Pitching dominated baseball as seldom before. Detroit's Denny McLain won 31 games and lost six to become the first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean won that many in 1934. Bob Gibson of the Cardinals had a 22-9 record and an earned run average of 1.12, the lowest in 54 years. Gibson had the better of it in the World Series, winning twice and setting strikeout records for a single game (17) and for a Series (35). McLain was only 1-2, but the Tigers beat the Cards in seven games. UCLA's basketball streak ended at 47 games as the Big E, Elvin Hayes, and Houston upset the Bruins, led by Lew Alcindor, before 52,693 spectators, the sport's largest crowd ever. Score: 71—69. With Ali inactive, two heavyweight champions emerged. Joe Frazier knocked out Buster Mathis to become the titleholder in six states, Mexico and South America, and Jimmy Ellis decisioned Jerry Quarry to win the championship of the rest of the world. As the year began, Vince Lombardi's Packers defeated Oakland 33-14 in the second Super Bowl. But in Baltimore, Coach Don Shula would rouse the Colts to a championship season—culminating in January 1969 in the surprise of their lives.
New York teams brought off two of the most astonishing upsets in sports history. In Super Bowl III the Jets, spurred on by their dashing young quarterback, Joe Namath, defeated the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7. They thus became the first AFL team to win the pro football championship. Three days before the game Namath flatly predicted the victory. Broadway Joe completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards and was named the game's most valuable player.
The once laughable Mets, who had never been higher than ninth, finished first in the National League East, defeated the Braves in the first year of divisional playoffs and stunned the proud Orioles four games to one in the Series. Tom Seaver won 25 games and lost only seven for the so-called "Miracle Mets." The Mets and the Jets both champions? Not so strange, perhaps, in the year man first stepped on the moon. There were other historic occasions. Bowie Kuhn was named commissioner of baseball, and on April 14 the first regular-season major league game was played outside the U.S. when the expansion Montreal Expos beat the Cardinals 8-7. On Sept. 15 the Cards' Steve Carlton struck out 19 batters to better by one the major league single-game record shared by Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax. Australia's Rod Laver became the first to win two tennis Grand Slams—the Australian, French, U.S. and Wimbledon titles. Laver's first was in 1962. Rocky Marciano, the retired undefeated heavyweight champion, was killed in a plane crash. The sale of the Philadelphia Eagles for $16,155,000 was a measure of the increasing prosperity of professional football. Another measure was the cost of Super Bowl commercials—up now to $135,000 for a minute of air time.
It was Brooks Robinson's World Series. The Orioles' third baseman made one spectacular play after another in the field and hit .429 with two home runs in leading his team to a five-game trouncing of the Reds. The Series was also notable for the phantom tag that Baltimore Catcher Elrod Hendricks made on Bernie Carbo in the sixth inning of the opening game. Hendricks wheeled and tagged the sliding Carbo with his mitt. The ball, however, was in his other hand. Plate Umpire Ken Burkhart, caught up in a swirl of hurtling bodies and with his back to the play, called Carbo out. "The umpires didn't beat us," said Reds Manager Sparky Anderson. " Baltimore did." So they did, particularly Robinson, whose catch and off-balance throw of Lee May's smash down the line in that crowded sixth inning of Game 1 ranks among the finest fielding plays ever.
This was also the year the American Broadcasting Company invaded weeknight prime time with a sports show.
NFL Monday Night Football
, with the imitable Howard Cosell and sidekicks Don Meredith and Keith Jackson (later Frank Gifford), instantly captured one-third of the viewing audience and became, in effect, a social institution. Bars and restaurants particularly profited from the additional business the broadcasts brought their way. It was, moreover, the year of the "true-confession" sports book, in which athletes were portrayed not so much as paragons of manly virtue but as individuals as morally frail as the rest of us. The most popular of these was Jim Bouton's Ball Four, a candid portrait of ballplayers in action on field and off.
Joe Frazier knocked out Jimmy Ellis to take sole possession of Ali's vacated heavyweight title, and Ali himself returned to the ring following adjudication of his dispute with the government over his draft status. The ex-champion defeated Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. The New York Knicks, with their "hit-the-open-man" offense, run by such adherents of team play as Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere, won the NBA championship. Tom Dempsey, born with only part of a right foot, kicked a record 63-yard field goal to give the New Orleans Saints a 19-17 win over the Lions.
Lee Trevino, "The Merry Mex," was the PGA Player of the year. The winner of the British and U.S. Opens and four other PGA tournaments, he earned $231,202, second only in tour prize money to Jack Nicklaus' $244,490.50, and his lighthearted antics delighted the galleries. On March 8, Muhammad Ali attempted to reclaim the heavyweight crown in a bout with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. Despite a gallant effort, the still ring-rusty Ali lost a unanimous decision to Smokin' Joe. Roberto Clemente put all of his considerable talent on display against the Orioles in the World Series, hitting .414 with two homers as his Pirates won four of the last five games after losing the first two. UCLA won the fifth of its seven consecutive NCAA basketball tournaments under Coach John Wooden. Robyn Smith became the first woman jockey of note at major tracks. Stanford, led by Jim Plunkett, scored a stunning 27—17 upset of Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and Nebraska was again named the No. 1 college football team.
Tragedy darkened the Summer Olympics in Munich as Palestinian terrorists invaded the Olympic Village, abducted and eventually murdered 11 Israelis. The cancellation of the remaining events was proposed, and Egypt, Kuwait and Syria, fearful perhaps of reprisals, dropped out, but the Games continued, if in a somber mood. The American team's misfortunes were confined to the arena. Jim Ryun collided with Billy Fordjour of Ghana and tumbled to the track during a 1,500-meter heat and was eliminated from competition. American sprinters Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson missed their 100-meter heats when U.S. Sprint Coach Stan Wright gave them incorrect starting times. There were some happier events, though. Frank Shorter became the first American to win the marathon since 1908, and swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, establishing world records in each of his races. Dave Wottle won the 800 meters while sporting a golf cap, which, to his considerable embarrassment, he failed to doff on the victory stand during the playing of the anthem. Russian Gymnast Olga Korbut won two gold medals and transformed television watchers into gymnastics fans. In Reykjavik, Iceland, Bobby Fischer became the first American to win the world chess championship, defeating a Soviet opponent, Boris Spassky. Hockey superstar Bobby Hull of Chicago jumped the NHL for the World Hockey Association, accepting a reported $2.75 million to play for Winnipeg. The A's, now in Oakland, won their first World Series since 1930—when they were the Philadelphia Athletics—by beating the Reds. The baseball season had opened late because of a players' strike. Roberto Clemente got his 3,000th hit, a double, on Sept. 30. It would be his last. On Dec. 31 he was killed in a plane crash while taking off on a relief mission to Nicaragua. In the NFL the Miami Dolphins became the first team to go undefeated in a 14-game season.