1970s: Sports and Games

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1970s: Sports and Games

More than anything else, money changed professional sports during the 1970s. In football and baseball, moneymaking television contracts led to changes in the rules and a lengthening of the season. Playoffs in both sports extended the seasons and brought huge revenues. Players wanted a share of the increased revenues, and players unions organized to demand higher pay and more freedom to move from team to team. In baseball, a policy called "free agency" moved players around and helped a number of players reach salaries at or near $1 million a year.

Professional baseball was dominated by the Cincinnati Reds, led by Pete Rose (1941–), and the Baltimore Orioles, led in 1970 and 1971 by Frank Robinson (1935–), who would become baseball's first black manager in 1975, with the Cleveland Indians. Strong runs by upstart teams like the Oakland A's and the Pittsburgh Pirates made it an exciting decade for baseball. In pro football, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the team to beat, but not many teams did. The Steelers won four Super Bowls. The leading players of the decade included O. J. Simpson (1947–), Roger Staubach (1942–), "Mean" Joe Greene (1946–), and Terry Bradshaw (1948–). Professional basketball was in a bit of a slump during the decade, despite the play of superstar Julius "Dr. J" Erving (1950–) of the Philadelphia 76ers. Pro hockey began to gain in popularity, although it would never challenge the big three sports. College football and basketball also remained hugely popular, and many of the games were shown on TV.

Outside of the major pro and college sports, perhaps the biggest sports story of the decade was the "Battle of the Sexes," a tennis match between women's great Billie Jean King (1943–) and aging men's pro Bobby Riggs (1918–1995). King won the match—and $100,000. Women's tennis advanced rapidly during the decade, thanks to the exciting play of such stars as Chris Evert (1954–) and Tracy Austin (1962–). In car racing, Janet Guthrie (1938–) became the first woman to drive in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977; she came in eighteenth. Black athletes continued to make gains, earning salaries comparable with those of white athletes and establishing important records. No record was more striking than the one Henry Aaron (1934–) set early in 1974 when he topped Babe Ruth (1895–1948) for the all-time home-run record.

Sports and games were not just for the pros, however. In the 1970s, millions of Americans took up jogging or aerobics in order to improve their physical fitness. Both activities produced industries of their own to provide shoes, clothing, and videotapes for exercising Americans.

Video games became an important new source of entertainment in the 1970s. Pinball machines had been available in pool halls and other areas for years, but the video game brought game play into the home. Millions of Americans purchased the new Atari game system, which allowed them to play a graphically primitive game called "Pong." In "Pong," players used a crude paddle to bounce a ball across a screen. Better games, however, would soon arrive.


1970s: Sports and Games