Bob Cousy and Bill Russell of the Celtics, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West of the Lakers. There they all were last week going head to head on prime-time television: Cooz whipping passes, Russ blocking shots, Elg faking, Jerry popping jumpers. They were not playing in an NBA old-timers game. It was something better—topflight sports and nostalgia aired by the same folks who bring you Sesame Street and 6 a.m. algebra classes.
A month ago most of the 250 Public Broadcasting Service stations began showing The Way It Was, the first PBS sports-oriented series. Some parts of the country can see it only once or twice a week, while others have the same show scheduled up to a dozen times. Which is just fine, since some programs in the series arc so well done they bear second—or third—looks.
The Way It Was arrives at a time when so-called educational channels are beginning to look at sports as at least a semiserious proposition. Last June the executive committee of PBS adopted a resolution recognizing "the coverage of athletic events as a legitimate component of its cultural programming," and stating that "the few major sports offered on commercial television should not provide the limits for audiences."
Only a few weeks before that PBS had scored a major TV sports coup. WNET in New York picked up the fifth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs when NBC decided not to carry it in anticipation of low prime-time ratings. WNET pulled its largest audience ever—626,000 homes compared to a normal weekly high of 200,000. More important, the station was flooded with phone calls and contributions that totaled $48,000. "A lot of people—blue-collar people," says producer/ announcer Crane Davis of WNET, "reacted to us and thanked us in many ways."
Now it is expected that many PBS stations will begin showing lesser, local-interest events like intercollegiate rodeo, gymnastics, bicycle racing, college soccer, rowing, rugby, badminton, equestrian events and a variety of women's sports.
PBS will have to do a whale of a job on such shows to equal The Way It Was. The series' 13 segments span the years 1941-62 and cover some of the most dramatic moments in baseball, basketball, boxing, hockey and football. (December's lineup is the 1941 Louis-Conn fight, the 1950 Browns-Rams NFL title game, the 1954 Stanley Cup playoff between Montreal and Detroit and the Don Larsen perfect-game World Series.) Funded by the Mobil Oil Corporation at a cost of about $400,000, the shows were put together last winter at KCET in Los Angeles by Gerry Gross Productions. The idea for The Way It Was originated with Herb Schmertz, a vice-president at Mobil. "The rehashing of exciting sports events occurs a lot in barroom conversations, and it had been in the back of my mind for several years to try to put films of them together," he says. "Not long ago Ballantine Beer ran some 30-second commercials with Mel Allen doing a voice-over of memorable events, and that got me thinking about the project seriously."
The subjects covered by half the shows date back to a time when fans listened to events on radio and perhaps later saw them in newsreels. Collecting the old films was not an easy task, and watching them has its difficulties, too. Even games as recent as the '62 NBA playoffs between Boston and Los Angeles look as if they had been photographed through the rear window of a speeding car.
The dated quality of the film yields a charm of its own, but that is hardly the reason The Way It Was is so good. The Celtics-Lakers show affords viewers the opportunity to see two marvelous teams in the most suspenseful of seven-game playoffs. This was not only a series with an overtime in the deciding game, but The Way It Was makes it very clear that the rivalry stirred the imagination of so many fans that pro basketball became a coast-to-coast, truly major league sport for the first time. Even though a dozen years have passed, the viewer gets a rich feeling of the intensity of the competition through the accompanying conversation of some of the participants. When host Curt Gowdy asks then Celtic Coach Red Auerbach about playing Los Angeles, Auerbach says, "We always had a psychological edge on the Lakers. If Baylor and West got 70 points, we could get more."
Although Gowdy did not broadcast any of the events originally, he serves as an excellent catalyst for The Way It Was. He is relaxed and has done his homework. He prompted Cousy to admit that the basis for his style was not hours of practice, but the fact that he had unusually long arms and big hands for a guard. Then Cooz adds, "Very little was practice. It was instinctive."
During the second segment of a two-part program on the 1947 World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers, Gowdy asks Joe DiMaggio what it was like playing in Ebbets Field as a visitor. "When I look back on it I enjoy it," DiMaggio says. "But at the time, I hated the fans' guts." Dodger Al Gionfriddo is asked how he took losing, and he tells of going with other players to a restaurant far off the beaten track so that Dodger fans could not find them. No chance. As they sat drinking, some Brooklyn rooters marched through bearing a coffin.
In addition to bringing back many performers from the events, The Way It Was calls on the announcers who broadcast them. When available, tapes of original programs are inserted. It is true that the impact of the show is enhanced by the current nostalgia craze. But the blend of good sports competition and. fond memories has long had a special attraction of its own. The Way It Was mixes these ingredients so deftly that it does not need the help of a fad to become a hit.