Review of The 1960s in Sports

Coverdale, Miles Jr. The 1960s in Sports: A Decade of Change. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. Pp. 371. Black and white photos, index, bibliography, and notes. $75 hardcover.

Reviewed by Richard A. Macales

“During the turmoil of the 1960s, the world of sports provided a positive distraction for the American people.” – Author Miles Coverdale Jr., in his introduction to The 1960s in Sports

Miles Coverdale Jr. asserts that the 1960s were “the greatest decade in sports history.” Born in 1949 and raised primarily in the hamlets of Long Island, New York, Coverdale came of age in the 1960s as an astute observer and fan of baseball, golf, ice hockey, track and field, and basketball and football (both on the professional and collegiate levels). He also closely followed the decade’s three Olympic Games, the first, he notes, given extended television coverage: Rome, 1960; Tokyo, 1964; and Mexico City, 1968. Writes Coverdale: “Many of the changes that occurred in the sports world were influenced by changes that were taking place in the ‘real world’…one of the most tumultuous decades in U.S. history…monumental changes of all sorts that helped shape today’s world.”

Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

Each of these “monumental changes” are covered in-depth in an exceptionally well-documented and written narrative and statistical analysis, drawing upon Coverdale’s Bowdoin College B.A. (with honors) in English and economics, as well as his MBA from Columbia University. As an undergraduate, Coverdale participated in track, cross-country, and soccer, and to this day he continues to run in marathons. 

Looking back on the 1960s, we gain a better understanding from Coverdale’s “lens” as a witness. It was a decade headlined by exceptionally gifted athletes whose personalities also fit the mood of the times––they defined America and displayed their Americanism from vastly different perspectives. 

Among the scores of athletes who personified the decade that Coverdale vividly recalls are names familiar to many over a half-century later: Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson (boxing); Jim Brown, Paul Hornung and “Broadway” Joe Namath (football); Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays (baseball); Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (golf), Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr (ice hockey); Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Bill Bradley (basketball); and Olympic medalists Wilma Rudolph, Rafer Johnson, Tommy Smith and John Carlos (track and field).  The complete list of athletes, their stories and stats, go way beyond the aforementioned names. They are listed in a name-only index to make the search easier for readers.

With all the record-setting performances set by athletes who played most or part of their illustrious careers in the Sixties––many of which still stand today––one athlete stands taller than all others for the author: 7’1” basketball star Wilt Chamberlain for the Warriors in both Philadelphia and San Francisco, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Coverdale dedicates the main sports headline of his chapter on 1962 (each year has a separate chapter):  “Wilt Has a Season for the Ages.” He describes Wilton Norman Chamberlain of the 1961-62 Warriors “as [having] the greatest individual season in the history of North American professional sports.” In that record-shattering season, Coverdale marvels at Chamberlain’s 100-point game, his 50.4 average points per game, 4,029 total points, and 25.7 rebounds per game. To this day not one of his scoring records has been eclipsed. Even more amazing to the author is that Chamberlain did not win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy. MVP honors in 1962 went to Bill Russell, whose Boston Celtics had their greatest season and championship team, ever.

Writes Coverdale: “At the individual level, the rivalry between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell was the greatest in American professional sports history.” They appear on the book’s cover. Chamberlain and Russell are revisited by Coverdale in most of the book’s chapters, from 1960-69, attesting to their unsurpassed dominance in sport. Today’s fans may contend that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were the greatest rivals. But in today’s 30-team NBA versus the 10 NBA clubs that competed in most of the 1960s, Chamberlain and Russell competed against each other in 142 games; Kobe and LeBron had only 22 regular season encounters.

Coverdale also re-lives some of the most memorable and winningest sports teams of the 1960s.  Baseball’s New York Yankees, a dynasty that stretched back to 1947, won the American League “pennant” (championship) from 1960 to 1964, and added two more World Series rings in 1961 and ’62. Coverdale, also a biographer of the Yankees’ Whitey Ford, the winningest pitcher ever in World Series history (10 wins), credits the 11-Series veteran for the team’s 1960s dynasty. Yet, Ford was content with the role of perennial under-shadow to high-profile batting stars Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (pictured on the book’s cover)––except in the clubhouse.

The NBA basketball’s Boston Celtics, who won a major league sports record eight championships in a row (1959-66), nabbed a total of nine titles during the decade and 11 dating back to the late-1950s. To the author, the Celtics are best remembered by the mainstays of that incredible dynasty––Bill Russell and coach-general manager Arnold “Red” Auerbach. 

In ice hockey (a sport especially beloved by the author), the Montreal Canadiens won five Stanley Cup finals during the decade, with an additional championship in 1971. These titles were preceded by a league record five in a row from 1956-60. The Canadiens were led by French Canadians, including record seven-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Jacques Plante (inventor of the facemask); Jean Beliveau, who was there for all 10 of the Stanley Cups; and the brothers Richard, Maurice “Rocket” and much younger sibling Henri “The Pocket Rocket,” whose combined careers spanned from the 1942-43 to 1974-75 seasons and 19 Stanley Cups. 

Coverdale’s choice for greatness in pro football is the Green Bay Packers, winners of five NFL championships in the Sixties, including Super Bowls I and II under their legendary coach Vince Lombardi. Coverdale also provides yearly coverage of the rival American Football League (AFL), launched in 1960, which began the trend of paying high salaries to players due to serious competition against the NFL. With the AFL-NFL merger engineered in 1966 completed by 1970, owner revenue skyrocketed as player salaries went down. Television became the consummate revenue generator for football. For an ever larger segment of the American public, sports took on increasing interest. And Americans craved more physical contact in the stadium (via football and boxing). This mirrored the violence of the real life streets of the U.S. and in Vietnam, fed to tens of millions of Americans on national newscasts seen nightly on their TV sets. 

A team that particularly fascinates Coverdale is the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets. Born in 1962, the expansion Mets went from seven league-worst seasons to first in one “ya gotta believe” season in 1969. Writes Coverdale: “The saga of the New York Mets…relegated Neil Armstrong’s walk on the Moon to the number-two spot on the list of the most amazing things that happened in 1969…President John F. Kennedy had predicted that the United States would send a man safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. No one predicted that the Mets would win a World Series before the end of the decade.” 

Collegiate sports’ finest teams also are given ample recognition by the author––sometimes for their proud achievements and other times for their shamefully discriminatory, if not downright racist, practices. On the plus side there was the UCLA men’s basketball team, winners of six titles during the 1960s, most notably captained by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known in college as Lew Alcindor) in 1967, ’68, and ‘69. On the problematic side of collegiate sports, Coverdale includes University of Alabama football under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and University of Kentucky basketball under coach Adolph Rupp. For several decades, both Bryant and Rupp had nationally-ranked teams in their respective sports. Only when whites-only squads were by law “forced” to be desegregated did Bryant and Rupp (and many other coaches and colleges) begrudgingly recognize that maintaining championship-caliber teams necessitated recruiting top-notch Black athletes. 

Blacks, however, were not the only athletes denied opportunities into the 1960s. Women athletes also had been excluded from collegiate sports (at both racially-integrated and -segregated schools in the North and South). During the 1960s, professional sports major leagues did not exist for women. Golf and tennis were primarily played at the amateur level, with little or no prize money for tournament winners. According to Coverdale, the premier female athlete of the 1960s was Wilma Rudolph, well known as a record-setting track star but lesser known as an outstanding prep basketball player. Writes Coverdale in his chapter on the year 1960 and Wilma Rudolph and the Rome Olympics: 

As important as [Wilma] Rudolph’s three gold medals were to the American cause in the Rome Olympics, they were more important to the cause of women’s athletics. Opportunities and resources for female athletes were light-years away from those available to male athletes…Although it would be 12 more years before Title IX would be passed by Congress…Wilma Rudolph greatly increased the public consciousness (particularly in the United States) with respect to women’s sports. ‘For every woman athlete who came after, she was the person who opened the door,’ Ed Temple (Rudolph’s track coach at Tennessee State University) said years later.    

Prominent athletes speaking out against racism and/or political causes––something we have witnessed during the 2010s and 2020s––first came to the public’s attention in the 1960s, with both the approval or disapproval of the public-at-large and sports fans. One notable pre-1960s exception was Jackie Robinson, the first Black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the “modern era” (1947).  

In the early 1960s, not long after he first entered the sports stage as a gold medal boxer in the Rome Olympics, the then-Cassius Clay took the conversation of sports and politics much further. While he had reached the height of success in professional boxing as heavyweight champion from 1963-67, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and boxing license in 1967 for his refusal to serve in the U.S. army during the Vietnam War. Coverdale explores Ali’s role as one of the first athletes of the era to express his outspoken views to whatever media were willing to listen to him. Ali constantly spoke out on race and religion, and later on anti-war activism.  And he was the first high-profile athlete to change his first and last names to reflect his allegiance to his new religious beliefs. (In previous decades, many white athletes had changed their “ethnically-sounding” European surnames to “American” names, in order to “fit in,” particularly baseball players and boxers.)

Muhammad Ali is not the only athlete/phenomenon that Coverdale writes about in his national and international historical accounts, which introduce each chapter for every year of the 1960s.  Coverdale is careful to provide comprehensive notes on his sources, most of which are taken from books and articles from leading authors. Coverdale’s historical worldview is dominated by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, civil unrest throughout America, the counterculture that was changing America’s social mores, campus protests on a variety of causes, the space race, and the Cold War between America and the former Soviet Union. The life and death of President John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (1968)––each struck down by an assassin’s bullet(s)––were poignant reminders of just how much sports and the “real world” intersected.

Coverdale discusses one time when a sport’s schedule of games did not stop when it should have––the assassination of President Kennedy on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. Writes Coverdale: “While the entire country mourned [that weekend, in particular], NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle made the controversial decision to play the full schedule of games on Sunday [Nov. 24]. He stated, ‘It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy’…He [President Kennedy] thrived on competition.’” The rival American Football League postponed all games that Sunday, with the country observing an official day of mourning for JFK’s burial on Monday, November 25. Learning from the 1963 debacle, in 1968, following the King assassination, Major League Baseball delayed Opening Day, and the NBA and NHL rescheduled playoff games. That same year, no games were postponed when Robert Kennedy was killed.

While each of these topics has been covered in countless books and documentary films, never has an author tackled each year of the 1960s in one volume, and with as much clarity and brevity. Coverdale’s attention to detail and fact––be it sports (all but auto racing, bowling, horse racing and tennis) or history (from an American perspective)––are important contributions in showing how events that occurred between 1960 and 1969 have left a lasting impression. It would require reading many other books (or much Googling) to locate and to contextualize all of the information Coverdale has included in his outstanding work.

The 1960s in Sports not only deserves a 5-star rating, but it also is a must-read for students of American history with an intense or a casual interest in sports.   

Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to the anthology/encyclopedia, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. Among his entries: Muhammad Ali, Rafer Johnson, 1960 Rome Olympics’ decathlon gold medalist, and the Heisman Trophy as a symbol of American history.  

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