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Friday, April 20, 2001
Updated: July 28, 11:55 AM ET
Hope is Where the Heart is

By Jim Murray
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 17, 1996.

The Dallas Cowboys, who could use one, should sign a free agent this week. He'll come cheap, well under the salary cap.

He's no Jerry Rice. He can't run the 40 in 4.3 seconds. he can't get open in an end zone. He's not a pocket passer, can't pick up a blitz. He won't make a tackle, intercept a pass or recover a fumble. He's not a field goal kicker or even a punter. He'll be no threat at all to Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith, or to Deion Sanders or Michael Irvin.

What he'll be is a role model -- and there aren't too many of those on the Cowboys.

His credentials for that are impeccable. You see, he has been married to the same woman for 64 years, has never had a breath of scandal, never even had a parking ticket or library book overdue.

In a way, he's America's Team too. Oh, he's a little old -- 93 to be exact. So, that'll be his uniform number. Also, his signing bonus -- $93.

His name? Why, Leslie Townes Hope, a Dream Teamer from way back. Comes recommended by 11 (count 'em) presidents of the United States, from Roosevelt to Clinton. Gets a clean bill of health from every government agency and he's a pinup boy at the Pentagon, where he has done as much for our war efforts as the Green Berets and has the medals to prove it.

He was brought up in Ohio, but the Buckeyes managed to pass on him and he never made the Big Ten. So he became the Big One.

He is, of course, America's court jester, Bob Hope -- he says he dropped the Leslie when his name came out "Hope, Less" on the grade school rolls.

He becomes a free agent next week, even eligible for the draft, when he concludes a 60-year contract with NBC with his final special "Laughing With Presidents," on Nov. 23. He has not only been with the same wife for 60 years, he has been with the same boss. His consecutive-games skein at NBC rivals Cal Ripken's.

Bob Hope has been, perhaps, America's most beloved comedian for three generations, and so generous with his time that he spent every Christmas with American armed forces through three wars and everything in between. His Christmas dinner was often K-rations on a jungle stage, where they looked out for incoming. He was equally at home on the pitching deck of a carrier.

He was a soft touch for every charity benefit the country had and once, as a favor to a reporter friend who had serious eyesight problems, he flew from Davenport, Iowa, to Winston-Salem, N.C., for a benefit performance. It was the kind of thing he did so routinely that he was gone from home often enough so that his dog would bite him when he finally showed up.

What is not so well known about Bob Hope is his long love affair with athletics. In fact, a case could be made that, if he would have been able to punch, he never would have had any show biz career at all. He was a prizefighter before he was anything, fighting under the nom de ring, Packey East.

Packey East was not to be confused with Dempsey or Tunney. Hope used to say he was the only prizefighter in history who had to be carried into the ring as well as out of it. The only one, that is, until King Levinsky fought Joe Louis.

Bob just had to hear cheers and take bows. So, when he took off the gloves, he got into vaudeville, that American art form that filled the theaters before movies did. The public loved him. And it was mutual.

He was dedicated sports fan. It was not possible to hold a Rose Bowl without him. He was twice Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade.

And, when his pal, Bing Crosby, bought into the Pittsburgh Pirates, he bought into the Cleveland Indians. When the Rams were experiencing financial difficulties, he bought into them. A Ram game became 20,000 people yelling, "Hold that line!" and 30,000 more looking around for Bob Hope's autograph.

He was a benign owner. Like his humor, his ownership was gentle, spoofing, absent malice. He treated presidents the same way. Hope was not "Saturday Night Live." Chief executives, Democrats or Republicans, loved him. His humor was kind. He spent so much time in the White House over the years he referred to it as "my favorite bed-and-breakfast."

He loved golf. And he had his finest hour when he rescued an about-to-be defunct Palm Springs tournament and built it back up into one of the tour fixtures, the Bob Hope Desert Classic. That tournament not only glamorized professional golf but built one of the great hospitals of the world, the Eisenhower Medical Center, where they treat everything from cardiac arrest to alcohol addiction.

Only Hope could have lured the fields he did to fill his tournament. Golf with a cast of corporate hackers is not a leading money-winner's idea of an ideal weekend, but the greats of the game, from Palmer to Pavin, put up with it for Hope. So did every major Hollywoodite, from Clark Gable to Kevin Costner, as well as athletes from almost every backfield, outfield or baseline in the country.

He's America's Free Agent now. he may get offers from several teams before the bidding is through. But if you're look for him, don't bother to check the bench in the e rose garden or the rocking chair on the porch. Try the back nine at Indian Ridge. And bring your clubs. He'll give you strokes.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.