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How Five Rivals Created the NFL and Launched a Sports Empire
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HALAS: THE FOUNDER
IN 1920, GEORGE HALAS WAS A FORMER FOOTBALL MAN, seemingly done with the sport. He had played in college and in the military during the Great War, but there was no major professional league to advance to; once you graduated from college, your only option was semiprofessional ball, a sandlot game. Halas had tried it, suiting up on a half-dozen Sundays for a team near his Chicago home. After his experience with that ragtag group, he had decided to give up all sports, get a job, and get on with his life. He was twenty-five.
Putting to use the engineering degree he had earned from the University of Illinois, Halas now drew a salary of fifty-five dollars a week as a safety expert for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, testing bridges for “stresses and strains” to ensure they would not collapse. In his spare time, he courted his future wife, Wilhelmina “Min” Bushing, a pretty brunette from Pilsen, the Chicago neighborhood where he had grown up. Halas could see the outline of a contented, white-collar life coming into view. His mother was delighted that he had given up football, the roughest of the sports he enjoyed playing.
Then one morning in March 1920 he received a phone call in the bridge design department at the railroad office in downtown Chicago. A man named George Chamberlain was on the other end. The general manager of the A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, a starch-maker in Decatur, Illinois, Chamberlain had a job in mind for Halas and was in Chicago hoping to discuss it with him in person. Could they meet that evening at the Sherman Hotel?
Hours later, Halas entered the hotel lobby and strode across the carpet with a natural athlete’s loose-limbed, rolling gait. Broad through the chest and just under six feet tall, he sported tousled, dark bangs that fell at an angle across his pale forehead. He shook hands with Chamberlain, who was bald and had a Teddy Roosevelt moustache and round, steel-rimmed spectacles. “I found Mr. Chamberlain to be a very determined man, about fifty, well-muscled; he had played football and baseball in his younger days,” Halas wrote. Both men were engineers. They hit it off.
Chamberlain got down to business. His boss, Eugene Staley, believed sports could boost employee morale and help sell Staley products. Three years earlier, Staley had started a company baseball team coached by a former major league pitcher, Joe “Ironman” McGinnity. It competed in an industrial league against other major company teams through the Midwest, including the Samson Tractors of Janesville, Wisconsin; the Indian Refining Company Havolines of Lawrenceville, Illinois; and the Republic Trucks of Alma, Michigan. The Staley team drew crowds and newspaper coverage, and now Staley wanted to start a football team.
Chamberlain asked whether Halas was interested in coaching the football team, as well as playing for it. Halas quickly said yes. Although he was challenged by his railroad job, he remained an athlete at heart. He had played football, baseball, and basketball in both high school and college, showing enough potential on the diamond to briefly make the majors as an outfielder for the Yankees. For as long as he could recall, he had always had a new season to prepare for, more games to anticipate. But the Yankees had found a better right fielder, someone named Babe Ruth, and Halas had reached a dead end in football. He missed having games to look forward to. Staley’s offer could provide a new outlet for his competitive energies.
There was no doubt Halas was qualified to coach a team. He had been mentored by two of the greats during his career. At Illinois, he played football for one of the sport’s shrewdest coaches, Robert Zuppke. While with the Yankees, he played for thoughtful, pipe-smoking Miller Huggins, destined to manage the team to three World Series wins. Halas already had begun transitioning into coaching, having helped run a team of former college stars at the Great Lakes Naval Training Base, near Chicago, during the Great War.
Halas asked Chamberlain several questions. Could he recruit players? Yes, Chamberlain said, he could offer prospects full-time work at Staley as well as the chance to play football. The response excited Halas. Several of his Great Lakes teammates had been All-Americans; he could field a powerful team. His next question: Could the team practice two hours a day? It sounded like more than any team needed, but Chamberlain assented, telling Halas, “You’re the expert.” Finally, Halas asked whether those long practices could occur on company time. Sure, Chamberlain said.
The salary offer was modest, around what the railroad paid him, but it was not about money for Halas. He would get to coach and play for the company football team, play on the baseball team, and maybe start a basketball team. His calendar would positively overflow with sports and games. Meanwhile, he would learn to make starch, continuing to put his engineering and chemical training to use. Within a week, he quit the railroad, took the job with Staley, and moved 170 miles to Decatur, no longer a former football man. His mother was disappointed. Halas was thrilled.
BARBARA HALAS WAS JUST SHY OF THIRTY-ONE YEARS OLD WHEN she gave birth for the eighth time on February 2, 1895, in Chicago, delivering a boy given the name George Stanley Halas. Barbara had been a child herself, no more than five, when she arrived in the United States from Bohemia, a territory in the Austrian empire, later to become part of the Czech Republic. Little is known about her journey or early life in Chicago, but we do know she married a man named Frank Halas and soon started a family.
Frank had also come from Bohemia as a youth. Weary of the domineering rule of the Hapsburgs and frustrated after a failed revolt, Bohemians immigrated to America in waves in the 1860s. They “were tired of constant wars that were sapping the best blood of their nation, wasting their fields, and fastening still more grievous tax burdens upon shoulders that were already crushed,” journalist Josefa Humpal Zeman wrote. Lured by stories of religious freedom and available land and jobs, so many Bohemians settled just south of downtown Chicago that they called their neighborhood Pilsen, after the city many had inhabited in the old country. Chicago’s Pilsen had Czech newspapers, Czech churches, and Czech businesses. You could walk its streets without hearing a word of English.
Like the Germans, English, and Irish immigrants arriving in America around the same time, the Bohemians fled difficult circumstances at home only to encounter more hardship in America. Their Chicago neighborhood was crowded and chaotic, rampant with disease. But there was hope, as among the immigrants were some of Bohemia’s most talented, literate, and ambitious citizens. “One would find men of education and high social standing engaged in street-sweeping, cigar-making, and other humble occupations,” Zeman wrote. Frank Halas, intelligent and resourceful, started out as a reporter at a Czech newspaper, but he had an eye for fashion and soon found more profitable work as a tailor. Working with Barbara, who cut the buttonholes, he built a successful business preparing men’s suits for large clothiers.
The couple built a three-story house, lived on the first floor, and rented the other two, thankful to be raising their family in America. Of the eight children they produced, only four, including George, survived childhood. But, despite their loss, Frank and Barbara retained a positive outlook, demanding that George and his siblings speak English rather than the Czech they heard on the street. It was necessary, the parents said, if they wanted to make something of themselves in America.
Frank’s business grew so large that he built a workshop behind the house. But then he suffered a stroke, forcing drastic changes. He sold the business, leased the workshop and apartment building, and built another structure nearby—a three-story brick residence with apartments above a ground-level grocery, which Barbara ran. The Halas family lived on the second floor. They were far from wealthy, but between what the grocery and apartment rentals brought in, there was enough. Years later, one of Halas’s players, Mike Ditka, would scoff that he “threw nickels around like manhole covers.” But, rather than take offense, Halas agreed, saying he was proud that he had learned a dollar’s worth as a boy.
Halas’s two brothers and sister called him “Kid.” In a household that was loving but strict, they were all expected to dress neatly, excel in school, and worship at St. Vitus, a Roman Catholic church. Frank and Barbara emphasized education as the path to success, and George took note, building a strong academic record. But sports were his passion. As a youngster, he played street softball and cheered for the Chicago Cubs. At Crane Tech High School, he played baseball and lightweight football and ran track.
As was true for millions of other young Americans raised by immigrant parents in these years, sports were an integral part of Halas’s assimilation into the country’s cultural mainstream. At the ballpark, he was not viewed by others as a young man of Czech parentage, from a neighborhood where little English was spoken; he was just a Cubs fan, his passion shared with people of a variety of ethnicities and religions, who spoke many languages. Alike in their support of the home team, they became friends, or at least compatriots, rather than strangers.
Frank Halas died “quite suddenly,” as Halas would later write, on Christmas Eve in 1910. Halas was fifteen. His mother, determined to see her children go to college, sold the building where they lived, closed the grocery, and opened a tavern. After his high school graduation, George worked for Western Electric for a year, mostly because he needed to add weight to play college sports. Once he was at the University of Illinois, he tried out for the football team but absorbed fearsome hits in scrimmages, suffering a broken jaw and a broken leg. He fared better in baseball, cracking the varsity lineup as a sophomore outfielder hitting .300 and making plays behind his brother Walter, a star pitcher.
But Zuppke, the Illini football coach, admired Halas. The young man played such combative defense for Illinois’s basketball team that the coach had to pull him off the floor at times to keep fights from breaking out. Believing that intensity could help the football team, Zuppke kept giving Halas chances. Finally healthy as a junior in 1917, Halas returned kickoffs and punts. At the team banquet after that season, Zuppke gave a speech that resonated with him. “Just when I teach you fellows how to play football, you graduate and I lose you,” Zuppke said. Those words, Halas later recalled, “would govern the rest of my life.”
But he did not know that yet. It was the winter of 1917–1918, and, with the country at war in Europe, Halas volunteered for the navy and asked to be sent to sea on a submarine chaser—a small vessel designed to destroy German subs. Instead, the navy put him in the sports program at Great Lakes. Though disappointed, Halas threw himself into his duties, playing on the base’s basketball and baseball teams, which took on college teams and squads from other military institutions to boost morale.
In the fall of 1918, Great Lakes fielded a magnificent football team. The quarterback, Paddy Driscoll, had been an All-American at Northwestern. The center, Charlie Bachman, had been an All-American at Notre Dame. The coach oversaw the base’s officer training school, leaving him little time for football, so Halas, Driscoll, and Bachman ran practices.
Great Lakes went unbeaten and received a bid to play in the Tournament of Roses football game, soon to become known as the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, California, on January 1, 1919. They faced another military team, the Mare Island Marines, before a packed house of 27,000 fans. On his finest day as an athlete, Halas scored a touchdown on a pass from Driscoll and returned an interception 77 yards, setting up another touchdown. Great Lakes won, and Halas earned the game’s Most Valuable Player award.
After that game, Halas told his mother he was through with football and would stick to the relative safety of baseball. His military service ended, and the Yankees, who had seen him play in college, invited him to their spring training camp in Florida in 1919. Miller Huggins liked that he was a switch hitter who could cover ground in the outfield. Halas made the club, but once the season began, he managed just two hits in twenty-two at bats, his inexperience plainly evident as he flailed at major league curveballs. A hip injury set him back, and the Yankees finally dispatched him to a minor league team in St. Paul, Minnesota, for seasoning. When the season ended, he went home to Chicago and took the railroad job.
But he could not stay away from sports, especially football, which resonated with him on a fundamental level. Having been denied the chance to fight in a real war, he relished football’s militaristic nature. What was the sport, with its scripted “plays,” if not an approximation of two military units clashing on a battlefield? The rugged altercations between linemen certainly resembled hand-to-hand combat.
Although he had told his mother he was through with the sport, he longed to continue playing. “I ached for the excitement of a good game, for the competition, for the challenges to the muscles, for the thrill of victory,” he later wrote. When he heard from a doctor who ran a semipro team in nearby Hammond, Indiana, he jumped at the chance to join. The pay was one hundred dollars a game. The team played other semipro squads such as the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, led by Jim Thorpe, the nation’s most famous athlete, a broad-shouldered Native American who had won the decathlon at the Olympics in 1912. Playing for the Hammond team meant fitting weeknight practices and weekend games into his busy schedule, but it was worth the trouble. Halas was back alongside Paddy Driscoll. The pay was good. The team won all six games it played in 1919, including two against Canton.
“The season deepened my love for football,” Halas wrote, “but I assumed my future rested with the railroad. Now and then, I would look at some of the other engineers doing the same thing day after day for thirty years. The prospect did not excite me as on cold winter days I rode the streetcar to and from the CB&Q offices. My real love was football.” It was near the end of that cold winter that his office phone rang and Staley’s offer beckoned.
IN HIS FIRST MONTHS AT STALEY’S SPRAWLING PLANT IN DECATUR, Halas played shortstop for the company baseball team and worked as a scale-house clerk. As summer waned, he began building his football team with a recruiting trip through the Midwest, finding plenty of takers for his unusual offer of a full-time job and the chance to play football. “I assured the men they would get paid at the end of the season for their football, depending on the size of the gate, and also told them they’d get paid weekly wages for the various duties at the plant. They all seemed to like the prospect of stability in a corporate setup,” Halas would recall.
His talent haul included former All-Americans from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois, and Notre Dame. Unfortunately, Paddy Driscoll had already signed with the Racine Cardinals, a Chicago semipro team that played near the city’s Racine Street (some historians would later erroneously assume it played in Racine, Wisconsin). Staley had actually fielded a football team the year before, but it was a modest squad quarterbacked by Charlie Dressen, who would later play major league baseball and manage the Washington Senators. With Halas in charge, the team was far more organized, skilled, and purposeful. He handed out cloth-bound playbooks, tested players on their assignments, and schooled them in dark football arts such as how to get away with kicking and gouging opponents at the bottom of a pile.
Most American sports fans considered football a spirited amateur endeavor, a character-building exercise for high school and college boys. Played with few rules, and with some participants bare headed, it had been popular since the 1870s. “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports,” President Theodore Roosevelt exclaimed around the turn of the century. After a spate of on-field deaths from violent collisions in the early 1900s, Roosevelt threatened to abolish the sport with an executive order unless college administrators instituted rules that made it safer. He wanted football to continue to be played, viewing it as an ideal training ground for soldiers.
Once players stopped dying on the field, college football developed a fanatical following almost rivaling that of professional baseball, a sport so preeminent that fans and sportswriters had called it the “national pastime” since the 1850s. By 1920, many college teams were playing in new, football-specific stadiums, before screeching crowds, on Saturday afternoons.
A postcollege version of the sport sprouted in the 1890s but was never nearly as popular. The first prominent teams represented athletic clubs such as the Chicago Athletic Association, Pittsburgh Athletic Club, and Latrobe (Pennsylvania) YMCA, amateur organizations that fielded teams in multiple sports. They sought to lure former college stars with under-the-table payments until they grew tired of the contrivance and simply began paying players, horrifying purists who believed that violated football’s amateur essence. That version of the game, thus, did not develop a following.
Companies and independent sports entrepreneurs in the East and Midwest also began fielding football teams in the early 1900s. But unlike college football, which organized into conferences operating under a governing umbrella, the “paid” sport was a free-for-all. Players jumped from team to team during seasons in search of better pay. Active college players suited up under assumed names to make extra money, not that much was available. Teams passed a hat through the stands at games to bring in funds, hoping for a few coins and bills the players could divide up. Most games drew few fans.
Halas believed his Staley team deserved better. But when he wrote to other teams about scheduling games in the fall of 1920, he received “indifferent and vague” replies. He decided on another course. A league of semipro teams in Western Pennsylvania had become fairly popular, and several other circuits also had gained traction. Halas sent a letter to Ralph Hay, manager of the Canton Bulldogs, suggesting they start a league.
It turned out Hay, owner of an automobile dealership, had already broached the idea at a meeting with the owners of the Massilon (Ohio) Tigers and teams in Akron, Cleveland, and Dayton. They had another meeting scheduled at Hay’s dealership on September 17. That day, Halas took a train to Canton with Morgan O’Brien, another Staley engineer who was helping him run the team. En route, Halas and O’Brien talked about the advantages of belonging to a league—principally, that it would give shape to their season and offer them a title to play for, meaning each game was important.
That evening, Halas and representatives from eleven other teams met in Hay’s showroom, located on the first floor of the three-story Odd Fellows Building on Cleveland Avenue. “Chairs were few,” Halas recalled, so the men stood around gleaming Hupmobile and Jordan cars while they drank beer, which Hay provided, and discussed football. “I sat on a runningboard,” Halas recalled. The local paper covered the meeting and listed Halas as representing the Staley Athletic Club. He had many ideas and spoke frequently. The league needed rules, referees, a scheduling protocol, and a president, he told the others. Chris O’Brien, a painting contractor from Chicago, also was present; he operated the Racine Cardinals. Andrew “Doc” Young, a physician and athletic trainer, ran the team Halas had played for, the Hammond (Indiana) Pros. During the two-hour meeting, the men formed what they called the American Professional Football Association, agreeing to put up one hundred dollars each to solidify their commitment. They elected Thorpe as their commissioner even though he had no background in management, on the assumption that his selection would bring attention to their new endeavor.
The Staleys played their first game in Decatur on October 3, 1920, a sunny Sunday afternoon. Nearly two thousand fans sat in wooden bleachers and cheered as they trounced the Moline Tractors, 20–0, with Edward “Dutch” Sternaman, Halas’s former teammate at Illinois, scoring three touchdowns. A week later, they routed the Kewanee Walworths, 25–7, as Halas, an end, and ten of his teammates played every snap, never leaving the field. The Staleys soon played six straight road games, mostly against outmatched squads such as the Rockford Athletic Club and Champaign Legion. Twice, they traveled to Rock Island, Illinois, to play the Independents, coming away with a victory and a tie.
The typical game was little more than a brawl loosely governed by rules poached directly from college football. Passing was legal, but the ball was fat, almost round, making it difficult to throw. That discouraged offenses and limited scoring, as did the rules. A clipping penalty set a team back 25 yards. When a pass fell incomplete in the end zone, the team lost possession. Moving the ball downfield was such a challenge that teams routinely punted on second or third down, hoping the round ball would roll farther if the opponent did not have a deep back waiting to field it. Playing for field position was a popular strategy as teams simply sat back and waited for their opponent to make a mistake. Though safer now, the sport was still rugged and bloody. Halas suffered a sprained ankle and a fractured cheekbone during the 1920 season. The Staleys’ center, George Trafton, was a square-jawed roughneck described by a teammate as “the meanest, toughest player alive.” Trafton injured so many opponents during one game at Rock Island that vengeful fans chased him to the team bus after the final whistle.
In late November and early December, the Staleys played three games in a row in Chicago. They defeated the Tigers, 6–0, on Thanksgiving, then lost three days later to the Racine Cardinals. It was the Staleys’ only defeat in 1920. A week later, they won a rematch with the Cardinals, 10–0. As winter enveloped the Midwest, the Staleys and Akron Pros had the league’s best records. The Pros had eight wins, two ties, and no defeats, and had allowed only one touchdown all season. The Staleys had ten wins, one defeat, and a tie. It was common for teams to arrange to play with little advance notice, as the league had no scheduling protocols, and Halas arranged for the Staleys to play Akron at Cubs Park in Chicago, later known as Wrigley Field, on December 12.
Halas wanted to win so badly that he signed Paddy Driscoll, his friend, to a one-game contract, even though Driscoll had played and coached all season for the Cardinals. Halas had helped write the league rule that forbade players from jumping from team to team during the season, but he reasoned this was a fair move because the Cardinals’ season was over. There was no attempt to hide Driscoll’s presence. He was listed with the Staleys on the lineups printed in the Chicago Tribune and other papers on the morning of the game.
Twelve thousand fans paid fifty cents apiece for tickets and shivered through the contest as a cold rain fell. The Pros’ best player, Fritz Pollard, a speedy halfback, was one of two African American players in the league, along with Robert “Rube” Marshall, an end for Rock Island. A Chicago native, Pollard had studied chemistry at Brown University, where, as the school’s first black football player, he helped his team earn an invitation to the Rose Bowl. Opposing defenses had struggled to contain him all season, but the Staleys kept Pollard bottled up on the muddy field. The game devolved into little more than a scrum of colliding bodies, with most plays consisting of runners simply plunging into the line. Nineteen of the twenty-two starters contested every snap; Halas’s squad, like most, consisted of only a few players more than the eleven-man minimum. Neither team had scored when the referee blew his whistle to end the game.
Newspaper coverage of the contest, what little there was, did not note the presence of a black player. It was potentially significant; major league baseball maintained a strict color line, permitting no blacks on its teams. But pro football was so obscure that its racial practices went unnoted. A trickle of black players would continue to suit up in the 1920s and early 1930s, until the owners abruptly adopted baseball’s restrictive, racist approach. An end from Rutgers, Paul Robeson, played for Akron in 1921, switched to another team in 1922, then quit pro football, destined to become famous as an actor and activist. Most of his admirers had no idea he had ever played football.
Before the 1920 season, the APFA’s owners had agreed that they would vote to select a champion rather than have the title decided on the field or by record. After the scoreless tie between the Staleys and Pros in Decatur, Akron, and Buffalo’s team, the All-Americans, all claimed they deserved the title. The vote to determine a champion was scheduled for the next league meeting at the Portage Hotel in Akron on April 30, 1921.
Halas would later write that the 1920 season “confirmed my belief that professional football had a great future.” But he was disappointed by the quality of many teams and the league’s general mismanagement. Pro football was a pale imitation of college football’s sold-out stadiums, traditional rivalries, and energetic newspaper coverage. Halas skipped the Akron meeting in April 1921, sending O’Brien in his stead. In Akron, some teams dropped out of the league, others applied to join, and most owners claimed they were losing money. They agreed they needed to organize more effectively and establish a realistic business model. Thorpe obviously had to go. He was a terrific player but had no idea how to run a league. Joe Carr, manager of the Columbus (Ohio) Panhandlers, was elected president to replace Thorpe. The Panhandlers had struggled in 1920, but they had been around for more than a decade, almost entirely because of Carr’s deft management. Carr had also run a baseball minor league and now wrote a sports column for the Ohio State Journal, a newspaper in Columbus. He had covered the World Series and championship boxing matches. The other owners believed he could bring order, and true know-how, to their nascent enterprise.
It was an astute decision: Carr would serve as the league’s president and de facto commissioner for almost two decades. Few men would do more to ensure its eventual success. “There were a lot of pioneers, but Joe Carr was the one who kept it going,” said Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, years later. “He had a passion for it and did the right things. He knew you had to have uniforms, a rulebook, a head of officials. He worked to get the right people and the right places in the league. He doesn’t get the credit but I see him as similar to Pete Rozelle and other commissioners who came later. Carr really knew what he was doing.”
- "John Eisenberg tells the fascinating account of how five owners, including the Bears's George Halas, cut through their disputes and differences to work together to form the foundations of the league."—Chicago Tribune
- "The pluck-and-luck tale of the creation and stabilization of the league is a small but exemplary chapter in American capitalism and popular culture."—Wall Street Journal
- "[A] deeply researched, surprise-on-every-page, and altogether marvelous new book"—Weekly Standard
- "Drawing on extensive research and personal interviews with descendants of the principle figures, Eisenberg (That First Season) puts a nearly century-old story into contemporary context. Football fans of all teams will appreciate this fascinating history."—Publishers Weekly
- "A readable and fresh look at the early history of the NFL"—Library Journal
- "Fans who only know the league as it exists today will be shocked and fascinated by its early years."—Booklist
- "A rich history of the rise of the National Football League from its virtual obscurity at its genesis in the 1920s to its position as an economic and cultural powerhouse today... Thoroughly researched and gracefully told... An engaging and informative cultural history, on and off the gridiron."—Kirkus (Starred)
- "In The League, John Eisenberg goes deep. He takes us to where it all started, in smoky backrooms, when the NFL-an American monolith now-was more David than Goliath. Carefully researched and astutely narrated, this is a fascinating time-transport trip that tells us as much about America as it does about football.—Gary M. Pomerantz, author of Their Life's Work
- "We have had some terrific owners since the first half of the 20th century but founders are founders, and this is their marvelous story--how they survived the Great Depression and a World War, scrambling to make their player payrolls from week to week. They did it through their incredible character, loyalty to each other, and their love of the game--and they built the greatest sports league in America."—Ernie Accorsi, former General Manager of the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and New York Giants
- "Talk about a team of rivals ready to claw each other to death on Sundays and join forces to sell their game from Monday to Saturday, this is it! Halas, Mara, Marshall, Bell, and Rooney-this is their story. It is also the NFL's story. How the men and the league came though the ballyhoo of the 1920s, survived the Great Depression and World War II, and set the stage for football's ascendency as the national game is told by John Eisenberg with humor, heartbreak, and insight. Before the owners were billionaires, they were just a collection of scoundrels who believed in football and money."—Randy Roberts, coauthor of A Season in the Sun
- "John Eisenberg has achieved something remarkable: He has uncovered a riveting story from the early days of the NFL that has yet to be told. Better yet, Eisenberg's deeply researched, put-you-there narrative is written with a novelist's flair-you'll feel like you're breathing the same air as the five men who risked it all to turn a struggling league into the juggernaut it is today. This is a movie waiting to be made."—Lars Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of The Storm and the Tide
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 2019
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Basic Books