" '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.)