PROF: Good morning, students. Today...is that the elusive Mr. Quark on time for a change? Welcome to American Civilization II.
QUARK: Yeah, well, I heard you were talking about dirt bikin' this period.
PROF: Yes, sort of. But first, as a warmup for today's lesson plan, "Sports in the Nuclear Age," a little exercise for which you all have an uncommon flair: daydreaming. Just assume your customary slouch positions, relax and let your imaginations drift backward in time, back a quarter of a century to a languid afternoon in the summer of 1954.
You are lounging on your patio, a patch of cement that is the latest thing in suburban chic, reading the paper. Lawn sprinklers are spurting, screen doors twanging and, on your Philco portable radio, the Crew Cuts are singing the stirring anthem "Sh-boom, sh-boom, yadadadadadadadada." The headlines about the Cold War and other scary things like flying-saucer invasions seem less threatening when you hear that Ike has taken the day off to play golf. Your son, a model of James Dean cool in pegged pants and ducktailed locks, has just roared off to the Atomic Drive-In in his "draggin' wagon"—a souped-up Studebaker—to catch The Jackie Robinson Story, a celebration of the acceptance of Negroes into sport's mainstream. Your faddist neighbor, Ralph the Red-Baiter, is busy digging a bomb shelter in his backyard. Across the street, a kid in a Davy Crockett coonskin cap is playing catch with his father in the hope of joining the Little League, a growing phenomenon spurred in part by the fact that the average major league salary level has soared to a gaudy high of $9,000.
And there goes the Pringle girl, dribbling her leather basketball around fireplugs and head-faking elm trees in dedicated tomboy fashion. "Don't worry," everyone says, "she'll grow out of it."
Like millions of Americans, you have never seen a real live major league game, that being a privilege available only in 12 Eastern and Midwestern cities. Instead, you tune in a contest between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies on your trusty Philco, where the wondrous likes of Willie Mays play ball in the meadows of the imagination. And instantly, falling into a Walter Mitty reverie, you are one with the Say Hey Kid as he leans into a Robin Roberts fastball, swings mightily and...Sh-BOOM!
Suddenly, you are thrust into the jangling here and now of 1979. Your Philco has been replaced by a TV screen the size of a bed sheet with kaleidoscopic scenes of strange Buck Rogers racing cars, masked monsters guarding hockey goals and grown men playing something that looks suspiciously like girls' kickball. Your neighbor has converted his bomb shelter into a sauna cum Jacuzzi and himself into Ralph the Roadrunner, scourge of the jogging trails. Davy Crockett Jr. has not only made it to the majors but he has also jumped his contract to hold out for half a million a year plus a custom Rolls. And the Pringle girl is now the coach of a women's college basketball team that has a man-size budget and man-size recruiting problems.
You seek understanding at the corner bar—now a Taco 'n Disco franchise—but all around you there is talk about mysterious things like hang gliding, slam dunks, designated hitters, Title IX, racquetball, artificial grass and—how's that?—too many blacks in pro basketball. Wild-eyed, you rush out into the fading twilight, only to be confronted by—ye gods, have the Martians actually landed!—the Omnidome, a splendiferous sports palace that is the home of not one but four real live big league teams. Sh-BOOM!
O.K., class, sit up straight now and take notes. If you feel out of sync, good. That was our intent. The more in tune you are with the present the less able you are to assess the past. And because our concern here is to chart the great between—25 roiling, heroic, clashing, epochal and exciting years of it—you first have to dig where you're coming from, man. The distance is deceptive. Like Rip Van Winkle, we are all living in a time warp imposed by the overwhelming rush of events that passes for progress. As C. P. Snow has noted, "Until this century social change was so slow that it would pass unnoticed in one person's lifetime. That is no longer so. The rate of change has increased so much that our imaginations can't keep up."
The future shock syndrome—too much, too fast, too confusing—is stunning. But so too is the sporting scene, and it demands our attention as a reflection of the social, economic and technological upheavals of our era. A question.