In a sun-baked swimming pool in Philadelphia this past midsummer week, Donna de Varona, a little 14-year-old pixy, won a national championship and set a world record in a sport once reserved for amazons with bulging muscles. Not many miles to the south, President Kennedy sat in his air-conditioned office and with a squiggle of his pen transformed 70 miles of Cape Cod shore line into a national park, answering some of the needs of Americans who were moving toward the beaches like lemmings. Northward, in New York, 26,176 wagered heavily and cheered wildly as Duke Rodney won the first event in the triple crown of trotting, a country sport now solidly established in the big city and the big time. Out in Milwaukee a virtuoso performance by superstar Warren Spahn drew 40,775 fans to County Stadium, while in Washington a near-sellout 27,000 saw Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris raise their home-run totals to 45 each, as the statistical element of baseball once again electrified the public.
It used to be that the sports fan knew what to expect from year to year and even from decade to decade. But now, as last week's events so clearly showed, there is only one constant: constant change. Young parachutists spill out of the skies and pass batons in a sport undreamed of a few years back. Golfers line up at 4 a.m. to play on courses that recently were unkempt wilderness. Homebodies who once thought of the Sunday double-header as the crowning sports event of a sedentary week now go down to the sea with nylon sails and fiber-glass boats or strap on ultralight equipment to come to grips with woods and mountains and underwater depths. No sport has gone untouched. Technology, leisure and jingling cash in the public pockets have led to a sports explosion unparalleled in history, one that has burst in an approximate pinpoint of time.
Seven years ago last week the first issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was published. In that year, 1954, there already was a stampede to stadiums, arenas and the outdoors. "The greatest sports binge in history," said the
Wall Street Journal
that August, but the binge was a mere ripple compared with the wave of change that was to come. Consider what has happened since—often for the better, occasionally for the worse, always remarkable:
In the 20 years prior to 1954 one major league baseball stadium had been constructed (in Milwaukee). In seven years new ones have sprouted in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Baltimore; Washington, Los Angeles and Houston are due next year, and New York the year after. The total investment: $100 million.
But in spite of its new look baseball has felt the bind of its expansion. Major league talent has been diluted—and the minor leagues are all but dead. In New Orleans what was in 1954 second base in the home park of the Southern Association Pelicans is now the site of the swimming pool of the Fontainebleau Motel. The general manager of the Fountainebleau used to be the general manager of the Pelicans. He now claims more customers a night than the ball club had in a week, but he is a sentimentalist and wishes New Orleans had baseball. New Orleans doesn't give a damn. It has had to build 120 new boat-houses and is planning a new city marina for its boating public.
In the major leagues, there was an unfortunate trend toward exploding scoreboards, mechanical rabbits that hand balls to umpires, and faceless managers wigwagging signals at equally faceless ballplayers. The essential matter of who wins occupied less and less of the fans' attention; instead they were flocking to ballparks to see individuals joust with statistics. And seldom had the jousts been so exciting or successful. Whitey Ford wrapped up 20 wins in two-thirds of a season; Spahn won his 300th and Early Wynn was only a few behind; Mantle and Maris were making bona fide runs at Babe Ruth's record.
If the M&Ms were challenging the most hallowed record of baseball, no swimming mark could last long enough even to become hallowed. World records fall in almost every championship meet, primarily because swimming has suddenly become a major team sport for children. Armies of kids from toddlers to teens have been gleefully swept up in a watery version of Little League baseball. San Francisco police complain that the area's biggest traffic jams occur around swimming pools, where as many as 2,000 youngsters are being delivered by moms to a single pool to compete in dawn-to-dusk team matches. One pooped pool director shot up $54 worth of blank cartridges starting races at such a California meet the other day.
The result has been not only record times but new shapes and ages for U.S. swimming champions, especially girls. Unlike their muscular predecessors, they are slim, trim and hardly out of grade school. At 17 last week, husky Olympian Chris von Saltza found she was a little past her prime (see page 48). She was too old and, in a new sense, out of shape, a jolting case for geriatrics. So she retired, giving way to the fresh faces of the very, very young.
The fresh face of football was the rugged countenance of the pros—some of whom seemed very, very old. In 1954 the pro game was having a tough time with stiff college competition. After seven years the fight is about over. Detroit, a championship team that boasted of its season-ticket sellout in '54, has had hardly a season ticket available for new customers in three years. Last season Baltimore, New York, Chicago and Green Bay also were sold out. The result has been expansion (two new teams) and a nettlesome neighbor (the eight-team American Football League). Professional football, once a dreary thud on the outskirts of town, has permanently established itself as a major sport.
With so many discerning football fans, the anonymous heroes of the defense at last have got their due, and then some. Sam Huff, the Giant linebacker, peers violently from television picture tubes and magazine covers, and Baltimore has suffered schizophrenia trying to adore both John Unitas and Big ("I just shuffle 'em till I find the one with the ball") Daddy Lipscomb.