Roy Zimmerman Takes a Stand

The story of one of pro football's earliest labor actions.

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Next week, the NFL season begins. Millions of us begin the annual Sunday tradition of sinking into couches, eating snacks, drinking beer, and numbing ourselves with controlled violence, frequent commercial breaks, and increasingly accessible low-stakes gambling. 

Only this time, we get one more week of football. The NFL is stretching itself out: instead of the 16-game schedule we’ve come to know and love, there will be 17 regular season Sundays this year. This might be nice for fans, but it’s not easy on the players who now have to gear up for an additional week of practice; put their bodies at risk one more time; accumulate however many more subconcussive blows to the head. 

Many NFL players opposed the addition of a 17th game to the schedule, reasonably citing concerns about their health and safety. The season was brutal enough as it was. But at least players will be compensated for the extra work with an additional, pro-rated game check. This was part of the deal negotiated by the NFL Players Association. It might not be a great deal for the players, but it’s certainly better than what could have been; and it’s better in part because of Roy Zimmerman. 

Henry LeRoy Zimmerman Jr. was born on a farm in Tonganoxie, Kansas in 1918, and lived there until 1930 when the property was destroyed in a dust storm. The Zimmerman family joined the ongoing migration from the plains to California and settled in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Roy became a star athlete: first at Monrovia High School, then San Jose State University. 

After college, he signed with Washington, where he spent three somewhat miserable years as a backup to the legendary Sammy Baugh. According to Matthew Algeo’s book Last Team Standing, Zimmerman was not thrilled with being a backup, nor with the methods of his team’s owner George Preston Marshall. (Marshall was the man who gave the team its racist former nickname; he was also a committed segregationist who only signed a Black player in 1962 after the federal government threatened to kick him out of his stadium). 

Anyway, Zimmerman did not care for Marshall. This all came to a head in the summer of 1943 when Marshall scheduled the team to play an additional unpaid exhibition game against a squad of collegiate all stars in Chicago. Zimmerman refused to suit up for the exhibition. He thought that if the owner was going to schedule additional exhibitions, the team ought to be compensated. 

The very next day, Marshall traded Zimmerman to the Philadelphia Eagles. If you are a longtime subscriber to this newsletter you might remember what happened next: for the 1943 season, due to war-related player shortages, the Eagles combined with the Pittsburgh Steelers to form a team known as the Steagles. Roy Zimmerman was their quarterback. In the ensuing years, after the Steagles disbanded, he would go on to have success with the regular Eagles, the Detroit Lions, and the Boston Yanks. (Once again, I point to Algeo’s book Last Team Standing as a great read on the Steagles.) 

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After his retirement from football, Roy Zimmerman went back to California, where he spent his life coaching various high school sports, and pitching for professional fastpitch softball teams, in particular the Fresno Hoak Packers and the Long Beach Nitehawks. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest softball pitchers of all time. Maybe not Eddie Feigner level -- but close. 

Roy Zimmerman died in 1997. He left behind 57 great grandchildren. 

Happy Labor Day. Shanah tovah. Thanks for reading Sports Stories. We’ll see you next week.