The 1960s Sports: Topics in the News

views updated

The 1960s Sports: Topics in the News



By the 1960s, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), founded in 1947, had evolved into a well-organized professional racing circuit. While the sport had national appeal (albeit mostly in the country's rural areas), NASCAR was based in the South and most of its star drivers and hard-core fans were Southern. At the end of the decade, NASCAR membership comprised over 20,000 race supporters and sponsors; the association sanctioned over fifty races annually.

The stock cars NASCAR drivers race are radically modified versions of regular passenger automobiles. However, some drivers prefer cars that are expressly designed for sport and are undrivable on public roads. Such cars are the ones that compete in the Indianapolis 500, the most renowned auto race. Since 1911, the Indy 500 has been held each May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; it consists of two hundred laps around a 2.5-mile track. In 1955, the United States Auto Club (USAC) was founded as the governing body for Indy-type racers. Each year through the 1960s and beyond, the USAC sponsored a full slate of races and named an annual racing champion. It also marketed the Indy 500 as the jewel of car races.

Richard Petty (1937–) was the era's preeminent stock car racer. In 1967, he won twenty-seven of forty-eight NASCAR events, finishing in the top five in all except ten. Concurrently, Indy-style racers began driving new kinds of cars with new kinds of engines, which allowed them to zoom across racetracks. Car owner Andy Granatelli (1923–) even introduced a turbine engine that some said should have been outlawed because it was more suitable for an airplane than a racecar! The decade's most eminent USAC racer was A. J. Foyt (1935–), who entered his first Indy 500 in 1958 and established a record for making thirty-five consecutive starts. Foyt won three Indy 500s during the decade (in 1961, 1964, and 1967) and five USAC championships (in 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1967).

Auto racing was, and remains, a dangerous and sometimes deadly sport. At the 1964 World 600 stock car race, held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, "Fireball" Roberts (1931–1964) was seriously injured when his car crashed and became engulfed in flames. He was burned over 40 percent of his body; doctors worked to save him, pumping 123 pints of blood into him, during the thirty-nine days before he died. Roberts (whose given name was Glenn) was one of the era's top racers.

In 1964 and 1965, drivers Jim Pardue, Eddie Sachs, Joe Weatherly, Billy Wade, Buren Skeen, and Harold Kite were all killed in races or during tire tests. They were neither the first nor the last to die while competing in auto races.


In 1927, Babe Ruth (1895–1948), the legendary Sultan of Swat, belted sixty home runs. It was a record revered by baseball fans and sportswriters. Then in 1961, another New York Yankee, Roger Maris (1934–1985), cracked sixty-one.

At the time, the mark was controversial. Who was this Maris, anyway? Fans had not rallied behind Roger Maris, the player who had competed with a different, favored Yankee, Mickey Mantle (1931–1995), to best the record. Mantle, unlike Maris, had been a Bronx Bomber for a decade and was already acknowledged as a New York icon. During the season, Mantle and Maris swatted homer after homer, but in the end Mantle finished the season with only fifty-four four-base hits.

Indianapolis 500 Winners

1960Jim Rathmann
1961A. J. Foyt
1962Rodger Ward
1963Parnelli Jones
1964A. J. Foyt
1965Jim Clark
1966Graham Hill
1967A. J. Foyt
1968Bobby Unser
1969Mario Andretti

Although Maris had hit sixty-one homers, the validity of his record was contested. During the 1961 season, the American League (AL) had expanded from eight teams to ten and eight games had been added to the standard 154-game schedule. Because Maris did not break Ruth's mark during the first 154 contests, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick (1894–1978) ruled that Ruth's name still would appear in the record books; Maris's would, too, but with an asterisk. Meanwhile, the Yankees, a powerhouse team throughout the previous decade, maintained their winning ways. During the decade's first five years, they competed in every World Series. Then in 1965, they slipped to sixth place. The following season, they wound up last in the AL.

Major League Baseball World Series Champions

1960Pittsburgh Pirates
1961New York Yankees
1962New York Yankees
1963Los Angeles Dodgers
1964St. Louis Cardinals
1965Los Angeles Dodgers
1966Baltimore Orioles
1967St. Louis Cardinals
1968Detroit Tigers
1969New York Mets

Meanwhile, a new generation of baseball greats won stardom. A short list includes Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Frank Howard, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Lou Brock, Tony Oliva, Ron Santo, Dave McNally, Richie (later Dick) Allen, Tom Seaver, Ferguson Jenkins, Catfish Hunter, Luis Tiant, Tony Perez, and Reggie Jackson. Nineteen-sixty-eight was a noteworthy year for baseball, in that pitchers dominated hitters like never before. Among hurlers, St. Louis Cardinal hall-of-famer Bob Gibson (1935–) finished the season with a microscopic 1.12 earned run average (ERA), while pitcher Denny McLain (1944–) of the Detroit Tigers won thirty-one games. Among hitters, Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski (1939–) won the 1968 AL batting championship with a lowly .301 average, the puniest in history. The next-best hitter, Danny Cater (1940–), averaged .290. Despite this emphasis on pitching, the decade's second half saw two AL Triple Crown winners. In 1966, Frank Robinson (1935–) of the Baltimore Orioles led in batting average (.316), runs batted in (122), and home runs (49). The following season, the winner Yastrzemski totaled .326, 121, and 44.

Through the 1961 season, the National League (NL) and the American League (AL) were made up of eight teams each. At the end of each season, the two first-place teams competed in the World Series. However, in 1961, the AL expanded by two teams, adding the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators; the team previously known as the Senators became the Minnesota Twins. Then in 1962, the NL added the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s. Seven years later, four expansion teams began play, two (the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres) in the NL and two (the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots) in the AL. After one season, the Pilots relocated to the Midwest, becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. The decade saw two other team relocations. Back in the 1950s, the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee and the Philadelphia Athletics shifted to Kansas City. In 1966, the Braves headed south to Atlanta; two years later, the A's headed west to Oakland. Finally, starting in 1969, each league was split into two divisions, an Eastern and Western. The first-place teams competed in a playoff round, with the winner going on to the World Series.

The New York Mets were the decade's most colorful, unpredictable ballclub. During its inaugural season, the Mets compiled a 40 and 120 record, the worst ever for a team during the twentieth century. However, New Yorkers did not mind. They had been deprived of NL baseball since the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants headed west at the end of the 1957 season and were overjoyed by the Mets' mere presence, and charmed by the team's ineptitude.

Baseball Union

July 12, 1964 is one of the most significant days in baseball history. On that date, the Major League Baseball Players' Association (MLBPA) was formed. At the time, ballplayers were bound to the clubs that owned their contracts. They could not declare themselves free agents and sign with other teams. The newly formed MLBPA was the first genuinely effective sports union in the United States. In subsequent decades, it won for its members the right to work for any employer who wanted to hire them, just like other American workers.

Incredibly, by the end of the decade, the team evolved into world champions. In 1969, the "Miracle Mets" won the NL East, then swept the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs, and took four of five games against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.


In the early 1950s, a point-shaving scandal rocked the world of college basketball. By the following decade, the scandal was becoming a dim memory as the sport enjoyed steadily increasing popularity.

The University of Cincinnati won National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles in 1961 and 1962. However, the reigning college team of the 1960s and 1970s played on the West Coast. Under legendary coach John Wooden (1910–), the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) won NCAA titles in 1964 and 1965. After Texas Western emerged victorious in 1966, the Bruins earned consecutive championships from 1967 to 1973. It won one last time, in 1975, at which point Wooden retired from coaching. Among his stars were Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Gail Goodrich, Sidney Wicks, Mike Warren, Walt Hazzard, and Bill Walton.

NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Champions

1960:Ohio State
1963:Loyola (Illinois)
1966:Texas Western (Texas-El Paso)

At one point, Wooden led the team to an NCAA-record eighty-eight consecutive victories over three seasons. During his twenty-three years as UCLA's coach, Wooden's teams won over 80 percent of their games. Decades earlier, he had been a schoolboy star in his home state of Indiana and later as a guard playing at Purdue. Wooden became the first man ever elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach.

Despite UCLA's run, the victory by Texas Western arguably was the one game that most changed college basketball. In 1966, many teams, particularly those in the South, still were segregated. One was the Kentucky Wildcats, coached by Adolph Rupp (1901–1977). Although Rupp had won four national championships, he had never allowed a black player on his team. That year, Kentucky was undefeated going into the NCAA final. Its opponent was Texas Western, a small, independent school that never had vied for a sports title of any kind. In addition, its players were black. They played what was called "black basketball": a fast, flashy game that featured plenty of running and jumping. Texas Western led throughout, and came away with the championship by beating Rupp and Kentucky, 72 to 65. The victory was the beginning of the end for segregation in college basketball.


At the dawn of the 1960s, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was an eight-team league, separated into two divisions. The decade saw many changes within the basic league structure, highlighted by the addition of the first expansion teams since the league was founded more than a decade earlier.

The decade began with a franchise switch, as the Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles. In 1961, the league added its initial expansion team, the Chicago Packers. The following year, the Packers were renamed the Zephyrs and the Philadelphia Warriors headed west to San Francisco. In 1963, the Chicago franchise moved to Baltimore and was renamed the Bullets, while the Syracuse Nationals became the Philadelphia 76ers. Then in 1966, a second expansion team was added, also in Chicago, named the Bulls. The following year, two more teams were added: the San Diego Rockets and Seattle SuperSonics. They were followed in 1968 by the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta.

The decade saw its share of celebrated teams, players, and games. Beginning in 1959, the Boston Celtics, coached by Arnold "Red" Auerbach (1917–), earned an incredible eight straight NBA titles. The Celtics were dominated by two hall-of-famers: Bill Russell (1934–), a rugged center who was fabled as a shot-blocker; and Bob Cousy (1928–), a sure-handed guard. Russell in particular built up a rivalry with another all-time-great NBA big man: Wilt Chamberlain (1936–1999). Some of the top teams in league history played during the 1960s. The 1964 and 1965 Boston Celtics ended the regular season at 62 and 18, setting a record for most victories. Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, and Tom Sanders were the team's stars. In one of the all-time-great playoff games, the Celtics bested the Philadelphia 76ers 110 to 109 in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals. Their 4 to 1 pounding of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals seemed anticlimactic. Boston emerged with its seventh consecutive championship.

The 1966 and 1967 Philadelphia 76ers began the season with a 46 and 4 mark. The team finished at 68 and 13, setting yet another regular season victory record. Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, and Chet Walker sparked the team, which beat Boston 4 to 1 in the Eastern Division Finals, and insured that the Celtics would not win a ninth-straight NBA title. The 76ers topped the San Francisco Warriors, 4 to 2, for the championship. The 1969 and 1970 New York Knicks did not have the all-time best regular season record; they finished at 60 and 22. However, this team was celebrated for its intelligent, pass-oriented play. Six top players sparked the Knicks: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Dick Barnett, and Cazzie Russell. They captured the franchise's first NBA championship by beating the Lakers 4 to 3 in the league finals. Team captain Reed sat out Game 6 with a torn leg muscle. Before the deciding contest, he inspired teammates and fans by hobbling onto the Madison Square Garden court. Reed started the game, and even made the Knicks' first two baskets. His team won, 113 to 99.

At the start of the 1967 and 1968 basketball season, a newly formed basketball league challenged the NBA: The American Basketball Association (ABA).

By the mid-1960s the NBA was expanding, but not quickly enough for community leaders in cities that lacked league franchises. Furthermore, entry fees for new franchises were high. Businessmen in cities from Louisville and New Orleans to Oakland and Anaheim were convinced their towns could support pro basketball. So they banded together and formed the ABA. In its first season, five teams played in the Eastern Division: the Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, Minnesota Muskies, New Jersey Americans, and Pittsburgh Pipers. Six teams made up the Western Division: the Anaheim Amigos, Dallas Chaparrals, Denver Rockets, Houston Mavericks, New Orleans Buccaneers, and Oakland Oaks.

While the first ABA teams were not as good as their NBA rivals, individual players easily could have competed in the older league. George Mikan (1924–), an NBA star of the 1950s, became the first ABA commissioner. He concocted the idea of coloring the official league ball red, white, and blue. Not only would these shades add a patriotic flair to the game, but they would stand out on the court and on television.

The ABA lasted nine seasons, through 1975 and 1976. At that time, four of its teams joined the NBA: Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs, and Denver Nuggets.


The 1960s saw an array of college football legends. One of the greatest was O. J. Simpson (1947–), who later became notorious as the defendant in one of the twentieth century's most controversial murder cases. During the 1967 season, Simpson led the University of Southern California (USC) with 3,187 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns. In 1968, he set an NCAA record with 334 carries and 1,654 yards, and won the Heisman Trophy. Noted his coach, John McKay (1923–), "Simpson was not only the greatest player I ever had—he was the greatest player anyone ever had."

Television had no small role in transforming players like Simpson into national heroes. And TV also allowed individual teams to win national followings. Notre Dame, Navy, Michigan State, Ohio State, Alabama, and USC were among the decade's glamour teams. However, television did not keep fans away from cheering on their favorite teams in person. During the 1962 season, for example, 22,337,094 fans attended college games.

NBA Champions

1959–60:Boston Celtics
1960–61:Boston Celtics
1961–62:Boston Celtics
1962–63:Boston Celtics
1963–64:Boston Celtics
1964–65:Boston Celtics
1965–66:Boston Celtics
1966–67:Philadelphia 76ers
1967–68:Boston Celtics
1968–69:Boston Celtics
1969–70:New York Knicks

The decade saw several teams compile perfect or near-perfect win-loss records. Yale (1960), New Mexico (1960), USC (1962), the University of Texas (1963 and 1969), Alabama (1964), Arkansas (1964), Ohio State (1968), and Penn State (1968 and 1969) all completed undefeated seasons. In 1967, Simpson's USC Trojans finished 10 and 1, as had the Michigan State Spartans in 1965. In 1966, Notre Dame and Michigan each posted 9 and 0 and 1 records. That one tie came in a game in which they opposed each other; the Fighting Irish and Spartans were an equal match, and the game ended with the score 10 to 10. Many fans and observers of the sport declared it the decade's greatest college football game.


In 1958, the National Football League (NFL) came to maturity when the Baltimore Colts topped the New York Giants 23 to 17 in overtime, in one of the most thrilling and significant games in league history. However, the following decade saw the beginning of a period of unparalleled growth for the league. The individual most responsible was neither a player nor a coach. In 1960, Pete Rozelle (1926–1996) became NFL commissioner. He held the post for the next three decades. Under Rozelle's stewardship, league attendance skyrocketed. The NFL negotiated lucrative deals with television networks, and marketed itself as a unified professional sports entity.

National College Football Champions

1962:University of Southern California
1965:Alabama/Michigan State
1966:Notre Dame
1967:University of Southern California
1968:Ohio State

Just as Rozelle came into office, a new eight-team pro football league was formed. It was named the American Football League (AFL), and was determined to compete with the NFL. The league suffered growing pains: its franchises in Los Angeles and New York drew small crowds, with football fans preferring to follow the exploits of the city's NFL teams. After its first season, the division-winning Los Angeles Chargers headed south to San Diego because the team could not draw a fan base against the city's NFL team, the Rams. The Boston Patriots called four different stadiums home during their first eleven years; and the home fields of the Oakland and Houston franchises were high-school stadiums. However, the AFL competed with the older league for college players. Its most significant acquisition came in 1965, when the New York Jets signed Alabama star quarterback Joe Namath (1943–) to a then-astounding $437,000 contract. By then, the AFL had begun developing its own roster of stars. Ex-NFL quarterback George Blanda (1927–) led the Houston Oilers to the first two AFL titles and played for another fifteen years; his pro career lasted twenty-six seasons. Jack Kemp (1935–) became one of the league's top quarterbacks, leading the Buffalo Bills to two titles. Wide receivers Don Maynard (1935–) of the New York Titans (who in 1963 became the Jets) and Lance Alworth (1940–) of San Diego became hall-of-famers in the AFL. Buffalo Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist (1935–) became the AFL's first 1,000-yard rusher. Two years after signing with the Jets, Namath was the first quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season.

In 1966, peace came to pro football when the two leagues merged. At first they continued as separate leagues, with their top teams competing in a championship game that came to be known as the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers won the first two meetings, easily beating the Kansas City Chiefs, 35 to 20, and the Oakland Raiders, 33 to 14. The third go-round featured the New York Jets against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. Before the game, Namath, the Jets quarterback, brashly forecast victory. Then, he set about leading his team to a surprise 16 to 7 win. This triumph not only validated the NFL-AFL union, but established the Super Bowl as an important sporting event and added to the success and status of professional football.

The NFL-AFL rivalry aside, one team easily dominated professional football during the 1960s: the Green Bay Packers. In addition to those first two Super Bowl victories, the Packers won six conference titles and five NFL championships. Early in the decade, the Packers' primary rivals were the New York Giants. Yet their most dramatic victory during the decade came in the 1967 NFL championship game, a gritty clash that came to be known as the "Ice Bowl" because, at kickoff, the temperature was minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 15-mile-per-hour wind. With thirteen seconds left, Bart Starr (1934–) scored on a quarterback sneak, resulting in a 21 to 17 Packers victory.


Three Summer Olympics were held during the decade: in 1960 (Rome), 1964 (Tokyo), and 1968 (Mexico City). In 1960, Rafer Johnson (1935–) won the decathlon with a stunning victory in the 10,000-meter race. Wilma Rudolph (1940–1994) put on a one-woman track-and-field show, winning gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter events and as anchor for the 400-meter relay. In 1964, swimmer Don Schollander (1946–) won four gold medals. Bob Hayes (1942–) earned the title "world's fastest human" with a ten-second flat time in the 100-meter race. In 1968, Bob Beamon (1946–) set a world record in the long jump of 8.9 meters. Dick Fosbury (1947–) introduced a new style of high jumping, called the "Fosbury Flop," that revolutionized the sport. Perhaps the era's top U.S. Olympic champion was Al Oerter (1936–), who won gold medals in the discus throw in four consecutive games beginning in 1956. In 1964, Oerter became the first man ever to throw the discus more than 200 feet.

Super Bowl Champions

1966:Green Bay Packers
1967:Green Bay Packers
1968:New York Jets
1969:Kansas City Chiefs

However, the Olympics primarily served as a political forum, despite its stated purpose of promoting international harmony. The cold war, pitting West (in particular, the United States) against East (in particular, the Soviet Union), had been raging since the late 1940s. Thus, a gold medal won by individual athletes or teams representing one side was more of a political victory than the result of friendly competition. Each Olympics featured no shortage of off-the-field melodrama. Who would represent China, the nationalists or communists? Would the East and West Germans, bitter ideological enemies, be forced to compete as one? Would South Africa's national policy of apartheid bar that country from participating? (It did, beginning in 1964.)

Another controversial issue concerned the definition of amateur athletics. In some countries—the Soviet Union, for one—Olympic athletes were supported by the state. Yet they still were considered amateurs and were allowed to compete. American athletes did not enjoy the luxury of government support, yet once they were paid for stepping onto an athletic field they lost their amateur status and no longer could represent their country in the Olympics.

Olympic controversies were not limited to East-versus-West. In 1968, American Tommie Smith (1944–) won a gold medal in the 200-meter race; his teammate, John Carlos (1945–), finished third. During the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner," as they received their medals, both raised their black-gloved fists into the air. Smith hoisted his right one, to represent black power; Carlos raised his left, to signify unity in black America. International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage (1887–1975) suspended them and sent them home, stripped of their medals.


In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans had more hours in which to indulge in their favorite pastimes. Consequently, they increasingly followed their favorite amateur and professional sports. All received coverage in local newspapers. However, a market emerged for a national sports publication that offered what local journalists could not: lengthy, detailed analyses of sporting events and sports personalities, illustrated with dramatic, full-color photos. Henry Luce (1898–1967), the editor of Time magazine, acknowledged this market when he initiated publication of Sports Illustrated (SI). The magazine debuted in August 1954. Milwaukee Braves third-baseman Eddie Mathews (1931–2001) was pictured on the first cover.

Initially, the magazine covered sports as well as such then-male-oriented pursuits as fishing, yachting, and big game hunting. It was not until the 1960s that SI became a leader in sports journalism. At that time, its editorial thrust was changed to emphasize coverage of the major sports. It also spotlighted sports-related issues, ranging from the treatment of black athletes to the increasing presence of women on playing fields.

Later, SI became well known for its swimsuit issues, featuring glossy photos of models in beach attire. However, during its first decades, it offered fans an entirely new way in which to read about sports.

About this article

The 1960s Sports: Topics in the News

Updated About content Print Article


The 1960s Sports: Topics in the News