The 1950s Sports: Topics in the News

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The 1950s Sports: Topics in the News



In 1947, Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) became the first African American to play major league baseball in the twentieth century. Other black players followed, with their numbers slowly increasing during the 1950s. Yet most rosters remained predominantly white and some were completely segregated. In mid-July 1959, the Boston Red Sox became the final major league club to employ a black ballplayer by bringing to the majors infielder Pumpsie Green (1933–). Despite the slow pace of integration, quite a few of baseball's rising stars were black. Among them were Willie Mays, Henry "Hank" Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Don Newcombe, and Jim Gilliam. Had they been born a couple of decades earlier, all would have missed playing in the major leagues solely because of the color of their skin.

The American League (AL) New York Yankees were the kings of baseball in the 1950s. Their skipper throughout the decade was Casey Stengel (1890–1975), a former National League (NL) outfielder who during the 1930s and 1940s managed the lowly Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves. Given his track record, his elevation to the Yankees stewardship in 1949 was surprising. However, Stengel brilliantly platooned his players and juggled his line ups. During the next twelve seasons, he won ten pennants and seven world championships.

After the 1951 season, Joe DiMaggio (1914–1999), the Bronx Bombers' legendary centerfielder, retired. He promptly was replaced by another all-time Yankee great, Mickey Mantle (1931–1995). In 1956, Mantle won the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting average (.353), runs-batted-in (130), and home runs (52). Between 1949 and 1953, the Yankees won an astonishing five straight World Series. They won again in 1956 and 1958, and lost in 1955 (to the Brooklyn Dodgers) and 1957 (to the Milwaukee Braves). Only twice during the decade, in 1954 and 1959, did they not play in the Series. Of all Yankees World Series contests throughout the decade, easily the most memorable was Game Five of the '56 series. Don Larsen (1929–), an otherwise average pitcher who finished his career with a losing record, pitched a perfect game. Larsen faced the minimum twenty-seven batters and retired every one of them.

The Yankees were not the only New York team to find success during the 1950s. In fact, the late 1940s through mid-1950s was a golden era for all New York baseball fans. The New York Giants played in the World

Series in 1951 and 1954, while the Brooklyn Dodgers did so in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. In each of their series, the Dodgers opposed the mighty Yankees. Each year, they were defeated by their uptown rivals, leading Brooklyn loyalists to chant a phrase that came to symbolize their frustration: "Wait 'til next year." "Next year" finally arrived in 1955, when the Dodgers (who fondly were known as "Dem Bums") beat the Yankees in a seven-game series. In the deciding contest, pitcher Johnny Podres (1932–) quieted the Yankees' bats, shutting them out 2 to 0. It was the lone world championship won by the Dodgers while the franchise was located in Brooklyn.

Major League Baseball World Series

YearWinning TeamLosing Team
1950New York Yankees (AL) 4Philadelphia Phillies (NL) 0
1951New York Yankees (AL) 4New York Giants (NL) 2
1952New York Yankees (AL) 4Brooklyn Dodgers (NL) 3
1953New York Yankees (AL) 4Brooklyn Dodgers (NL) 2
1954New York Giants (NL) 4Cleveland Indians (AL) 0
1955Brooklyn Dodgers (NL) 4New York Yankees (AL) 3
1956New York Yankees (AL) 4Brooklyn Dodgers (NL) 3
1957Milwaukee Braves (NL) 4New York Yankees (AL) 3
1958New York Yankees (AL) 4Milwaukee Braves (NL) 3
1959Los Angeles Dodgers (NL) 4Chicago White Sox (AL) 2

Meanwhile, Giants rooters savored two memorable baseball moments. In 1951 their team tied the Dodgers for first place with a frantic late-season surge. Each finished with a 96 and 58 record. In the final game of a best-of-three playoff, the Giants' Bobby Thomson (1923–) smacked a dramatic ninth-inning home run off the Dodgers' Ralph Branca (1926–) to hand his team the pennant. The hit, one of the most celebrated in baseball history, came to be known as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World." While the Giants fell four games to two to the Yankees in the 1951 World Series, they came back three years later to sweep the Cleveland Indians, who during the regular season had won a then-record 111 games. The defining moment of that series came in Game One. With the score knotted at 2 to 2 in the eighth inning, two Indians reached base. Up came Vic Wertz (1925–1983), whose first-inning triple had given the Indians a 2 to 0 lead. Wertz smashed a fly ball that, had the game been played in Cleveland, would have been a home run. Instead, it was nothing more than a 425-foot out, as Giants centerfielder Willie Mays (1931–) raced back and made a dramatic, over-the-shoulder catch. Mays's catch is arguably the most famous in World Series history. A three-run ninth-inning home run by pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes (1927–) won the game for the Giants. (Throughout the decade, New York sports fans relished debating which team sported the best centerfielder: Mays, Mantle, or the Dodgers' Duke Snider [1926–)].)

Veeck and Gaedel

Bill Veeck (pronounced VECK; 1914–1986), major league baseball owner, was a maverick and an innovator. He integrated the American League (in 1947, when he owned the Cleveland Indians), placed players' names on the backs of their uniforms, and invented the "exploding" scoreboard with fireworks and sounds.

Occasionally, however, a Veeck prank could be downright goofy. In 1951, he owned the lowly St. Louis Browns. That August, he signed Eddie Gaedel (1925–1961) to a professional contract. What made this pact so unusual was that Gaedel was just three-feet-seven-inches tall! Gaedel was assigned uniform number 1/8. In the first inning of an August game against the Detroit Tigers, Gaedel came up to bat. He was walked on four pitches, and pulled for a pinch runner.

Not surprisingly, several days later Veeck was barred from further employing Gaedel as a major-league ballplayer.

While New York teams ruled baseball, the decade concluded on a somber note for many of the city's fans. At the end of the 1957 season, the Dodgers and Giants abandoned their roots, relocating respectively to Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1959, Ebbets Field, the Dodgers' ballpark, was torn down and replaced by a housing project. It is remembered to this day as one of baseball's most beloved stadiums. The Polo Grounds, the Giants' ballpark, lasted into the 1960s. In 1962, the NL added two expansion teams, the Houston Colt. 45s (later renamed the Astros) and the New York Mets. Before moving into newly constructed Shea Stadium in 1964, the Mets played two seasons in the Polo Grounds. Then it, too, fell victim to the wrecking ball.

The Dodgers and Giants were not the only major league franchises to shift cities during the decade. In consecutive seasons beginning in 1953, the Boston Braves switched to Milwaukee, the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles, and the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City.


The 1950s began with one of the more shameful scandals in college sports history. In 1951, the New York district attorney's office announced that it had uncovered evidence that basketball players at many of the nation's top schools were "shaving points" (not playing to their full capabilities). In exchange, they were being paid off by gamblers. Reportedly, gamblers had approached the players while they were spending their summers playing at resorts in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains.

Among the culprits were stars of the City College of New York (CCNY) team. Incredibly, CCNY had won both the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship in 1950. Players from New York University (NYU), Long Island University (LIU), Manhattan, Toledo, Kentucky, and Bradley also were implicated. They were called to testify before grand juries, and the image of college basketball was tarnished for the rest of the decade.

Despite the scandal, the 1950s did see its share of great college basketball teams and players. For example, the University of San Francisco, led by future Boston Celtics legends Bill Russell (1934–) and K. C. Jones (1931–), won NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. Kentucky was also a consistent national power, winning NCAA titles in 1949, 1951, and 1958.


In 1949, two existing professional leagues—the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and National Basketball League (NBL)—combined to become the most profitable and stable of all pro leagues: The National Basketball Association (NBA). However, during the decade, the NBA had not yet evolved into a high-profile, world-renowned league. It still was a jumble of teams, many of which were financially shaky and noncompetitive.

Three years before the NBA officially began, the BAA was comprised of eleven teams: the Boston Celtics; Chicago Stags; Cleveland Rebels; Detroit Falcons; New York Knickerbockers; Philadelphia Warriors; Pittsburgh Ironmen; Providence Steamrollers; St. Louis Bombers; Toronto Huskies; and Washington Capitals. In 1947, the Baltimore Bullets joined the BAA, while four franchises (Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Toronto) ceased operations. The following year, four NBL teams were added to the BAA: the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Pistons, Indianapolis Jets, Minneapolis Lakers, and Rochester (New York) Royals. The remaining NBL teams were the Anderson (Indiana) Packers; Denver Nuggets; Indianapolis Olympians; Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Redskins; Syracuse Nationals; Tri-Cities Blackhawks (which played its home games in Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa); and Waterloo (Indiana) Hawks. They, plus the new Indianapolis Olympians, joined the BAA, which later became the NBA.

In 1949, Providence and Indianapolis disbanded, leaving the NBA with seventeen teams divided into three divisions. Then in 1950, six teams left: Anderson, Chicago, Denver, Sheboygan, St. Louis, and Waterloo. They were followed by Washington in 1951, Indianapolis in 1953, and Baltimore in 1954. Additionally, there were franchise shifts in which teams switched cities, and sometimes names as well. In 1951, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks became the Milwaukee Hawks. In 1955, the Hawks moved to St. Louis. In 1957, the Fort Wayne Pistons shifted to Detroit and the Rochester Royals headed for Cincinnati. By the end of the decade, the NBA consisted of eight teams separated into two divisions.

NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Champions

1950:City College of New York
1954:La Salle
1955:San Francisco
1956:San Francisco
1957:North Carolina

The Minneapolis (later Los Angeles) Lakers were the decade's leading NBA team, winning four league championships. They were coached by John Kundla and led by players George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, and Vern Mikkelson. Yet during the decade, the NBA was a secondary sports league. Its top players were not as celebrated as the stars of baseball and even football. Contests frequently were awkward and boring, ruled by slow-footed big men and stretched out by endless fouling aimed at impeding fast breaks.

To add vitality to NBA contests, the league instituted rule adjustments to make the game faster and more high-scoring. Then in 1957, the Boston Celtics, under coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach (1917–), won its first NBA championship. After a playoff defeat to St. Louis the following season, the Celts earned an amazing eight straight league titles.

NBA Championships

YearWinning TeamLosing Team
1950Minneapolis Lakers, 4Syracuse Nationals, 3
1951Rochester Royals, 4New York Knicks, 3
1952Minneapolis Lakers, 4New York Knicks, 3
1953Minneapolis Lakers, 4New York Knicks, 1
1954Minneapolis Lakers, 4Syracuse Nationals, 3
1955Syracuse Nationals, 4Fort Wayne Pistons, 3
1956Philadelphia Warriors, 4Fort Wayne Pistons, 1
1957Boston Celtics, 4Saint Louis Hawks, 3
1958Saint Louis Hawks, 4Boston Celtics, 2
1959Boston Celtics, 4Minneapolis Lakers, 0


During the 1950s, bowling was the country's most popular participation sport. The advent of automatic pin-setting machines and more stable wood oils made the game popular and easier to play. Bowling alleys sprouted up across the nation and Americans by the thousands entered local leagues, whose numbers peaked during the mid-1960s. Tournaments were televised locally and nationally. Handicap tournaments allowed lesser bowlers an advantage computed on the basis of previous performances. Thus, average players could battle professionals. Truly, bowling was a sport of the masses, enjoyed by everyday working people.

Bowling was also sport enjoyed by both men and women. While local competitive leagues were available for each gender, there were coed recreational leagues as well. Among professionals, Marion Ladewig (1914–) was queen of the lanes. She began bowling in 1937, and retired as a pro in 1964. In between, she won dozens of tournaments. On eight occasions in the 1950s, the Bowling Writers' Association of America (BWAA) named her Bowler of the Year.


From 1937 through the end of the 1940s, Joe Louis (1914–1981), the Brown Bomber, reigned as world heavyweight champion. During the early post-Louis era, no single fighter with his toughness and talent came forward. Ezzard Charles (1921–1975) and Jersey Joe Walcott (1914–1994) fought three times for the title, but neither had the power and savvy that had made Louis the greatest boxer since Jack Dempsey (1895–1983) during the 1920s.

Heavyweight Boxing Champions

1949–51:Ezzard Charles
1951–52:Jersey Joe Walcott
1952–56:Rocky Marciano
1956–59:Floyd Patterson
1959–60:Ingemar Johansson

Then came one of the all-time top heavyweights: Rocky Marciano (1923–1969), who took the title from Walcott in 1952. A year earlier, he had knocked out Louis, who was unsuccessfully attempting a comeback. Marciano went on to compile a perfect 49 and 0 record, which included 43 KOs (knock-outs). He retired undefeated in 1956. Floyd Patterson (1935–), who won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics as a middleweight, followed Marciano as heavyweight champ. He lost the title in 1959 to Ingemar Johansson (1932–) and became the first boxer to regain it when he beat Johansson the following year.

Rocky Marciano may have been the top heavyweight of the 1950s, but some boxing aficionados argue that, pound for pound, Sugar Ray Robinson (1921–1989) was the decade's greatest fighter. Robinson was fabled for his lightning speed, rocklike toughness, and devastating punching

power. In 1951, he took the middleweight title from Jake LaMotta (1921–); it was the last of six classic battles between the two. Before the decade ended, Robinson lost and regained the crown four more times.


The National Football League (NFL) had been in existence since the early 1920s. Yet three decades later, it lacked the wide popularity it would come to enjoy in the future. Nonetheless, the decade saw the sport steadily grow and attract increasing numbers of fans, until it surpassed college football in popularity.

The 1950s did see its share of college grid greats. One of the decade's most unusual accomplishments came in 1956, when Notre Dame's Paul Hornung (1935–), the "Golden Boy," won the Heisman Trophy despite playing for a losing team. That year, the Fighting Irish were 2 and 8! Coach Bud Wilkinson (1916–1994) led Oklahoma to three national titles (in 1950, 1955, and 1956), and four Orange Bowl and two Sugar Bowl victories. Between 1948 and 1950 and 1953 and 1957, the Sooners mounted winning streaks of thirty-one and forty-seven straight games.

However, the football story of the decade was the emergence of the NFL. In 1950, it was a thirteen-team league divided into two divisions. It expanded that year, adding three teams—the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts—from the rival All-America Football Conference (AAFC), which had just folded. The Browns and Detroit Lions dominated the first half of the decade, with Cleveland winning NFL titles in 1950, 1954, and 1955 and Detroit triumphing in 1952, 1953, and 1957. (The Super Bowl would not come into being until the 1960s.) To start its inaugural NFL season, Cleveland took on the heavily favored Philadelphia Eagles (which had won the final two league championships during the 1940s). Yet the Browns prevailed, 35 to 10, with quarterback Otto Graham (1921–) picking apart the Eagle defense as he completed twenty-one passes for 346 yards. Cleveland capped its NFL debut with a 30 to 28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the championship contest. Browns' place-kicker Lou Groza (1924–2000) won it by booting a 28-yard field goal with twenty-eight seconds left on the clock.

Despite these heroics, the one NFL game that had the most impact on the league's growth was the 1958 championship. That year, the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts met in front of a record number of television viewers. On the final day of the regular season, the Cleveland Browns held a one-game edge over New York. The two teams faced off and, on the game's first play, Cleveland fullback Jim Brown (1936–) ran 65 yards for a touchdown. But Cleveland lost, 13 to 10, as Giants place-kicker Pat Summerall (1930–) booted a 49-yard field goal through the wind and snow that had enveloped Yankee Stadium. The Giants prevailed, 10 to 0, in a one-game playoff, and took on the Colts for the title. With two minutes left to play and the Colts down by a touchdown, quarterback Johnny Unitas (1933–2002) led his team 73 yards downfield. With seven seconds to play, Steve Myhra (1934–1994) kicked a 20-yard field goal, tying the game at 17 to 17 and sending it into overtime. Eight minutes and fifteen seconds later, in what might be the most celebrated scoring play in NFL history, Baltimore fullback Alan Ameche (1933–1988) rushed one yard for the winning touchdown. Television viewers were dazzled not only by the thrilling climax but also by Unitas's precision passing during the pivotal fourth-quarter scoring drive.

NFL Championships

YearWinning TeamLosing Team
1950Cleveland Browns, 30Los Angeles Rams, 28
1951Los Angeles Rams, 24Cleveland Browns, 17
1952Detroit Lions, 17Cleveland Browns, 7
1953Detroit Lions, 17Cleveland Browns, 16
1954Cleveland Browns, 46Detroit Lions, 10
1955Cleveland Browns, 28Los Angeles Rams, 14
1956New York Giants, 47Chicago Bears, 7
1957Detroit Lions, 59Cleveland Browns, 14
1958Baltimore Colts, 23New York Giants, 17
1959Baltimore Colts, 31New York Giants, 16

The 1950s saw many NFL legends grinding out gridiron yardage and tossing or catching passes. The great Detroit teams were sparked by quarterback Bobby Layne, halfback Doak Walker, linebacker Joe Schmidt, and defensive backs Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary. In mid-decade, the New York Giants became a force with its strong defense, sparked by ends Andy Robustelli and Jim Katcavage, tackles Dick Modzelewski and Roosevelt Grier, and middle linebacker Sam Huff. The Baltimore Colts were led by Unitas, end Raymond Berry, halfback Lenny Moore, tackle Jim Parker, and defensive linemen Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti. A string of great quarterbacks played during the decade, including Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Charlie Conerly, Y.A. Tittle, Unitas, Layne, and Graham.


While the Olympic Games are supposed to spotlight international athletes in a nonpolitical setting, this often is not the case. As the cold war (a war of ideas and political systems between the United States and Russia and their respective allies) raged during the 1950s, the Olympics often became a test of superiority between East and West.

East-West tensions were apparent at the 1952 games in Helsinki, Finland, where the Soviets refused to house their athletes in the Olympic Village. Instead, competitors representing Russia and its satellite nations stayed in separate quarters surrounded by barbed wire! Meanwhile, Nationalist China, the leadership of which had fled to the island of Taiwan after being defeated by Communist leaders in 1948, claimed to be the lone official Chinese team. Initially, the International Olympic Organizing Committee (IOC) declared that neither Nationalist nor Communist (mainland) China could compete, but then changed its policy and invited both. Then Nationalist China boycotted the games. East Germany was barred from competition because there was not yet international recognition of it as a country. Political fallout extended to athletes who had no country of citizenship because their homelands still were fragmented as a result of World War II. They petitioned to compete under the Olympic, Swiss, Greek, or Red Cross flags. The IOC ignored their requests.

The 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia, were no less contentious. Spain, Switzerland, and The Netherlands boycotted in protest of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Communist China withdrew because Nationalist China had been invited. Egypt withdrew because it was at war with Israel. Iraq withdrew because of military action several nations had taken against Egypt in the struggle for control of the Suez Canal. Norway requested that the IOC bar South Africa because of its racial policies. Once the games had begun, politically allied nations frequently accused judges of favoritism. Politics further spilled onto the playing field when Russia and Hungary met in a semifinal water polo match which ended in a bloody fight.


With the steadily rising popularity of television, sports programming quickly became a natural ratings booster. It was inexpensive to produce, it could be sold to the public with a minimum of marketing, and it provided Americans with yet one more reason to purchase TV sets. Early in the decade, boxing, wrestling, and roller derby brought plenty of action to sports aficionados. As the years passed, all types of sports were broadcast with increased frequency. By 1958, more than eight hundred baseball games were telecast regionally and nationally. However, there were no instant replays, no color, few close-ups, and limited camera coverage. Transmissions frequently were interrupted by technical glitches.

Boxing broadcasts in particular had a major effect on the then-escalating popularity of television. In 1949, Jimmy Powers (1903–1995), a New York Daily News sports editor and columnist, became the key announcer on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (1948–1960). He was at ringside for what became popularly known as the "Friday Night Fights," describing the action to boxing fans crowded around TV sets at home or in neighborhood bars.

During the 1950s, Americans craved heroes. To fill this need, Hollywood studios produced a string of movies spotlighting the fictionalized stories of real-life athletes. Usually, they charted how their main characters triumphed over hardship and won glory on the playing field.

The decade's sports biography films included The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), in which Robinson starred as himself; Follow the Sun (1951), with Glenn Ford as golfer Ben Hogan; Jim Thorpe: All American (1951), starring Burt Lancaster as the Olympic legend; The Pride of St. Louis (1952) and The Winning Team (1952), respectively featuring Dan Dailey and future U.S. president Ronald Reagan as hall-of-fame pitchers Dizzy Dean and Grover Cleveland Alexander; The Joe Louis Story (1953), with Coley Wallace as the heavyweight champion; Crazylegs (1953), featuring football star Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch as himself; The Bob Mathias Story (1954), with Olympic star Mathias playing himself; Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), with Paul Newman as boxer Rocky Graziano; and Fear Strikes Out (1957), featuring Anthony Perkins as baseball player Jimmy Piersall. The story of the Harlem Globetrotters, the celebrated barnstorming basketball team, was recounted in The Harlem Globetrotters (1951) and Go, Man, Go! (1954).

During the 1950s, baseball's New York Yankees were so powerful that one of the era's clichés was that supporting them was the equivalent of rooting for U.S. Steel (the richest and most powerful American company of the day). In 1955, Yankee-bashing even reached Broadway when the musical Damn Yankees opened on Broadway. Damn Yankees was the story of a die-hard Washington Senators fan who barters his soul to the devil to have his team beat the dreaded Yankees. It was made into a film three years later.

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The 1950s Sports: Topics in the News

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The 1950s Sports: Topics in the News