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It is man's conceit, no matter what dot he occupies on the cosmological time line, that his particular history is special. That is why there are so many Golden Eras, often one right after another. Yes, your guys invented electricity. Good one! And you? You had Shakespeare—an industry of English majors thanks you.� Now, how about the past 50 years? We haven't cooked up a catchy name for that era yet, but we can make a good case for it. Our premise: 1954 marked the beginning of an intriguing confluence of people and circumstance, talent and ambition, that fundamentally changed sports, and this country.� Still in play were the residual, beguiling celebrities of the previous Golden Age of Sports—Dempsey, Snead (who had enough left to win the Masters—and beat Hogan along the way!) and, you might say, DiMaggio, who was marrying, and rapidly un-marrying, Marilyn Monroe. But by 1954 there was also a sense that a modern, even more exciting age of athleticism was upon us. Sports were about to become vastly more integrated, more democratic and, consequently, better. An English medical student, Roger Bannister, ran the first sub-4-minute mile, Rocky Marciano was steaming ahead on his undefeated career, and Willie Mays, returning from Army service, made The Catch (Version 1.0).
And how's this? Wilt Chamberlain was in his senior year of high school, Arnold Palmer was turning pro and Hank Aaron was joining the Milwaukee Braves. Mickey Mantle, though he'd been a Yankee for a few years, invented the tape-measure home run that year. There's a Murderer's Row for you.
It was no accident, then, that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED made its debut in 1954. Our contribution to this quantum leap: We established the modern vernacular. Yeah, that's all. (High five!) Over the past 50 years, we've hashed out everything that afflicts and anoints our culture in the language of sports. Think about it. What moral quandary, what political debate, what social disquiet hasn't been articulated within the framework of the games we all share? A woman on the PGA Tour? Or how about this: Why can't a black man get hired to coach a college football team?
In 1946, when the Greatest Generation (thank you, Tom Brokaw!) came home after World War II, no one could have guessed that sports would provide the shared experience that it has over the past 50 years. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity in America, a time to sit back, admire your house, your job, your family, to luxuriate in the world's complete safety (now guaranteed; you're welcome). It was also time to enjoy everyone's favorite new appliance, the TV.
The country's traditionally rowdy spirit was momentarily embalmed in an amber glow of postwar self-satisfaction. And yet: The urgency of this modern life would prove impossible to ignore for very long. Television accelerated the old story lines at a terrific rate; rags-to-riches played out in the time it took your tinfoil TV dinner to cook. Things happened fast, and they happened to everyone at once. Maybe that implied shared values, which extended far beyond our communal enthusiasm for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (and what adventures they were!). New ways of thinking about race, about business, about celebrity were being developed, often in the laboratory of sports.
And then there was an explosion in all the major sports (in all directions, it seemed) to the point where teams became civic metaphors, ordinary athletes our myth-makers and the games themselves a matter of national imperative. Almost everything of importance could be expressed or anticipated in the sports coverage of the day. The coming celebrity culture—in which fame would be delivered instantly—was prefigured in our new idolatry of athletes and was helped along by the proliferation of media that fed our 24/7 interest. Ideas of professionalism and amateurism got blurred, as the need to commercialize even our play took precedence over innocence. Sports, as it evolved from a local flavor to a national appetite, became a way to look at race, gender, business—you name it. And suddenly, all sorts of people could talk to one another, volatile debates defused by a shared passion for sports. Not ready to talk about the integration of schools? O.K., let's talk about this Larry Doby, first black player in the American League. He can hit a little, can't he?
Strange isn't it, that the very themes of achievement and disgrace that animate our history would be expressed in something so universal (and benign) as a box score, an improbable athletic feat, a magazine cover. Who could have guessed that, henceforth, anything worthwhile could be demonstrated on, say, a basketball court—racial harmony, affluence, cooperation, style, commerce? (High five!) Who could have possibly known that?