The 1970s Sports: Topics in the News

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The 1970s Sports: Topics in the News



At the beginning of the 1970s, baseball was struggling. Its innocence had been lost long ago, and now it faced disgrace. Public scandals, labor disputes, greed, and arrogance characterized the nation's game. It took more and more spectacular plays every year to draw the fans' attentions back to the field.

The relationship between players and owners, difficult since baseball's early days, became even more quarrelsome. Traditionally, professional athletes had been considered property whose value rested in a team owner or manager with the ability to market his players' skills. Players belonged to the teams that drafted them, and any player could be traded at the whim of an owner. In 1970, a lone player challenged baseball's reserve clause, which defined a player as property belonging to the team that holds his contract. It was a challenge that cost the player his career and changed the face of baseball forever.

When St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies against his will in late 1969, he balked and filed a lawsuit the following year against major league baseball over the reserve clause. Flood wanted the right to choose where and for whom he would play ball. Flood's lawyers argued that since professional baseball was controlled solely by the teams' owners, it was a monopoly. This meant that power and the concentration of wealth was in the hands of a select few, and normal marketplace or business competition was suppressed. Since baseball was a monopoly, the lawyers argued, it violated antitrust (antimonopoly) laws passed by the U.S. Congress in the late nineteenth century. In 1972, however, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that its 1922 decision to exclude major league baseball from antitrust laws was still legal. Flood lost his case.

But Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, had already begun a more effective means of toppling the hated reserve clause. Little by little, he chipped away at it, first crafting an agreement in 1973 between owners and players that allowed salary disputes to be settled through arbitration (judgment of a dispute by an impartial person or group). Then Miller convinced the owners to agree that any player who had ten years in the major leagues and five with the same team could veto a trade he did not like. Finally, in 1975, Miller found a loophole in the reserve clause. An arbitrator upheld the players' association's contention that if a player worked for a year without a contract, he could declare himself a free agent and market his services to the highest bidder. A year later, twenty-four players took advantage of the new ruling. As the American League added teams in Seattle and Toronto, twelve of the new free agents signed multiyear contracts for more than $1 million. Baseball had entered a new big-money era.

Greed marked the game in other ways as well. The Washington Senators, who had played in the nation's capital for eleven years, moved to Dallas in 1971, where they became the Texas Rangers. The possibility of making more money was the reason given for the move, underscoring the fact that baseball was (and is) purely business. In the latter part of the decade, the New York Yankees were good enough to win three straight pennants and two World Series. But they had a team payroll of $3.5 million, with eleven players earning over $100,000 a year. As critics claimed, they were the best team money could buy.

In spite of these excesses, there were moments of pure athletic achievement on the ball fields. In 1971, Oakland Athletics pitcher Vida Blue won his first ten games of the season, eventually finishing the year with twenty-four wins. In 1974, three veterans set new records: Atlanta Braves outfielder Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home-run record of 714; St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson struck out his three-thousandth batter; and Gibson's teammate, outfielder Lou Brock, stole a record 118 bases. In 1979, another veteran led his team to victory. Thirty-eight-year-old Willie Stargell, called "Pops" by his younger teammates, helped his Pittsburgh Pirates team overcome a three-games-to-one deficit to win the World Series. Stargell hit for a.400 batting average during the series, with a home run in the seventh game. He won every most-valuable-player award available.


Like their baseball counterparts, professional basketball players saw their salaries rise dramatically in the 1970s. At the end of the 1960s, salaries for the players had averaged $43,000 a season. Just ten years later, 240 professional basketball players averaged $158,000 a year in salaries, an increase of over 250 percent. The league itself was in similarly great financial shape, having signed a lucrative television contract with CBS in 1972. On average, each team in the National Basketball Association (NBA) received about $800,000 a year in revenue from the TV contract.

But fan interest did not match the high salaries and wide television coverage. Indeed, television ratings slipped badly by the end of the decade. Game attendance also fell, brought about, in part, by relatively high-ticket prices around the league. Although critics pointed out many reasons for dwindling fan interest, some people believed the main reason was racism: As the number of African American players increased during the decade (making up 75 percent of all players by the end of the 1970s), the interest of white fans decreased.

Most critics, however, blamed the lack of fan interest on the lack of a team concept within the NBA. They felt that team owners were more interested in showcasing individual superstars who could put on a show than in team play that could win a championship. A street-ball style of play had come to dominate the NBA during the decade, with an emphasis placed on a player's offensive flair within the key (area under and in front of the basket) and his ability to dunk. Perhaps no player best epitomized that flair than Julius Erving.

Known as "Doctor J," Erving had been drafted by the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1971. The ABA existed as a competing league to the NBA from 1967 to 1976. With its red, white, and blue ball and three-point field goal, the ABA was flashier than the NBA, but after just nine seasons, it found it could not compete with the financially secure older league. When the ABA folded in 1976, four of its teams and many of its players moved to the NBA. Among those players was the ABA's biggest star, Doctor J.

World Series Champions

YearWinning Team/Games WonLosing Team/Games Won
1970Baltimore Orioles (AL) 4Cincinnati Reds (NL) 1
1971Pittsburgh Pirates (NL) 4Baltimore Orioles (AL) 3
1972Oakland Athletics (AL) 4Cincinnati Reds (NL) 3
1973Oakland Athletics (AL) 4New York Mets (NL) 3
1974Oakland Athletics (AL) 4Los Angeles Dodgers (NL) 1
1975Cincinnati Reds (NL) 4Boston Red Sox (AL) 3
1976Cincinnati Reds (NL) 4New York Yankees (AL) 0
1977New York Yankees (AL) 4Los Angeles Dodgers (NL) 2
1978New York Yankees (AL) 4Los Angeles Dodgers (NL) 2
1979Pittsburgh Pirates (NL) 4Baltimore Orioles (AL) 3

Erving's ability to defy gravity left audiences shaking their heads in disbelief. His dunks and delicate finger-roll shots often started with a leap from

the foul line. After the merger of the two leagues, Erving moved on to the Philadelphia 76ers, becoming part of one of the most talented teams of the 1970s. Considered the most gifted pro basketball player of his generation, Erving combined grace, strength, court presence, and imagination. He created a new style of offensive play that would be copied by other guards and small forwards, and later further refined by Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.

With the birth of the era of the superstar in the NBA, few teams dominated play in the 1970s. Early in the decade, the league's most popular team was the New York Knicks. Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Barnett, and Walt Frazier formed the core of a team that blended like no other. Their play was often inspirational. But even the Knicks failed to create a dynasty, winning only two nonconsecutive NBA titles during the decade. The only other team to match that feat in the 1970s was the once powerful Boston Celtics. With no domineering team to love or hate, basketball fans sat quietly in their seats or simply left the arenas. It would take the superstars of the next decade to bring them back.

NBA Champions

YearWinning Team/Games WonLosing Team/Games Won
1970New York Knicks 4Los Angeles Lakers 3
1971Milwaukee Bucks 4Baltimore Bullets 0
1972Los Angeles Lakers 4New York Knicks 1
1973New York Knicks 4Los Angeles Lakers 1
1974Boston Celtics 4Milwaukee Bucks 3
1975Golden State Warriors 4Washington Bullets 0
1976Boston Celtics 4Phoenix Suns 2
1977Portland Trail Blazers 4Philadelphia 76ers 2
1978Washington Bullets 4Seattle SuperSonics 3
1979Seattle SuperSonics 4Washington Bullets 1


Unlike baseball or basketball, professional football did not have a problem keeping fans in their seats during the 1970s. Indeed, football had become America's game by the end of the decade. A 1978 Harris sports survey showed that football enjoyed a 70 percent following among American sports fans, compared to only 54 percent for baseball. Record numbers of American families viewed Super Bowls VI through XIV on their televisions, making the glitzy, heavily hyped championship between the American and National Football Conferences one of the most-watched sporting events of all time.

In 1970, football became a big hit in prime-time television because of ABC's Monday Night Football. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, on Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings during the season, in family living rooms and local bars, it seemed as if all of America were watching professional football.

Super Bowl Champions

YearWinning Team/ScoreLosing Team/Score
1970Kansas City 23Minnesota 7
1971Baltimore Colts 16Dallas Cowboys 13
1972Dallas Cowboys 24Miami Dolphins 3
1973Miami Dolphins 14Washington Redskins 7
1974Miami Dolphins 24Minnesota Vikings 7
1975Pittsburgh Steelers 16Minnesota Vikings 6
1976Pittsburgh Steelers 21Dallas Cowboys 17
1977Oakland Raiders 32Minnesota Vikings 14
1978Dallas Cowboys 27Denver Broncos 10
1979Pittsburgh Steelers 35Dallas Cowboys 31

Enormous change in the sport took place at the beginning of the decade. The merger between the National Football League (NFL; formed in 1922) and the American Football League (AFL; formed in 1960) was finalized for the 1970 season, four years after the two leagues had reached an agreement. The new league, called the National Football League, was composed of two new conferences: Three former NFL teams—the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers—joined with former AFL clubs to create the American Football Conference; the rest of the old NFL teams became the National Football Conference.

Former AFL teams brought much to the stale NFL, including an innovative brand of offensive and defensive football. In the early 1970s, one of those former AFL teams, the Miami Dolphins, began a dynasty that many fans and sportswriters thought would rule over the pro ranks for a decade. They made three straight appearances in the Super Bowl—1971, 1972, and 1973—winning the championship in their last two trips. In 1972, they became the only NFL team ever to post a perfect season record. The Dolphins won all 14 of their regular-season games, two playoffs games, and Super Bowl VII to finish with a 17–0 record.

The next team to assume the mantle as the NFL's best was the Pittsburgh Steelers. For nearly four previous decades, the Steelers had labored at or near the bottom of the pro standings. But with a new crop of talented players such as Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Green, L. C. Greenwood, Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris, the Steelers made four Super Bowl appearances—1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979—winning every time. In the 1972 AFC divisional play-off game between Pittsburgh and the Oakland Raiders, with 22 seconds left on the clock, Bradshaw passed the ball to running

back John ("Frenchy") Fuqua, who collided with Raiders safety Jack Tatum. The ball ricocheted off one of the two into the hands of Harris, who in full sprint caught the ball and ran in to the end zone for what officials later decided was the winning touchdown. Despite the continuing controversy over who touched the ball first, the "Immaculate Reception," as it is now known, remains one of the most memorable plays in football history.

The Steelers' dominance was unquestioned, but another team actually made more trips to the Super Bowl during the decade. The Dallas Cowboys played in the championship game five times. Under head coach Tom Landry, the Cowboys were perhaps pro football's most consistent team. Although they won the Super Bowl only twice, in 1971 and 1977, fans across the country rightly expected them to win the big games. By the end of the 1970s, Dallas had become known as America's team.


Mergers, shrinking attendance, and rising salaries, characteristics that came to define both professional baseball and professional basketball in the 1970s, also marked professional hockey. Knowing theirs was a business like all other professional sports, National Hockey League (NHL) owners and officials sought to maximize the amount of money the league made. They increased the number of teams in the league, expanding into markets without hockey traditions such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Kansas City. By 1975, the league had grown to eighteen teams, triple the number of teams only a decade before. The expansion left many sportswriters and longtime hockey fans fearing that the quality of play would diminish. Indeed, with each added team, talent became spread more thinly across the league.

The NHL also lost talented players to the World Hockey Association (WHA), formed in 1971 by two California entrepreneurs. In 1972, the WHA landed its first superstar when the Winnipeg Jets paid superstar Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks a $1-million bonus to sign a ten-year contract worth $2.75 million. Hull's contract marked the beginning of bidding wars between the two leagues.

As players' salaries rose, severe financial hardships were felt by many teams in both the NHL and WHA. As early as 1973, secret talks were held to discuss a merger between the two leagues. A deal was not reached until 1979, when the WHA agreed to disband. Four former WHA franchises—the Edmonton Oilers, the Hartford Whalers, the Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets—joined the NHL, bringing the number of teams in the league to twenty-one.

The face of hockey changed in other ways during the 1970s. It became a less graceful, meaner sport. Early in the decade, the Boston Bruins, led by Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, introduced a rugged, blue-collar style of play that emphasized hard checking and slap shots. Their swagger and talent helped them win the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972 and reach the finals in 1974.

The "Big Bad Bruins," however, soon were replaced by the Philadelphia Flyers, also known as the Broad Street Bullies. With their bloody-knuckled style of play, they quickly became the nightmare of most NHL players. On the ice, the Flyers were charged with an astounding number of penalty minutes. During the 1974–75 season, enforcer Dave ("The Hammer") Schultz earned a record 472 minutes alone. But the Flyers' reign over the NHL was not based solely on their fists. They could score goals, too. Led by captain Bobby Clarke, a brilliant passer and one of the finest centers in the league, the Flyers captured the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975.

Stanley Cup Champions

YearWinning Team/Games WonLosing Team/Games Won
1970Boston Bruins 4St. Louis Blues 0
1971Montreal Canadiens 4Chicago Blackhawks 3
1972Boston Bruins 4New York Rangers 2
1973Montreal Canadiens 4Chicago Blackhawks 2
1974Philadelphia Flyers 4Boston Bruins 2
1975Philadelphia Flyers 4Buffalo Sabres 2
1976Montreal Canadiens 4Philadelphia Flyers 0
1977Montreal Canadiens 4Boston Bruins 0
1978Montreal Canadiens 4Boston Bruins 2
1979Montreal Canadiens 4New York Rangers 1

Just when many would-be fans were writing off hockey as a brawling spectacle, the Montreal Canadiens returned class to the NHL. Emphasizing speed and the brilliant offensive play of Guy Lafleur, Montreal won the Stanley Cup four straight times, beginning in 1976. Soon other teams were trading and drafting for speed rather than size. In 1979, when the Edmonton Oilers joined the NHL following the merger, the team featured a teenage phenomenon named Wayne Gretzky. Many thought he was too small to compete, but that season he scored fifty-one goals and had eighty six assists. In doing so, he ushered in a new era of hockey.


Prior to the 1970s, many Americans viewed golf as a snobbish game played by the rich. As the decade progressed, that view quickly changed. In 1971, as millions of Americans watched on television, Apollo 14 astronaut Alan B. Shepard sent a six-iron shot sailing in the Moon's thin atmosphere. His enthusiasm for golf soon spread throughout middle-class America. With the development of more and more public golf courses, millions of Americans headed out to the links with mass-produced clubs and balls. Expanded television coverage of men's Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour events also helped bring greater attention to the game during the decade.

Partly responsible for increasing golf's popularity with Americans was golfer Arnold Palmer. In the 1960s, Palmer was seen as an everyman on the golf course, and legions of fans copied his swashbuckling, go-for-broke style. While amateur players filled the public courses, trying to emulate their new hero Palmer, a long-hitting Ohioan named Jack Nicklaus began challenging Palmer's rule. By the 1970s, Nicklaus seemed to be winning every tournament in sight and had claimed all four major golf titles: the Masters, the PGA Tournament, the U.S. Open, and the British Open. Nicklaus was Palmer's successor, but as the decade progressed, many became convinced that Nicklaus had surpassed all of his predecessors to become golf's greatest player ever.

Nicklaus ruled over the golf world in the 1970s. Throughout the decade, talented players such as Lee Treviño, Tom Weiskopf, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, and Johnny Miller challenged his position. In 1974, Miller had one of professional golf's greatest years, winning eight tournaments. Within a few years, however, Miller began to fade, and Nicklaus remained on top. In 1975, Nicklaus won a fifth Masters tournament, and in 1978 he won another British Open, giving him at least three victories in all four major tournaments. Only one player, Tom Watson, successfully unseated Nicklaus as golf's best, albeit for a short time. From 1977 to 1979, Watson was the only golfer who outplayed Nicklaus, and he earned three straight Player of the Year honors for his achievements.

Although the golf world opened up in the 1970s, it did so slowly for minorities and women. Robert Lee Elder was the only prominent African American on the professional tour. He captured his first PGA title in 1974 at the Monsanto Open. Elder won twice in 1978, then in 1979 he became the first African American to play for America's Ryder Cup team (the Ryder Cup tournament is a biennial match between teams of players from the United States and Europe).

PGA Player of the Year

1970Billy Casper
1971Lee Treviño
1972Jack Nicklaus
1973Jack Nicklaus
1974Johnny Miller
1975Jack Nicklaus
1976Jack Nicklaus
1977Tom Watson
1978Tom Watson
1979Tom Watson

In women's golf, fewer events, fewer corporate sponsors, and less television coverage meant less money and recognition for players on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour. What the tour did not lack, however, was talent. In 1978, junior golfing sensation Nancy Lopez burst onto the LPGA Tour and became what women's golf needed most: a star. She dominated the tour that year with nine victories, including five consecutive wins, stunning the sports world. She took Player of the Year honors as well as Rookie of the Year, a feat no one had accomplished before. She repeated as Player of the Year in 1979, having won eight more tournaments. Lopez's dominating presence on the golf course further revolutionized women's golf during the next decade, as purses became richer and fans and the media began to pay greater attention to the LPGA Tour.


While football became America's sport to watch during the 1970s, tennis became America's game to play. Tennis became the "in" sport. The country's middle class embraced tennis, spending millions of dollars on equipment and clothing. By the end of the decade, it was estimated that more than a quarter of America's population—and a nearly equal number of blacks and whites—played tennis at least four times a year.

Tennis in the United States became a whirlwind of change. Television-friendly yellow balls replaced white ones; splashy colors became a part of tennis fashion; metal and graphite replaced wood in rackets built to be stronger, larger, and more powerful; and tournament prize money for the winners jumped from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Two televised matches in the early 1970s were largely responsible for this tennis boom. In 1972, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, two legendary Australian players, met in Dallas for the World Championship Tennis (WCT) finals. The three-hour-and-forty-five-minute tennis marathon, shown on CBS, glued viewers to their televisions. The network even preempted its regular evening shows in order to broadcast the entire match.

The second televised match, held in the fall of 1973, was the much-publicized "Battle of the Sexes" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King not only won the lopsided match against the fifty-five-year-old Riggs, but she also won the goodwill of the American public. King went on to use her publicity to fight for and win more prize money and better conditions for her fellow women tennis players.

Outstanding achievements marked both the men's and the women's professional tour. In 1975, Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the famed Wimbledon men's singles championship, defeating fellow American Jimmy Connors. This defeat did little to dim Connors's star as he and Chris Evert ruled as the king and queen of American tennis. They brought youth, brash attitude, and even a little romance to the game.

Engaged at one time to be married, Connors and Evert each became Wimbledon singles champions in 1974. Two years later, in only her third year on the tour, Evert became the first woman to earn $1 million in prize money. She simply dominated the other women, winning twelve of seventeen tournaments that year. High-school students everywhere emulated her baseline style punctuated by her two-handed backhand.

Connors was a new breed of player. His two-handed backhand, metal racket, and arrogant attitude challenged tennis convention. He was subject to temper tantrums on the court, but his fiery brand of competition endeared him to many fans. By decade's end, though, many began to question developments in the game, as the tantrums of Connors and his American successor John McEnroe were being adopted by players in junior tennis events across the nation. Critics warned that the game was becoming too fast-paced, too rich, and too obnoxious.

U.S. Open Tennis Tournament Champions

1970Ken RosewallMargaret Smith Court
1971Stan SmithBillie Jean King
1972Ilie NastaseBillie Jean King
1973John NewcombeMargaret Smith Court
1974Jimmy ConnorsBillie Jean King
1975Manuel OrantesChris Evert
1976Jimmy ConnorsChris Evert
1977Guillermo VilasChris Evert
1978Jimmy ConnorsChris Evert
1979John McEnroeTracy Austin


The 1972 Winter Olympics, held in Sapporo, Japan, featured 800 male and 206 female athletes from thirty-five nations. Athletes from the United States won a total of eight medals, including three gold medals—all won by women. Skier Barbara Cochran took gold in the slalom, while two other American women won gold medals in speed skating; sixteen-year-old world-record-holder Anne Henning won the 500-meter competition, and Dianne Holum won the 1500 meters. Holum also won a speed-skating silver in the 3000 meters.

The summer games that year were held in Munich in the former West Germany, drawing a record number of nations and athletes. From 121 nations, 6,065 men and 1,058 women competed. Although American athletes won ninety-three medals, thirty-three of them gold, only the swimmers performed according to expectations. And they were magnificent, dominating the competition. The men's and women's team each won nine gold medals, setting a total of twelve world records in the process. The star of the pool was Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in four individual and three team events. In each of those events, he or his team set a world record.

The defining moment of the summer games, however, was tragic. On the morning of September 5, eight Arab members of the organization

Black September broke into the Israeli compound, murdered two athletes, and kidnapped nine others. The terrorists demanded the release of two hundred Arab guerrilla fighters held in Israeli prisons. When the terrorists and their hostages made their way to the Munich airport, an Israeli antiterrorist team tried to rescue the athletes. Five of the terrorists and all nine of the hostages were killed in the encounter. The games were suspended for thirty-four hours, and a memorial for the slain athletes was held in the main stadium.

Four years later, the 1976 Winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck, Austria, with 892 male and 231 female athletes from thirty-seven countries competing. For Americans, all of the winning opportunities came on the ice. Dorothy Hamill upset reigning world champion Dianne de Leeuw to win the gold medal in women's figure skating. Speed skater Peter Mueller won gold in the 1000 meters, and fellow skater Sheila Young won gold in the 500 meters, setting an Olympic record. Young, who also won a silver in the 1500 meters and a bronze in the 1000 meters, accounted for nearly a third of the ten medals won by American athletes.

Political controversy, a hallmark of the Olympic Games since World War II (1939–45), surrounded the 1976 Summer Olympics held in Montreal, Canada. By the time the games began, thirty-two nations had for various reasons declared a boycott. Ninety-two nations sent teams composed of 4,781 male and 1,247 female athletes. Once again, the United States finished second to the former Soviet Union in the total medals category, winning 94 medals (34 gold) to the Soviets' 125 medals (47 gold). Outstanding achievements by American athletes included Bruce Jenner winning gold in the decathlon and swimmer John Nabor winning four gold medals, setting two world records along the way. Sugar Ray Leonard and brothers Michael and Leon Spinks claimed three of the five gold medals won by American boxers. All three would go on to dominate professional boxing in the 1980s.

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The 1970s Sports: Topics in the News