From the Walk of Honor at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester in Highland Park [All photos: David Kramer]
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester is a unique historical repository with plaques on the Timeline chronicling ancient epochs — the first is 300 B.C. — through 1973.
The 1960’s and early 1970’s cover the most ground. As indicated in “The Sixties,” the plaques are etched with memories of Indochina wars, student and race protests, and the counterculture. While less so, sports are also represented.
Indicative of changing popularity, baseball, golf and tennis are featured in the early to mid 1960’s. By 1965, professional football enters the scene. Less popular then, professional basketball has only one plaque.
Characteristic of its time, white athletes and coaches predominate: Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Richard Petty, Mickey Mantle, Denny McLain, Dizzy Dean, Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, Don Holleder, Bob Kalsu, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Billie Jean King, Al Unser, Mark Spitz, Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer (chess is a sport).
Less represented are men of color, beginning with Wilma Rudolph in 1960, and including Jackie Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Willie Mays, Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali and Roberto Clemente.
Wilma Rudolph, Peggy Fleming and Billie Jean King are the only woman.
To a degree, the Walk imagines sports — especially when seen in isolation as presented below — as a kind of haven from their tumultuous settings. Nonetheless, the intertwining and intersection of sports and often tragic history is striking: Cassius Clay knocking out Sonny Liston while the Vietcong launch an offensive against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or when we read of Don Holleder and Bob Kalsu killed in action or when the day after Mark Spitz wins his seventh gold medal at the XX Olympiad Games in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes are massacred by members of the Black September terrorist organization.
A World II and Korean War fighter bomber and later a champion fly fisherman,Ted Williams was considered an All American hero. John Updike’s short story, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,”, (The New Yorker, October 22nd, 1960) immortalizes Williams’ final home run.
For more Updike, see 30 years ago when Billy Buck broke Rhode Island’s heart
In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the African-American player in the major leagues. In 1946 in Rochester, Robinson broke the color line at Red Wings Stadium.
An baseball icon of the 1950’s and 60’s, Mantle merited three references on the Walk. (Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali also had three mentions.) To contemporary eyes, the headline of Mantle and Mays’ $100,000 salary is indeed meager compared with the tens of millions now commanded by superstars.
Today, I doubt most baseball fans would immediately recall McLain’s achievement. The closest since was Bob Welch with 27 for the Oakland A’s in 1990. As current pitchers start fewer games with fewer decisions, McLain’s mark should last a long time.
1972 marked the first of many major strikes and work stoppages in American sports history.
Wilt Chamberlain was an eloquent and outspoken star in an era when most athletes — especially black athletes — were much more circumspect. In a 1997 interview, Chamberlain remarked; “I was a brash young man of color coming into a white societal sport and taking over – commanding and demanding. Do you think I was liked for that? I don’t think so.”
BOXING AND BLACK PROTEST
“In March 1966, Muhammad Ali [formerly Cassius Clay] refused to be inducted into the armed forces. Ali was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeals process before his conviction was overturned in 1971. During this time of inactivity, as opposition to the Vietnam War began to grow and Ali’s stance gained sympathy, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African-American pride and racial justice.” (Wikipedia)
FOOTBALL AND WAR
Sports and war often intersect. The Walk honors two athlete/soldiers killed in Vietnam.
OLYMPICS (AND CHESS)
International events and sports are often intertwined.
Bobby Fischer’s September 1972 victory over Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, Iceland — the first ever by an American born player — ended 24 years of Soviet domination of the World Championship. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov described Fischer’s win as “a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.”
Later that month at the Munich Olympics, the killing of 11 Israeli athletes the American overshadowed Mark Spitz’ swimming triumphs.
One of only two female athlete represented on plaques, Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles.