When the Thrill of Victory Felt Truly Thrilling

THE BIG TIME: How the 1970s Transformed Sports in America, by Michael MacCambridge

It’s silly, and arbitrary — and increasingly antique — to organize American history by decades. But also oddly satisfying, like sorting a junk drawer.

The 1970s, now in or approaching their paunchy and contemplative 50s, were particularly overstuffed with junk: war, stagflation, pet rocks. Writers, including David Frum and Bruce J. Schulman, have tried to tackle the whole shebang. In his new book, “The Big Time,” Michael MacCambridge sticks prudently, and often illuminatingly, to sports, which he argues became the lucrative juggernaut we know today in that polyester period.

The book is nonetheless a sprawl, covering in overlapping segments tennis, football, baseball, basketball, boxing, golf, hockey and lesser-known competitions showcased in the Olympics. “He could really come out of this hot,” the TV producer Roone Arledge predicted of the decathlete then known as Bruce Jenner at Montreal in 1976. “He’s charismatic. I think he could be another Dorothy Hamill.”

“The Big Time” crackles with such personalities, and induces longing for a time when sporting events were less scripted, scrutinized and corporatized. Men across the board were peacocks, bustling with ego: Joe Namath and his mink coat; John Fuqua and the goldfish you could see swimming inside his translucent heels; Jack Nicklaus and his weight loss; Jimmy Connors and his crotch grabs; Reggie Jackson and his candy bar. (“When you unwrap a Reggie! Bar,” the pitcher Catfish Hunter joked, “it tells you how good it is.”)

The era’s rampant racism and sexism are hardly news, but MacCambridge’s well-cut highlight reels compel nonetheless. Media outlets, including this one, were slow to accept Muhammad Ali’s renunciation of his “slave name,” Cassius Clay. The Atlanta Braves star Hank Aaron got piles of hate mail as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s record of 714 homers. Black athletes struggled to get endorsements — “I haven’t done a dog food commercial,” said the wide receiver Otis Taylor in 1971, “and that’s pretty sorry for a guy who’d be so happy to do one he’d eat the dog food.”

The difference in funding for men’s and women’s teams at the University of Texas at Austin when the staunch Title IX defender Donna Lopiano began there as director of women’s athletics was simply staggering ($2.4 million and $128,000, respectively). Roberta Gibb was told by Boston Marathon organizers that “women are physiologically incapable of running 26.2 miles.”

A lot of these anecdotes make you want to bash your head against the wall, like a character in a Charles Schulz comic strip (“Aaugh!”). How gratifying, and how ’70s, to be reminded that the cartoonist himself championed equality in sports, putting female characters on the baseball field, notably Peppermint Patty, and using Snoopy in the strip to call attention to the despicable prejudice Aaron faced.

Schulz was among the 45 million Americans who in 1973 watched Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs, a onetime Wimbledon champion and “proud troglodyte on gender issues,” in the gaudy but deeply consequential Battle of the Sexes match. (The 2017 movie version failed to capture the excitement of its source material, cast in yesteryear’s snappy copy as the Libber vs. the Lobber. )

This is one of the more famous turning points MacCambridge revisits, building a case for the beginning of sports as mass entertainment and big business. The halftime slam-dunk contest won by Julius Erving in the middle of the decade, though seen by few, is another. The rise of color television, only conclusive in 1972, made costumes of uniforms.The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders entered their white-spandex hot pants era, the team they buoyed “as identifiable a national ‘brand’ as McDonald’s or Coca-Cola.”

MacCambridge, a seasoned reporter who among other books, some encyclopedic, wrote a history of Sports Illustrated magazine, wants to drive home to readers the former importance of print journalism — how one used to have to wait till the next day’s paper for results. He warmly invokes technological ephemera like portable cassette recorders tinnily playing the national anthem, and the Sports Phone service: “a kind of life line for obsessives,” he writes, along with, of course, gamblers. At times — Bud Collins! Dick Button! Frank Gifford! — the book is like a family reunion of jolly TV uncles.

Though MacCambridge’s prose perhaps inevitably sometimes swims in stats and abbreviations — in a litigious period, the joke was the N.B.A. stood for Nothing but Attorneys — he has a knack for the graceful phrase. Some I scribbled down: “Fourth-drink recklessness.” “Oleaginous recruiters.” “Amiable, beige Midwestern voices.” (To describe anyone but Howard Cosell.) “A corona of hirsute flamboyance.” All summon this time as quickly as Ron Burgundy’s sports jacket.

“The Big Time” is probably not for the obsessive, who will already know much of what MacCambridge describes, but more for the curious generalist who wants to speed-skate down memory lane to the theme music from “Wide World of Sports.” Inevitably there are chips in the ice. Criminally, we get no back story on the “agony of defeat” ski jumper Vinko Bogataj. In that case, thank heavens for YouTube.

THE BIG TIME: How the 1970s Transformed Sports in America | By Michael MacCambridge | Grand Central | 497 pp. | $32.50

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