20¬†| MARIS CHASES RUTH
No reporter dared ask Joe DiMaggio in 1941 how his record hitting streak was affecting his sex life. But 20 years later the question was fair game for Roger Maris during his quest for 61 home runs. Leaving behind innocence was the price for all those TV sets that had made their way, during those two decades, into 90% of American homes. In 1961 you could see for yourself the first man in space, the first live televised presidential news conference and the first televised run at Babe Ruth's record.
There were almost no cameras or microphones in the clubhouse yet, but the kingmakers of the press knew their electronic enemies were advancing like an army charging over a hill. A run-by-run newspaper account of a ball game would not suffice in the age of televised sports. The "quote"--DiMaggio mistook the word for a soft drink, so unfamiliar was it in his day--would keep writers relevant.
Maris, a 26-year-old kid from North Dakota with a personality as blunt as his flattop, was smacked by this tidal wave of change. The usual squadron of 10 to 15 writers in the Yankees' clubhouse increased to more than 50 over the final two weeks of the '61 season. They asked Maris the same questions over and over again, invented others that had nothing to do with baseball, bristled that he wasn't "colorful'' enough and reported as news the rare occasion when he chose not to oblige them. MARIS SULKS IN TRAINER'S ROOM The New York Times told the world on Sept. 16. The sports hero left unrevealed--DiMaggio was the quintessential example--was dead.
Under this press duress, Maris gulped coffee, chain-smoked Camels, lost hair by the clump and, yes, hit his record 61st home run on the final day of the season. Presaging the modern mania for memorabilia, a restaurateur bought for $5,000 the record-breaking ball from the 19-year-old fan who had caught it, and by extension they, too, became famous.
There was no turning back. The monster with the 24-hour appetite known as "the media'' grew commensurate with the fans' hunger to know something more--anything, really--about the famous people inside their TV tubes. No one would ever again chase sporting greatness without being forced to deal with that monster. Like hitting a curveball, a forehand topspin or a three-iron, it would become a requisite skill. --Tom Verducci
19 | SPORTS PAGES EXPLODE
It may still be derided as a paper's toy department, but the sports section of a big-city daily has gone from Toys "R" Us to The Sharper Image. Papers now devote pages to sports agate and have bidding wars over marquee columnists. Rabid button pushers like Phil Mushnick in New York City and T.J. Simers in L.A. brought a talk-radio populism to print. At one point the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had a full-time sports staff of 90 to service a readership of 250,000--perhaps the highest scribe-to-reader ratio in the country. Even The New York Times pulled on a jockstrap, adding a sports enterprise editor to develop features and pitch them for the front page.
The revolution's leader was Dave Smith, the editor who during the '70s at The Boston Globe and later at the Washington Star and The Dallas Morning News introduced three sports-section innovations: the TV critic, the Sunday notes package and multiple pages of scores, stats, standings and transactions. All this ink-stained attitude eventually spilled over into TV, spawning such ESPN gabfests as The Sports Reporters, Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn. "Dave gets the credit, or blame, for taking us in the direction of complete-to-the-point-of-overwhelming," says Bill Dwyre, Smith's counterpart at the Los Angeles Times. "I've told him they'll put his name in agate on his tombstone." --Alexander Wolff
18 | THE 24-SECOND CLOCK
The man who saved the NBA was not a seven-foot Stilt, a hick with a sweet jumper or an aerial acrobat with his own fragrance line. It was a short, dour man named Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals. * After the 1953-54 season the league's nine owners were worried about poor ratings, rough play and reduced scoring. (In other words, what they worry about today.) At a league meeting on April 22 Biasone proposed a shot clock that would stimulate more offensive action. He arrived at 24 seconds by dividing the number of shots in a typical game (120) into the time (2,880 seconds). No one argued, or came up with another number. It was adopted immediately. And immediately field goal attempts and scoring went up, and fast-breaking teams, such as the Boston Celtics and Biasone's Nats, flourished, leading to increased fan interest. Fittingly, Syracuse won its only NBA championship in '55.
When commissioner Maurice Podoloff began to speak at a Metropolitan Basketball Writers meeting after that revolutionary season, a 24-second clock above the podium started to count down. It went off after he had spoken 18 words, by which time, everyone now knew, a team could've gotten off a good shot. --Jack McCallum
17 | TITLE IX
What? You don't think the passage of Title IX in 1972 qualifies as one of the 20 most important events in the last 50 years of sports? Poke your head out of the cave. See Jane run. See Sally throw. See Lisa slam-dunk. See Patricia execute a gut wrench on Angelique to win the bronze medal for the U.S. in Olympic women's wrestling, for crying out loud. Or just drive by any sports complex in America on a Saturday morning. In the three decades since passage of the legislation--prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender in educational institutions receiving federal money--the number of females competing in college sports has increased fivefold and the number in high school athletics has multiplied ninefold. Doors opened. Case closed. --Gary Smith
16 | IMG
Say this about IMG, the marketing-management monster that has its handprints all over the sports drapery: Its beginnings were modest. In 1960 Mark McCormack--an ambitious lawyer--made a deal with his buddy Arnold Palmer. McCormack would manage Palmer's fledgling career as a professional golfer and, in exchange, would siphon off a fraction of the revenue. McCormack saw that Palmer had earning potential that extended well beyond prize money. Show me the money, and my guy will play in your exhibition, wear your apparel, use your clubs, shill for your product. They did, and he did, and the money flowed. The International Management Group is now a global, multibillion-dollar business that represents thousands of athletes, negotiates broadcast rights and owns dozens of sporting events. McCormack died last year, at 72, but his legacy is secure: He transformed sports from divertissement to business. That means luxury suites and Petco Parks and the bacterial presence of agents. But it also means your choice of 13 NFL telecasts this Sunday. --L. Jon Wertheim
15 | THE HEIDI GAME
A decade after the mythologized 1958 NFL championship game, it was a wee Alpine goatherd who exposed the nation's mushrooming fanaticism for televised pro football. On Nov. 17, 1968, the New York Jets visited the Oakland Raiders in a matchup of the AFL's marquee teams. The game, aired nationally by NBC, appeared to be over when a Jets field goal gave them a 32-29 lead with 1:05 left. So, coming out of the ensuing commercial break, which had spilled into the 7 p.m. time slot in the East, NBC broadcast supervisor Dick Cline proceeded with the network's plan to leave the game and air its made-for-TV movie Heidi. Bad move. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final 65 seconds, a stunning finish that most of America missed. The barrage of calls from irate viewers--an onslaught that had begun during the fourth quarter as fans begged the network not to leave the game--crashed NBC's switchboard. "I knew something big had happened," Cline said later, "because we didn't get any phone calls at all. And we couldn't call out." The gaffe made the front page of The New York Times and later prompted the NFL to contractually bind networks to show games in their entirety--once an absurd notion that has since become the norm for all major pro sports deals. But something far greater had happened. The networks learned that the nation was ruled by a new maxim: I want my NFL! --Josh Elliott
14 | UNION MAN
Marvin Miller did more than change baseball. By molding the fledgling Major League Baseball Players Association into one of the most powerful trade unions in America, Miller created a model that was followed by professional athletes in basketball, football and hockey, fundamentally altering the economics of professional sports.
Miller was chief negotiator and assistant to the president of the rough-and-tumble United Steelworkers Union when he was hired by the players' association in 1966. Taking advantage of commissioner Bowie Kuhn's inexperience in labor negotiations, the innovative Miller won one battle after another, often through the courts, tilting the balance of power forever. He earned the ire of fans by organizing the first two strikes in baseball history, a 13-day stoppage in 1972 and a 50-day walkout in 1981, when 712 games were canceled. Among his groundbreaking victories: the right for players to bargain collectively, the use of binding salary arbitration and the right of veterans to veto trades. Miller turned baseball's pension plan into one of the richest in the nation, originally financing it by bargaining for a percentage of television revenue.
Baseball's average salary, which was $19,000 when Miller was hired in 1966, soared to $240,000 by the time he stepped down in 1982. He returned briefly for one more contract negotiation before stepping aside for good in '84. Today, baseball's average salary stands in excess of $2 million, and, thanks to Marvin Miller, America is no longer under the delusion that its national pastime is only a game. --E.M. Swift
13 | FREE AGENCY
Curt Flood knew that a baseball player making $90,000 in 1970 was not going to excite much sympathy from organized labor or the sporting public. And he surely guessed the game would never forgive him for testing its age-old tenets in the highest court of law. But what could he do? Baseball's reserve clause, which bound players to clubs forever irrespective of their wishes, was un-American. His challenge, over the St. Louis Cardinals' attempt to trade him to Philadelphia, was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later, and his All-Star career was essentially over. He had thrown himself under the tank treads of tradition, with predictable results. Yet his case turned out to be a flaw in baseball's ancient business model. It wasn't long before the reserve clause finally fell and players gained some control over their destinies.
It didn't help Flood, who spent his prime in Europe, a pariah. He died in 1997 at age 59, his sacrifice mostly unmarked by the subsequent generations of millionaire ballplayers. "There is no Hall of Fame for people like Curt," said one mourner, even if all he had done was make the Great American Pastime just a little more American. --Richard Hoffer
12 | ESPN DEBUTS
Anyone can, with sufficient notice, come up with famous last words. True genius is marked by famous first words. The first words on the telephone were, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you." The first words on the moon were, "Houston, Tranquility Base here: The Eagle has landed." But lunar exploration and the land-line telephone have been combined in (and trumped by) ESPN, beamed into space and carried through a cable. And so the most enduring of famous first words may prove to be those spoken on Sept. 7, 1979. "If you're a fan," said SportsCenter anchor Lee Leonard, in the first utterance ever on ESPN, "what you'll see in the next minutes, hours and days to follow may convince you you've gone to sports heaven." Twenty-five years later it is difficult to overstate the importance of ESPN, though heaven knows ESPN has tried. It has, more than any single entity, changed the way sports are viewed (as a 24/7 obsession) and even played (with an eye to making SportsCenter highlights). The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader really might one day become the leader of the world, lording over Earth as all things to all people. It will cease to be ESPN and become, instead, ESPeraNto. --Steve Rushin
11 | INSTANT REPLAY
Déj√† view debuted on Dec. 7, 1963, on CBS's Army-Navy telecast. Moments after Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh scored in the fourth quarter, viewers saw his run again while announcer Lindsey Nelson informed them, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army has not scored again!"
This technological breakthrough was introduced by Tony Verna, a 29-year-old director, and was instantly recognized as a good way to help viewers ascertain what had actually happened on a bang-bang play and a great way for football broadcasters to fill the dead air between snaps. It was a technical breakthrough and a conceptual one: Television could now improve upon the experience of watching a game in person. Fans in their living rooms or neighborhood bars could see what those in the stands could not--whether a receiver had stepped out of bounds or which lineman's block had sprung the halfback for that touchdown run.
Football, because of its stop-start rhythm, was ideal for visual trinkets like replay, and Monday Night Football producer Don Ohlmeyer turned his telecasts into full-service entertainment events, replete with humor and personality and many more technological advances. After a while the paradigm shifted in all sports: The revolutionary premise was that sports could be improved not by changing the games but by changing the way they were packaged.
And most vitally, of course, instant replay means that if you get up from the couch to get a beer, you won't miss a thing. Won't miss a thing. --Daniel G. Habib
10 | THE 1960 U.S. OPEN is remembered for Arnold Palmer's greatest final-round charge, but the elevation of Arnie to mythic status is only part of its legacy. Three eras collided at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, as Palmer, 30, fought off 47-year-old Ben Hogan and 20-year old amateur Jack Nicklaus in a wild finish that marked the end of Hogan and presaged the rise of Nicklaus. Two years later Nicklaus would defeat Palmer in a playoff at the Open for his first pro victory, beginning the shift in golf's balance of power.
Ripples from the 1960 U.S. Open were even felt across the Atlantic. Having also won the '60 Masters, Palmer traveled to St. Andrews shortly after Cherry Hills, lured to his first British Open by a shot at the Grand Slam. He finished one stroke behind winner Kel Nagle. The King would return to the links land, winning there in '61 and '62, but before his victory at Royal Birkdale, most top Americans thought of the British Open as a musty little tournament and usually skipped it because of the hassle of traveling overseas. It was Palmer who made it matter.
Along with those two British Opens the King won four Masters in his career, but his only U.S. Open victory remains his defining tournament. After holing a final par putt on 18 for the win, Palmer flung his white visor to the heavens. That moment is now an iconic image of the thrill of victory. It was the final exclamation point on a tournament that lifted both Palmer and his sport into the big time. --Alan Shipnuck
9 | THE LONG SEASON
In the stone age of sports journalism baseball books were a thin gruel cooked up by ghosts and predicated on the notion that America's pastime was just good, clean fun. Then along came The Long Season, Jim Brosnan's witty and acerbic diary of his 1959 campaign with the Cardinals and the Reds. A middling middle-reliever who, at 6'4", was tall for an author, Brosnan went beyond anecdote to explore his deep feelings about the game and the people he felt made baseball life harder than it should be. He revealed that players "resent being scapegoats, symbols and story material rather than normal men with a little extra athletic talent."
Brosnan's observations, like his pitches, were often hard and inside. He dusted owners, fans, sportswriters and his favorite target, coaches, who mostly try to find "something to do besides count baseballs and pick their noses." He let us in on all sorts of secrets: how to throw a spitter, what it's like to be booed, how stewardesses behave on team flights, what's being talked about in the bullpen. (Hint: It ends in x.)
Brosnan also set up several generations of writers who have since examined the elegant complexity of the most profoundly American of games. A half century ago historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." Brosnan not only learned baseball, but also understood why we find it so enthralling. Without The Long Season, there would have been no Ball Four or Instant Replay. Brosnan made his life an open book, and for readers everywhere, professional sports became one too. --Franz Lidz
8 | SCOPING
It was not the beating of a butterfly's wings in Japan, but rather the flexing of an orthopedist's imagination in Tokyo that revolutionized sports medicine. Some 50 years ago Masaki Watanabe perfected a slender tubal telescope lens, which he used to peer inside, and ultimately repair, his patients' knees. Three decades later Toronto surgeon Robert Jackson, the first North American to use arthroscopic surgery, in the early 1970s, called arthroscopy "the greatest orthopedic development of this half of the century," an assertion no one in his field would contest. "The recovery from open knee surgery would take three to six months," says Frank Kelly, a longtime orthopedic surgeon with several teams. "Almost overnight, that dropped to a few weeks, sometimes less." Players on every pro team have been scoped, mostly their knees (about 80%) but also their shoulders, elbows, wrists. Today 95% of arthroscoped patients go home hours after leaving the operating room and can begin their rehab within days. The great gift of arthroscopy is time, which, in the fleeting career of an athlete, is everything. --Kostya Kennedy
7¬†| R.I.P.: WOOD
Throughout antiquity and into the 1950s baseball bats were made of wood, as were tennis rackets, lacrosse sticks and skis. The clubs in golf known as "woods" were, of course, made of wood. All that would change, however, because an aircraft engineer named Howard Head was a bum skier, who blamed his inadequacies on his skis. So with $6,000 in poker winnings he designed a metallic ski. Head's aluminum skis burst onto the competitive scene in 1961, and sport's golden days of wood would soon be over. Wilson introduced a steel tennis racket in 1967. After Head sold his company, he took up tennis. He couldn't play that any better than he had once skied, so he took over a company called Prince and designed a large composite racket. In 1970 aluminum bats came to baseball, and in '79 a man named Gary Adams introduced the oxymoronic metal woods to golf.
Wood is still the mandated weapon in cricket--and aluminum is still outlawed in pro baseball, but what Howard Head (who died in 1991) wrought because he was a lousy skier set in motion a change in equipment across the board. Even wooden lacrosse sticks have now gone the way of saddle shoes. --Frank Deford
6 | THE TIDE GETS ROLLED
It is often said that Sam (Bam) Cunningham did more to integrate the state of Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years. That overstates the case, but there is some truth in it. Sometimes actions can expose ignorance in a way that words, however eloquent, cannot. On Sept. 12, 1970, Cunningham, wearing the cardinal and gold of USC, trampled the lily-white Crimson Tide with 12 carries for 135 yards in a 42-21 Trojans victory. Cunningham could not have spoken out against segregation any more forcefully if he had been preaching from a pulpit.
Alabama football, the Southeastern Conference and the South in general would never be the same. In 1963 Governor George Wallace had stood on the steps of the university and blocked the entrance of its first two black students, and his vow--"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"--was still in the air. After Cunningham's visit to Birmingham, there was an addendum: "... unless it costs us football games." Even those 'Bama fans who didn't find the football program's racist policy to be hateful now saw that it was impractical.
Cunningham changed a great many things that day, but Alabama coach Paul (Bear) Bryant's mind probably was not one of them. The Bear apparently had already seen the folly of segregation; even before Cunningham's performance he had lined up his first black recruit, running back Wilbur Jackson, who was on the freshman team in 1970. In fact, there are those who believe Bryant scheduled that game against USC to show the 'Bama faithful what they were missing and smooth the way for the change that had to come. --Phil Taylor
5 | ASTROTURF
It was invented 40 years ago by Monsanto, the good people who brought you PCBs and bovine growth hormone. First dubbed ChemGrass when it was laid over the concrete floor of Houston's Astrodome in 1966, this cutting-edge carpet was later given the more Jetsonian handle, AstroTurf.
AstroTurf radically changed the sporting landscape. It gave rise to a rash of domed stadiums, which helped soothe the frayed nerves of owners and executives, who no longer worried about postponing or canceling games (and losing revenue!) because of inclement weather. It was all good, right? Wrong. Artificial turf ushered in an era of architectural gaucherie (Riverfront in Cincinnati, Three Rivers in Pittsburgh and Philly's much-loathed Vet) from which we are only now beginning to recover.
The pros knew the cons better than anyone. The guys forced to play on artificial turf believed it shortened their careers. While the NFL pointed to studies showing that an athlete was just as likely to blow out a knee on grass as on turf, the players weren't buying. In '95 a poll taken by the NFL Players Association, 93.4% of its members believed that they were more likely to get hurt on artificial turf.
The sun is setting on AstroTurf. It will not be missed. It is being replaced by kinder, gentler synthetic grass systems--FieldTurf, for instance--which rest on foundations of sand and pulverized sneakers. These surfaces are spongier, making them easier on players' joints.
The subject of joints calls to mind the late Tug McGraw. Asked which he preferred, artificial turf or grass, the Phillies reliever famously replied, "I don't know. I never smoked AstroTurf." --Austin Murphy
4 | MJ SCORES FOR COKE
On Sept. 23, 1985, Michael Jordan showed up at a press conference to announce his undying allegiance to Coca-Cola. This was back when Coke was trying to increase its market share with New Coke, and Nike was still trying to figure out how good the "flashy" (the word the AP then used to describe him) guard could be as a pitchman. At the conference he was asked something delicate. "Do you prefer Classic Coke or the new formula?" His response was genius. "Coke is Coke," he said. "Both taste great." Jordan's answer was bland but not boring, evasive without being a lie, almost charming. After that, he was Mr. Middle America, despite his very dark skin. He was linked with the world's most popular soft drink, so he was O.K. He was the nonthreatening black man whites would accept as one of their own. Jackie Robinson never had such acceptance. After Jordan, white America discovered other black men they could trust: Bill Cosby, Denzel Washington, Colin Powell. Do you ever hear anybody talking about Tiger Woods and race? You may credit Coke, Jordan and his deft answer to a personal question for that. --Michael Bamberger
3 | STEROIDS
He didn't invent cheating in sports, nor did he create the culture of drug abuse that plagues our society, but Dr. John Ziegler did introduce anabolic steroids to the American athlete, spawning gaudy track and field records, check-swing home runs and freakish physiques for the NFL's hellions.
While attending a world weightlifting championship in Vienna in 1956, Ziegler was told that anabolic steroids were responsible for the impressive performance of Soviet competitors. Hoping to close the gap for U.S. athletes, Ziegler worked with a pharmaceutical company to develop a synthetic testosterone derivative with enhanced tissue-building properties known as Dianabol. The face of American sports--not to mention its bulging biceps, shrunken testicles and acne-riddled back--has never been the same.
Athletes have been searching for an edge since we started keeping score, from the herbs and hallucinogenic fungi ingested by ancient Greeks to the strychnine swallowed by Roman gladiators. Tour de France rider Tom Simpson, who died while jacked up on amphetamines in the 1967 race, once summed up his attitude toward pills thusly: "If it takes 10 to kill you, I'll take nine." In 1984, 198 world-class athletes were asked if they'd take a pill that would guarantee them a gold medal, even if they knew it would kill them in five years. Fifty-two percent of them said yes.
Given the growth of prize and endorsement money, it's not surprising that this win-at-all-costs ethos has become pervasive. Yet as the BALCO scandal unfolded and the inevitable Olympic DQs cropped up in Athens, the public seemed mostly free of 'roid rage. Certainly, we prefer our athletes to be clean, but we don't demand it and seem resigned to the fact that most of the cheaters won't get caught.
Not every father is proud of his progeny. Shortly before Ziegler died, in 1983, he said, "I wish I had never heard the word steroid." --Michael Silver
2 | DODGERS LEAVE BROOKLYN
Until 1957 the standard for betrayal was Judas's 30 pieces of silver. But that was before San Francisco mayor George Christopher tempted two baseball owners with the modern equivalent: a ballpark with 12,000 parking spaces. That's how it seemed, anyway, to New York baseball fans, who learned in '57 that their beloved Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers were leaving. In secret negotiations with the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Giants owner Horace Stoneham and Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley had bemoaned the fact that they were trapped in crumbling stadiums with no parking for their white, middle-class fans in the suburbs. A half century later it seems that every American city has a sports facility built on the California plan--a massive, freeway-fed eyesore in a sea of asphalt--and most every team owner has a wandering eye and a stadium contract with an escape clause. And Brooklyn has ... memories. --John Garrity
1 | FEB. 25, 1964--MIAMI
The Shock Heard Round the World
When a brash Cassius Clay befuddled and then battered Sonny Liston in Miami, he changed all of sports forever
by Karl Taro Greenfeld
IT WAS IN HIS EYES. An unknown substance was burning his corneas, blinding him, so as he stumbled back to his corner at the end of Round 4, Cassius Clay held his hands up and shouted to his trainer, Angelo Dundee, "Cut 'em off! I can't see! Cut off the gloves!" As if taking on heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, among the hardest punchers in boxing history, wasn't challenge enough, the kid now had to fight blind.
Clay pawed at his eyes after Dundee and cornerman Drew (Bundini) Brown sat him down on his stool. Dundee shouted at referee Barney Felix, telling him to check Liston's gloves. Felix thought Clay had been badly hurt by a left hook to the body just before the bell and wanted to quit, but he walked over to Liston's corner and checked his gloves. "There was nothing on 'em," he said later. Meanwhile, Dundee gently put the tip of his pinkie into the corner of Clay's right eye and then to his own eye. "It burned like hell," he said later. Dundee repeatedly squeezed a wet sponge over Clay's eyes, desperately hoping to rinse them out. Clay twice tried to leave his stool to complain to Felix, but Dundee pushed him down each time. "This is the big one, daddy!" Dundee shouted at his fighter. "Cut the bull----!" When the bell rang, Clay was slow getting up, and Felix shouted, "Dammit, Clay, get out here!" Dundee pushed his fighter off his stool, giving him one instruction: Run!
What followed were three of the most courageous minutes in sports history as Muhammad Ali--he would tell the world the next day that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam--went out virtually sightless to face one of the most fearsome heavyweights in history. Liston, sensing his advantage, loaded up a left hook to the head and followed that with a jarring combination to the body. But then Ali slipped away and was able to keep his left glove in Liston's face until the burning stopped. "I was just trying to keep alive," Ali would later tell Alex Haley, "hoping the tears would wash out my eyes."
Ali survived the round, and in the sixth he resumed his steady, in-and-out, counterclockwise destruction of the older, heavier man; the cut he had opened below Liston's left eye in the third was an ugly gash by the end of the fifth. Ali would swoop in and deliver quicksilver combinations and then quickly pull his head back, beyond the reach of Liston's retaliatory jab. When Liston spat out his mouthpiece in frustration and didn't answer the bell for the seventh, the new champ shouted, "I shook up the world!"
ALI WALKED TOWARD Liston in darkness to start that fifth round; he emerged eight minutes later as the first truly modern athlete, resplendent in his overt egotism, political complexity and racial pride. Muhammad Ali now stood at the vortex of history, culture and, of course, sport, and his personal decisions--to become a Muslim, to refuse induction into the U.S. Army--became rallying cries for millions. In the years that followed, sport would become inextricably intertwined with the great issues of our times, of all time: race, politics, religion. With the arrival of Muhammad Ali, the brittle affectation that sport existed apart from the rest of society was shattered forever.
Feb. 25, 1964, was just three months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, two weeks after the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and a year before Malcolm X would be gunned down. Vietnamese torpedo boats would allegedly attack U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964; by the end of 1965 there would be 184,000 American troops in Southeast Asia. The '60s, as a political and cultural era, had already begun. That night in Miami the brash young challenger wrenched sport into that revolutionary new epoch as well. "For three years, up until I fought Sonny Liston, I would sneak into Nation of Islam meetings through the back door," Ali would say later. "I didn't want people to know I was there. I was afraid if they knew, I wouldn't be allowed to fight for the title. Later on, I learned to stand up for my beliefs."
The morning after he shook up the world, Ali confirmed his affiliation with the Muzzies, as fight fans were calling them. His title was less than 24 hours old, and the new champ was already confronting fans with the problems of the real world. "I believe in Allah and peace," he would tell reporters. "I'm not a Christian anymore. I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be."
MUHAMMAD ALI'S first appearance in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was in the Sept. 19, 1960, issue, in which he takes up the last paragraph of a short report from the Rome Olympics. "Man," he said, "I don't want ever to get hurt." The first of his 39 cover appearances was the June 10, 1963, issue, which contained a preview of the Henry Cooper fight in London. In that piece he pronounced that Buckingham Palace was a "swell pad" and that Cooper would go down in five. (He was right on both counts.)
In the ensuing years the SI writers who covered Ali--among them Tex Maule, Huston Horn, Gil Rogin, Jack Olson, Bud Shrake, Mark Kram and Gary Smith--found that they had to expand their coverage beyond sports to encompass all of society. As most sports pages in the U.S. continued to refuse to call Ali by his chosen name, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED adopted a curious compromise: interchanging "Ali" and "Clay" randomly throughout stories, without explanation. His first cover appearance as Muhammad Ali wasn't until 1967. That was the year, with opposition to the war in Vietnam growing, that he refused induction into the military. After declining to step forward in the Armed Forces examining and entrance station in Houston on April 28, he read from a prepared statement: "I have searched my conscience, and find I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call." He was soon stripped of his title. No athlete or entertainer had ever taken such a stand; Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Elvis Presley had all served. Many of the leading sports columnists were disgusted. Jimmy Cannon wrote, "I pity Clay and abhor what he represents," and Red Smith declared, "You can't believe the heavyweight champion of the world is that great a coward." What seemed to irk these writers and many of their readers was the fact that something utterly new was happening right in front of them, andthey didn't seem to have the faculty to comprehend it. In 1967 Ali told SI, "I've left the sports pages. I've gone onto the front pages."
That front-page news was delivered to our door by a pugilistic jester whose verbal jabs made more headlines than his punches in the ring. Consider Clay's statements before and after the first Liston fight. At the manic weigh-in, during which Clay was written off as a frightened lunatic by the majority of sportswriters present, he and Bundini Brown, Dundee and Howard Bingham, his close friend, danced into the crowd, with Clay and Brown shouting, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!" And immediately after the fight he would shout into TV announcer Steve Ellis's microphone, "I shook up the world! I'm the greatest! I'm the king of the world! I'm so pretty! I'm a bad man! I shook up the world!" To this day, kids in schoolyards taunt each other with "I'm the greatest" or "I'm the king of the world!" (Though they may believe they are knocking off Leonardo DiCaprio.)
Ali's doggerel, an upmarket version of neighborhood trash talk, represented the first time a white audience had ever heard such versifying. His rhymes and rhythms were inchoate hip-hop; even the subject matter--first-person greatness--would be grist for Run-DMC, Whodini and LL Cool J two decades later.
Ali also introduced the persona of the extroverted, voluble egomaniac to the American sports scene. "We had begun to see this in rock and roll, the occasional outrageous performer," says Robert Lipsyte, who covered the first Ali-Liston fight for The New York Times, "but no one yet had brought that to sport." Before Ali, you had Babe Ruth allegedly calling his shot by silently pointing his bat toward the fence. After Ali there was "the straw that stirs the drink," Prime Time and the Answer.
He set a host of other precedents. Without Ali there may never have been athletes named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ahmad Rashad and, yes, even Iron Malik Tyson. Without Ali we may never have had Tommy Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon, Doug Williams in the Super Bowl.
THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED archives on Muhammad Ali are more extensive than those of any other athlete, filling 41 red folders. In the folder for February 1967 there is a review of Jack Olson's book Black Is Best: The Riddle of Cassius Clay. The review was entitled "The Adventures of Superman" and was written by Josh Greenfeld, my father. As I read it, I reflected that 37 years later, here I was, still amazed at Muhammad Ali's impact, the very same thing my father was writing about a generation ago. This is the concluding paragraph of that review:
He has made us look for meaning in an area we have too long taken for granted. If he is less important than he thinks, he is more important than he seems. And he is certainly an original in a land striving too desperately to hold on to its outdated sentimental clichés.
Muhammad Ali had been temporarily blinded in Miami 37 years ago, but now we can all see that evening as the crucible forging the preeminent athlete of the last half century.
It Was Their Year
The march of time ... in sneakers
1954 Roger Bannister
Broke 4:00 mile
1955 Bud Wilkinson
Had Sooners booming
1956 Mickey Mantle
1957 Carmen Basilio
Sweeter than Sugar
1958 Johnny Unitas
Colts' golden arm
1959 Wilt Chamberlain
Larger than life
1960 Bill Mazeroski
Homer sinks Yanks
1961 Roger Maris
New home run king
1962 Arnold Palmer
A double major
1963 Bill Russell
Master of the glass
1964 Muhammad Ali
Shocked the world
1965 Sandy Koufax
1966 Don Haskins
Tops KU blue bloods
1967 Vince Lombardi
Leader of the Pack
1968 Peggy Fleming
Queen of blades
1969 Joe Namath
A Broadway hit
1970 Curt Flood
Supreme Court press
1971 Richard Petty
Hell on wheels
1972 Mark Spitz
Seven golds in Munich
1973 Billie Jean King
Beat pants off Riggs
1974 Hank Aaron
Move over, Babe
1975 Arthur Ashe
1976 Mark Fidrych
The Bird is the word
1977 Reggie Jackson
1978 Leon Spinks
1979 Terry Bradshaw
Arm of steel
1980 Mike Eruzione
Believing in miracles
1981 Fernando Valenzuela
Maker of mania
1982 Herschel Walker
1983 Jim Valvano
1984 Mary Lou Retton
1985 William Perry
Fridge powers Bears
1986 Jack Nicklaus
Masters Augusta again
1987 Mike Tyson
1988 Wayne Gretzky
NHL's Great One