Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Run to Daylight! by Vince Lombardi with W.C. Heinz (1963)

On October 14, 1961, at the 46th Street Theater in New York, a new play opened with the unlikely title of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.  It was a massive hit, winning seven Tony Awards, taking the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and running for 1,417 performances.  It was, among other things, a hilarious spoof of the massive, all-conquering American corporation of the 1950's.  The massive government expenditures of the 1940's and 1950's, along with a booming U.S. economy, had left the American landscape scattered with enormous companies.  In such a huge corporation, it was easy for people to rise -- or fall -- for reasons that had little to do with their own merits.  How to Succeed tells the story of how the ambitious J. Pierpont Finch goes from window-washing to the Boardroom through clever personal tricks (and lots of brown-nosing).  The Apartment (opened on June 15, 1960), explores a similar milieu, as we follow the adventures of Jack Lemmon in a gigantic insurance company where the executives spend more time managing their love lives than their careers.

But movies and Broadway shows take awhile to come together, and are sometimes a few years behind the zeitgeist.  (For example, How to Succeed was based on a book that was published in 1952.)  Rod Serling, a very keen cultural observer, often focused The Twilight Zone (another product of the early 1960's) on white collar executives -- but he found their lives to be highly stressful, and the executives themselves to be the victims of ruthless, never-ending competition.  We can also see this model in The Andy Griffith Show, which presented Big-City life outside of Mayberry as one of constant push and drive.  And these shows were not wrong.  The stuffed, bloated corporation of the 1950's was a dinosaur, too big and too inefficient to compete in the New World that was emerging from the post-war era.  By the 1970's the old U.S. corporation would be changing rapidly, and the ruthless J.R. Ewing would be pop culture's new face of American business success.

NFL fans, however, didn't have to wait for J.R. Ewing to see the future of the white collar world.  In the fall of 1962, W.C. Heinz traveled to Green Bay to collaborate with Vince Lombardi on a football book.  The 49-year-old Lombardi was on top of the world in 1962 -- he had just won the 1961 NFL championship, the first of five titles he would win at Green Bay.  The 1962 Packers were one of the greatest teams in the history of the NFL.  They went 13-1, and they outscored their opponents by the remarkable total of 415-148.  The Packers had five Hall of Famers on defense alone:  Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, and Willie Wood.  The offense was also loaded, with Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, and Boyd Dowler among others.  Any football fan should be happy to have such a detailed look at such a great team.

But there's a lot more to Run to Daylight! than a discussion of football.  Lombardi's success was based on a determination to simply work much harder than almost everyone else in the NFL -- and he certainly wasn't going to interrupt his efforts at winning the 1962 championship to spend much time on a book.  After a few interviews that didn't go very well, Heinz grew concerned about how to put the book together.  He eventually had a brilliant idea -- focus on a single week, collect as many stories as he could from other sources (including Lombardi's wife Marie), and then write the book as a journal of one week in the mind of Vince Lombardi.  The book -- done entirely in Lombardi's voice -- starts on the Monday before the fourth game of the season, a big showdown between the undefeated Packers and the undefeated Lions.  We follow Lombardi through the whole week -- film sessions, game planning, meetings with the team, filming his TV show, practice drills, even a quick game of golf on Saturday afternoon (he doesn't play well because he's distracted by thoughts of the Lions) -- and then in the last chapter, we are with him on game day.

Heinz was lucky that Lombardi was such a fascinating character, that the Packers were such a great team, and that the game he chose was a nail-biter (the Packers won 9-7 thanks to an interception by Adderley with less than two minutes remaining.)  But because Heinz was such a skilled writer, and because he observed Lombardi so closely, we can actually see the beginnings of a new version of American capitalism.  From the first pages, when Lombardi is worrying about the Lions on his way to the office on Monday morning, we are part of a world that feels incredibly modern to anyone in a white collar job in 21st-century America.  At the center of the book is Lombardi -- the boss that Michael Scott always wanted to be -- passionate about doing his best, driven to succeed, a transcendent leader of men, someone who knows almost instinctively how hard to push everyone around him.  And he never, ever stops pushing.  We sense his frustration when the game film shows up late, or when the Packers' field is damaged by a high school game, or when players miss their assignments.  We see his assistant coaches working around the clock -- even flying off to college games on Saturday to scout for next year's draft.  We see the press kept at a safe, and respectful, distance so that Lombardi and his team can focus -- focus -- FOCUS -- on the task at hand.  This is no 9-to-5 world with Union rules and coffee breaks.  Working for the Packers means that the job always -- ALWAYS -- comes first, no matter how often you win, no matter how famous you become, or how much money you make.  The whole mindset that runs throughout the book -- from beginning to end -- is one of excellence pursued for its own sake.

These days, of course, that mindset completely dominates the NFL -- every fan simply assumes that his team is constantly working for victory.  But that attitude isn't limited to pro football -- it is now common throughout the U.S. economy.  Every time you get an assignment on the weekend, every time you check your e-mail at home, every time you work late because you have to get that contract, complete that proposal, finalize that draft memo -- you are in Vince Lombardi's world.  Lombardi presented the good ole boys of the NFL with a simple challenge:  What if I just work all the time?  What if I never ease up, never slow down, never stop?  What if I put the job ahead of my personal life, and my own comfort, and my friendships, and even my loyalty to my players?  What if no level of success is ever enough?  What could happen then?  And as the economy changed, and the world changed, more and more executives found themselves asking those same questions -- or being asked them by new, and more demanding, taskmasters.  (It is no coincidence that Lombardi was in great demand as a motivational speaker by businesses across the country.)

Lombardi succeeded, and his imitators in the business world have also done very well.  There are no more companies like the World Wide Wicket Company from How to Succeed.  Everything today is measured, efficient, with all company assets expected to deliver a healthy rate of return each year.  It's a big change from comfortable suburban future most Americans expected in the early 1960's.  But for all the ink that has been spilled on this topic, few writers have captured it better than W.C. Heinz.

Highly recommended for football fans, and recommended for anyone interested in the social history of America.


  1. Wow. This is interesting and great. Depressing--but interesting and great.

  2. Yeah, I thought that whole discussion about how he figured out how to produce the book was really interesting and smart.

    1. The version of the book I have includes an introduction by David Maraniss, who wrote a fabulous biography of Lombardi about 15 years ago. In the introduction, Maraniss talks about how, when he was working on the Lombardi book, he went to visit Heinz, and how Heinz (by then in his 80's) not only told Maraniss all about how he wrote the book, but also gave Maraniss the original notebooks he had used when he went to Green Bay all those years ago.

      After spending his time in Green Bay, it took Heinz until sometime around Christmas to write the book. He worked on it almost every day in his basement. I like to think of Heinz down there working on the book and tracking the Packers as they move toward the 1962 title.