New bio looks beyond Al Davis stereotype
Published: Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 4:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 4:22 p.m.
In the closing pages of his recently published biography of Al Davis, author Murray Olderman writes that the late legendary owner of the Raiders “had a little boy quality to him, as if he was still amazed that the skinny kid from Brooklyn had achieved such a plateau of success. ... There was a naivete in his demeanor.”
A kinder, gentler image for Al Davis? Well, not exactly. Olderman also writes Davis “could be rude and calculating.”
But in “Just Win, Baby” (with an old-school subtitle “The Al Davis Story”) Davis does transcend, but not without warts, the stereotype of the eccentric, isolated, ruthless, ultra-paranoid, aphorism-spouting football dictator.
A valuable addition to the genre of biographical and historical sports literature, “Just Win, Baby” is neither a dirt-dishing expose nor is it hard-core investigative reporting. Rather, it's a unique telling of the story of Al Davis' life in football, part oral history and part narrative told from the viewpoint of what Hall of Fame lineman Ron Mix called “the ultimate insider.”
Olderman, a longtime nationally syndicated sports journalist and illustrator who was a friend and confidante of Davis for some 50 years, doesn't practice “gotcha” journalism, an ethically dubious branch of the craft that subscribes to the theory that inducing a subject to give unflattering or self-incriminating quotes is necessarily insightful.
Nor is Olderman's book hagiographic. Yes, he and Davis were friends. Yes, he enjoyed the kind of access to one of the major figures in pro football history that just about any other sportswriter would envy. But what much of Olderman's book does is simply let Davis speak for himself, at length and in detail, freely and unprovoked, not in out-of-context blurbs. And that proves to be quite a treasure for readers.
What started out as a Davis-commissioned manuscript on Davis' roles in the American Football League and its merger with the NFL ended up being a portrait of a driven, complex, contradictory and, curiously, often indecisive man who was nonetheless a dynamic force in the creation of modern professional football.
You might know the bare-bones background of Davis' early football career — the technical articles he published in esoteric journals read only by coaches, his being an assistant at Adelphi and The Citadel and then USC and the Los Angeles (later San Diego) Chargers, and of course his landing the head coach and general manager jobs of the Oakland Raiders in 1963 at the ripe old age of 33.
One of the joys of Olderman's book is to put those key, early years of Davis' story in perspective. In 1963, for instance, the Oakland Raiders, like much of the AFL and even a good portion of the NFL, operated in conditions that have no similarity whatsoever to the sport's corporate comforts and excesses of today. Back then, the Raiders played on a third-rate field adjacent to a community college, had no real practice facilities and the coaching “staff” consisted of three or four assistants. Salaries for players and even for a head coach/general manager were meager, at best.
Readers of Olderman's book, though, will get a sense of why those conditions were perfect for a man of Davis' intelligence and ambition and foresight. Davis may have been virtually clueless about what was going on in the popular culture and in much of the real world, but his laser focus on pro football gave him a vision of a golden future in which the professional game would ascend to spectator sport superiority.
What Olderman does in “Just Win, Baby” is go beyond the resume, giving readers a much deeper sense of what the young Al Davis was all about: pure ambition and gushing confidence, sure; but the young Davis also possessed an extroverted, upbeat personality. He was a natural at networking and a dedicated student of football who somehow easily connected with players even though he never was one himself.
Olderman reveals the young Al Davis with a thirst for knowledge that knew no bounds and brought him into contact with a virtual who's who of the sport, including, for example, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll and Pete Rozelle, long before they became synonymous with the NFL.
In Olderman's book, readers get a glimpse of the young Davis in his glory, turning the 1-13 Raiders into 10-4 contenders in his first year; how as commissioner of the AFL he fearlessly got the upstart league a fair deal in the merger; how he went from an assistant coach to controlling owner in the span of seven years; his feuds with Ken Stabler and Marcus Allen; and why John Madden and Tom Flores flourished while coaching for him and so many others didn't.
There is even the remarkable revelation that Davis flirted with the idea of buying the Oakland Athletics from Charlie Finley. Oddly, though, there is almost nothing about Davis' controversial move of the Raiders to Los Angeles following the 1981 season nor the return to Oakland 13 years later.
Still, for readers interested in pro football history and a humane portrait of one of the most compelling figures in modern sports, “Just Win, Baby” by Murray Olderman is a can't-lose proposition.
Robert Rubino can be reached at email@example.com. His Old School blog is at http://oldschool.blogs.pressdemocrat.com
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