by John Ring

As the century ends, the sports world is far different than it was in 1900.

Who would have dreamed in 1900 of running a four-minute mile? Hitting 70 home runs in a baseball season? One player scoring 100 points in a basketball game?

There are a lot of shows currently on television about the Top 10 baseball games, football games or basketball games. The Top 10 hockey players, soccer players and athletes.

My column -- the last of this century -- has to do with the most significant moments in sports history over the last 100 years.

But instead of specific games, shots, hits or touchdown runs, it's about American culture and its relationship with sports.

If you know anything about American history, then you know about American sports.Society mirrors our favorite sports. It's inevitable and a certainty.

Here are some of those special moments that have defined what we are--

1920 -- Babe Ruth becomes an outfielder

Not many baseball fans know that Babe Ruth used to be one of the best lefthanded pitchers of his era. He was a 20-game winner. He set a World Series record for scoreless innings (29) that wasn't broken until 1961.

But when he was switched to a full-time rightfielder, baseball was changed -- forever.

The home run became king. Players swung from their heels. Infielders backed up. Managers quit playing for one run.

This new offense captured back baseball fans, soured on the sport from the Black Sox scandal of 1919. And Babe Ruth was at the center of the rejuvenation.

60 home runs in a season. 714 in a career. Those numbers were known by generations of baseball fans. Those were Babe Ruth numbers.

1936 -- The world comes to Berlin

The 1936 Olympic games in Berlin were the first to be heavily politicized. Adolf Hitler wanted the Olympics to be the center of his Third Reich. It was to be nothing more than a propaganda tool for his dictatorship.

Years later, it got worse. Olympic games became nothing more than political and social statements.

Remember the Black Power salutes at Mexico City in 1968 by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos?

The murder of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972?

The American boycott of the Olympics in Moscow, 1980?

The Russian boycott of the Olympics in Los Angeles, 1984?

Over the years, nationalism and ''professional'' athletes have come to rule what was once considered games for amateurs. Scandals have even surfaced over where the games are to be played. Corporate sponsors dominate the festivities.

1947 -- Pee Wee Reese stands up for Jackie

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, he was subjected to the worst kind of ridicule and race-baiting imaginable.

It may be hard to understand in 1999 but the world was a very different place in 1947. Game after game, Robinson bore the fury of fans that would have broke a lot of men. One night in Cincinnati, it got downright ugly.

Cincinnati has always faced the South -- both physically and culturally. Reds fans were merciless in their treatment of Robinson that night. Even Cincinnati players were getting into the act. Robinson was by himself on the baseball field, working out before the game that night at Crosley Field.

And then Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese -- a native of Louisville, Ky. -- walked across the field. Reese came up to Robinson and said nothing. Instead, he put his arm around Jackie Robinson.

The shouting stopped. The bitter insults ceased. At least for that night. Reese's message, silent but still profound, was understood by everyone present at the ballpark.

Pee Wee Reese died in 1999. He justifiably belongs in baseball's Hall of Fame -- for more reasons than one.

1966 -- The Super Bowl is invented

As Lamar Hunt was in his office thinking of a name for the new championship game to be played between the NFL and AFL, his thought process was interrupted by his daughter.

She was playing with a new toy, a ball that bounced more than your average one. It had a super bounce. It's name was the Super Ball.

Super Ball. Super Bowl. Lamar Hunt had his name.

It's went on from there. The Super Bowl is so American in nature, so natural a fit. It's grown incredibly big. It's easy to forget that the first two Super Bowls didn't sell out and that the normal, three-hour pregame hype expected today was virtually non-existent when the Green Bay Packers met the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I.

Only a few of the 33 Super Bowls stand out as great games. More memorable are several playoff games to reach the coveted event. Still, the Super Bowl has become an icon of American sporting events.

1967 -- The ABA begins-- and survives

A lot of basketball today should be credited to the old American Basketball Association.

Started in 1966, the ABA featured red, white and blue basketballs, three-point shooting and a fast break offense that is the favored way of the game to be played today.

The ABA was deemed a joke by the older, more established NBA. In some ways, it was. But it persevered and flourished in places like Kentucky, Indiana, San Antonio and Denver. Basketball stars such as Dan Issel, George McGinnis, Roger Brown, George Gervin and -- most importantly - Julius Erving emerged.

1970 -- Monday Night Football

It couldn't be done, the experts said. You just can't play football on Monday nights. And, to top that off, Howard Cosell as a broadcaster?

It worked. It was huge. It's an American institution today.

Monday Night Football was just what football fans wanted. For the first time, three broadcasters worked the booth. And instead of watching halftime bands, football fans watched highlights of games the day before that they hadn't seen, narrated by Cosell.

A great example of that is when Tom Dempsey kicked a record 63-yard fieldgoal for the New Orleans Saints. Many football fans got their first glimpse of that play at halftime of Monday Night Football and narrated only in the style that Cosell could do it.

1972 -- Title IX is passed

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational programs receiving federal financial assistance. With those words, signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, athletics and academics for women in the U.S. were elevated to the same level as men's. It's effects are still felt today, both in colleges and in high schools. In 1971 fewer that 25,000 women participated in intercollegiate athletics; today more than 100,000 do. Over 2.5 million high school girls participate in athletics, more than eight times as many as in 1971. And many of these women continue to participate in sports, providing talent for several professional leagues and teams such as the World Cup-winning soccer squad.

1979 -- Bird meets Magic

When did college athletics become the big-time draw that it is today?

Many choose the 1979 NCAA basketball championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State.

It was Magic versus Bird, Round I. And though they would play against each other many times after that, that singular game and their ensuing rivalry for years to come not only hoisted college basketball to another level, it helped jump-start the NBA.

1979 -- ESPN powers up

Remember when you were at the mercy of local television stations to find out what happened to your favorite team in baseball, football or basketball?

You had to sit through local news, local weather and local sports and hope to at least get a flash on the screen on the scores of games that night.

ESPN changed all that. Not only do you get the score, you get the details and replays of the key moments of the game. You can catch up with virtually anything in the sports world in a 30-minute of any time of the day.

ESPN's countdown of the greatest athletes of the century was great television for the sports fan. It was one of the best things they have done, no matter whether you agree with their selections or not.

Is everything about ESPN wonderful? Absolutely not. They have forged a relationship with athletes that's uncomfortable at best; their self-promoting commercials are obnoxious and their approach to extend suspense as to who won and who lost has sadly filtered down to other networks.

But without a doubt, ESPN revolutionized the way we watch sports on television.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 28, 1999

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