As we slouch toward the fin de siecle, there is, predictably, a
passion for ranking the best of every facet of sports in the
20th century. Alltime best athletes! Best teams! Games! Coaches!
Timeouts! In fact the celebration of the best of everything in
the 1900s has already begun...everything except the one thing
the century is made up of: years.
Every December, there are interminable year-in-review summations
in all the newspaper sports sections that nobody reads, even
after everybody has raved about what a fabulous year it sure has
been in the wonderful world of sports. Most years, though,
really aren't particularly special. (If you doubt that, see how
long it takes you to recall your favorite sports memory from
1996.) Every game--except soccer--has a winner, but that doesn't
mean the winners are much good, much less special. And
somebody's always breaking some record--especially now, with
better equipment and better drugs. So we shouldn't get carried
A lot of years that stick in our memories really weren't as good
as we think. Nineteen thirty-six is like that. Everybody
remembers Jesse Owens and the Nazi Olympics, but name one other
thing that distinguished '36. Genuinely fine sports years boast
a lot of different stuff, although the best stuff early on in
the century couldn't be all that different because nobody had
thought up the Daytona 500, March Madness and female athletes.
Of course in this era of grade inflation, when every student is
on the dean's list; and of ESPN, when every game is a classic
(how can it not be, if it must eventually be inventory for its
Classic Sports network?), there is an inclination for year
aficionados to start raving about the incumbent year even before
the New Year's Day bowl games are over. Still there is no doubt
that this year is a beauty. In fact it is possible that 1998 was
the best sports year in the whole damn 20th century. An awful
lot of special things happened in old '98, but we have to be
careful that we're not being presentist--overrating the modern
day just because it's all so familiar. Hey, boys and girls: Life
is not a highlight show! There were some magnificent vintage
years scattered throughout the 1900s that were not captured on
videotape, and like fine wine, some of those years improve with
age. (For instance, who could have known in 1941 that it would
be the last year anybody would hit .400?) Some bias against the
present is fair, because parity and expansion dilute everything
so much. As Yogi Berra didn't say: Less was more.
December 28, 1998
Also, when comparing years, we have to make sure that the
memories are lasting. For example: Sure, we think it's very
significant that Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota
and Katarina Witt took off her clothes for Playboy. But let's be
hard-nosed: From the vantage point of, say, our tricentennial
year in 2076, will anyone really think those thrilling events
are sports moments for the ages?
So we must be discerning. If 1998 is going to be enshrined in an
honored place with the best years of the past, it must put up a
lengthy resume of memorable achievements. (Of course, let's not
rush to judgment, either. Maybe we should reconsider Witt's
recent body of work.) That's why my designer strike zone is very
narrow. No college hockey. No inflated stats. Nothing involving
boats, snowboards or bicycles. No gymnastics...or, for that
matter, anything even remotely connected to the Goodwill Games.
Anyway, here, without argument (because nobody else thought of
this premise), are the top dozen sports years of the 20th
century--plus, in keeping with the times, a Designated Year and
a Wild-Card Year. Where does 1998 fit into this cavalcade? Has
it really been a great year? Could it, in fact, rank in the top
10? The top five? Even, maybe, have been the best of all? Read on.
One final note before we begin: Please hold your applause until
all the best years have been introduced.
Broadway Joe's Jets upset Colts, NFL and experts; Laver wins
second Grand Slam; Russell retires after another Celtics title,
his 11th in 13 seasons; those Miracle Mets.
Four Horsemen roll over Army under a blue-gray sky; Nurmi goes
long for five Olympic golds; Hornsby hits .424; Tilden takes
fifth straight U.S. tennis title, leads U.S. to fifth straight
Davis Cup; first Winter Olympics.
Colts beat Giants in overtime in Greatest Football Game Ever
Played, thereby inventing NFL; Palmer wins Masters, thereby
inventing golf; Yankees take seventh Series for Stengel since
'49; original Sugar Ray wins sixth world title (back when there
was only one champion per division); 17-year-old Pele leads
Brazil to its first World Cup, thereby inventing Pele.
Celtics' eighth in a row; Notre Dame plays for the tie against
Michigan State in the second Game of the Century; Frank
Robinson, baseball's last pure Triple Crown winner; Nicklaus,
first Masters repeat; Palmer collapses in Open, thereafter
Bobby Jones achieves golf's only Grand Slam; Gallant Fox wins
Triple Crown; Hack Wilson (above) knocks in 190 runs; Rockne's
last undefeated Irish national champions; Philadelphia A's--best
baseball team ever?--repeat.
Designated Year 1927
Ruth swats 60; Yankees--best baseball team ever?--sweep Pirates
in Series; the Harlem Globetrotters make their debut; Tunney
long-counts Dempsey; Helen Wills wins first of eight Wimbledons;
Jones sets British Open record at St. Andrews.
U.S. wins more than half the golds in track at the London
Olympics; Cubs (below) win their last World Series...ever; Fred
Merkle makes the most famous sports boner...ever; defacing of
baseball is outlawed, thereby institutionalizing cheating;
Christy Mathewson wins career-high 37 for Giants ... and Ed
Walsh wins 40 for White Sox; Jack Johnson becomes first black
DiMaggio's 56 straight; that last .400 by Ted Williams; Louis
knocks out Conn in 13th; Whirlaway wins Triple Crown as Arcaro
wins his first of two; Craig Wood is first to win Masters and
U.S. Open in same year.
Well, lookee here: 1998 makes the top five.... Hillary and
Norgay conquer Everest; Yankees win fifth straight World Series
(mercifully it was not called a "fivepeat" then); Hogan takes
all three majors he plays in; Little Mo, Maureen Connolly, wins
first women's Grand Slam; Dark Star upsets unbeatable Native
Dancer in Derby; Braves move to Milwaukee, starting the
franchise fandango that will revolutionize professional sports.
The Thrilla in Manila; Ashe surprises Connors at Wimbledon;
Ruffian, greatest filly ever, dies in match race; UCLA wins 10th
(and last) championship for Wooden in 12-year stretch; Billie
Jean wins sixth Wimbledon; Carlton Fisk body-Englishes homer to
win Game 6 of Series; Bobby Fischer stripped of his world chess
Dolphins go 17-0; Walton goes 21 for 22 as UCLA wins seventh
consecutive NCAA hoops title; Secretariat by 31 lengths in the
Belmont; George Foreman, in previous life, TKO's Smokin' Joe in
second round for title; O.J. Simpson, in previous life, runs for
2,003 yards, averaging 6.0 per carry; on behalf of womankind,
Billie Jean beats the pig, Bobby Riggs.
Ten years down, only two to go. Is it possible that 1998 was
better than every other sporting year in the 20th century? Are we
really living in a golden age? Or are we just another also-ran?
All right, year fans, turn the page to discover the truth.
Cheers, standing ovation.
Please hold your applause and show some respect for 1919, the
year that has held the Best Year in Sports title for 79 years:
Dempsey wins heavyweight crown; Black Sox throw Series ("Say it
ain't so, Joe"); Suzanne Lenglen, world's first post-Amazonian
woman sports superstar, wins her first Wimbledon; Ruth's trade
to Yankees is arranged; the Gipper leads Notre Dame to 9-0
season; Cobb wins 12th and final batting title; 2-year-old Man
o' War upset by Upset (below), his only defeat, thereby creating
one of sports' most common terms; Sir Barton is first horse to
take Triple Crown; dog track mechanical rabbit first used;
modern sports begin.
And now, the winner and new champion, our very own....
(Cries of "We're Number 1" rend the heavens....)
McGwire slugs 70, Sosa sesenta y seis; Jordan clinches
series--greatest basketball game ever?--to give Bulls sixth
title in the '90s; Yankees--greatest baseball team ever?--win
125 games, sweep Series; Earnhardt finally bags his Moby Dick,
winning Daytona; and talk about finally: AFC, Denver, Elway
trifecta; third consecutive, sixth title overall for Summitt and
Tennessee, as women's basketball moves up to business class;
Sampras--record sixth straight year as No. 1; o'couple for
O'Meara--Masters-British double; Witt poses for Playboy (upon
further review...); eighth Stanley Cup for Bowman; soccer
arriviste France whips stylish Brazil for World Cup...in Paree;
and on the 2,633rd day, Ripken rested.
Wild Card 1982
Montana to Clark for The Catch to beat Dallas; Niners' first
Super Bowl win, over Cincinnati; freshman named Jordan drains
jumper to give NCAAs to Dean (finally); Henderson steals record
130 bases; Watson chips in at Pebble Beach to beat Nicklaus in
U.S. Open, then wins British to become last double Open winner.