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For some sportsmen the moment of great achievement comes in front of the tense crowd when the next pitch, the final burst of speed or the harrowing putt will decide a great struggle. For others it arrives in solitude—in a far-off mountain stream or at dawn in a damp and lonely duckblind. After a shoot in Georgia a few weeks ago, Adlai Stevenson interrupted his pursuit of the presidency to deliver one of 1955's most eloquent tributes to the excitement and beauty of the hunt.
"I've seen two marvelous things in nature in my life," Stevenson told a friend. "One was a flock of 8,000 Canada geese on the move from Horseshoe Lake to the Mississippi flightway. They would sail right over the gravel beds, and the eastern sun would light up their underbellies and give them a faint pink color. At the same time I could hear thousands of wings beating.
"But next to the geese, the second-best thing I've seen was that flight of ducks this morning. The ducks would go over the tops of the trees and come down through them. It was a thick kind of a jungle, and you had to shoot fast between the trees. It was different from any shooting I had done before, and it was very exciting. What a wonderful sight that was this morning—that flight of ducks!"
Yet it is the man performing before the multitude who draws the applause, and so it was that the public's sportsmen for 1955 were those who did the things they could see and read about. From New Year's Day to New Year's Eve, there was scarcely a week—sometimes hardly a day—when some performing sportsman failed to electrify and astonish the measureless audience that follows and cheers its heroes.
As 1955 began basketball had already arrived with the name of Tom Gola leading all the rest. This tall, quiet, graceful young man, then in his senior year at La Salle College in Philadelphia, appeared in 1955's sports arena with two previous All-America ratings to his name. For the third straight season he proved that there is nothing he can't do on a basketball court with exquisite precision. He left no monuments in the record book, but he led his team into the NCAA playoffs and all the way to the championship finals against San Francisco University in Kansas City.
Towering among the San Francisco players was Bill Russell, 6 feet 9 5/8 inches of chocolate-colored awkwardness—until he started to play. Then he was a leaping, reaching, bounding master of the basketball. The final score was 77-63 for San Francisco, and all of a sudden Bill Russell, not Tom Gola, was college basketball's player of the year.
The Detroit Red Wings dominated the National Hockey League for the seventh straight year, but the violence and passion of the game was still the monopoly of the second-place Montreal Canadiens and their trio of uninhibited Habitants: Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau.
Characteristically, it was the Rocket who launched 1955's (and almost any year's) wildest sporting frenzy. Several nights after the Rocket was suspended by NHL President Clarence Campbell after a skull-cracking session in Boston, the Canadiens returned to their home ice, and the mere sight of President Campbell entering the arena started 14,000 Montreal fans on a riot that spilled out into the streets of the city. By the time it was over, Montreal looked as if it had been through a Martin and Lewis comedy. After the air and the ice were cleared of the 1955 season, the Rocketless Canadiens were in second place, and, as usual, they dropped the Stanley Cup to Detroit.
When Roger Bannister, the 1954 Sportsman of the Year, combined with Australia's John Landy to break the seemingly impregnable barrier of the four-minute mile, it seemed inevitable that 1955's track and field season would be an anticlimax. But Wes San-tee began the year with a series of indoor duels against Gunnar Nielsen, Denmark's foremost middle-distance runner, and it seemed as if these two might make track history. Running before packed arenas they each broke the world indoor mile record—first Santee in 4:03.8, then Nielsen in 4:03.6, but the four-minute barrier remained intact.
Spring was coming. The winter-bound were moving out of doors to test their tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing rods. The reassuring whack of ash against horsehide was drifting northward on the breezes from Florida training camps to tell of five and a half months of baseball to come. But before baseball could monopolize the spotlight there were two hallowed spring rituals to be observed: the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis "500."