Just in case you missed it, what with Christmas and New Year's and President Jerry on skis, something happened the other day that will shake up the American way of life forever. Not incidentally, it could cause Dressy Bessy to play out her option, Baby Yawny to declare herself a free agent and the remarkable Rub-A-Dub-Dolly to retire and start a new career in color announcing.
Yes, even before our favorite plastic girls were brightening up the Yuletide, their counterparts in the wonderful world of real women were doing some things in the nearly empty Houston Astrodome that may change the face of athletics for years to come. Male egos may never be the same.
What happened was that Superstars returned, this time with more television gimmickry than ever before, more confusion, characters, unbelievable performances, astounding failures and one broken yellow rowboat. Oh, yes, this time also with women. Women alone, or almost alone, since only 4,500 fans showed up to watch the live performance of this child of video tape, which will be telecast on Jan. 19.
There was Debbie Lawler, the motorcyclist, the female Evel Knievel, the Flying Angel, who wears her terrific flaming orange bra for luck. She broke her back a few months ago, but returned to vroom another day. Fine athlete, right? Well, she got zero points during the competition in which each participant chose seven events from a list of swimming, basketball, rowing, tennis, bowling, bicycling, Softball throwing and three different foot races. Maybe her wondrous three-carat diamond ring got in the way, or perhaps she has been too busy pushing the Debbie Lawler toy motorcycle with "TTP—Turbine Tower of Power." The Flying Angel looked almost as bad in Superstars as Joe Frazier did last year. She didn't drown, but she wasn't exactly smokin' either. "I'm just here to lend glamour to the rear," said Lawler.
And there were swimmer Debbie Meyer, golfer Sandy Palmer and jockey Robyn Smith. Famous sportspersons all, truly legendary Superstars whom we know and love and would expect to clean up in something like this, right? Well, Meyer got sick from jet lag after flying all the way from Manila. Palmer allowed with marvelous accuracy that the only things she was good at were "drinkin' beer and passin' out." And Smith, ever a bust except when it came to hurling a Softball, kept saying, "Sonofabitch, this is a joke."
With the exception of Madame Super herself, Billie Jean King, most of the more famous women tumbled by the wayside. As in the men's competitions of the past two years, it was the unknowns from the less prestigious sports who dominated.
To qualify for the $69,000 finals to be held Jan. 27-29 in Rotunda, Fla., the 23 women were divided into two divisions of supposedly equal ability, with the first six finishers in each earning the trip to Florida. While heavily favored Micki King, the semi-famous diver, won Group 1, most of the excitement and surprises came in Group 2, where 30-year-old Mary Jo Peppier, a tall volleyball player of sultry visage, and Karen Logan, 25, a basketball phenom composed of equal parts freckles and fire, emerged from the pack to fight it out for the $10,000 first prize in their group.
Micki King admitted she had trained diligently, after the fashion of Bob Seagren, who has practically made Superstars his life's work. It paid off when she won four events—swimming, obstacle course, 60-yard sprint and the traditional 352-yard run—to score 58 points, each worth $100, and beat out speed-skater Diane Holum, who won three events, and softball pitcher Joan Joyce for the $10,000 prize in Group 1. That ran King's total winnings to $15,800.
The other group was more wide open. Though Billie Jean and sprinter Wyomia Tyus were the big names, it quickly became necessary to investigate who Peppier, Logan and football quarterback Barbara O'Brien really are.
It turned out that O'Brien, who "mainly splices cables and climbs poles" for the telephone company, is a signal caller for the Dallas Bluebonnets. Although the team paid her the lordly sum of $70 for the entire '73 season and even less this year, O'Brien's owner forced her to sign a contract granting him 50% of her earnings at Superstars. Those came to $2,500 as O'Brien finished fourth in Group 2 with 25 points.
Peppler, who won rowing, swimming, bicycling and the softball throw with a heave that nearly crashed through the Dome, is a world-class spiker. "I'm talking about strooooong," said her coach, Wayne Vandenburg. She is an alumna of Sul Ross State and player-assistant coach of the El Paso/Juarez Sols. "I'm a nobody here, but I could be elected mayor of Bourgas, Bulgaria, where I was chosen best-in-world at the Volleyball World Games in 1970," she said. "From what I've seen, five of my teammates could sweep this field."
Logan, the star forward of the Pink Panthers' basketball team, an offspring of the touring Redheads, had similar ideas after casing the opposition. "I thought I'd come down here and be out of my league," she said. "Now I think maybe I'm gonna be somebody."
The elements that made this Superstars in some ways infinitely more interesting than the men's were not only the camaraderie and fetching byplay of the contestants, but a bristling competitiveness that for some reason, perhaps a fear of losing cool, has been lacking in men's Superstars. Barry Warner, a scout for the Oakland Raiders, said admiringly, "This is a bunch of first-round draft choices in any sport."
It seemed everyone, with the exception of The Flying Angel and the ill Meyer, thought she could win. Or, at least, do very well. Even Smith, who might have made the finals if she had been allowed to whip Secretariat through seven events, thought she had a shot.
There was all that self-confidence because no women's sports underground exists. Unlike male athletics, where every baseball player seems to have buddies in the NFL, PGA and WTT, most of the women were complete strangers. Some had not even heard of the other performers. Micki King put the whole thing in perspective when she said, "This is the sad part about women's sports and why we're powerless. Line us all up and not even we can pick out who we are."
Both Kings agreed that an important facet of the competition was the meeting of the minds, the socializing, the sharing of ideas among women from all walks of jockdom. "Huh, that's one of the least interesting parts about this," said Smith, who had a tendency to linger on the fringes, consulting with her lawyer, Leonard Maizlish. "I don't want to meet any of these women. I want to meet men."
It seemed all of the women would rather have met a man than the lithe Logan, who arrived late for practice yet proceeded to show that in tennis, for example, she not only would win, but probably would have overwhelmed the male Superstar field as well. At a cocktail party the night before the competition, Logan was a subject of concern. "I haven't even seen her and I hate her," said Paula Sperber, sometimes known as Bowling's Blonde Bombshell.
"I'm throwing olives at her head," O'Brien added. "Better yet, let's get Lawler to run her over with the cycle."
"How tacky," said Lawler. "Why don't you just punch her out?"
Of course, they were kidding, right? Sperber ended up giving Logan a good match in the Group 2 tennis final, losing 6-3, and later Peppier, a magnificent athlete, drafted skillfully and then came from behind to pass Logan in a thrilling bicycle finish. "She's the strongest woman I've ever seen," said Logan. After both stumbled in the obstacle course, Peppier came away with the overall first prize in their group, winning $15,500 and the favorite's role in the finals at Rotunda.
To the dismay of many competitors, also in Florida will be the dazzling Laura Blears Ching, a 23-year-old Hawaiian waitress who is the best female surfer in the world and commanded chauvinistic attention in Houston because of her alluring figure. "She ain't your basic Tom Sawyer," Sperber conceded.
The earthy Ching brought along her father, Lord James Blears ("The famous Lord Tally Ho, former world's light-heavyweight wrestling champion"), her husband, Bon Ching ("My name is Cyrus Meek Halanani Ching, man. Bon? I eat bonbons, man."), a full-size Hawaiian flag and several thousand puka shell necklaces. She qualified for Florida by ending up sixth in Group 1, but more impressive were her soulfulness, her John Lennon vocabulary and the fact that she will soon be seen in an altogether different magazine. On her board. In the altogether.
"I dig posing nude, man," said Ching. "It's a downer when people think chicks who do sports aren't chicky enough. It's a trip bein' a chick, man. A groove. Superstars? Far out, man."
But even the likes of Ching could not entirely upstage Billie Jean King, who was returning to the scene of her most glorious conquest, otherwise known as Riggs' Last Stand. B.J. psyched herself by claiming she was "in with some real dogs," and finished fifth in Peppler's group to easily qualify for the finals. She even won the basketball shooting event, upsetting the volleyball player in a sudden-death playoff.
There was a tense, climactic struggle between Sperber and Cathy Rigby for Group 2's last qualifying spot. The 4'11" gymnast finally defeated the bowler by a bare half-point when she chugged through the hazardous obstacle course and nailed third place in the event behind sprinters Tyus, who finished third in the group, and Barbara Ferrell, a non-qualifier.
It was questionable whether the golfers would have won so much as a chugalug. Jane Blalock had the worst luck of the tournament, and effervescent Palmer kept missing the cut in every event and howling, "I'm so glad I got a job."
As for the rowing event, it was Superstars at its nonsensical worst—or best. The race was held 50 miles from Houston on Lake Conroe, to which the women were carted in a bus early one morning. "The last time I was in a boat, I stayed the night," said Palmer.
The officials should have become suspicious when Peppier and Joyce kept breaking their oarlocks in practice. Sure enough, when Ching set off as the first contestant in her yellow boat, her oars popped out. She made another run, then another, and they resulted in breakdowns. "Get her a motor," screamed spectators, raising their paper cups.
From there the competition had nowhere to go but down. Equipment failures mounted in the darkest hour for J.C. Penney, which supplied the boats. Tyus speared a buoy with her oar. Ferrell fell backwards in her boat. B.J. King drifted in circles. Smith inherited Ching's wayward yellow vessel, tried twice, failed twice, complained and then gave up. "Next time get your boats at Sears," she snickered, and went off to play golf. Golf wasn't even in the competition. "I really care," Smith said.
"I just figured this out," said Marilynn Preston of The Chicago Tribune. "ABC only gets its kicks when the girls look like fools. This is the worst exploitation of women yet."
Meanwhile, back at the softball throw, Blalock unleashed a long one and earned second place behind Holum in the event. Almost earned a second, that is. On the sideline, Smith was saying to her lawyer, "Damn, Leonard, she fouled. She jumped way over the line. What is this?"
Maizlish rushed over to Superstars Director Barry Frank and esteemed Line Judge Don Wilson, a pitcher for the Astros. "I'm filing a protest," said Maizlish. "Blalock was over the line. She's disqualified."
Frank looked at Wilson. The esteemed line judge suddenly looked very tired. Wilson looked for honorary Superstars Chief Umpire Walt Cunningham, formerly an astronaut. Cunningham was down the track shaking his triangle crew cut. Wilson said yes, Blalock had stepped over the line.
Immediately B.J. King realized that if Blalock's throw was disallowed, whatever chance her friend had of reaching the finals in Florida would be gone. "What is this?" King cried. "The judges were told to be lenient about this stuff. Kiki Cutter footfaults in tennis all day. O'Brien was over the line in bowling. The rowing was a total screw-up. Now you're getting technical?"
Donna de Varona of ABC asked Wilson why he didn't call the foul earlier. "Why, why?" she demanded.
"I was supposed to raise a flag for a foul," Wilson said. "Nobody gave me a flag."
"I'm arguing that you called the foul too late," de Varona said.
A meet official warned de Varona that she should not argue, that she should report.
"I'm not arguing. I'm investigating. I'm an investigative reporter," de Varona snapped.
"I need this," Wilson said.
"What an unbelievable bunch of garbage," King decided.
On which note the latest version of Superstars reached its zenith. All hands should have been glad they had jobs.