Sports, like everything else, evolve naturally. Innovations come and go, strategies are devised and discarded, the I-formation becomes the T-formation becomes the Wishbone becomes the Power-I becomes the West Coast offense becomes the run-and-shoot becomes the spread. Sports are a constantly moving train.
But every so often someone bends the light and changes the games as we know them. We lost one of those people on Tuesday when Marvin Miller died at age 95.
One question about such pioneers is this: What would have happened had they not existed? Certainly, if there had been no Jackie Robinson, someone else would have been the first African-American player in the major leagues. Certainly sports television would have gone on without Roone Arledge, women athletes would have fought for rights had Billie Jean King not played tennis, baseball players would have fought for their rights without Marvin Miller.
Maybe this misses the point, though. These four reshaped sports. In many ways, they made American sports as we know them. We might imagine an alternative sports universe without them. But the only thing we can say for sure about that sports universe is that it wouldn't be the same.
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Marvin Miller, On His Own Terms
By Emma Span
Almost as soon as Marvin Miller’s death was announced on Tuesday, talk turned to how wrong it was that the union leader and economist, who changed baseball and sports about as much as anyone ever has, is still not in the Hall of Fame. That Miller, 95, belongs in Cooperstown is so blindingly obvious to anyone who knows anything about baseball history that his exclusion can really only be attributed to the spite of the establishment he had beaten so soundly in court and at the bargaining table -- or, if you want to be more charitable, to the ineptitude of the Hall’s various voters over the years. Several writers called it tragic.
It’s a glaring, embarrassing omission. But it’s no tragedy. Because you know what? It doesn’t matter. Marvin Miller, in all the ways that matter, already won.
He won about as much as anyone, professionally at least, gets to win in this world. He won completely and permanently. When he became the head of the MLB Players Association in 1966, the average salary was $10,000, and thanks to the remarkably immoral “reserve clause,” once a player signed with a team he had no freedom to go elsewhere. The players weren’t just underpaid, while owners got rich off their work; their freedom was fundamentally circumscribed. Marvin Miller changed all that, over loud objections, fighting for every inch of progress. And a piece of metal on a wall in upstate New York isn’t necessary to confirm or legitimize any of that.
The Hall is a great repository of baseball history and a wonderful place to visit, as well as a great thing to argue about. Inclusion there is not meaningless. Still, induction is a symbolic gesture, and furthermore, it’s symbolic of acceptance from the baseball authorities that Miller spent his life antagonizing. Miller’s achievements were not symbolic. They were concrete and real, legal and financial, and they are in evidence every time a major league player signs a free-agent contract, every time he chooses where he wants to play, every time he gets a paycheck or a pension.
Yes, Miller deserves the honor. He had as big an impact on the game as just about anyone. And yes, it’s long past due, and now he’s not around to see it. But whether it’s due to the owner’s lingering pettiness (as the composition of the most recent voting committee would suggest), or a more benign tendency on the part of voters to take Miller’s accomplishments for granted, the fact the mothership of the baseball establishment still hasn’t embraced him is ultimately a testament to his success.
It would be good to see the players fight harder for the inclusion of the man responsible for so much of their wealth and freedom. But if they don’t, well, the Hall is meant to be a reflection of someone’s contribution to the game, but it doesn’t, and can’t, actually determine the value of that contribution. Ron Santo was no less great a third baseman while the Hall kept him out. Jack Morris won’t become a better pitcher if and when he’s inducted. Tom Yawkey is somehow in there, but nevertheless today he is mostly remembered for his moral failures in fending off integration as long as he could. And whether you think his ban from baseball is justified or not, we all know how many hits Pete Rose had. Miller’s accomplishments stand on their own.
Miller himself, sharp as ever at age 94 when he talked to Lisa Olson before the 2011 Hall of Fame inductions, saw things clearly.
“I’ve never campaigned to be in the Hall and have asked not to be included on any ballot,” Miller told Olsen. “But they continue to put me on the list and then rig the election. Considering who runs the place, not being a part of it gives me credibility as a union leader. That’s how I hope it stays long after I’m gone.”
Indeed, the Hall should put Miller in not for his credibility, which is doing just fine, thanks, but for its own. How can we take the Hall seriously if it continues to keep Miller out while putting in the likes of Bowie Kuhn, who spent his career as commissioner fighting Miller and losing soundly? If the Hall honors people who wanted to preserve baseball’s ludicrous system of indentured servitude, but not the person who finally killed it? But that’s the Hall’s problem, not Miller’s. He himself asked not to be included on future ballots, and understood that being on the outside looking in came with the territory of challenging the status quo.
That the changes Miller helped bring about were good for the game in general, not just the players, and therefore ultimately good for the owners who fought so hard against them, doesn’t matter. As an institution baseball fights change, even the most necessary change, tooth and nail, and always has. That’s why we need people like Marvin Miller. But he doesn’t need a posthumous seal of approval from the group he fought, successfully, his entire life. He’ll be badly missed, but there’s nothing tragic about his career. It was as much of a triumph as any of us can hope for.
Jackie Robinson, Making History Every Day
By Gwen Knapp
For Jackie Robinson, showing up and shutting up could have been 80 percent of success. His name looms over Major League Baseball, over American history itself, mostly as a symbol. The man himself could have vanished in the cavernous legacy of desegregating the game.
Surely, his role might have been played by another. Larry Doby came from the Negro leagues to Cleveland less than three months after Robinson's debut with Brooklyn. Would things have turned out so differently if Doby had been the first, and not Robinson? Doby became a great player. He knew, just as well as Robinson did, to mute his anger in the face of hatred. The two of them talked about it over the phone, whenever one called to support the other. The next generation of black ballplayers needed them to be paragons.
But Robinson was the chosen one, picked by Branch Rickey and groomed in the Dodgers' farm system a year in advance. All he had to do was "turn the other cheek,'' as Rickey said, and play decent ball. In 2012, that doesn't sound so difficult. In 1947, the Dodgers were asking for the whole world. Robinson gave them more.
His talent made the noise that he could not. He hit .297, had an on-base percentage of .383, stole a league-leading 29 bases, hit 12 home runs and 31 doubles and won the Rookie of the Year award. The Phillies taunted him. The Cardinals threatened to strike rather than play against him. Some of his own teammates reportedly balked as well. They didn't want to be outdone by a black man, and Robinson guaranteed that most of them would. Instantly, he played like the Hall of Famer he would become.
If clutch play has ever existed, that was the definitive example -- in 1947, inside the Dodgers' No. 42 uniform.
Doby struggled in Cleveland, playing only 29 games after his July signing. He was 23, five years younger than Robinson. He would flourish the following season, and for years afterward. There was no shame in his start, no diminution of his contribution to the game. But with his performance, Robinson transcended symbolism, and at the same time added heft to it.
He showed Major League Baseball the cost of segregation, the greatness shunted aside. If he had floundered that year, been merely mediocre, how much of a difference would it have made?
The Dodgers would still have added three more black players the following season and the Indians would have called up Satchel Paige to join Doby, right? Harry Truman would still have desegregated the military the following year, wouldn't he? The country was headed in that direction, one way or another. Robinson just happened to be the face of all that change. Or did he?
He wasn't simply a chosen one. Many times, he picked himself to create change. He raised his hand.
In the Army, he aimed for Officer Candidate School, along with some other members of his segregated unit. Their race was not supposed to exclude them, yet their applications stalled until boxing champ Joe Louis, a fellow soldier, intervened on their behalf.
Aboard a bus commissioned by the Army specifically to spare black soldiers the indignity of the segregated transportation in the South, Lt. Robinson was ordered to the back by the driver. He refused to move. The driver eventually called military police. Robinson could have placated them all, but he wouldn't back down. The confrontation led to a court-martial, which Robinson ultimately won, convincing an all-white jury of his innocence.
The court-martial sidelined Robinson from combat, and he went to a base where, as a former UCLA football star, he was expected to coach various Army teams. One of the soldiers there had played in the Negro leagues, and he suggested that Robinson give baseball, one of his lesser sports, a try after his discharge.
So through his bigotry, that bus driver may have helped identify the perfect man to desegregate the national pastime.
The court-martial prepared Robinson in a unique way. He had triumphed in an apparently impossible fight, in a white man's domain. Rickey knew about the court-martial, and about an arrest in 1938, when Robinson stood up to a policeman harassing him and some friends. He picked him anyway. He wanted someone who knew how to fight without any of the standard weapons.
Today, 65 years after Robinson’s Dodgers debut, and 40 years after his death at age 53, the game pays tribute to him in ways both explicit and implicit. His number has been retired throughout baseball for 15 years, an unprecedented honor in pro sports. It appears only on the jerseys of those who had claimed 42 earlier, and every April 15, for that one day, on the back of any player who wishes to honor Robinson.
Mariano Rivera is the final major-league player grandfathered into the number. He told Harvey Araton of The New York Times that he felt special expectations connected to his jersey "because of the way Jackie Robinson conducted himself to make the best for his people, and for all minorities.''
On Opening Day 2012, African-Americans constituted 8.8 percent of all big-league rosters, less than the 12.3 percent representation measured in the 2010 U.S. Census and a cliff dive from the 27 percent of major leaguers in 1975.
The regression has yielded consternation in the commissioner's office and among prominent players, as if it represents a retreat from Robinson's legacy. Latino players, however, made up 27.3 percent of the Opening Day rosters, and many of them would have been barred before Robinson's debut. The color barrier applied equally to dark-skinned Latino players, who were directed to the Negro leagues while their lighter-skinned counterparts passed into the majors.
While the bigotries and obstacles faced by each ethnic group have been markedly different, the principle of segregation in baseball was not. The code was unwritten and yet completely understood, perversely known as a gentlemen's agreement.
What Robinson helped prove, more than anything, was that homogeneity undermines competitiveness. Good old American capitalists had to choose between confining racial fears and the beauties of stunning skill and winning. The Dodgers had won the pennant just once before Robinson arrived; they won six, and a World Series, over the next nine years. Fans swarmed to the stadiums where he played.
"I say he can make us all rich, and if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded,'' manager Leo Durocher was quoted as saying to reticent Dodgers in Bill Kirwin's book "Out of the Shadows.''
As time went on, the man who had been court-martialed for acting uppity about his civil rights got to forgo stoic silence. He got to speak his mind again, with well-earned gravitas behind every word. Nine days before he died in 1972, Robinson was honored at a World Series game and declared that he longed for the day when he could look into a dugout and see a black manager there. His wish came true two seasons later.
Baseball's reserve clause also outlived him, though he testified on behalf of Curt Flood, who went all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that team owners had no right to own athletes for life, even if they paid them close to six figures to play a child's game.
Flood lost his case and surrendered his career. But shortly after he balked at being sent to the Phillies and wrote a Christmas Eve letter to the commissioner declaring, “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold,’’ the owners established a rule allowing veteran players to veto trades. Less than six years later, an arbitrator ruled that players had the right to control their own fate, creating free agency.
Flood had started something, just like Robinson in 1947.
We can only imagine what would have ensued if he had failed that first year, letting his temper burst or his bat wither. Would the timeline of American transformation have unfolded the same way?
Certainly, we'd still have elected our first African-American president in 2008. Sixty-one years had passed. The country had been moving in that direction independently of anything that ever happened on a baseball diamond. Hadn't it?
Brown vs. the Board of Education arrived in the Supreme Court seven years after Robinson's debut. If he had failed, could that decision have been delayed a while, further embedding the stubbornness of legal segregation, and more thoroughly preserving the de facto version that persists today? If so, what would the reverberations have been?
Is it possible that Loving vs. Virginia, the court case that legalized interracial marriage in 1967, would have been put on hold? The march on Selma had already happened. Rosa Parks had stayed in her seat 12 years earlier. A baseball player's success couldn't possibly have rippled into such a fundamental civil-rights case. Then again, it's astonishing that laws so repugnant survived that long. Every step forward, even on a sports field, might have been necessary to pull us away from such foolishness.
And what about Robinson’s successors in the athletic realm? Would Muhammad Ali still have fought the draft or gone to Vietnam? Would he have known it was possible to resist, that he could recover from the scandal, if Robinson hadn't become an icon two decades earlier?
How much did Robinson help Michael Jordan live an apolitical life, driven only toward greatness as an athlete, content to sell sneakers and underwear instead of big ideas?
All we can know is that he made history on April 15, 1947, simply by showing up at Ebbets Field, and kept making it anew every day afterward just by being Jackie Robinson.
* * *
Billie Jean King, Hurdling Nonsense
By Chuck Culpepper
In the decades-long battle of Billie Jean King versus nonsense, King has inflicted enormous dents. Do not belittle this. Nonsense has a long history as a mighty force. Its power has bulldozed millions of brains. Its scope has reached across oceans and stretched across continents. Its endurance has cast it often as the reasonable alternative.
Into the sightline of the beast long about the late 1960s came a young tennis player from Long Beach, and just look at the beast circa 2012. It's considerably thinner. Study all the nonsense that King's will and wisdom helped to shred, and you might find more shredded nonsense than you expected.
There was the nonsense that women should not focus upon competitive sports, the nonsense that women could not play competitive sports compellingly, the nonsense that women could not handle the pressure of competitive sports, the nonsense that women should not get equal purses at tournaments where crowds paid to see both genders, the nonsense that women who wanted opportunities were anti-male, the nonsense that women who wanted opportunities were angry and one-dimensional, and the nonsense that sport should exist in some type of rustic bubble rather than as the big business it long was anyway.
Or, as Frank Deford wrote of King for Sports Illustrated in 1975, "She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise."
Or, as Life magazine noted by placing her among its 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century (among only four athletes), or as Seventeen magazine found when its poll placed her admirability at No. 1 in 1975, ahead of No. 2 Golda Meir.
Or, as Venus Williams said upon Centre Court just after winning Wimbledon in 2008, "Billie, you know I love you."
If the progress of history entails clearing aside nonsense, King has shoved unusual mountains of it. Something within her allowed her to drive her combine right on over the things that halt so many people, the fears of criticism and ostracism and hate mail. Something within her also enabled her to endure as an unquestioned protagonist, as if it somehow came through to just enough people that she wanted better things for both genders.
In a way it's annoying that people often remember her for one night, this athlete who won six Wimbledon titles, six other Grand Slam titles and the full career Grand Slam dinner set. In another way, the one night still fits, for when her persona met a giant moment on the night of Sept. 20, 1973, she did spend those hours gutting nonsense.
When she drubbed the 55-year-old self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, before 30,472 at the Astrodome and a TV audience estimated at more than 50 million, sure, she may have beaten a player she should have beaten, but she also beat a force she might not have. As goes her oft-repeated quotation: "I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match. It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self-esteem."
The world population in 1973 was 3,937,179,217, so imagine feeling the pressure of about 1,968,589,700 self-esteems, plus a nascent tennis tour you have fought to create.
That match flung another byproduct, though, in her lack of harrumphing that followed. Once long ago, while interviewing King at a tennis tournament, I told her that while my bedtime had proceeded the finish of the match, I could remember distinctly the immediate aftermath, getting teased by various women and girls the next day. Dopily I thought she might grin, but her reaction surprised me. She said those women and girls had been wrong to say those things, that they had misread the spirit of the event, that she always intended to show that when women had chances, everybody benefitted and nobody lost.
Look now. If you think about it, you might see a trace of King in the women working out near you at the gym, a sight so commonplace it feels excruciating to bring up that it once wasn't. You might spot her all the way around the world to South Korea, where the valuing of women in competition is so commonplace that a women's golf national dynasty has become one of the most remarkable stories of the new century. I certainly thought of her during the most meaningful stories I did in the Middle East, those of young women bucking societal norms to play sports, very often with the approval of their fathers who have learned that -- voila -- sports are healthy. In that vein, you absolutely can see bits of King in a prototype that barely existed 50 years ago, the fathers -- you know them, I know them -- who not only accept but revel in the idea of their daughters exerting and competing.
And then there's the women's tennis tour: its crowds, its equal pay, its stars whom King never begrudged but always envisioned. The top two American stars of the 21st century, Venus Williams and Serena Williams, have been confusing sometimes through the years but have practiced a searing clarity when it came to the subject of Billie Jean. Serena: "Billie Jean is a really big mentor of mine." Venus: "She really lives to give." Serena: "A great coach, a great friend and a great person." Venus, hearing she's the 21st-century King: "No one will ever be Billie Jean King." Serena: "I really, totally look up to her ... I really, really have so much respect and admiration for Billie." Venus: "I just can't think of anyone like that -- that would be including myself."
Billie, you know I love you.
In 1972, she shared Sports Illustrated's Sportsman/Sportswoman of the Year with UCLA coach John Wooden, and she said, "We must lift sport out of the glass jar." And: "Many people consider me radical, but 10 years from now my ideas will seem antiquated." And right there alongside Wooden, she accurately disparaged the alleged amateurism of college athletics: "We're in big business, and until people face reality we'll be dabbling in nonsense forever."
Well, nonsense can be persistent and formidable, as we've learned, but if to live in the world is to wake each day facing certain hurdles of nonsense, so much harmful, wasteful nonsense has subsided against a human weather pattern named Billie Jean.
* * *
Roone Arledge, Father of Modern Sports
By Joe Posnanski
There are a million Roone Arledge stories, but a favorite comes from 1964. He was still a young television producer at an almost irrelevant network called ABC. It was a couple of days before Arledge and his ABC staff were to head for Innsbruck, Austria, for the Winter Olympics. Arledge called in a sound engineer named Jack Kelly.
“The music,” Arledge said. “I can’t stand it.”
Kelly looked at his boss with utter confusion. The music? What? They were about to go to Austria and attempt to broadcast the Winter Olympics with the best technology of the time, which was roughly equivalent to three electric can-openers and a boomerang. They had no chance -- and they knew it. Right off the bat, during the Opening Ceremonies, a truck had run over a cable, leaving host Jim McKay to describe images nobody else was seeing. It was like that in 1964.
And this guy was thinking about music?
“I want the music to say the Alps,” Arledge would recall saying in his book “Roone” -- a story he told over countless lunches with friends. “I want it to say majestic mountains -- major, major event. It should be a hymn almost.”
A hymn. Yeah. So Jack Kelly, just before they were about to try the near impossible task of televising sports from the Austrian mountains, went out looking for a hymn. He came back with a handful of records for Arledge to hear. The first one he played was called “Bugler’s Dream” by a composer named Felix Slatkin. Arledge heard it and simply said: “That’s it.”
“Don’t you want to hear the rest of these?” Kelly asked.
“No,” Arledge said. “That’s it.”
Bugler’s Dream? Yeah, we know it now as “The Olympic Theme.” You can hum it on call, anytime, anywhere. “Dah ... DAH ... Dah dah Dah DAH DAH ... dah dah dahdah dahdahdah dah dah DAH dah dah.” It’s so engrained in the mind, that nobody even thinks about it as music anymore. It’s simply the Olympics. Roone Arledge made it so.
Well, Roone Arledge helped make most of what we have come to know as sports television. The instant replay? The concept of features that go deeper into athletes’ personalities? Mixing sports and journalism on television? Shots of cheerleaders on the sidelines? The sideline reporter? Hyping big events (or making small events big)? Wide World of Sports? The three-man broadcasting booth? Monday Night Football? Sunday football doubleheaders? He was at the beginning of all of it. And just about anything else you can think of in sports television. People have said there has not been a song released in the last 40 years that doesn’t have a least a strand of the Beatles in it. Well, at least the tiniest bit of Arledge’s DNA is in every sports event on television.
Of course, part of that is simply timing. Arledge happened to be there at the beginning. I once asked another hugely influential television producer, Frank Chirkinian, what made him think of putting a camera in the Goodyear Blimp (one of his most famous innovations). He shrugged. “It was up there,” he said. They were throwing spaghetti at walls; sometimes it stuck. So, yes, some of Arledge’s many innovations -- especially on the technical side -- undoubtedly would have been dreamed up by somebody else. Instant replay, for instance, was being worked on by numerous people at the same time.
But Arledge’s sensibilities -- those were his and his alone. In 1968, at the Olympics in Mexico City, he was one of the first to notice that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were standing barefoot on the victory stand. “Get in there!” he shouted to the director. “This is Black Power! Get in on them!” ABC did get in on them as they each raised a fist inside a black glove. Howard Cosell -- whom Arledge believed in when no one else really did -- got an exclusive interview with Smith.
“Are you proud to be an American?” Cosell asked.
“I’m proud to be a black American,” Smith said.
It was one of the most gripping exchanges in the history of sports television. And it was pure Arledge; perhaps no one in sports television at the time would have even considered wading into such a controversial story. The reaction was immediate and visceral, from viewers and from Olympic officials. But Arledge held strong. As his protégé Dick Ebersol would say, Arledge had a remarkable sense of what was right, and the courage to do it in the face of fury.
Four years later, in Munich, Arledge led ABC’s remarkable coverage of the Black September tragedy, in which terrorists kidnapped and eventually killed 11 Israeli Olympians. It was 3:17 a.m. when Arledge whispered into anchor Jim McKay’s ear: “Official. All hostages dead.”
“When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized,” McKay said immediately. “Our worst fears were realized tonight. ... They’re all gone.”
The coverage won ABC Sports 29 Emmys. It is still viewed as the standard of sports journalism on television.
Then, it wasn’t all seriousness and hard news. Arledge’s soft and intimate features of Olympic athletes would become the standard (and the punch line of many jokes). His fingerprints were on all sorts of silly but popular things such as the “Superstars” competition, “Battle of the Network Stars” and the “Battle of the Sexes” competition between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. His pride was “Wide World of Sports,” which (in words that he and Jim McKay would make famous) would travel the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the human drama of athletic competition. This, as often as not, included barrel jumping, Evel Knievel stunts, the Harlem Globetrotters and various versions of people diving off cliffs.
Sports changed television. Television changed sports. It’s hard to tell which is truer, but both are dominant themes of the last 50 years. Many people played their role in this. John Walsh helped make ESPN the dominant force in sports today, with “SportsCenter” as the main stage of it all. Dick Ebersol made “Sunday Night Football” the No. 1 show on television -- sports and non-sports -- and the Olympics an even bigger deal than Arledge had. Many different producers and innovators -- some whose names will never be known -- changed the way we watch these games. Numerous television announcers have shifted the conversation and the way games are understood and enjoyed.
But most would agree that Arledge was the father of it all.
It’s worth one more story. In 1965, Arledge decided that he would hire Howard Cosell to be an announcer. It’s hard to recapture just how controversial such a hire would be. Cosell was off television at the time because nobody wanted him. He was opinionated, he was rude, he was vain and neurotic, and he took arrogance to previously unachieved heights. He had a face for radio. He voice dripped New York. And -- as Cosell never failed to mention -- there were plenty of people who wanted nothing to do with him because he was Jewish.
Of course, there were millions of reasons to despise Howard Cosell. Later, when Arledge told NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that he intended to put Cosell in the “Monday Night Football” booth, Rozelle laughed and said: “Why don’t you just dig up Attila the Hun?” It was like that.
But Arledge knew -- Cosell was exactly what sports television needed. Yes, he had all those flaws. He was also brilliant, driven, a bulldog of a journalist, self-promoting and utterly fearless. It was Cosell -- and Cosell alone -- who could have found Tommie Smith in Mexico City and gotten him to sit down for an interview.
Arledge called Cosell into a secret meeting to talk about working for ABC. And as he began to offer a job, Cosell said this: “Roone, we are today witnessing an occurrence on the scale of Philo T. Farnsworth’s invention of the cathode ray tube -- the television rebirth of an acknowledged genius. You are to be congratulated, young man, on your sagacity.”
Roone Arledge looked at Cosell with sheer wonder.
“Cut the crap, Howard,” Arledge said.