Book Review: Vagabond Halfback: The Saga of Johnny Blood McNally

I first remember hearing about Ralph Hickok’s unpublished manuscript on legendary raconteur and Hall of Fame Packer Johnny Blood – essentially the real most interesting person in the world – more than 15 years ago when I was researching Packers by the Numbers. But I was late to the game: the original manuscript dates to the mid-1970s when Hickok drafted it after travelling the U.S. with Blood, or John V. McNally as is his real name.

In the interim came Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally by Denis J. Gullickson (Trails Books, 2006). Gullickson acknowledged his debt to the Hickok manuscript and quoted heavily from it in his biography of McNally. Gullickson readily admits that his book must differ from Hickok’s in that he did not have the access to McNally or the teammates and other contemporaries that Hickok did 30 years before. Now with the publication of the Hickok manuscript, we can weigh the differences in approach of the two biographies.

The Hickok book is the ideal pairing of author and subject. As Ralph makes clear in his introduction, writing the Johnny Blood story is something he wanted to do since he was 13 and growing up in Green Bay. And a boyhood spent sneaking into secret Packer practices at the old City Stadium in the early 1950s seems a natural fit with wanting to get to know perhaps the most colorful Packer who ever lived.

Hickok’s father worked for the Green Bay Press Gazette and was the team’s official scorer for nearly 20 years. Ralph graduated from Green Bay East High School and went off to Harvard. From there he settled in New England as a newspaperman before moving into advertising, all the while establishing himself as a sports historian of some note. In the early 1970s, he reached out to Blood to follow up on his boyhood dream of writing his story, and Johnny showed up on his doorstep within days.

What followed over the next few years was Hickok and Blood travelling together to revisit the places of his life while the two of them talked. Reading this book makes you feel as if you are in the car with these two erudite gentlemen, relishing the conversation, hearing great stories and getting to know both of them as friends. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Besides being a great football player, Blood was a charming womanizer who liked spirits a bit too much. As with Paul Hornung and Joe Namath who famously followed in his fun-loving footsteps, it could be said of Blood that women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him. However, Hornung and Namath didn’t travel the country by motorcycle or ride the rails like a hobo or flit along eighth-story building ledges or swing from the flagpole over the ocean on a liner in the Pacific or recite poetry in the street. Blood lived life as an adventure without fear, and in this book, the reader gets to live it with him vicariously. In this book, even the familiar stories seem fresh.

It should be noted that Gullickson’s book is also worth reading. It is well-researched and enlists the viewpoints and recollections of friends and family members not covered by Hickok. It is a fine analysis of the man and the life he led. In Hickok’s book, though, the man breathes and laughs, sometimes ruefully. It is a delight.

1935jblood  1936jblood

Custom cards of Blood are colorized.

 

 

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