The eternal verities of sport took a terrible lacing in Honolulu recently. As everyone knows, a good big man can beat a good little man. Baseball players are not really athletes. And tug-of-war is a child's game. Lies, as it turned out, all lies.
The refutation of these concepts, sacred and profane, and the elevation of the tug-of-war to something surpassing gladiatorial combat were accomplished by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings, the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers, winners and losers, respectively, of the Super Bowl and the World Series. Billed as the Team Superstars, the package of 40 players—10 starters from each squad—was sold to ABC as another in the 10-part Superstar string of spectaculars dreamed up by Dick Button, onetime Olympic figure skating champion and partner in Candid Productions, and Mark McCormack's busy Trans World International, Inc. It will appear on television March 2, 9 and 16.
To lure 40 scattered football and baseball players from their off-season pursuits (disputing contracts with Charlie Finley, playing golf, making movies, hunting, raising cows, fishing, filing suits and denouncing the Rozelle rule), Trans World dangled a couple of sizable carrots: A) a lot of money and B) a one-week, all-expense, first-class trip to Hawaii for each competitor and his wife or reasonable facsimile thereof. Almost all of the players did take their wives, and Reggie Jackson, who did not, took his mother. As for the money, even split 40 ways it was substantial: a pot of $331,500, with a guarantee of at least $3,400 per man to a team that lost every event and the possibility of $15,300 per man to a team that won them all.
The choice of Hawaii as a site was a stratagem of the crafty McCormack, aimed primarily at persuading wives to persuade reluctant husbands that paddling outrigger canoes was not beneath the dignity of world champions. Not in Honolulu, anyway.
But to say that Honolulu took a casual view of its selection as the site of the Superteam competition would be an understatement. Most sports fans figured it for just another TV non-event: it was difficult to believe that world champions in football and baseball could get up for a tandem bicycle relay race, a 1,320-yard medley relay in six sections, or an obstacle race. And an eight-lap swimming relay? A half-mile outrigger canoe race through the sloppy lagoon adjoining Waikiki's Hilton Hawaiian Village? Volleyball? And a tug-of-war?
The local view had it that a conspiracy was afoot to rip off ABC and the American public, especially the Hawaiians, despite the fact that the team captains—Sal Bando of the Athletics, Ray Mansfield of the Steelers, Mick Tingelhoff of the Vikings and Steve Garvey and Jimmy Wynn of the Dodgers—called practice for 9 a.m. the day after the long flight from the mainland. By the night before the beginning of competition, the advance ticket sale for the events at Punahou High School's Barwick Field was almost nonexistent. It seems likely that never before had so few (1,500) paid so little ($2,500) to see so much talent—$20 million worth, given the fact that the organizers had insured each player for half a million.
The first day of competition was not a good one for champions. Both the Athletics and Steelers started strong by winning the tandem bike relays, pedaling furiously around an oily track in their J.C. Penney plastic helmets, but disaster set in with the 1,320-yard medley. Bando, who was to lead off the first leg, asked apprehensively at the start, "Is that 110 yards? Looks more like 220 to me. I don't know if I can make it."
Bando nevertheless managed to stay even with Davey Lopes; Gene Tenace did the same with Wynn, and so did Bert Campaneris and Garvey. Then the fourth Oakland runner, Bill North, opened 10 yards on Bill Buckner, but as he prepared to pass the baton to Reggie Jackson, Jackson started to move, perhaps a step too soon. Lunging desperately to get the stick into Jackson's hand, North fell face down onto the track and slid five yards as the baton skittered away. By the time Jackson found it the Dodgers' Bill Russell was long gone and Andy Messer-smith, running the anchor 440, finished 30 yards ahead of Vida Blue, who had pretty much given up. Later, North said that Jackson had started too soon and had not looked back. Jackson said nothing. And Ray Fosse, after what he had gone through separating Jackson and North in their celebrated fight last June, moved discreetly out of range.
The Steelers promptly matched the Athletics' giveaway performance. Franco Harris, running the third leg, and 10 yards ahead, as North had been, passed the baton safely to Mike Wagner and then casually drifted out of his lane just in time to brush the Vikings' Paul Krause and throw him off stride. Mel Blount was 20 yards ahead of John Gilliam at the finish, but the Vikings already were besieging Joe Dey, the former commissioner of the pro golf tour who is now commissioner of Superstars. Dey upheld their protest.
In practice, the competitors had had some trouble getting over the 12-foot wall of the obstacle course, but now, adrenaline boosted by rage, all 24 made it, though the Dodgers, as a team, made it faster than the rest. The fastest individual, however, was the Steelers' Lynn Swann, who seemed to fly over the wall and went through the rest of the hazards like a laser. His time was 20.56 seconds, four seconds faster than anyone else had done it, or ever did do it. A disgusted Viking said, " Swann's so good at that because he's a second-story man in the off-season." So now the Dodgers and Steelers led their opponents two events to one.