Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Books: "The Big Time" On The Innovative 1970s In Sports, By Michael MacCambridge

 The Big Time: How the 1970s Transformed Sports in America

By Michael MacCambridge

Grand Central Publishing; hardcover, $32.50; available today, Tuesday, October 10th 

Michael MacCambridge is an author, journalist, and TV commentator, whose books have included the acclaimed America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation and Chuck Noll: His Life's Work. He was a columnist and critic at the Austin American-Statesman for eight years, and he was later on a contributor to A New Literary History of America. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

The 1970s in sports can be described as one in which athletes asserted themselves more than ever, and it is one in which sports exploded in popularity. It is a story about money, empowerment, and equality. Along with that, it is a story about the growth of television, as the '70s were bookended by the creation of Monday Night Football on ABC in 1970, which was the advent of primetime sports on TV, and the creation of the 24-hour sports channel ESPN in 1979.

MacCambridge does an excellent job of laying our the conditions for athletes up until the 1960s, with a main feature being that all four major sports were under the reserve clause. 1969 was the beginning of a tipping point, when the Major League Baseball Players' Association was beginning to agitate for change, and Bob Gibson voiced support for it while on The Tonight Show. There also is an amusing anecdote about how Knicks players had literally one white home jersey and one blue road jersey, and it was up to them to take care of them, as well as limits on what they could wear when photographed. 

"What emerged from the decade of tumult was an industry poised to enter every living room, nearly every restaurant, and in time every computer and smartphone in the country," MacCambridge writes. Spectator sports had been a sideshow for most of the twentienth century, a distraction primarily for middle-class white males. By the end of the 1970s, it had become a more pervasive presence, altering holiday schedules, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner times, shaping attitudes from academia to Wall Street, Madison Avenue to Main Street, imposing it's presence in nearly every corner of American life.

"Or as Joyce Carol Oates put it, 'In the twentieth century, and perhaps most spectacularly in the Seventies, sports has emerged as our dominant American religion.'"

The athletes of that time became cultural touchstones who spoke to their minds and redefined the role of athletes and their sports in the American culture, and their names resonate to this day. One of those still influential to this day is tennis player Billie Jean King, who just presided over the 50th anniversary celebration of equal prize money at the U.S. Open in August, and her star power hit another level at that time when she triumphed over Bobby Riggs in "The Battle of the Sexes" on September 20, 1973 at the Astrodome in Houston. Other major stars of that era were King's fellow tennis pioneer Chris Evert; boxer Muhammad Ali, who was perhaps the most vocal athlete on issues of the time; basketball players Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar; football player Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who dominated the NFL; and golfer Jack Nicklaus.

Spectator sports became an ever-growing mainstream phenomenon, and along with that was the way athletes were paid, portrayed, and packaged. That's why "Monday Night Football" played such a prominent role. It is hard to imagine, but people never saw a football game at night before that, and the way the game under lights came off on television changed it forever. The announcers became household names, as Keith Jackson did play-by-play, Howard Cosell was the lead commentator and gave opinions seldom heard before that, such as just saying a player was having an off night; and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith. The next season, former Giants star Frank Gifford took over play-by-play duties, which he did for 27 years. Roone Arledge was the brainchild for the franchise that is still on today, and there are NFL games on Sunday and Thursday nights now, as well.

The '70s also looked differently than what came before, as new stadiums were opening all over the country, from Texas Stadium in Dallas in 1971, to new stadiums in Kansas City for the NFL's Chiefs and Major League Baseball's Royals in the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex in 1972, and stadiums that could be used for both baseball and football, such as Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. While they all had modern amenities, it wasn't long before people saw them as very similar, enclosed, multi-deck, and round, leading them to be called "Cookie cutters." 

These stadiums also lead to the wide use of Astroturf, something that is still a point of contention (just ask any Jets fan about why Aaron Rodgers is likely done for the season). Its use started with the Astrodome, the "Eighth Wonder of the World," which opened in 1965, which could not grow grass indoors. That led Monsanto to rename its Chem-Grass product as Astroturf and unveil it for the 1966 season, and its use became ubiquitous for all multipurpose facilities, and even those football-only stadiums in Dallas and Kansas City, as well as Giants Stadium, especially when the Jets moved in in 1984. Turf was hard on the players, as it had no give, and Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach's elbow swelled up from turf burns so much he had to be hospitalized. It also was extremely hot, as high as 160 degrees on the field in Cincinnati, and 134 just above field level.

Uniforms also changed in the '70s, especially in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Rawlings debuted their double-knit (cotton and nylon) uniforms, pullover jerseys and beltless pants in 1971, whereas baseball uniforms before were wool and white at home and gray on the road. The following year, the Oakland Athletics unveiled their green-and-gold ensemble, the Padres wore mustard-yellow uniforms, and the Chicago White Sox introduced sky-blue unfiorms, which soon became the norm and teams such as the Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, and Philadelphia Phillies have brought them back in recent years.

The A's of that era were also known for their players' stylistic choices. Reggie Jackson came to spring training with a beard, and at first Oakland's owner Charlie Finley said no, but reversed course, thinking it would bring attention if the whole team grew out their hair. Soon after, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, and others had mustaches, and star relief pitcher Rollie Fingers took it one further, with his heavily waxed handlebar mustache.

Here in New York, fans were treated to the most stylish players on and off the field, Jets quarterback Joe Namath and Knicks point guard Walt "Clyde" Frasier. They defined cool, and they also led those teams to their only championships to this day, as Namath led the Jets to win Super Bowl III in January 1969, and Frazier was a big part of the Knicks' titles in 1970 and 1973.

MacCambridge writes in this excerpt that sports was possibly the most fundamental change in the world in the 1970s: "The reputation of the '70s has remained resolutely subpar, cut-rate, even fraudulent in the collective imagination since then, perhaps predictably for any era in which shag carpeting on walls served as a defining characteristic. In popular perception, it was a decade of inconsequential lassitude between the tumult of the '60s and the Reagan Revolution of the '80s. One history of the '70s was titled It Seemed Like Nothing Happened.

Yet within the world of American sports, the decade featured a confluence of events that were pivotal and transformative. Every decade brings change, of course, but no decade in American sports history featured such convulsive, conclusive change as the 1970s. A field that had been marginalized and relatively static for decades began to break free of its boundaries, ultimately emerging as something bigger, more serious, and more relevant than before.

So much that we take for granted about sports today either began or reached critical mass in the 1970s: the move of sports into prime time on television, the dawn of free agency, and the beginning of athletes gaining a sense of autonomy for their own careers; integration becoming - at least within sports - more the rule than the exception; and the social revolution prompted by the Title IX legislation that brought females into the world of sports in unprecedented numbers, as athletes, administrators, coaches, and spectators...

While the 1960s are widely viewed as the decade of revolution in American history, in the world of American sports that decade was primarily an age of conformity, the last siege before the dam broke. Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath were icons of the '60s, but they were still very much the outliers. The Green Bay Packers' legendary coach Vince Lombardi dominated the decade with his hyper-disciplined persona, and for much of the decade, the crewcut was still the standard hairstyle among ballplayers. The audience for sports was almost entirely male and predominantly white. The key positions on teams - owner, general manager, coach, quarterback, pitcher, catcher - were either exclusively white or nearly so. Professional athletes were essentially indentured servants, though modestly well-paid ones, bound in perpetuity to the clubs that signed them.

The new decade would witness the emergence of spectator sports as an ever-expanding mainstream phenomenon, as well as show remarkable changes in the way athletes were paid, how they played, and how they were perceived. Historically, spectator sports in the U.S. had operated on the margins, a ticket-driven leisure pursuit largely divided from the broader realm of American popular culture. By the end of the 1970s, sports would become a decidedly big business, a microcosm of the larger social fabric, a social glue that crossed all demographic boundaries. One could also begin to see what was to come: sports as a transcendently lucrative profession that would serve as both the last big tent in American popular culture, and a stage upon which many of the nation's most nettlesome issues in morality, ethics, and values would be played out."

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