Evel Knievel, Part 1

On November 30, 2007, Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, Jr. passed away. His death at an advanced age would have been a surprise to many television viewers of ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the early 70’s. They were convinced he would die at the end of one of his stunts gone awry.

He was born in Butte, Montana in 1938. At the age of eight, he saw a Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show. He was entranced by the performance, and decided at an early age that he wanted to make a living being a daredevil himself. Knievel became a teenager prone to getting in trouble. Dropping out of high school after his sophomore year, he went to work at the Anaconda Mining Company. Clowning around while driving an earth mover, he took down the power line that fed the city of Butte. The town was without power for several hours.

In 1956, a police chase caused him to crash his motorcycle. Knievel was hauled off to jail and thrown in a cell next to another local neer-do-well, William “Awful” Knofel. Legend has it that the jailer came up with the nickname “Evil” Knievel on the spot.

Knievel liked the nickname, but spelled it “Evel” instead.

Knievel had his hand in several activities, including rodeo, ski jumping, minor-league hockey, and his own hunting guide service that got him in trouble for his taking his clients to land that was part of Yellowstone Park.

Knievel first tried motorcycle jumping for dough about 1965. Putting together his own exhibition, he rode a few wheelies before a modest crowd, then made a twenty foot jump over two mountain lions and a big box full of rattlesnakes. His rear wheel caught the edge of the snake box, but he still landed successfully.

He loved the concept of being a motorcycle daredevil, but saw that he needed to hire more acts. He also needed a sponsor. Bobby Blair, a Norton motorcycle dealer, came on board and supplied bikes.

The first traveling show for Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils was in Indio, California in January 1966. It was a big success, and he soon had other exhibitions booked. The next one, in February of the same year at Barstow, caused the end of the traveling troupe. Knievel was to jump over a speeding motorcycle coming straight at him. Mistiming his leap, the bike smashed into his groin (OUCH!) and hurled him fifteen feet into the air. He was hospitalized and had to quit performing while recovering. His traveling show disbanded.

When he was well enough to perform again, he began traveling solo, jumping over things. There were other motorcycle daredevils out there doing the same thing, so to separate himself from the competition, Knievel began jumping over cars.

At each performance, more cars would be added. He had been successfully jumping since his Barstow incident, but his luck ran out on June 19, 1966, in Missoula, Montana. An attempted jump over twelve cars and a cargo van. He came up just a bit short and broke his arm and several ribs. Back to the hospital.

Tomorrow, tune in for Evel Knievel’s story, part 2.

Clay Beats Liston

It was the penultimate rivalry in boxing in the decade of the 60’s. Motormouthed Olympic champion Cassius Clay vs. quiet Sonny Liston.

Clay had won gold in the 1960 Games at Rome. Liston had become the heavyweight champ by Knocking Floyd Patterson out in the first round in 1962. The next year, he did it again. In the first round.

Liston was sort of an “preincarnation” of Mike Tyson. He had been arrested some nineteen times, was illiterate, and distinctly antisocial. Raised in abject poverty in Forrest City, Arkansas (named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan), he ended up relocating as a teenager with his mother to St. Louis, where he had his first run-in with the law. Armed robbery.

He was later incarcerated for breaking a police officer’s knee and stealing his gun. In 1960, while Clay was winning gold, Liston was testifying before Congress in a probe of organized crime’s alleged control of professional boxing.

Liston had been widely rumored to have gotten himself involved with the mafia. It seemed a natural fit for a young man who had long been turning to illegal means to solve his problems.

In the first fight with Clay, Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. The world was outraged. The cries of fix were quick off the typewriters of sportswriters, and the tongues of commentators. It was widely assumed that Liston had taken a dive.

A second fight should put the matter to rest, or so boxing authorities thought. A match was arranged for Boston in 1964. Ali’s needing surgery to repair a hernia delayed the bout. Then late in the game, it was discovered that the promoters didn’t have a license to fight in Massachusetts. A May 25, 1965 match was quickly scheduled for Lewiston, Maine, in a small auditorium.

Is this starting to sound strange yet? Hold on, there’s more.

A tiny crowd of less than 2500 fans (think a high school football game) watched Liston hit the canvas in the first round. What they DIDN’T see was the punch that landed the knockout.

TV replays of “the phantom punch” seem to confirm that Liston wanted no part of defeating Clay, for whatever reason. Palindromically named Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram claimed that Liston told him years later “That guy [Clay] was crazy. I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the [Black] Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”

What really happened? We’ll likely never know. But Clay, later Muhammad Ali, was one of the greatest of heavyweight champs. He was certainly capable of beating Liston on even terms. But whether or not he actually did so will be fodder for debate for many years.

Broadway Joe Saves the Super Bowl

An older Joe Namath, still basking in the glory of the third Super Bowl.

“The Jets will win on Sunday, I guarantee it.”

Those words by Joe Willy Namath now ring in infamy. However, they are given just a tad too much emphasis.

You see, the words weren’t spoken at a press conference. They were an off-the-cuff response to a Colts fan’s heckling. And while they were recorded by a reporter, they weren’t widely publicized until after Super Bowl III, when the Jets saved the concept of the Super Bowl by whipping the Colts. BTW, as I write this column, I offer a hearty congrats to the Colts, who are about to appear in their first Big Dance since 1971.

The AFL had been formed in 1959, the same year as Yours Truly ;-). The NFL didn’t pay it a lot of mind. After all, it had managed to outlast feeble attempts to upset its monopoly on the gridiron three previous times, each time by American Football Leagues.

But this incarnation had staying power. Lawsuits were filed by both sides as they competed for the public’s attention. The suits served the interest of the upstarts, getting them much-needed publicity.

Even though the NFL prevailed in court, a lucrative five year deal with NBC put the AFL on solid financial ground, and its popularity and profits continued to grow. By 1967, the NFL had quietly agreed to welcome the AFL teams under its oversight, forming National and American conferences that continue to exist today. And they also agreed to have a season-end showdown between the conference’s champions. The Super Bowl seemed an appropriate moniker for such an auspicious event (although it didn’t officially get the name until Joe’s game).

But the first two matches were far from competitive. Green Bay, with Bart Starr at his peak, destroyed Kansas City and Oakland in the first two games. Public interest was dwindling. How could we ever sell thirty seconds of commercial time for two and a half million bucks at this rate?

Enter Broadway Joe. The Jets felt like they matched up well against Baltimore, who would later become an AFC team themselves, making rematches in the Super Bowl impossible. But on January 12, 1969, the impossible happened. The heavily favored Colts fell to the Jets 16-7.

The next year, interest was high as once again the AFC prevailed (no predictions from Len Dawson, though). Kansas City beat Minnesota, once again in an upset. And in 1971, Baltimore, now an AFC team themselves, beat Dallas. Three in a row for the upstarts! In fact, they led the series.

The Super Bowl would from then on be the most eagerly anticipated sports event each year, although sometimes merely for its commercials, in the case of the John Elway-led-Bronco shellackings of the 90’s.

But we can all thank Broadway Joe Namath for putting the Super Bowl on the front burner.

Bobby Fischer and the Match of the Century

Bobby Fischer, 1972

Many of us Boomers grew up with chess sets in the house. Many of these were cheap plastic jobs imported from Japan. Some of us had prestigious cast or carved versions. But odds are that all of us, when sitting down to take on one of our youthful opponents, fancied ourselves to be the great Bobby Fischer, the world’s household name among competitive chess players of the 60’s and 70’s.

The first competitive chess tournament whose winner would be declared Europe’s best player took place at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Of course, you were aware that it was Adolf Anderssen who won, with accusations of unfairness by a defeated player, Howard Staunton.

I know, you never heard of them, but it’s interesting that the very first competition would be marred by the same controversies that would dog the sport throughout the 20th century.

For many years, it was Germany who spawned chess champions. In 1921, Cuban José Raúl Capablanca began a reign which lasted for eight years. He was eventually deposed by Alexander Alekhine, a French-Russian who would be a harbinger of the future of chess and its domination by those blasted Commies.

On October 17, 1956, a thirteen-year-old named Bobby Fischer took on master player Donald Byrne and defeated him in what a chess publication called “The Game of the Century.” Perhaps it was, but few outside of the chess community were aware of it.

That was about to change.

Boris Spassky, left, and Bobby Fischer, being interviewed before the big match

Fischer’s chess playing days began in May, 1949, with a set bought at a Brooklyn candy store. The six-year-old and his sister had to read the enclosed instructions to learn how to play. Fascinated with the game, Bobby began reading books documenting old games in order to digest the strategy involved. In 1951, eight-year-old Bobby began frequenting the Brooklyn Chess Club, where his education continued to be fed by master players. He joined other New York City clubs before his victory against Byrne put him on the map as one of the world’s elite players.

Two months shy of his fifteenth birthday, Fischer became the youngest US Champion in chess in 1958. The timing of the tournament also gained him the lifetime title of International Master.

Chess has a biannual tournament called the Olympiad, which is held in different countries. The US was a sporadic participant prior to the rise of Fischer, but he represented his country in matches in 1960, 1962, 1966, and 1970. His best finishes were silver in 1960 and 1966. The latter match took place in embargoed Havana, and Fischer was forced to play remotely, adding time delays as moves were communicated back and forth. This no doubt added to the pressure as he came up just short of winning the whole shebang.

In 1960, Fischer lost the championship match to Boris Spassky at the Mar del Plata (Argentina) tournament. Despite a strong dislike for Russian communism, he became lifelong friends with his rival Spassky.

As it would turn out, Fischer’s matches with his friend would be legendary, and would capture the world’s attention like the game had never before done in its history.

Fischer began competing in Candidates Tournaments, which would determine the players for the World Chess Championship. He had become famous enough by 1962 that Sports Illustrated interviewed him after losing out in that year’s competition at Curaçao. He accused the Soviets of playing to draws so that they could save their energy to concentrate on him. He claimed that the format of the tournament made Soviet collusion impossible to stop, and announced that he would never play in one again. The World Chess Federation was listening, and replaced the tournament format with a one-on-one situation that would make collusion impossible.

Thus, the door opened for a single talent to overcome a nation of talents.

However, Fischer didn’t take advantage right away. Instead, he concentrated on US tournaments and exhibitions. His fame grew, and earned him a profile and a cover picture on LIFE magazine in 1964. Sports Illustrated also did another feature article on his mowing down the opposition in that year’s US Championship.

In 1970, Fischer decided the time was right to go for the World Championship. He had achieved enough fame in the US that the media payed close attention as he began his quest. He competed in many big-name tournaments where doing well would get him to the big Championship match of 1972. He won often, and became a common name in the sports pages, a place unaccustomed to reporting on chess.

Fischer made it to the Big Show, and it came down to him and his pal Spassky at Reykjavik, Iceland. The matches went on from July to September, and ABC’s Wide World of Sports was there to show it to us breathless Boomers and our parents.

Finally, Fischer defeated his Russian opponent, and the first United States World Chess Champion began his reign. The US media went nuts, and Fischer was offered (and turned down) millions of dollars for endorsement deals. He did appear on TV, though, particularly on one Bob Hope special with Mark Spitz.

In 1975, Fischer failed to show up to defend his title, beginning a long withdrawal from the public eye. In 1992, he played his friend Spassky again in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in an exhibition match which earned him the wrath of his country. Yugoslavia was under a UN embargo (supported by the USA), and this match put him in direct violation of it. Prior to the competition, Fischer held a press conference and literally spit on the order that forbade him from participating.

After defeating Spassky yet again, he was now forced to live outside the US, or else face the legal consequences of his actions. He disappeared from public view again, and died in January 2008 in Iceland.

Fischer leaves a legacy of brilliance, obstinance, eccentricity, and some unfortunate anti-Semitic remarks, particularly painful to hear in the light of his mother being Jewish. He even wrote a friendly letter to Osama Bin Laden days after 9/11/2001, comparing their estranged statuses from the US and their shared hatred of Jews. Ecch.

But lest we forget, he was once the toast of the country. he also managed to put the pastime of chess firmly into the public eye, and that legacy will, it is hoped, outlast the decisions he made late in life.

BTW, if you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend watching Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s a warm movie that will leave you feeling good.

Joe Namath Wears Panty Hose

Joe Namath in his panty hose commercial

If ever a sports personality was perfect for selling stuff on TV commercials, it was Broadway Joe. Men loved him because he was a pretty darned great athlete, one who put the AFL on even ground with the NFL by beating the Colts in Super Bowl III. And the ladies loved him because he was a good-looking bad boy.

Joe’s commercials included some sexy spots with unknown model Farrah Fawcett selling Noxzema shaving cream. Obviously, Joe’s sports hero appeal to guys was greatly overshadowed by that provided by the lovely future Mrs. Majors.

But if he was hawking Right Guard deodorant, it was Joe the quarterback who was selling to America’s guys.

In 1974, he filmed a commercial for Beautymist pantyhose. The camera started at a shapely pair of feet attached to a reclined pair of legs. It slowly, seductively panned upward over the calves, knees, then thighs. Finally, it showed the owner of said gams: JOE NAMATH!

His men fans were flustered. The women? Well, Beautymist sold a whole bunch of pantyhose that year.

Joe was quoted in the commercial (it’s on YouTube) as saying “Now I DON’T wear pantyhose.” Okay, Joe, I don’t either, but we have photographic evidence that you did, at least once!

But it was a very effective ad. Joe’s knees were famous for their multiple surgeries at that point. And the ladies were certainly impressed at the way they made those poor, scarred joints look. Sales went up: the bottom line of advertising.

His reputation took a hit among his male fans. But it was just a blip on the screen, really, and it wasn’t long before they were laughing about it.

So I guess the historical impact of Broadway Joe’s pantyhose-clad legs was that it caused a general lightening-up amongst the masses.

And there’s no doubt that that is a good thing.