Skip to content

1977: Journalist Melissa Ludtke at the World Series

Melissa Ludtke

Amid the collegiate conference realignments, confrontational morning talk show hosts, and countdown highlight lists, there’s one thing TV sports fans can always count on:  the live cut-in interview conducted by a young female sideline reporter.

But all of today’s Samantha Ponders and Erin Andrews owe a debt of gratitude to 1970s sports journalism trailblazers like Melissa Ludtke.

More than any other American sport, tradition-bound baseball is typically the last to embrace change. Such was the case in 1977, when Sports Illustrated reporter Ludtke found herself in the lead-off spot, battling for equal access in the clubhouse at the World Series.

Ludtke had already broken some male-only barriers by reporting on the Mets and the Yankees in New York City, and fate ordained the Yankees and the Dodgers would meet in the World Series.  Yankees manager Billy Martin had previously allowed Ludtke access to his clubhouse office, and when Ludtke approached the Dodgers, the LA team sent the matter to a players’ vote.  They gave their approval, and that should have meant Ludtke would be the first woman to cover baseball’s crowning event with the same status male sportswriters had enjoyed for decades.

Instead, Major League Baseball barred Ludtke from entering the clubhouse, citing a litany of bizarre reasons.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9Hwi_R3kmc

Ludtke, and SI parent company Time, Inc., filed suit against the league, and won.

At the time, fewer than 30 women journalists covered sports.  According to an Associated Press Sports Editors study in 2006, women made up nearly 13 percent of sports reporting staffs, and five percent of sports editors were women.

And as Ludtke herself recalls, in the crazy atmosphere of the Red Sox’s historic 2007 American League championship celebration, the league official who presented the championship trophy inside the winners’ locker room was a woman.

Hardly anyone noticed.

1973: NBA Game of the Week Main Theme

knicks_celtics_clyde

Theme music for sports shows in the 1970s displayed the pure, big-tent essence of broadcasting. Producers promoted an emphasis on “something for everyone,” unlike today’s bombastic introductory music aiming for a narrowly-defined audience of sports fans.

ABC’s 1972-1973 NBA Game of the Week theme is a great example. It borrows the basic rhythm and melodic vibe from the popular group Chicago (and adds some waka-chicka guitar at the start to set a distinctively urban mood).

By the mid 1970s, ABC’s NFL Monday Night Football theme was on its way to being iconic. But theme music for the NBA always changed when the league switched networks. CBS picked up the NBA television contract through the rest of the decade, and featured a dramatically different musical style for its main theme. Network brass replaced the AOL radio groove with a combination of Up With People and something from Mary Tyler Moore productions.

Compared with the modern, brief, charged-up themes for live sports events, one wonders how viewers stayed awake for the opening tip of the NBA Game of the Week.

1979: Howard Cosell on The Odd Couple

hc6

It is hard to imagine the American television sports scene in the 1970s without Howard Cosell. The sports personality started the decade as a pompous lawyer-turned-boxing commentator, and ended it as a figure more famous than most of the athletes he interviewed. He was also an actor. Of sorts.

Season 5 Episode 15 of television’s “The Odd Couple” sitcom stands as a classic example of Cosell’s scripted theatrics. The plot of “Your Mother Wears Army Boots” puts sportswriting character Oscar Madison in the play-by-play booth with Cosell, playing himself.  Madison, well aware of Cosell’s ego and command of the microphone, overcompensates in response to the Monday Night Football analyst’s bluster.

The clip displays production values better than you might expect. ABC Sports boss Roone Arldege also plays himself, and the episode ends with a show-stopping musical performance by Martina Arroyo.

Cosell was serious about acting. Unsurprisingly, he thought of himself as a great performer, and comes across in this episode as a true entertainment professional, alongside seasoned actors including Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

But in other episodes, Cosell appears to be a shoddy amateur, fond of a comedic double-take that never failed to generate a response from the recorded laugh track.

Mark Ribowsky’s 2014 book on Cosell calls his voice, “the very soundtrack of sports, so omnipresent, so omni-hated, so omni-riveting, that within the general societal framework little was heard or seen that didn’t bear some trace of him.”

Cosell did three Odd Couple episodes, portraying himself. He also appeared in three Woody Allen movies.

Cosell went on to host the first broadcast version of “Saturday Night Live,” a failed 1975 ABC variety show.  It was a program that included Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest in the cast. All three would end up starring on the competing — and enduring — “NBC’s Saturday Night,” and Cosell himself guest-hosted the NBC show 10 years later.

1979: Bruins-Rangers NHL Brawl

brawl

The action heated-up for hockey fans in chilly Madison Square Garden on December 23, 1979. A match between the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins ended with a spontaneous combustion that made Ron Artest’s basketball grandstand invasion seem like a walk through the woods.

Spectators had already been treated to some holiday season drama. The Bruins edged the Rangers 4-3 after New York’s Phil Esposito failed to score on a breakaway in the final moments. Players for both teams got involved in a classic post-game fight.

That’s when the game turned into ‘70s sports legend.

Battling players crept closer to the first few rows of seating. It was more than enough room for one Rangers fan to lean over the glass and clobber Bruin defenseman Stan Jonathan with a rolled up game program. Johnson raised his stick in self-defense, and the fan snatched it from his grasp.

Boston forward Terry O’Reilly, a seasoned NHL brawler, climbed into the stands to confront the stick-wielding fan. Teammate Peter McNab followed suit, and the insanity swept into full force at MSG.

Stick-grabber John Kapitan, a Rangers fan from New Jersey, momentarily escaped. The Bruins’ Mike Milbury — later to become one of the NHL’s top TV analysts — tracked Kapitan down, grabbed a shoe off the fan’s foot and began beating him with it before security restored order.

Later, Rangers fans took the brawl outside, with 300 of them rocking the Bruins team bus before being chased away by police on horseback.

Eighteen Bruins players climbed into the stands during the incident. Each of them sustained fines of at least 500 dollars, but no one was hurt.

Kapitan filed a lawsuit that went nowhere in court.

He never recovered his footwear.

1972: Namath v. Unitas

unitas namath

A duel between two top football quarterbacks is sure-fire sports marketing magic.  The NFL caught lightning in a bottle on September 24, 1972, when the Baltimore Colts met the New York Jets in what turned into a spectacular offensive showdown starring Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.

The Colts’ Unitas was past his prime. The Jets’ Namath was confirmed as brilliant, but injury-prone.  The teams matched-up in an early-season battle for position in the AFC East, but no one expected a wild point-scoring spree that left both squads’ defenses — and more than 56,000 fans at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium — gasping for breath.

Unitas and Namath tallied 872 throwing yards combined, including five TD pass plays of 50 yards or more. It even featured a kickoff-return-for-touchdown by Baltimore’s Don McCauley, and a speedy TD reception scored by a pre-Redskins John Riggins.

Remarkably, the game managed to attract slightly more hype than the usual NFL fare. But if played today, such a match would have pitted Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on a Sunday night, with elevation to instant classic status days before the opening kickoff.

Five Athletes Who Fell Just Short of ’70s Olympic Glory

NelliKim

People celebrate international athletic achievement at each Olympic games. There’s also the darker side of the Olympic experience, demonstrated by those athletes and teams that failed to live up to expectations on the world’s biggest stage. Thanks mainly to ABC Sports and administrator Roone Arledge’s pioneering “up close and personal” features, these examples created compelling TV storytelling throughout the course of the Games of 1972 and 1976.

Nelli Kim (USSR Gymnast, Montreal 1976): Kim won three gold medals at the Montreal summer games, and two more in Moscow four years later. She scored the first perfect 10 on the vault and floor exercise. Yet very few remember her exploits. Kim entered the 1976 games as the favorite over Romanian rival Nadia Comaneci, but it was Comaneci who would set the standard for Olympic perfection with seven perfect scores, relegating Kim to footnote status.

Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart (USA Athletics, Munich 1972): A record-setting duo at the US Olympic trials, sprinters Robinson and Hart shared the world mark of 9.9 seconds in the 100 meters and were solid favorites to win gold in Munich. But at the site of what should have been their greatest glory, coach Stan Wright mis-interpreted the starting time of their qualifying heat. They failed to arrive at the stadium on time, and were immediately eliminated. Hart did go on to win gold as part of the USA’s 4X100 relay squad.

Steve Prefontaine (USA Athletics, Munich 1972): Prefontaine entered his first Olympics as a young American phenom, holding almost every long-distance track and field record in the USA. He matched-up against the world’s best in the 5000 meters in Munich. Pre dominated most of the event, until this happened:

Many in athletics still call the run one of the most exciting distance matches in Olympic history. Prefontaine’s life would be cut short in a 1975 car crash, and would never have a chance to thrill fans in a potential rematch in Montreal.

Dianne deLeeuw (Ladies Figure Skater, Innsbruck 1976): The best Olympic athlete from the Netherlands faced enormous pressure in Austria, after making a meteoric rise in her individual sport. She emerged as a threat to win a medal at every competition, alongside rivals Christine Errath of East Germany and American Dorothy Hamill. DeLeeuw then outscored Hamill on home ice at the 1975 World Championships in Colorado Springs. Yet Hamill would make history for the USA in Innsbruck 1976 with a performance that would enshrine her as a competitive and fashion icon. DeLeeuw faded into retirement from competition a few months later.

Detroit (1972 Olympic Bid): This time, it wasn’t just an individual or team that fell short of the Olympic standard, it was an entire city. Detroit’s failed summer games bid actually happened in 1966, when the International Olympic Committee chose Munich over the Motor City. Still, one has to wonder what city leaders were thinking. Detroit was a racially-divided tinderbox in the mid-60s, a year away from the riots that would decimate the metropolis and send it into an eternal downward spiral. Its biggest sports image in the 1970s came instead from Reggie Jackson’s titanic home run in baseball’s All-Star game at Tiger Stadium (1971). Considering the outcome in Munich 1972, the Black September terrorism and everything that came after, you can’t help but think what might have been.

1976: Franz Klammer Olympic Downhill

Klammer

There’s almost no comparison in the evolution of sports entertainment than the worldwide television spectacle of the Olympic games. TV captured all the danger and drama of men’s downhill skiing during an outrageous two minutes at the 1976 Winter Olympics.

Austrian favorite Franz Klammer had managed to win three world cup downhills prior to the Innsbruck games, but top rival Bernhard Russi of Switzerland mastered the 1.88 mile Olympic course.  The reigning Olympic champion, Russi’s time seemed unbeatable as the piste turned into a sheet of ice.  Klammer drew the short stick as the final competitor of the day, with lengthening shadows and impossible conditions setting up an action-packed rally, indelibly captured by ABC Sports announcers Frank Gifford and Bob Beattie.

Klammer’s daring, go-for-broke effort — is he racing or crashing? — speaks for itself.  But another thing that strikes strongest in the video is the spectators.  Some 66,000 people lined the course to cheer their homeboy Klammer to victory.  In a “you’ll never see that again / what in the world were they thinking?” scene, the fans stand 4 deep at the fence, close enough to touch Klammer on his way down. ABC Sports was known for its penchant for stunt announcing teams at the Olympics, and former pro footballer Gifford and alpine ski enthusiast Beattie firmly established the tradition of Olympic broadcast hype with one of the classic calls of the ’70s.  But it was Klammer himself who redefined the old sports cliche “in dramatic fashion” with a courageous run at Innsbruck.