Reflections of the Dome

AugReflectionsAction1.JPG (23028 bytes)
The Four Horsemen behind the Seven Mules. (Is that Rockne watching from the right side of the bleachers?)

George Strickler, who once batted against the legendary Walter Johnson (and doubled to center field) had a varied career divided between newspaper and publicity work. He earned his college tuition, and more, as Knute Rockne's student publicity man at Notre Dame and later, while serving as assistant to the commissioner of the National Football League, the late Bert Bell, became the NFL's first public relations director. Mr. Strickler subsequently left the League office to become the assistant general manager and public relations director for the Green Bay Packers.

Mr. Strickler was born on August 12, 1904, and began his newspaper career in his home town of South Bend, Indiana. He had two stretches with the Chicago Tribune where he gained national prominence as a professional football writer. A reporter with a reputation for accurate and thorough accounts, he won the Tribune's Beck Award for best foreign news reporting with his coverage of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and was the winner of the first Dick McCann Memorial Award, in 1969, which simultaneously elevated him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Mr. Strickler retired as the sports editor of the Tribune in 1969 and is now [when the book was published] the executive director of Chicago Tribune Charities, Inc. He lives in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife, Amy.

You can't build the heroes today the way you used to. In 1924 you could write about Red Grange or the Four Horsemen, and they were very romantic figures, big heroes. Very few people saw them, but everybody could read about them. You'd get a guy like Grantland Rice taking off on them, or Davis Walsh, or W. 0. McGeehan, or Gallico-any of these fellows who could really write-and you're home reading the paper and you say, "Gee, I'd like to see those fellows play. They must really be something."

But I don't think we'll ever again see a Grantland Rice or a Damon Runyon or a Paul Gallico. They couldn't write sports today, Your stories today are shorter because of the economics of getting out a newspaper. Your columns are narrower. Your type is larger. And when you start to trim a Grantland Rice or a Davis Walsh, you get down to the straight Associated Press story. You trim out the little touches, the man's nuances. You trim out the man himself. So how are they going to build up another Red Grange?

How many people did Grange play to? Supposing he played to an average of sixty thousand people in those stadiums back in '24. He played nine games a year. That's a half-million a year. He played three years. That's a million and a half, and there were a lot of repeaters in those crowds. So you didn't have that many people. Today, with television, a guy comes along and in one afternoon, in one game, 64 million people see him.

When you see a player, in the flesh or on television, it takes a lot of the romance out of it. Like the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. They were good for their time, but they were small. You'd have diffi- culty playing them today. Sure, they whacked things around pretty good and they were excellent football players. They were national champions under Rockne and won the Rose Bowl. But the sportswriters built them up, and there was that famous picture of them. You couldn't see them on television. The distance lent enchantment.

I dropped the idea for Granny Rice's lead on the Four Horsemen. It's probably the most famous lead in sportswriting history. Granny picked it up from something I said. I was then in my second year in college and was Rockne's student publicity director at Notre Dame. I came to New York with the team for the Army game.

It was between halves when it happened. I think the score was tied at 7-7 at the half. Notre Dame only won the game by one touchdown, 13-7. I was standing in the aisle of the press box between halves and was talking to Grantland Rice and Davis Walsh and Damon Runyon and a fourth fellow who I believe was Jack Kofoed. I'm not sure. Anyway, the four of them were discussing the Notre Dame backfield and how it was handling Army.

Now the night before we left South Bend, a Wednesday, they had this picture, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, showing at Washington Hall, the recreational hall on the campus. I went to see it for about the seventh time. It was a tremendous hit, one of the milestones in motion picture history. I don't remember too much about the story. But I can still see those ethereal figures charging through the clouds-Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War.

They just rode over the world, through the clouds. One of them was Bull Montana, a character actor who later became a wrestler. He may still be living. Another was Boris Karloff. That was the movie where Valentino made his first big hit. The only thing I remember about the story was that Valentino did the tango in it. But I'll never forget those Four Horsemen riding across the sky, always to the musical accompaniment of the "Ride of the Valkyries."

So we were talking about what a tremendous job the Notre Dame backfield was doing, how they were cutting the Army down, and I said, "Yeah, just like the Four Horsemen." That's all I said.
We stayed in New York that night and went to the Follies. We saw Will Rogers and Marilyn Miller. I'll never forget Rogers walking out with a big Notre Dame sweater on, We were all sitting down in the front rows, and a big cheer went up.
Marilyn Miller stuck her head out from the other side of the stage and asked, "What's going on out there?"
And Will said, "I don't know. Unless they're cheering my North Dakota sweater."

When we got back downtown to the Belmont Hotel, stacks of  the New York Herald Tribune were on the newsstands. And there was Grantland's lead:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death, These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.

I don't remember that Granny ever thanked me. The last time we sat down together was at Notre Dame for one of the Oklahoma games. We were at the bar in the Oliver Hotel. Granny acknowledged he had heard it from me, but in his book he was confused on where he got the idea. He tied it up to something he had written the year before. But, heck, he only saw Notre Dame once in '23, when they played in Brooklyn, and they didn't do much. The Four Horsemen weren't even the regular backfield that year.

I asked him what would have happened if all four writers had used the same idea for their lead, and he said, "Well, I don't know. Maybe it wouldn't have been so good if everybody had used it."

One night, also years later, I asked Davis J. Walsh the same question. I still remember Walsh's answer. He said, "We'd have probably all been famous like Rice."

The ball club went back to South Bend on Sunday morning and was to work out Monday afternoon because the following Thursday we had to leave again. We were going to play Princeton. Just as the team was leaving New York I got the idea for the picture, of putting the Four Horsemen on horseback.

I wired my father. My dad was working at Notre Dame, worked for 'em for years. I asked him to see if he could round up four horses. The next afternoon, as soon as my train got into the depot, I called my father. He had the horses lined up at a coal and ice house which was about four doors away from my father's favorite saloon. They were supposed to be riding horses, but it was fall and nobody was riding. The horses weren't very well taken care of. But they were saddled, ready to go.

I got on one of the horses and started pulling the other three. I got pulled off that horse three or four times, and I had a hell of a time getting back on, Then, when I got to the football field I had to talk the guard into letting me get into practice. I broke up Rock's practice to get this picture. My photographer was already there. I led the horses onto the field, put the Horsemen on them, and took the picture.

I didn't have any trouble getting the horses back. Then I went to the gymnasium, to my office. I had a bare room, nothing but a desk and a chair. Practice was over and Rock gave me a little hell. He didn't like the idea of my breaking up his practice. He said he only had a couple of practices before the Princeton game and that I should have made other arrangements.
I said, "I didn't have a chance." He kept giving me hell, but he wound up saying it was a good

Harry Elmore often gets credit for taking that picture. He was the fellow on the South Bend News-Times. He did all the photography for Arch Ward and Frank Wallace. They were the Notre Dame student publicity men before me. But Elmore didn't take the picture, because I didn't like his prints. I had a commercial man whose office was across the street from the city fire department, His name was Christman. I don't remember his first name. Christman took all my pictures.

Harry Elmore got Into the act because a number of years later Christman died and Harry bought his entire plant. Among the things he found in there was the original negative of the Four Horsemen. Harry blocked out the background, blew it up, and cropped it. He sold a lot of those pictures.

The picture was reprinted all over the country. Pacific and Atlantic bought it immediately. I sold it to them for a couple of bucks, but I kept getting royalties. Every time the picture was used I got some dough. I made about ten thousand dollars that year as publicity man for Rockne. Most of it was on that picture.

Back to Irish Reveries