A Provocation: My Al Davis Story

Friday, October 21, 2011 |

Chances are, if you've worked in sports media for any significant length of time over the past fifty years, you've got an Al Davis story. I've got one, too. And like many others', mine begins with Al Davis threatening to sue me.

 In my case, it was over eight words. Eight words in a 416-page book, about something that had happened more than thirty years before.

It's late spring, 2003. I'm sitting at my desk in the McGraw-Hill offices on the 11th floor of Two Penn Plaza when my phone rings. I pick it up, say "Mark Weinstein."

 "Please hold for Al Davis," says a woman whose voice I do not recognize.

Naturally, I think someone's playing a joke on me. It had happened before. But a few seconds later I hear a voice that sounds an awful lot like that of the Oakland Raiders' legendary, litigious owner.

"Mark, this is Al Davis," the voice says. "I want to ask you a question. Why on earth would you ask me to endorse a book full of lies?"

It was no joke. I had recently sent Davis an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of a book I had edited titled Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It, which Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill would be publishing later that summer. Davis, for reasons he never made clear, had refused to be interviewed for the book—an oral history of the AFL—despite repeated requests by the writer, Jeff Miller, then an editor at The Dallas Morning News. And though I knew the book contained some less-than-reverent comments about Davis, and was fully aware of his penchant for lawsuits, I felt that the upside of a potential endorsement from such a pivotal figure in the AFL's colorful history was worth the risk of angering him.

This was, of course, idiotic.

"Mark," he said. "I'd like you to turn to page 204. Can you do that?"

"Yes sir."

"Please read the fourth line from the top of the page."

"Al was not in on the merger discussions."

"Al was not in on the merger discussions," he repeated, stressing every syllable. "Now, why would you print such an outrageous lie?"

"That's a direct quote from Lamar Hunt," I said.

"It's a lie. In fact, it's more than a lie. It's a provocation." 

"It's a direct quote, sir."

"It's a lie."

"Well, what would you like me to do?" I said.

"I want you to remove that sentence from the book."

"I'm sorry, sir," I said, "but I can't do that. The book has already gone to press."

"That's not my problem," he said. The conversation, as you might imagine, devolved from there. Threats of a not-so-veiled nature were made. I reminded him of his refusal to be interviewed. He got angry. I got defensive. In the end, I told him I would "see what I could do," and I would. It was not a pleasant call.

After hanging up, I immediately called the writer and asked him to both double-check his tapes and to confirm the story one more time with Lamar Hunt. Then I called another writer I'd recently worked with, Chuck Day, who had collaborated on a book entitled The Making of the Super Bowl with Don Weiss, the former Executive Director of the NFL. Because I knew from his book that Weiss had participated in the merger discussions, I asked Chuck if Don could verify Hunt's claim as well, just to be sure.

Then, of course, I started to panic. I had been on the job at McGraw-Hill less than a year and was still struggling to gain a foothold. I had neglected to have the book vetted by legal (a mistake I would not repeat), and was solely responsible for bringing it to Davis' attention. If he actually followed through and filed suit, it was entirely possible that I might lose my job.

Over eight lousy words. 

Part of my fear stemmed from the fact that Davis felt strongly enough about this to call me himself. Most owners, I reasoned, would have had an underling call, or simply asked his attorney to send a threatening letter. That's what the McCaskeys did a year later when we boneheadedly included the Chicago Bears logo on the cover of a biography of their late, great founder/owner, George Halas, without the proper permissions. The biography wasn't so kind to the McCaskeys, specifically Michael McCaskey, Halas' grandson, who had assumed control of the team ("anybody but Michael," Halas had reportedly said on his deathbed, in reference to his successor), so the Bears weren't looking to do us any favors. But the only person I heard from in the Bears organization was an attorney, whose letter I immediately forwarded to McGraw-Hill's in-house counsel.

After informing my immediate superiors of the situation, that's precisely who I called next. The attorney was a no-nonsense type who, after a particularly colorful vetting, once asked me if it was necessary for the word "cocksucker" to appear nine times in one book (I did, and it was). She and I had struck an uneasy coexistence, but we usually managed to keep things professional. And in this particular case, she didn't seem particularly alarmed. As long as my sources checked out, she said, there shouldn't be a problem, though that wouldn't preclude Davis from trying to sue us anyway, or from blasting us in the press.

I didn't hear back from Jeff Miller or Chuck Day until the next day, which only served to heighten my anxiety. But when both writers called to tell me that their sources assured them the story checked out, I relaxed a bit. I knew that it was possible Davis could still file suit, but at least it wouldn't be because the book contained untruths. If he was going to sue, it would be because suing people (or threatening to sue them) was simply what Al Davis did.

The attorney sent a letter to Davis on behalf of the McGraw-Hill Companies and myself. Several weeks passed and I didn't hear a word from anyone in Oakland. The book was released with Hunt's quote in-tact, to rave reviews from Sports Illustrated ("Outlandish, informative, and above all, funny") and several other media outlets. To my surprise, not one review mentioned the fourth line on page 204. Sales were solid if unspectacular, and included a nice run of spiked numbers in the weeks leading into the holidays. We scheduled a paperback for the following summer. I was not fired. 

Then, one day, a package arrived. In it, there was a short letter typed on Oakland Raiders letterhead, wrapped with a rubber band around a VHS tape bearing the humble title, Al Davis: #1 For All Time Legend Maverick.  The letter, signed by Davis, just said that he would follow up with me in a few days time.

The old man did not disappoint. Later that week, a call came in: "Please hold for Al Davis."

"Did you receive the video tape I sent?" Davis asked.

"Yes, sir I did."

"Good. Listen, I've been advised by my counsel not to pursue any legal action against you or your company," he said. "But I wanted to make sure you knew who it was you were dealing with. I take these things very seriously."

"Of course, sir," I said. "You know, I'd be happy to have you tell your side of the story for the paperback we've got planned, if that's something that interests you."

"Sure, it interests me," he said, "but not for your paperback. No. I had a publisher once, years ago, offered me a million dollars to write a book. But I had to turn him down. Timing wasn't right. Tell me. How much would a book like that be worth to a company like McGraw-Hill?"

"A significant amount, I'm sure. It would be a remarkable book. Newsworthy. But with all due respect, sir, a million dollars seems unlikely."

"This wouldn't be any ordinary book," Davis said. 

"I never suggested it would be, sir. But a million dollars...."

"Look. It has to be worth my time."

"Sure, but a million dollars is a lot of money."

"Tell you what. You watch that video tape, you change your mind, you know how to reach me."

That was the last time we ever spoke. My Publisher, a non-sports fan who was, oddly, a speed-skating enthusiast, didn't know Al Davis from Miles Davis. I knew there was no way he'd authorize a six-figure advance, let alone a seven-figure advance, for a book by someone he'd never heard of. I didn't even ask him. I figured I'd dodged a bullet, and it was best to cut my losses.

Don Weiss died that Fall, suffering a heart attack. Lamar Hunt followed three years later, succumbing to prostate cancer. Davis, on the other hand, held on until a few weeks ago. But in the eight years following our brief encounter he never sold his book, never did get a chance to tell his extraordinary story.

Many of the obituaries and columns published in the immediate wake of Davis' death spoke of how he had opposed the NFL/AFL merger (Davis was serving as AFL commissioner at the time) and a few even referenced and quoted from Going Long, but nobody cited the "offending" sentence, those eight words that raised the ire of a legend and nearly cost me my career in book publishing. 

Eight years and a couple hundred books later, I'm working with Jeff Miller again. This time, it's a book about two deceased golf legends, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. And while I'm not expecting there to be any explosive revelations in it, I don't think I'll be asking their surviving family members for any endorsements. 

Rest in peace, sir.


*Editor's note: The dialogue in this story is accurate to the best of the author's recollection only.

This story was republished by Deadspin on Monday, October 24th.

Who is this impostor, this Bizzaro Phil Simms?

Thursday, April 14, 2011 |

In an increasingly crazy, unpredictable world in which there are few, if any, absolutes, it's reassuring as a sports fan to know that there are certain things that never change. Players, coaches—hell, even franchises will come and go, but numbers endure. You can rely on numbers, lean on them like pillars on your porch. They represent sturdy, fixed points in what can otherwise be a bewildering, disorienting navigation of the known universe. 

I like to use uniform numbers as mnemonic devices. Someone tells me to meet them at 4153 Main Street, I process that as Tom Seaver, Harry Carson Main Street. Someone tells me their phone number is 647-2731? To me, that's Jim Burt, Jose Reyes, Rodney Hampton, Mike Piazza. It's just how my mind works.

For thirty-three years, Phil Simms has been #11 in the hearts and minds of New York Giants fans like myself. It's the number he was wearing when Topps came to take his photograph for his first football card in 1979. It's the number he wore in the early 1980s, when I dressed in his three-quarter-sleeve blue jersey for five consecutive Halloweens. It's the number he wore when he set the record for completion percentage in Super Bowl XXI, and it's the number he wore when the Giants retired his jersey back in 1995. Now it's the number the Old Man wears every game day in tribute.

My buddy Schwartz used to joke that Phil was so good he got to be #1 twice. I never had the heart to tell Schwartz that his logic would've made Phil #2, which is what Bill Parcells made Simms in 1983 when he benched him in favor of Scott Brunner, and what some shortsighted Giants fans in those days thought Phil smelled like.

But I digress. Today, friends, I became the custodian of a disc containing 130 amazing photos of various new York Giants throughout the franchise's eighty-five year history. The disc includes rare shots of Steve Owen, Mel Hein, Charley Conerly, Frank Gifford, Emlen Tunnell, and tons more. For a Giants dork like me, it's a treasure chest. A find beyond compare. And if you're lucky (and ask nicely), I'll share some of the images here on this blog and over at Bluenatic Fringe in the coming weeks and months, especially if the lockout drags on into the summer. 

When, sandwiched between shots of Earnest Gray and George Young, I saw the two shots posted above, I did a double take. Though the photos are of unknown provenance, there is little doubt that they were taken shortly after the Giants selected Phil Simms with the 7th overall pick of the 1979 NFL Draft. They capture a baby-faced Simms posing in front of a backdrop of then-four-year-old Giants Stadium with a football and Ray Perkins, who looks more like a high school math teacher than the newly hired head coach of an NFL team.

The double take, of course, was due to the jersey Simms is wearing in the photos, and the number that adorns it. #19? Who the eff is #19? Who is this impostor, this Bizarro Simms? Phil Simms is, was, and always will be #11. ELEVEN. This is porch pillar stuff. Fixed. Bob Sheppard certainly never announced Phil's name with any other number. Why would he? 

If Phil Simms isn't #11, as I was sure he was and is, then how can I be sure of anything else in my life? 

Chosen with the 7th overall pick, #19 does not represent Simms's draft position. He wore #12 in college at Morehead State. As far as I know, he didn't grow up idolizing John Unitas, as I don't recall Simms ever mentioning Johnny U in any of the three books he's "authored", including the one titled Phil Simms on Passing. So what gives? Perkins and GM George Young both spent time with Unitas in Baltimore, but it's a stretch to think they'd put that kind of pressure on a rookie quarterback from a small college playing under the microscope of the New York media.

Going back to the 1960s, the only Giants players I can think of who ever wore #19 are QB Gary Wood, WR Anthony Mix and PK Cary Blanchard, none of whom particularly distinguished themselves while wearing a Giants uniform. No Giant has worn the number in a regular season game since.

In 2011, the number 19 is a significant one for Simms and the Giants. Call it a coincidence if you want, but the Giants hold the 19th pick in this year's draft. Simms, who retired with 19 franchise records, presently ranks 19th all-time among NFL quarterbacks in passing yards. But none of those things explain why he's wearing #19 in those photos.

Something tells me this is a job for Paul Lukas. He's the only man I know who can make sense of this madness.

UPDATE 6/15/11: I had a chance to speak briefly with Simms at the 86 Giants reunion last weekend and asked him about the photo. He said that #19 was the number the Giants issued him at first. Then, when the Giants cut the guy who was wearing #11 (Simms said it was QB Jerry Golsteyn) he assumed the number. The problem Simms' story is that neither Golsteyn nor any other Giants player wore #11 in 1978. Golsteyn wore #12, which was the number Simms wore in college. So perhaps that's what Simms was referring to. But it doesn't explain how he ended up wearing #11.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011 |

It’s a good thing for the New York Jets and their well-mannered, totally realistic fans that they won the Super Bowl two weeks ago in Indianapolis and again last week in New England. If they hadn’t already secured two gleaming world championship trophies this postseason, their loss in Sunday’s minor exhibition in Pittsburgh might have stung quite a bit.

It’s a good thing for Rex Ryan and his impervious defense that the media anointed him football royalty and declared him a defensive genius for leading his charges to world championships in consecutive weeks. If he hadn’t, Rashard Mendenhall’s gashing of his vaunted unit for 95 yards and a touchdown in the first half on Sunday while rushing behind a former practice squad center might have caused some reporters to ask the sure Hall of Fame coach a few tough questions in the postgame locker room.

It’s a good thing for the heroic Ladainian Tomlinson that his three touchdowns in this postseason prior to Sunday’s game erased whatever silly, lingering doubts there might be about his ability to perform in the clutch. If they hadn’t, and if The Real LT hadn’t had his entire career validated by last week’s stunning Super Bowl win, his nine-carry, 16-yard effort and failure to score on fourth down from the one on Sunday might have cast some doubt on the true Jet legend’s legacy.

It’s a good thing for Bart Scott that he reveled in his heel role following last week’s Super Bowl win over the heavily-favored and pundit-picked New England Patriots last week. If he hadn’t, his seven total tackles in the Jets three postseason games and his inability to stop a much smaller Mendenhall from dragging him backwards into his end zone may have made those incendiary remarks seem a bit foolish.

It’s a good thing for Braylon Edwards that he did a tasteful, sportsmanlike backflip on the opponent’s home field last week in New England after the Jets won the Super Bowl for the second straight week. If he hadn’t, his three catches on seven targets and false start penalty during Sunday’s meaningless exhibition in Pittsburgh might have been construed as another big-game no-show for the talented yet mercurial wide receiver/model.

It’s a good thing for Mark Sanchez that he was lauded so enthusiastically for his poise, leadership, and style as the 24-year-old signal caller matured before our eyes this postseason and emerged a two-time champion. If he hadn’t already been recognized for the true legend of the game he so clearly is—a legend that will surely only grow with all the championships he is virtually assured to win in the coming years—it’s possible that some agenda-driven journos, intimidated by Sanchez’s magnetic beauty, might point out that the fifty yards of total offense he generated in the first half (11 until the final 1:13) against the Steelers, coupled with a fumble which resulted in a defensive touchdown, dug his team a hole that even he, in his infinite awesomeness, couldn’t recover from despite a valiant effort.

It's a good thing for Brian Schottenheimer that he already cemented himself as a surefire head coaching candidate with his maverick play-calling in the Jets' two Super Bowl victories earlier this month. If he hadn't, it's possible that prospective employers might have taken issue with an offense that gained a total of one rushing yard in the first half and failed to score on four consecutive plays inside the Steelers 2-yard line on Sunday. 

It’s a good thing for the uber-classy Jets fans that they took all those wholly justified shots at the Giants and their own fans these past few weeks before losing their fourth AFC Championship Game in as many tries. If they hadn’t, Giants fans might have felt compelled to defend their team, which is 4-0 in NFC Championship Games and the owner of three Lombardi trophies, mentioning casually how the Jets haven’t beaten the Giants on the football field since 1993 and how when, in 2007, the Giants went on their own magical run, nary a reference to their less fortunate stadium co-tenants was made.

It’s a good thing the City of New York celebrated the Jets back-to-back Super Bowl championships by illuminating the Empire State Building a sickly green and throwing the team a costly pep rally on Thursday that required not only the time and attention of New York’s Finest but also its mayor and one of its senators. If it hadn’t, the city might have actually considered turning their attention and discretionary funds towards its failing school system and/or its inept sanitation department. 

It’s a good thing for the Jets and their fans that they’ll definitely win the Super Bowl next year and in all subsequent years for the foreseeable future. If such amazing future success weren’t preordained for them, it’s possible that the threat of a lockout or a rash of key injuries or free agent defections or the improvement of other contending teams might give them reason to lament not closing the deal when they had the chance.

By winning two Super Bowls before the Super Bowl has even been played, the New York Jets did away with the formality of having to actually, you know, finish the job.

Good for them.

What need did they have to finish the job when they were already champions in their own minds?

Oh, but let’s give the Jets credit for hanging in there after a horrible first half and battling back. Let’s give the Jets defense credit for holding the Steelers scoreless after halftime. Yes, by all means, let’s give the Jets credit for losing. For coming close. That makes sense.

If you've been listening to sports radio the past day or two, you'll know that it also apparently makes sense to cop ridiculous pleas, make excuses and offer up meaningless platitudes. It was a great season, you see. What a ride it was. We’ll get ‘em next year.

That’s loser talk.

The objective of every NFL team is to win the Super Bowl. The real one. Anything short of that is a failure, and the Jets know it.

Talk is cheap. Play the game. I think I heard that somewhere before.