Readers of this page know that the author enjoys writing about sports figures. Who can forget such all-around talents as Carl Yastrzemski, Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson? That was a long time ago. There is nothing that can be done about high ticket prices, excess expansion and athletes on steroids. My top ten 10 moments exclude the past two decades. Still, my life as a fan was plenty fun.
The 1976 Yankees
It took character to be a Yankees fan from 1964-76. The collapse of the Bombers in the mid-1960s was shocking. The Bronx, New York City and the United States itself seemed to go down with them. In 1976, the Yankees won the pennant on a ninth-inning home run by Chris Chambliss. Your servant was there, in the left field upper deck. When Chambliss nailed the Mark Littell fastball, you knew it was gone. What fans didn’t expect was hooligans storming the field, preventing Chambliss from rounding the bases in glory. No matter. In the saloon across from Yankee Stadium, fans partied until dawn. The subways were like American Bandstand with fans dancing in the aisles. The conductor blurted out, “Next stop, 110th St. and Broadway—and go Yanks!” Billy Martin cried with joy during postgame interviews. So did Phil Rizzuto. The next day, the immortal Bill Gallo ran a cartoon in The New York Daily News that showed Billy sipping champagne and Casey Stengel smiling down from heaven, “That’s my boy.” That cartoon was worth every second of the 12-year wait.
1994 New York Rangers
For this native of western North Carolina, what is hockey? What’s an offside a line change? Why do the refs let players punch each other silly? Why does the ice turn red with blood? Nineteen ninety-four was the Rangers’ year. With Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter as goaltender, there was a now-or-never feel to that season. In the Stanley Cup finals against the Vancouver Canucks, the Broadway Blues jumped out to a 3-1 lead, only to lose the next two games. Game seven was at Madison Square Garden. This was the most anticipated sporting event in New York history. Messier could dominate a game, both on offense and defense. The Rangers won and the chant “1940! 1940!” would never again cross the lips of Islanders fans. Rangers fans claimed they could “die happy.” Hockey was set to take off. The next day, every youngster in my Great Neck neighborhood had a hockey stick in hand. Alas, the NHL went on strike the next year and the sport never achieved the lift off that seemed possible.
“You don’t understand. You’d have to be from there,” the novelist William Faulkner famously wrote about his home state. Western North Carolina had a different set of dynamics than Mississippi, but even as a grade schooler, you could feel the tension hundreds of miles away. The 1960s was the worst decade in American history, but at the end came deliverance. Archie Manning, the redhead from little Drew, MS, made his debut in a 1969 nationally televised game that pitted Ole Miss against Alabama. Bama won, but Manning was a phenomenon. The man could run and pass, operate out of the wishbone; he even played a Sun Bowl game with a broken arm. On every play, Ole Miss fans rose to their feet. Manning, along with Don Mattingly, were the two most popular athletes I have ever seen. There is a New York connection. In the 1950s, Charlie Conerly, the Giants star quarterback, was also an Ole Miss graduate. Archie’s youngest son, Eli, contributed heavily to the tradition, even surpassing the old man with those unforgettable Super Bowl wins.
1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team
This entry has a patriotic flavor. Nineteen seventy-nine was another down year: inflation, high interest rates, American hostages humiliated in Iran, the Red Army in Afghanistan. In January, the Soviet Union hockey squad played the U.S. squad in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. The USSR mopped the floor with our boys. More humiliation. In the winter Olympics at Lake Placid, the American skaters returned the slight, with the famed “miracle on ice.” Herb Brooks, Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig. Who can forget them?
1970 Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier title bout
This was the most anticipated heavyweight fight in history. For months, all of America was on edge. By 1970, public schools had been integrated, so the fight was my encounter with black culture and how Ali affected my classmates. He was now the sentimental favorite. Frazier had his fans. “That’s it, Joe, make that draft dodger pay.” Or so sportswriters claimed fans would say when Smokin’ Joe landed a blow. Frazier’s victory wasn’t a surprise. Ali was still a little rusty from his earlier suspension from the game. Ali, however, won the rematch and defended his crown against Frazier in the legendary 1975 “Thriller in Manila.” Frazier died in 2011 at age 67. Ali, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, died in 2016 at age 74. Those men, along with such contemporaries as Jerry Quarry, took some fearsome blows.
When Mickey died in 1995, then-Yankee skipper Buck Showalter noted that as a Little Leaguer, he wore number 7, Mantle’s number. Well, who didn’t? Mantle was the greatest switch-hitter in history. As a youngster, I thought: This makes perfect sense. Why don’t they all switch-hit? Game Three of the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals was a pitchers’ duel, Jim Bouton vs. Curt Simmons. It was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Mantle led off against Barney Schultz. “If he gives me that knuckleball, I’m goin’ hit it out of here,” Mantle told Elston Howard. (Reader, repeat that line with an Oklahoma drawl.) And he did. What a shot! The ball ricocheted off a steel beam in the right field grandstands. If not for the beam, that blast might have landed in Connecticut. Or maybe it would still be in orbit. Mantle didn’t just hit home runs; he devastated the opposition with those tape-measure shots.
“Take a good look at him, lad. He’s the most famous man in the world.” So said an elderly Scotsman to a young fan as Jack Nicklaus warmed up for the 1972 British Open. That year, Nicklaus had a chance to win the Grand Slam in golf: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA. He won both the Masters and the U.S. Open before falling short in the British tourney. No matter. Nicklaus was the most intense and competitive athlete ever. Plus, he won with grace and style. He hit with power off the tee, but his iron game was the key. Nicklaus and his caddy had each hole on each course measured down to the inches. The man always knew how far he was from the cup. His approach shots were a sight to behold: The ball would sail towards the green and then bounce within inches of the cup—on hole after hole. The memories still give me goosebumps. When the year 2000 arrived, there was a debate on who was the athlete of the century: Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan? Or maybe Bill Russell. Nobody asked me, but I say: Give it to Fat Jack! No one played with his intensity. Nicklaus was the greatest professional athlete America has ever produced.
1966 Notre Dame vs. Michigan State
This was the most anticipated college football game ever. For months on end, all of America couldn’t wait for this showdown between the two unbeaten squads. Playing at home, the Spartans jumped out to a 10-0 lead and seemed destined to put the game away until the Irish defense stopped a second quarter drive. That day, Notre Dame lost its starting quarterback, Terry Hanratty, to an injury. The backup, Coley O’Brien, hit Bob Gladieux on a touchdown pass. A field goal tied the game. Notre Dame now had the momentum, but the Spartans responded with their own fourth-quarter defensive stand. The game ended in a 10-10 tie, with Notre Dame, to thunderous boos, running out the clock. This was the most nerve-racking game ever. Every play was as serious as a heart attack.
1973 Notre Dame vs. Alabama
This game posed a dilemma. My family, Roman Catholics, rooted for Notre Dame. My friends, as did everyone in Carolina, rooted for the Crimson Tide. On this score, I was my father’s son. Go Irish! And they did, pulling out a 24-23 win over Alabama in a New Year’s Eve thriller. This game was also about the coaches. The torture they endured! Both Ara Parseghian and Paul “Bear” Bryant were expected to win a national championship, year after year. When Alabama lost a game, the entire Southland was in tears. When the Irish lost, Catholic America would drown their sorrows at the corner saloon. A year later, Parseghian resigned, as the team was engulfed in scandal concerning a local teenage girl and several players. Bryant used to tell his friends: “When I retire, I’m going to die a month later.” Bear coached his final game on Dec. 29, 1982, a Liberty Bowl win over Illinois. On Jan. 26, 1983, he died. Ali and Frazier went through hell for their troubles; so did these two great coaches.
In sports as in life, there are no happy endings. When the Yankees traded Bobby Murcer to San Francisco in 1974, Munson became the Yankees’ star player. From 1976 to 1978, the Bombers won three straight pennants and two World Series crowns. Munson’s moment came in Game Three of the American League championship series between New York and the Kansas City Royals. In the eighth inning, with the Yanks down, 3-2, Munson hit a two-run home run to Death Valley to win the game. Less than a year later, the man perished in an airplane accident. The night of the funeral, the Yankees defeated Baltimore. Murcer, who had been traded back to New York that summer, hit the game-winning double. The pitcher was Tippy Martinez, a former Yankee. Murcer and Martinez were close to Munson. All his teammates were. As he left the mound, Martinez pointed heavenward to say, “This one’s for you.”
Postscript: In the mid-1960s, I was watching a Celtics-76ers game on black-and-white television. The announcer, Chris Schinkel, blurted out, “And remember, youngsters, don’t stay inside. Go outside and practice those free throws!” I looked out the window. Six inches of snow. Yeah! I can watch Russell go up against Wilt Chamberlain. Schinkel was right. Turn off that TV set. Flip off the computer. Don’t be a fan. Get out there and play.