What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of the A Blog-A-Thon To Be Thankful For. This is an event being hosted by 18 Cinema Lane; she had four specific criteria for this event.
Let’s see how many of those categories I can ping with this double-header. Both of the movies I’m discussing today were released in November. Jonathan Winters was born November 11th, 1925, which is Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth countries and Veteran’s Day for us treasonous Yanks. The day before is November 10th, which is the anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. Winters and I both wore the uniform of the USMC, and the creed of the Corps is that all Marines everywhere are my brother. That may not technically fit 18 Cinema Lane’s definition of “family member,” but I’m claiming it anyway #SemperFi.
That leaves the “thankful” part. As a kid when I was developing my comedic stylings, there were three guys who if measured by the impact the made on me were gigantic. There was Groucho Marx, whose mastery of the one-liner landed him on my list of favorite actors. Then there was Don Rickles, whose gift for timing, observation, and improvisation made the insult a compliment.
But to me, Jonathan Winters was the complete comedic package. He was as quick-witted as Groucho, as in command of the moment as Rickles, and combined those qualities to reach levels heretofore unseen. Winters was a pioneer of improvisational stand-up comedy, a forum in which his talent for impersonations, his characters, and endless creative energy made former “Tonight Show” host Jack Paar state “If you were to ask me the funniest 25 people I’ve ever known, I’d say, ‘Here they are—Jonathan Winters. Pound for pound, the funniest man alive.”
Winters’ mastery of mimicry of legendary figures like John Wayne, Cary Grant, and even Groucho Marx along with a wide range of characters such as hillbillies, arrogant city slickers, nerve-shattered airline pilots, disgruntled westerners, judgmental Martians, little old ladies, nosy gas station attendants, a hungry cat eyeing a mouse, and the oldest living airline stewardess, and more made him a staple of television, film, and comedy circuit appearances with a career spanning more than six decades.
And I loved every minute of it. That’s probably why one of Winters’ mantras rubbed off on me. He was known to say he considered himself more of a writer than a comedian, and I came to understand that on a personal level after my own short-lived stand-up career. While I’d never presume to have the level of talent of Jonathan Winters, I’m still thankful to have the example and inspiration he set.
Having said that, click here to see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon.
Now, let’s get this double-header going as I explore two Jonathan Winters’ comedies with “all-star” casts…
“The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” is not on my list of essential films.
The Story: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh!
“The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” centers on the Pittsburgh Pythons, a professional basketball team whose lack of talent has led to a losing streak which has made them the laughing stock of the league. As is typical with a struggling franchise, the never-ending bad publicity caused by the constant losing means several of the players want to be traded, but there simply isn’t much value in bad players on a bad team.
In fact, the only player Pittsburgh has with any trade value is their prima donna All-Star Moses Guthrie (played by NBA Hall-of-Famer Julius “Dr. J.” Erving). While he’s a highly-paid pain-in-the-ass, he’s also the only reason anybody pays any attention to the Pythons, which means even though his teammates all hate him, there’s no way the team would ever trade him.
There’s an old saying about necessity being the mother of invention. That may be true, but that doesn’t give desperation the credit it’s due. Things get so bad for the Pythons, their 14-year-old waterboy Tyrone Millman (played by James Bond III) comes up with an off-beat solution.
The fact that nobody else hass any better ideas leads Tyrone to take his to astrologer Mona Mondieu (played by Stockard Channing). She hones his idea into what they both believe is the perfect concept; a team composed entirely of players born under the astrological sign of Pisces, which just so happens to be the sign of star of Moses Guthrie.
At first, Moses and Tyrone’s sister Toby (played by Margaret Avery) laugh off Tyrone’s idea. But again, nobody has a better idea, and the desperation growing with each additional loss. Eventually, the entire organization gets on board. Mona starts giving the team astrological readings, the team adopts some odd playing techniques, and to make things official, team owner/eccentric zillionaire H.S. Tilson (played by Jonathan Winters) changes the team name to the Pittsburgh Pisces. By the way, H.S. has a scheming twin brother named Harvey, who is also played by Winters.
To cap all those changes, the Pisces redesign their playing floor to a fish-based theme, and with all these changes, can you guess what happens? The teams starts winning.
Dr. J is the headliner among a star-studded cast of basketball talent including Harlem Globetrotter legend Meadowlark Lemon and Los Angeles Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who ranks #7 on my list of favorite actors and their sports figure comparisons).
Despite the fact this film features the huge cast of hoopsters, and it has an equally huge soundtrack, when you watched this film as a 12-year old who idolized sports stars, you didn’t realize how thin “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” was on plot. Roger Ebert described this movie as “about as entertaining and memorable as a sports celebrity Miller Lite commercial.”
He wasn’t wrong. But there’s one bedrock principle upon which all film fans will agree. Cliches like “guilty pleasure” very much exist because they rest on that same universal platform. We all have those “guilty pleasure” movies; “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” is one of mine.
“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” is on my list of essential films.
The Story: It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
The back-end of this double header is a 1963 comedy produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” is the ultimate example of a film with a gigantic, all-star cast featuring luminaries like Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Spencer Tracy, and (of course) Jonathan Winters…and that’s just for starters.
The plot begins with “Smiler” Grogan (played by Jimmy Durante), a just-released convict who had been jailed for robbery 15 years earlier. During an attempt to escape police surveillance, he crashes off a California mountain road. Five motorists stop to render aid to Grogan; a dentist named Melville Crump (played by Sid Caesar), a business owner named J. Russell Finch (played by Milton Berle), Ding Bell and Benjy Benjamin (played by Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett respectively) who happen to be two friends on their way to Las Vegas, and a furniture mover named Lennie Pike (played by Jonathan Winters).
Grogan’s dying utterance is one telling the five motorists about the loot from his robbery; $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park under what he calls “a big W.”
The motorists initially decide to share the money, but in no time at all, it becomes a “no holds barred” race for the loot. However, what the five motorists-turned-breakneck racers don’t know is that Captain T.G. Culpepper of the Santa Rosita Police Department has been working on the “Smiler” Grogan case for years. Better yet, nobody knows that Culpepper’s plan is to find the money for himself. As such, when he hears about the crash on the mountain road, he plays a hunch Grogan spilled the beans about the money, he he puts his fellow cops on duty tracking the racers.
As one would expect, any desperate race to find a fortune can only be made better by the contestant all encountering de-railing setbacks. Crump and his wife Monica (played by Edie Adams) charter a biplane to take them to Santa Rosita, but manage get themselves locked in the basement of a hardware store. Somehow, the find some dynamite and us it to escape, nearly blowing the store off the face of the earth in the process.
Bell and Benjamin also decide to charter a plane, but as the cliché goes, when their alcoholic pilot knocks himself out, hilarity ensues.
Finch, his wife Emmeline (played by Dorothy Provine), and his obnoxious mother-in-law Mrs. Marcus (played by Ethel Merman) have a collision with Pike’s furniture van. The three flag down and convince a passing British Army Lieutenant Colonel J. Algernon Hawthorne (played by Terry-Thomas) to drive them to Santa Rosita. But the constant bickering between Emmeline and Mrs. Marcus proves to be too much for Finch and Hawthorne, who eventually leave them behind.
Meanwhile, Pike tries to get another passing motorist Otto Meyer (played by Phil Silvers) to take him to Santa Rosita, but Meyer leaves Pike stranded with only a girl’s bicycle which was still in his furniture van. Despite that, Pike catches up with Meyer at a gas station, where he has to be stopped from beating the crap out of Meyer. While the station attendants are trying to stop Pike, Meyer escapes in his car.
While Meyer makes his getaway, the brawl continues between Pike and the attendants goes on, resulting in Pike destroying both attendants and the station. Pike then steals the station’s toe truck and uses it to give chase to Meyer. Along the way, Pike runs across Mrs. Marcus and Emmeline. He gives them a ride to the nearest phone where Mrs. Marcus calls her well-intentioned but not-so-bright son Sylvester, who lives near Santa Rosita. Despite the fact she tells him to go to the park and find the money, because he thinks his mother is in trouble, Sylvester instead races out to the desert to her aid. Meanwhile, Meyer manages to sink his car in a river, but steals another one.
All the while, Culpepper watches from afar as everyone reaches Santa Rosita State Park right about about the same time. While all the racers (plus a couple of cab drivers who have found their way into this mess) are searching the park for “the big W,” Culpepper orders all police to leave the area.
Ironically, it’s Emmeline (who wants no part of the money) as the first to spot the “the big W.” Pike is the next to discover the four palm trees in the shape of the 23rd letter of the alphabet. In no time at all, everybody is on the dig. letter. Once they finally unearth the money, Culpepper appears, identifies himself as a cop, and persuades the entire group into turning themselves in, making them believe they have committed a crime and that a jury will be more lenient if they surrender.
Of course, Culpepper is full of crap; he takes the money and makes a break for Mexico. The group realizes what is happening and gives chase in the two taxis. Eventually, the chase devolves into a foot pursuit, and by now the other cops know what’s happening; Chief Aloysius (played by William Demarest) orders Culpepper’s arrest.
All of this brings us to the slap-stick ending involving an overloaded fire escape, a fire truck rescue ladder flinging people all over a town square, and the inadvertent dispersal of the cash…all somehow being wrapped up with a banana peel.
The Hidden Sports Analogy – The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh:
In keeping with the obvious nature of the old saying “first things first,” let’s get right the first analogy…which really isn’t all that hidden. Say what you will about the movie “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” seeing the beauty of this movie to a kid with a burgeoning love of sports in 1978 is easy. It’s all about all the real hoopsters shown in this movie. Just look at the rosters of the fictional teams shown in this film.
For some, that list of names may not mean much, but for hoop fans of a certain age, it’s a serious stroll down basketball’s “Memory Lane.”
The Hidden Sports Analogy – It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World:
For this analogy, we hark back to the days of the mid 1980’s and the dear, departed United States Football League (USFL). Like the analogy for “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” this is a tale rooted in my youth and the birth of my sports super-fandom. However, unlike the previous film, this analogy is not fictional.
While it only lasted for three seasons, the USFL was an entertaining league with no shortage of talent. Several Hall-of-Famers such as quarterback Jim Kelly and defensive tackle Reggie White began their careers in the start-up league which debuted in the spring of 1983. Unfortunately, it was the money that was scarce.
Like any start-up business, the USFL hadn’t really found it’s way in terms of sustainable revenue streams. The television ratings were at best only fair, and the take at the gate was even less so. In other words, despite the quality of the product on the field, the money just wasn’t coming in at the levels needed to sustain the business.
The USFL had 14 franchises in 1985; each with various levels of financial solvency. But that season also saw an external economic situation which would gravely impact one of them. The San Antonio Gunslingers were owned by an oil magnate named Clinton Manges, who was so enthusiastic about owning a professional football franchise in “pigskin-crazy” Texas he routinely underwrote the team’s monetary shortfalls from his own personal fortune.
But early in 1985, the floor fell out of the global oil market when prices dropped as low as $11 a barrel. Suddenly, guys like Manges who had been riding high on oil prices many times that level found themselves in financial dire straits.
Even before the oil price plunge, the Gunslingers were known to be one of the more cash-poor franchises in the league, hence the need for routine bail-outs by Manges. But now that the owner himself has a bad case of the “shorts,” the house of cards that was the Gunslingers’ finances quickly collapsed.
With the sudden disappearance of Manges’ money, the Gunslingers began to look like a franchise on the verge of folding. The team dismissed much of the front office staff, almost all of the public relations people quit. On the field, the team got rid of the practice squad, and had been working without scouts for quite some time.
Things got worse when the local media began to shine a light on the team’s money woes. Naturally, this strained the relationship between the Gunslingers and the press; so much so that eventually Manges ordered his employees not to discuss the team’s finances, and even had reporters bounced from the locker room. This deterioration went all the way to Manges revoking press credentials for those who kept digging in the team’s seeming insolvency.
Obviously, Manges had plenty to hide, but nobody really knew how much. At first, this all just seemed to be a tale of a failing football team. That spiral continued downward when the story broke that Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had placed liens on the Gunslingers twice because the team owed over $400,000 in back payroll taxes.
It would be the payroll issue which would prove to be the proverbial “final nail; what would send the San Antonio Gunslingers to “Boot Hill” once and for all. Even before the media started digging into the Gunslingers cash flow situation, the team was already bouncing payroll checks.
The more the press found, the worse it got for Manges. Not only was his team not making payroll, the local newspapers were running stories of Gunslinger players trading tickets for food and staying with sympathetic fans because they had been evicted from their apartments because they couldn’t pay the rent.
By April 1985, USFL commissioner Harry Usher felt the need to intervene. After Usher threatened action against Manges and the Gunslingers, promises were made that the payroll issues would be immediately rectified, even if Manges had to issue promissory notes. It took no time at all for Usher to discover Manges was full of a Texas-sized load of cow chips.
On the very next payday, every single check issued by the San Antonio bounced so high you would have needed NASA to get them back. Not long after that, the entire Gunslingers’ travel squad was nearly stranded in Orlando because Manges’ check to pay for the charter flight back to Texas was printed on “Super Ball” grade rubber. The operator of the charter flight only allowed the jet to take-off after at-the-time Texas Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby (from the same family whose name is on Houston’s Hobby Airport and a long-time friend of Manges) guaranteed payment.
But after another payroll botch in May, the Gunslinger players walked out of practice. In response, Manges threatened to shutter team operations completely. Being faced with the loss of badly-needed income from a franchise which already owed them money, the players capitulated.
But despite that victory, the walls were closing in on Clinton Manges. Across the board, people were tiring of not being paid, but it was the Gunslinger players who were making the most noise. At one point, a federal arbitrator threatened to void the contracts of 30 players if Manges didn’t make good on their bounced checks. On another, several players threatened to boycott a game against the Los Angeles Express unless they were paid all that was owed to them.
What brought matters to the breaking point was the discovery that two players (quarterback Rick Neuheisel and linebacker Jeff McIntyre) had personal services contracts with Manges which guaranteed they would be paid no matter what. Once that fact got out to the media combined with photos of Manges and other team executives arriving at the Gunslinger facilities in limousines, the die was cast.
By now, it was obvious to all involved that Manges’ strategy in terms of dealing with his failing franchise was simply to stop paying the bills. For reasons I don’t know, the players and coaches soldiered on for the final four games of the season without being paid. Once Manges missed another payroll at the end of the season, another arbitrator placed all the Gunslinger players on waivers, an act which released them from their obligations to the Gunslingers, but did not absolve the franchise from their contractual obligations to the players.
At this point, Commissioner Harry Usher had seen enough. In June 1985, he ordered Manges to make restitution for all the team’s debts within 15 days under pain of revocation of the franchise. When Manges failed to comply, the Gunslingers became the only USFL franchise to suffer such a fate.
That isn’t to say that Manges didn’t make one last attempt to provide the appearance of compliance. Manges cut checks for all the players in an attempt to appear to meet Usher’s mandate. However, the players having been given so many rubber checks before knew better. Thus begins the hidden sports analogy in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Once those last checks were cut, every Gunslinger holding one knew there was no way all of them were going to be “good.” As such, just like in “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a race for the money broke out.
The difference was nobody in this race was looking for a treasure trove buried under a big “W;” they just wanted to cash a check while there were still funds to do so. In other words, this wasn’t about a race to Santa Rosita Park; this was all about getting to the bank.
The players fears were proven to be valid. Not only were most of the checks not worth the paper they were printed on; it was clear Manges was going full “Spencer Tracy/Captain Culpepper.” The only thing he didn’t do was make a run for Mexico. Otherwise, Manges did just about everything he could to hide what money he had left.
Manges had been using a holding company called South Texas Sports for various purposes, one of which was the actual ownership of the San Antonio Gunslingers. While this was a perfectly legal arrangement, when combined with some of Manges’ other business dealings, and because nothing was ever actually proven in a court of law…let’s just say this allowed for some “flexibility” in Manges’ accounting practices (wink, nudge).
Eventually, South Texas Sports was liquidated as part of paying off more than $650,000 of debts to various creditors. The former Gunslinger players also banded together to sue Manges for all the back pay owed to them, but that action became moot when Manges filed for bankruptcy. While that suit never was adjudicated, the process of discovery leading up to it’s being filed showed that Clinton Manges’ finances may have been questionable as early as 1980.
The bottom line is to this day, many members of the San Antonio Gunslingers still have never been paid what is owed to them. Manges’ bankruptcy was part of that and it’s de facto killing of the player’s lawsuit meant there would never a be a full accounting of where the money went. There has been plenty of speculation as to what sort of activities in which Clinton Manges may have been involved; some are rather salacious and all of them are unverifiable, so they won’t be mentioned here. The only person who knows the truth is Clinton Manges himself, and he took all those secrets to the grave in 2010.
The Moral of the Story:
Today’s first film featured a struggling sports franchise. The second has a hidden analogy about a failed sports franchise. Your job may not have the glamour of being a professional athlete, but be thankful the paychecks still cash.
P.S. Clinton Manges certainly wasn’t the first owner in professional sports who had some shady finances, and he’s not the first to be spot-lighted in this series. Dubsism is also the home of a tale of the National Hockey League’s answer to Professor Harold Hill from “The Music Man.”
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