Baby-Boomer Sports: The Last 50 Years

I can't pretend to remember anything my dad said to me that triumphant afternoon. My guess is some affirmation of the eternal triangle of fathers and sons and baseball. I do remember racing home from school, across open fields soon to be covered in ranch houses, past Mom waiting for me with a cold drink in the kitchen and, executing a perfect hook slide, landing safely in front of our 14-inch black-and-white RCA. Dad was already planted there, and I was just in time to catch the final innings of the seventh game of the World Series—and, we hoped, the demise of the hated New York Yankees.

It couldn't have been more than a few minutes later when Yankee catcher Yogi Berra lashed a line drive toward the left-field corner of Yankee Stadium. With two men on base and Brooklyn clinging to a 2-0 lead in the sixth, my heart—indeed, the hearts of all proper Bostonians—filled with dread at the prospect of a Yankee comeback. Dodgers outfielder Sandy Amoros raced after the ball and, with a desperate lunge, speared it near the foul pole, then fired it to the infield, where the runner was doubled off first base. Soon after, we were celebrating Brooklyn's first—and last—championship.

It was 1955—I would turn 8 a few days later—and that is my very first memory of watching sports on television. My fellow baby boomers and I have been viewing sports on TV for up to half a century now. My father may have lived through sports' golden age, a parade of almost-mythical heroes like the Babe, the Brown Bomber and the Galloping Ghost, yet, for most fans, the epics unfolded on radio or in the sports pages. Boomers, however, were the first generation to see all its heroes play their games live—and, ultimately, live from around the globe. Little wonder sports usurped Hollywood as America's dream factory. Once upon a time Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio was a fairy-tale marriage of equals. Now athletes have become the most lustrous stars in the firmament, instantly identifiable by one name: Michael, Mia, Lance, Derek, Tiger, Ali.

We have seen sports become increasingly central to the American experience. It is a prism, perhaps even the prism, through which we consider the most complex issues of our times: race (the black-power salute at the '68 Olympics, the dearth of NFL quarterbacks and coaches, un-hip-hop NBA dress codes) or gender (Title IX, Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs, the '99 Women's World Cup). Today if we read about illegal drugs or a union strike, it's more than likely to involve athletes. And inevitably we have tuned in for sports and witnessed tragedy. I have watched in disbelief as the great welterweight Emil Griffith battered Benny (Kid) Paret to death in the ring (1962), in sorrow as the incomparable filly Ruffian crumpled to the Belmont track (1975) and in horror as terrorists slaughtered the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics (1972). Far more often, though, sports serve as a communal balm. It was hardly surprising that America, in the throes of post-9/11, flocked to its ballparks and stadiums to grieve and to show the world that "our flag was still there."

One of my generation's prophets claimed "the medium is the message." If I understand him correctly, there are few better examples than sports. Television completely transformed the athletic landscape. When I first tuned in, TV offered a meat-and-potatoes diet of mostly baseball and boxing. By the time I was in college, it had turned the NFL into America's singular sports passion. Two NFL games—televised a little more than a decade apart—are usually credited with being the catalysts: the 1958 championship game, when Johnny Unitas's Baltimore Colts topped the New York Giants in overtime, and Super Bowl III, when "Broadway" Joe Namath first guaranteed, then delivered, the New York Jets' upset victory over Baltimore.

Baseball may remain an enduring sentimental favorite for older boomers, but pro football—with its military metaphors, its techno feel and all those young giants gallivanting on the field—became the perfect reflection of American might. And for all its complexities, the game played out neatly in linear fashion, perfectly contained by the small screen. (And unlike baseball, with its timeless and untimed nature, it also fit neatly into TV programming schedules.)

"Monday Night Football" was sort of "Saturday Night Live" before "Saturday Night Live." The Super Bowl, taking a note from Ringling's three-ring circus, became the greatest show on ... well, American earth. Once upon a time, it would have been unimaginable to watch a sporting event on TV and come away talking about Lucille Ball or Red Skelton. But who won the Super Bowl that starred Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake?

In the '80s, TV propelled another pro sport to unimagined prominence. The NBA was a league that had seen its finals booted from prime time and relegated to late-night tape delay. But the league was changing and TV embraced its speed, soaring elegance and urban edge—kind of a precursor to "Miami Vice"—as well as its holy trinity of Magic, Larry and Michael. It turned pro basketball into the hippest game in town and the NBA into a burgeoning commercial empire. Even if you didn't love the game, you couldn't resist the commercials. No league exported its game more aggressively around the world. But even its visionary commissioner, David Stern, couldn't have foreseen how rapidly that international export would yield such precious imports as Yao Ming, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki.

About the same time the NBA was enjoying its new launch, along came a little cable venture called ESPN to change the sports terrain yet again. TV had always dabbled in minor or fringe sports, with considerable distinction on ABC's "Wide World of Sports." But with ESPN requiring countless games to fill its 24-hour day, the network became a mosaic of Australian-rules football, women's softball and pool sharks (with cues, not trunks).

In time, ESPN would move on from the quaint and the quirky to encompass the mainstream and the cutting edges. With ESPN's backing, youthful recreations like beach volleyball or skateboarding became pro circuits. Thus the X-Games became inevitable—and, inevitably, made that TV juggernaut called the Olympics seem old (perhaps even ancient) school.

The ESPN revolution didn't always redound to the benefit of the sports it covered. "SportsCenter" elevated the game highlight to where, arguably, it became bigger than the game. The deification of the slam-dunk, the home run and the end-zone celebration may have led to an erosion of fundamental skills among our greatest athletes.

Still, sports remains our most compelling reality show—more thrilling and unpredictable than any island or idol contrivance. The Olympics demonstrated that truth again and again until, at last, the "up close and personal" conceit began to border on parody. Before overexposure inured us to these sagas, we embraced the most remarkable odysseys—tales of men and women who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles and overwhelming odds to stand atop the medal podium. We loved the nobility of it all and, of course, the deliciously ignoble even more. Has any story riveted us quite like Tonya and Nancy? (Our baser, tabloid instincts have given bad-girl Harding permanent top billing over good-girl Kerrigan in that epic Olympic drama.) When the two finally took to the ice to compete in Lillehammer, record numbers tuned in. TV caught figs fever and made the sport a staple of its weekend calendar. Viewers watched endless triple Lutzes and axels—often the same competitions again and again, because few could tell the difference. Oversaturation soon dimmed the TV ratings—as did the viewers' realization that they would probably never again see anything as bizarre as a figure skater getting kneecapped with a baseball bat. They began watching "The Sopranos" instead.

Who could script more improbable tales than our greatest sports sagas? Just recall these classics: USA's "Miracle on Ice"; Flutie's "Hail Mary"; Franco Harris's "Immaculate Reception"; Montana to Clark—"The Catch"; Beamon's leap beyond; Fisk's "stay fair" home run; Gibson hobbling around the bases; Larry Mize's hole-out from 140 feet for the Masters; Mary Lou's perfect vault; UC's TD run through the Stanford marching band; Vinatieri's boot through the blizzard; Secretariat's Belmont romp; Laettner's long bomb as Duke stunned Kentucky; "Havlicek stole the ball!"; Jordan's steal and buzzer-beater for the title; Brandi's brazen Cup winner; Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch; Tiger bawling after winning the British, and my favorite montage—Roberts's steal, Mueller's single off Mariano, Big Papi's pair of extra-inning game-winners, Schilling's "bloody sock," Damon's grand slam—that rallied the Red Sox over the Yankees and propelled Boston to its first championship in 86 years.

Collectively, these moments and more have become the videotrack of our lives. They are aired with such frequency that often we can't remember if we saw the original live or if it's all just Memorex. I remember, though. I am the quintessential baby-boomer sports fan. In extremis! And I saw all of them.

You might be thinking, "Well, of course you have. You're a sportswriter and that's your job." But for more than two decades, I covered news and couldn't have imagined working for what serious-minded reporters dismissed as "the toy department." Or maybe I just feared being sent to cover the Orange Bowl when I wanted to watch the Rose Bowl. As it turned out, news led me to many places where both the Orange and the Rose were tough gets. But I was relentless in my efforts to somehow catch the key game, the critical moment.

Even before TV helped morph a lively March basketball tournament into National Gambling Month, the NCAAs brought out the madness in me. One time I was reporting on major floods in the Midwest, threatening my championship-viewing streak. I got in my canoe and paddled through Marion, Ill., until I found a police station running on auxiliary power; I paddled inside and, alongside cops in their own boats, watched as Al McGuire's Marquette Warriors won the title. Another time, when I was reporting on the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, my streak surely seemed over. But I navigated the perilous route to the airport, hitched a ride to Panama City and caught the final on the Armed Forces Network.

Those efforts may actually have been less perilous than others under far better circumstances. I have inelegantly sneaked out of elegant weddings to find a perch at a hotel bar, been late to countless affairs of all kinds (or departed early) because ... well, in truth, the game ran late (or else the party did). I have offended far too many dinner hosts by slipping off for a quick peek at the score that, to the uninitiated, seemed more of a marathon viewing. None of this is entirely my fault, having been raised by a clan that believed there was no occasion that couldn't be accessorized with a portable TV.

Some to these manners not born have found my behavior less than endearing, even infuriating. There was that time my wife and I fled New York for a country weekend. Having dined at a darling French bistro, we retired early to our charming room at ye olde inn—complete with canopied bed, yet incomplete without a TV. "Might I go down to the parlor and catch the end of the game?" I asked, a bit anxious about missing the key clash in the NBA Finals. When I returned a few hours later ... well, let's just say we spent the rest of the weekend discussing, in Talmudic detail, what "catch the end of the game" means. (Does it preclude the possibility that the game is just beginning?) Also what "catch the end" of a marriage might mean.

If all this is lunacy, it is the lunacy of my generation. Baby boomers have pursued their great passions relentlessly and, at times, single-mindedly. I was hardly alone in finding the drama of sports uniquely compelling. Boomers had another expression that resonated across the '60s: "The whole world is watching." We were right, but it turned out to be the World Cup. And in between these quadrennial celebrations, we gather in our own little worlds.

Let me explain. In 1976 I was living in Chicago and had just returned from an out-of-town assignment. My colleagues were all going to the White Sox game and had bought me a ticket. But I had no intention of missing the fifth game of the NBA Finals between my hometown Celtics and the Phoenix Suns. So one pal produced a compromise solution: a primitive and exceedingly clunky, battery-operated TV that I could lug to the ballpark.

By the time Goose Gossage had dispatched Cleveland, the basketball game was just heating up. I had started out with the TV on my lap. However, as dozens of folks began gathering around me trying to glimpse the action, I was forced to hold it up to the crowd. The basketball game had gone into overtime when a security guard finally wandered over to find out why one section of the stands was still filled and still cheering. He conveyed the situation to the team owner and, over his walkie-talkie, we could hear the legendary Bill Veeck squawk, "Let them stay as long as they want." That's how I wound up watching the game many regard as the greatest in NBA history—Celtics 128, Suns 126 in triple overtime—in Comiskey Park. And how, when it finally ended shortly before midnight, I had found, among friends and strangers, communion.

I still find it at Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium, where I root, root, root for my home teams. I find it at home, watching the games on TV alone. I'm not truly alone. Somebody close to me—my brother Billy, my cousin Jack, my pals Ang, Ron, Terry or, whether because of me or in spite of me, my daughter Sarah—is watching elsewhere. Moments after a critical play, my phone will ring and one of them will be there asking, "Didja see that?" And, of course, I had.