The answer to a number of fantastic trivia questions – Hugo Bezdek was a bruising fullback, a successful coach in three different sports at the collegiate and professional levels, and eventually was added to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Hugo Bezdek was born in Prague on 1 April 1884 and was raised by Francis (Hauner) and James Bezdek (the 1900 US Census says he was an adopted child – his mother would have been about 17 when Hugo was born). James was a big, strong guy himself and worked as a butcher when the family lived in Chicago. The Bezdek family first came to Cleveland in 1891 and in time moved to Chicago when Hugo was about 12 years old.
A big, tough guy groomed near the Chicago Stockyards, Hugo played football and baseball at the University of Chicago. He was a bruising and bone-breaking fullback for Amos Alonzo Stagg – and even boxed under the name “Young Hugo”. Not long after graduation, Bezdek began coaching at Oregon in 1906. That team went undefeated – and got him his next job coaching football and baseball at Arkansas, where he once described his football team as a band of wild Razorbacks. Yep, he came up with the school’s nickname. After six years in Arkansas, he returned to Oregon where he coached football, basketball and baseball before landing in Pittsburgh. Having served as a west coast scout for the Pirates (while managing the Webfoot nine), Bezdek got the job managing Pittsburgh midway through the 1917 season. He stayed on through the end of the 1919 season.
Starting in 1918, Bezdek was the athletic director for Penn State University and installed himself as the head football coach from 1918 to 1929, where he went 65 – 30 – 11. While there, his alma mater – The University of Oregon – would ask him to come back and coach there from time to time, offering him as much as $10,000 a year to take on the football program. He stayed at Penn State, though, staying as athletic director after giving up his coaching position. Other football options weren’t the only opportunities he turned down. After the 1922 season, Phillies owner William F. Baker tried to lure Bezdek to take over as manager but Bezdek eventually said no.
As a football coach, Bezdek was seen as an innovator, developing screen passing plays, onside kick and quick kick routines that were so effective that the rules were changed to help slow his team down. At one point, Bezdek led Penn State on a 29 game unbeaten streak. He was frequently compared to Knute Rockne for his competitive and successful football efforts. And, he’s the only man to take three different teams to the Rose Bowl. His Oregon Ducks won the 1917 Rose Bowl, he coached the Mare Island Squad of the United States Marines to victory in 1918, and he returned in 1923 with Penn State to play in the first Rose Bowl played at the Rose Bowl football stadium. That time, he lost to USC, 14 – 3. On a hot day, Bezdek’s team arrived 45 minutes late for the game, and was accused by Gus Henderson of delaying the start of the game to mess with the Trojans. In fact, Henderson and Bezdek nearly came to blows before being separated so that the game could begin.
It’s not that Bezdek didn’t occasionally do what needed to be done. One story told about him said that he would frequently soak the home field if he would be facing fast teams. Knute Rockne was told this in advance of his 1925 match at Penn State. So, Rockne went out late the night before his game and found out that the sprinklers were running. Rockne returned to his hotel and started cranking out a letter along with “a stiff protest.” As he set down his pen, it started to rain – and it continued to rain for several hours. Rockne’s protest was all wet, so he tossed the letter into an a wastebasket.
Over time, Bezdek soured on college athletics. Bezdek was among a handful of coaches and officials who were uncomfortable with the growing amounts of dollars coming through the football programs and the emphasis of athletics at institutions of learning. Among the changes he proposed were the abolition of spring practice and limiting fall practices, curbing the process of subsidizing and recruiting players, and putting less emphasis on money in the sport – gate receipts, prominence of head coaches, and commercial influence in scheduling. Speaking to a group of physical education directors, he said, “We should not find ourselves in the position of placing the maintenance of physical education on the gate receipts of football. It places too much pressure on the athletes. It places all the emphasis on the scoreboard and diverts attention from the far more important objects of the game – development of body, heart, spirit, and mind.” This position, of course, didn’t sit well with Penn State alumni who were desperate for more and more winning seasons. Bezdek was eventually fired in 1936.
Years later, Bezdek mellowed somewhat on his position trying to find balance between the growing professionalism of sport and colleges and alumni taking advantage of it. “I believe that there should be an elasticity to amateurism, a leeway for deserving kids who can play but lack funds, so that colleges which take them on long and elaborate trips, feed them well during the season and house them in the best hotels may, once the schedule closes, provide a square meal and lodging while they study.” He wasn’t against players getting scholarships and financial support. He was just against the sham that encouraged backroom deals and under the table payments to recruited players.
Out of a job, Bezdek got back into coaching when he was named the head coach of the Cleveland Rams, who had just joined the NFL in 1937. Many found it odd, if not hypocritical, that someone who railed so strongly against the growing professionalism of college football was now coaching real professionals. He suffered through 13 losses (and just one win over the Chicago Bears) before being removed. This makes Bezdek the only man to be in charge of both a MLB and NFL team.
Focusing only on his major league baseball life, the Pirates were struggling when Bezdek took over. Manager Jimmy Callahan was dropped after starting 20 – 40 and the reins were given to Honus Wagner, who wasn’t sure he wanted to be a manager, much less that of a last place team. After five games, Wagner begged to go back to being just a first baseman and the reins were handed over to Bezdek, who was told he’d have the job if Wagner didn’t want it. Bezdek was compared to McGraw because of his toughness, but he wasn’t the bully that McGraw was. He had a great reputation as a leader, though Bezdek was called out for his lack of professional baseball experience.
In 1918 he took a team that went 50 – 99 in 1917 and guided the Pirates to winning records. Pittsburgh went 65 – 60 and then 71 – 68 in 1918 and 1919. What made him successful? His practices and fitness drills were rigorous by baseball standards – and he got players in better shape. He encouraged an aggressive attitude toward the game – think Kirk Gibson, the former Michigan State footballer, playing baseball in Detroit. However, he made extraordinary efforts to earn the respect of his players. Bezdek leaned on veterans to help make decisions and provide advice, even allowing captains to make in-game decisions, which endeared him to many of his players. Two future managers, Casey Stengel and Billy Southworth, would credit Bezdek with influencing their managing styles.
Bezdek liked evaluating baseball players later in the season. He reasoned that it was much easier to see a player’s talent in the fall – after a summer of regular playing – than in the spring. So, instead of taking large quantities of players to spring training, he would have a good idea of who might make the team and just take those players with him south. However, once September hit, he was eager to give new players a chance to earn their mettle in the last four or five weeks of a season. And he wasn’t afraid to try anything. He brought back aging vets Tommy Leach and Babe Adams while giving chances to kids like Charlie Grimm and Cliff Lee. He also didn’t take a lot of guff from players – witness that one of the best baseball fights in history came on a train and featured Bezdek against a kid nearly half his age, Burleigh Grimes.
Despite his success coaching baseball, he was encouraged to stick to football by the people at Penn State University (they offered him more money), and it was there Bezdek would become more famous. After his days in collegiate and professional football, he returned to a farm outside Doylestown (north of Philadelphia) and remained an active and vital spokesperson for the game when asked. Later in life, he took over coaching the National Agriculture University’s football team for a short period.
Bezdek married Victoria Johnson, whom he met while in college, and they had two children, Hugo (Jr), and Francis.
Bezdek was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, two years after his death by heart attack in Atlantic City on 19 September, 1952.
“Hugo Bezdek Becomes Pro Football Mentor”, Shamokin News-Dispatch, 28 May 1937, Page 12.
Grayson, Harry. “Hugo Bezdek, Former Oregon Football Coach, Puritan of Collegiate Sports, Coaching Hard-Boiled Money Players”, Eugene Guard, 06 July 1937, Page 17.
“Manager Hugo Bezdek Is All-Around Athlete”, Louisville Courier-Journal, 13 April 1918, Page 7.
“Pirates Here Minus Wagner”, Louisville Courier-Journal, 13 April 1918, Page 7.
Copeland, Bruce. “Career of Pirates’ Successful Leader Reads Like a Horatio Alger Hero”, The Arkansas Gazette, 16 June 1918, Page 21.
Gould, Alan. “Grid Coaches Start Own Needed Reform”, Akron Beacon Journal, 30 December 1930, Page 18.
“Hugo Bezdek in Line to Pilot Phils, Report”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 08 November 1922, Page 20.
Peterman, Cy. “High Ideals and Football Both Possible at College”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 November 1939, Page 27.
Bezdek, Hugo. “Coach Hugo Bezdek Explains How, and Why New Football Rules Were Created”, The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), 10 October 1929, Page 23.
Balinger, Ed F. “Hans Wagner Resigns and Managerial Reins Are Given to Bezdek”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, 05 July 1917, Page 8.
Balinger, Ed F. “Corsairs To Carry Few Players South”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, 03 January 1918, Page 10.
“72 Years Later, Lions Should Arrive on Time”, Los Angeles Times, 18 December 1994, Page 44.
“Rockne Irked By Bezdek’s Field Soaking” Pittsburgh Press, 12 November 1961, Page 120.
Abrams, Al. “Sidelights on Sports”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 03 September 1961, Page 34.
“Football’s Hall of Fame Names 52 Players, Coaches”, Greenville Record-Argus, 10 August 1954, Page 9.
“Hugo Bezdek, Grid Coach, Ex-Buc Manager, Dies”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 20 September 1952, Pages 1, 8.
Landers, Chris. “The Outragious Life of the Only Man to Ever Serve as an MLB Manager and an NFL Coach”, MLB Cut Four, 20 January 2016.
(Note – the headline is just goofy. His life wasn’t that outragious and little in the article suggested that it was. C’mon, now…)
1900 US Census
1920 US Census
1930 US Census
1940 US Census
WWI Draft Registration
WWII Draft Registration
Naturalization Card – James Bezdek