Growing up in Marion, Ohio, Judson Webb was a pretty decent American Legion outfielder, good enough that in 1953 he fielded an offer of $90 a month to play Class D ball. But he had another option. "My mother talked me into going to college," says Webb, who's now a philosophy professor at Boston University, where he gets paid to mull over the multiplicity of life's roads not taken. Webb's own fate is a mere byway in the maze of paths that vein the Rand McNally of sports. Much more momentous turns in sports history have involved decisions--apparently incidental at the time, but fateful in the long run--not unlike the one Webb made with a nudge from Mom.
Professional cogitators like Webb consider these what-ifs to be eminently ponderable. (They are guided by fellow philosopher Yogi Berra, who said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it.") Webb will explain to you, as he routinely does to his introductory philosophy students, that the alternative fates that sports fans so longingly entertain go by a name. Philosophers call them "counterfactual conditionals," and they crop up most often in history and sports, with no example (at least in urban legend) richer in both than that of onetime pitcher Fidel Castro (reputedly turns down $5,000 signing bonus from New York Giants; goes on to lead Cuban Revolution). "Every time you leave a ball game, half the fans are muttering about factuals, the other half about counterfactuals," says Webb, who frequently dips into sports for examples to pose to his students.
Webb says this in his office on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue, which virtually overlooks the Citgo sign outside that crazy-quilt, Frazee-guilt intersection of roads taken and not taken that we know as Fenway Park. Midwesterner though he may be, Webb has adopted the home team--and yes, he counts himself among those many Red Sox fans who, until two months ago, could get so hung up in What Might Have Been that they never reached Wait Till Next Year.
With Webb as our muse, we fired up the Way-Back Machine to revisit moments in sports at which some path fatefully divided. We focused not on horrific interventions, like the 1993 knife thrust of Gunther Parche, the unemployed German lathe operator and Steffi Graf obsessive who sidelined Monica Seles for 27 months, thereby redirecting the course of women's tennis for years; or the cocaine overdose that killed Len Bias hours after the Boston Celtics had made him the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft. Nor were we interested in heat-of-the-contest what-ifs--e.g., what if Carl Erskine, the other pitcher the Brooklyn Dodgers had up and throwing one early fall day in 1951, hadn't bounced a curve in the bullpen dirt, leading the Dodgers' brain trust to bring in Ralph Branca, whom the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson had worn out all season? Sometimes that butterfly flapping its wings in Borneo will set off a chain of events that pushes a field goal wide, and there's not a damn thing Scott Norwood can do about it.
December 27, 2004
No, we preferred examples of how events played out as a result of some choice made by a human being acting of free will in the normal course of life. Sometimes these decisions determined one's own destiny. (John Wooden never builds the UCLA basketball dynasty if not for a freak of the weather.) Sometimes the decisions had their primary impact on the destiny of someone else. (A statue of a man named Walt Kiesling should forever grace the promenade of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.) In one instance we highlight the consequence of a standoff reached by two stubborn parties. (Roger Clemens, meet the New York Mets.) But all these historical crossroads share one thing: Every one has an engrossing backstory. So read 'em and weep. Or cheer, if fate treated your town or team or hero kindly.
Coach, Philadelphia Eagles
ROAD NOT TAKEN As David Maraniss recounts in When Pride Still Mattered, after the 1957 season the Eagles sacked coach Hugh Devore, who had presided over two straight losing seasons, and approached Lombardi, then the New York Giants' offensive coordinator. NFL commissioner Bert Bell (whose office was in the Philly suburbs) called the Lombardi house on the Jersey Shore one Saturday morning to talk up the Eagles, interrupting a cribbage game between Lombardi and his wife, Marie. Giants then vice president Wellington Mara, in a call of his own minutes later, countered that the Eagles' ownership was a snare of squabbling partners who would leave Lombardi powerless and frustrated.
ROAD TAKEN Marie sent her husband out of their house to the Catholic church at which he was a regular communicant. "Don't pray," she told him. "Think!" Lombardi decided to stay in part because the Giants agreed to match the Eagles' $22,500 salary offer and hike his life insurance policy. In January 1959, though, Lombardi took his first head-coaching job, with the Green Bay Packers, who in decisive contrast to the Eagles offered him general manager duties too. The Eagles wound up hiring Buck Shaw, who in 1960 led them to a 17--13 NFL-title-game victory over Lombardi's Pack. But within two seasons Philadelphia slipped back into ineptitude, and Green Bay went on to dominate the league.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD As Maraniss notes, Marie Lombardi had always supported her husband in his efforts to better himself professionally. But with the Packers' offer on the table, Marie drew Mara aside during a dinner at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to urge him to do everything he could to keep her husband in New York. "I didn't," recalled Mara. "I said, 'Marie, I think Green Bay is the place for him.'"
LOST IN THE MIST In December 1954 Lombardi and Fordham, where he had been a member in the 1930s of the line renowned as the Seven Blocks of Granite, came to terms for him to become head coach. But days later the school's president announced that the Rams had been losing too much money on football and would be leaving the Big Time. Before he turned the Eagles down, Lombardi had also applied for but failed to land head-coaching jobs at Air Force, Penn and Washington.
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
ROAD NOT TAKEN Through the '40s the layouts of their respective home ballparks fueled the rumor to end all trade rumors: Fenway's Green Monster was an inviting target for the righthanded-hitting DiMaggio, while Yankee Stadium's short rightfield porch was just the ticket for the lefty Williams. The whispers became most audible during and after the 1946 World Series, as a slumping Williams and the Red Sox lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. During a boozy evening at the Manhattan saloon Toots Shor's in April 1947, Boston owner Tom Yawkey and Yankees co-owner Dan Topping agreed to the deal--but also agreed to sleep on it.
ROAD TAKEN The next morning a hung-over Yawkey had second thoughts. He told Topping that he couldn't swap Williams straight up, and that the Yankees needed to throw in their "little leftfielder"--a rookie named Yogi Berra. Topping refused. DiMaggio went on to win an MVP award that season and lead the Yanks to four World Series titles before retiring in 1951. Williams played another 14 seasons in Boston, winding up with 521 home runs and a career average of .344.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Boston sportswriter Clif Keane once asked DiMaggio what he thought of Williams. "Greatest lefthanded hitter I've ever seen," DiMaggio replied. Keane pressed him--what did he think of Williams as a ballplayer? "Greatest lefthanded hitter I've ever seen," said DiMag. Williams, in his autobiography My Turn at Bat, wrote this of DiMaggio: "In my heart I have always felt I was a better hitter than Joe ... but I have to say that he was the greatest baseball player of our time."
LOST IN THE MIST Baseball writers disdained Williams as much as they respected DiMaggio, a circumstance never more evident than at the end of that '47 season, when Williams ranked higher in every major hitting category yet lost to DiMaggio in the MVP balloting. If the one Boston writer who didn't even put Williams on his ballot had given him even a 10th-place vote, Williams would have beaten DiMaggio out.
ROAD NOT TAKEN The Steelers used their ninth-round pick in the 1955 draft to choose Unitas, the hometown boy who, as a kid, had helped his coal-dealer dad make deliveries around town. Though he played effectively during intrasquad scrimmages at the team's training camp in Olean, N.Y., throwing well and getting away for one 25yard scramble, coach Walt Kiesling cut him without letting Unitas take so much as a snap in five preseason games.
ROAD TAKEN Unitas hitchhiked home to Pittsburgh, played semipro ball in sandlots for $6 a game and worked a pile driver on a construction site. Acting on a tip from a fan, the Baltimore Colts invited him to camp the following summer. He became a starter several games into his rookie season, and by the end of 1959 he had led Baltimore to two titles and been named the NFL's MVP. Over the same stretch the Steelers went 28-30-2 with the quarterbacks Unitas hadn't been able to beat out, Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Because Unitas had struggled with entrance exams at Pitt and Louisville, where he eventually enrolled, "the coaches thought he ... just wasn't bright enough for pro ball," recounted Ed Kiely, the Steelers' public relations director at the time, to Unitas biographer Ed Fitzgerald.
LOST IN THE MIST Kiesling showed lousy judgment in this case despite the judicial precedent of having once coached former Steelers running back and future Supreme Court justice Byron (Whizzer) White.
New York Met
ROAD NOT TAKEN In the spring of 1981 Mets scout Jim Terrell became enchanted with Clemens, then an 18-year-old pitcher for San Jacinto (Texas) J.C., and urged the Mets to sign him during the window before the June draft, when teams were free to sign any player. The New York front office authorized Terrell to offer Clemens $7,500, but Terrell knew that sum wouldn't get the job done, so he told the Mets he would put up $7,500 of his own money to double the offer. That got the attention of Joe McIlvaine, New York's scouting director, who decided the club would come up with the $15,000. The Mets still couldn't close the deal, though, but chose Clemens that June in the 12th round and offered him $20,000. According to Terrell, Clemens wanted $25,000--his father had just died, and his mother wouldn't continue to collect $450 a month in Social Security if her son were no longer an enrolled student. Terrell came up with this idea: New York would pay $25,000 if Clemens would agree to defer half until his second year as a pro. But the Mets wouldn't budge, in part because another of their scouts, Harry Minor, had watched Clemens in a summer league game and didn't think he was worth even half that. And so they lost a chance to slot him into their rotation with Dwight Gooden.
ROAD TAKEN Clemens enrolled at Texas, for which he struck out the final six Alabama batters in the decisive game of the 1983 College World Series. Drafted 19th overall that June, he signed with Boston, and less than a year later pulled on a Red Sox uniform--the same uniform he wore when he took the mound as the American League's starter against Gooden in the 1986 All-Star Game.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD McIlvaine flew to Houston twice to inspect the prospect himself. Both trips turned out to be bootless: Each time, an entire weekend of Clemens's summer-league games was rained out.
LOST IN THE MIST Before the Mets made their pass at Clemens, the Minnesota Twins became the first big league team to draft him, in 1980, choosing him as a high school senior in the 22nd round and offering him a $1,000 bonus. Clemens says the Twins' scout told him that if he didn't sign, no other team would ever draft him.
New York Ranger
ROAD NOT TAKEN At the outset of the Rangers' training camp in Winnipeg during the summer of 1943, general manager Lester Patrick pinned on the back of every rookie's jersey a piece of paper bearing the player's name. Howe made three head-turning plays over his four days in camp, only to have Patrick summon him after each shift to ask him his name. The third time, the 15year-old from Saskatchewan snapped, "It's on the back of my shirt, sir." Miserable and homesick, Howe left camp before it ended and went back to Saskatoon.
ROAD TAKEN The Detroit Red Wings spotted Howe that winter, invited him to camp the following summer and signed him at the conclusion of the two-week session. He went on to win six scoring titles and a half-dozen MVP trophies, and led Detroit to four Stanley Cup titles. Mr. Hockey was still playing in 1980, at age 52, while the Rangers were mired in their record 54-year stretch without winning the Cup--a drought that didn't end until 1994.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD The first time he saw Howe skate, Jack Adams, the Red Wings' gruff general manager, was impressed enough with the big teenager's ease on the ice that he called him over to ask, "What's your name, kid?" For Howe, there'd be no more risking his future on the chance that anyone might forget who he was. He locked onto Adams's eyes and said, "My name's Howe."
LOST IN THE MIST Patrick would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player and lend his name to the division in which his old club would compete so fecklessly. But in 1947 he resigned as New York's general manager following five straight losing seasons.
Grand Slam singles king
ROAD NOT TAKEN The International Tennis Federation, curator of the four Grand Slam tournaments, barred professionals from the game's gemstone events until 1968. Given that Laver completed a Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and another in 1969 as a pro, it's not unreasonable to assume that the Australian serve-and-volleyer would have won many of the 20 Slam events contested between 1963 and the dawn of the Open Era had he chosen to remain an amateur. By doing so he would have augmented his final total of 11, thus surpassing countryman Roy Emerson, who took advantage of Laver's absence by winning 10 of his 12 Slam singles titles in that span, and Pete Sampras, who retired last year with 14 crowns.
ROAD TAKEN Pros Ken Rosewell and Lew Hoad, figuring that the '62 Grand Slam winner and fellow Aussie would goose the gate, personally guaranteed Laver $110,000 over three years to join them in barnstorming the world in a series of mostly one-night stands. Laver accepted, thus forfeiting his amateur status.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD In 1966 Laver asked a Cleveland lawyer named Mark McCormack, founder of a new sports agency focused on golfers called International Management Group, to take him on as a client. McCormack turned Laver down, believing there wasn't enough money in tennis to make it worthwhile. But in 1968, McCormack, now foreseeing the potential riches of the Open Era in tennis, added Laver to his stable.
LOST IN THE MIST Right after turning pro, Laver was invited to the 1962 U.S. National Indoor in New York City but didn't want to leave balmy Australia. So he held up promoters for what he thought was an extortionate appearance fee: $1,000 plus expenses. They agreed--which left Laver grumbling that he should have asked for more.
ROAD NOT TAKEN Like his father, Charlie, a Columbus pharmacist, Jack Nicklaus grew up idolizing Bobby Jones, the beau ideal of the well-rounded gentleman who golfed for love, not money. After winning his second U.S. Amateur title, in 1961, Nicklaus faced a decision: Would he do what most golfers then did, make a living at something other than golf--working odd jobs, taking a gig as a wintertime teaching pro or, as was expected in the Nicklaus household, running the family pharmacy? Or would he cast his lot with Mark McCormack, who was helping pros like Arnold Palmer and Gary Player get rich? A letter from Jones urged Nicklaus to remain an amateur, and it briefly carried the day.
ROAD TAKEN Less than a week later, after weighing the needs of his wife, Barbara, and their infant son, Jackie, and assessing where golf was headed, Nicklaus changed his mind.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD After deciding to turn pro, Nicklaus hedged yet again. He wrote a letter to the USGA renouncing his amateur status but didn't send it. Barbara, who had had enough of her husband's vacillation, went ahead and mailed the letter.
LOST IN THE MIST Bobby Jones cast a spell on two generations of Nicklaus men. As Jones won the 1926 U.S. Open at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, the course where Jack would later learn the game, 13year-old Charlie watched him strike every shot. Some 29 years later, after seeing 15-year-old Jack reach a par-five in two shots at the U.S. Amateur at the James River course of the Country Club of Virginia, Jones introduced himself and promised to come out to show his support. The next day, after spotting Jones in the gallery, Nicklaus developed a case of nerves; recognizing this, Jones quickly left the course. Nicklaus went on to win six Masters. Jones, who died in 1971 of the spinal disease syringomyelia, saw three of those victories.
Career radio personality
ROAD NOT TAKEN ABC launched Monday Night Football in the 1970 season with a three-man crew that included, as one of the analysts, a former Manhattan lawyer with a grating voice and a syndicated radio show. According to Roone Arledge, then president of ABC sports, right after the inaugural broadcast the network got outraged calls and letters from viewers and sponsors, including Ford Motor Company CEO Henry Ford III, who said, "Take that guy Cosell off, if my opinion counts for anything." Ford's opinion counted for a great deal; his company was the network's biggest sponsor. ABC chairman Leonard Goldenson didn't order Arledge to fire Cosell but warned him that the series might be doomed without Ford's support.
ROAD TAKEN Arledge stood up for Cosell, arguing that it was too soon to make any changes in the show and that the network would look weak if it caved so quickly. By the middle of that first season Arledge and Cosell had been vindicated: Monday Night Football dominated its time slot, and even Henry Ford had changed his opinion, telling Goldenson that he liked "the patter going on between Cosell and [fellow analyst Don] Meredith." By the end of the program's second season 30 million people were tuning in weekly, cities staged parades when the crew came to town, and Cosell was a celebrity.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Knowing of Cosell's egotism and thin skin, Arledge never told him that Ford had tried to get him fired. In fact, Cosell was quite capable of jeopardizing his job on his own, as he did later during that first season when he allegedly showed up for a game drunk and later threw up in the booth. Meredith gracefully got Cosell off the hook, telling the audience that his partner was feeling under the weather and would be taking the rest of the night off.
LOST IN THE MIST When Arledge hired Cosell in 1965 to do ABC's baseball pregame show, he did so without the blessing of network president Tom Moore, who had declared Cosell "too New York." It was Arledge's respect for Cosell's radio work--particularly his coverage of boxing, and his ability to get athletes to say outrageous things into the massive reel-to-reel recorder he slung over his shoulder--that had led Arledge to risk his boss's wrath. Moore was eventually won over by Humble Howard's TV work, and Arledge's instinct about Cosell consolidated his own standing at ABC, and he went on to remake coverage of the Olympics and juice up network news.
High school coach and teacher
ROAD NOT TAKEN In the summer of 1956 Huff, a third-round draft choice in the New York Giants' training camp in Winooski, Vt., was desperately homesick for Farmington, W.Va., where his dad worked in the coal mines. As he and another rookie moped in their dorm room, Huff announced that they should bolt camp if a lonesome country ballad called Detroit City came up next on the radio. Sure enough, that was the next tune played, whereupon the two picked up their playbooks and headed downstairs to hand them in. There they found Giants assistant coach Vince Lombardi napping in his room.
ROAD TAKEN Lombardi screamed at the two, telling them, "You're sure as hell not quitting on me!" While the other rookie fled upstairs to pack, Lombardi and another assistant briefly talked Huff out of leaving. But Huff changed his mind again a short time later, and the two malcontents got a ride to the Burlington airport. Lombardi intercepted them at the terminal, corralling both and forcibly returning them to camp. Huff, who had been a two-way lineman at West Virginia, became a mobile and unusually effective middle linebacker with the Giants and the Redskins during a 13-year, Hall of Fame career.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD That other homesick rookie was kicker Don Chandler, who toward the end of a 12-year NFL career landed in Green Bay, where his accurate toe figured in several of Lombardi's most important victories.
LOST IN THE MIST In 1969, when Lombardi took over as coach of the Washington Redskins, Huff decided to come out of retirement for one season just so he could play once again for his onetime hall monitor.
ROAD NOT TAKEN Following a 17--0 loss at Nebraska in 1925, Notre Dame dropped the Cornhuskers from its schedule. Administrators cited anti-Catholic slurs from the stands and a derisive halftime skit by students that depicted the Irish as ruffian brick masons. Rockne adamantly opposed the move, if only because the coach didn't want the series to end after so emphatic a loss, and he became further incensed when administrators ignored his appeals to overturn the decision. Within days he met in New York with representatives of Columbia, who offered him an unprecedented $25,000 a year for three years to become the Lions' coach. Rockne signed a contract, asking only that the agreement be kept secret until he had a chance to return to South Bend to inform the Golden Dome hierarchy. But the next day a Columbia representative leaked word to the New York papers. Rockne, wrote Grantland Rice, "will have the Lion of the Hudson roaring."
ROAD TAKEN When the story broke, Rockne was in Philadelphia with some Notre Dame alumni, who persuaded him to change his mind. Meanwhile school president Father Matthew Walsh, frustrated that Rockne had betrayed the Golden Dome barely a year after signing a 10-year contract and only weeks after converting to Catholicism, feigned indifference, telling Rockne that Notre Dame wouldn't stand in his way if he wanted to leave. Eventually, according to Murray Sperber's Shake Down the Thunder, Walsh was only too content to take back a chastened and more malleable Rockne. As for "the Lion of the Hudson," under coach Lou Little it would score an epic 7--0 upset of Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl but gradually become toothless on the gridiron.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Earlier in 1925, while in Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl, Rockne had met secretly with Southern Cal officials, but details of that impending deal had also leaked, ending the negotiations.
LOST IN THE MIST Notre Dame encountered anti-Catholicism throughout the country during the 1920s, but the invective had been worst in Lincoln, including a newspaper headline reading horrible hibernians invade today and chants of "Roughneck Irish!" and "Mackerel Snappers Go Home!"
WNBA point guard
ROAD NOT TAKEN Though best known at Thousand Oaks (Calif.) High as a sprint prodigy, Jones, a 5'11" center, was also named California high school basketball player of the year when she was a senior. In 1993 she enrolled at North Carolina, in part because coaches there promised she could play basketball as well as run track. Jones played point guard her freshman season, and with her leading their fast break, the Tar Heels went on to win an NCAA championship that spring. Three years later the NBA launched the WNBA, where Jones might have been a charismatic star.
ROAD TAKEN After her sophomore season, while working out with the U.S. World University Games basketball team, Jones broke her left foot, which kept her from running in the Atlanta Olympics. A North Carolina assistant track coach and Olympic shot-putter named C.J. Hunter supervised Jones's rehab and later became her husband. Though she did return to the basketball team, averaging 18.6 points in 1996--97, Jones told her teammates in a tearful meeting that she wouldn't play her senior season so she could concentrate on track. By 1998 Jones was the world's fastest woman in the 100 and 200 meters, and two years later she won Olympic gold in both events in Sydney. But Hunter soon disgraced himself with a positive drug test and, though they are now divorced, subsequently helped ensnare Jones in the ongoing BALCO drug scandal. (Jones contends that she has never used performance-enhancing drugs.)
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Track man though he was, Hunter loved basketball and supported Jones's jones for the game. But it was while playing hoops that she broke her foot, which led her to rehab, where she met Hunter.
LOST IN THE MIST Jones finally made her WNBA debut in 2001--as a sideline reporter for NBC.
ROAD NOT TAKEN The high school prodigy from the bulrushes of Petersburg, Va., attracted hundreds of college recruiters, including evangelist Oral Roberts, founder of the university bearing his name, who offered to cure Malone's mother, Mary, of her bleeding ulcer. But in the spring of 1974 Malone signed a letter of intent with Maryland, whose coach, Lefty Driesell, had charmed Mary by invoking the Bible and talking up the virtues of a college education.
ROAD TAKEN Driesell hadn't reckoned on the ABA's Utah Stars, who had drafted Malone. On the August day that Stars coach Bucky Buckwalter and owner Jim Collier spread 10 $100 bills across an orange crate in the Malone living room and showed Malone a photograph of a Lincoln Mark IV, Lefty wound up the loser. In agreeing to a five-year deal worth $590,000, Malone became the first high school basketball player to go straight to the pros, where he became the greatest offensive rebounder of all time during a 21-year career. Meanwhile Maryland regularly endured blows that confirmed its reputation as college basketball's most snakebitten program.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD When Malone finally agreed to terms with the Stars, in the Washington, D.C., offices of his agent, all parties had to drive to a Ramada Inn in Rosslyn, Va., for the signing because D.C. law required a party to be 21 to enter into a contract.
LOST IN THE MIST Malone's deal included up to $120,000 in incentives for making progress toward a college degree. Today Malone, who never did attend college, speaks frequently to groups of children and sounds a lot like Driesell: He talks up the value of staying in school.
Boston Red Sox
ROAD NOT TAKEN For the Red Sox to play Sunday baseball in the mid-1940s, they had to get the Boston city council to annually grant a blue-law exemption by unanimous vote. Just before the 1945 season a crusading councilman named Izzy Muchnick told Sox general manager Eddie Collins that he would withhold his vote unless the club held a tryout for black players. On April 16 the Red Sox did--for Negro league standouts Sam Jethroe, Marvin Williams and Robinson. By all accounts each hit and fielded impressively that day at Fenway Park, but in the midst of the tryout, someone yelled from the stands, "Get those niggers off the field!" And though the players were told that the club would get back to them, none heard from the Red Sox again.
ROAD TAKEN Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers six months later and made his historic major league debut in 1947. Though based in the cradle of abolitionism, the Red Sox didn't dress a black player until 1959, making them the last big league club to integrate and establishing a reputation that so haunted the franchise that, when free agency gave players the unprecedented choice over where they could go, black stars almost uniformly refused to sign with Boston. Several even had it written into their contracts that they couldn't be traded there.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Decades later Joe Cronin, the team's player-manager at the time of the Robinson tryout, told The Boston Globe, "The general manager did the hiring and there was an unwritten rule at that time against hiring black players.... We just accepted things the way they were.... We all thought, because of the times, it was good to have separate leagues."
LOST IN THE MIST Five years later the Red Sox passed up an opportunity to sign a young outfielder for the Birmingham Black Barons named Willie Mays. Bigotry thus kept Boston from fielding a team on which Robinson and Mays played alongside Ted Williams.
Michigan State quarterback
CHARLIE (MAD DOG)
Notre Dame linebacker
ROAD NOT TAKEN In 1961 Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, like Namath a native of western Pennsylvania, desperately wanted to sign the cocky passer from Beaver Falls--and Namath hoped to matriculate at East Lansing. But the MSU admissions office refused to waive a school rule that said a prospect had to have graduated in the top half of his class, which Namath hadn't done. With Namath piloting the Spartans' offense from 1962 through '64, Michigan State might have surpassed such rivals as Alabama, Southern Cal, Texas and Notre Dame for national supremacy.
ROAD TAKEN Though distraught, Daugherty commended Namath to his good friend Paul (Bear) Bryant, the coach at Alabama, where Namath enrolled.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Bryant returned the favor. During Namath's freshman season in Tuscaloosa, the Bear found himself in Roanoke, Va., at a high school football banquet, where he came across Charlie Thornhill, a black kid who was leaning toward attending Notre Dame. Segregation at Alabama kept Bryant from recruiting him, but he phoned Thornhill and said, "Charlie, this is Coach Bryant. You'll get a ticket in the mail to visit Michigan State. Coach Daugherty is a good man and you'll enjoy playing up there." Mad Dog Thornhill wound up doing so and would win All--Big Ten honors in 1966. If he had suited up at linebacker for the Irish rather than the Spartans in the teams' epic 1966 encounter, one of sports' most controversial games might not have ended in a 10--10 tie.
LOST IN THE MIST Thornhill's high school nickname had been Big Dog, but when a Michigan State coach punched him in the chest during a practice, Thornhill snarled at him, "Don't you put your hands on me." The chastened assistant began calling him Mad Dog, and the nickname stuck.
New York Knicks president
ROAD NOT TAKEN During the summer of 1978 Auerbach, then president of the Boston Celtics, was to catch the shuttle to New York City and meet with Knicks owner Sonny Werblin, who had a contract ready for Auerbach's signature. On the way to Boston's Logan Airport, though, Auerbach's cab driver added his voice to the chorus of Bostonians who, though they knew Auerbach was miserable under meddlesome owner John Y. Brown, desperately wanted him to stay. What nearly drove Auerbach out of town were some awful decisions by Brown, such as sending three first-round picks to the Knicks for Bob McAdoo--without telling Auerbach. But by the time the taxi emerged from the Callahan Tunnel, Auerbach knew that his trip would be a formality and that he'd be turning Werblin down. "He really got on me, but in a nice way," Auerbach says of that persuasive hack.
ROAD TAKEN Five months after the McAdoo deal, Brown sold out to Harry Mangurian, and soon Auerbach was assembling the front line that carried the Celtics through the '80s. In 1979 he signed Larry Bird; the next year he drafted Kevin McHale and heisted Robert Parish from Golden State. And he regularly bedeviled the team he'd almost signed with: In 1983 he responded to New York's attempt to pick up McHale as a free agent by signing three Knicks to extravagant offer sheets, forcing New York's management to devote its resources to re-signing its players rather than pursuing McHale.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Auerbach turned Werblin down, but the Knicks' boss left the job offer on the table for three years. "He told me, 'If you change your mind, it's yours,'" says Auerbach.
LOST IN THE MIST Brown got McAdoo because the owner's fiancée, former Miss America Phyllis George, had watched McAdoo go for big numbers at a Celtics-Knicks game and declared him to be a favorite of hers.
Coach, Cincinnati Bengals
ROAD NOT TAKEN After the legendary Paul Brown retired from coaching at the end of the 1975 season, the Bengals might have promoted the future Hall of Famer who was working as their quarterbacks and receivers coach. Walsh served as the team's de facto offensive coordinator, calling plays from the press box, and already had a reputation as an offensive innovator.
ROAD TAKENBrown, the team's part-owner, vice president and general manager, did dip into his staff to find his replacement but chose offensive line coach Bill (Tiger) Johnson, who shared Brown's temperament and background: Both were taciturn former servicemen and pro football lifers. At 44 Walsh was five years younger than Johnson and more emotional. "Paul had promised it to Tiger," says Dave Lapham, an offensive guard on that team. "He had turned down other opportunities to be a head coach. He had Paul's word that he would be the guy." Within two weeks, citing a preference for living on the West Coast, Walsh bolted for an assistant's job with the San Diego Chargers. Johnson coached the Bengals for two full seasons and was fired after Cincinnati lost the first five games of his third.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD According to former Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Tom Callahan's The Bases Were Loaded (and So Was I),the Bengals tried desperately to keep Walsh on their staff. They offered more money and threatened to charge San Diego with tampering. Chargers coach Tommy Prothro invited Walsh to eavesdrop on a bizarre phone call between Brown and Prothro. According to Callahan, "Walsh silently listened to what a backstabber [Walsh] was and what a mistake it would be ever to trust him with the offense or anything else." But Walsh already had made his decision to leave Cincinnati, thereby ensuring that the West Coast offense wasn't renamed the River City offense.
LOST IN THE MIST When Bengals finally did reach the Super Bowl, in 1982 and '89, they ran up against the 49ers. Walsh got the better of his ex-employer both times.
Coach, University of Minnesota
ROAD NOT TAKEN After guiding Indiana State to the 1948 NAIA title game, Wooden entertained offers from Minnesota and UCLA. He preferred the Gophers for their superior facilities and membership in the Big Ten, the conference in which Wooden had played in the 1920s and '30s at Purdue. But Minnesota's bid came with the proviso that he retain as his assistant Dave McMillan, the man he would be replacing, and Wooden wanted to bring along his own aide, Eddie Powell. Minnesota athletic director Frank McCormick promised to go back to the school's athletic board to try to accommodate Wooden. He was to call Wooden at six one evening, and UCLA AD Wilbur Johns was to do so at seven. But six o'clock passed with no call from McCormick because, unbeknownst to Wooden, a spring snowstorm had briefly knocked out phone service from the Twin Cities. By the time McCormick got through to relay word that the board had approved Powell's hiring, Wooden had taken the Bruins job. McCormick urged Wooden to phone UCLA, explain the extenuating circumstances and withdraw his acceptance, but the man who might have been the Wizard of Williams Arena refused to go back on his word.
ROAD TAKEN Once he arrived at UCLA, Wooden spent 27 seasons there, winning 10 NCAA crowns in a 12-year stretch, including seven in a row. Over that same period Minnesota went through five coaches and failed to win a Big Ten title until 1972.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Upon visiting UCLA that spring, Wooden was stunned by the poor quality of the leftover players. "Had I known how to abort the agreement in an honorable manner," he wrote in his autobiography They Call Me Coach, "I would have done so and gone to Minnesota, or if that was impossible, stayed on at Indiana State." In fact, help was on the way, thanks to the talent produced by California's junior colleges, a feeder system that was relatively unknown in Big Ten country.
LOST IN THE MIST After Wooden's second season in Westwood, Purdue offered him its head-coaching job. But UCLA wouldn't release him from his contract, and he was forced to turn the Boilermakers down. Later, he would disappoint Notre Dame and both Minnesota and Purdue, again. Meanwhile poor Frank McCormick, eventually did work with Wooden--as the Pacific Coast Conference's supervisor of officials.
The Sports Illustrated cable network
ROAD NOT TAKEN In 1983, after buying Getty Oil, Texaco found itself with an ill-fitting little asset, an all-sports cable network that showed Australian Rules football at 4 a.m. Unable to see how ESPN fit into its plans, Texaco put the network up for sale, and SI publisher Bob Miller urged executives at Time Inc., SI's parent company, to buy and rebrand the network as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's own. But company president Richard Munro chose to sit out the bidding.
ROAD TAKEN ABC wound up acquiring ESPN for $237 million. Today, as one of the most valuable steeds in the Disney stable, the network reportedly clears between four and five times that in profit each year. Over the next two decades SI launched two TV ventures, both of which eventually folded; one, the sports news network CNN/SI, never got a foothold on cable systems because of ESPN's hegemony.
NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Though Time Inc. had begun to expand into cable in the early '80s, the company still regarded itself as a magazine publisher first and was more interested in deals like the one it made just before passing on ESPN, for Temple Inland, the East Texas paper company that would keep its magazines in pulp far into the future.
LOST IN THE MIST Gerald Levin, the executive whose vision led Time Inc. to rent the satellite space for a pay-cable venture called Home Box Office, was among the executives in favor of buying ESPN. But Levin hadn't yet ascended to the rank that would eventually make him CEO of AOL Time Warner. Munro's caution won out, thereby depriving fans of such potential fruits of synergy as The Life of Berman and Pardon the Swimsuit Issue.