“Make your mark in New York and you are a made man.” ~ Mark Twain
You are no longer an ordinary Joe if you’re playing under the cameras and lights of the Big Apple. They call you Broadway Joe. Or Joltin’ Joe. Or Smokin’ Joe.
With all due respect to St. Patrick’s, if you’ve made it to New York, you are setting cleat, blade and sneaker within some of sport’s most magnificent cathedrals. There is Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. There is Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan. And the National Tennis Center in Queens.
NYC welcomes Super Bowl XLVIII this week. It’s the first time that the NFL has brought the big game to the city that never sleeps. I got thinking about the rich history of New York sports with this being the first time an NFL Championship has been settled in these parts in 51 years.
What have been the greatest sporting events in the history of New York? What lasting memories come from within the five boroughs?
I know. I know. East Rutherford and MetLife Stadium are in New Jersey. But The City’s sports history can’t ignore a little piece of swamp land on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel where New York professional football has been played for the past several decades. Likewise, I also expanded my scope to Nassau County to capture the iconic Belmont Park and the once proud New York Islanders.
THE TOP TEN
The MSG faithful had been waiting 54 years for a Rangers Stanley Cup banner and five-time Cup champion, Mark Messier, was just the man to get it done. Back in the Conference Finals, the Rangers were down 3-2 in the series to their rivals on the other side of the Hudson. Messier faced the press and echoed a certain New York sports legend by guaranteeing victory over New Jersey in Game 6. What happens next? Messier pots three goals and the Rangers win Game 6 and eventually the series. Vancouver were resilient in the Finals and would push New York the distance. But once more Messier would come through – his 2nd period tally in Game 7 would prove to be the Cup winner.
After a 12 year absence from the Fall Classic, New York was swept in the 1976 World Series by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. This wasn’t good enough for George Steinbrenner and he responded by signing a perennial all-star slugging free agent named Reggie Jackson. New York was heading back to the Bronx for Game 6 up 3-2 in the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers. Jackson had already hit his third and fourth career World Series homers in Games 4 and 5. Starting in the 4th inning, Jackson would face three straight pitches and hit three consecutive home runs. Fans went into full throat for their new hero as he emerged from the dugout for his famous curtain call: REG-GIE!! REG-GIE!! REG-GIE!!
8. March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden
WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship – Muhammad Ali (31-0) vs. Joe Frazier (26-0)
Frazier unanimous decision over Ali
Tensions over Vietnam were still high in 1971 when Frazier met Ali for the initial bout in their famed trilogy. Frazier was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in 1971, but Muhammad Ali was still the people’s champion. Or at least, he was the people’s champion for those willing to forgive him for dodging the draft. This would be Ali’s first shot at recapturing his vacated belt. However, Smokin’ Joe would prevail in the Garden in a unanimous 15 round slugfest widely regarded as the Fight of the Century. Ali would be victorious in each subsequent meeting with Frazier, including a 1974 Madison Square rematch for the right to fight George Foreman for the title.
7. June 10, 1978 at Belmont Park
Affirmed wins Triple Crown
Secretariat’s awe-inspiring 1973 Triple Crown included a mind-blowing finale at Belmont in which the nearest thoroughbred was 31 lengths back. However, there was something even more special about Affirmed’s win on that 1978 Elmont afternoon as he nosed out Alydar for the Triple Crown. And the accomplishment grows with each new year as favorites stumble through at least one of the Crown’s legs. Will we ever see another horse capture the Crown? If we ever do, there is one thing for certain – it will happen at Belmont Park.
How does Michael Jordan cap off three consecutive NBA titles? “Retire. What!?” Play professional baseball. “No, you have to be kidding.” But this is what transpired in the fall of 1993 and spring of 1994. However, by spring of the following year, Jordan was ready to come back to the Bulls and he did so with some New York flair. In only his fifth game out of retirement, Jordan lit up the hometown Knicks for 55 points. And New York weren’t a bunch of patsies. This was a Knick squad that finished the 1994-95 season 55-27. This single game rippled through the league and served noticed that Jordan had returned to form. By the next season, the Bulls were back winning the first of another three consecutive championships, including a 72-10 regular season record in 1995-96.
It had been 49 days since the unimaginable struck Manhattan and New York was still in its early stages of recovery. Amidst the devastation, America had a will to continue to live as it had before – a resolve that demonstrated to the terrorists that they could knock our buildings down, but not change the fabric of the country. The play on the field was secondary. Game 3 was New York’s first significant post-9/11 demonstration to a global audience that America’s spirit lived on. And it didn’t hurt that the Yanks won the game too.
The Knicks entered the 1969-70 season without ever winning an NBA Championship. But New York was loaded with talent: Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and their All-Star captain, Willis Reed. New York needed their big man against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers, but a leg injury prevented Reed from playing Game 6. Without his immovable opposition, Wilt evened the series with a 45/27 performance. Few expected Reed to play Game 7 and, not surprisingly, he didn’t accompany the Knicks onto the floor for warm-ups. After several minutes, the inspirational post emerged onto the Garden hardwood to a rousing ovation. The emotion and the courage galvanized the Knicks all the way to their first title.
3. October 3, 1951 at Polo Grounds
National League Playoff Game 3 – Brooklyn Dodgers vs. New York Giants
New York 5 Brooklyn 4
From 1949 to 1956, the National League was represented in the Fall Classic by these New York crosstown rivals on seven of eight occasions. But in 1951, each team tied atop the NL standings and a best two-out-of-three playoff was required for the pennant. A rubber match took place after the Dodgers and Giants split the first two games. Not only did Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home run win the Giants the pennant, but baseball’s first national television audience saw it unfold in front of their eyes. This monumental playoff game ushered the beginning of baseball’s new era that brought the game to households across America. Ironically, both of these teams would complete baseball’s transition seven years later by moving to the West Coast.
2. December 28, 1958 at Yankee Stadium
NFL Championship – Baltimore Colts vs. New York Giants
Baltimore 23 New York 17
The NFL was still playing second fiddle to the college game in 1958 when Johnny Unitas engineered a last minute drive that sent the game into the NFL’s only championship overtime (including Super Bowls). Alan Ameche scored on Baltimore’s opening drive of overtime and the Colts had won their first of two consecutive championships. Similar to baseball’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”, the dramatic Colts/Giants title game coincided with an expanded national television audience. The result was an explosion of interest in the professional game. Expansion followed. Television contracts brought football to millions on Sundays. And the American Football League was soon formed to battle for their piece of the pie.
1. April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field
Boston Braves vs. Brooklyn Dodgers
Brooklyn 5 Boston 3
Sure the Dodgers won the game. But nobody really remembers that. They would win 93 more in 1947 en route to capturing the National League pennant. What’s most important is the courage of Jackie Robinson – the game of baseball, and the future of sports across North America, had changed forever. Aside from being courageous, Robinson was talented, inspirational and resolute. His actions transcended sport. Taking the field wasn’t simply about breaking the color barrier. Robinson’s inclusion in Brooklyn’s order represented freedom, equality and civil rights.
For more classic NYC events, check out the ten games or matches that couldn’t quite crack my Top 10.
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.