Sid Luckman ’39’s rise from schoolboy football phenom in Brooklyn to All-American quarterback at Columbia to a 14-year career with pro football’s Chicago Bears is only part of the story told by R.D. Rosen in his new book, Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL. While Sid was climbing to stardom, his father, Meyer Luckman, was being convicted of the gangland murder of his own brother-in-law and sentenced to 20-years-to-life in Sing Sing, where he died in 1944. How could this tale of celebrity son and mobster father go untold for eight decades? Former CCT Editor-in-Chief Alex Sachare ’71 spoke with Rosen in July to get the story behind the book, which was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in September.
CCT: You grew up across the street from Sid Luckman ’39 in Highland Park, Ill. Is that what drew you to write about him?
Rosen: The book is deeply rooted in my experience of being a Bears fan and knowing that the great Bears quarterback lived across the street from where I played touch football fairly obsessively. A couple of years ago I was on my computer, looking for any films of Sid in the Bears’ championship games. I love sports history, and being able to see what he had done was exciting for me.
CCT: Was Meyer’s story what convinced you that there was a book to be written?
Rosen: Absolutely. When sports writer and author Dan Daly told me Sid’s father had murdered his brother-in-law, I couldn’t believe it. I was surprised the story hadn’t been told in full. So I did it, because Sid deserves a book about himself. He had prevented anybody from digging too deeply. Remember, it wasn’t until [former baseball player] Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four: The Final Pitch in 1970 that players’ private lives became fair game for journalists.
CCT: Take us back to the 1930s, when Sid was making headlines as a football star at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall H.S. and his father was making headlines of his own.
Rosen: It may be unique in the annals of history that a father and son were making headlines in the same town at the same time for such wildly different reasons. As Sid was leaving Erasmus and going to Columbia, he had to sit in a courtroom and hear about his father’s vicious murder of his uncle.
CCT: Tell us what happened that led to Meyer’s arrest.
Rosen: Meyer, who at the time was about 60, and his brother ran a trucking company in Brooklyn that delivered flour to bakeries. In those days, if you wanted to be in business you had to play ball with the mob. Meyer had a brother-in-law, Sam Drukman, who had a gambling problem, but he was family so Meyer hired him anyway. But after a while Meyer became convinced Drukman was skimming from the business to pay gambling debts and decided to do something about it. Why he didn’t get the mob to take care of it for him, I don’t know, but he chose to do it himself, with two accomplices. They lured Drukman to the company on a Sunday night and strangled him.
CCT: Do you think it’s more than coincidence that Sid played for coaches who became father figures?
Rosen: Paul Sullivan at Erasmus really was a fatherly guy. As far as Lou Little at Columbia, Sid was drawn to him immediately, and they did establish a father-son relationship. George Halas of the Bears was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy father figure, but he convinced Sid to play pro and then became very protective of him.
CCT: What new insight about Sid did you glean from writing this book?
Rosen: I would speculate that Sid compensated for his father’s crime. And when I talked with his children and heard stories about his kindness and generosity, it really jumped out at me how on some subconscious level he devoted his life to being above reproach.
CCT: What was the biggest obstacle you encountered in this project?
Rosen: Sid died in 1998 and left no records. The family was ruled, in a sense, by the silent secret, and by Sid’s refusal to be written about. I went to his son, Bob Luckman, and said, I used to live across the street from you and I’d like to write a book about your dad. When I told him the book would have to be about his grandfather, too, he said, “Oh, Sid wouldn’t like that.” I said, “Your father was a great man, a great historical figure, but you can’t get that book unless it’s also about your grandfather. That’s just the deal.”
CCT: Given the family reluctance, did you consider backing away?
Rosen: Yes. I thought about that a lot. At what point does it become morally OK to share a family’s horrible secret? I’ve written other books in which I’ve had to convince people it was in their best interest to talk, and I took the tack with the Luckman kids that it’s better I write this book than someone else. Of course, if Sid were alive, you and I wouldn’t be talking. He had some powerful friends who would have come to me and said, “Mr. Rosen, we strongly suggest you find a different topic to write about,” and that would be it.