OH, WHAT AN ERA!

If Rip van Jockman, rising from a 25-year nap, found his way to the academic elms and audited a course in nuclear-age sports, he would get a culture shock of seismic proportions. In view of the triumphs and upheavals of that era, speculation as to what the next quarter-century has in store for sports can be as far out as the limits of one's imagination
August 12, 1979

PROF: Good morning, students. Today...is that the elusive Mr. Quark on time for a change? Welcome to American Civilization II.

QUARK: Yeah, well, I heard you were talking about dirt bikin' this period.

PROF: Yes, sort of. But first, as a warmup for today's lesson plan, "Sports in the Nuclear Age," a little exercise for which you all have an uncommon flair: daydreaming. Just assume your customary slouch positions, relax and let your imaginations drift backward in time, back a quarter of a century to a languid afternoon in the summer of 1954.

You are lounging on your patio, a patch of cement that is the latest thing in suburban chic, reading the paper. Lawn sprinklers are spurting, screen doors twanging and, on your Philco portable radio, the Crew Cuts are singing the stirring anthem "Sh-boom, sh-boom, yadadadadadadadada." The headlines about the Cold War and other scary things like flying-saucer invasions seem less threatening when you hear that Ike has taken the day off to play golf. Your son, a model of James Dean cool in pegged pants and ducktailed locks, has just roared off to the Atomic Drive-In in his "draggin' wagon"—a souped-up Studebaker—to catch The Jackie Robinson Story, a celebration of the acceptance of Negroes into sport's mainstream. Your faddist neighbor, Ralph the Red-Baiter, is busy digging a bomb shelter in his backyard. Across the street, a kid in a Davy Crockett coonskin cap is playing catch with his father in the hope of joining the Little League, a growing phenomenon spurred in part by the fact that the average major league salary level has soared to a gaudy high of $9,000.

And there goes the Pringle girl, dribbling her leather basketball around fireplugs and head-faking elm trees in dedicated tomboy fashion. "Don't worry," everyone says, "she'll grow out of it."

Like millions of Americans, you have never seen a real live major league game, that being a privilege available only in 12 Eastern and Midwestern cities. Instead, you tune in a contest between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies on your trusty Philco, where the wondrous likes of Willie Mays play ball in the meadows of the imagination. And instantly, falling into a Walter Mitty reverie, you are one with the Say Hey Kid as he leans into a Robin Roberts fastball, swings mightily and...Sh-BOOM!

Suddenly, you are thrust into the jangling here and now of 1979. Your Philco has been replaced by a TV screen the size of a bed sheet with kaleidoscopic scenes of strange Buck Rogers racing cars, masked monsters guarding hockey goals and grown men playing something that looks suspiciously like girls' kickball. Your neighbor has converted his bomb shelter into a sauna cum Jacuzzi and himself into Ralph the Roadrunner, scourge of the jogging trails. Davy Crockett Jr. has not only made it to the majors but he has also jumped his contract to hold out for half a million a year plus a custom Rolls. And the Pringle girl is now the coach of a women's college basketball team that has a man-size budget and man-size recruiting problems.

You seek understanding at the corner bar—now a Taco 'n Disco franchise—but all around you there is talk about mysterious things like hang gliding, slam dunks, designated hitters, Title IX, racquetball, artificial grass and—how's that?—too many blacks in pro basketball. Wild-eyed, you rush out into the fading twilight, only to be confronted by—ye gods, have the Martians actually landed!—the Omnidome, a splendiferous sports palace that is the home of not one but four real live big league teams. Sh-BOOM!

O.K., class, sit up straight now and take notes. If you feel out of sync, good. That was our intent. The more in tune you are with the present the less able you are to assess the past. And because our concern here is to chart the great between—25 roiling, heroic, clashing, epochal and exciting years of it—you first have to dig where you're coming from, man. The distance is deceptive. Like Rip Van Winkle, we are all living in a time warp imposed by the overwhelming rush of events that passes for progress. As C. P. Snow has noted, "Until this century social change was so slow that it would pass unnoticed in one person's lifetime. That is no longer so. The rate of change has increased so much that our imaginations can't keep up."

The future shock syndrome—too much, too fast, too confusing—is stunning. But so too is the sporting scene, and it demands our attention as a reflection of the social, economic and technological upheavals of our era. A question.

NELSON: Why sports? Forgive me, but I think there are more meaningful areas of study.

PROF: Forgive me, Mr. Nelson, but you sound a lot like the naysayers at the turn of the century who, still clinging to their Puritan roots, dismissed sports as a waste of time and an "expression of the barbarian temperament." Nevertheless, the growth of the "devil's diversions" was such that it prompted scholars like Jacques Barzun to observe, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."

In fact, one measure of the impact of sports on our culture is its acceptance in the last decade as a field of serious study by academicians. In debunking TV's tendency to treat sports as show biz, philosopher Michael Novak says, "Sports are far more serious than the dramatic arts, much closer to primal symbols, metaphors and acts, much more ancient and frightening. Sports are mysteries of youth and aging, perfect action and decay, fortune and misfortune, strategy and contingency. Sports are rituals concerning human survival on this planet: liturgical enactments of animal perfection and the struggles of the human spirit to prevail."

Effusive as that may sound, English Professor Neil D. Isaacs takes the sports-as-a-metaphor-for-life theme one giant step further. In his recent book Jock Culture, U.S.A., he contends, "Intellectually and philosphically, emotionally and psychologically, sexually and physically, sport governs our lives." Then, catching his breath, he concludes, "We must go further and recognize that our system as a whole has become, that the U.S.A. is, a jockocracy."

NELSON: Pete Rose for President!

PROF: Hear, hear! But would he take the $625,000 pay cut? Profundities aside, suffice it to say that sports have become a pervasive force in our society. Which brings us to today's game plan: discussing the most significant trends in sports over the past 25 years. We will confine ourselves to five. Pencils ready:

1. Expaaaaaaansion
2. The Wide, Wide World of TV
3. Of Money and Men
4. The Bold, the Black and the Beautiful
5. Participant Sports, or Everybody into the Pool

Lounging on his patio in 1954, no American could have envisioned the nuclear-like explosion in sports that was building just over the horizon. By then, the long swing from an agrarian to an urban society was solidified and sports were bristling with new energy. Along the way, pastimes that once were pursued in a leisurely, limited way by farm families became a passionate release for the masses.

Teams representing various factories, social clubs and towns developed intense rivalries. Skilled players were favored to the exclusion of the average. The crowds of wildly partisan fans grew. And winning became important. Branch Rickey, too much of a Puritan to attend Sunday games, described the ideal Dodger player as one who "will break both your legs if you happen to be standing in his path to second base." Thus, if you're keeping score—and you'd better be—were born three phenomena: the star system, mass spectatorship and the win-at-all-costs mentality.

Against this backdrop, Patio Man emerged from the postwar recovery with more mobility, more money and more—much, much more—leisure time than ever. The economy in 1954 was perking along at record levels for a peacetime year. The 60-hour work week of 1900 was down to 40 hours. And the profit motive was up, particularly in the sporting-goods business, which registered record sales of $481 million. In effect, Ike's State of the Union Address that year was "C'mon America, tee up." A question.

STOCKER: Weren't teams more spread out by then? I mean, it seems like the Braves have been losing down in Atlanta for centuries. And what about the Athletics way out there in Kansas City?

MONTROSE: No, you're thinking of the Milwaukee Braves and the Philadelphia Athletics.

BAHR: No, no, it's the Oakland A's and the Milwaukee Brewers. You know, they used to be the Seattle Pilots.

PROF: Time out. Your confusion is understandable. Here's what happened. In 1952, after drawing a meager 281, 278 fans, the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee. Adoring as a smitten teen-ager, the town turned out 1,826,397 strong in 1953. Now, a 600% jump at the gate in a virgin territory doesn't go unnoticed. So the next year the St. Louis Browns left to seek true love as the Baltimore Orioles. And the year after that the Athletics fled Philadelphia to go courting in Kansas City. But what touched off the great Westward Ho! migration was the move in 1958 by the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to California.

What followed was the most wide-open spree of claim-staking since gold was struck at Sutter's Mill. Denied big league sports for so long, cities were willing to do anything to get a pro team—any team, any way, any price. Build us a new stadium that will mortgage the city's future and drain the taxpayers into the next century? You got it. Charge us low rent and no property taxes? Done. Give us a disproportionate share of the concession profits? All yours. No scenes when we run off to seduce another? Promise.

Naturally there has never been a shortage of hustlers to exploit the situation. In too many instances the new owners bought their franchises solely as tax shelters, and when those benefits ran out, usually within five years, so did they. Which helps explain why the 11 teams in the American Basketball Association experienced 27 changes of ownership in the league's 10-year history.

All told, over the past 20 years the number of football, baseball, basketball and hockey franchises has swelled from 42 to 101, spurred the belief that a city without a big league team is a burg without a future. As Hubert Humphrey once said: without the action at Metropolitan Stadium the Twin Cities would be a "cold Omaha."

NELSON: If I were Omaha, I'd be happy to watch the Vikings on TV and let the Twin Cities foot the bill for the new domed stadium they're trying to build there.

PROF: TV or not TV, that has never been the question. If there were no TV, there would, for example, be no NFL as we know it. In fact, by virtue of the NFL's four-year $656 million contract with the networks—the largest TV deal ever made—there need be no fans in the stands. This season, with its $5.8 million TV share, each team could play in an empty stadium and still turn a profit.

The dawning of TV could not have shone more warmly on the sports landscape of 1954. In the early '50s only 9% of U.S. households had TV sets, but by the late 1960s fully 94% were plugged in and nearly three dozen new pro teams had sprouted. All that was needed to make addicts of us all was to expose a waiting America to the living spectacle of sports that it had read and heard about. And TV did that in a way that was awesome. Down every dusty back road, up every glinting high rise and from sea to shining sea, folks who did not know a five-iron from a flyrod sat in hushed wonder as Arnold Palmer flipped his cigarette to the green and—yahoo!—boldly holed a long snaking putt.

The more America saw, the more it wanted to see. If the Kentucky Derby was that enthralling, what of the Preakness and the Belmont? The Indy 500? Give us 500 more races. In college football, rivalries that once were waged in the relative isolation of Norman, Okla. and Lincoln, Neb. became causes of national import. And soon, in TV's unrelenting drive to diversify and intensify the lucrative sports market, there evolved on the screen a kind of fast-forward montage, in which it became increasingly difficult to separate the heroic from the hoked-up from the hard sell. Suddenly, it seemed, bird hunters were taking dead aim at sky-divers, skiers were hurtling down slopes greased by the Noxzema Girl and white-water canoeists were being outdistanced by the Ty-D-Bol man.

Though much has been made of the fact that TV helped make pro football the sports phenomenon of the 1960s, there is a flip side. Sports helped make TV. Surveys show that sports viewing is one of the primary reasons why consumers buy TV sets. And while the Uncle Milties, the Gun-smokes and the Lucys have flashed and faded, sports remain as TV's constant and ever-burgeoning craze. It was a marriage made in the marketplace, with all the compromises that implies, and overall both parties have benefited immeasurably because sports, as Pete Rozelle is wont to say, "delivers the numbers." Staggering, almost incomprehensible numbers. Says Jerry Colangelo, general manager of the Phoenix Suns, whose team receives $880,000 a year from its network "godfather": "If TV wants us to play at 4 a.m., we'll just have to leave early wake-up calls."

BEEMAN: But what about those other numbers, the ones on the scoreboard, the statistics, the fun part?

PROF: Ah, gentle students, the mean truth is that the single overriding trend in sports over the past 25 years is that our pastimes, our refuge from the clamor of a fast-buck world, have themselves become big business. The barons of sport contrived for so long to present themselves as noble sportsmen fending off bankruptcy at every turn that the pose inevitably touched off a messy money war, which has been waged in the headlines and every barroom in the land.

By contrast, the catalyst for the battle of the bucks, a series of lawsuits against the pro leagues instituted by the players' unions, edged quietly through the courts. The wheels of justice ground slowly but when they stopped, it was one crusher after another for the owners. In 1976, when the Dodgers' Andy Messersmith was declared free by court order to offer his services in the marketplace like any other citizen, the lid blew off the salary market for good.

To keep our own lids intact, let us here only briefly cite part of the barrage of heavy bucks that we have all lived and suffered through. NBA salaries have increased 700% over the last decade to an average of $158,000. Only seven years ago, O. J. Simpson's $733,358 wad would have paid the salaries of 22 players plus a Serbo-Croatian placekicker. And so on across the sports spectrum, from multimillion-dollar boxing purses to sweaty pitchmen like Bjorn Borg raking in almost $2 million a year from endorsements.

BEEMAN: Money, money, money. Surely there are other measures of an athlete's worth than dollars and cents?

PROF: Yes. In fact, you are their very embodiment, Miss Beeman—bold, black and beautiful. Bold in the sense of forthright, questioning, individualistic. Indeed, the modern athlete bears about as much resemblance to the old as Ilie Nastase does to Little Mo Connolly. Yes, brash, pampered and spoiled also apply, but they reflect an age that above all else has been one of growing pains.

Bred in the student riots of the mid-1960s, the new militant athlete staged divisive strikes and spoke out in public and in books like Dave Meggyesy's Out of Their League, one of a spate of angry denunciations of the "dehumanizing" aspects of team regimentation, the win syndrome and autocratic coaches. Clashes with coaches became more frequent. Growing hand in black glove with the new militancy was the resentment of the black athlete. In 1967, 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in baseball, Harry Edwards, the militant black sociologist, called for a boycott of the Mexico City Olympics, charging, "Sports reeks of the same racism that corrupts other areas of our society." Though the boycott fizzled, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished one-three in the 200 meters, raised their gloved hands in the defiant black power salute during the national anthem, they served as a pair of exclamation points to a long list of grievances.

Primarily, black athletes rebelled against this scenario—being given a college scholarship, trained to entertain the ticket buyers and then, once their eligibility was used up, being ignored to the point that only about half of them graduated. In the pros, they found it hard to get the same salaries—much less the same endorsements—as white players.

Conditions have improved for black athletes, if only because of the sheer force of their skills and their numbers. In 1954 only 5% of NBA players were black. Today the league is 75% black, and though some have cited that fact as a reason for a dip in attendance, no cutback is likely. When it comes to winning, black is beautiful.

So is woman, and while the female athlete has hardly achieved any kind of parity with the male, she is closing the gap fast. A natural spin-off of the women's liberation movement, the drive to end sex discrimination on the playing field has had to counter the notion that as far as sports are concerned, women make good cheerleaders. While luminaries like Babe Didrikson Zaharias proved long ago how absurd that bias was, it remained for Billie Jean King to bury it forever on the night of Sept. 20, 1973 by roasting a male chauvinist pig named Bobby Riggs.

Somehow, superhype that it was, that match served to unite the sisterhood behind the cause. The major problem was that for decades, though the enrollment of most schools was half female, their athletic programs received only a minuscule percentage of the sports budget. In 1972 the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendment started the machinery to change all that by guaranteeing women the same funds, facilities and other benefits enjoyed by the men. Today the 916 schools in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, founded in 1971, are offering 14 varsity sports—a big stride forward.

It took some prodding to get the rest of flabby America striding. After a 1960 U.S. tour, for example. Herb Elliott, the Aussie miler, poked his finger into the midriff of the citizenry, calling them "weak, soft and synthetic, a people who thoroughly mollycoddle themselves." Like a hippo rising from the mire, one fancies, America got off its duff, and slowly, after many fitful stops and starts, began lumbering along, gradually picking up speed, going faster and faster, until today it seems as if half the nation is running. Or playing tennis. Or swimming, canoeing, bicycling, orienteering, roller-skating, mountain-climbing, sailing. In short, America is on a participant sports binge that promises to become a way of life in the next decade.

What else does the foreseeable future hold? In the very probable category, say those who have studied the question, with an estimated $50 billion a year now being wagered on sports in the U.S., there will be state-controlled mutuel windows in the stadiums before 1990; college football, caught in a financial crunch, will consolidate into a superconference of 25 teams or so; pay TV, championed by sports promoters, will become a reality; and, dictated by inflation and the energy crisis, a "spirit of moderation" will prevail in sports for the next few years.

Beyond that? Well, with hints from futurists who estimate that, among other space-age niceties, man man will be working only 147 days a year the end of this century, we invite you, gentle students, to resume your slouch positions, relax and let your imaginations drift forward in time, forward a quarter of a century to the year 2004.

You are jogging on your air-cushioned, heart-monitoring treadmill, the latest thing in home fitness, and idly punching the keyboard of your Sport-O-Rama TV network. Before you, a bank of 12 screens is flickering with spirited action. Eight-foot centers are battling for rebounds under 11-foot baskets. Women hockey players, their skates reflecting the sunlight flooding through the arena's transparent dome, are slashing across a surface of Teflon IX. A pair of 350-pound boxers, both at the peak of their powers at age 50, are dead even according to the scoreboard that registers their blows through sensors embedded in their gloves.

Click. You punch the "baseball" button and the screens switch to a dozen different views of a game between the Madrid Yanquis and the Peking Ducks. Click. You hit the "ambience" button, and the room is filled with gusts of balmy air and the smell of grass, rosin and hot dogs. Click. You call for a readout of the latest odds covering every possible contingency. Click. You bet $100 that Reggie Rudi, the Yanquis' star rightfielder, will swing away. Click. Your wager is automatically deducted from your account as, inexplicably, Reggie R attempts to bunt and pops out. Click. You tune in the dugout, where the Yanquis' manager, Billy Martinez, is screaming, "How do you fine a superstar? Take away his Kuwait oil wells?"

Click. You switch to the educational channel, where an aged professor from the Philco radio era is concluding a retrospective of sports in the 20th century.

"And so, students," he says in a faltering voice, "as we have seen, the ancient Greek ideal that has endured—indeed, transcended—the convulsions of the past half century, the one constant that is both the joy and salvation of man and his games, is the deep and irrepressible impulse to play, to revel, to give the best of mind and spirit and, in so doing, honor all men." Sh-BOOM! A question, Mr. Quark.

QUARK: Yeah, when are we going to talk dirt bikin'?

PROF: Next time, Mr. Quark, next time. Class dismissed.

ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)