Alexander, Joe : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Alexander, Joe

Joseph A. Alexander

Alexander, a three-time All-America at Syracuse University, was described by Walter Camp as "one of the greatest defensive guards ever seen on the gridiron." In 1925, Alexander was the first player ever signed by the New York Giants when the team organized. A practicing medical doctor, Alexander was one of the few Giants players to receive a yearly salary.

Despite his other profession as a healer, Alexander was evidently a rough football player. During their initial season, the Giants faced the Red Grange-led Chicago Bears at the Polo Grounds. The Chicago Tribune wrote, "Joe Alexander, the Giants' center, stopped a line play and squatted on the ground with Grange in his lap, trying to twist his head to see what kind of sawdust he's stuffed with. The officials told Alexander he oughtn't to do that but didn't charge him anything for it."

Birth and Death Dates:
b. April 1, 1898 - d. September 12, 1975

Career Highlights:
One of the greatest players in Syracuse history, Alexander was the school's first three-time All-America. A son of Russian immigrants, Joe learned the game of football on the sandlots of Syracuse and lettered at Central High School before entering Syracuse University. A lacrosse player as well, Alexander played five varsity seasons for the Orangemen (1916-1920) and was captain in 1918 and 1920. In 1918, he helped Syracuse defeat Rutgers in the final game of the season, 21-0. In that game, he intercepted two passes and returned an attempted kick 75-yards for a touchdown. He said that game made him an All-America and he was later named Walter Camp first team All-America at guard.

While at Syracuse, Alexander developed a unique defensive style as he occasionally dropped off the line and roved behind it akin to the modern middle linebacker. He pioneered the position in this respect and took advantage of his terrific speed. In 1919, Alexander led Syracuse to a 24-3 victory over a Pop Warner-coached Pitt team that had not lost in four years. Later that season, Alexander blocked a kick that led to a touchdown and recovered a fumble late in the game to cement Syracuse's 13-7 win over Colgate. That year, the Orangemen finished 8-3-0 and Alexander was named first team Walter Camp All-America at guard for the second consecutive year.

In 1920, Alexander took over the center position, which he actually preferred over guard, when the starter was injured. He had another incredible season, leading Syracuse to a record of 6-2-1. Included in the victory total was a 10-0 win at Dartmouth College, the first time Dartmouth lost at home in 16 years. In the final game of the season, Alexander made an astonishing 11 straight tackles as Syracuse defeated Colgate 14-0. The Orange finished the season by outscoring their opponents 201-27, and recording five shutouts. That year, Joe was consensus first team center, and Walter Camp second team All-America guard, to cap an outstanding college career.

After graduating in 1921 with a medical degree, Alexander immediately began playing professional football. Dr. Harry March wrote in his book Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, "While attached to a leading New York hospital, Dr. Joe would slip down to the coal regions and play Saturday and Sunday. Occasionally he had a game with the Yellow Jackets and the next week would be found against them. One season he played in 23 different games, one week playing Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) Saturday and Sunday. These games were of great financial benefit to the budding physician in the times when money was mighty scarce and hard to keep."

At this time, the NFL was in its infancy stage. The league was not actually called the NFL until 1922 (from 1919-1921, it was the American Professional Football Association), and many players would move from team to team within the season. In 1922, Alexander was named All-NFL while playing with the Rochester Jeffersons. In 1925, he became the first player signed by a new NFL franchise, the New York Giants. Joe initially applied for the position of head coach, but was told it had already been filled. Instead, he agreed to play center, was one of the few players to receive an annual salary ($3,000), and the only one to wear a moustache. That year, he was selected to the NFL All-Star team. In 1926, he became the head coach, but the arrangement lasted only one season. Despite the Giants' record of 8-4-0, Alexander had fewer hours to devote to coaching, as his medical duties required increasingly larger amounts of time. In 1927, he was the starting center on the Giants' (11-1-1) first NFL championship team.

Following that season, Alexander retired from professional football to concentrate on his medical career. After his retirement, his celebrated football career was remembered, and in 1937, the New York World Telegram named him to the All-Time All-America Team as a guard. Football expert George Trevor selected him as the greatest college guard during the period 1919-1929, and Dr. March wrote, "There was no greater lineman...there is only one and never will be another...either in ability as a defensive player, charm of manner, aplomb and ability to make and hold friends."

In 1934, Alexander became an assistant football coach at City College of New York under Benny Friedman before becoming the team's head coach in 1942. Later in life, he said that while he encountered some anti-Semitism, "football taught me sportsmanship, fellowship, and decency." The first inductee into the Syracuse Jewish Community Center's Sports Hall of Fame, Alexander is also a member of the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame. Named to the Syracuse University All-Century Team, Alexander received the Syracuse Letterwinner of Distinction award in 1969; the award is the most prestigious honor given to a former student-athlete at Syracuse University. The football team annually awards the Joe Alexander Award for excellence in football, scholarship, and citizenship. In 1954, Joe was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Alexander is also a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Helms Foundation Hall of Fame.

Syracuse, New York

Career Dates:
Alexander played football at Syracuse University from 1916-1920. In the 1920s, he played in the NFL and AFL with the Rochester Jeffersons, the Philadelphia Quakers, the New York Giants, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, the Rochester Kodaks, the Milwaukee Badgers, and the New York Giants. Alexander coached the CCNY football team in the early 1940s.

Physical description:
5'10", 200 pounds

Career Statistics:
In the NFL:
Games: 40
Touchdowns: 4 (2 on fumble recoveries and 2 on interception returns)

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encyclopedia of JEWS in sports by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
Red Grange and the Rise of Modern Football by John M. Carroll (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999)
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football edited by David L. Porter (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987)
The Encyclopedia of Football, by Roger Treat (New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1976 -- 14th Edition)
Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, edited by Bob Carroll, Michael Gershman, David Neft, and John Thorn (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999)