By TOM HIGGINS
Imagine modern-day National Football League players taking the field for pre-season games and being paid only $25.
In this era of multi-million dollar contracts that's impossible to comprehend, because it would never, ever happen.
This was the going rate, however, in the 1950s even for stars like Les Richter, executive vice president of California Speedway, where NASCAR's Sony HD 500 is scheduled Sunday
"We almost went on strike over it," Richter, now 75, recalled a couple years ago in looking back on his great career with the Los Angeles Rams. "Just before the 1955 season we asked for $50 per pre-season game. Also, laundry money of $15 a week, an increase in our per diem on the road from $7 to $12 and tickets home for players cut from the squad. And we wanted the team to buy our football shoes."
The demand was presented to the NFL.
"When we assembled at camp the next day, our coach, Sid Gillman, was holding a telegram," continued Richter. "It indicated that anyone who didn't show up for our next game would no longer play in the NFL.
"That was pretty much that and nothing immediately came of our demands. But I think our effort helped eventually lead to formation of a players' association and the benefits enjoyed by the fellows playing pro football today."
Richter has a wealth of amusing NFL stories from his playing days five decades ago, along with tales from all his years in motorsports, first as president of California's old Riverside Raceway then as a NASCAR executive. He enjoys sharing the yarns.
Richter played collegiately and was an All-American at The University of Californian in Berkeley, where he graduated in 1952 as valedictorian. After two years in the U.S. Army, he was drafted in 1954 by the NFL's old Dallas Texans, a team that was to become the original Baltimore Colts after the franchise was moved. The L.A. Rams traded the Texans 11 players for Richter, and to this day it remains the largest deal in NFL history.
Also one of its biggest steals.
Richter, who was 6-3, 238 pounds, played an Ironman role for the Rams. He was a guard on offense, a linebacker on defense.
In 1956 as two-platoon football came into vogue, he concentrated on defense and was captain of that Rams unit and a perennial All-Pro linebacker until his retirement in '62.
Richter, recalls, with a chuckle, a game during his rookie season in which the Rams played the Detroit Lions in the L.A. Coliseum.
"Bobby Layne, one of the most colorful characters ever in he NFL, was the Lions' quarterback," Richter recalled with a chuckle. "Bobby really loved to party.
"I was sitting in our dressing room when one of the veterans called to me and said, 'Hey, rook, come look at what we're facing today.' Two of Lane's teammates were helping him into the Lions' dressing room. He was in bad shape, very hung over.
"I said, 'Grrr, we're gonna kill 'em! We're gonna kill 'em!'
"And in the first half we did, 'cause Bobby was throwing his passes what looked like end-over-end. But at halftime in the dressing room the Lions got some pills or something in Bobby that brought him to life, and he won the game for them in the second half.
"In those days the players from the rival teams fraternized more than today, and after the game we met up with some of our friends on the Lions at one of the big nightclubs in L.A. Bobby was already there , partying and laughing with a drink in his hand and a movie starlet on each knee."
Richter was asked to name the toughest NFL rival he ever faced.
He responded by pointing to his left shoulder. "Feel this big bump," said Richter. A bump about the size of a plum could be felt through Richter's shirt. "I call that my 'Jim Taylor Knot.' We were playing the Green Bay Packers and I went to make an open-field tackle on Taylor. I stopped him, but the hit he put on me left this knot for the rest of my life."
During his career with the Rams as a teammate of legendary players such as Norm Van Brocklin, Tom Fears, Crazy Legs Hirsch and Bob Waterfield, the husband of movie star Jane Russell, Richter posted some enviable statistics. He intercepted 16 passes and scored 187 points as a place kicker.
Richter got into racing in 1959 as part of a group that bought Riverside Raceway, a road course near San Bernardino that ceased operation in 1988. Among the owners was comedian and movie star Bob Hope.
"I'll never forget the first time I saw the place," said Richter. "It was just a strip of asphalt twisting over hilly desert. There were rattlesnakes, coyotes, owls and no telling what else around. It took us awhile to get started, to be taken seriously. I think that what really enabled the track to take off is when NASCAR's Wood Brothers, Glen and Leonard, came out and we put Dan Gurney in their car. Dan probably was the most respected driver in America at that time.
"Dan drove the Wood boys Fords to victories in 1964, '65 and '66. Parnelli Jones won for them in '67 at Riverside and Gurney again in '68 to give the Woods five straight."
"Probably the wildest thing that ever happened at Riverside--and one of the wildest at any track--involved some testing that was held there in 1967.
"Ford was matching its pickup trucks against those of Chevrolet and Dodge. They were running 67,000 miles consecutively. Naturally, this was boring to the drivers, especially on the night shifts. Topless dancing had just come about, so we hired two or three of these strippers and stationed them around the track. As the trucks came around the dancers would suddenly appear out of the darkness, naked, making like they were hitchiking. Then they'd dart back into the night.
"The trucks were equipped with radios, so it's not hard to imagine the conversation that took place when some driver called in claiming he'd seen a nude woman beside the track."
Richter also has touching recollections:
"In 1969, Al Dean, Sr., a great backer of Indy-Car racing, was dying. His last wish was to see his car, with Mario Andretti driving, win the championship. We parked him in Turn 9 at Riverside in an ambulance, with doctors and nurses attending him. Mario came through for him."
Les Richter, fondly known as "Coach" in racing circles, is among the rarest of breeds, a man who has made a mark in two major sports.