Every great team is a condition of circumstance, not management.
The scouts can identify the talent and the accountants can pay
it and the coaches can motivate it, but the creation of an
enduring--and endearing--group personality is entirely accidental.
Understand, when you ponder this list of our favorites, that we
don't mean championship teams or, rather, only championship
teams. Every season has one of those in every sport--they're a
dime a dozen. And we don't mean heroic teams or only heroic
teams--although those are much harder to come by. What we mean
are teams we'd like to have been a part of. Think you could have
had some fun playing with those 1955 Dodgers? Or would you
rather have been a Met in '62? Or maybe you'd have preferred to
help define some style all your own--say, scoring 21 baskets on
21 assists as Princeton did against Niagara in '97. That would
have been fun, too.
It's no use trying to divine any additional ingredient in the
lasting appeal of these teams. There's no other organizing
principle here. Some were effortless, some scrappy, some
efficient, some contentious. You want to put a face on these
teams? For the 1974 A's it would have a waxed mustache. For the
'54 Milan High kids, peach fuzz. You would have had fun on
The one thing we should point out is that none of these teams
were chosen because they were overpowering. (That was a
different list, remember?) The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers were a
pretty fair collection of ballplayers, but what we appreciate
most is the Gashouse Gang thing they had going on: Mean Joe
Greene, mean Mel Blount and really mean Jack Lambert. For that
matter, how about that Gashouse Gang? What would you give to
have hung out with ol' Diz?
September 5, 1999
So it wasn't the assemblage of talent, or rather not only that.
It wasn't the surprises these teams sprung on us (or didn't--the
Globies kind of kept to a script), or not only those surprises.
When you think about even the most successful of these teams,
you'll realize we're recognizing their conspiracy of fun. That's
the thing we're talking about here. They all enjoyed an unspoken
collaboration--Hitless Wonders and Boys of Summer--to work hard
at their play. Teams like that, we've learned, you just can't
The only club other than the Yankees to win three consecutive
world championships, the A's epitomized the team-as-family
concept. Granted, they were the Gotti family: full of
internecine warfare, domineered by a powerful patriarch,
pitiless toward outside rivals. And brother did they have style.
The A's made it O.K. to wear white shoes after Labor Day--long
after Labor Day, damn near every autumn.
Pick a favorite of the four Steelers Super Bowl teams of the
1970s? How 'bout none of 'em? Their greatest team was the '76
squad (below), which played the best defense the NFL had ever
seen--two touchdowns allowed in the final nine games, five
shutouts. Both backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, ran for
more than 1,000 yards, and when they went down in the 40-14 win
over the Colts in the first round of the playoffs, the Steelers'
doom was sealed.
Imagine, if you will, that the Seinfeld gang had also been
Stanley Cup champions. That was the Globies, who beat the NBA's
best (white) team, the Minneapolis Lakers, twice. These Globies
had two Hall of Famers, Marques Haynes and Pop Gates, plus Goose
Tatum, the Clown Prince of Basketball, and several other
terrific players, like Sweetwater Clifton. When the Knicks
signed Clifton, racial justice was served, but the Globies were
soon left with only the clowns, while the black princes became
the kings of the NBA.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Gashouse Gang even sounded fun--with guys named Dizzy,
Daffy, Ducky and Spud--and their brand of baseball was even more
colorful than their monikers. Third baseman Pepper Martin was
the clubhouse leader, shortstop Leo Durocher was earning his
reputation as the Lip, and star pitcher Dizzy Dean made brash
predictions, such as guaranteeing that he and brother Daffy
would win four World Series games against Detroit. They did.
Portland Trail Blazers
Sure, other title teams relied on passing rather than shooting
(Portland didn't have a scorer among the league's top 20), and
others upset star-studded favorites (the Blazers beat the
Erving-McGinnis-Collins-Dawkins 76ers in six). But Jack Ramsey's
charges were the only ones led by a bearded, berry-eating,
pot-smoking, left-leaning, Dead-worshipping pivotman (above) who
looked as if he'd just come down from Walton's Mountain.
U.S. Olympic Hockey
An early chink in the Iron Curtain--the towheaded child
crusaders beat the paid Soviet goons--was also one of those rare
times when a U.S. team was the underdog in a sport Americans
cared about. And after these seventh-seeded innocents won the
final over Finland, never did anybody look better wrapped in a
flag. Who can ever forget Jim Craig searching the stands:
"Where's my father? Where's my father?"
San Diego Chargers
While the Chicago Bears were hammering out their NFL
championship with defensive muscle, the Chargers were a flash of
sunlight, running up a 51-10 score--and 610 yards of offense--on
the Boston Patriots in the AFL title game. What a collection of
talent: Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Mix; Lance Alworth,
the AFL's first homegrown Hall of Famer, blazing deep; and
All-AFL end Earl Faison leading a defense coached by Chuck Noll.
Overseeing the whole thing was Sid Gillman, the genius of the
passing game, the originator of the true West Coast offense.
The King and His Court
"I am the world's finest softball pitcher by at least 100
percent," says Eddie (the King) Feigner, whose four-man
fast-pitch circus has played more than 10,000 games in 53
barnstorming years. "I once struck out a man on one pitch," he
boasts. "He swung and missed three times at the same changeup."
New York Mets
Facetiously named the Amazing Mets, the inaugural Mets and their
bungling were chronicled by Jimmy Breslin in Can't Anybody Here
Play This Game? whose title was a plaint whined by New York's
stand-up comic cum manager, Casey Stengel. The players were best
represented by Marvelous Marv Throneberry, who later promulgated
his ineptitude in a beer commercial, opining, "If I do for Lite
what I did for baseball, I'm afraid their sales will go down."
While not exactly shot through with blonds, the Trojans were
otherwise as California as could be, trumping every hard-held
Midwestern value. What rattled the heartland most? The gorgeous
cheerleaders, O.J. Simpson's effortless sweeps (above) or the
drollery of coach John McKay, who gave Indiana a free scouting
report for the Rose Bowl: "We will continue to operate from two
plays, which I will signal to O.J. I'll tell him to run left or
right." Final score: USC 14, Indiana 3.
The last NFL team actually allowed to smile, the Madcaps of the
Midway also danced and rapped. Mike Ditka was the coach, Jim
McMahon the ineffable field general, but the prime-time
celebrity was an industrial-sized Refrigerator--Perry--who went
both ways: straight and comic.
Milan (Ind.) High Basketball
In Indiana the allegory of tiny Milan High is imparted to young
boys and girls before they hear about David and Goliath. The
Indians--a team of Scott Skiles look-alikes who learned their
set shooting in the family barns--cruised through the state
tournament, laying waste to schools with 10 times their student
body. Fictionalized in the film Hoosiers, the Milan Miracle
endures, further evidence that Indiana ought to return to its
single-class high school basketball tournament.
Boston bumper stickers read JESUS SAVES... AND ESPO SCORES ON
THE REBOUND. Bobby Orr glided to places where no defenseman had
ever glided, did things no defenseman had ever done. Phil
Esposito stood in the slot and scored goals with production-line
efficiency. The roster was filled with raucous characters like
Derek (the Turk) Sanderson and Johnny (Pie) McKenzie, who rolled
through the Stanley Cup playoffs as if they were a back road in
Ontario on a Saturday night.
Torvill and Dean
It only takes two to make a team. Even if we weren't sure that
what Torvill and Dean were doing was sport, we were sure it was
greatness. They redefined the limits of ice dancing by removing
them. They could be spunky, acrobatic or romantic--their
showstopping Bolero program in the '84 Olympics was the sexiest
performance in the history of skating.
Chicago White Sox
In the third World Series the White Sox proved that anything is
possible in the Fall Classic. It was amazing enough that the
Hitless Wonders won the American League pennant while finishing
last in batting average (.230). But how could they possibly beat
the National League champion Cubs of Tinker, Evers and Chance,
the team whose 116-36 record remains the best ever? Well, the
Sox did, though they hit .198 in the Series. Long live the
lessons of the Dead Ball era.
The backdoor pass is sleight of hand for the slight of size, and
nobody has mastered it like Princeton, everybody's
second-favorite college team. How did the Tigers turn some of
the nation's top programs into the Washington Generals? By using
the purest example of Cartesian logic in sports, the source of
the most jaw-dropping box score we've ever seen: 21 baskets, 21
U.S. Women's World Cup
They drew an SRO crowd to the Rose Bowl, kept 11.3 million
Americans glued to their television sets and proved to U.S.
sports fans what the rest of the world had long known: A nil-nil
soccer match can be one of the most thrilling events in sports.
Spirits of St. Louis
Marvin (Bad News) Barnes (below)--who disappeared for two weeks
early in the season--averaged 24 points a game. Fly Williams
once got into a fight with a teammate during warmups. Rookie
play-by-play man Bobby Costas once referred--on the air--to a
giveaway loss as a "blow job."
Has the symbiosis between team and town ever been this sweet?
The Dodgers made Brooklyn proud the season next year--as in
"Wait'll next year!"--finally arrived. The Boys of Summer
finally slew the dragon when Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees
in Game 7 of the World Series.
U.S. Olympic Basketball
Three members of the squad that ransacked Rome--Jerry Lucas,
Oscar Robertson and Jerry West--are among the greatest players
of all time, and the coach, Cal's Pete Newell, maybe history's
most underrated hoops mind.