In the course of writing any nonfiction book, we come across people who, while not essential to the story, fascinate us with their presence and their impact on the those who knew them.
Dr. Frances J. Sweeney, “Doc” Sweeney, was the Manhattan College team physician for all sports. We will get to his personality in a minute. I truly believe that “Doc” died in the exact manner in which he would want to die. He had traveled with the team out to C.W. Post College for a men’s basketball game between Manhattan College and Post on the evening of Thursday, December 1, 1966. It was a close game, and true to his nature, he yelled at the officials, shouted at the players and cheered wildly when Manhattan won the game. He apparently went into the locker room, had a massive stroke and never pulled out.
Sweeney devoted his life to sports, both amateur and professional. He graduated from the Georgetown School of Medicine in 1922, and became coach of the Georgetown Football team the next year. You have to appreciate how early in the history of modern sports Doc plied his trade. He literally grew up with modern sports medicine over a 44 year period. Much of his work was groundbreaking.
Sweeney moved to New York and in 1927 assumed team physician roles for the New York Giants baseball team (until they moved to San Francisco in 1958) and the New York Giants Football team from 1927 to 1966. Think about it. This man treated virtually every iconic player for both Giants teams. We can go online and find references to him treating greats such as Y.A. Tittle and Frank Gifford. Teams now have entire departments and specialists doing what Doc had to do by himself.
As if being team physician to two professional teams wasn’t enough, Doc also became Manhattan College’s team physician. He treated both Junius Kellogg and Bob Otten (Junius’ friend of 48 years). He was loyal to both men to a fault. When the scandal broke in 1951, and he learned what Henry Poppe and Jack Byrnes had done to taint Manhattan College sports, he hated both of those men with a deep passion. His personality was never quiet and neutral about anything. He wore every emotion on his sleeve. There are true anecdotes about him getting kicked off the NY Giants Football team bench for being obnoxious to the NFL referees! There are anecdotes about him getting thrown out of the Manhattan College baseball dugout for harassing the umpires.
Bob Otten said that of all of the people he had ever known, Doc Sweeney could put together curse word combinations that could rival any sailor. He got the team “technical’s” for his antics and after a while officials steered clear of him. He stood all of 5’8″ and scared the living hell out of anyone in a “striped shirt.”
What was hilarious about Doc was that despite all of his crazy behavior at games, during most days he maintained a Park Avenue medical practice catering to the wealthy; the upper crust of society. Yet here’s a funny one: if any athlete at Manhattan College needed medical attention, they could come to his office and get priority over the rich matrons patiently waiting to get treated.
When Junius returned to New York with his spinal injury in 1955, Doc would visit him from time to time. Doc knew the score, but he remained loyal and optimistic. He never abandoned a patient.
I just returned from having my annual physical. My doctor is associated with a clinic. They don’t know me as a person. They treat my numbers. My doctor isn’t a bad person, only that he has been forced to conform with modern day dictates. Medical science has advanced so much since Doc Sweeney’s days. Still, I cannot help but wish that modern day medicine remembered words such as compassion and advocacy every so often.