This is a story of the American dream. You can’t say that anymore—because no one is sure what it means, because there is no America, and, even if there were, there is no dream. And yet, here you have it—the dream as it had once been dreamed by millions of Jews around the world, the fantasy, but also its flip side, captured in the life of a single family.
By 1946, Sid Luckman was one of the biggest sports stars in America. He had quarterbacked the Chicago Bears to their fourth NFL title in eight years. It was not just a great team but a dynasty—those Bears changed the game itself. Luckman was, in a sense, the first modern quarterback, the first field general, the first “coach on the field,” the first pocket passer. He was the first quarterback to throw over 2,000 yards in a season, the first to throw 25 touchdown passes. One day at the Polo Grounds in 1943, Luckman threw for 453 yards and seven TD passes, a record that’s never been broken. He had appeared on the cover of Life magazine while still in college—the hero in his youth, the tailback in perfect form, a personification of a rough and brainy game, handsome but bent, dinged up—not pretty but rugged, dark eyes and bent nose and crooked smile. Nearly every great QB in the years that followed, from Johnny Unitas to Tom Brady, was built in the image of Sid the Kid.
He’d been to war and back by ’46, was known in all the taverns, marked by that tough New York brogue he’d learned on the Brooklyn playgrounds. He’d been a star at Erasmus Hall High School before playing at Columbia. He’d been famous since he was a youth—watched and waited for and prophesied in the way of Mickey Mantle or Wayne Gretzky. He called his own number in that last championship—that was the picture that lingered, the afterimage in the camera flash. Luckman in the huddle, surrounded by his Chicago teammates, calling the bootleg. With the game tied in the third quarter, he took the snap, faked a handoff, ran along the line, then turned upfield–unexpected because here was an old man, 31 years gone by, eight in the league, still great but waning, carrying the ball through the teeth of the defense. It was the last great carry of his career, 19 of the hardest kind of yards. Reaching the end zone, he turned and grinned at the boys. Bears 21, Giants 14. Chicago went on to win, taking their seventh NFL title, the fourth with Sid under center.
Meanwhile, as the QB was being carried off the field, talking through blood and sweat, no mention was made of his father, the man who’d made it all possible, the man who, either unbeknownst or simply unmentioned by the press, had died not long before in Sing Sing. Meyer Luckman expired in the prison hospital, behind a small barred window that looked out on the Hudson River. He’d been there eight years when he succumbed, moaning and bitching, babbling about his famous son, Sidney. How could these two people, these two fates—the athlete at the top of his game, the criminal in the pit of despair—go together? Of course, that’s the dream—front and back, promise and fine print beneath the promise.
These are not two stories, but the first and third act of a single epic.
Meyer Luckman looked nothing like Sid. He was old before he arrived from Russia—young but aged by the life he had lived and the things he had seen in the old world. He was big and baggy, worn out, with rough hands and thick shoulders and dark circles under his eyes, the sort of Russian Jew that the effete called a shtarker. Yiddish in the apartment, English in the street, weedy lots from where, on clear days, you could almost see the towers of Manhattan. Meyer worked with his brothers and nephews and cousins. He drove a truck, then bought a truck, then owned a fleet of trucks—parked and gleaming in a garage at 225 Moore Street, Brooklyn, New York. Now and then, he’d take Sid on his rounds, let the boy sit up front and watch the streets drift past.
Luckman Brothers Trucking. The company grew and grew. Most of their business was done for small shops. They hauled flour, carrying it from factories to mom and pop bakeries across the borough. At some point, the company got mixed up with the mafia. Gangsters are smart. They understand. If you want to control an industry, go after the choke points. If you control the trucks, you don’t have to muscle the flour makers or bakers—you can simply cut off the distribution. That was Meyer Luckman, working with various members of Murder Inc., the Jewish mob that terrorized Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s. Lansky, Luciano—they supplied muscle and money, a man like Meyer Luckman supplied leverage. And everyone got rich. For Sid, this meant a prosperous bubble in which he could play football. The old man did not know much about the game, but did understand, in an innate way, that sports are the key to the country. Every value, good and bad, is played out on the fields, where baseball was king but football was essence. You get the ball, then run for your life. If you are fast and strong, you are covered in glory—that’s America.
Meyer brought Sid to his first NFL game. Yankee Stadium. New York versus Detroit. Sid saw the great Benny Friedman throw two touchdown passes—the ball, bigger than it is today, more like a rugby ball than a modern pigskin, cut the sky like an arrow. Benny Friedman was Sid Luckman before Sid Luckman—the first pure passer. And a Jew. He’d later serve as the athletic director of Brandeis University. Meyer waited with Sid by the clubhouse door. Friedman came out in street clothes, hair still wet from the shower. Meyer called him over, made an introduction. Sid asked Benny, “How do you make the ball fly?” Benny could not tell him. Even the wizard does not understand the magic behind his most astounding trick.
Meyer bought Sid his first football. Sid carried it everywhere, tossing it up, catching it beneath the streetlights. He learned to pass on the run, off his back foot, while being dragged to the ground. He became that highest of archetypes: the playground legend. Sid had a single rival in Brooklyn. Marty Glickman, the star of James Madison High School, who’d become a member of the U.S. Olympic team. Glickman was with Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 but was not allowed to compete, possibly out of deference to Hitler, who had a thing about Jews; years later, working as a broadcaster for the New York Knicks, Glickman coined the term, “Swish.” He went head-to-head with Sid several times. Luckman always came out on top. He just had that extra gear, that thing that cannot be taught. George Halas, the coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, called it the old zipperroo.
Sid, who broke many school records in Brooklyn, was an object of fascination for college coaches. Not only was he a great athlete, but there was ingenuity in his game. He worked the field as if it were a chessboard. He was a tailback then, who ran, threw, kicked, blocked. There was nothing he could not do on a field. He was recruited by several top colleges. Michigan, Syracuse, West Pont. His choice—Columbia—seemed odd even at the time. Columbia was a fading football power. It was said Sid chose it because he wanted to play for the legendary Columbia coach Lou Little.
In truth, Sid probably chose Columbia, at least in part, because he felt that he was needed close to home. He had to help care for his mother and siblings, as in March 1935, as he was selecting a school, his father was arrested for murder. It’s a grisly story, as terrible and family-centric as the cases of Aaron Hernandez and O.J. Simpson. Meyer Luckman’s sister was married to a man named Samuel Drukman, whom Meyer employed as a driver. Drukman canvassed the borough in the wee hours, delivering flour to bakeries and collecting cash payments. But Drukman liked to gamble. Ponies mostly, also baseball and the numbers. Once in debt, he made the classic mistake of thinking he could win his way out of trouble. He ended up owing $100,000 to the sort of people who don’t take you to court.
Did Drukman go to his brother-in-law and ask for help? No. He skimmed money from the business instead, pocketing bills from the early morning deliveries. Because he could not read English, Meyer Luckman relied on his bookkeeper, Harry Kantor, to keep track, but Kantor helped Drukman conceal his thievery. Shortly after meeting with Luckman to explain, Kantor disappeared. He turned up weeks later in an insane asylum in Chicago, where he’d had himself committed. He went out the window of that insane asylum—jumped, fell or was pushed—and died two days later. But it was not the bookkeeper that Meyer was focused on. It was the scumbag, the rat, the brother-in-law.
On March 3, 1935, Meyer and two others—his nephew Harry Luckman and a man named Fred Hull, a part-time bartender and a Murder Inc. odd-job man—headed to the Luckman Brothers garage at 225 Moore Street, a modest building near Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was quiet until 8:30, when someone heard a scream and called the police. They arrived within 10 minutes—a squad car had been patrolling nearby. The door to the garage was locked, the lights were off, no one answered. One of the cops busted a glass transom, climbed through, and let in his partner. The cops wandered the dark garage, flashlights moving up and down the walls—empty cars, ghostly trucks.
One of the policemen slipped on something. He thought it was oil; turned out to be blood. It made a trail, which the cops followed to a Ford coupe. In the rumble seat they found a body, which, according to The New York Times, had been tied with rope, “trussed up like a chicken.” This was Drukman—dead, but warm.
A detective turned up soon after. He found a light, switched it on. There was blood everywhere, on the floor, on the walls. As if the dying man had been running in circles, spewing like a fountain. “They had battered the victim’s head with a billiard cue,” the Times reported, “strangled him, bound him with cord and thrown him into a car when detectives got into the garage and discovered the crime.”
Searching the garage, the police found two men in a truck. They said they’d been hiding from whomever it was that killed Drukman, but the cops did not believe them. Then, as they were talking, a third man climbed out of a parked Nash, stepped through a side door and took off. One of the cops gave chase. He drew his sidearm, shouted, then fired a single bullet in the air. The man stopped, raised his arms, turned and walked back. He was out of breath, change jingling in his pockets. It was Meyer Luckman.
Hi officer, maybe you’ve heard of my son, Sidney?
Meyer had $3,000 in cash in his front pocket. The cops found a pool cue near his car—broken, covered in blood. Luckman said he’d been at the candy store buying cigarettes and came back to find this murder scene, same as the cops. In fact, he said, “I’m the one who called the cops.” Luckman was arrested, then quickly released. The police gave back his clothes and money, even the pool cue. The grand jury refused to indict.
A few months later, the detective—Charles Corbett—wrote a letter to Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine, claiming he’d been offered $100,000 to kill the case. Around the same time, a special NYPD unit had picked up a wiretap of Leo Byk, a mob associate known as “king of the slots,” celebrating the “good news” for “those two fellows.” At one point, Byk spoke of “ML,” then went on to talk about several notorious underworld figures: Louis Lepke, Charlie Lucky, Frank Costello.
From there, the Luckman affair, as it was called, became a classic case of government corruption. An investigation, ordered by Herbert Lehman, who served as New York governor from 1933 to 1942, led to the resignation and indictment of several cops, the suicide of a detective—Charlie Hemendinger; he killed himself the day before he was to testify—and the resignation of the Brooklyn district attorney, William Geoghan. It was a terrific scandal, a media frenzy that ended with the trial and imprisonment of Meyer Luckman. Convicted of second-degree murder, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He rode the long black train to Sing Sing just as his son was becoming a super star.
Though Sid and Meyer might appear in the same paper on the same day, their stories were never connected. Sid was never described as the son of a killer; the killer was never described as the father of a quarterback. Even when Halas traded up to take Sid with the second pick of the 1939 draft, even when Sid took over the T formation in Chicago, even when that team started to click and continued to click until the game itself had been remade, even when Sid led the Bears to a 73-0 win over the Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship game, Meyer Luckman was kept away and separate from the spotless image of Sid the Kid. No connection was made between the violence of the game and the life of the old man. It was the code of the day: The son is not responsible for the sins of the father. The players on the Bears knew, but had been told by Halas to never mention it. And they never did. Now and then, Sid was gone—off to Sing Sing to sit and talk and cry with his father, the man who crossed the ocean, made the money, built the life, drove the truck, bought the football, and committed the crime that yawns like a black hole behind the legacy of one of the game’s great pioneers.
Meyer Luckman died on Jan. 24, 1944. He was 67 and awaiting appeal. Considerately, he had died in the off-season.
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Rich Cohen is the author of 11 books, most recentlyThe Last Pirate of New York.