Sports fans live their entire lives remembering where they were when their favorite ballplayer crushed a grand slam when it mattered most, when their hockey team's goalie got his glove up just in the nick of time, when their most reliable point guard sunk a three just before the buzzer sounded. Some teams, like the Red Sox, Cubs, and Eagles, won championships that broke generational losing streaks handed down from grandfather to father, father to son. For others, like the Yankees and the Canadiens, winning is such a part of the team's culture that anything short of perfection is considered a disappointment.
Although sports are nothing more than grownups playing children's games, although modern athletes are paid exorbitant sums of money, and cable companies profit from their subscribers by bundling sports networks they know they'll never watch into basic TV packages, the magic of sports is real. Few things if any unite the races, genders, and entire geographic regions like cheering for the home team. When a big game is on the line, the political persuasion of the person in the next stadium seat over doesn't matter—only the right jersey. The highs and lows, the victories and defeats, the disappointment and jubilation are all real, not only for the millionaires on the field, the court, and the ice, but for the fans in the stands, watching at home, and listening at work who are deeply invested, both emotionally and financially, in the teams they love.
Much more than just pucks slamming into nets or balls sailing over fences, the drama of sports has broken color barriers and gender barriers, turned athletes into activists, changed U.S. politics, and united entire countries. Before the era of real-time online updates, fantasy leagues, and all-encompassing cable sports packages, the drama of sports played out on newspaper sports pages. Here's a look at some of those moments, as told by the headline writers who determined how the greatest stories in sports history would be told.
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The Chicago White Sox were the best team in baseball when they squared off against Cincinnati in the 1919 World Series. To the shock of fans and pundits alike, the Reds crushed the Sox in Game 1, a moment captured in this Oct. 2 Chicago Tribune headline. Their shock at a lopsided upset, however, would be dwarfed by the off-field drama that would soon unfold—the greatest scandal in the history of sports.
The Reds shocked fans and sportswriters—as well as bookies and oddsmakers—around the world by defeating the Sox five games to three in the best-of-nine 1919 World Series, but rumors soon began swirling that something was amiss. Investigations quickly uncovered a massive conspiracy between famed gambler and gangster Arnold Rothstein and several of Chicago's best players to throw the series, which led to headlines like this one from The New York Times on Sept. 29. Eight White Sox—known in the press and popular culture as the "Black Sox"—were tried and acquitted, but nonetheless banned from baseball for life, creating a legend that still captivated the public more than half a century later with movies like "Field of Dreams" and "Eight Men Out."
On July 2, 1921, American superstar boxer Jack Dempsey knocked out French challenger Georges Carpentier in what was billed as the fight of the century. The bout, however, was historic for another reason. It was the first world title fight ever to be broadcast over the radio, as described in a headline in the July 1921 issue of The Wireless Age. Radio broadcasts would dominate boxing until the arrival of the television.
The Red Sox created the so-called Curse of the Bambino in 1919 when they sold legendary slugger Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919—the Yanks, however, were stuck with the bill. When Ruth re-signed in 1922, he commanded an unheard of $50,000 annual salary—$75,000 with home run bonuses, the same amount President Warren G. Harding declared as his presidential salary on his 1922 tax returns. The gargantuan sum was reflected in this March 6 headline from the Memphis Scimitar.
In the annals of baseball, the New York Yankees are the winningest team in history by a longshot—their 27 World Series titles dwarf by more than double the 11 championships won by the second-place St. Louis Cardinals. It all started in 1923 when the Bronx Bombers beat the New York Giants four games to three for their first World Series title ever. The Youngstown Vindicator summed up the excitement with this headline on Oct. 15.
A year later, the word "Yanks" again appeared in headlines on sports pages across the world, like this one from the Times Herald in Olean, N.Y., on Jan. 31. This time, however, it was slang for the U.S. hockey team, which grabbed the silver medal after a series of stunning victories over highly regarded European teams at the world's first Winter Olympics in France. America, suddenly, was a force to be reckoned with in the sport of hockey.
On Dec. 16, 1965, The New York Times reported on a hockey game, but not just any hockey game. The day before, the Montreal Canadiens beat the New York Americans 3-1 in the first-ever contest at Madison Square Garden, which would go on to become the most famous athletic arena in the world.
Gertrude Ederle has loomed large over the sport of endurance swimming since she successfully swam across the English Channel in 1926, despite stormy seas and large waves, a feat reported by the Omaha Sunday Bee on Aug. 8. Not only was she the first woman ever to swim from France to England, but she did it in 14 hours and 31 minutes. That's two hours faster than the fastest of the five men who did it before her.
On Oct. 1, 1927, the San Francisco Sporting Green headline chronicled the latest triumph of the man who was then the most famous athlete in the world: George Herman "Babe" Ruth. Ruth set baseball's first long-term record when be crushed his own record to end the season with 60 home runs. That record would stand for 34 years.
Although this Sept. 12, 1928, headline in the Omaha Bee-News profiled a major feat by Babe Ruth, the text of the article chronicled a baseball milestone that would turn out to be even more significant—the last Major League at-bat by Ty Cobb. One of the greatest players in baseball history, the Georgia Peach, as Cobb was known, set an astonishing 90 records, including most career hits, a record that stood until Pete Rose broke it in 1985.
On March 30, 1929, The New York Times reported on what was the start of a generational legacy. The Boston Bruins beat the reigning champion New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup, a first for Beantown. Boston would go on to become one of the greatest, most passionate, and winningest hockey cities in the world.
On Dec. 17, The New York Times wrote just one of the many headlines that year that would feature Bobby Jones by name. The golf legend turned in that year what is widely recognized as the single greatest 365 days in the history of golf. He won all four majors, a feat no golfer has matched since, and retired at age 28 to help move golf into the modern era—he is credited with creating the Masters Tournament.
On Sept. 19, 1931, The Springfield Union reported on one of the greatest feats in baseball history. Philadelphia A's pitcher Lefty Grove joined an elite club of greats who had won 30 games in a single season. He would finish the year 31-4.
By 1932, Babe Ruth was already a living legend, but he cemented his place in Yankees folklore on Oct. 1 that year during a World Series that saw the Yanks sweep the Cubs, which was prefaced by a win reported on Oct. 2 by The Mobile Press-Register. In one of the most memorable moments in sports history, Ruth pointed his bat toward center field in the fifth inning of Game 3 and then proceeded to hit a home run exactly where he had indicated he would. With the exception of maybe Joe Namath's famous guarantee of the New York Jets victory in Super Bowl III more than 35 years later, it is the most famous prognostication-come-true in the history of sports.
On July 6, 1933, the Mason City Globe-Gazette reported on an exhibition game that was part of that year's Chicago World's Fair. The best players from MLB's National League squared off against the cream of the crop from the American League. It was the first-ever Midsummer Classic, and the baseball All-Star Game was born.
No woman plays for a Major League Baseball team, but on March 20, 1934, the fairer sex gave the men a run for their money. That day, a super athlete named Babe Didrikson Zaharias, arguably the greatest woman athlete of all time, pitched a hitless inning for the Philadelphia Phillies against the Brooklyn Dodgers—her first of several intersex pro baseball performances. The Olympic track and field gold medalist and 10-time LPGA golf champion's exploits were summed up in a March 21 headline by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The year 1935 was a watershed for college football. Not only was the first Sugar Bowl held that year, as reported in this Jan. 2 headline by the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, but it was also the year of the first Orange Bowl.
The News-Chronicle summed up the fixation of the sports world with this 1936 headline about the Berlin Olympic Games. A contest of ideologies as much as athletics, Adolf Hitler hoped the Games would provide a forum to demonstrate the superiority of his Aryan athletes—the dictator's representatives of what he propagandized as the master race. Instead, a black man from Alabama named Jesse Owens made history by sweeping four gold medals in track and field, much to the disgust of the humiliated Führer.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune on June 7 summed up the dominant nature of War Admiral's historic 1937 win in the final race of the Triple Crown—the famous American thoroughbred was only the fourth horse in history to win the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and Kentucky Derby in a single year. The most recent Triple Crown winner, American Pharaoh, is a descendant of War Admiral. The moment set the stage for what would become one of the most famous races in history the following year, which the mighty War Admiral lost to an undersized underdog named Seabiscuit.
Joe Louis was the first African American in history to be hailed as a national hero and his career is widely seen as an indictment of the racial bigotry that defined the era. Although he had already been crowned the world champion of boxing by the time the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote this headline on June 22, his first title defense against German Max Schmeling was probably the biggest fight of his career. The pride of Nazi Germany, Schmeling had beaten Louis earlier in his career but, just as Jesse Owens had done two years earlier, Louis humiliated Adolf Hitler by crushing Schmeling in the first round of their second contest.
Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest Yankees of all time, known as the Iron Horse for playing 2,130 consecutive games. He'll always be remembered, however, as the man whose name is synonymous with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as Lou Gehrig's disease. On July 5, 1939, the New York Daily News wrote a headline that captured one of the most sentimental moments in sports history—Gehrig's optimistic "Luckiest Man" speech, during which he addressed his diagnosis and retirement.
In one of history's greatest instances of bullpen bungling, left fielder Ted Williams was forced to pitch the last two innings of an ugly 12-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers. The legendary slugger was not as good on the mound as he was at the plate. Williams allowed three hits and one run in a performance romanticized by an Aug. 26, 1940 headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Career Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game. He is best known, however, as being the last player in the history of baseball to finish a season above .400, which he did in 1941. This Sept. 29, Chicago Daily Tribune actually botched the batting average—Williams finished the season batting .406.
In 1941, the owners of Wrigley Field acquired the materials necessary to join the growing list of stadiums that installed lights to play night games, but entry into World War II forced the U.S. military to commandeer the steel and equipment for emergency war needs in 1942. The Cubs made temporary plans, as stated in this Chicago Daily Tribune headline from Jan. 21, which turned out not to be so temporary after all. Wrigley Field would remain dark after sunset for nearly half a century—the Cubs didn't play their first night game at home until 1988.
Jake "Raging Bull" LaMotta and "Sugar" Ray Robinson fought six times in what is arguably the greatest rivalry in boxing history. During their first match in 1942, Robinson defeated LaMotta—same as all his other opponents—in convincing fashion. The next year in 1943, however, Sugar Ray's luck ran out when LaMotta battered him throughout the fight, including a historic eighth round that saw LaMotta knock Robinson through the ropes and nearly out of the ring—the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on the outcome on Feb. 6. The hottest rivalry in boxing at the time, the duo's battles would end with the famous St. Valentine's Day Massacre of Boxing in 1951 when Robinson bested LaMotta.
On Dec. 18, 1944, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported on yet another championship win by the mighty Green Bay Packers. While victory by that time was par for the course in Wisconsin, this specific victory was historic. It was the sixth and final league title Green Bay won under the stewardship of longtime coach Curly Lambeau, after whom the most iconic stadium in football is named.
Legions of baseball greats left the MLB to serve in World War II, but as the men returned in 1945, they found that a new crop of young players were making themselves at home—one of them was not even 18. On Aug. 20, 1945, 17-year-old Tommy Brown became the youngest player to hit a home run when he knocked one out of the park for the Dodgers, a feat chronicled the next day in The New York Times.
Gordie Howe entered the NHL in 1946 and stoked interest right away, as reflected in this headline in the National Hockey League News from that year. His skill, completeness as a player, production, longevity, and legacy were unrivaled during his astonishing 32-year career, which included five years in the World Hockey Association and at times saw him playing alongside both of his sons. Howe, who spent a quarter-century with the Red Wings, was the greatest hockey player of all time until the arrival of Wayne Gretzky.
Rarely in history has the world of sports made more of a statement or had more of an impact on society than in the moment described here by The New York Times on April 11, 1947. Second baseman Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, ending segregation in baseball and signaling one of the most important milestones in the early modern Civil Rights Movement. The arrival of #42 also spelled the end of the Negro Leagues, to which black ballplayers had been consigned since the dawn of the sport.
On April 4, 1948, baseball legends Connie Mack, 84, and Clark Griffith, 78, proved that a real athlete is never too old for good competition. Mack challenged Griffith to a 90-foot race to home plate. Griffith accepted and the next day, The New York Times reported on the tie that ensued.
On July 19, 1949, the Illustrated Speedway News reported on the highly anticipated results of a midget car race. It was a breakout year for the sport of auto racing. That year, the Charlotte Speedway hosted the world's first NASCAR Strictly Stock race, a moment that moved the sport into the modern stock-car racing era.
The season before Mickey Mantle's rookie year in 1951, Joe DiMaggio was the king of the Yankees. In 1950, he led the Yanks to another World Series victory over Philadelphia, with DiMaggio crushing a 10th-inning home run, as reported by the Springfield Union on Oct. 6. Earlier that year in June, he racked up his 2,000th career hit.
In 1951, in the battle of the Empire State's best ballplayers, Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants stepped up to the plate, his team down 4-2 to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth, with the pennant on the line. He smashed the second pitch soaring into the stands over the left field wall, sending his team to the World Series against that other New York team, the Yankees. It will forever be remembered as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," although the Leominster Daily Enterprise of Massachusetts didn't coin the term in this headline.
On Sept. 24, 1952, the Great Falls Tribune reported on an event that ushered in a new era in boxing. Rocky Marciano defeated Jersey Joe Walcott to become champion of the world as part of an undefeated career that was long regarded by many as the greatest in boxing history. His 49-0 record was broken only in 2017 when Floyd Mayweather retired undefeated after racking up his 50th win against Conor McGregor.
Ben Hogan might have had a bigger impact on the sport of golf than any other player in history. Not only was he one of the greatest players ever to live, with nine majors to his name, but his influence on swing theory and fundamentals resonate to this day. In 1953, he shattered the Masters record by five strokes when he won the tournament with a score of 14 under, as reported by the Times-Picayune on April 13.
By 1954, the four-minute mile had long been the most elusive mark in running. Man caught up with destiny, however, when Englishman Roger Bannister barely squeaked in the world's first sub-four-minute mile when he crossed the finish line at 3:59.4. The feat, chronicled on May 7 by the Daily Express, has since been accomplished many times, with the current record standing at 3:43.13.
The year 1955 was the peak of baseball's golden age, and Yankee great Mickey Mantle was at the center of it all. On May 14, the Fitchburg Sentinel reported that Mantle had dazzled fans by hitting three home runs in a row, all of which soared at least 463 feet.
On Oct. 8, 1956, Yankees pitcher Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in a World Series contest, a feat unrivaled before or since. Larsen's historic performance from the mound was summed up with a two-word exclamatory headline in the New York Daily News. The Yanks would go on to win their 17th World Series, this time against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On Aug. 19, 1957, The Daily Mirror reported on the final moment in a series of events that many New Yorkers still have never gotten over, although one that made baseball a truly continental game. At the end of May that year, league owners voted to allow the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to move to new West Coast homes in Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. The era of California baseball had arrived.
On Dec. 29, 1958, the New York Daily News reported in plain, matter-of-fact language that the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in that year's NFL title playoff game. The headline writer could not have known that the game—the first playoff ever decided in sudden death overtime—would go down as the greatest game ever played in the eyes of many fans and football historians. Even more significantly, the caliber of play on the field, and the fact that it was one of the few games ever broadcast live by a major network, turned on legions of fans to football, which would eclipse baseball as America's pastime in years to come.
On Jan. 29, 1959, The New York Times reported that Vince Lombardi accepted the position of head coach of the Green Bay Packers. It was the beginning of a new era in Green Bay history and football history in general. One of the most dynamic, influential, and winningest coaches in history, Lombardi would lead the Packers to three consecutive and five total NFL Championships in seven years—to this day, the winner of the Super Bowl goes home with the Lombardi Trophy.
On Oct. 14, 1960, the New York Daily News summed up the news of the day before, which electrified baseball fans and still stands today as a shining moment in MLB history. In dramatic fashion—bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the World Series vs. the famed New York Yankees—Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run to win the game and clinch the title. No player before or since has ever ended a World Series with a walk-off homer in Game 7.
When Yankee great Roger Maris stepped to the plate for his second at-bat of the last game of the 1961 season, he was tied with Babe Ruth for 60 home runs in a single season—a record that had stood since 1927. On Oct. 1, however, Maris sent one sailing and became the new single-season home run king, as reported by the New York Mirror the next day. The record would later be broken by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire, both in 1998, and then later by Barry Bonds, who hit 73 homers in 2001 under a cloud of steroid-related suspicion.
On March 3, 1962, the Miami News—along with most of the other big papers of the time—inexplicably buried deep inside the publication one of sporting history's greatest feats. Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain singlehandedly scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. No player before or since has ever hit triple digits in a single game.
In 1963, Mickey Mantle became only the fifth baseball player in history to earn a six-figure annual salary—and he had to fight for the raise. He entered the league at a time when even excellent players had to work jobs in the offseason. According to this Feb. 28 headline from The New York Times, Mantle earned just $1,900 when he was signed in 1949.
The golden era of boxing began on Feb. 25, 1964, when Cassius Clay challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. The Mike Tyson of his time, Liston—who learned to box while in prison for armed robbery—had been the most feared boxer of his day ever since he crushed Floyd Patterson with a first-round knockout two years earlier. Clay—who soon after the fight changed his name to Muhammad Ali—defeated Liston in one of the most watched, most controversial fights in history, the outcome of which was reported by the Miami Herald on Feb. 26.
This April 12, 1965, New York Times headline captured the moment when Jack Nicklaus established himself as an era-defining talent with his second of six Masters titles at the age of 25. His epic performance landed him a record nine strokes ahead of Gary Player and Arnold Palmer.
The Arizona Republic reported on March 20, 1966, that Texas Western upset heavily favored Kentucky to win the NCAA basketball title game. The moment, however, was far more significant than a basketball team winning a trophy. Texas Western was the first team ever to start five African American players in a championship game, paving the way for full integration in the sport. Between that moment and 1985, the average number of black players doubled.
In 1967, the NFL and AFL were still three years away from merging, and the rivalry between the two football leagues was fierce. Anticipation was high for the first-ever inter-league, winner-take-all championship game that would later come to be known as the Super Bowl, as reflected in this Boston Herald headline from Jan. 15. The NFL's Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl I.
The year 1968 was among the most turbulent in U.S. history, with racial inequality at the forefront of the cultural revolution. As it often does, politics spilled over into sports when gold- and silver-medal-winning U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist in the air in a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony. No racial activism in the world of sports would be as controversial until Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem nearly a half-century later—the Olympians were expelled from the Games, as reported by The New York Times on Oct. 29.
In the runup to Super Bowl III, the Baltimore Colts were heavily favored to beat the New York Jets, but the Jets' flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath, was having none of it. Namath publicly, personally, and now famously guaranteed that the Jets would emerge victorious, and he delivered. In one of the greatest upsets in football history, the Jets beat the Colts 16-7 and Namath was a hero in New York, as reflected in this New York Daily News headline from Jan. 13.
On May 8, 1970, Knicks captain Willis Reed started in Game 7 of the NBA finals and scored the team's first two points despite being badly injured. The act of heroism inspired his team, which soared past the Lakers to win their first title, as reported the next day by The New York Times. The win made New York the first U.S. city to win a championship in all four major sports—baseball, basketball, hockey, and football—and raised Madison Square Garden to the level of a global mecca for basketball.
On Nov. 21, 1971, The New York Times reported on the anticipation of the coming Alabama-Nebraska matchup, which was billed as the game of the century. Today, many fans still believe the contest was one of the greatest games in college football history. Star power included Johnny Rogers—who won the Heisman Trophy for his efforts that season—who returned a punt for 72 yards and cemented his status as a Sooner legend.
One of the darkest events in sports history took place during the 1972 Olympic Games, a moment captured perfectly in a headline in the Sept. 6 edition of The Sun. In the German city of Munich less than 30 years after the Holocaust, Palestinian terrorists dressed in tracksuits took 11 Israeli athletes hostage, tortured them, and killed them all. Three terrorists were captured after a failed rescue attempt, but were released just one month later as part of a hostage exchange following the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 615.
On Sept. 21, 1973, the New York Daily News reported on the events of the day before, which would go down in history as a milestone not just for tennis, but for the women's rights movement. In a contest known as the Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King defeated 55-year-old former #1 player Bobby Riggs, who declared publicly and repeatedly that he could beat any woman in tennis. King won $100,000 for her effort, but she emerged from the contest with something more valuable than money—her victory proved to be a lasting societal statement on respect for women in sports and in general, and it laid the groundwork for the Women's Tennis Association.
Hank Aaron finished the 1973 season one home run shy of tying Babe Ruth's record of 714 career homers, despite a frenzy of excitement about the chase for the record from the public and the media. Although Aaron, who was black, stated that he feared for his life after receiving a torrent of racially charged death threats while sitting on 713 home runs in the offseason, he tied Ruth's record with the first swing of his first at-bat of the 1974 season on April 4. Four days later on April 8, the 39-year-old slugger knocked one out of the park and sealed his destiny and place in the record books, as reported by the Orange County Register on April 9.
The Oct. 2, 1975, edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer reflected the nation's anticipation of the final bout in a three-fight rivalry between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, which Ali won after 14 grueling rounds to retain the heavyweight championship of the world. Widely regarded as one of the greatest contests in boxing history, it took place during the golden age of the sport. The year before, Ali took the title from George Foreman during the legendary Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.
Before 1976, no Olympic gymnast had ever scored a perfect 10, in fact, the feat was so unthinkable that the scoreboards weren't able to record it as a real score. But on Aug. 2 of that year, Newsweek reported on what had previously been considered impossible—Romanian Nadia Comăneci was awarded a perfect 10 for her dazzling routine on the uneven bars. She went on to follow it up with six more perfect 10s and three gold medals at the same Olympic Games.
In the world of soccer, one name rings out above all others—Pelé. The Brazilian stormed into the League in 1957, and in 1958, the 17 year old became the youngest player ever to appear in a World Cup. In 1977, he hung up his cleats after 20 years, as reported on Oct. 7 by The New York Times. He left behind a legacy that included 650 goals in 694 League matches and 1,281 goals in 1,363 games—he remains the only player to have won three international FIFA World Cups.
By the time The New York Times reported on May 21 that Affirmed beat Alydar in the 1978 Preakness, the two horses' rivalry was already the stuff of legend. The two finished in first and second place, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby that year just as they had in the Preakness. Astonishingly, Affirmed beat Alydar by a head at that year's legendary showdown at the Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown—with Alydar again in second place.
The rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird is one of the most enduring in NBA history, but it started back when the two greats were college opponents. On March 26, 1979, the pair met at the NCAA men's national championship game, where Bird's undefeated Indiana State squared off against Johnson and Michigan State. As reported the next day by the Ellwood, Ind., Call-Leader, Michigan State prevailed in what would become history's highest-rated college basketball game. The rivalry would help make basketball an American obsession in the coming decade.
Although it was technically a medal-round hockey game between the Russians and the United States during the 1980 Winter Olympics, the dramatics that unfolded on the ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., that year will always be known to U.S. hockey fans as the "Miracle on Ice."
As reported by the New York Daily News on Feb. 3, an undersized American team consisting exclusively of young amateurs shocked the world and rallied a nation by defeating a mighty Russian juggernaut, a team packed with seasoned, experienced professional players. The drama was heightened by the Cold War-era politics that loomed large in the background.
Wayne Gretzky is to hockey what Pelé is to soccer—the undisputed greatest of all time. That was already becoming obvious by 1981, when the Canadian legend, a pro only since 1978, scored an unheard-of 50 goals in just 39 games, a feat reported by The New York Times on Dec. 31.
On Jan. 11, 1982, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on what would come to be known in the annals of football simply as "The Catch." With less than a minute to play in the NFC Championship Game, quarterback Joe Montana eluded pursuers and, under intense pressure, sent a pass sailing toward receiver Dwight Clark, who caught it on his fingertips for the winning touchdown. The '9ers would go on to win the Super Bowl, their first ever, but nowhere near their last—the Joe Montana era had begun.
On Jan. 14, 1983, The New York Times reported on a recommendation to ban boxing by the American Medical Association. The organization's urging came as Muhammad Ali was visibly deteriorating after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The AMA's pleas fell on deaf ears, and 10 years later in 1993, the first UFC mixed martial arts tournament was held, ushering in a new genre of combat sports.
The 1984 Olympic Games propelled American Mary Lou Retton to gymnastics superstardom—she became the first spokeswoman for Wheaties soon afterward. Retton earned a perfect 10 on both the floor and the vault and became the first woman outside of Eastern Europe to bring home an all-around individual gold medal. On March 4 that year, The New York Times opined on her impact on the sport and women's athletics in general.
On April 2, 1985, The New York Times reported on an event that stunned basketball fans the day before—underdog Villanova found a way to beat a ferocious Georgetown squad led by superstar Patrick Ewing by a single basket. Although that year's Villanova crew remains the lowest-seeded team ever to win the NCAA Championship, the moment was historic for another reason. It was the first time the tournament was extended to 64 teams and stands as the genesis of the modern March Madness format.
By 1986, the golden era of boxing had ended, with the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla now distant memories. That year, however, interest in the sport was rekindled by the arrival of a physically superior, supremely trained, and terrifyingly ferocious young newcomer named "Iron" Mike Tyson. On Nov. 23, The New York Times reported that the 20 year old had defeated Trevor Berbick in the second round to become the youngest heavyweight champ in history. It was the start of a meteoric rise to superstardom for Tyson—and the beginning of one of the most public, most captivating, and most tragic cautionary tales in the history of sports.
Joe Montana's 49ers redefined the nature of offensive productivity in football, but on the other end of the famed quarterback's passes was often a receiver named Jerry Rice. This Dec. 14, 1987, headline from The New York Times is an understatement, to say the least. Rice caught a single-season NFL record 22 touchdowns that year—and he did it in a 12-game season shortened by a strike.
Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player in the history of the NHL and the leading scorer in all of hockey, tallying more than 100 points in 16 of his 20 seasons and scoring more than 200 points four times in his career—no other player has reached 200 even once. In 1988, the hockey world heard news, like that reported in the New York Post on Aug. 10, that was previously unthinkable—the Canadian legend was leaving his longtime home with the Edmonton Oilers to play for an American team. Not just any team, but Los Angeles, which had been viewed as an NHL outpost since the Kings entered the league with the first NHL expansion more than two decades earlier.
Pete Rose is the greatest hitter in baseball history, passing Ty Cobb to rack up 4,256 hits over the course of his career. A longtime manager and a colorful personality, “Charlie Hustle,” as Rose was called, was also a problem gambler. As reported on Sept. 4, 1989, by the Sporting News, Rose was banned from baseball for life and has been kept out of the Hall of Fame amid allegations that he gambled on baseball while he was both a player and a manager for the Cincinnati Reds, charges he later admitted—although he insists to this day he never bet against his own team and no evidence has even been presented to suggest otherwise.
By 1990, the public had witnessed Mike Tyson, the most feared boxer on Earth, fall into an ever-deteriorating cycle of trouble with the law, domestic issues, abuse allegations, out-of-the-ring violence, and bizarre behavioral outbursts. The downward spiral culminated in what was previously thought to be impossible. The seemingly invincible heavyweight, who had quickly and violently dispatched opponent after opponent in a string of lopsided knockout victories since winning the title in 1986, lost to 37/1 underdog James "Buster" Douglas, as reported on Feb. 11, 1990, by The New York Times.
HIV/AIDS was the defining health crisis of the 1980s, and by the early 1990s, the disease was still characterized by stigma, shame, stereotyping, and victim blaming. In 1991, however, the national discussion immediately changed as the virus got a new spokesman. One of the most visible celebrities on Earth, Lakers great Earvin "Magic" Johnson shocked the world when he announced that he was HIV-positive and retiring from basketball, as reported by the Orange County Register on Nov. 8.
All-star teams long satiated fan fantasies about what would happen if the best players in an entire league paired up as teammates on a hand-picked squad, but none ever did it with more dominance or on a grander stage than the Dream Team, America's first all-pro Olympic team. On July 27, 1992, The New York Times weighed in on the greatest basketball team ever assembled as it buzz-sawed through any competition the world threw its way at that year's Olympic Games. Teams from nations like Angola and China were helpless against the onslaught of the Dream Team, which included the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton.
In the wake of the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, The Gazette of Montreal used a banner headline to capture the joy the Canadian city felt when their beloved Canadiens, the winningest team in hockey history, brought home its 24th Stanley Cup. The Habs rank behind only the New York Yankees—and their 27 World Series titles—as the second most successful team in all four major sports.
In 1994, the genteel world of figure skating played out more like a script from professional wrestling thanks to a scandalous series of revelations and news headlines like the one blazed across the front page of the New York Daily News on Jan. 7. An assailant smashed champion skater Nancy Kerrigan above the knee with a metal baton in full public view as part of a hairbrained plot orchestrated by bumbling cohorts of rival American figure skater Tonya Harding.
Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played was long thought to be untouchable. That, however, all changed on Sept. 6, 1995, when Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr. broke the record nearly 60 years later, as reported by The Evening Sun the following day. He would go onto smash the record into pieces—Ripken continued the streak until he played his 2,632nd consecutive game three years later in 1998.
Painfully sad, but ultimately one of the most majestic moments in sports history, Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch at the start of the Atlanta Games, a moment captured in a poetic headline by The Baltimore Sun on July 21. His once-unstoppable hands shaking from the Parkinson's disease that had ravaged his body since he was diagnosed in 1984, Ali embraced his last moment of public glory. A man who once divided the nation now united it.
On April 4, 1997, The New York Times reported on an event that split the entire history of golf into two periods: the sport before the 1997 Masters and everything that came after—and everything that came after was the post-Tiger Woods era. The young phenom, in the words of the Times, "shrank Augusta National into a pitch-and-putt course," scoring 18 under par for 270 over 72 holes, breaking the record of 271 held by Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd and beating the next-closest competitor by 12 strokes.
On June 15, 1998, The New York Times reported on something that was not new in the world of basketball—the Bulls won a championship—it was also, however, reporting on the end of one of the most significant eras in sports history, whether the paper knew it or not. The mighty Chicago Bulls dynasty, led by Michael Jordan, was coming to an end. That night, Jordan sunk the series-winning shot, which would be the last points he'd ever score in a Bulls uniform, and Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and coach Phil Jackson all exited Chicago soon afterward, as well.
Although it's long been the world's sport, soccer has always been an afterthought in the United States. That all changed in 1999 when the U.S. women's team piqued America's interest—and sent television ratings soaring—with a historic run that culminated in Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and company winning the FIFA Women's World Cup. It was a watershed moment for women's sports, one that was captured by a July 11 New York Daily News headline.
In 2000, 198 players were chosen before Tom Brady in the NFL draft, and The Boston Herald used this headline as an entry point to an article that questioned why on Earth the Patriots would have chosen another quarterback. The writer could not have known that picking Brady was the opening salvo of what would become the greatest dynasty in football history, that Brady would go onto win six Super Bowls in nine appearances, or that he'd supplant Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback in the history of the game in the eyes of many pundits, fans, and haters.
By 2001, Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt had been racing professionally since 1975 and was known as one of the world's best and most colorful drivers, boasting a long pedigree from a well-known racing family. On Feb. 19, The News-Journal used a macabre headline to convey the news from the day before, which shocked and saddened the racing world. Earnhardt was killed at age 49 when his famous #3 car crashed hard into the wall during the final lap of the Daytona 500.
The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, roared onto the tennis scene as teenagers and became the greatest sibling superstars in the sport's history. On Feb. 24, 2002, The New York Times said it all in a headline that reported on Venus' ascent to the top of the professional tennis world. She was the first African American woman ever ranked #1 in the Open era and only the third African American of any gender in history, behind Althea Gibson in 1957 and Arthur Ashe in 1975.
On May 22, 2003, The New York Times reported that the Cleveland Cavaliers had secured the first pick in that year's NBA draft lottery, but it was less a draft and more a LeBron James jackpot. The 6-foot-8-inch, 18-year-old phenom possessed a caliber of size, talent, and skill not seen in a generation. It was clear that he was bound for the NBA before he entered high school, and by the time he was a senior, he was viewed as the future of basketball. Pro teams and corporate sponsors alike lined up to sign him.
On July 1, 2004, The Guardian reported on what was already a major upset when Maria Sharapova sent the heavily favored Lindsay Davenport packing. But the dramatics were just getting started. The 17-year-old Russian sensation would go on to defeat the #1 seed, defending champion, and tournament favorite Serena Williams in straight sets to become the third-youngest woman ever to win Wimbledon. It was one of the greatest upsets in the history of the tournament.
On July 15, 2005, The New York Times was just one of the papers following the remarkable story of Michelle Wie, whose underaged overachieving had captivated the golfing world. At the age of 10, Wie became the youngest player ever to qualify for a USGA amateur championship. In 2005, she made history when she turned pro before her 16th birthday.
On June 26, 2006, Sports Illustrated stated in no uncertain terms the length to which golf great Phil Mickelson melted down during that year's U.S. Open. Lefty, as Mickelson is known, was cruising toward victory, where he would have joined Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Ben Hogan as only the fourth player in history to win three consecutive majors in the sport's modern era. On the 18th hole, however, he hit one of the worst shots of his career and followed it up with a series of painful-to-watch errors, ripping defeat from the jaws of victory in what many consider to be the worst choke in golf history.
On Aug. 7, 2007, Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's long-held record for lifetime home runs. But the milestone, captured in an Aug. 8 New York Times headline, will always be tainted by a steroid scandal that engulfed baseball in the mid-2000s and featured Bonds himself at the epicenter.
By 2008, Michael Phelps was without a doubt the greatest swimmer in the world. At that year's Olympics, however, he transcended his sport and earned the status of a legend by becoming the first athlete ever to win eight gold medals in one year in the history of the Games, an event summed up cheekily by the New York Daily News on Aug. 3. Phelps went onto become the most successful and decorated Olympian of all time, winning a total of 28 medals to date.
During the 2008 Summer Olympics, the world met the fastest man on Earth, Jamaican Usain Bolt, who ran the 100-meter dash in 9.69 seconds—he was the first man in history to crack the 9.7-second mark, which was long thought impossible. The next year in 2009, as reported on Aug. 6 by The New York Times, he shocked the racing world when he broke his own record after running the 100 in a minuscule 9.58 seconds.
By 2010, the NFL could no longer ignore the mountain of evidence linking repeated head trauma like the kind endured by football players to later-life neurological disorders like dementia, ALS, and Parkinson's disease. On Nov. 1, Sports Illustrated wrote a simple headline consisting of the one word that was dominating the football world. Repeated concussions long came with the gridiron turf, but the league was forced to change the rules to outlaw the most violent hits, which didn't sit well with some fans, many of whom tuned in to see the big collisions.
Penn State is one of the most storied teams in college football and its longtime coach, Joe Paterno, was a giant of the sport, long deified by Nittany Lions fans. By 2011, however, his legacy was crumbling and the NCAA was reeling, as this Nov. 9 headline in The Morning Call revealed. A growing scandal was making it clear that Paterno knew, or should have known, that Jerry Sandusky, one of his most trusted assistants, was a child molester who used his status at Penn State to prey on vulnerable youths.
On Aug. 24, 2012, the New York Post reported on the final chapter in one of the saddest falls from grace in sports history. Lance Armstrong, long the only cyclist most Americans could name, represented more than just the sport he dominated, thanks to Livestrong, a massively popular campaign against cancer, which Armstrong survived himself. After steroid rumors turned into doping investigations, however, it became clear that Armstrong cheated his way to an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France championships—titles that were eventually all stripped.
The Boston Marathon is one of the oldest and most storied sporting events in the country. On April 15, 2013, however, the event became the backdrop to a much larger story when two massive homemade bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three people and injuring hundreds more, including more than a dozen who lost limbs. The April 16 headline in The Boston Globe summed up the ensuing hours and days, which witnessed a whirlwind of frantic and terrifying activity as a manhunt ensued for two self-radicalized brothers who led police on a frantic and unprecedented chase and shootout through the streets of a traumatized and shuttered city.
In 2014, 13-year-old pitching phenom Mo'ne Davis of Philadelphia was one of only two girls to play in the Little League World Series, the first African American girl in history, and one of only 18 girls ever to appear in the Series. The girl-power moment, captured in this Aug. 20 headline in The New York Times, captivated the nation—huge numbers of people tuned in who didn't even pay attention to pro baseball. Although her Taney Dragons came up short, the country marveled as Davis piled up strikeouts, shutouts, wins, and a laundry list of new first-for-a-girl statistics.
On June 7, 2015, the New York Post reported on the greatest feat in the history of horse racing. A 3 year old named American Pharaoh won the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Kentucky Derby in a single year, making the American Thoroughbred only the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. He also won the Breeder's Cup that year, making him the only horse ever to win the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing. American Pharaoh is descended from a royal bloodline dating back to the legendary War Admiral.
During San Francisco's third NFL preseason match in 2016, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was seen sitting on the bench during the National Anthem, although it is a universal custom to stand. He explained after the game that he sat in protest against inequality, racism, and police brutality in America. During the season opener, as The New York Times reported on Sept. 1, he moved from a seat on the bench and assumed what would soon become a famous and infamous symbol of solidarity among many athletes in the NFL and beyond, and one of the most controversial protests in sports history—he took a knee.
By 2017, most of the boxing universe agreed that the undefeated Floyd Mayweather was the greatest pound-for-pound pugilist in the history of the sport, or at least the greatest defensive boxer ever to live. That year, Irish mixed martial arts superstar and trash-talker extraordinaire Conor McGregor challenged Mayweather to a pure boxing match in a highly anticipated battle between the two warrior disciplines. This New York Times headline from Aug. 27 summed up the outcome, which cemented Mayweather's legacy after retiring a perfect 50-0, surpassing the record set by Rocky Marciano more than 60 years earlier.
The Feb. 5 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the sentiments of Philadelphians en masse, who for generations had suffered without a single Super Bowl victory in the city's history. That all changed in 2018 with Super Bowl LII, a game almost universally hailed as one of the most exciting in history, complete with perfectly executed trick plays on the part of the Birds. To make the victory even sweeter, Philly pulled off the win against quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, probably the greatest dynasty ever assembled—and they did it with a backup quarterback.