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DIFFERENCE OF DISTANCE : Despite Jerry Rice's Big Season in '87, Crazylegs Hirsch, Now 64, Remains the King of the Successful Long Pass

February 07, 1988|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch, the All-American halfback who became a Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Rams, was a national celebrity going into his first Pro Bowl game 36 years ago.

He had just caught 17 regular-season touchdown passes to tie Don Hutson's 1942 National Football League record--a record that was to last for more than 40 years until Mark Clayton and Jerry Rice broke it in the 1980s.

So after he was named to the 1951 Pro Bowl, Hirsch, exuberant, wasn't listening closely when the players were informed that the NFL had a tight budget for expenses. At the hotel that first morning, he went down to the main dining room and spent $2.60, including tip, for ham and eggs.

"On the way to practice, I told them what I'd done," Hirsch recalled the other day. "They said, that's all right, don't worry about it, we'll just take 60 cents out of your pay. You get two bucks for breakfast, including tip."

In those days, Pro Bowl players were paid $700, but only if they won. Losers got $500.

"We couldn't read the future," Hirsch said, noting that the Pro Bowl, as played annually in Hawaii in recent years, is worth $10,000 to each winning player and $5,000 to losers.

"We didn't think we were under-compensated. Where else could you make $700 an hour in the 1950s? But the players have spent more for Honolulu taxis this week than they gave us for meal money."

The former record-holder said he will be watching Rice, the San Francisco 49ers' All-Pro receiver, in today's game.

"(Rice) is one of the best we've ever had in football," Hirsch said. "He has fine speed and hands, and he fights for the ball.

"What does he make, $750,000 a year? That's $730,000 more than I ever made. He should be better than me."

The Rams actually paid Hirsch $20,000 only once. Oddly enough, that was in his first year here, the 1949 season, after they won him in a bidding war with the old All-America Football Conference.

In Hirsch's second year, on orders from owner Dan Reeves, the Rams cut his salary to $12,000--but not for playing poorly. They just wanted the money themselves.

"The All-America Conference folded at the end of 1949," Hirsch said. "The NFL could get by with anything they wanted to in 1950--and they wanted to cut me a lot, just about half.

"(In 1949) the Rams won the championship of the old Western Division (in an era) when there were only two divisions in the NFL. We won the championship of half the league, I mean, and we played Philadelphia in the NFL title game that year--what they call the Super Bowl now.

"I thought I'd earned a raise, not a cut."

When he couldn't find Reeves, Hirsch took his case to the club's young general manager, Tex Schramm.

"I'd heard that Schramm didn't like football players," Hirsch said. "So all I said was, 'D'ya think this is fair?'

"Schramm looked me up and down, and said, 'You've got two choices--America or Canada.' "

Hirsch never played Canadian football. At 64, he is still an athletic department executive at the University of Wisconsin, and he still looks like a boy playing an older man in a school play. The butch haircut is now white.

It was a brown cut in the 1950s, when he got his NFL records in Los Angeles--the records that Rice topped this season.

In an achievement that wasn't generally recognized or even understood at the time, Hirsch caught touchdown passes in 11 consecutive games in 1950-51. And in a 12-game season, he caught 17 touchdown passes in 1950.

Hutson scored on 17 passes in 11 games. And in 1984, Clayton scored on 18 in a 16-game season.

In strike-shortened 1987, Rice, in only 12 games, caught 22 touchdown passes--15 from Joe Montana, 7 from Steve Young--surely the No. 1 accomplishment by a pass receiver in the NFL's first 68 seasons.

Or maybe Rice's consecutive-game scoring streak is No. 1. It can go on next season after reaching an NFL-record 13 games this season.

"Rice has the size, speed, ability and determination to set records that will last forever," Hirsch said.

Sid Gillman, one of Hirsch's Ram coaches three decades ago, puts a slightly different spin on the same facts.

"If Jerry Rice had played in 1942, he'd have caught about as many touchdowns as Hutson caught," Gillman said. "By the same token, if Hutson and Hirsch were playing today, they'd accomplish at least as much as Rice.

"Very often it's easier to break a record than set one. (In 1951) Hirsch had no idea he was setting a consecutive-game record. They didn't keep that statistic in those days. He'd have gone more than 11 games if they had--his coaches would have made sure of it. No pass receiver was ever more tenacious or had better hands."

And, said NFL executive Bill Granholm, no other receiver has ever matched Hirsch in the ability to make the overhead or over-the-shoulder catch.

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