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The 1950s Sports: Overview

The 1950s Sports: Overview

In the 1950s Americans by the millions found more time in which to indulge in leisure activities. However, with the significant exception of bowling adults did not embrace participating in sports. "Playing ball" was considered the exclusive domain of professionals and schoolboys. While boys in grade school played competitive games in schoolyards or Little League, girls usually jumped rope; women with unoccupied hours were encouraged to enhance their cooking or sewing skills rather than their tennis serves or golf swings.

On weekends, men often plopped down on their sofas, turned on their new television sets, and watched sports. By contemporary standards, TV sports were positively medieval. Events were telecast in black and white. There were no instant replays, and camera coverage was distant from the action and severely limited. Because they were easier to televise, the sports that best suited early television were indoor contests such as boxing, wrestling, and roller derby.

Throughout the 1950s, baseball remained America's national pastime, and New York was America's premier baseball town. Back then, three major league teams called New York home: the American League (AL) New York Yankees, which played in Yankee Stadium, located in the Bronx; the National League (NL) Brooklyn Dodgers, whose home field was Brooklyn's Ebbets Field; and the NL New York Giants, who played in Manhattan's Polo Grounds. The Yankees dominated the decade, winning five consecutive World Series between 1949 and 1953; they triumphed again in 1956 and 1958. In total, the so-called Bronx Bombers played in eight of the decade's ten World Series. Their frequent opponents were the Dodgers, who won their first and only title in Brooklyn in 1955. The Giants, meanwhile, lost to the Yankees in 1951 and beat the Cleveland Indians in 1954. After the 1957 season, the Dodgers and Giants shocked and saddened the city's NL fans when they abandoned New York for the orange groves of Los Angeles (the Dodgers' new home) and the bay breezes of San Francisco (where the Giants settled).

In the 1950s, other professional sports were insignificant in comparison to baseball. Yet the decade saw the slow emergence of professional football as a sport that could rivet the nation's attention. One game in particular, a thrilling 1958 championship contest between the National Football League (NFL) New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, was key to the game's maturing. The National Basketball Association (NBA), which came into existence in 1949, was experiencing growing pains. One team, the Minneapolis Lakers, dominated the first part of the decade. Near the end, the Boston Celtics began a dynasty that would last through the following decade. Meanwhile, the National Hockey League (NHL) was a small six-team outfit and was of interest mostly in Canada and in the U.S. cities that hosted NHL franchises.

On the college sports scene, a betting scandal at the dawn of the decade tainted basketball. The Oklahoma Sooners were the era's major college football story; they mounted two impressive winning streaks of thirty-one and forty-seven games. Two Olympics were held; both were focused more on national pride and Cold War politics than competition. The decade saw the rise of the great heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano, who won and defended his title before retiring undefeated. Women athletes, meanwhile, were almost invisible. Yet several earned coverage on the sports pages, including bowling legend Marion Ladewig, tennis stars Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly and Althea Gibson, and all-around athlete Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias.

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