next move she made…maybe it didn’t. But what surely did was she couldn’t take the Rams back to the Coliseum, and life in Orange County wasn’t the cornucopia it was supposed to be.
During the transition of moving the team to Anaheim, Frontiere gave herself an insurance policy by acquiring the 30% of the team she didn’t own which was held by Carroll Rosenbloom’s children. With 100% ownership, she was free to do whatever she wished with the Rams, and once it was clear she wanted out of Orange County, the suitors for a NFL franchise beat a path to Frontiere’s door. Cities like Oakland, Las Vegas, Nashville, and San Antonio all showed some level of interest, but in the in the end, it was Frontiere’s home town which became the new home of the Rams.
The city of St. Louis was building a brand new domed-stadium perfectly suited for football. The city sweetened the deal with incentives like $20 million in annual profits from guaranteed season-ticket sales, personal seat licenses, and a favorable lease. However, the NFL tried to stop the move, noting that St. Louis had been abandoned by another NFL franchise just a few years earlier when the Cardinals left for Arizona. As a result, Frontiere filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, and she won.
That meant 1995 saw the birth of the St. Louis Rams.
Under the ownership of Carroll Rosenbloom, the Los Angeles Rams were perennial play-off contenders, but to be honest they were consistently winning a weak division. Throughout the 1970’s, the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints, and the San Francisco 49ers were never much of a threat to the talent-laden Rams. While they made the play-offs every year from 1973 to 1979, they just couldn’t over the hump that was beating either the Minnesota Vikings or Dallas Cowboys. When Carroll Rosenbloom died before the 1979 season, many thought the Rams would drift off to mediocrity from losing the organizational direction he provided.
During the pre-season of 1979, Frontiere firmly established herself as the organization’s leader. She penned a doctrine in which she made it clear she was the boss…there were literally no “ifs, ands, or buts” about it. To clear up the mess left by Steve Rosenbloom, Frontiere believed that strong leadership would get the Rams over that hump, and in the short-term, she was right. After she posted her paper to the team, she told Sports Illustrated “Right now, we don’t have much leadership. Oh, they played well—they’re trying to earn their positions—and I’m not talking about the coaching. We have good coaching. I’m talking about the top. There are some things that have to be ironed out.”
Whatever she told the team must have worked, because the Rams finally reached Super Bowl XIV after the 1979 season. The Rams lost to the juggernaut Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19. There was no shame in that loss; nobody else could beat the Steelers of that era. But the Rams franchise took the next step, and Frontiere became a bit of celebrity when she appeared in an American Express commercial with the Rams players. and graced the cover Sports Illustrated.
The 1980s saw a series of ups and downs for Frontiere and the Los Angeles Rams. On the field, The Rams of the 1980s remained a perennial play-off team, reached the playoffs eight times between 1980 and 1989, although they did not return to the Super Bowl as long as they remained in Southern California. Frontiere became less “hands-on” with the organization by passing much of the daily financial and football management responsibilities on to key executives.
Things started going downhill in 1986. Frontiere had remarried after Carroll Rosenbloom’s passing to composer Dominic Frontiere. That year Dominic was arrested for for lying to a government agent as part of a federal investigation that came from allegedly scalping 1,000 Super Bowl tickets. While he ended up being incarcerated for nearly a year, Georgia was not implicated in any wrongdoing, but this didn’t stop the media from trashing her once again.
By the 1990s, matters were getting bleak. Attendance had fallen to 45,000 fans per game; off from a peak of 62,000. Again, this most of the Rams’ home games were blacked out, and the team had been replaced by the new “team of the stars,” the newly-arrived Los Angeles Raiders.
Naturally, the Rams’ financial health was suffering as well. Frontiere’s attempts at having stadium built in Los Angeles garnered no support from local leaders. By the 1990s, the end of the “Cold War” resulted in massive-scale layoffs by defense contractors in Southern California. As a result, by 1994, the Los Angeles Rams claimed to have lost $6 million, and made only $7.6 million during the previous four seasons. Hence the 1995 move to St. Louis.
Naturally, the media fanned the flames in Southern California, making Frontiere out to be public enemy #1 for moving the team. But after having lost the Cardinals to Arizona, the city of St. Louis welcomed with open arms Frontiere and her football team. The city even hosted a rally downtown and thousands of fans chanted “Georgia, Georgia!” Frontiere responded to the cheering crowd with “St. Louis is my home, and I brought my team here to start a new dynasty.”
That’s exactly what she did. The Rams took a few years to recover from 15 years of being the “red-headed step-child” of the Southern California sports world, but once they did, the Rams emerged as one of the best teams in football in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Frontiere had an odd formula for building a winner in St. Louis, but there’s no doubting it worked.
It began with the 1997 hiring of head coach Dick Vermeil, who had been out of football for 15 years (and who has a Dubsy Award named for him). Vermeil’s first player personnel move was to trade up in the draft to pick offensive tackle Orlando Pace…who would become a consistent All-Pro and ended up in the Hall of Fame. The Rams then traded Jerome Bettis (another future Hall of Fame player) to the Pittsburgh Steelers for draft picks.
By 1999, there seemed to be cause for optimism for the Rams. They had acquired quarterback Trent Green and future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk in separate trades, and it looked like offensive coordinator Mike Martz finally had the makings of a winner. That optimism disappeared when Green shredded the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee; an injury which would sideline him for the entire season. A tearful Vermeil (hence the category of his Dubsy award) made a solemn vow the Rams would “play good football” behind Green’s backup, a 28-year-old guy named Kurt Warner.
Not only had nobody ever heard of Warner, and his pedigree for professional football seemed rather suspect. No NFL team drafted him out of the University of Northern Iowa. His only professional experience came from stints with the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe and the Iowa Barnstormers of that now-defunct sideshow known as the Arena Football League. In fact, Warner was making ends meet by bagging groceries and stocking shelves in a supermarket before joining the Rams. Most saw the Rams having yet another losing season, some even going so far as to say they would be the worst team in the league.
But the beauty of sports is that it rivals Hollywood for the ability to produce “fairy tale” stories. Something magic happened, and within weeks Warner and the Rams were the toast of the NFL. Sportscasters dubbed them “the Greatest Show on Turf” because of their high-speed, quick-strike offense which seemed as though it could score at will. The Rams finished the 1999 season with a 13-3 record, and they cruised through the play-offs on the way to a 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Atlanta that night in January 2000 was the vindication of Georgia Frontiere. This was the pinnacle of her 28-year ownership; an era which began with sanctimonious hypocrite New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica writing bilge like “The board of directors of women’s liberation ought to keep an eye on sweet Georgia… If she continues to run the Rams, pretty soon it is going to be back into the kitchen for every woman.”
How did that Lombardi Trophy feel when she shoved it up your ass, Mike?
Georgia Frontiere was the pioneer for women taking an active role heading professional football franchise. In an era of women’s liberation, Frontiere never saw herself as a feminist icon, which is why the “liberal” media trashed her at every opportunity. In fact, one of the only times she ever spoke on the subject her words were taken by some as a “shot” at the feminist movement.
“There are some who feel there are two different kinds of people — human beings and women. As soon as a woman tries to be a human being, people think she’s trying to be a man.”
Taken out of context, you can interpret that statement several ways. What is certain is Frontiere didn’t want be a man; she wanted to run a football team the best way she could. That’s exactly what she did. She may not have been the greatest owner in the history of the game, but she wasn’t the worst either. Her team won a championship, and there’s a lot of owners who can’t say that.
You can say whatever you want about Georgia Frontiere. After her death in 2008, minority owner Stan Kroenke acquired a controlling interest in the St. Louis Rams and moved them back to Los Angeles in 2015. In 1995, Frontiere may have been the most hated woman in Los Angeles, but a quarter-century later her name is headed for the ash-heap of history. But what can’t be argued is her commitment to her team. Throughout her time as the owner of the Rams, it simply was not possible to attend to a Rams game and not see Georgia Frontiere somewhere in the stadium.
But that doesn’t mean she was perched in a luxury suite lording over her
subjects fans separated by so much plate glass. Georgia Frontiere preferred to mingle with the players, the fans…the people who she knew made it all possible. On the night of the Rams Super Bowl victory, Frontiere succinctly stated the source of her desire to succeed, “From the time my late husband died, it has been a constant effort to do what he expected me to be able to do. He said ‘If anybody can, you can. You always stick to your ideas, and nobody pushes you around.’”
And nobody did.
The Moral of the Story:
If you’re going to be “the first” at something, you had better be tough.
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