What got me thinking about this while I was out on the Coast last month was a just plain wonderful story in the Los Angeles Times by Bob Lochner about 1946, a year in which so many simply marvelous things happened in sport that ever since some fans insist it may have been the greatest sports year ever.
Just mention a few names, still fresh and thrilling half a century later:
DiMaggio, Blanchard & Davis, Ted Williams, Joe Louis and Billy Conn, Jack Kramer and the Davis Cup, Hogan and Snead, Harmon of Michigan joining the NFL, and a young former Army officer named Jackie Robinson playing minor league baseball and headed for Brooklyn.
In 1941 Billy Conn, a brash Irish light heavy out of Pittsburgh, had heavyweight champ Joe Louis trailing on the cards when Conn got cocky, and got knocked out, in the 13th. Now, five years later, with both men home from the war, they had their rematch on a June night at Yankee Stadium. Louis kayoed Billy in the 8th. When local Congressman O'Toole demanded an investigation, promoter Mike Jacobs calmly replied that O'Toole wanted a free ticket and didn't get it. "I guess he's sore," said Jacobs.
Bob Lochner reminds us the NBA was still strictly bush league and in '46 college football was far bigger than the NFL.
Just take the Army-Notre Dame game at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 9. For three wartime years West Point, led by Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, ruled college football, defeating Notre Dame 59-0 and 48-0 in successive years. Now the boys were home again and Notre Dame, quarterbacked by Johnny Lujack, was again at strength. Some 74,000 saw West Point, after 25 consecutive wins, play a scoreless tie with the Irish. A disappointment? Not for those who were there and still talk of the buildup, the tension, the ferocity.
Bob Lochner reminds us Notre Dame got down to the Army one-yard line but couldn't move the Cadets. And Army got into Irish territory 10 times without scoring. West Point quarterback Young Arnold Tucker was "the standout player on the field...who made tackles and intercepted passes at crucial points." Ah, yes, when men were men and played 60 minutes.
They staged that year's baseball All-Star game at Fenway Park. Ted Williams, home after three years as a Marine fighter pilot, went 4-for-4, hit two homers, and the AL won 12-0. "The Kid" was back.
But in that fall's World Series both Williams and Stan Musial were tamed as a little pitcher named "Harry the Cat" Brecheen won three games for the Cardinal victory.
In Melbourne the Aussies defended their pre-War Davis Cup against two 25-year old Yanks, Ted Schroeder and Jack Kramer, who swept the five matches. Later in the year Kramer, a sailor during the war, won Forest Hills as well and would take Wimbledon the following summer. You think Laver and Sampras were something; you should have seen Kramer.
In one of the first big sports franchise moves, the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles with its 101,000-seat Coliseum. Lochner reminds us who was in that first L.A. Rams backfield: Kenny Washington of UCLA, "the first Negro player to be signed by an NFL team in 13 years," Bob Waterfield (who would later marry Jane Russell), and Tom Harmon of Michigan, a combat flyer during the war (and father of today's actor Mark Harmon), all larger than life.
Sam Snead and Ben Hogan won the British Open and the PGA. A colt named Assault took the Triple Crown. The Oklahoma A&M Aggies with 7-foot Bob Kurland beat North Carolina in NCAA basketball. A car averaging 114 miles an hour won Indy. Sugar Ray Robinson, 26, won the welterweight title. Bob Feller, home again, was the best pitcher in baseball, winning 26 and striking out 348 for the Indians.
Joe DiMaggio, who'd hit in 56 consecutive games in '41, was less spectacular in '46, batting .290 and hitting 25 homers.
But in that glorious and magical first postwar year, disenchantments were rare. Even the broadcasters were Hall of Fame: Ted Husing, Red Barber, Mel Allen, Don Dunphy for the fights, Clem McCarthy for thoroughbred racing. I can hear Clem now, that gravel voice at Churchill Downs..."and down the stretch they come."
To the L.A. Times and Bob Lochner, thanks for the memories.