For some sportsmen the moment of great achievement comes in front of the tense crowd when the next pitch, the final burst of speed or the harrowing putt will decide a great struggle. For others it arrives in solitude—in a far-off mountain stream or at dawn in a damp and lonely duckblind. After a shoot in Georgia a few weeks ago, Adlai Stevenson interrupted his pursuit of the presidency to deliver one of 1955's most eloquent tributes to the excitement and beauty of the hunt.
"I've seen two marvelous things in nature in my life," Stevenson told a friend. "One was a flock of 8,000 Canada geese on the move from Horseshoe Lake to the Mississippi flightway. They would sail right over the gravel beds, and the eastern sun would light up their underbellies and give them a faint pink color. At the same time I could hear thousands of wings beating.
"But next to the geese, the second-best thing I've seen was that flight of ducks this morning. The ducks would go over the tops of the trees and come down through them. It was a thick kind of a jungle, and you had to shoot fast between the trees. It was different from any shooting I had done before, and it was very exciting. What a wonderful sight that was this morning—that flight of ducks!"
Yet it is the man performing before the multitude who draws the applause, and so it was that the public's sportsmen for 1955 were those who did the things they could see and read about. From New Year's Day to New Year's Eve, there was scarcely a week—sometimes hardly a day—when some performing sportsman failed to electrify and astonish the measureless audience that follows and cheers its heroes.
January 2, 1956
As 1955 began basketball had already arrived with the name of Tom Gola leading all the rest. This tall, quiet, graceful young man, then in his senior year at La Salle College in Philadelphia, appeared in 1955's sports arena with two previous All-America ratings to his name. For the third straight season he proved that there is nothing he can't do on a basketball court with exquisite precision. He left no monuments in the record book, but he led his team into the NCAA playoffs and all the way to the championship finals against San Francisco University in Kansas City.
Towering among the San Francisco players was Bill Russell, 6 feet 9 5/8 inches of chocolate-colored awkwardness—until he started to play. Then he was a leaping, reaching, bounding master of the basketball. The final score was 77-63 for San Francisco, and all of a sudden Bill Russell, not Tom Gola, was college basketball's player of the year.
The Detroit Red Wings dominated the National Hockey League for the seventh straight year, but the violence and passion of the game was still the monopoly of the second-place Montreal Canadiens and their trio of uninhibited Habitants: Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau.
Characteristically, it was the Rocket who launched 1955's (and almost any year's) wildest sporting frenzy. Several nights after the Rocket was suspended by NHL President Clarence Campbell after a skull-cracking session in Boston, the Canadiens returned to their home ice, and the mere sight of President Campbell entering the arena started 14,000 Montreal fans on a riot that spilled out into the streets of the city. By the time it was over, Montreal looked as if it had been through a Martin and Lewis comedy. After the air and the ice were cleared of the 1955 season, the Rocketless Canadiens were in second place, and, as usual, they dropped the Stanley Cup to Detroit.
When Roger Bannister, the 1954 Sportsman of the Year, combined with Australia's John Landy to break the seemingly impregnable barrier of the four-minute mile, it seemed inevitable that 1955's track and field season would be an anticlimax. But Wes San-tee began the year with a series of indoor duels against Gunnar Nielsen, Denmark's foremost middle-distance runner, and it seemed as if these two might make track history. Running before packed arenas they each broke the world indoor mile record—first Santee in 4:03.8, then Nielsen in 4:03.6, but the four-minute barrier remained intact.
Spring was coming. The winter-bound were moving out of doors to test their tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing rods. The reassuring whack of ash against horsehide was drifting northward on the breezes from Florida training camps to tell of five and a half months of baseball to come. But before baseball could monopolize the spotlight there were two hallowed spring rituals to be observed: the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis "500."
The 1955 Derby promised very little suspense on the track itself, William Woodward's big bay, Nashua, champion 2-year-old of the previous year, had already disposed of Summer Tan in one eastern race, and the only other likely contender was a chestnut colt from California with the silly name of Swaps. Not only that, but Nashua would be carrying the peerless Eddie Arcaro, in his 24th year of riding, the greatest money-winning jockey of all time (more than $18,000,000). Swaps might look good for a mile or so, but he would never stand up to the finish of the big colt from Belair Stud.
Swaps went to the front as promised and, true to his style, Nashua bided his time. At the top of the backstretch Arcaro had Nashua ahead of the pack and was making his run at Swaps. The Californian allowed Nashua to draw almost even, but when Nashua should have started his final drive, the drive was not there. It was Swaps, not Nashua, who pulled ahead to win the wreath of roses.
Was it a fluke? While Californians gleefully trumpeted that at last they had bred the horse of the century, the rest of the country began to ask for a rematch. It came about—at Chicago's Washington Park on August 31—and Nashua, under Arcaro's masterful guidance, evened the score by such a convincing margin that turf writers unhesitatingly named him Horse of the Year. Carried along in the glory of this Race of the Year, Nashua's two partners—81-year-old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and 39-year-old Eddie Arcaro—certainly qualified as 1955's foremost trainer and jockey.
The Derby and the "500"—two indispensable climaxes to the sports of spring. This year it was handsome Bob Sweikert, at 29 a comparative youngster at the wheel, who won the victor's kiss from Dinah Shore at Indianapolis and later went on to separate Jim Bryan from the AAA championship on the dirt tracks, but his victory at the "brickyard" was sadly overshadowed by the death of Bill Vukovich, the 1954 winner, killed early in the race.
Sports car drivers also had their share of 1955's racing tragedies. A bare two weeks after the "500," all Europe was stunned by the great disaster at Le Mans. There, in the third hour, a confusion of cars in front of the pits catapulted the engine of Pierre Levegh's Mercedes into the packed holiday crowd, killing the driver and 80 fans. The smoke of this wreckage cast its pall over the whole sports car season and caused Mercedes-Benz to withdraw its teams from the sport it had so dramatically dominated over the year. Juan Manuel Fangio, a seemingly nerveless Argentine, had been Mercedes' star driver, and he again established his rating as the champion of the world's grand prix drivers.
By early summer the baseball season was taking shape, with a fine harvest of fresh stars. Among them were Al Kaline, 20-year-old Detroit right fielder who would go on to become the youngest winner of the American League batting title; Herb Score, Cleveland's blazing left-hander who would lead the league in strikeouts; Shortstop Billy Klaus, who would help keep the youthful Red Sox within reach of the league lead until the last weeks of the season. And then there was Casey Stengel and the Yankees—yes, those same Yankees—who, having finally lost a pennant in 1954, were again leading the league.
The year of baseball, however, belonged to the game's hitherto incurable also-rans, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hardly a new face was visible in the lineup of old graybeards who had been making it a habit to win the National League pennant and then drop the World Series to the Yankees. Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine—the same old faces. But when it came World Series time in 1955, and the Yankees were again in the opposite dugout, somebody changed the script. His name was Johnny Podres, and the miracle he performed in turning the Dodgers from bridesmaids into brides, from also-rans to world champions of 1955, elevated this young man to Sportsman of the Year.
AN INTERRUPTED DRINK
It was June in San Francisco, and Ben Hogan was on the fairways for a crack at his fifth U.S. Open title. At the end of his fourth round Hogan trudged to the locker room with a score of 287, plenty good enough to win, and sat down for a drink. Suddenly there was a roar from the gallery outside, and Hogan sensed the worst. Jack Fleck, an angular, unknown Iowan, had finished with a blazing 67 to gain a playoff.
The next day belonged to youth, with 32-year-old Jack Fleck three shots better than Hogan when the round was over. Wearily, Ben Hogan, the golfer of the generation but not of 1955 when no one could really claim the honor, packed his bags for home and retirement. "I want to keep around the fellows," he explained. "I want to be one of the boys at the country club. I want to be a part of golf. But I'm not going to work this hard at it again."
News of incredible new running records drifted in from Europe throughout the summer. Mostly they were the work of three astounding Hungarians—Sandor Iharos, Laszlo Tabori and Istvan Roszavolgyi. In a meet in London, Tabori won a mile race in which the first three finishers broke the four-minute barrier. In setting five new world records at distances from 1,500 to 5,000 meters, Iharos took 12.2 seconds off the old standard for three miles, running it in 13:40.6. Together the three were responsible for 18 new world marks, giving fair notice that next year's Olympic Games in Melbourne will by no means be a Russian-U.S. dual meet.
It was a year in which the shortlived Geneva Spirit of international good will was felt in sport, especially between Russians and Americans. Paul Anderson, the 350-lb. human dumpling who shattered all known weight-lifting records, visited Russia with fellow strongmen and was treated like a crooner at a bobby-sox picnic. It looked as if sports and politics were getting an overdue divorce behind the Iron Curtain.
It was autumn before the boxing fan began to get his innings. Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore, a grandfather as ring years go, finally stepped into the ring at Yankee Stadium with Rocky Marciano. He was there now only because Al Weill, Rocky's manager, could find no more beat-up punching bags like Don Cock-ell, whom the heavyweight champ had brutally clobbered in May.
Archie put Rocky on the floor in the second round, and for six more rounds it was the kind of contest that has made much great fight history—a brilliant boxer against a brutal slugger. The slugger finally won when Archie went down to stay in the ninth round. Leaning over his dazed opponent while 61,000 cheered, Rocky said what the whole world felt: "You made a great fight, Archie, and the crowd loved it."
Nothing quite startled the boxing world like an evening in Chicago in early December. Sugar Ray Robinson, 35 and washed up after two and a half years in retirement as a song-and-dance man, had spent 1955 painfully trying a comeback. All he found was pity until he faced Bobo Olson that night for the middleweight title. In the second round the old Sugar Ray flared briefly, but it was enough. Olson went down for the count, and Sugar Ray had disproved boxing's favorite adage: they never come back. He had returned all right, in 1955's Comeback of the Year.
The waning months of the year belonged, as they always do, to football. The familiar powerhouses of previous years were still in command—Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in the Middlewest's Big Ten; UCLA and USC on the Pacific Coast; Oklahoma in the Southwest; Maryland in the East; and, of course, Notre Dame. After 10 weeks only two of the major teams were still unbeaten—Oklahoma and Maryland, and they must play it out in the Orange Bowl at Miami.
Football's pros were at it too in the most lucrative of their 35 years. Before the season started, Quarterback Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns, whose nine illustrious and body-breaking years had earned him a rest, had said: "I haven't changed my mind about retiring." But early in the year he heard a call of distress from Coach Paul Brown and responded. Graham led the Browns to the head of their league and clearly earned the title of pro football's Man of 1955. He also said he would retire.
It was tragedy, however, that removed some other great figures from the sporting scene. In October William Woodward Jr., Nashua's handsome and popular owner, was killed in a shooting accident at home when his wife mistook him for a prowler. Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias, the finest woman athlete of all time, was again hospitalized with recurring cancer, and her truly fabulous career seemed at an end.
The sporting year produced a number of distinguished visitors. For instance, Donald Campbell, son of England's pioneer in speed, brought his jet-driven Bluebird to Nevada and set a new world's record on water: 216.2 mph. From Mexico came General Humberto Mariles, a great equestrian, to compete at Madison Square Garden. Despite the pain from a broken coccyx and without anesthetic, General Mariles rode his jumpers through the most trying events of the eight-day show and took home the highest honors. For sheer grit, no sportsman of 1955 could touch him.
Like all years, 1955 brought triumph, fun, mischance, courage, acclaim and tragedy to the sportsmen of the world. Also, it brought bright promises for 1956, the year of the XVI Olympiad.
SI'S PORTRAIT OF THE YEAR IN SPORTS
The pictures on the next five pages catch memorable moments of the year