Baseball Cards

I have the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals to thank for getting me into baseball. I grew up with dad listening to the games on KMOX every night during the summer, but I didn’t start paying attention until that fateful series that the Cards lost in seven to Detroit (ah, revenge is sweet ;-).

The next year, I was eagerly grabbing up packs of baseball cards from the little store that sat next to my grade school, White Rock Elementary at little Jane, Missouri.

Each morning, after the school bus deposited me at the school’s back door, I would hike across the schoolyard to the store.

A nickel bought a treasure trove: about ten cards (as I recall) and the world’s hardest flat stick of bubble gum.

As it turned out, the cards WERE a literal treasure trove, if you were farsighted enough to stash them away in their original mint condition.

Yeah, right. A nine-year-old is going to do THAT.

The morning ritual involved unwrapping your purchase and looking for those elusive missing cards that your collection needed. More often, you would get dupes of cards you already had. The pictured Nolan Ryan 1969 issue was one that I had at least five of.

They now go for $200 and up in mint condition on eBay, BTW.

But you used your dupes as traders, to swap with fellow collectors to get the ones that you just couldn’t find in those store packs.

I seemed to hit a wall with the Cardinals. Though I had multiple Steve Carltons (also very valuable today), I just couldn’t ever find a Bob Gibson. A trip to Texas revealed why.

We ventured down to the small town of Mason, located near the geographical center of the state. That’s where my grandparents lived, and we made yearly sojourns to their home.

Anyhow, I walked into a store there and bought a few packs of cards. I was astonished to find out that they were a completely different distribution from what I was buying back home! Within four or five packs, I had found TWO Bob Gibsons! The rest of the cards were all elusive ones I’d never been able to find.

While I was thrilled, I also became cynical. After all, I soon realized that my collections would never be complete without a trip out of the state.

That was my first and last year collecting baseball cards. I did become a collector of football cards, and even collected NBA cards for one year. But I was alienated by Topps, who, for whatever reason, didn’t distribute their entire inventory to each geographical area.

Had I kept my collection in mint condition, it would probably be over a thousand dollars in value today, not bad for an investment of perhaps ten bucks. I’m not sure what happened to them. I know many of them were clipped to my bike to rub against the spokes to make a motorcycle sound.

But for at least one year, I was able to wow my father by quoting statistics for the players we would see on NBC’s Game of the Week each Saturday afternoon.

China Opens Up to the West

We Boomer kids grew up in a pretty consistent political situation: Better Dead than Red.

The communists, ANY communists, were our sworn enemies, that is if you lived in the United States, or most other democratic nations. Russia, Cuba, East Germany, North Vietnam, Red China, they were all the same. The bad guys. The other side. The force from which the world must be protected from further expansion.

That all began to take a turn another direction entirely in 1971.

Table tennis, or ping-pong, was occasionally featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. While it had its followers, it was far from being one of the more popular competitive contests in the US. But it was a different matter in the Orient. Ping-pong was a passion!

Despite its lack of serious fan base, the US had a pretty good ping-pong team in 1971. They were playing in a tournament in Japan that year when a chance incident of a player jumping on the wrong bus, coupled with a courageous act of generosity by one of his competitors, led to relations normalizing between China (notice we dropped the Red?) and the United States.

Glenn Cowan fist bumps Zhuang Zedong

US star player Glenn Cowan was late practicing one evening, and missed his bus back to the hotel. He spotted another bus and jumped on. It was occupied by the Chinese National Table Tennis Team.

Cowan was an outgoing fellow, and stood at the front of the bus as it left for the hotel and said a few informal words to the team. A translator passed them on in Chinese. The result were icy stares from the players who had been well-schooled in the decadence of the West, and the need to avoid contact with them at all costs.

Then, a player named Zhuang Zedong stood up in the rear of the bus, walked forward, and presented Cowan with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains.

Cowan was flabbergasted (in a good way) by the act of generosity. The rest of Zedong’s team were equally flabbergasted, but in a distinctly different direction.

When the bus arrived, there were photographers present who recorded the bizarre sight of an American competitor getting off of a bus full of communist Chinese rivals.

The incident received lots of airplay, and it eventually got back to Chairman Mao. With the Cultural Revolution (and the rumors of its horrible human rights abuses) winding down, he decided that it was time to make a friendly gesture towards the largest of the western nations. The end result: the US team was invited to visit China to play in a tournament just a few days after the Japanese competition was over.

The tournament was a success, even though the Chinese team seemed to be taking some dives in the name of diplomacy. A little less than a year later, Richard Nixon made his historic trip to visit Mao and Chou-En-lai (as he was known then). He also toured many parts of the country, and the TV shots of him standing on the Great Wall are burned indelibly into my memory.

Soon, we were doing business with China, and suddenly seemingly forgot that there existed a small island off of the nation’s east coast that we had once also called (nationalist) China. Such was the price paid for new political allies.

I was a serious juvenile philatelist in those days, and was delighted to learn that I could now obtain stamps from Communist China. I ended up with quite a few for a quarter or so from the Littleton Stamp and Coin Company.

Today, for better or worse, there are few items in the discount stores that are manufactured anywhere but China. Chinese-made merchandise has suffered a poor reputation for quality that is slowly being overcome. My son recently presented me with a very nice Kershaw pocket knife that was made over there.

But once upon a time, Red China filled a kid’s heart with uneasiness, imagining a vast communist army that was bent on destroying the American Way. After all, ALL communists were evil!

When You Knew Who the Heavyweight Champ Was – Part 2

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali

To reiterate my last column, we Boomers grew up knowing who the world heavyweight champion was. Nowadays, at press time, there are four with names I’ve never heard of.

In 1921, the World Boxing Association was formed. It presumed to call the shots as far as who the champions were in each weight division, and all seemed to agree that they were cool with that. Thus, the whole world agreed that the reigning champions had names like Max Baer, Joe Louis, Max Schmelling, Gene Tunney, and Rocky Marciano.

Then, in 1963, another boxing authority was formed: the World Boxing Council. Uh-oh. Now, we had the potential to have TWO different champions.

And, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened. Ernie Terrell (the brother of one of Diana Ross’s Supremes) was named champion by the WBC in 1965 after Ali backed out of a fight with him, while Ali remained the champ as far as the WBA was concerned.

But there were only two names to remember, and only one after Ali brutally savaged Terrell in 1967 in revenge for Terrell referring to him as “Clay,” insulting the recently converted Muslim in the process.

Once again, all agreed who the champion was.

For some reason, in 1983, the International Boxing Federation was formed. And for some yet other reason, the World Boxing Organization was formed in 1988, Now we have four different governing bodies to decide who the champions are.

What a mess. Combine that with fighters like Ali and Jerry Quarry who are debilitated by their careers, the deaths of Duk Koo Kim and others in the ring, and the psychopathic behavior of former champion Mike Tyson, and it’s easy to see why the popularity of boxing is a shadow of what it was when we were kids.

Make no mistake: I really don’t mind.

The Night Hank Hit #715

Major League Baseball home run champion Hank Aaron

At presstime, a longstanding major league baseball record stands poised to be broken. It is surrounded by dark clouds of controversy, as a player with direct ties to the abuse of steroids and other banned substances (whose name I refuse to mention), revered by some, despised by a majority, will soon be loudly celebrated by his ESPN shills and apologists (as well as a limited number of fans in the San Francisco area) for becoming the all-time home run champion.

But the man who hit 755 has gained new respect and reverence by a public who appreciates sportsmanship and simply being a gentleman over boorish behavior by physically talented but morally bankrupt egomaniacs who unfortunately are prominent in modern-day athletics.

We Baby Boomers who were baseball fans will never forget the night Hank hit number 715 in Atlanta. Most of the rest of us remember it, too, as the event transcended sport. Nobody ever thought Babe Ruth’s record would be broken, particularly by a humble, unassuming man who hit line drives that would frequently barely clear the wall, and whose highest single year home run total was a mere 47.

Hank connects on #715

Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron was born on February 5, 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. Being a denizen of the Deep South would prove advantageous to a man who entered major league baseball in 1954, only seven years after Jackie Robinson had integrated the sport. Racial epithets and threats hounded him for much of his career, with death threats regularly coming as he threatened to break Babe Ruth’s mark.

Aaron hit the first of 755 dingers against Cardinal Vic Raschi on April 23, 1954. Aaron was a natural with a sweet line drive swing who seemed bound for hitting greatness. He hit home runs, but not towering Mantelesque shots. In 1954, it would have seemed a long stretch of the imagination to picture him someday being baseball’s all-time home run champion.

Hank circles the bases with a fan in tow after breaking the home run record

Instead, such a swing might have produced 3,000 hits, or perhaps have led in the all-time extra base record, too. His athletic stride might have netted him an all-time 76% stolen base percentage, as well. And, as a matter of fact, all the previous predictions would come true. But all-time home run champion? Fuggedaboutit.

Well, the home runs kept steadily piling up. In 1970, Hank hit #600, joining an elite club whose members comprised the Babe, Willie Mays, and now, Mr. Aaron. Hank’s steady home run numbers (up to that point, excluding his short rookie season, he had had no fewer than 24 home runs in a season) could well lead him to breaking baseball’s biggest record.

In 1971, he hit his high of 47. The next year, he passed Willie Mays to become #2. The buzz began in earnest, as a solid majority of the nation got behind Hank in his quest. Sadly and ironically, his home crowd in Atlanta didn’t seem to care too much. Apathy was shown with mediocre crowds, a few stupid racists always being among the meager numbers.

The aforementioned cowardly idiots tried to intimidate him with their racially-inspired threats. Hank grew up with that crap. He handled it.

As the 1973 season drew to a close, Hank was tantalizingly close. But when the season was over, he was one behind Ruth.

The Braves began the season on the road in 1974, and Hank tied Babe’s record in Cincinnati. When he got back home for Atlanta’s first series against the Dodgers, Al Downing tossed him a high fastball in the fourth inning, and suddenly, baseball had a new home run king. Appropriately enough, the line drive barely cleared the fence.

Hank’s non-loony detractors pointed out that Ruth had shorter seasons in which to set his record. But his supporters pointed out that Ruth had never seen pitching like Hank did. That bit of controversy pales into instant insignificance when the next home run champ passes 755. Just wait and see what history has to say about him.

Very shortly, ESPN announcer Chris Berman will burst into tears of intense pleasure as his beloved object of affection passes Hank’s well-earned mark. Baseball, perhaps the most impotent sport of all when it comes to dealing with its cheaters, and the one most in fear of its players’ union, has done nothing to prevent steroid- and HGH-inflated home runs from being counted as legit. But true baseball fans know that there is only one true all-time home run champion, and the Boomers and older among them will never forget the night a true gentleman earned that title.

The Amazin’ Mets of 1969

Mets fans are still seething that my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, tripping and stumbling down the stretch, managed to get their act together in time to knock a very strong team out of the 2006 World Series. But happier memories exist for fans of the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York, as they are formerly known.

New York fans were shafted by the greedy owners of the Dodgers and Giants in 1957. It was shocking that in one year, New York went from having two NL teams to having none.

In 1962, the Mets began playing. Rather than going for young talent, their GM went for older, more well known players (many of them former players for the three NY teams) who were past their prime. His ineptitude seemed to filter down to the players and coaches. Casey Stengel led them to an inaugural 40-120 record.

While fans embraced their lovable losers, by 1968 it was starting to get old. Once they traded a player to be named later to Cleveland for catcher Harry Chiti. The player to be named later ended up being Chiti, sent back to Cleveland. Funny, weird, inept stuff.

But new GM Johnny Murphy started getting some actual talent together. New manager and former player Gil Hodges was hired in ’68, and recently acquired Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tommy Agee, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, and Cleon Jones began performing above and beyond their expectations. The ’68 Mets had their best finish ever, but it was still 16 games below .500.

1969 saw them starting slowly, then surging. By the end of the season they had an incredible 100 wins! However, they still weren’t in that magical World Series. Baseball had introduced divisional playoffs that year, and they had to beat Hank Aaron and the Braves first.

No prob, they swept them in three.

What followed was one of the most amazing, lopsided defeats of a highly favored Baltimore team that put the entire nation into ecstasy. EVERYBODY loved the Amazin’ Mets, and they showed up on everything from game shows to Sullivan afterward.

The Mets had more success, but not such that captured the whole nation. In fact, the high-fiving, coke snorting 1986 team was reviled by most outside of NY. But that 1969 team was the original America’s Team.

The American Football League

Lamar Hunt

There’s an old adage in the business world: Don’t get mad, get even!

It was that sort of positive thinking from Texas oil millionaire Lamar Hunt that caused the formation of the most successful upstart professional sports league since MLB’s American league sprang on the scene in 1901. Editorial aside: now, if they would only get rid of the asinine designated hitter!

Hunt wanted a football franchise in his hometown of Dallas. He led a consortium that attempted to purchase the struggling Chicago Cardinals in 1958, with the idea of relocating them to Big D, but failed in his endeavor. Next, he tried to convince league commissioner Bert Bell that it was time for the NFL to get a couple of expansion teams, one, of course, being located in a certain north Texas city. Bell pooh-poohed the idea. Hunt’s dealings with the NFL were done.

On his plane back home from his ill-fated meeting, Hunt conceived the idea of a new football league. When the plane landed, he got on the phone to a few other movers and shakers and sketched out a plan for what would be the American Football League.

On August 14, 1959, the first league meeting was held. The first franchises were granted to Dallas, New York, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul. That makes the AFL two weeks older than yours truly.

The NFL, wary of its upstart rival, immediately began wooing the owners of the new teams with promises of expansion franchises if they would just give up this silly new league idea. They managed to lure M-SP’s owner, but the rest stood firm. In an up-yours gesture aimed directly at Hunt, one of the new 1960 expansion teams was the Dallas Cowboys.

The 1960 Boston Patriots

Two more franchises were granted to Detroit and Buffalo, and Oakland managed to grab up the vacancy left by the departure of the Minnesota team. Fortunately, the Senores soon decided to change their name to the Raiders.

The first AFL season took place in 1960. A few quality college players were signed up by team owners with large pocketbooks, and a five-year TV deal with perennial third-place network ABC, who was willing to gamble on the new league, made things pretty solid financially for the near future.

The first couple of years saw a lot of transition. An exhibition game took place in 1961 between the Buffalo Bills and the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the CFL. The Cats, one of the best in their league, beat the Bills, one of the worst in the AFL, but the Bills put up a respectable fight. That was the only meeting of its kind between the CFL and any American league.

Program from the final AFL championship game

In 1963, Hunt relocated the Dallas Texans to Kansas City and renamed them the Chiefs. There was simply no competing with the better-backed Cowboys in Dallas.

But the league continued to attract top talent away from the NFL via the draft, and that was what kept the public’s interest piqued. Additionally, the AFL had gained a reputation as a wide-open offensive affair, with lots of balls flying through the air. The NFL was known for lots and lots of boring running plays. Plus, the AFL had some innovative differences in rules from its senior rival: the two-point conversion, the scoreboard clock exactly matching the official clock (it wasn’t unusual in NFL games for the two clocks to vary by a few seconds), and putting player names on the backs of their jerseys. The league also reached out to black college athletes, who were still largely snubbed by the other guys.

The public grew more and more to love the irreverent league, and the NFL finally reluctantly reached out to them for a proposed merger. The talks began in 1966, but the deal wasn’t completed until 1970, shortly after Super Bowl 4 (I really hate those pretentious Roman numerals!). That particular game must have been deeply satisfying to Hunt, when his Kansas City Chiefs defeated the traitorous Minnesota Vikings.

Nowadays, there are still a few of the original AFL owners left, but they are getting up there. Hunt died in 2006. Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson is still around (update: passed in 2019), so is Oakland’s Al Davis (update: passed in 2011). The legacy of the AFL is seen in player’s names on the backs of ALL jerseys, the two-point conversion, and the dominance of the New England Patriots (watch out, Brady’s back!), as well as many other dynasties. So here’s a tip of the cap to the late Lamar Hunt, who decided to get even, and dreamed up the whole league on an airplane flight.

Rosie Ruiz “Wins” the Boston Marathon

Rosie Ruiz wearing (temporarily) the laurel wreath of the Boston Marathon winner

The term “d’oh!” originated with Homer Simpson about 1990. But odds are that when Rosie Ruiz rounded that last corner at the 1980 Boston Marathon and saw a pristine tape across the finish line, she probably uttered the Spanish equivalent.

Ruiz, born in Havana in 1954, wanted to gain a little fame. Unfortunately, she miscalculated a bit, and instead gained a tremendous amount of fame’s dark cousin, infamy.

There are a variety of theories as to why this rookie runner, who had just taken up the sport a year and a half earlier, would take such a ridiculous chance and try to convince the world that she had broken the Boston Marathon record by three minutes. I’m going with the conjecture that she only meant to cheat a LITTLE bit.

A cable TV network assembled a panel of running experts and marathon officials to discuss what happened and why. Their mutually-agreed-upon theory holds a lot of water, IMHO, but first, what happened.

Canadian Jacqueline Gareau was acknowledged as the race’s female frontrunner by the crowds, who cheered her loudly as she would pass by. But when she got to the finish line, there was no tape to break. It had already been severed by one Rosie Ruiz, who looked as fresh as a daisy as she crossed the line barely damp with sweat and breathing like she had just strolled across her front lawn.

Gareau was a bit surprised to learn that she had finished second. So was the crowd that had cheered her on. So were the media, who had tons of images of the race showing clearly that the Canadian had passed all other female runners.

As officials delved into an investigation, the facts made it obvious that Rosie had entered the race less than a mile from the finish.

Ruiz had finished a respectable 23rd in the New York City Marathon to qualify for the Boston contest. Or did she? Eyewitnesses saw her riding a subway during the race. I don’t think that’s allowed.

So why did she do it? A sympathetic Wikipedia entry suggests that her finish in the New York Marathon was the result of a goof on the part of the race organizers. Her boss, elated with her performance, insisted she go to Boston. Rosie intended to finish respectably, but instead mistimed her re-entry into the race, and ended up crossing the line first.


Well, she certainly did become famous. Her name is one of the most familiar of female runners, along with Joan Benoit, Flo Joyner, and Mary Decker.

The trouble is, Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Barry Bonds are famous too. But why?

Howard Cosell

There are a few individuals out there who either inspire love or hatred. No in-between. I use the Dallas Cowboys as an example. Much of America loves the team, at least an equal amount despise them.

Howard Cosell was such a man. A poll in the 70’s revealed that he was both the most loved and most hated sports broadcaster out there. That summed him up nicely.

Born Howard William Cohen in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1918, he moved to Brooklyn as a child. His parents pressured him to become a lawyer, and he did just that, graduating from New York University School of Law and being admitted to the New York Bar in 1941.

However, instead of going to work as a lawyer, he joined the United States Army Transportation Corps and was quickly promoted to major.

When the war was over, he began practicing law in Manhattan. Many of his clients were professional and amateur athletes, and he found himself drawn to the whole athletic scene. In 1953, he was asked to host a show on ABC Radio involving Little League baseball stars. He did so, without pay, for three years. At that point, he decided to hang up his law diploma and pursue a full-time career as a broadcaster.

His first big gig was conducting pre- and post-game shows alongside Ralph Branca for the brand-new New York Mets. Showing the style that would be his trademark, he spared no mercy to the hapless team as they bungled their way through their first seasons.

About this time, he began hosting a syndicated radio show called Speaking of Sports. I heard it many times in my life. I know that WLS radio carried it, among many, many others. That show lasted until he chose to end it in 1992.

Cosell continued to be used by ABC, moving into television as the 60’s wore on. One of his most famous gigs was calling boxing matches. A rising star named Cassius Clay began to capture the country’s attention, and Cosell was heard to announce many of his fights.

One such bout was the night Ali (then Clay) knocked out Sonny Liston with the “phantom punch.”

Then, in 1967, Ali announced his intention to go to prison rather than serve in the US Army. Much of the country castigated him, but Cosell defended his decision. He criticized the stripping of his title, drawing the anger of those who considered Ali a draft dodger.

In 1970, Roone Arledge invited Cosell to be one of three announcers for ABC’s Monday Night Football. His acerbic observations were a perfect compliment to Don Meredith’s cutting up and Frank Gifford’s strictly business calling of play by play.

MNF became the most successful sports show in history. As Howard grew more confident in his role, his observations became more barbed. Much of the public began despising his “telling it like it is.” Bars began holding contests where the winners would get to heave bricks through TV screens when Howard began rolling.

Cosell continued to broadcast boxing matches, too. His call involving Joe Frazier getting decked by George Foreman is one of the most famous ever made.

But in 1982, while broadcasting a bloody bout between Larry Holmes and pathetically undermatched Randall “Tex” Cobb, he announced that he was through with the sport. The awful match came just two weeks after Duk Koo Kim had died in the ring at the hands of Ray Mancini. Cosell said during the broadcast “I wonder if that referee is [conducting] an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he is a part of?”

In September 1983, he drew the wrath of some hypersensitive morons when he used one of his pet phrases he had used for small, quick players, “little monkey,” to describe Alvin Garret (yes, he was black) during a particularly exciting run. Cosell, who was colorblind in the truest sense, suffered shame as a result of the public outcry.

Oh joy, the PC era had officially begun.

He quit MNF the next year, then penned a harshly critical book called I Never Played the Game in which he trashed practically everyone who had worked alongside him over the years while doing his Monday Night gig. ABC fired him shortly afterward.

I never like Cosell when I was a teenager. That’s because I didn’t understand him. He was never in awe of athletes. He would call a spade a spade (that’s not a racial statement, PC police) and would never hold back criticism that was earned. I feel he sadly let his bitterness get in the way of his objectivity when he wrote his book, but I miss him.

I wonder what he would have to say today about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Hometown Boy Makes Good

Growing up in small-town America Miami, Oklahoma in the 60’s was a rich experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It was wonderful living in a community where everyone knew who you were, where you could go anywhere you wanted as long as you were home for supper, and where civic pride was tangibly real.

The city’s pride swelled to the breaking point in 1969, the year hometown boy Steve Owens won the Heisman Trophy.

Owens was a kid that, of course, everyone in town knew. I never met the man myself, but his brother (named Bill, I believe) lived on my street, and Steve’s nephew Tony, who was my age, was a familiar face in the neighborhood gang. And my schoolteacher mom was quite proud of the fact that Steve was one of her students.

I’ve always stated that Miami was Steve’s home town, but I stand corrected. He was actually born in Gore, Oklahoma, and moved to Miami at an early age. While he was a young kid, OU was in the process of compiling an incredible 47 game winning streak. Any football-inclined youngster in Oklahoma dreamed of playing for the Sooners, and Steve was no exception.

In high school, Steve shined for the Wardogs. He averaged 7.2 yards per rush and gained over 4,000 yards in his four years. He caught recruiters’ attention, and happily signed for his favorite school.

Oklahoma’s 1969 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens speaks at the unveiling of a statue of the Heisman Trophy winner before the Oklahoma-University Alabama-Birmingham’s college football game Saturday, Aug. 2, 2006 in Norman, Okla.

But the coaches weren’t sure what to do with him. Owens was a bit of a paradox. He was a track star who was quite speedy, but he looked slow on the field. The Sooners considered making him a tight end. But in the end, they played him at running back his freshman season.

He didn’t play much, and didn’t dazzle when he did. But the next year, he ran for 813 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He also scored a TD in OU’s Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee.

In his junior year, he gained 1,536 yards and started getting attention from the press. That year, O.J. Simpson blew away everyone else for the Heisman, but he called Owens and predicted he would win it the next year.

Owens shined in 1969. His team had problems, though, and lost four games. But Steve began putting together a string of 100-yard games the previous year that continued into his senior season. Once, during a shellacking of Colorado, Owens wanted to let up on the hapless Buffaloes. He was reported to have said “Let’s just fall on the ball and forget this 100-yard stuff. It’s not that important.” Offensive guard Bill Effstrom’s response to him was “It might not be important to you, but it’s sure important to us.”

Owens ran hard and picked up 112 yards. He ended up with 17 straight 100 yard games, a record that still stands.

When Owens won the Heisman that year, a small town became ecstatic. Unfortunately, I had moved away by then, so I missed out on the fun. But I was pleased to drive down Steve Owens Boulevard during a visit there a few years ago.

Nowadays, Owens is CEO at a big insurance agency in Oklahoma City. Life turned out well for the gentleman, I’m happy to say. So here’s to a small town boy who made good, and gave perennial bragging rights to everyone from Miami, Oklahoma.

Evel Knievel, Part 2

Knievel’s hard work had finally earned him some attention. When he was well enough to start jumping again, the crowds and the financial rewards were bigger. He had taken to adding another car to each jump, and was up to sixteen when his luck dipped again on July 28, 1967 in Graham, Washington. After recovering from a severe concussion, he tried again the next month at the same place. Unfortunately, it was the same result. This time he broke a wrist, a knee, and two ribs.

Knievel finally made it onto television as a guest on the Joey Bishop Show later that same year. As his fame grew, so did the sizes of the crowds who payed to see his exploits.

Knievel kept jumping higher and longer, and announced his intention of jumping over the Grand Canyon.

In 1971, he sold over 100,000 tickets to back-to-back exhibitions at the Astrodome. Later, ABC offered to broadcast his jumps on Wide World of Sports, and that’s where most of us Boomers were exposed to Evel Knievel. His first WWoS jump was on November 11, 1973, successfully clearing 50 stacked cars at the LA Coliseum.

Despite his more and more spectacular jumps, the crowds clamored for the Grand canyon leap. However, the US government refused to allow such a thing to take place on the publicly-owned site. So Knievel opted to find private property somewhere that would make for an equally spectacular show.

On a flight back from one of his shows, he flew over the Snake River. He eventually leased 300 acres near Twin Falls and commenced setting up a launching ramp.

The jump was scheduled for Labor Day 1972, but test launches of the steam-powered motorcycle prototypes had them landing short of the far canyon rim.

Knievel finally commanded the tests to be stopped, and set the actual jump for September 8, 1974.

ABC was unwilling to shell out the bucks Knievel wanted for live broadcast, so the event was seen in movie theaters that had contracted to receive closed-circuit feeds of the jump.

The rocket-powered bike took off and seemed to have plenty of power to reach the other side. Unfortunately, bolts were sheared off due the massive acceleration and the parachute deployed early. Fortunately for Knievel, it wasn’t ripped apart by the still-accelerating rocket or he would surely have plunged to his death. Instead, the rocket was gently lowered into the canyon where it landed in the edge of the water, another lucky break. He could have drowned had it hit deep water.

Most of us saw it a week later on WWoS.

Knievel eventually retired to his Florida home. His youthful exploits taxed his health in his later years. He contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion (given after a crash) and ended up getting a liver transplant. Earlier this year (on April Fool’s Day), he announced that he had found religion. On November 30, his worn out, beaten up body finally gave out at the age of 69.

Here’s to Evel Knievel, one of our Baby Boomer memories who will be forever known as the king of the daredevils.