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It Was a Small World, After All

On second look, an original SI staffer sees that sports 40 years ago were very different

O.K. Forty years ago, middle of the 1950s. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was in its first year, and I was a writer on the magazine. Now someone has asked me about things back then: What was the world of sports really like in 1954?

Someone, hell. The managing editor of this magazine is the one who asked me, and I'm trying now to get it right, to remember clearly. If I don't really think about it, sports today seem just about the same as they were then. A little different, sure, but baseball is still baseball, football is football. It's five on a side in basketball, and hockey is still played on skates. Tennis tournaments boil down to final matches, and golf balls still find their way onto the green and into the cup. Runners run, fighters fight, horses gallop. You're pleased when your team wins, pissed off when it loses, and a star athlete is still a star.

Wait a minute. I couldn't have written "pissed off" 40 years ago, and yesterday's "star" is a "superstar" today. Wait, now. The differences are crowding in. Boxing seemed more legitimate then, and tennis was amateur, at least on the surface, and so were the Olympics. Professional sports weren't nearly as widespread—or lucrative. Baseball had only 16 major league teams (including one called the Washington Senators), and all 16 were based in the northeast quadrant of the country.

The NFL had only 12 teams, the NBA eight, the NHL six. The various sports seasons dovetailed, each getting out of the way as another came along. Baseball began in mid-April and lasted until the World Series ended early in October. (In 1954, SI's first year, the Series was over on Oct. 2.) That cleared the stage for college football, which didn't really hit full stride until the third or fourth Saturday in September (pro football began quietly a week or so later). Most college teams were finished playing before Thanksgiving, and pro football's season ended in December with a title game between the two conference champions. No division leaders, no wild cards, no playoffs, no Super Bowl, and only 10 colleges received bids to big bowl games. Football was pretty much out of the way by the time hockey and basketball got up to speed. In turn, by early spring those sports were done as the opening week of the baseball season started the cycle once again.

Despite the rhythmic sharing of the sports year by the so-called major sports, and despite occasional spikes of intense interest in boxing, horse racing, golf, tennis and the rest, there were really only two major sports: baseball and college football. No other pastimes could grab the emotions of the country the same way. All other sports were, in a sense, minor. (SI and television helped to change that.)

Pro football was gaining popularity, but college football was still much bigger. Basketball? The college game aroused local excitement, but the NCAA tournament was a modest affair that was over in two weekends. During Si's first year the NBA dropped from nine teams to eight, with franchises struggling in such off-line places as Fort Wayne, Ind., and Syracuse, N.Y. Hockey was a regional, Canadian-oriented sport. Tennis, particularly women's tennis, was much less widespread. Golf was golf.

Baseball was my favorite sport then, as it is now, and the differences 40 years have wrought in it stand out in my mind. In 1954 the players were still bound by the reserve clause, and a strike was a pitch over the plate. A big league rookie didn't make any more than I did as a rookie writer. Shoes were black and uniforms white, with only a little color trim.

Not only were the uniforms white, but most of the players were too. There had been a handful of African-American stars in the big leagues for almost a decade, but still the great majority of big leaguers were Caucasian. Not that baseball was alone in that. There were no blacks at the big football colleges in the South, and only a handful elsewhere. Pro football was mostly white, and so was basketball, both college and pro. Bill Russell led the University of San Francisco to the NCAA title early in 1955 and went on to be the heart and soul of the Boston Celtics, but most of Russell's teammates during his early years in Boston were white. Blacks were arriving, but they weren't really here yet.

Early in 1955 we ran a cover photo of Willie Mays and his manager, Leo Durocher, standing on either side of Durocher's movie-star wife, Laraine Day. Day had her arms lightly resting on the shoulders of the two men as all three smiled for the camera. As a result, we received a batch of furious letters castigating us for running a picture of a white woman with her arm around a black man.

Maybe those were the good old days, but I'm not so sure about that.