Book Review: That First Season – By John Eisenberg
BY RICH PALZEWIC
I first met Baltimore author John Eisenberg eight years ago at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Green Bay. Eisenberg was on tour for his recently released book about Vince Lombardi’s first season as head coach of the Packers.
I remember chatting with him for a few minutes before he signed my book, and we went our separate ways. It took me about a week to finish it the first time. I’ve read the book several times since and always pick up additional information with each reading.
With Lisle Blackbourn struggling in the last of his four years as head coach in 1957, the Packers picked Ray “Scooter” McLean to be the interim head coach for the 1958 season, where he went a franchise-worst 1-10-1.
Green Bay then reached out to Iowa head coach Forest Evashevski, but after he declined an offer to coach the team following McLean’s disastrous year, Lombardi was hired February 3, 1959.
Eisenberg was a Baltimore Sun columnist for 23 years beginning in 1984 and finishing in 2007. During his time at the newspaper he was an opinion writer.
“I covered the local teams and would go to major events,” said Eisenberg via phone, who now is an online writer for the Baltimore Ravens. “It was the golden age of newspapers, so I went around the world covering things like the Olympics, the World Cup of soccer and the Super Bowl. I was very fortunate to write my opinion on things and get paid for it. It was fun but also stressful at times because lots of people didn’t always agree with me … but I don’t regret a second of it – it was a blast.”
In addition to writing online columns for the Ravens, Eisenberg has also released a number of books. His 10th book will be coming out later this year.
The story behind how he wrote “That First Season” is interesting in itself.
“I had a literary agent in 2006 call me one day and say, ‘I found it,’” Eisenberg said. “He had read an article in the Wall Street Journal talking about great turnarounds in the NFL. Most of the article was about Bill Parcells, but he told me to take a look at the 1959 season when Lombardi took over and took the team from being so bad to decent. The more I studied the idea the more I liked it – it’s a great story. A lot has been written about Lombardi and the Packers’ dynasty. So much of what happened with the team going forward was put in motion in 1959, so I thought it was a little open space in Packers’ history that hadn’t been explored that much. I’m always looking for interesting stories.”
During the process of writing the book, Eisenberg travelled to Green Bay two separate times for a week. He realistically had to come to Titletown for his research.
“I live near the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. that has an incredible array of newspapers,” Eisenberg said. “It didn’t have the Green Bay Press-Gazette going back to Lombardi, so I had to go to Green Bay. While I was there I did a lot of on-site research and interviewed some of the guys that still lived there.”
Even though his time in Green Bay ended years ago, Eisenberg still has vivid memories of his trips here.
“When I came for the book signing it was a football weekend,” he said. “What I remember is how amazing Packer fans are. I’ve written a lot of books about a lot of different things, and they stand out as the most loyal fans out there. Wherever I went with this book there was a lot of interest. As a writer you want people to read what you write, and I learned my lesson with this book. If Packer fans aren’t the best they are in the conversation as being the best.”
Eisenberg pointed out that he looks for story ideas that tell a larger tale. He has spoken to business groups – mainly in the Baltimore area – that wanted him to come and talk about Lombardi’s “business approach” during that first season as an example of how to run or turn around a company.
The entire book was great, but a few interesting snippets stand out for me. The first was when Bart Starr came to Green Bay early for a quarterback’s camp in June 1959. It can be found on pages 75-76. Eisenberg writes …
“The players reported to the Packers’ Washington Street offices at 9 A.M. on the last Monday in June. They shook hands and made small talk, and then posed for a Press-Gazette photographer before getting down to work. In the picture, Lombardi wears a wide grin and holds a ball aloft as the players watch. McHan and Starr are the only players smiling in the photograph. McHan stands by Lombardi in the forefront, assuming the prominent role he expected to play. Starr stands in the back with a broad smile.
After the photographer left, Lombardi led the players to a meeting room. A portable blackboard was wheeled in and the players sat down in chairs. Lombardi picked up a piece of chalk and began to speak.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “we have a great deal of ground to cover. We’re going to do things a lot differently than they’ve been done here before.”
Starr glanced around the room. Six quarterbacks were in attendance, but only three would make the team. Starr recognized the challenge he faced. McHan had more experience than the rest of these quarterbacks combined. McHan and Francis were terrific athletes. Parilli might finally put things together. Starr pledged to study hard, work on fundamentals and polish his technique. His career was on the line.
He stared, mesmerized, as Lombardi moved out from the blackboard to within a foot of the players. The coach could have reached out and touched Starr.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “we’re going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because perfection is not attainable. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because, in the process, we will catch excellence.”
He paused and stared, his eyes moving from player to player. The room was silent.
“I’m not remotely interested in being just good,” he said with an intensity that startled them all.
When the group took a break after an hour, Starr raced downstairs, found a phone and called Cherry in Alabama.
“Honey, we’re going to start to win,” he said breathlessly.
It’s ironic that Starr could tell from that first meeting with Lombardi that things would change. As we all know, he was correct.
Another of my favorite parts in the book was when Lombardi began his first training camp. It involves Jerry Kramer and Joe Francis. It can be found on pages 83-84. Eisenberg writes …
“Most of the players at this first workout were rookies, ordered to report two days earlier than the veterans. A few veterans were also on hand – quarterbacks McHan, Starr, Parilli, and Francis, and lineman Jim Ringo, Jerry Kramer, Dave Hanner and Jerry Helluin.
Kramer and Francis had expected to be on a golf course, not on the practice field. They had driven to camp together from out West (Francis lived in Oregon, Kramer in Idaho), planning to enjoy a few days of fun before get got down to work. Scooter McLean and Lisle Blackburn had allowed the veterans to come in early and play golf, drink, sleep late and eat for free while the rookies practiced.
But nothing had gone as Kramer and Francis planned. When they arrived at St. Norbert, they found the doors locked at Sensenbrenner Hall, the three-story L-shaped brick dorm where the players stayed. They drove to the team offices on Washington Street, found Jack Vainisi, and asked him to open the dorm or put them up in a hotel. “I shouldn’t have to pay eight bucks at night,” Kramer groused. Lombardi walked by and growled, “What’s going on?” When Vainisi explained the situation, Lombardi snapped, “Just take care of it, Jack,” and walked away. Vainisi let Kramer and Francis into the dorm when the rookies reported. The next morning, before this first practice, they awoke early, grabbed their golf clubs, and headed out. But Lombardi stopped them at the door.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“We’re going to play golf,” Kramer said.
“Like hell you are,” Lombardi said. “If you sleep in this dorm, you’re in this camp for good, and you make all meetings, practices, and curfews, just like everyone else.”
Kramer and Francis stared at him in disbelief.
“Go get ready for practice,” he said.
Surprised to find themselves on the field, they were, with the rest of the players, even more surprised by the practice itself. A Scooter-like stroll it was not.
Almost 60 years later, Kramer will be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Aug. 4, 2018. Maybe Kramer can look back to that first meeting with Lombardi in ’59 and say that’s where it all began.
Editor’s note: For another interesting story on Vince Lombardi and how he almost never even made it to Green Bay, check out the article on Tom Hearden in the March/April edition of Packerland.