[Here’s a fantastic commentary on sports dynasties from the highly acclaimed sports columnist Milton Gross, remembered for his long run at the New York Post. Gross’ commentary veers into other pro sports, which I don’t like to do on this blog, but the detour is definitely worth it. What follows was published in the May 1970 issue of the short-lived “inside sports” magazine Score. But first, pass the soy sauce. We’re headed to a Chinese restaurant in Boston with Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. Enjoy!]
Red Auerbach let the cigar go cold in his mouth and the ash that fell from it seemed to resemble the collapse and color of his face. Tapers should have been burning, and somewhere in the background a Gregorian chorus should have provided the counterpoint. The coronation of a king or the end of a dynasty should be accompanied by pomp and ceremony, but civilizations sometimes end not with a bang, but a whimper, and this one was incongruously coming to a conclusion in a Chinese restaurant.
“Why?” Auerbach asked. “Tell me why it has to be now and not next year.”
The barbecued chicken wings, the roast pork, the fried rice, the spare ribs, and wonton soup that Auerbach and Bill Russell had ordered for dinner had long since grown cold as Russell explained, “I’ve lost my competitive urge. If I went out to play now, the other guys would know I didn’t really care. That’s no way to play.”
“That’s no way to end it,” countered Auerbach.
“You’re right,” said Russell, “and I’m being illogical, and it doesn’t make sense. But I’m still retiring.”
“What do you say to a guy who tells you that you’re right, but he just doesn’t feel like playing anymore?” Auerbach was to say later.
What, indeed? How does one explain the end of a reign such as the Celtics experienced? They won 11 of 13 NBA championships with Russell as a player, and then as the player-coach successor to Auerbach.
The dictionary defines dynasty as a race or succession of kings of the same line or family who govern a particular country. No team in the history of sports ever governed or dominated or awed or overshadowed any game as the Boston Celtics did pro basketball. Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones came and went—and still they won. But when Russell and Sam Jones departed, a kind of hemophilia set in. The blood had become too thin. The line was broken. The king was dead.
So it is in all sports, and one has to wonder whether we will ever again see the sort of sovereignty that was once held by the Yankees in baseball, the Packers in football, the Bears when they were known as the Monsters of the Midway, when Joe Louis was the devastating Brown Bomber and Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Blockbuster.
From the Era of Wonderful Nonsense to the Super Sixties, anything seemed possible. But we have come to a point in our existence where lifestyles change from day to day, much less from season to season, and values, like the virtues that made the Celtics and Yankees what they were, are transient.
This is the lesson of the Seventies, as the big-league baseball clubs embark on another season and Curt Blefary, Danny Cater, and Pete Ward find themselves in the pinstripes of the Yankees. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away . . .”
So has Vince Lombardi, who, as coach and general manager at Green Bay, turned the Packers from chumps into champs. But the man with the single-track mind exhibited a double standard when he left to become coach, general manager, and part owner of the Washington Redskins, and things fell apart back home in Green Bay.
For different reasons, the same thing happened to the Cardinals in St. Louis. After winning pennants in 1967 and 1968, the Redbirds, with the same overpowering personnel, somehow dissipated what they had built up, and the Mets miraculously came on to take it all.
“What happened?” said Bob Gibson repeating the question. “Tell me what happened to the Mets, and maybe I’ll be able to tell you what happened to the Cardinals. You win for two straight years, and then something happens and the players stop playing together. It just happens.”
It certainly does, but for entirely different reasons. In the case of the Celtics, they could no longer continue to defy gravity when Russell, who had grown old and arthritic, decided it was too much for him to go on. Under the draft system by which pro teams select players from the college ranks in the inverse order of their finish, it is nothing short of a miracle that the Celtics were able to maintain their supremacy for so long.
It was a testimonial to Auerbach, who revolutionized basketball when he obtained Russell in a trade with St. Louis, that he chose wisely and did not have to force-feed new players into the lineup so long as Russell was there in the middle, guarding the basket like a bearded hawk.
In the case of the Yankees, there was a gradual disintegration that was obscured while Mickey Mantle was able to withstand the protests of his damaged body. What forced the collapse of the Bombers was their own arrogance and a kind of paradoxical regal frugality.
While other teams were going out and spending great sums of bonus money to attract the better youngsters into their farm systems, the Yankee ownership kept a tight rubberband on its bankroll, figuring that the glory of years passed would draw kids into the Yankee chain for less than they could get elsewhere. Dan Topping was getting ready to sell out to CBS and take his capital gain, and the TV network, which had paid more for a guitar company as it diversified its interests, could not know there was more tinsel than stars spangled through the Yankee system.
Thus it was that they fell with a resounding thud, and shifting Ralph Houk from the front-office to the dugout, could not overcome Ellie Howard getting old, and Mantle becoming dismantled, and Tom Tresh never fulfilling the promise of his youth, and Joe Pepitone squandering the talent that seemed so limitless on a beehive hairstyle.
There are, of course, other considerations in this age of turmoil and descent which nobody has yet determined how to calculate in a box score. These are the things which should perhaps best be left to the philosophers of our time. Men—and professional athletes are no different—want to make more money. But there is a strange new twist that is prevalent these days: They do not want to earn more!
The Cardinals, for instance, may have been the highest-paid team in the history of baseball. Owner Gussie Busch would bet you all the yeast in his brewery that no team ever had a higher payroll. It came close to $1,000,000 a year, topped by Bob Gibson’s $125,000 and a near $90,000 apiece for Lou Brock and Curt Flood, who were undoubtedly worth what they were paid.
Strangely enough, however, the pay didn’t grease the wheels, but acted more like grime in the gears. Whether the Redbirds had become sated with success or grown into fat cats, nobody will ever know. “That’s ridiculous,” says Brock, yet the St. Louis front-office had to feel that some of its players, at least, had become disinterested. “The more you have, the more you want,” says Brock. “The more you want, the harder you have to play to make it. Fat cats my foot!”
Rationalize it any way you will, however, the Cards fell from first to fourth in the NL East, the Celtics have struggled through the season working as hard as they ever did, but settling closer to the bottom than the top despite the effort. The Pack has not come back, and the Yankees are now only beginning to see some light after stumbling around in the darkness of their self-delusion.
Early in the basketball season, when the New York Knicks had run up a record winning streak of 18 straight, people began to talk to coach Red Holzman about building a dynasty. He merely replied, “What have we done? We set a record, all right, but we haven’t even won it all for one season yet. How can anybody talk about us being greater than the Celtics were?”
It was a realistic approach to something which may no longer have a place in the reality of our times. What the Celtics were, they will never be again. Nor will the Yankees. Nor will the Packers. The Jets blew the Colts out of the Super Bowl in 1969, and Joe Namath became king. But how quickly his crown slipped and was lost. The Mets were something out of fantasyland. Maybe they were even destiny’s darling, to coin a cliché. But destiny and dynasty are worlds apart, and the dynastic age is dead.