The 1960s Sports: Overview
The 1960s Sports: Overview
During the 1960s, baseball reigned as America's most cherished sport. Dozens of hall-of-fame-caliber ballplayers thrilled fans with on-field heroics during the decade. The decade began with the assault by Roger Maris on one of baseball's sacred records: the sixty home runs hit by the legendary Babe Ruth during the 1927 season. It ended with the World Series triumph of the "Miracle" New York Mets.
At the same time, other professional sports vied for the public's attention. Professional football began to infringe on baseball's status as America's national pastime. The Super Bowl, which first pitted the champions of the more established National Football League (NFL) and the upstart American Football League (AFL), did much to boost the sport's status. The third Super Bowl, in which the AFL's New York Jets and quarterback Joe Namath upset the heavily favored NFL's Baltimore Colts, proved a pivotal moment in the growth of pro football. In the world of pro basketball, the Boston Celtics thoroughly dominated the National Basketball Association (NBA). But the hoop game still lagged behind baseball and football among major sports. Furthermore, the status of the NBA as the premier basketball entity was threatened by a new, upstart league, the American Basketball Association (ABA). Especially in small town and rural America, auto racing—sponsored by both the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and United States Auto Club (USAC)—emerged as a popular spectator sport.
College football and basketball were wildly popular. While television allowed the best teams to enjoy nationwide acclaim, hundreds of thousands of fans still packed college stadiums and basketball arenas to cheer on their favorite teams. The University of Southern California (UCLA) basketball team reeled off eighty-eight straight victories; during the decade's football seasons, a number of teams also completed perfect (or near-perfect) records.
Three separate summer and winter Olympic games were held during the decade. While records were set and medals were won at each, international and national politics overshadowed the games. Of all the decade's sports personalities, none mixed politics, athletics, and controversy more than Muhammad Ali. Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, started the decade as a brash young boxer who won Olympic gold in 1960. He took the heavyweight title in 1964, but eventually lost it to an opponent outside the ring. In 1967, as the Vietnam War was escalating, he refused induction into the U.S. military on the basis of being a conscientious objector (a person who is against armed conflict because he or she believes it is wrong to kill for any reason). He had joined the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims) and changed his name from Clay to Ali. Furthermore, he stated that he would not fight in Southeast Asia because he "ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong." At the time, this was a bold, incendiary statement from such a prominent figure in or out of the sporting world, let alone one who was African American. Ali summarily was stripped of his title and banned from boxing.