SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
December 23, 1974
A series of instructive home movies featuring the author's tight brushes with the great, near-great, has-beens and never wases
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December 23, 1974

Way To Go, And The Way It Went

A series of instructive home movies featuring the author's tight brushes with the great, near-great, has-beens and never wases

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Venturi was then entering what he hoped would be the comeback phase of his life. He had created a character for himself—the good man you can't keep down—and he was living the part. "I can grip the club now," he said. "It won't be long."

We, his guests, believed him. What was more gratifying than a comeback? Life at its best was a comeback. Destry rides again.

"You remember that cover of me on SPOUTS ILLUSTRATED?" he said. "C'mon, I want to show you something."

Venturi led us into a room just off the living room. It was dark. We could see nothing. Then he flipped the light switch and one wall was brilliantly illuminated. On it was the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover blown up to life-size. There was Venturi in his ultimate moment, an exhausted, exultant figure raising a white cap victoriously. We could almost share that feeling, looking at the giant reproduction. The white cap? It was like the fourth feather "Leftenant" Faversham returned to his fianc�e in a movie that had shaped all of our lives—the triumphant underdog, the coward proved brave.

I do not know how long we stood there before that bright image. I could not see the expression on the real Venturi's face. I felt confused, as if there were something I should say, but I could think of nothing.

"Let's go get something to eat," he said, flipping the light switch, shutting off the glory.

Baseball was the first sport to be televised, an otherwise unimportant game between Columbia and I Princeton being telecast over W2XBS, New York, as early as May 17, 1939. And in the postwar years the World Series was TV's prestige sports attraction. Yet baseball, of all games, cannot be adequately portrayed on the small screen. The action is too diffuse, the players too departmentalized to be captured in a single picture. Professional football, an incipient rival in the early '50s, would reap the media harvest instead. The National Football League championship game of 1958 between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants would assure that sport electronic preeminence, presumably forever. In the next decade, pro football's popularity would approach mania.

Of all the bartenders in San Francisco in the decade of the '60s, and their number was legion, James S. Todt did the best Bogart. His impersonation was uncannily close to the real article, and he might go an entire shift without slipping out of character. If someone in Todt's presence would advance toward the jukebox, he might grumble moodily, "You played it for her, you can play it for me." Or he might startle a woman customer by gazing disconsolately into her glass before protesting, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." Questioned on a matter of principle, Todt invariably rejoined, "Fred C. Dobbs don't say nothin' he don't mean."

But even this superb entertainer was not immune from ordinary human failings. In the opinion of Todt watchers he had one stupendous imperfection—his fanatical devotion to San Francisco 49er Quarterback John Brodie, whose career in the '60s was a masterwork of inconsistency. All starting 49er quarterbacks were mercilessly booed and their replacements extravagantly praised in those years, but none endured the abuse Brodie shouldered, for none played so long. Eventually, a fence had to be erected above the players' tunnel at Kezar Stadium to shield Brodie from those who would skull him with beer cans.

Todt's fidelity to his persecuted idol was unshakable. He had followed Brodie since the quarterback's sophomore year at Stanford, and when Brodie joined the 49ers in 1957 Todt founded the John Brodie Fan Club of Northern California, an organization he prophesied would soon surpass in both numbers and fanaticism societies formed on behalf of Elvis Presley and the late James Dean. Ten years later the JBFCNC was still in business, and Todt was able to report in his annual message to his constituents, "We have doubled our membership to five."

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