Every great team is a condition of circumstance, not management. The scouts can identify the talent and the accountants can pay it and the coaches can motivate it, but the creation of an enduring—and endearing—group personality is entirely accidental.
Understand, when you ponder this list of our favorites, that we don't mean championship teams or, rather, only championship teams. Every season has one of those in every sport—they're a dime a dozen. And we don't mean heroic teams or only heroic teams—although those are much harder to come by. What we mean are teams we'd like to have been a part of. Think you could have had some fun playing with those 1955 Dodgers? Or would you rather have been a Met in '62? Or maybe you'd have preferred to help define some style all your own—say, scoring 21 baskets on 21 assists as Princeton did against Niagara in '97. That would have been fun, too.
It's no use trying to divine any additional ingredient in the lasting appeal of these teams. There's no other organizing principle here. Some were effortless, some scrappy, some efficient, some contentious. You want to put a face on these teams? For the 1974 A's it would have a waxed mustache. For the '54 Milan High kids, peach fuzz. You would have had fun on either team.
The one thing we should point out is that none of these teams were chosen because they were overpowering. (That was a different list, remember?) The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers were a pretty fair collection of ballplayers, but what we appreciate most is the Gashouse Gang thing they had going on: Mean Joe Greene, mean Mel Blount and really mean Jack Lambert. For that matter, how about that Gashouse Gang? What would you give to have hung out with ol' Diz?
So it wasn't the assemblage of talent, or rather not only that. It wasn't the surprises these teams sprung on us (or didn't—the Globies kind of kept to a script), or not only those surprises. When you think about even the most successful of these teams, you'll realize we're recognizing their conspiracy of fun. That's the thing we're talking about here. They all enjoyed an unspoken collaboration—Hitless Wonders and Boys of Summer—to work hard at their play. Teams like that, we've learned, you just can't draft.
The only club other than the Yankees to win three consecutive world championships, the A's epitomized the team-as-family concept. Granted, they were the Gotti family: full of internecine warfare, domineered by a powerful patriarch, pitiless toward outside rivals. And brother did they have style. The A's made it O.K. to wear white shoes after Labor Day—long after Labor Day, damn near every autumn.
Pick a favorite of the four Steelers Super Bowl teams of the 1970s? How 'bout none of 'em? Their greatest team was the '76 squad (below), which played the best defense the NFL had ever seen—two touchdowns allowed in the final nine games, five shutouts. Both backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, ran for more than 1,000 yards, and when they went down in the 40-14 win over the Colts in the first round of the playoffs, the Steelers' doom was sealed.
Imagine, if you will, that the Seinfeld gang had also been Stanley Cup champions. That was the Globies, who beat the NBA's best (white) team, the Minneapolis Lakers, twice. These Globies had two Hall of Famers, Marques Haynes and Pop Gates, plus Goose Tatum, the Clown Prince of Basketball, and several other terrific players, like Sweetwater Clifton. When the Knicks signed Clifton, racial justice was served, but the Globies were soon left with only the clowns, while the black princes became the kings of the NBA.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Gashouse Gang even sounded fun—with guys named Dizzy, Daffy, Ducky and Spud—and their brand of baseball was even more colorful than their monikers. Third baseman Pepper Martin was the clubhouse leader, shortstop Leo Durocher was earning his reputation as the Lip, and star pitcher Dizzy Dean made brash predictions, such as guaranteeing that he and brother Daffy would win four World Series games against Detroit. They did.
Portland Trail Blazers
Sure, other title teams relied on passing rather than shooting (Portland didn't have a scorer among the league's top 20), and others upset star-studded favorites (the Blazers beat the Erving-McGinnis-Collins-Dawkins 76ers in six). But Jack Ramsey's charges were the only ones led by a bearded, berry-eating, pot-smoking, left-leaning, Dead-worshipping pivotman (above) who looked as if he'd just come down from Walton's Mountain.