Sports is as universal as mankind and always has been, but seldom has this been more apparent than in 1964, a year in which the most splendid triumphs of the athletic drama were played on a stage as wide as the world. There was aging and inelegant Innsbruck, where Olympians flashed down trails that Austrian soldiers had to hand-pack with snow, and wondrous Tokyo, where world records fell amid fresh and dazzling architectural splendor. There was Busch Stadium, a scruffy place in St. Louis where a once-scruffy team emerged as a world champion, and there was a New Zealand beach where a man in a black track suit ran on black sand until he finally was so fit that he could be called a runner without equal—ever.
Yet if it was a year that accented the scope of sport, so too was it a year which pointed up that other perpetually stimulating aspect of athletic competition: surprise. Some favorites did prevail, but month after month an unusual share of the most memorable performances of 1964 involved new faces, new teams, men risen to new stardom and sharp changes in the established order of things.
The pattern of the year was set early, at Innsbruck, when Bob Beattie coached and coaxed his American skiers until the improbable moment came when a couple of youngsters, Billy Kidd and Jim Heuga, won a silver and a bronze medal in the slalom. Europe's often haughty ski aces were abashed, and the U.S. men's team had the first Olympic medals it had ever won. A couple of weeks later Cassius Clay, a sure talker and a sure loser, left Sonny Liston saying the only words that mattered—something like "I quit"—and became the world heavyweight champion.
College basketball saw an undersized and underrated rat pack of a team, UCLA, spend a whole season skittering around larger, more impressive foes. Their inspirational coach, John Wooden, kept telling them to enjoy the game, and by mid-March UCLA's players had enjoyed themselves to a 30-0 record and a national championship. When Bob Cousy retired it was suspected that the Boston Celtic dynasty was done and some other team in pro basketball would have at least a hope of success, but either out of respect for their departed star or just to prove their stubborn self-sufficiency, the Celtics took their sixth straight NBA title. A week after that, it was a foreigner making headlines—in this case, a horse. E. P. Taylor's pert and fleet Northern Dancer came from Canada to win the Kentucky Derby gamely and the Preakness in a prance.
December 21, 1964
At the summer Olympics (only now it was more fall than summer) the orderly Japanese regulated everything down to the release of the last dove of peace. The sense of order continued when the incomparable U.S. swimmer, Don Schollander, whose mother once glided down jungle rivers in Tarzan movies, won four gold medals. And there was order, too, when New Zealand's Peter Snell—that man in the black suit—won the esteemed 800- and 1,500-meter events with ease, a double victory which no Olympian had managed in 44 years. But who could have predicted that the Americans would arrive as distance runners? That a Bob Schul could take the 5,000 meters and that even less-known Billy Mills—seven-sixteenths Sioux Indian and all U.S. Marine—could win the 10,000, the least expected victory at Tokyo?
Little happened to elevate the stature of baseball through the summer and fall of 1964, what with the Yankees arriving at a dubious alliance with CBS and stripping Yogi bare, and the Braves playing it pious in Milwaukee and cozy in Atlanta. Ungallant though the Yankees may have been with Berra, they did offer one gallant spectacle, limping Mickey Mantle, whose pride overcame his aching legs as he pushed an otherwise humdrum team to a pennant. But it was left to the St. Louis Cardinals to show why baseball is still The Game, and they did it with an improbable pennant drive led by their dedicated team captain, a man who for years had played in the shadow of Stan Musial: Third Baseman Ken Boyer. He was the Most Valuable Player in the National League, he epitomized the professional athlete at his best and he deserved the glory that came with being the key man on a world championship team.
Pro football rediscovered John Unitas, who, thanks in part to finding some running backs around him at last, stirred the Baltimore Colts out of the doldrums and on to at least a division title. College football, meanwhile, had an Alabama that was tough enough to be No. 1, a Jerry Rhome who broke an entire record book of marks at Tulsa, and a prime example of what 1964 had so many of—a shocker. Even Knute Rockne would have despaired over Notre Dame's prospects, but new Coach Ara Parseghian did not. With a new starting quarterback and a new everything else he could find, including spirit, he developed the team that was the wonder of the football season.
Now, at year's end, there emerges through this world wide array of excellence and upsets one figure and one moment etched more distinctly than the rest, one man who most merits the title Sportsman of the Year. The story of his courage and his conquest begins on the following page.