Friday, December 23, 2011

Who Are the Real Sportsmen of the Year? Part II

From this point forward, all SOTY winners (SI's and mine) are still alive unless otherwise stated.

1970 Bobby Orr. It's hard to argue against the most popular hockey player of that time, especially since he led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup and even scored the winning goal, despite getting tripped up by an opponent, still managing to raise his arms in victory. (That "Flying Goal" picture is one of the most famous in the history of the sport, and can be seen in Booth's office on Bones.) He won the Ross Trophy as leading scorer (as a defenseman!), the Norris Trophy as best defenseman, the Hart Trophy as regular-season Most Valuable Player, and the Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP, and, as John Houseman would say, he got those trophies, and the Stanley Cup, the old-fashioned way: He earned them.

Orr wasn't just great, he was good: His acts of charity, including in business since his playing career ended far too soon due to injury, are as big a part of his legend as the way he forever changed the position of defenseman. And, though Canadian, he ignited hockey's popularity in America as no one before or since -- with the kind of boost from television that Frank Boucher, Eddie Shore, Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe were unable to provide. There are still many ice rinks in this country, and not just in the Bruins' native region of New England, that can legitimately be called Bobby Orr Rinks.

There are 3 other possible honorees, but I don't think I can put them ahead of Orr. Brooks Robinson, like Orr, redefined a position in a sport, in his case third base in baseball, with his defensive wizardry in the World Series, and his hitting was also a big reason why, unlike the year before, the Baltimore Orioles were able to win it. He, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell and the rest redeemed themselves, big-time.

Willis Reed, though in incredible pain, captained the Knicks to their first NBA Championship. But with Red Holzman making such a big deal about how the Knicks were a team first, it made giving them individual awards problematic, no matter what Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere or Bill Bradley did on the court.

And then there was Pele. In 1966, it would never have occurred to SI to name England's captain Bobby Moore or its Final hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst their Sportsman of the Year. But 1970 was the first time the world really got to see the World Cup in blazing color. And what colors: Brazil's yellow, England's red, Italy's blue. The 1970 Brazil national team that won the Cup has often been hailed as the greatest team in soccer's history, and Pele as its greatest player, still at his best at this point. The photo of Pele and Moore, the greatest forward and the greatest defender in the sport, not just then but maybe ever, exchanging shirts after their group-stage game is every bit the classic as the one of Orr's Flying Goal.

But I guess SI wasn't ready for it. They'd rather name a white English-speaking Canadian winning a tournament in America in a sport that was already familiar to them, than name a black Portuguese-speaking Brazilian winning a tournament in Mexico in a sport that most Americans simply didn't get, even with the founding (if not yet the Pele-inspired rise) of the North American Soccer League in 1967. Had I been old enough to understand at the time (and not a baby), I probably also would have given it to Orr.

1971 Lee Trevino. The diminutive Dallasite won both the U.S. and the British Opens this year, at a time when Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were at their peaks, and did it with a felicidad de vivir (that's Spanish for joie de vivre) that made everybody like him. The first person of Spanish descent to be so honored by SI, he's one of the biggest money-winners and most popular people ever to be involved with golf.

But if you believe, as I do, that golf is not a sport, then we have to look elsewhere for an honoree. And I have one, another Hispanic: Roberto Clemente. Because Pittsburgh wasn't a big market, his achievements had often been overlooked. But when the Pirates won the Pennant, he set out to show everyone just what he could do in the World Series. He got a hit in every game, including hitting a home run in Game 7. (In fact, he also got a hit in every game of the seven-game 1960 Series. That's 14 World Series games in his career, and he got a hit in all of them. Top that.) With his intensity, his unwillingness to compromise (insisting upon being called Roberto instead of Bob or Bobby, although he let Pirate broadcaster Bob Prince keep calling him Bobby), his cannon of an arm, and his turning an awkward batting stance into 4 batting titles and 3,000 hits, he made people notice not just him, but Latin ballplayers, and the people of Puerto Rico in general.

Roberto should have been named Sportsman of the Year for 1971. It was his best year. Sadly, 1972 would be his last year.

1972 John Wooden and Billie Jean King. For the first time, SI had a split award. Also for the first time, they named a woman. Wooden led UCLA to a 7th National Championship, and didn't lose a game in the calendar year. But it was a lifetime achievement award (LAA): What made him more worthy this time than in any of the 6 previous times? Look at the other years: Maybe Sandy Koufax was more deserving in '65, Carl Yastrzemski in '67, Bill Russell in '68, Tom Seaver in '69, or Orr in '70; but was Ken Venturi more deserving in '64, or Trevino in '71? If so, it wasn't by much. And it could be argued that, considering who the other champions of 1973 and '75 were, Wooden was more deserving in those years as well. (He died last year, a little short of his 100th birthday.)

But in the year in which Title IX was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, Billie Jean was an easy choice. The first tennis player honored by SI, she won 3 of the 4 majors, all but the Australian Open. (No woman would win the Grand Slam until Steffi Graf in 1988.) But this wasn't just about her on-court achievements: Her activism led the tennis tournaments to give female competitors equal pay with male ones, and more than any human being, living or dead, she raised the profile of women's sports, and 1972 was a landmark year in that regard.

Oddly, she may have had an even greater contribution the next year: That such a spectacle as her "Battle of the Sexes" against Bobby Riggs (who really was once a great tennis player, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open... in 1939) was necessary is one of the great stupidities of a decade loaded with them. She rendered a repeat of such a thing unnecessary.

1973 Jackie Stewart. "The Flying Scot" was the child of an auto dealer and became a champion in Formula One racing, and SI's first SOTY honoree in any "motorsport." (They had, however, featured auto and boat racing from the very beginning of the magazine.) Prior to ABC Wide World of Sports broadcasting this staple of European sport, Americans knew Indy-car racing (such as in the Indianapolis 500) and stock-car racing (though we did not yet tend to refer to it by its "league name," NASCAR). Formula One was foreign. Very foreign, full of Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Brazilians. Like soccer.

But Stewart spoke English. He oozed love for his sport. He was personable. He was charismatic. And in his final season (he had announced his was retiring), he became a legend on this side of the Atlantic Ocean as well. He joined ABC to broadcast auto racing, and, along with Frazier, Joe Namath, Jimmy Connors and Reggie Jackson, was one of the top sports personalities in TV commercials in that era. In one commercial for Getty gas, he drove an F1 car up to a big gas guzzler and said that wasting gas "makes my Scottish blood run cold!" He became the most famous Scotsman in America, topping Canadian James Doohan's Montgomery Scott character from Star Trek.

No question he was a great champion, and a great personality. But is auto racing a sport? I say it isn't. But '73 was a tough year: "The Swingin' A's" were champions, but not exactly "sportsmen." George Foreman won the heavyweight title but, at the time, wasn't exactly considered photo- or telegenic. The Knicks won their 2nd NBA Championship, but it simply wasn't as great a story as it had been in 1970. Maybe if Hank Aaron had hit just 2 more home runs, to break the all-time record in spite of the vicious hate mail he got, instead of hitting Numbers 714 and 715 early the next season, he would have been named SOTY. He certainly was a deserving finalist.

And, of course, the Miami Dolphins began the year by completing their undefeated season, and continued their streak well into the following season. But Bob Griese, though a good quarterback, was colorless (the Dolphins' aqua and orange home jerseys notwithstanding). And their defense was known as "the No-Name Defense." (Totally unfair, especially now that Nick Buoniconti is in the Hall of Fame.) Head Coach Don Shula? He was honored by SI 20 years later, an obvious LAA. But he was never really all that interesting. But he should have been SOTY. After all, as he and the surviving members of that 1972-73 Dolphin team will tell us (especially now that the Green Bay Packers won't go 19-0 this season), they are the only undefeated champions in NFL history. (Not quite true, but they are the only ones since the NFL Championship Game, and its successor the Super Bowl, began in 1932.)

1974 Muhammad Ali. No argument. Arguing would be pointless: Even if he didn't punch you for arguing, he'd talk and talk and talk you into submission. That year, he proved he was The Greatest. Aaron may have became baseball's all-time home run leader (and, for all honest men, he still is), but, barring an unforgivable crime, the new record was inevitable. Ali's knockout of Foreman to retake the heavyweight title was, at the time, truly shocking. (In retrospect, no, it wasn't.) As he had so many times earlier in his career, he predicted victory, and, well, as Dizzy Dean (who died that year) taught us, "If you can do it, it ain't braggin'." Ali told us, and he was right: "When you see this, you'll be shocked! You'll be laughin'! And you will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am still... The Greatest... Of All Tiiiiiiiime!" He'll be 70 next month, and he still is The Greatest.

1975 Pete Rose. Yes, he captained (at least unofficially) the Cincinnati Reds to the World Championship, and won the World Series MVP. But, as we are now willing to see, even then he was no sportsman.

A better choice would have been Arthur Ashe, who not only became the first black man to win Wimbledon (Althea Gibson was the first black person to win it, in 1957), but delivered one of the most public early blows to the apartheid regime of South Africa. Ashe would receive the SOTY in 1992, a LAA, at the end of his lifetime. He deserved it at his peak.

1976 Chris Evert. The first tennis player, first woman, and first female to be a sole-winner of the SOTY (after Billie Jean shared it with Coach Wooden in 1972), she was also the youngest one yet: 22 years even, 9 months younger than Orr was in December 1970. She won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, after having won the French the previous 2 years. (It would take her until 1982 to win the Australian and complete "the career Grand Slam.")

I see no fault with this selection, although they could have gone even younger and selected Nadia Comaneci. But I guess America wasn't ready for SI to give SOTY to a 14-year-old girl from a Communist country. Even if she did go on to defect, marry an American, and settle in the U.S.

1977 Steve Cauthen. Chrissie's title as youngest SOTY winner lasted just 1 year, as the 17-year-old Eclipse Award winner for Best Jockey was honored. He became known, borrowing the title of a popular TV show of that era, as the Six Million Dollar Man because he became the first jockey to win that much money in a year. Actually, right guy... wrong year.

I'm biased. This was the first year whose sports moments I can really remember. And Reggie Jackson came to the Yankees for this year and became my man for all time. Sports star of the year? Even in retrospect, I'd say yes. But "sportsman" of the year? That's pushing it. How about Al McGuire? The longtime basketball coach at Milwaukee's Marquette University, having gotten to the National Championship Game in 1974 and lost to North Carolina State, won it this time, topping Dean Smith's North Carolina, and tearfully retired. He then began a second career broadcasting college hoops. The Far Rockaway native, and brother of 1950s Knicks legend Dick McGuire (Al also played for them but wasn't nearly as good as his brother), was one of the great personalities in the game's history. He was arguably the original "Dick Vitale." It was a sad day when he died.

1978 Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear won the British Open that year. That's it, just the 1 title. There had been 3 years in which he won 2, so what made this year any more special? Besides, while he remains the greatest performer his game has ever seen, golf is still a game -- not a sport.

This was the year they should have given it to Steve Cauthen. He won not one of his sport's majors, not two, but three. Aboard Affirmed, he won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing. There has never been another.

1979 Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw. No way to dispute this dual award. In the last year of a decade that saw either the Pirates or the Steelers make the Playoffs each year, and both of them do so 4 times (1972, '74, '75 & '79), they each won their sport's World Championship. Bradshaw and the Steel Curtain won Super Bowl XIII in January, and were setting themselves up for SB XIV the following January, their 4th title in 6 years. Stargell had been with the Bucs on their '71 title, and by '79 he was the "Pops" of a team called "The Family." When the Pirates won the World Series in October, Pittsburgh began calling itself the City of Champions, and if you were going to argue, you had to face such black-and-gold badasses as Dave "Cobra" Parker, Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock, "Mean Joe" Greene, Jack Lambert and L.C. Greenwood -- the latter 2 so mean they didn't need no stinkin' nicknames. Sadly, Stargell has died.

1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Do you dare question this one? What are you, a Communist? Coach Herb Brooks has died, but all 20 players remain alive.

1981 Sugar Ray Leonard. Unified the welterweight championship of the world by knocking out the undefeated Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns in the 14th round in Las Vegas, a fight that was very much a lower-division equivalent to the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" between Ali and Joe Frazier. In a calendar year that saw championships won by such questionable personalities as the Oakland Raiders, Bobby Knight, the New York Islanders, the Boston Celtics, John McEnroe, and Tommy Lasorda, I can't dispute this one.

1982 Wayne Gretzky. In the 1981-82 season, Wayne Gretzky did to his sport what Wilt Chamberlain did to his in 1961-62, and Babe Ruth did to his in 1920: Rewrote the offensive record book. Although the Edmonton Oilers were not quite ready for prime time -- blowing a 5-0 lead in a Playoff game against the Los Angeles Kings, known as the Miracle On Manchester for the street the Forum is on -- there was no question at the time that Number 99 was class on and off the ice. That he sided with his fellow owners, not his former fellow players, in the 2004-05 NHL lockout is despicable, but it doesn't change what he did, on and off the ice, to promote the game.

1983 Mary Decker. In spite of the efforts of Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, and a few Eastern Europeans that we now know had pharmaceutical help, Decker was the first female track-and-field performer to receive the honor. She won the 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the World Championships, the first time the event was held, in Helsinki, Finland. She had been unable to compete in the 1980 Olympics due to the U.S. boycott, but was a favorite to win Gold Medals at the 1984 Games. But it was not to be, in a race that was controversial even before it started, and more so afterward.

1984 Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton. Hard to argue with this dual entry. Moses won the Gold Medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1976 Olympics, missed the 1980 Games due to the boycott, and then won it again in 1984. From 1977 to 1987, 10 years, 122 straight races, he never lost. Think about that: He had 122 chances to get beat by someone having a once-in-a-lifetime performance, or get beat by someone cheating, or have a bad race, or be disqualified due to false starts, or get hurt, or get sick, or not feel like showing up, or, God forbid, have something tragic happen to him on the way to the meet, and none of that happened.  One hundred and twenty-two straight races.  He kept the streak going until he was 32 years old -- that's like 45 in footracers' years.  He was his sport's Hank Aaron and its Nolan Ryan.

Retton became the first American, male or female, to win an all-around Gold Medal in an Olympic gymnastic tournament, and the most famous person, let alone athlete, from West Virginia since the State produced football's Sam Huff and basketball's Jerry West in the 1950s.

I suppose SI could've made it a mass entry, as they did in 1980. The Soviet boycott (obviously payback for '80) made it a considerably easier Olympics for the West in general and the U.S. (and West Germany) in particular, and some other Americans should be mentioned. Carl Lewis matched Jesse Owens' 1936 performance by winning Gold in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the long jump, and anchoring the 4-by-100-meter relay. A U.S. basketball team led by Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing won the Gold, and was hailed as the best amateur basketball team ever. It may still be, since by the time Jordan and Ewing competed again in 1992, with a few other guys you may have heard of, professionals were allowed. The U.S. men's gymnastic team won the all-around title, led by Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord, and Bart Conner -- the last of them now better known as the husband of Nadia Comaneci.

And Jeff Blatnick had survived Hodgkin's disease and the removal of his spleen to become America's first-ever Gold Medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling. Interviewed after his victory, through tears of joy he yelled, "I'm a happy dude!" Is that phrase symbolic of America in the 1980s, or what?

1985 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The former Lew Alcindor could have won in any number of years, but to be one of the top 5 players in the NBA at age 38, and to dominate the NBA Finals, clinching them against the Boston Celtics on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden, was something special. This was no LAA: This SOTY award was totally legit. There was a time when the Los Angeles Lakers were not known for overweening egos, criminality and cheating on the court, but, rather, for power and style, and this was it: Kareem, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, and so on.  (Okay, Kurt Rambis did look like a mustachioed basketball version of a hockey Hanson Brother, but other than that, they were as stylish a sports team as there has ever been, right up there with the early 1970s Knicks.)

1986 Joe Paterno. This isn't about what we now know about the football program at Pennsylvania State University. This is about what Joe Pa was thought to be at the time. Sure, he, his team, their uniforms and their style of play were blander than Pat Boone eating rice pudding. But they got the job done, and even a Rutgers fan like me enjoyed seeing them beat the thugs of the University of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl (albeit on January 2, 1987, after this award was already given) to win their 2nd National Championship.

The first happened in 1982, and there are those who argue they should have already been awarded them in 1969, 1970 and 1973. (And, later, in 1994.) So this looks like another LAA. But look who the other major champions of the year were. Egomaniacs and/or cheaters like the Mets, the Chicago Bears, the Boston Celtics, the World Cup winners of Argentina with Diego "Hand of God" Maradona, and Mike Tyson. Teams nearly as bland as Nittany: The Montreal Canadiens (by this point, they were hardly the flashy "Flying Frenchmen" of the 1950s, '60s and '70s) and the University of Louisville. There was no Triple Crown winner in horse racing, and no Olympics. And while Nicklaus won the Masters at the shocking age of 46, I can't give Sportsman of the Year to a golfer, not even the greatest ever at the time of his greatest achievement ever.

But I don't, even reluctantly, concede this one to JoePa. In 1986, Greg LeMond became the first American -- indeed, the first non-European -- to win cycling's greatest prize, the Tour de France. He was considered worthy of the SOTY in 1989, why not in 1986?

1987 Athletes Who Care. In a year with comparatively bland champions like Phil Simms and the Minnesota Twins -- and with the Lakers' Kareem and the Oilers' Gretzky already past honorees -- SI went with charity:

* Bob Bourne of the Los Angeles Kings, formerly of the Islanders, who helped a handicapped children's school.
* Judi Brown King, a hurdler won won a Silver Medal at the 1984 Olympics, who helped abused children.
* Kipchoge "Kip" Keino, who won Gold Medals in track at the 1968 and '72 Olympics, who cared for orphaned children in his native Kenya (and is now head of that country's Olympic Committee, and was the first African native to win SI's SOTY, even in part).
* Dale Murphy, the Atlanta Braves' 2-time National League MVP and a majority charity fundraiser.
* Chip Rives, a college football player cited for helping needy children.
* Patty Sheehan, winner of 2 LPGA Championships (eventually winning 6 of women's golf's majors), who helped abused girls.
* Rory Sparrow, who came out of Paterson, New Jersey's famed-but-troubled Eastside High School to star for Villanova University and both New York-area NBA teams (he was with the Knicks at the time), who took his experience as an inner-city youth and helped those who came after him.
* And Reggie Williams, the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker who reached out to inner-city high schools, and was later elected to Cincinnati's City Council.

Nothing wrong with honoring any of those selections, all of whom are still alive and still involved with charity. But it is possible to select just one person for that year, and still fit the spirit in which SI made their selections. Magic Johnson led the Lakers to the NBA Championship, effectively moving them from being "Kareem's team" to being "Magic's team" that season (although Kareem, even at 40, was still one of the game's top 10 players), and being in the early stages of building his business empire. When conservatives talk about the super-rich being "investors" and "job creators," they don't think of Magic. But they should. As Magic would later say of Jordan, "If Michael did what I'm doing, he really would own the world."

1988 Orel Hershiser. So much has been made out of one swing from Kirk Gibson that it's easy to forget that the biggest reason the Los Angeles Dodgers even got to that year's World Series (still their last) was the Big O. (Not to be confused with another legendary athlete, Oscar Robertson. Or singers Roy Orbison and Otis Redding, or today's President, Barack Obama, for that matter.) His 59 straight scoreless innings, breaking the record of another Dodger pitching legend, Don Drysdale (who gave his emphatic approval), sparked a team that really didn't have much offense besides Gibson (who did win the NL MVP that year) to a surprising Pennant. Orel won Games 2 and 5 (the clincher) of the Series, won the Series MVP, and, later a pitching coach and now a broadcaster, has always been class on and off the field. This was a good selection.

1989 Greg LeMond. The difference between this year and '86 is that LeMond had come back from cancer to win the Tour de France. And, unlike Lance Armstrong a decade later, there is no serious charge that he did so illicitly. He would win a 3rd TdF.

But if I give it to LeMond for '86, I can't give it to him again for '89. So I give it to Joe Montana, who, at this point, was probably the greatest any quarterback has even been, and as for the numbers of a Dan Marino, or a Tom Brady, or what Drew Brees is now doing, as impressive as those numbers are, well, as Charlie Brown would say, "Tell your statistics to shut up."

1990 Joe Montana. Totally understandable that SI would honor him for this year, just as it would have been for the year before. But if I honor him for '89, I can't do it again for '90. So I'm going with an oddball pick: Lou Piniella. He took the Reds from the disaster that Rose had left them with, and not only controlled his "Eruptions of Mount Lou," but was calmer than Rose had been as manager, and took an unheralded team to upset wins over the Dodgers in the NL West, the Pirates in the NL Championship Series, and a sweep of the McGwire/Canseco/Stewart/Welch/Eckersley "Bash Brothers" A's in the World Series. Louuuuuuuu!

I'll probably get to Part III after Christmas.

2 comments:

capt paul said...

Surprised not to see a case made in 1978 for Ron Guidry--a dominating season that was THE key to perhaps the greatest regular season comeback in MLB history. Not only that, but through all that remaining one of the more humble and level headed members of the Bronx Zoo (for the record, The Sporting News named Guidry as their SOTY that year, and their award has been friendlier to the Yankees.
Fast Forward ten years to 1988 where a case could be made (and very much was at the time) for Steffi Graff, who at the age of 19 not only swept Tennis's Grand Slam, but won the Olympic Gold Medal as well--the first, and to date, only Tennis player (male or female) to accomplish such a feat...

Markalang said...

Good stuff, but one correction. Lemond didn't have cancer; rather, as many know, he was shot by his brother in law while turkey hunting.