Saturday, August 20, 2005

 

Is George Blanda the nexus of the football universe?

A few years ago, some Craig Fass and two of his buddies at Albright College in Pennsylvania invented a popular game about the actor Kevin Bacon. The object of the game was to start with an actor or actress and connect them with Bacon in the fewest links possible. People are linked if they appeared in the same movie. A “Bacon Number” was assigned to the actor based on the fewest links necessary to connect them with Kevin Bacon. For instance, Telly Savalas was in “Kelly’s Heroes” with Donald Sutherland. Sutherland appeared in “Animal House” (and “JFK”) with Bacon. Therefore Sutherland has a Bacon Number of 1 and Savalas has a Bacon Number of 2. In fact, the game has inspired the Oracle of Bacon website at the University of Virginia. The Oracle uses imdb.com as a database for its actor and movie data.

This isn’t an entirely new concept. Since the 1960s, sociologists have suggested that every person is connected to every other person through an average of six acquaintances. Paul Erdos, a prolific Hungarian mathematician, invented the Erdos Number. Every academic who collaborated on a paper with Erdos was assigned an Erdos Number of 1. Every co-author of these collaborators has an Erdos Number of 2. And so on, and so on. The Erdos Number became the forerunner of the Bacon Number.

Four years ago, I wrote an article at Baseball Primer (now Baseball Think Factory), suggesting that Mike Morgan was the center of the baseball universe. It turns out that I was wrong. Since then, Sean Forman has added an Oracle of Baseball section to his www.baseballreference.com website, and it has been shown that the most linkable baseball player is either Early Wynn or Bobo Newsom (any baseball player can be linked to Bobo in five links or less, while there are 87 that require 6 links to get to Wynn.) In any case, Bacon isn’t the best center of the Hollywood universe. Rod Steiger is. I think that I failed to account for the fact that Mike Morgan is a recent player. So, while he (or Rickey Henderson) may eventually become the center of the baseball universe, he ain’t there yet.

When it comes to football, I think that I have the center of the universe pegged and I think that I found a way to prove it. I’m sure that many folks would guess George Blanda off the top of their heads. The quarterback/placekicker had a 27-year career that neatly straddled the middle of pro football history. Ever since I wrote that Morgan article, I’ve thought that Blanda would be the perfect choice for the center of the football universe. But I couldn’t think of a way of proving it. Then, a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the http://www.databasesports.com/ website. I don’t know much about the site (it may be a Justin Kubatko project, but I’m not sure), but it has listings for all players, not just skill players. It may be feasible to run a query of the database to determine who the most linkable and least linkable football players are. I’m no database expert, but I know that there may be some out there who are football fanatics and may try to tackle (no pun intended) this project.

Just fooling around with Blanda, it only takes three steps to get him to 2004 (Blanda played with punter Ray Guy, who played with Howie Long, who played with Tim Brown.) It only takes four steps to link Blanda with George Halas as a player (Blanda played with Sid Luckman who played with George Musso, who played with both Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski, who both played with George Halas.) So, the recently retired Brown has a Blanda Number of 3 while Papa Bear’s Blanda Number is 4.

Let’s play the “Blanda Game” with a couple of Hall of Famers. Jim Thorpe played with Mickey McDonnell on the 1928 Chicago Cardinals. McDonnell played on the AAFC Miami Seahawks in 1946 with Lamar Davis. Davis played on the 1949 Baltimore Colts with Y. A. Tittle. Tittle and Blanda were teammates the next year on the Colts. Thorpe’s Blanda Number is less than or equal to 4. (There may be a quicker link. I haven’t done exhaustive research on this.) Steve Young has a Blanda Number of 5. Young played on the 1985 Tampa Bay Bucs with Steve DeBerg. DeBerg was the QB in San Francisco when O. J. Simpson was a Niner in 1978. One of O. J.’s teammates on the Bills his rookie year was Tom Flores. Fred Biletnikoff chain-smoked for the 1966 Raiders when Flores played there and later was a longtime teammate of Blanda’s.

So, is George Blanda the nexus of the football universe? Crawling the Databasefootball data may determine whether or not he is. Blanda has around 450 teammates in 1100 teammate-seasons. The other candidate that comes to mind is Earl Morrall. Morrall played for 21 seasons with 6 different franchises. I’m not sure what the record for most franchises played for, but it may be held by Tillie Voss. Voss played for 11 teams in the 1920’s, but I’m not sure what the franchise continuity was in those days. Voss was too early in pro football history to make him that linkable, in any case. Morton Andersen, and Gary Anderson have both been kicking since I started high school, but they are two recent in football history to link quickly to the real old-timers. Kickers, punters, and quarterbacks seem to be prime candidates for connecting other players. There are a few linemen with lengthy careers. But a lot of them seem to stay in one place for their careers.

JUST FOR FUN

Kevin Bacon has a Blanda Number of 3. Kevin Bacon was in In the Cut (2003) with Julius LeFlore. Julius LeFlore was in Rocky III (1982) with Carl Weathers. Weathers was a linebacker for the Raiders in 1970 and 1971.

Paul Erdos, arguably, has a Blanda Number of 7. Erdos and Hank Aaron both received honorary degrees from Emory University the same year. Aaron played with Dennis Menke for the 1965 Milwaukee Braves . Denis Menke played with Hal McRae for the 1972 Cincinnati Reds. Hal McRae played with Bo Jackson for the 1986 Kansas City Royals. Jackson played with Howie Long on the Los Angeles Raiders. As mentioned above, Long was a teammate of Ray Guy who was Blanda’s teammate.

Larry Bird has a Blanda Number of 6. Bird played with Danny Ainge, who was a Toronto Blue Jay third baseman before joining the NBA. Ainge was a teammate of Dave Stieb, who later played with Bo Jackson. And so on and so forth.


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