The NBA free-agent deadline has passed and the league has undergone its most significant face-lift in years. Players have been shuffled around like cards in a game of 52 pick-up. The 2013–2014 season truly promises to be a season of “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets? Of course the stealthy Russians are behind that one. And when I initially heard Dwight Howard signed with the Rockets I thought, “Who cares?” But maybe, based on a series of moves over the last couple of seasons made by rising resident genius GM Daryl Morey, I should have given Howard more credit for his decision. Two years ago, Mark Cuban and the Mavs looked like a team of with a future. Now only three players are left from that championship squad and Cuban, who appeared at the time to be the next Billy Beane, has morphed into basketball’s Wayne Huizenga while Morey has built a contender. And did you see that Kobe Bryant is rehabbing with soccer club AC Milan? Could this be a pilot for a new reality show? Throw in a couple of Kardashians and you’ve got a hit.
You know you’re in the MLB All-Star Game post-partum summer sports doldrums when you eat breakfast at Wimbledon one weekend and within a fortnight you wake up to the British Open. Meanwhile the really big money trading hands in Vegas was on whether the heir to the British throne would be a George or a Georgina.
So what sporting event has truly engaged, enraged, enchanted or captivated you lately? The Andy Murray/Novak Djokovic Wimbledon slugfest? Phil Mickelson’s birdie-fest finish in the British Open? The pre-All-Star Game Home Run Derby?
Let’s go old school for comparison. Murray vs. Djokovic, though satisfying for the home crowd, was no Borg vs. McEnroe. Phat Phil is an excellent, excellent golfer but isn’t he the one guy who makes us all question again whether golfers are really athletes? And finally, for my money and treasured memories, the “Whac-a-Mole” conveyor belt Home Run Derby of today totally pales in stature and significance to the original 1960s black and white, mano-a-mano shootouts that today’s contests are based on. For anyone born since 1955 allow me to enlighten you.
In 1960, Ziv Television Programs syndicated a weekly show that pitted some of the all-time baseball greats against each other in a round-robin home run-hitting competition. Different from the current format, it was a nine-inning game, giving the combatants three outs per inning and anything that wasn’t a home run, excluding a pitch outside the strike zone but including a called strike, was an out. The matches were played at the other Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, the home of the then–Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels. The weekly winner got a check for $2,000—big money in those days—and was invited back for the next show to defend his title. The loser got a grand. If either batter hit three homers in a row they got a bonus check for $500.
Cast aside the lineup of pumped up wanna-be pretenders we saw recently in New York and peruse this list of bygone-era participants: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson, Gil Hodges, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline and Duke Snider! Although the series only ran from January 9 to July 2 that year it is fondly remembered by all who saw it and inspired the Home Run Derby now held annually since 1985 at the All-Star Game.
By the way, want to know who won the most money during the run of the show? With total winnings of $13,500 and a six-week run as the defending champ, it was none other than the person many consider the all-time home run champion himself—Mr. Henry Aaron. So how about that for synchronicity?
Thom Connors is regional vice-president of the venue-management company SMG and General Manger at the Cobo Center in Detroit. He is a 30-year veteran of the event industry, having managed venues in Orlando, Miami and Puerto Rico. His column appears exclusively on SportsTravelMagazine.com.