Imagine a sports landscape ruled by baseball, where college football is more popular than the National Football League, horse racing and boxing draw bigger interest than either pro or college basketball and the year’s signature athletic achievement takes place on a track in Oxford, England.
There are as many major league teams in upstate New York as on the entire West Coast and only two franchises west of St. Louis. There are two big league baseball clubs in Philadelphia, two NFL teams in Chicago and NBA franchises in Syracuse, Rochester and Fort Wayne, Indiana. There are no major league sports in Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Denver or Seattle.
Such was the state of athletics when Sports Illustrated printed its first edition 60 years ago on Aug. 16, 1954. Legends Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis, Sammy Baugh and Bob Mathias were recently retired. Contemporary champions Rocky Marciano, George Mikan and Otto Graham soon would join them on the sidelines.
Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays had yet to replace Ted Williams and Stan Musial as the dominant names in baseball and attendance for an NFL game averaged 30,000. The Minneapolis Lakers’ fifth NBA championship in six seasons barely registered with most U.S. sports fans.
Even less popular with the American public was an event in Switzerland called the FIFA World Cup, where West Germany upset heavily favored Hungary for the championship of an odd game known in the U.S. as soccer.
There was plenty of celebrating in the Midwest. Ohio was home to the 1954 NFL champion Cleveland Browns, the 1954 American League champion Cleveland Indians (with a league-record 111 wins) and the year’s No. 1-ranked college football team, Ohio State, led by fourth-year head coach Woody Hayes. Detroit boasted the back-to-back (1952 and '53) NFL champion Lions and the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.
In Milwaukee a baseball franchise was enjoying a renaissance following its move from Boston two years earlier. In ’54 the wildly popular Milwaukee Braves became the first National League team to draw more than two million fans, a development that earned County Stadium and Braves slugger Eddie Mathews a place on SI’s first cover. The Braves would lead the National League in attendance six straight seasons.
There were 42 major league franchises: 16 in baseball, 12 in the NFL, eight in the NBA, and six in the National Hockey League. Hockey’s number hadn’t changed since 1942 and baseball’s number had been ossified since 1901. The only two major league teams based on the West Coast were the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament was limited to 24 teams. There were only seven college football bowl games.
The average U.S. home cost $22,000, gas was 21 cents per gallon and a ticket to watch the 1954 World Series champion New York Giants at the Polo Grounds averaged about $1.50.
Perhaps the most impactful national development of 1954 was the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
Changing face of sports
Although the NFL, major league baseball and the NBA had been integrated by 1950, many teams still featured all-white rosters. Baseball did not fully integrate until 1959, the NFL in 1962. High-profile college conferences such as the ACC, SEC and Southwest Conference did not begin integrating until deep into the 1960s. At the time of SI’s first issue in August 1954, the reigning champions in baseball, the NFL, NBA, college basketball and college football did not have a single black player.
But things were starting to change. The 1953 New York Yankees and Detroit Lions were the last all-white champions in their respective sports. After the ’54 Lakers, only one NBA champion, the ’58 St. Louis Hawks, fielded an all-white team. College basketball’s last all-white champion was California in 1959. College football took longer to integrate as all-white Southern teams continued winning national championships through the 1960s.
And in 1954 four African-Americans, who not only would achieve athletic greatness but also earn respect as powerful and eloquent symbols of racial equality and black aspirations, started their ascents to the pinnacle of North American sports. On April 23, a slender Milwaukee Braves outfielder with stunningly strong wrists named Henry Aaron belted the first of his 755 career home runs.
That fall at the University of San Francisco, Bill Russell began preparing for the first of his 13 championship seasons, two in college and 11 in the NBA with the Boston Celtics. At Syracuse, Jim Brown started a star-studded intercollegiate career in football, lacrosse, basketball and track. Nearly 50 years after his NFL career concluded with Cleveland in early 1966, many still regard Brown as football’s greatest runner.
Meanwhile, in Louisville, a skinny 12-year-old, angered that a miscreant had made off with his bicycle, asked a police officer to teach him how to fight so he could give the thief “a whupping.” The officer suggested that if the lad really wanted to fight people he should learn how to box. The youngster did. Six years later he was an Olympic champion and in less than a decade the fighter, who would change his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, was heavyweight champion of the world.
A mile to remember
But in 1954 all sports stories were overshadowed by what happened on that track in England on May 6. For years breaking four minutes in the mile run had been the most elusive of athletic barriers. The world record had been lowered gradually with Sweden’s Gunder Hagg running 4:01.4 in 1945.
The record stood for nine years. Some theorized that man was physically incapable of running a mile under four minutes, that a runner’s heart and lungs literally would burst if he attempted such a feat. A 25-year-old English medical student knew different. Roger Bannister understood that proper training and conditioning brought the four-minute mile into the realm of not just the possible but the probable. Under the guidance of trainer Franz Stampfl, Bannister had set a British mile record of 4:03.6 on May 2, 1953.
One year and four days later he was ready. After spending the morning making his rounds at a London hospital, Bannister took a train to the Iffey Road Track in Oxford to compete in the Oxford University vs. British AAA dual meet. The mile would be broadcast live on BBC Radio with former Olympic 100-meter champion Harold Abrahams of Chariots of Fire fame serving as commentator.
Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, Bannister’s British AAA teammates, set the pace reaching quarter-mile splits of 57.5 seconds, 1:58 and 3:00.7. Bannister took the lead with 275 yards to go and began sprinting toward the finish line, saying later “I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come.” After breaking the tape he collapsed in exhaustion. Had he done it? Stadium announcer Norris McWhirter, who later would publish the Guinness Book of World Records, kept the crowd in suspense:
"Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, No. 41, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which -- subject to ratification -- will be a new English native, British national, all-comers, European, British Empire and world record. The time was three ..."
The crowd exploded after hearing the word “three,” drowning out the full announcement of Bannister’s barrier-breaking 3:59.4. The world celebrated. Unlike today, where decades of performance-enhancing drug use has caused a cynical sporting public to rightly question the breaking of barriers and records, Bannister’s run was viewed as a triumph of mind, body and spirit and a victory for athletes everywhere.
Six weeks later, John Landy of Australia lowered Bannister’s record to 3:58 setting up what was called “The Miracle Mile” at the British Empire Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Aug. 7. Bannister of Britain vs. Landy of Australia was track’s version of the first Ali vs. Frazier fight in 1971 with millions around the world trying to follow the race on the western edge of the North American continent.
Bannister wrote in his autobiography, “The four-minute mile, however final and perfect it had seemed at Oxford, now meant nothing unless I could defeat John Landy.”
He did just that, passing Landy at the top of the final stretch to run a career-best 3:58.8 to his foe’s 3:59.6. It was the first time two men had broken four minutes in the same race. Bannister ended his running career Aug. 29 with a victory in the 1,500 meters at the European championships in Switzerland. He later was selected Sports Illustrated’s first “Sportsman of the Year.”
60 years later
Much has changed since 1954. Track and field has been shunted to the wings of the North American sporting stage. The mile world record, which once was broken with some regularity, has not changed since Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj ran 3:43.13 in 1999.
Four teams that did not exist when SI first published, the Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Cowboys and Edmonton Oilers, all have won at least five championships. Four franchises that did exist, the Rochester Royals (now Sacramento Kings), Chicago Cardinals (Arizona Cardinals), Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, have not won any.
In 1954 U.S. fans needed newspapers or magazines to follow overseas competitions like the British Open and World Cup. Today most events on available on television or even streamed to computers, tablets and phones.
Black coaches have led teams to championships in the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and NCAA basketball. Women’s sports, both college and professional, have grown exponentially in acceptance and popularity.
The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and the Braves departed Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966. Texas, the last all-white college football team to win a national championship in 1969, has a black head coach. There are 122 major league franchises throughout North America, and pro football is king with more than 112 million TV viewers watching the most recent Super Bowl.
But as Bannister, now 85, battles Parkinson’s disease, sports today are much different and we have to wonder if there will ever be a moment that captivates the world like Bannister's record-breaking mile 60 years ago at the Iffey Road Track.