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These Men--and Others--Changed the Face of Sport Forever

June 01, 1986|STEVE JACOBSON | Newsday

The last 40 years have brought great upheaval and change in our society. In that period, the world of sports has been drawn inseparably into the fabric of the real world. Determining whether life is imitating sports, or the other way around, is like asking whether the horse is pulling the cart or whether the cart is really pushing the horse.

Sport magazine is preparing a special issue identifying the 40 persons who have had the greatest impact on sports over the last 40 years--as angels or devils, or by accident. Not merely longtime champions, but people who changed the time that came after them.

The magazine has requested a list of a dozen or so nominees. This is my list of candidates:

1. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey (forever linked): Rickey's enormous effect on baseball's organization might qualify him by himself, but the breaking of the color line with Robinson began the era. Robinson was the man for the terrible task of being the first, establishing the black man as an athletic equal and giving himself as a model of pride to a whole race.

2. Olympic Terrorists of Munich: In one awful stroke, their act reminded us that Jews were still a comfortable target in the international arena and that the Olympics could still go on with hardly a mention that 11 Israeli athletes had just been murdered. In a wider consideration, the event made it forever clear that sports were a part of politics and politics were a part of sports now and forever--and realistically always had been.

3. Marvin Miller: He took sports out of the realm of dreamland and into the reality of the marketplace, never to return. His work in unionizing basball hugely influenced all the sports. Curt Flood, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith deserve asterisks, however unwitting, but the real genius was Miller.

4. Muhammad Ali: He was arguably the greatest of all fighters. However, his courage outside the ring will have more lasting importance. He established an athlete's right to speak his mind out of the arena. He established that a black man could speak against the wind of his times and speak loud enough that he had to be heard.

5. Billie Jean King: Also a great champion, as attested by a monumental shelf of trophies, but there are champions every year. What she did was seize the moment to make it acceptable for every little girl to try to be an athlete. At the same time she was promoting herself with the absurd Battle of the Sexes with Bobby Riggs, she was drawing the attention that changed the identity of tennis from an elitist game to one of dirty-handed competition--for women as well.

6. The Father (or Mother) of Arthroscopic Surgery for Athletes: Even if we can't identify one person for credit, we must acknowledge the role in repairing torn athletes instead of treating them with major surgery that often was more ruinous than the injury. Careers have been saved by a procedure that involves three small holes and swift rehabilitation instead of lengthy incisions, lengthier recuperation and great risk. Of more importance, like Indianapolis' gift of the rearview mirror, the scope is also used to repair our sons and daughters.

7. Pete Rozelle: His insight and foresight made football, not only professional football, a tremendous factor in American life. Perhaps Bert Bell's policies as NFL commissioner before Rozelle set a pattern for exploiting television rather than TV exploiting football, but it was Rozelle who took the concept and ran with it.

8. Red Auerbach: He showed a whole league how to scheme and then defied them all to keep up. He traded Cliff Hagan and Easy Ed Macauley for Bill Russell, then later found the loophole to get Larry Bird. That's a dynasty. He also made Chuck Cooper the first black in pro basketball and made Russell the first black coach in a major sport.

9. Bill Russell: He transformed basketball against its wishes by showing how games could be won with defense. He was also an articulate and forceful black voice.

10. Walter O'Malley: The list calls for devils as well as angels, remember. He said that his roots were in Brooklyn, all the while plotting to go west with the Dodgers. He opened half the country to the richness of sports and paved his driveway with gold.

11. George Steinbrenner: Another one. Reversing the fortune of the Yankees was no mean feat, but what George did was show the world how a bold operator could make maximum use of the free-agency market to win, to fill his arena and to sell his product. He also demonstrated how self-destructive greed could be.

12. Frank Shorter: In the pall of the killings at the 1972 Olympics, he won the marathon under the watchful eye of television, giving Americans the view of themselves they most wanted to see. With his example, distance running became America's fashionable leisure sport and sneakers became the fashion footwear.

13. Casey Stengel: He won 10 pennants in 12 years with the Yankees. He created the platoon system of baseball. He influenced the way a world speaks. He was the first of the sports establishment to understand that he was selling entertainment and a media event.

That's my list; I'm sure there's an argument.

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