Tag Archives: Jim Hart

Morton: Hart to Smith


By 1950, the effervescent consumption potential of the world’s largest single national economy — the United States economy — had been restrained like over-carbonated champagne in a bottle for two decades. At first the role of cork was filled by The Great Depression, then the Second World War, and finally, by massive demobilization of the armed forces, and conversion of industry from war to a peace time economy.

That cork was creeping out, the bubbly about to spew forth. One way that was beginning to occur was manifest in the strong desire to live outside of the urban jungles; to move outside of the cramped, dirty confines of cities like New York, Chicago, St Louis. And yet, not move so far away that they couldn’t commute to the jobs that stayed in the cities … that is, commute via that great symbol of personal freedom of the era: the automobile.

In metropolitan areas where open available spaces were relatively close, brand new planned suburban communities sprang up in land that was previously agricultural, or wooded, or simply empty. The prime example of this was the Levittowns built by the  Levitt Company  in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Some large cities had established communities – usually small simple towns or hamlets – that were only close enough to be suburbs when highways and expressways were built to ease motor transportation to and from the cities.

Welcome to Morton Grove (Illinois)

Welcome to Morton Grove (Illinois)

One of these towns was Morton Grove, Illinois, located some 14 miles or so North-northwest from Chicago’s central Loop. The Eden’s Expressway – which was soon incorporated into the Interstate Highway system as I-94 a few years later – ran north across Cook County, and by 1951 connected Morton Grove to Chicago.

In the decade of the 1950s the population of Morton Grove more than quintupled, from about 4,000 to over 20,000 by 1960. I was one of those “newcomers”; so were my parents, soon followed by two sisters. Just a few months before my birth, in September 1956, my parents bought a humble, tiny ranch home in one of those planned neighborhoods. It was my first home, my sisters’ first home, and the first home my parents owned.

Morton Grove’s population has remained relatively flat since then; I suppose we are part of the reason for that too. With a fourth child now in tow, we moved at Christmastime, 1962, to a suburb of Milwaukee.

The area that would become Morton Grove was first settled by whites of European descent in the 1830s by Germans and English. The population remained low, about a hundred or so, until 1872, when a spur of the Milwaukee Road Railroad came, thanks to the vision of New York businessman and financier, Levi Parsons Morton. The grateful residents named their locale after him.

[Morton would go on to serve as Vice President of the country, getting elected in 1888 with president Benjamin Harrison. Oddly, Morton would be much better remembered than he is – even better than the town that bears his name – had he accepted an earlier offer to run for Vice President with James Garfield, in 1880. For, in September 1881 Garfield was killed by deluded assassin Charles Guiteau. Morton would have ascended to serve as 21st president; instead it was Chester Arthur.]

After the railroad came, the Morton Grove area began to attract a few more settlers, and commercial businesses, including the Poehlmann Brothers greenhouse company. They achieved worldwide attention and acclaim when their Poehlmann Rose won First Prize at the 1904 World’s Fair, in St Louis. This would not be the first star Morton Grove sent to St Louis.

The community had grown to about 500 when it was formally incorporated as a municipality, the Village of Morton Grove, in 1895.

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A couple years before I arrived, another lad moved to Morton Grove, adding to its ’50s boom. James “Jim” Warren Hart was born just north of Chicago, in Evanston, in 1944. His father died when he was only seven. His mother remarried and they moved in with his stepfather in nearby Morton Grove. A bit on the small side for a football player, his stepdad encouraged him to give it a try – even forcing him out of the car on one occasion to partake in a junior football skills competition. Jim first started playing football as a freshman at Morton Grove’s high school, Niles West. A competitive athlete, Jim earned letters in baseball and track, although, conspicuously, not in football.

Undeterred, Southern Illinois University offered him a scholarship to play football. A small school that competed in lower divisions at the time, Jim was their quarterback for most of the years 1963-65, amassing, at that time, a school record 3,780 passing yards.

Coming from a small school, playing a short, weak schedule — and with a losing record — it was no surprise that Jim was undrafted by any National Football League team. He signed a contract to try out with the nearby Saint Louis Cardinals.

Jim Hart, St Louis Cardinals (Displayed under the Fair Use Doctrine).

Jim Hart, St Louis Cardinals (Displayed under the Fair Use Doctrine).

In sports, it is as near a certainty as possible that undrafted free agents don’t make the team in the NFL, especially at quarterback. Jim made the team.

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Jackie Smith was born in 1940, in southern Mississippi, in tiny Columbia (thirteen years later Walter Payton was born there). As a boy, his family moved a few miles south, across the state line to Louisiana, to another small obscure town, Kentwood, LA.

It was at Kentwood High School that Jackie ran track; he began trying out for football as a sophomore. Due to injuries, his entire high school football career amounted to a mere five games. Most of the time, he admitted later, his play was so goofy that the other teams never knew what he was doing. He didn’t learn any fundamentals of the game.

He was recruited to run track at Northwestern Louisiana State University (now Northwestern State University). They could only offer him a half scholarship. If he played football too, he could get a full scholarship. So he played football.

He did not have an impressive college career, but he displayed enough speed and determination that he impressed a Saint Louis Cardinals scout. They took a chance and drafted him in the 10th round in 1963. 10th round draft choices have as much chance of making the team as an undrafted free agent. Jackie made the team.

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By 1967, Jim Hart had worked up from sixth string to starting quarterback for the Cardinals. Jackie Smith was the regular tight end. Two unheralded athletes, with unimpressive football backgrounds, competing at the highest level of football.

Jackie Smith, St Louis Cardinals

Jackie Smith, St Louis Cardinals (Displayed under the Fair Use doctrine)

For eleven seasons they played together, putting up electrifying numbers. During this period they helped transform the game of football. With contemporaries like quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, and other tight ends like Mike Ditka and John Mackey, they showed how exciting and entertaining a more wide-open style of offensive football could be.

Unfortunately, Saint Louis often had poor talent teams in that era, but with a wide-open air attack that thrilled fans (they were then known as the “Cardiac Cards”) the league saw what football could be. At that time receivers were mauled at the line of scrimmage, their legs often cut from under them at the line. Quarterbacks were regularly severely roughed well after the ball was thrown. Tight ends were for blocking.

Jackie Smith was strong enough and fast enough to block linemen and linebackers. Yet with his track speed he could get open, and with his soft hands he could catch passes. With his physical and mental toughness he punished defensive backs who tried to tackle him. This is the prototype of tight ends we know 40 and 50 years later, but it wasn’t always like that.

For three successive magical seasons, 1974-76, under head coach Don Coryell and his “Air Coryell” approach, the Cardinals won 10, 11 and 10 games; at that time the regular season was only 14 games. Still, the Cardinals only made the playoffs two of those seasons, and never won a playoff game with either Hart or Smith on the roster.

Jim Hart was inducted to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1998. He was a four-time All Star and NFL Offensive Player of the year, in 1974.

Jackie Smith is in the NFL Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, and the St Louis Walk of Fame. He was a five-time All Star.

If and when you watch a football game these days, and you see receivers getting open off the line, tight ends catching passes, when you see a defensive holding call on a receiver, when you see a roughing-the-passer call, know that this goes back to the Smith-Hart era, and other similar brave players of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who showed how fun and exciting a wide-open game could be – even when they got physically punished for doing it. It wasn’t until later that rules were changed to protect players and promote this more exciting style of football.

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I guess if there’s a moral it’s that your past doesn’t define your future. And anyone – anyone – can change the trajectory of history. Sports can be a great metaphor for life that way.

A corollary is that when choosing teammates, when hiring to fill a position, — and you have the long term in mind — choose for potential and heart, not for how impressive the resume looks now.

If there’s a second moral, I guess it’s that Americans’ appetites for excitement and freedom in life (cars, travel, suburbs) are reflected in their desire for excitement, creativity and freedom in sports, however they choose to enjoy them.

Wishing you peace and bravery. If you can have only one, pick bravery.

Cheers,

Joe Girard © 2015

 

[1] Jim Hart went back to Southern Illinois for several years to serve as Athletic Director, after a short career as a sportscaster. He remains married to his wife, his college sweet”hart”, for nearly 50 years.

[2] At the time of his retirement, Jackie Smith was the NFL’s all-time leading receiver for tight ends. He was only the third tight end inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, after Ditka and Mackey. He’s led a quiet retirement, and started a small business building one-man fishing boats.

[3] This essay is a (very rambling) response to Adam’s comment to an earlier essay: Week in New England, and a Quandary

[4] The Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988. The current NFL franchise in St Louis is the St Louis Rams.

[5] Morton Grove lies within Niles Township, and is/was part of the township’s school district.