Skip to main content
Original Issue


In this summer of 1961 the fantastic upward surge in athletic performance and leisure participation is producing new records by the very young and by the old as well. Last week a sunburst of brilliance emphasized the progress made in a few short years

In a sun-baked swimming pool in Philadelphia this past midsummer week, Donna de Varona, a little 14-year-old pixy, won a national championship and set a world record in a sport once reserved for amazons with bulging muscles. Not many miles to the south, President Kennedy sat in his air-conditioned office and with a squiggle of his pen transformed 70 miles of Cape Cod shore line into a national park, answering some of the needs of Americans who were moving toward the beaches like lemmings. Northward, in New York, 26,176 wagered heavily and cheered wildly as Duke Rodney won the first event in the triple crown of trotting, a country sport now solidly established in the big city and the big time. Out in Milwaukee a virtuoso performance by superstar Warren Spahn drew 40,775 fans to County Stadium, while in Washington a near-sellout 27,000 saw Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris raise their home-run totals to 45 each, as the statistical element of baseball once again electrified the public.

It used to be that the sports fan knew what to expect from year to year and even from decade to decade. But now, as last week's events so clearly showed, there is only one constant: constant change. Young parachutists spill out of the skies and pass batons in a sport undreamed of a few years back. Golfers line up at 4 a.m. to play on courses that recently were unkempt wilderness. Homebodies who once thought of the Sunday double-header as the crowning sports event of a sedentary week now go down to the sea with nylon sails and fiber-glass boats or strap on ultralight equipment to come to grips with woods and mountains and underwater depths. No sport has gone untouched. Technology, leisure and jingling cash in the public pockets have led to a sports explosion unparalleled in history, one that has burst in an approximate pinpoint of time.

Seven years ago last week the first issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was published. In that year, 1954, there already was a stampede to stadiums, arenas and the outdoors. "The greatest sports binge in history," said the Wall Street Journal that August, but the binge was a mere ripple compared with the wave of change that was to come. Consider what has happened since—often for the better, occasionally for the worse, always remarkable:

In the 20 years prior to 1954 one major league baseball stadium had been constructed (in Milwaukee). In seven years new ones have sprouted in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Baltimore; Washington, Los Angeles and Houston are due next year, and New York the year after. The total investment: $100 million.

But in spite of its new look baseball has felt the bind of its expansion. Major league talent has been diluted—and the minor leagues are all but dead. In New Orleans what was in 1954 second base in the home park of the Southern Association Pelicans is now the site of the swimming pool of the Fontainebleau Motel. The general manager of the Fountainebleau used to be the general manager of the Pelicans. He now claims more customers a night than the ball club had in a week, but he is a sentimentalist and wishes New Orleans had baseball. New Orleans doesn't give a damn. It has had to build 120 new boat-houses and is planning a new city marina for its boating public.

In the major leagues, there was an unfortunate trend toward exploding scoreboards, mechanical rabbits that hand balls to umpires, and faceless managers wigwagging signals at equally faceless ballplayers. The essential matter of who wins occupied less and less of the fans' attention; instead they were flocking to ballparks to see individuals joust with statistics. And seldom had the jousts been so exciting or successful. Whitey Ford wrapped up 20 wins in two-thirds of a season; Spahn won his 300th and Early Wynn was only a few behind; Mantle and Maris were making bona fide runs at Babe Ruth's record.

If the M&Ms were challenging the most hallowed record of baseball, no swimming mark could last long enough even to become hallowed. World records fall in almost every championship meet, primarily because swimming has suddenly become a major team sport for children. Armies of kids from toddlers to teens have been gleefully swept up in a watery version of Little League baseball. San Francisco police complain that the area's biggest traffic jams occur around swimming pools, where as many as 2,000 youngsters are being delivered by moms to a single pool to compete in dawn-to-dusk team matches. One pooped pool director shot up $54 worth of blank cartridges starting races at such a California meet the other day.

The result has been not only record times but new shapes and ages for U.S. swimming champions, especially girls. Unlike their muscular predecessors, they are slim, trim and hardly out of grade school. At 17 last week, husky Olympian Chris von Saltza found she was a little past her prime (see page 48). She was too old and, in a new sense, out of shape, a jolting case for geriatrics. So she retired, giving way to the fresh faces of the very, very young.

The fresh face of football was the rugged countenance of the pros—some of whom seemed very, very old. In 1954 the pro game was having a tough time with stiff college competition. After seven years the fight is about over. Detroit, a championship team that boasted of its season-ticket sellout in '54, has had hardly a season ticket available for new customers in three years. Last season Baltimore, New York, Chicago and Green Bay also were sold out. The result has been expansion (two new teams) and a nettlesome neighbor (the eight-team American Football League). Professional football, once a dreary thud on the outskirts of town, has permanently established itself as a major sport.

With so many discerning football fans, the anonymous heroes of the defense at last have got their due, and then some. Sam Huff, the Giant linebacker, peers violently from television picture tubes and magazine covers, and Baltimore has suffered schizophrenia trying to adore both John Unitas and Big ("I just shuffle 'em till I find the one with the ball") Daddy Lipscomb.

By 1954 the colleges had abandoned two-platooning, and had their men play both offense and defense as they claimed the good Lord intended. Now, seven years later, there is doubt. College one-platoon offenses weren't too exciting, nor were defenses overly strong, and the influence of the professional competition was strong indeed. Even a high-principled conservative like Red Blaik found himself going in for spread formations and lonely ends. The college rules committee firmly stuck with one-platoon football. But with the ringing cheers of pro football's cash customers coming to them clearly from across town, the committee members neatly fixed it so that coaches could make about all the substitutions they wanted anyway. As a final stimulant, the first scoring change in 46 years was added—the possibility of making two points after a touchdown.

Tall teams, big money

Basketball saw two significant changes, the first simply a matter of biology. All Americans are taller, so basketball players are taller yet. Coaches now talk of wanting "little" 6-foot-3 forwards. A center should be 6 feet 8, at least.

The other development was the practical application of the discovery by colleges that basketball teams make money. The result has been a marked increase in magnificent new field houses: Maryland, San Francisco, SMU, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Texas Tech, Illinois, St. John's and Wichita, to cite just a few completed or abuilding.

And once again in a major sport the top professional league has expanded from coast to coast and found new competition, in the form of the adventuresome American Basketball League, which hopes to compete from Pittsburgh to Honolulu. The ABL promoters have some money, and will need a lot.

The availability of money has been a major factor in the sporting change everywhere. In horse racing there were only 21 $100,000 added events in 1954. Last year there were 38, and this year there are still more. What enables tracks to give away greenbacks like Green Stamps? The bettors, of course. From gleaming new plants, such as Aqueduct, to the crummiest half-mile oval on the leaky-roof circuit, the gambling American bet $3,366,000,000 last year, 50% more than he did in 1954. The nine-race card became a commonplace, a move calculated to improve the very considerable profits of both state and management, if not to improve the breed.

Flat racing merely grew, but harness racing grew up. Betting doubled, from $400 million to $800 million, and attendance went from 10 million to 15 million. The expansion from dusty state fairgrounds to all-weather metropolitan tracks brought new earnings to owners, who applied a lot of it to the breeding of finer horses. In 1954 there were 35 horses able to equal or better that standard of topnotch performance, the two-minute trot or pace. Last year 67 horses did it a total of 120 times.

Humans were running faster, too. The improvement in track and field has been almost unbelievable, partly because of new equipment but primarily because of ability and international competition.

Thoroughly broken since 1954 are marks once considered unattainable: the seven-foot high jump, the 27-foot broad jump, the 60-foot shotput, the 9.3 100-yard dash. What Roger Bannister started in 1954 with the sub-four-minute mile has continued brashly and inexorably.

Those Americans who haven't been running around tracks have been running to the water. As Kansas City sizzled in its summer inferno last Friday afternoon, a bumper-to-bumper line of automobiles stretched for miles out of the city on U.S. Route 50 towing a variety of inboards, outboards, and center-boards to the Lake of the Ozarks, a watery Shangri-La 150 miles away. In 1954, there were only 50 sailboats sold in Kansas City; last year there were 500. Utah, high and relatively dry in the middle of the desert, had little boating, fewer boats. Now it has a commission controlling 11,000 registered power craft. In Detroit a beleaguered harbor patrolman protested that "every jerk with 20 bucks owns a boat," and the New York area Coast Guard towed 229 disabled craft to safety last week as the country seemed hellbent on going to sea in a sieve.

In just seven years the national splurge on boating increased from $1 billion to $2.5 billion. The reason was largely new kinds of equipment. With fiber glass came a boat that took a maximum of abuse with a miminum of sandpaper. Monster outboard motors, once exclusively the province of professional boatmen, now drive small cabin cruisers at furious speeds, and both boat and motor can be beached in the backyard and towed to water on weekends. For sailors, light, quick-drying Dacron sails have replaced the two tons of wet, unmanageable canvas that the ladies—as crew—once had to haul in every time the spinnaker got soaked. A sailboat so tiny it would fit on a car roof became the rage among thousands of junior sailors, while in the past seven years there were so many new big boats that the 1960 Bermuda Race had 135 starters, compared to 77 in 1954.

An inland waterway

Meanwhile, every water surface bigger than a bathtub was having its calm ruffled by another waterbug, the skier. So many water skiers came out of the weeds that it was no surprise when the holder of the world's water ski jump record (150 feet) turned out to be a young man from Austin, Texas, a city, incidentally, which now boasts a country club without a golf course. Located on Austin Lake, it caters only to the water set.

This love affair with wetness extended just as overwhelmingly into fishing, another sport that seven years have made unrecognizable. Time was when it took an uncommon amount of skill to cast a light River Runt plug against the wind and not have it blown back so far that you had to comb it out of your hair. Now the spinning reel is not only available but cheap. With it the most unpracticed novice can throw deadly, light lures a mile in a gale. Rods are lighter and stronger; floating lines really float, and lures range from battery-operated plugs to that final symbol of angling ease and gentility, the plastic worm.

Inexpensive transportation now has brought the country's wildest regions within casting distance of outdoorsmen. On Maine's secluded Allagash River, once accessible only by float plane, a horrified guide recently saw a procession of 23 canoes, each filled to the gunwales with fisherboys hauling in brook trout. For the angler there seemed to be little wilderness left, as America became a great place to be a human, but a lousy place to be a fish.

Those other outdoorsmen, the hunters, were finding similar difficulties and at least a partial solution. There were 14 million licensed hunters in 1954, and at least 2 million more of them in 1960. In some areas the heavy hunting pressure—combined with poor breeding weather and reduced breeding grounds—had all but destroyed the sport. The closing of more and more private land has also hampered hunters, but increasing numbers are now finding their sport on regulated private preserves, where game is raised to be shot for a fee. A poor substitute, perhaps; yet this is what some hunting has come to in 1961.

But if the hunter has suffered, his fellow outdoors type, the skier, has thrived. Vermont reports a 300% increase in skiing since 1954. The flatlands of the Midwest, which had four ski resorts seven years ago, now have 141, and in such unlikely spots as Gatlinburg, Tenn. and Hot Springs, Va., slopes are coated with artificial snow to become southern Sun Valleys. The development that has brought skiing to the public eye and ought to keep it there forever? Stretch pants.

The country's two old country club sports, golf and tennis, also have changed drastically, the one surging to some kind of climax while the other drags listlessly toward a crisis.

Seven years of professional golf saw the end of the domination of Hogan and Snead, the rise of Arnold Palmer and the realization that finesse is no longer enough. Power has become vital. Never have golf balls been hit so far so straight—or for so much money. Palmer's tournament winnings were $75,262 last year. What's more, every touring professional now presumes he can at least equal his tournament winnings with outside endorsements. The best—again, Palmer—grossed nearly $200,000 from golf last year. Perhaps because they were turning into wealthy conservatives, the pros began to dress the part and, naturally, all golfers followed suit. Gone were the flaming pinks and lavenders of 1954; in came subdued charcoals and browns.

There were other changes. Land costs and taxes caused country club dues to soar like nine-iron shots, and on public courses there were crowds and tangles that rivaled those in the other fast-growing outdoor sports. In cities like Chicago and New York golfers started lining up at 4 a.m. At a course in New Orleans players arrived in pajamas at dawn to draw lots for a handful of starting times that the course refused to schedule in advance. The lucky winners go home and dress. The losers go back to bed.

Unlike golf, tennis threatened to be ruined by the power swing. The big serve struck audiences as a big bore, and though club tennis and junior tennis were on the increase everywhere, bad behavior and poor technique by spoiled brats at Forest Hills and Wimbledon threatened the amateur game's status as a major sport. While seven years ago amateur tennis was sacred, now open tennis, on the pattern of open golf, seems the sole salvation.

No longer pawns

Nor have indoor activities escaped these revolutionary times. The first Russian-U.S. chess tournament played here was in 1954, arousing as much general interest as a girl scouts' pancake race. This was clearly not a U.S. sport and never would be. Yet six years later an American junior team beat a Russian junior team in a world championship. Last month the British magazine Chess noted there were 25 U.S. tournaments scheduled, and added with characteristic British bluntness: "Amazing." More amazing: in Milwaukee this month 1,383 children took part in a day-long chess tournament. They were the finalists from 4,000 entrants.

And if America's men and women were keeping their sporting waistlines by exercising 3 million strong each day with such television physical culturists as ubiquitous Jack LaLanne, they were surely gaining avoirdupois sitting at bridge tables by night. The American Contract Bridge League, which sanctioned a modest 100,000 duplicate tournaments in 1954, found itself with a record 250,000 to oversee last year. The game itself changed; hosts of complex bidding systems elaborated on the old, faithful point-count approach until the sole certainty about a suit a partner bids is now the likelihood that he doesn't have it.

But bowling best epitomizes the change that has overtaken every sport since 1954. Born of the automatic pin-setter, reared lavishly with vast capital and full-grown in chrome, fluorescent lights and razzle-dazzle, bowling managed in seven years to get America out of the alleys and into the lanes. The modern bowling establishment is as respectable as a split level and as encompassing as a supermarket. Often open 24 hours a day, it has wooed and won the family trade with everything from baby sitters, to free lunches, free lessons and free leagues. In 1954 there were 17 million U.S. bowlers. Now there are an estimated 32 million. A professional intercity bowling league, with teams in 10 cities, is scheduled to begin play before paying spectators this October.

Thus the look and language of sport changed in the U.S. as it never had before. The changes came quickly, because the pace of life itself quickened. The jet engine helped, television helped and, of course, peace, albeit an uneasy peace, helped most of all.

So perhaps it is not surprising that the most significant fact about the new look of sport is that it has proved to be international. The enthusiasms that grip us now plainly grip everybody. Thus John Thomas was high-jumping in Japan, the Russians rowing at Henley, the Italians nearly winning the Davis Cup and a South African taking our Masters trophy. American horses jump at shows in Aachen, French horses trot at Yonkers, and Venezuelan ones race at Laurel. A Czech team defeats an English team to win an international soccer league title in New York, Jack Brabham enters our "500" and Briggs Cunningham drives at Le Mans. A Briton wins a small fraction of the middleweight title from one American, while a Cuban nearly wrests a very large fraction from another American. And at the Olympics less than a year ago a German wins the 100 meters, an Italian the 200, an American the 400, a New Zealander the 800, an Australian the 1,500, a Russian the 10,000 and an Ethiopian the marathon. Sport has not merely completed seven years of change, it has gone through seven years of exciting growth.



A VICTOR'S SMILE, a medal and a bouquet adorn 14-year-old swimming champion Donna dc Varona, whose world-record performance in the 400-meter medley last week epitomized vigor of nation's youth.