Monday, April 20.
The start of quite a week in New York sports, with major storylines involving the biggest stars on the best of the New York teams. You know the teams we’re talking about – the Jets, Mets and Knicks – each of them a top-of-the-line squad, each having won a recent championship or in pursuit of one.
Wait. What? The Jets, Mets and Knicks? Championship-level squads? The Mets last won those laurels in October 1986, the Knicks in May 1973, the Jets in January 1969. What planet are we on, anyway?
Well, Earth, yes, but not Planet Earth of April 2020. This was April 1970. It was a time when the Jets, winners of Super Bowl III in January 1969, were possibly the hottest team in the new, post-merger, 26-team NFL. A time when the Mets were just starting the defense of their first championship, capping a rags-to-riches story unlike any in baseball history. And a time when the Knicks were in the midst of their own quest, one that resulted in winning their first NBA title on May 8, 1970.
It’s a neat coincidence that this week, in our current sports-less environment, mirrors the calendar of that eventful week of 1970: Monday is the 20th, Tuesday the 21st, etc. Close your eyes, say “Jets, Mets, Knicks,” open your eyes, and travel back 50 years.
Monday, April 20
The workweek began with the release of the NFL schedule for the 1970 regular season. No, there wasn’t the attendant fanfare of a TV special. There was no NFL Network, no ESPN. The schedule was released in an announcement from the NFL office sent to media organizations and printed in the next day’s newspapers.
But the slate of games that the NFL would play starting on Sept. 18 did carry more than the usual amount of interest because the 1970 season would be the first since the merger between the NFL and its upstart rival, the American Football League, became fully effectuated. There would be a rematch of the previous Super Bowl (Chiefs-Vikings) on the first Sunday of the season, and the schedule was sprinkled with first-time-in-the-regular-season meetings between local or state rivals that had previously played in different leagues. Those included as the 49ers against John Madden’s Oakland Raiders, the Cowboys against the Houston Oilers, and in New York, the Jets against the Giants.
No sooner was the schedule announced than both New York teams registered complaints. Giants president Wellington Mara was ticked that the first Jets-Giants game, scheduled for November 1, would not be played at his team’s home, Yankee Stadium. “I don’t know why the commissioner’s office scheduled the game at Shea (Stadium, home of the Jets),” he was quoted in the New York Times. “It’s a tough thing on our fans, because under the rotation system we won’t play the Jets again in the regular season until 1973 or 1974. That’s a long wait.” (Indeed it was. So long that by the time that they hosted the Jets in 1974, the Giants were playing their home games at the Yale Bowl in New Haven!)
Meanwhile, Jets head coach and general manager Weeb Ewbank was unhappy that his team would have to face four of the five other defending division champs. In addition, his team would face four out-of-division opponents coming off seasons of double-digit wins (the schedule was then 14 games), while the Jets’ new AFC East rivals, the Baltimore Colts, had only one such game. “They’re trying to keep us from being champions,” Ewbank told the Times. “We’ve got the toughest overall schedule.”
But perhaps the most telling sign of the prominence of the Jets and their star quarterback, Joe Namath, was that they were chosen to appear in the premiere of a new prime-time series that would debut on ABC-TV on Sept. 21, “Monday Night Football.” The NFL was eager to provide ABC with a strong schedule in the first season of the show, and in the opener, the Jets were chosen to visit one of the three teams from the legacy NFL that were switched into the AFC starting in 1970. Their opening-night opponent – the Cleveland Browns – provided an attractive matchup for the new prime-time experiment.
So with the choice of introducing “Monday Night Football” with any of the NFL’s star players, the NFL went with Namath, who had led the AFL’s Jets to victory over the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl 15 months earlier. (The Jets would drop that game to the Browns, 31-21, with Namath throwing a critical pick-six in the game’s final minute. But the series itself would last 36 years on ABC before moving to ESPN, where it has remained since 2006.)
Wednesday, April 22
This was the first Earth Day, with millions of people involved in various observances across the nation and the world, and Mets pitcher Tom Seaver celebrated in record-breaking fashion. At Shea Stadium, the second-year San Diego Padres were in town, concluding a brief series with an afternoon game. In a ceremony prior to the game, Seaver received the National League Cy Young Award, earned with a 25-7 record and 2.21 ERA in 1969. After receiving the hardware, he took the mound and crafted a masterpiece.
Now, the 1970 Padres were not the 1927 Yankees, and, as it turned out, their total of 1,164 strikeouts would rank, at the time, as the second-highest single-season total by any team in major-league history. (Of course, the pre-Miracle Mets themselves held that record; they had struck out 1,203 times in 1968.) But San Diego’s 3-4-5 hitters – Cito Gaston, Al Ferrera and Nate Colbert – were capable. In fact, Ferrera homered off Seaver in the second inning, countering a run that New York had scored in the first inning.
The Mets scored again in the third, and from then on, it was all Seaver. However, while he reached a double-digit strikeout total by fanning Ferrera to end the sixth, there was not much reason to believe that he would threaten, much less match, Steve Carlton’s record of 19 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, set the previous September. After all, he’d need nine strikeouts over the next three innings.
But that’s exactly what he got. Colbert, Dave Campbell and Jerry Morales went down on strikes in the seventh; Bob Barton and pinch-hitters Ramon Webster and Ivan Murrell in the eighth; and Van Kelly, Gaston and Ferrera in the ninth. Not only had Seaver tied Carlton’s record, but he also established a big-league record by striking out 10 consecutive batters – not just a record to finish a game, but at any point of any game in MLB history. Seaver threw 136 pitches that afternoon. As you read this in 2020, no major-leaguer has thrown that many pitches in a game since July 13, 2013, when Tim Lincecum launched 148 in the first of his two no-hitters (both at the expense of the Padres).
As we know now, the pace of strikeouts has dramatically increased throughout baseball over the past 50 years – from 11.5 strikeouts per game in 1970 to 17.5 last season. That 1970 Padres’ total of 1,164 strikeouts that, through that point, had stood second in major-league history? It now stands 290th. But even with all of those strikeouts in recent seasons, no other pitcher has ever produced 10 straight strikeouts in a single game.
Friday, April 24
Bill Russell had retired from the Boston Celtics, as both a player and a coach, prior to the start of the 1969-70 NBA season, and that fact alone raised the hopes of the league’s 13 other teams. Russell’s Celtics had won 11 NBA championships over his 13-year playing career. But with Russell gone, the Knicks, under coach Red Holzman, produced a record of 60-22, the league’s best during the regular season. (It has still not been surpassed by any Knicks team since then, though it was matched by the 1992-93 team.)
Next, in the Eastern Division playoffs, they dispatched the Baltimore Bullets and the Milwaukee Bucks – the latter squad led by rookie Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That set up a clash in the Finals with the Western Division champs, the Los Angeles Lakers. No team had felt the sting of Russell’s dominance as had the Lakers, who had lost to the Celtics seven times in seven meetings in the Finals. And no individual player had felt Russell’s sting as had Wilt Chamberlain.
Wilt entered the NBA three years after Russell and had re-written the NBA record book, with the most indelible entries being his 100-point game against the Knicks in 1962 and his 50.4 points per game in that 1961-62 season. But in seven of their eight playoff meetings, Russell’s team got the best of Chamberlain’s, even as Wilt moved from the Warriors (in both Philadelphia and San Francisco) to the Philadelphia 76ers and, finally, in 1968, to the Lakers.
Now, with Russell retired, the path appeared clear for Wilt and the Lakers’ other veteran stars, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, to win the team’s first NBA title since 1954, when the league did not yet have a shot clock and the Lakers still played in Minneapolis. But Chamberlain, 33, had suffered a torn knee tendon in early November, and though he surprised everyone by returning for the team’s last three games of the regular season, he was still impaired, playing a much more flatfooted, less athletic style. Los Angeles nearly lost its first playoff series, but it rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to oust the Phoenix Suns before sweeping the Atlanta Hawks in the Western Finals. Such was the backdrop for Game 1 of the Finals at Madison Square Garden.
The Knicks came out smoking, and they were led by Willis Reed. The Knicks center outscored Chamberlain, 37-17, and added 16 rebounds and five assists as New York earned a 124-112 decision. Reed became the first opposing center to outscore Wilt by at least 20 points in a playoff game. Dave DeBusschere and super-sub Mike Riordan each contributed 19 points, while Dick Barnett had 17 and Bill Bradley 16. Walt Frazier was rather quiet, with six points and six assists; you might say that he was conserving energy for later in the series.
Reed emerged from that game with a shoulder injury, the result of a hard foul by Happy Hairston on one of Reed’s dunk attempts. While he didn’t miss a game because of that injury, a severe leg injury suffered in Game 5 sent Reed to the sidelines. The teams alternated wins through the first six games of the series, with the Knicks winning Game 5 despite Reed’s injury and the Lakers crushing the Willis-less Knicks, 135-113, in Game 6, with Wilt pouring in 45 points. As tipoff approached in Game 7, a stiff-legged Reed finally emerged from the locker room, took a couple of practice shots, and hit two outside shots for the Knicks’ first two field goals of the game (his only points, as it turned out), propelling the crowd into a frenzy. The Knicks led, 69-42, at the half and went on to win the title, 113-99. Frazier led the way with 36 points and 19 assists, one of the greatest Game 7 performances in history.
And that’s the way it was 50 years ago when the Jets, Mets and Knicks claimed prime occupancy of New York sports real estate. A week that strongly suggested Broadway Joe as the NFL’s No. 1 star, Tom Terrific was baseball’s top pitcher, and Captain Willis was a champion in waiting. Those teams brought to New York three championships within a span of 16 months, compared to a total of two (by the Knicks in 1973 and the Mets in 1986) in all the years since.
Could those teams ever reach those legendary heights again, much less at the same time? Time to close your eyes again, and dream.