James Gleason Conzelman leaned back in his chair and stared thoughtfully at the ceiling, pondering the request. He was seated at his desk in the St. Louis headquarters of the D'Arcy Advertising Company, of which he is a vice-president. The office walls were filled with autographed photographs from half a dozen Supreme Court Justices, J. Edgar Hoover, Gene Tunney and Harold (Red) Grange, who had written: "I'd rather be hung on this office wall than any other one in the country."
Conzelman ran a hand through his mane of white hair. He whirled around in his chair and looked up at a framed color print of the first football game played for the national collegiate championship. The referee in the print wore a derby.
Conzelman suddenly got up and walked around the desk. "Follow me," he said.
He led the way down a corridor and out into the high-ceilinged reception room with its great photomurals of St. Louis scenes, through another door and down a long hall between glassed-in offices to the control room of the agency's own recording studios. Conzelman looked around and pointed to an unoccupied studio. "Anybody going to be using this one?" he asked the engineer at the control board.
September 17, 1961
"No, sir," said the engineer.
"Look, Coach," I said, using the form of address that clings to every man who has ever presided over a football scrimmage, "I didn't expect you to do this thing right now. It's just that it has become a sort of legend in sporting circles, and I wanted to get it straight. It doesn't have to be now. Maybe you would be free some evening. I mean, I hope you don't think I'd barge into a man's office and ask him to—."
Conzelman silenced me with a wave of his hand. He opened the door of the studio and walked directly to a piano at the far end. He sat down, rubbed his hands briskly and then boldly attacked the keyboard in a style that conjured up a vision of a short beer standing on the piano top. After a few introductory chords, he sang out in a brazen baritone:
"Now you've read about Casey Jones, the engineer,
"And of Bad Man Jesse James.
"You've read about the great jockey, Paul Revere,
"And other men with famous names.
"You've read about Abraham Lincoln,
"And General Robert E. Lee,
"But not one of those fellows that you've read about,
"Have got a doggone thing on me!"
Conzelman banged hard on the piano, then charged into the chorus:
"Because I'm the only boy in the world can take a biscuit apart,
"And put it back just like it was.
"You think there's nothing to it? Try and do it!
"If you can, you'll surely win yourself applause."
Conzelman roared on, comparing the biscuit's dismantling to Rudolph Valentino's way with women and Daniel's taming of the lions in their den. Then he concluded rousingly:
"Now some men of science came to my house,
"On a scientific call,
"They said, 'We've heard of your wonderful feat,
" 'And we think it's a stall.'
"I said, 'Gentlemen, follow me, to the dining room please come,
" 'I'll show you how I take a biscuit apart and put it back without losing a crumb.'
"Well, they stared at me in amazement and one said, 'On my heart!
" 'I believe that with years of study I could learn to take a biscuit apart!'
"I said, 'The chances are you could, but here's one important fact:
" 'It's easy enough to take one apart, the hard thing's putting it back!
" 'For I'm the only boy, the only boy in the world can take a biscuit apart and put it back just like it was!' "
As he played on, doodling and improvising, Conzelman looked every inch the business executive, like a man who had never been anything else. The truth was that he had been practically everything else before he resigned as coach and vice-president of the Chicago Cardinals to join the D'Arcy agency.
He was the finest all-round athlete ever heard of in St. Louis, an All-Star in football, baseball and basketball at McKinley High. He gave promise of becoming the greatest quarterback Washington University in St. Louis ever saw. His collegiate career was interrupted when he joined the Navy in World War I, but his enlistment brought him to national attention as quarterback on the Great Lakes Naval Training Station football team, which—playing a collegiate schedule—was the best in the country in 1918 and the winner over the Mare Island Marines in the Rose Bowl game of January 1, 1919. After the war, he returned to St. Louis for a final year at Washington University, then turned professional to play with George Halas (one of his teammates at Great Lakes) on the Staleys, a team sponsored by a Decatur, III. starch manufacturer. The Staleys later became the Chicago Bears.
Conzelman played with other professional teams in Providence, R.I., Rock Island, Ill. and Milwaukee. He organized his own pro team in Detroit and, with his partners, lost $30,000 in the days when the country wasn't ready for the pro game. (He paid the National Football League $50 for the Detroit franchise and gave it back for nothing. Ten years later it brought $225,000 and is probably worth about $4 million now.) He also took a flyer at professional baseball as player-manager for Rock Island in the Mississippi Valley League.
During the 1920s Conzelman seemed to have more energy than he knew what to do with. When he wasn't playing professional baseball and football, he tried his hand at songwriting and got five of his compositions published. He set himself up as a sculptor's business agent in MacDougal Alley in New York's Greenwich Village. Several times a week he boxed with Philadelphia Jack O'Brien at the old Madison Square Garden, and O'Brien thought so highly of him as a middleweight that he tried to get him to turn pro.
In the early 1930s Conzelman returned to St. Louis and published a weekly newspaper in Maplewood, a suburb. In 1932 he was offered the post of head football coach at Washington University, his alma mater, and in two years he built a team that won the Missouri Valley championship.
Meanwhile, he began writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He became a radio broadcaster, then a writer for national magazines and a syndicated columnist. In 1936 he married Anne Forrestal of St. Louis, and among the wedding presents was a piano, the gift of 88 St. Louisans—the idea being that each one of these admirers of Conzelman-style music had donated a key.
Along about this time Conzelman made an off-the-cuff speech at a sports banquet and soon was in demand all over the country as an after-dinner speaker. This quite naturally led him into public relations work, in the trucking business and in major league baseball; he was a front-office executive for the St. Louis Browns in 1944, the only year the Browns won an American League pennant. He served two terms as coach of the Chicago Cardinals. In 1947 he coached that team to the National Football League championship and was named professional coach of the year. The following season—his last with the Cardinals—his team won the Western Division but lost to Philadelphia, the Eastern Division winner, in the playoff for the championship. Meanwhile, his reputation as an impromptu entertainer at social affairs brought him an invitation to play the football coach in the musical comedy Good News at the 10,000-seat St. Louis Municipal Opera Theater in Forest Park. In 1957 a civic committee associated with the theater asked him to play the role of the manager in Damn Yankees. Co-starring with Gretchen Wyler and Bobby Clark, Conzelman stopped the show with his big solo number, as he belted out the line You Gotta Have Heart.
Despite these theatrical triumphs, Conzelman's most requested number at parties is his I'm the Only Boy in the World Can Take a Biscuit Apart and Put It Back Just Like It Was. Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court, an old friend of Conzelman, asks to hear it whenever they meet. Toots Shor ordered a piano for his New York restaurant just so Conzelman could perform the piece when he came to town. Once Shor had him sing it over the telephone for a pal 3,000 miles away. When the Conzelmans entertain at home, the number is sure to be called for. At home Conzelman is now assisted by his 23-year-old son, James Jr., who has become skillful in the operation of a cymbal-crashing rhythm instrument resembling a pogo stick. (Young James, like his father, was an all-round athlete in prep school, but a football injury cut short his athletic career at Brown, from which he graduated last year.)
I had now finished writing the lyrics of the song on a pad of yellow paper I had picked up in Conzelman's office.
"Where," I said, "did you ever come across that biscuit song?"
"Why," said Conzelman, "it was given to me by a theatrical agent who got together an act in which I was to appear with the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. I was trying to line up the Four Horsemen for my professional team at Detroit, and the vaudeville tour was intended to make them a little extra money after graduation."
"What could the Four Horsemen do on the stage?"
"Oh," said Conzelman, "I think the plan was for Harry Stuhldreher to sing a song, and Jim Crowley was down for a tap dance, Don Miller was going to tell jokes, and Elmer Layden—I forget. I don't think Layden could do anything. Probably he was just going to stand there, clapping his hands and laughing."
"How did the act go over?"
It never got on the stage. The agent had some bookings lined up for us, but suddenly the whole thing had to be called off. The agent told me the Notre Dame authorities got wind of the plan. They considered the whole idea undignified and advised strongly against it."
"Then you have kept the biscuit song alive singlehanded?"
"As far as I know," said Conzelman, "I have never heard anybody else sing it. Or even express a desire to do so."
"How about your own compositions? Were they commercially successful?"
"Not commercially, no," said Conzelman. "Only a limited number of music lovers saw fit to buy the sheet music. Copies of the sheet music, in fact, are now collectors' items, and very rare. I believe I am the only collector who has any."
"May I ask, Coach, where you received your musical education?"
"I studied," said Conzelman, "under a man named Brady."
"Was the Brady studio right here in St. Louis?"
"There wasn't any Brady studio. Brady was a prizefighter, a bantamweight. Tommy Brady. I met him at Great Lakes during the First World War."
"And this prizefighter taught you to play the piano?"
"No," said Conzelman, "Brady didn't know how to play the piano. He taught me to play the ukulele. I had heard him entertain at various affairs around the station and had admired his technique. He had the authentic Hawaiian stroke, which at that time hadn't been mastered by very many American ukulele players.
"I practiced hard under Brady, and when I felt I had mastered his ukulele method, I tried the piano. Then I got so I could listen to a number, work out the succession of chords on the ukulele, then find them on the piano and finally add enough of the melody to create the impression that I knew what I was doing. I mastered this deception so well that I was able to organize a dance band when I returned to Washington University after the war. The rest of the fellows in the band were pretty good, and we had so many bookings for fraternity dances and at summer resorts that I had to organize two more bands to handle all the business.
"Tommy also taught me another art. One day, after my ukulele lesson, he asked me if I had ever boxed. I said I certainly had, and I was really under that impression because I had done a little sparring in the gymnasium at Washington University. Well, I put on the gloves with Tommy. I weighed 160, and he weighed 118. He hit me about 40 times, and I never laid a glove on him. Finally I was so winded I couldn't go on. I held up my hands, and I said, 'Tommy, hold everything. Let's start at the beginning. Give me lesson No. 1. Show me how to stand.' "
Conzelman let his hands run over the piano.
"Tommy was a great boxing instructor as well as a fine ukulele teacher. He brought me along until I had won the middleweight championship of the naval station and was able to stay in the ring during workouts with real pros like Pal Moore and Cal Delaney."
"Just think," I said, "of all the careers you might have pursued. You might have become a professional fighter and possibly a champion. Or, if you had stuck to your music, you might have become a big-name band leader. Do you think?"
"Philadelphia Jack O'Brien thought I had a future as a fighter, but I'm glad I didn't follow up on that. As for music, I had an expert opinion from the late Eddy Duchin. We were good friends, and I used to pretend to him that I seriously thought I was in his league as a piano player. Eddy never caught on, he couldn't see anything funny in the idea. So I began to get people to ask him just where he would rate me among the 10 best piano players of the country. Eddy used to blow his top. He'd yell, 'Conzelman! He's no piano player! Look at his left hand! As a piano player Conzelman is a bum!' "
Conzelman got up from the piano.
"You were going to show me the movie you made for a client here," I said. "The one that draws certain analogies between sports and business."
"Oh, yes," said Conzelman. "Follow me."
We walked out of the studio and down the hall to a projection room. While we were waiting for the film to start, I said:
"I was just thinking. Jack Benny must have been at the Great Lakes naval station when you were."
Conzelman nodded. "I remember him. He was a member of a musical group that called itself The Jada Trio. Jack's idea of comedy at that time was to play the violin with one pants leg rolled up to the knee. For some reason it always got a big laugh."
The film was rolling now. The story line had Conzelman driving into a gasoline station. He is recognized as the former pro football coach by the station's proprietor and introduced to some salesmen who happen to be there. They all adjourn to a coffee shop and, as the tale unfolds, Conzelman speaks on sports and salesmanship.
There were flashbacks in the film to sporting scenes: Sam Snead blasting out of a sand trap, a World Series game, a spectacular long pass completed for a touchdown when Conzelman was coaching the Chicago Cardinals. He drew morals from each sport, pointed out the language common to sports and business, phrases like "hit the ball," "get in there and pitch," "roll with the punches."
"One year when I was coaching the Cardinals," Conzelman said in the film, "the Bears finished first, and we finished fourth. Yet our statistics showed that we had averaged one more yard per play than the Bears had. We couldn't understand it. How could we gain more yards per play than the first-place team and still finish fourth? Well, when the complete league statistics were released, we analyzed them and found out why. The Bears had run 120 more plays than we had. By getting in and out of the huddle quickly, by getting the play into motion faster, they had—in effect—done what a good salesman does. They had shown more hustle, they had 120 more calls than we had. It had paid off for them—just as it pays off for a salesman who makes more calls than the other fellow."
When the film was over and the lights were snapped on, I said: "That was quite a pass the fellow caught in the Chicago Cardinals game there."
"That was the key play of the season," said Conzelman. "And I didn't have time in the film to tell the whole story behind it. The success of that pass play was really decided in the maternity ward of a Chicago hospital."
It happened this way: We were scheduled to meet the Chicago Bears for the Western Division championship and the right to play Philadelphia for the national championship. Now the Bears had a strong team. They were stronger than we were. So we thought we'd have to score first to have a chance. The game was played at Wrigley Field, home of the Bears, and we always figured that the score was 7-0 against us before we took the field against the home team. So we studied our scouting reports, and they showed that one of the Bears' linebackers was not as fast as the others. We decided to devise a play that would run our fastest halfback—Babe Dimancheff—at such an angle that this particular linebacker on the Bears would have to cover him. So we designed a pass play, taking into account the defense our scouts said the Bears would use deep in our territory. Now, ideally, we would use this play right at the start—and that meant we were hoping to win the toss and elect to receive.
"Well, we had the play worked out Tuesday afternoon for the big game on the following Sunday. But at practice Babe Dimancheff didn't show up. I asked where he was, and somebody said, 'He's at the hospital. His wife is having a baby.' That was all right. One day's delay in rehearsing the play wouldn't make much difference. But next day Babe failed to show again. However, he did telephone. He said the doctor said the baby might not arrive for two or three days. Babe was in fine spirits, he said the doctor was very optimistic about everything. I asked him if it might be possible for him to drop in at practice and just run through the all-important play that we had built around him. Babe said, 'Oh, Coach, I wouldn't leave my wife for a minute at a time like this.'
"So I said, 'Babe, are you staying at the hospital around the clock?' He said he was, and he promised that he would come to practice when the baby was born and he was absolutely sure that mother and child were doing well. I said, 'Have you got a room out there at the hospital, Babe?' He said he didn't exactly have a room. I asked him if he had a bed in the waiting room or the corridor or what. The Babe said, 'No, Coach, I'm sleeping in a chair.' "
Conzelman shuddered at the memory. "I couldn't help saying," he continued, "that this game Sunday was pretty important to all of us, and although I understood his feelings perfectly, it was rather awkward to have the key man in our key play getting into condition by sleeping in a chair every night. He agreed that it was a shame.
"Thursday came along. No Babe. But he called up with another cheerful bulletin from the doctor and added that he himself was resting well in his chair.
"Friday afternoon we had our final practice before the big game Sunday. It looked like we'd have to get along without Babe Dimancheff. We wouldn't have a regular practice on Saturday. Pro teams rarely do more than hold a meeting, run around and limber up on Saturdays."
Conzelman ran his fingers through his hair. "But late Friday afternoon there was a call from Dimancheff. He said, 'Great news, Coach. It's a girl, and we're naming her Victoria for the big victory we're going to win Sunday.' I congratulated Babe and asked him if he could come to a meeting that evening so we could diagram the play for him on the blackboard. He said he'd be there and would have a cigar for me. I had the feeling by this time that the cigar would be all I'd have to show for the game with the Bears.
"That evening we had our meeting, and explained the play to Babe. I was getting a little dubious about our chances, but Babe—after five nights sleeping in that chair—was bubbling over with confidence as he passed out the cigars."
Conzelman stood up. "You saw what happened in the film. We won the toss and elected to receive. The Bears kicked over the goal line. The ball was brought out to the 20, and Paul Christman, our quarterback, called for the key play. The defensive left halfback of the Bears was pulled toward the center of the field on a fake by our right end, Mai Kutner. Babe Dimancheff swung to the outside, followed by the slower linebacker of the Bears. Babe gradually pulled away from him, and then at the 40-yard line he turned, and Christ-man threw the long pass. It worked perfectly. Babe grabbed it and streaked for a touchdown, still bubbling. We kicked the point and were off to the 7-0 lead we figured we needed. We won 30-21, and the next week we beat Philadelphia for the national championship. I felt we owed it all to little Victoria."
We started back to Conzelman's office.
"That was big-time pro football," I said as we walked along. "What was it like in the early days when you broke in with the Staley Starch team that George Halas got together in Decatur?"
Conzelman thought a minute.
"You know," he said, "come to think of it, that was a pretty rugged game we played in those days. Some of the teams had only two or three days of practice; some of the players had other jobs during the week. The Staleys practiced six days a week. And there were great players in our league—Jim Thorpe, Duke Slater, Fritz Pollard. Of course, the game wasn't as highly developed as it is today. We didn't play to tremendous crowds as they do now. We'd average about 8,000 when we played in Chicago, about 4,000 for our home games in Decatur."
"How much money did a pro player make?"
"I made $1,800 my first season. I would guess that a present-day professional makes about 10 times that much."
Back in his office Conzelman looked at some messages on his desk and said he had to see somebody down the hall. I settled down to look over some material I had asked his secretary to get me out of the files.
There were some of the magazine articles Conzelman has written and excerpts from talks he has made. There was a mildly self-mocking tone to all of them; Conzelman is never the hero of his own stories. In talking about his days as coach at Washington University, he has always given generous mention to his assistant coach, Gale Bullman, now the athletic director of the Missouri School of Mines at Rolla, Mo. Bullman was devoted to Conzelman and leaped to his defense whenever alumni cast the slightest aspersion on his coaching techniques. One time an alumnus invaded the dressing room after a particularly embarrassing Washington defeat and charged that Conzelman didn't know how to pep up his team with Knute-Rockne-type talks between halves. "Why don't you send them back out on the field fighting mad?" the old grad shouted. "A team that won't be beaten can't be beaten! Bring tears to their eyes, Conzelman, make 'em cry! That's what you've got to do!"
Bullman jumped up and grabbed the alumnus by his lapels. "What are you talking about?" he demanded. "Listen to me. I can make my wife cry—and she can't lick anybody!"
Another time, at an alumni dinner held in celebration of Washington's winning of the Missouri Valley championship, several speakers made witty references to Conzelman's undergraduate days, during which he was known to absent himself from classes a bit too frequently, stay up late at night and indulge in other peccadilloes not uncommon among college students. The jocular implication was that Jim Conzelman was a fine one to be entrusted with the character-building responsibilities of a head football coach. Everybody thought it was pretty funny. Not Gale Bullman who, in his zeal, did not always say precisely what he intended to say.
"I never heard of such a thing!" Bullman shouted when it came his turn to speak. "The idea of you people insinuating that Jim Conzelman isn't qualified to build character!" Bullman swallowed hard, and then cried out in defense of his friend, "Who is better able to build character, who knows the importance of building character better than a man who hasn't got any?"
In the material from the files there was a booklet containing the one wholly serious speech Conzelman ever made. It was delivered at the University of Dayton during World War II. Later, Conzelman received an honorary master of science degree in physical education from the university. The talk was about the value of body-contact sports to young men in the armed services, and it detailed the Conzelman theory that mere physical fitness (a matter of grave concern today from the White House down) is not enough.
"I have no doubt [Conzelman said at Dayton] that soldiers, through setting up drills, long marches and rigorous work in labor battalions, might develop into excellent physical specimens. Tanned by the sun and ruddy from outdoor life, these soldiers, marching along with full pack, might seem to the average observer to be the epitome of glowing health and condition.
"Yet, place one of these soldiers in a boxing ring, with its lightning flashes of attack and defense. Let him face the flailing arms of an opponent who, although no cleverer than himself, has had experience in peacetime hand-to-hand fighting or in some body-contact sport.
"Lacking proper condition in the muscles of his neck, abdomen, arms and legs, the soldier is unprepared for fighting at close quarters, unprepared not only physically but mentally as well. Because he lacks special development of his neck muscles, a solid blow snaps back his head, and there is a brief moment of unconsciousness. This causes only slight pain, but the effect on the mind of the soldier is one of deep mental confusion. To the uninitiated, violence is terrifying....
"Many times on our football field we have seen the 220-pound tackle dive through the air and bring down a 150-pound runner with the ball. The fans in the stand wonder how a light man can stand it. What makes the little fellow jump to his feet immediately and, with a wide grin, run back to his position? Experience, that's all. Experience in violence. He is physically and mentally poised when he faces body contact, for he knows what to expect."
Conzelman told the Dayton graduates that all this had nothing to do with courage, but he advised them:
"Prepare yourself for combat service. Before induction, whether it be days or months away, concentrate your efforts on a rugged physical and mental approach to war. After induction, meet the rigorous life of training camp with determination and spirit. Pledge yourself to its work, its play—and its monotonies. Cultivate an acquaintance with violence, challenge it—meet it—laugh at it!"
When Conzelman returned to his office, I gathered up my notes, making sure that I had not mislaid the lyrics to I'm the Only Boy in the World Can Take a Biscuit Apart.
They were all there, and the melody was fresh in my mind.
"Coach," I said by way of a final question, "you certainly made some interesting points about body-contact sports in your talk at the University of Dayton. Now you've been in violent body-contact sports all your life. How would you react if somebody walked up to you on the street today and without warning punched you on the jaw?"
"Why," said Conzelman, "I wouldn't like it. But it wouldn't throw me into a panic. I might say to the guy who slugged me, 'What are you anyway? A music lover?' "
"I'm the Only Boy in the World (Can Take a Biscuit Apart)," words and music by Jay Flippen-Gilbert Wells. ¬© Copyright 1925 by Pickwick Music Corporation, New York, N. Y. ¬© Copyright Renewed 1952 and Assigned to Pickwick Music Corporation. Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.