1951–my birth year in sports


Thomson_19511003Recently I read “1941: The Greatest Year in Sports” by Mike Vaccaro, the excellent columnist for the New York Post. Vacaro interweaves vignettes about the year in sports – Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams .406 season, Whirlaway’s Triple Crown, Joe Louis over Billy Conn and more – with the shadow of war hanging over the world in 1941. Excellent read.

My favorite sports year is 1951 – my birth year. That was a great year for sports.

Start with “The Shot Heard Round the World,” Bobby Thomson’s dramatic ninth inning home run off Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds  that gave the Giants the National League pennant over the Dodgers. At one point in August, the Giants trailed Brooklyn by 13 1/2 games, yet came all the way back to win a dramatic playoff game on what is generally regarded as the most memorable home run in baseball history,

The Yankees went on to beat the Giants in six games in the World Series. It was Joe DiMaggio’s final appearance in the Fall Classic; while Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays found October’s spotlight as rookies.

The year 1951 saw the first professional championship in North America for a team based West of St. Louis. The Los Angeles Rams beat the Cleveland Browns 24-17, gaining revenge for a last-minute loss to the Browns in 1950.

Earlier in the 1951 season opener, LA quarterback Norm Van Brocklin passed for 554 yards and five TDs in a 54-14 win over the New York Yanks. That record has stood up for more than 66 years.

The world of boxing witnessed the career intersection of two of the game’s all-time heavyweights. Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. In an October bout at Madison Square Garden, Marciano, age 27, knocked down Louis, 37, twice in the eighth round before the fight was called as a TKO.

The great golfer Ben Hogan overcame a near-fatal automobile accident in 1949, winning both the Masters and the US Open.

In the NBA, the New York  Knickerbockers nearly overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Rochester Royals before losing in seven games. The Royals won the final game 79-75 on April 21. It was their first, and to date only, NBA Championship.

That same day, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup four games to one over the Montreal Canadians, with all five games going into overtime. Bill Barilko scored the Cup-winning goal; sadly it turned out to be his final goal. Barilko died in a plane crash during the summer in a fishing trip to northern Quebec.

RIP Champ, you were always ‘The Greatest’

I never had the opportunity to meet you, Muhammad Ali. If I did, I would have told you how much you meant to me, to the American people, to all citizens of the earth. You changed the world.

You were a fighter, a social activist, a poet, a legend, and icon. You led the way champ, and taught us how to stand up against things that were wrong, whether it be the treatment of black people in America in the 60s or the Vietnam War.

WABC Radio in New York used to run a program called “Speaking of Sports” that was hosted by Howard Cosell. Your many appearances on that show and the dialog with Cosell made for great radio.

You were the greatest fighter of all time. I still remember listening on the radio to your first heavyweight title fight in 1964. Nobody thought Cassius Clay had a chance against the fearsome Sonny Liston, but you won when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.

In 1974, I watched a closed circuit telecast of your stunning upset against George Foreman in Zaire. Again nobody gave you a chance, yet your “rope-a-dope” tactics wore out Foreman.

Although I never met you, I once met Chuck Wepner, a guy you punished in a 15-round title match in 1975. I asked Wepner what it was like to be in the ring with you. “It was pure hell,” he told me. “I knew he was the better fighter, and so did Ali.” I’m sure George Frazier and so many others would echo similar sentiments.

And who will ever forget that steamy night in Atlanta in 1996, when you lit the torch to open the Summer Olympics. That was a moment for the ages.

You were known for your poetry and observations. Here are some of your best quotes. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was one of your favorite sayings. My favorite was “Don’t count the days, make each day count.” You made your 74 years count.

I cried this morning when I heard the news that  you had passed on, a victim of Parkinson’s disease. You inspired us all and fought the good fight to the end.

The world was a better place with you in it Muhammad. RIP Champ. You were The Greatest.

The greatest calls in sports history

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes” Al Michaels makes the greatest call in sports broadcasting history as the American hockey team beats the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Call it the hearing test. You know a great call when you hear one. Some are signature calls from legendary broadcasters; others were produced by relatively obscure announcers. All capture a magic moment. Here are my top 10 favorites:

10. Matteau Matteau, Matteau

Classic call by Howie Rose on Stephen Matteau’s goal in the second overtime to help the Rangers beat the Devils in Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup finals. Gotta love the reference to Mount Vancouver.

9. Kirk Gibson’s home run

“I don’t believe what I just saw,” said Jack Buck after Kirk Gibson took Dennis Eckersley deep with two outs in the ninth, Game 1, 1988 World Series. Dodgers beat A’s, 5-4

8. The Immaculate Reception
When Franco Harris, right, caught Terry Brashaw’s deflected pass at his shoetops and raced into the end zone to give the Steelers a wildly improbable playoff win over the Raiders, NBC broacaster Curt Gowdy called it “the miracle of all miracles.”

7. The Giants win the pennant

“The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant.”  New York announcer Russ Hodges goes crazy describing the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Bobby Thomson’s dramatic, three-run ninth inning home run gave the Giants the National League pennant and broke the hearts of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

6. Cal vs. Stanford

Listen to the Cal announcers lose it during one of the most dramatic finishes in college in college football history when Cal beat archrival Stanford on the final play of the game. “The band is out on the field….the Bears have won.”

5. Havlicek stole the ball

Johnny Most, the gravelly-voiced play-by-play announcer for the Boston Celtics, makes his most memorable call in Game 7 of the 1965 NBA Eastern Conference finals. “Havlicek stole the ball. It’s all over. It’s all over.”

4. Secretariat wins the Belmont

Track announcer Chic Anderson has the call as Secretariat wins the Triple Crown in 1973 by an incredible 31 lengths. “Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine! ….An unbelievable, amazing performance.”

3. Foreman beats Frazier

Howard Cosell had some amazing calls, but was at his best in the 1973 heavyweight championship bout when George Foreman knocked out a heavily favored Joe Frazier. “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”

2.  Sandy Koufax perfect game

The great Los Angeles Dodger play-by-play man Vin Scully waxes poetic as Sandy Koufax completes his perfect game in 1965. In this recording of the ninth inning, Scully takes the listener on a word journey. “2 and 2 to Harvey Kuenn…swung on and missed, a perfect game.”

1. Miracle on Ice

Al Michaels is still broadcasting today, yet his most unforgettable call occurred 34 years ago in the tiny town of Lake Placid, New York. There a bunch of young American hockey players upset the Soviet Union in what ranks as one of the biggest upsets in sports history. “Do you believe in miracles?” says Michaels as the crowd counts down the final seconds. “Yes!!” The exuberance of the Team USA players and the stunned looks on the faces of the Soviets tells it all.

Cover Up: SI Denies Yankees in Annual Sportsman Award

The SportsLifer has been a Sports Illustrated subscriber since his high school days in the 60s.

In other words, a loyal reader for more than 40 years.

And in all that time — and dating far beyond that first SI in 1954, a total of 55 awards — no New York Yankee has ever been named Sportsman of the Year.

A total of 12 awards have been won by baseball players — from Brooklyn’s Johnny Podres in 1955 to the Red Sox team in 2004. But no Yankees.

Among that group were Pete Rose in 1975, and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Think SI would like to have those two back?

Where are the Yankees, the most successful franchise in North American sports history, the most visible team in the world?

It’s certainly tough to argue with this year’s winner, eight-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. But there were several other instances where the  Yankees deserved strong consideration.

What about The Mick?
Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown in leading the Yankees to the World Series in 1956, but Olympic sprinter Bobby Morrow took the Sportsman of the Year award that year.

In 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record with 61 home runs, yet the SI award went to Ohio State basketball player Jerry Lucas.

Jockey Steve Cauthen took honors in 1977, the year Reggie Jackson’s three home runs on three swings buried the Dodgers and gave the Yankees the World Championship.

SI could have picked Ron Guidry and his incredible 25-3 season in 1978 over Jack Nicklaus.

And what of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and the rest of the Yankee dynasty that won four World Series in five years between 1996 and 2000. Wouldn’t a team award for the 1998 squad, which won 114 games, look good now? Better than a couple of heralded juicers.

Cover Shots: Football and basketball have produced eight Sportsman of the Year apiece, golf six, the Olympics and track and field four apiece,  boxing, hockey and tennis three apiece.

Tiger Woods, who won in 1996 and 2000, is the only two-time individual winner. Curt Schilling shared honors with Randy Johnson in 2001 after the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees, and was a member of the Red Sox 2004 champions.

Phelps is the only swimmer to win the award, and joins Olympians Morrow (1956), gymnast Mary Lou Retton and hurdler Edwin Moses (1984) and skaters Bonnie Blair and Olav Koss (1994).

Basketball legends Bill Russell (1968), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1985) and Michael Jordan (1991) won Sportsman of the Year honors.

The hockey winners were no-brainers: Bobby Orr in 1970, the US Olympic hockey team in 1980, and Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, in 1982.

Brett Favre was last year’s winner, joining fellow NFL QBs Terry Branshaw in 1979, Joe Montana in 1990 and Tom Brady in 2005. Oregon State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker, who had a brief NFL career, is the only college football player to win, in 1962.

Other big name Sportsman of the Year winners include Sandy Kourfax (1965), Carl Yastrzemski (1967), Tom Seaver (1969), Cal Ripken (1995), Rafer Johnson (1958), Lance Armstrong (2002), Muhammad Ali (1974) and Arnold Palmer (1960).

Roger Bannister, the first sub-four-minute miler, won the inaugural award in 1954.

19th Century Prizefight Brought Fame, Change to Obscure Hamlet of Boston Corners


Boston Corners is a quiet, obscure hamlet nestled in southeast Columbia County, New York, bracketed by the Taconic Mountains to the east and Route 22 and the Harlem Valley to the west. A town of mountain views, open spaces and farms.Boston Corners occupies a spot near where Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York converge, roughly 110 miles north of Manhattan,

It’s probably one of the last places on earth you’d expect to host a championship prizefight. Yet that’s exactly what happened more then 150 years ago, when John Morrissey bested James “Yankee” Sullivan in a 37-round bare-knuckles bout.

Due to the violent nature of the sport, boxing was illegal in most places during the 1850s. However, tiny Boston Corners, offered some, shall we say, advantages that hindered the local constabulary. For one, its mountainous terrain made it difficult for police to find the village, bad for Commonwealth of Massachusetts law enforcement but ideal for illegal activities.

To put it mildly, Boston Corners was a den of thieves. It was particularly favored as a handy place to dye racehorses stolen from nearby Saratoga so that they could be raced incognito on Long Island.

On Wednesday, October 12, 1853, an event took place that would change the face of Boston Corners forever. On that date a brash young fighter from Troy, N.Y., by the name of John Morrissey met the famed Yankee Sullivan.

Tale of the Tape
Sullivan, age 40, weighed 145 pounds, giving away more than 30 pounds to the younger Morrissey, who was 22, stood 6’2″ and weighed 175 pounds. The purse for the winner was $2,000.

It was estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 fight fans converged on an abandoned brickyard in Boston Corners the day of the fight. They came from New York City, Albany, Troy and all points in between. They came by train, by stage, by horse and on foot. to see the fight of the century. Never mind that the population of Boston Corners was less than 150 people and had only one inn.

Sullivan dominated the match for most of the early rounds, but Morrissey held his own according to reports and would not quit, though his face became distorted and unrecognizable. In the 37th round, more than an hour after the start of the fight, a riot broke out when Sullivan hit Morrissey while he was on his knees. Crowds started jumping into the ring, and after the chaos had been quelled, the referee awarded the victory and American Championship to Morrissey, making him a national celebrity.

The fight resulted in the transfer of Boston Corners from Massachusetts to the state of New York. The citizens of Boston Corners petitioned the New York State and the U.S. Congress to bring them into the jurisdiction of New York. On January 3, 185,5 an Act of Congress changed the state line and made Boston Corners officially part of New York.

Two Fighters, Different Fates
The two contestants, Morrissey and Sullivan, experienced dissimilar fates. After establishing a successful gaming house in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Morrissey created the Saratoga Race Course with the help of William R. Travers, John R. Hunter, and Leonard Jerome. He also established “The Club House,” a casino in Saratoga that attracted such notable guests as former Presidents Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, and Mark Twain.

In 1866 he ran for Congress with the backing of Tammany Hall and served two terms in the House (1867-1871). Morrissey, pictured at right, was later elected to the New York State Senate in 1875 and was re-elected in 1877, serving in that capacity until his death in 1878 at age 47.

The state closed all offices and flags were flown at half-mast upon his death. The entire State Senate attended his funeral in Troy, and 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay respects. At the time of his death, Morrissey’s estate was valued at more than $2 million.

The life of Sullivan ran a far different course. After the contest, he moved to California where he had a criminal reputation. He was arrested by the San Francisco Vigilance Movement, and he died in his prison cell. The circumstances of his death are unclear — some reports say he was hanged, others

indicate that he slit his wrists. Sullivan is buried in the Mission Dolores cemetery in San Francisco.

Today there is a historic marker at the site, on Undermountain Road just north of the Dutchess County line. Unfortunately the date on the marker—1883—is incorrect.