Do you know the old cliche about never letting the details spoil a good headline? Well, that applies just as much to sports headlines. You’ve probably heard of these famous sports moments, but do you know the real stories?
10. Bill Buckner’s Error
This clip is inevitably shown before every World Series game. 1986 World Series, Mets vs. Red Sox, game six, bottom of the 10th. Bill Buckner allows a slow grounder to roll between his legs and the 68 year long “Curse of the Bambino” continues. Red Sox Nation’s hearts are broken in the most excruciating way possible.
The game was tied at that point. Had he made the play it would’ve merely prolonged the game — the improbable had already happened. The Red Sox scored two runs in the top of the 10th, giving them a 5-3 lead. They were just three outs away from winning the series, and after two quick fly outs they were one out away with no one on base. Crews were decorating the Red Sox locker room with banners and champagne. Keith Hernandez, responsible for the second out of the inning, went to the Mets clubhouse to have a beer.
And why not? The probability of a comeback was around 2%. But then things got crazy. Two singles gave the Mets runners on first and second. Another single knocked in a run and put runners on first and third. Red Sox Manager John McNamara decided it was time for a pitching change and brought in reliable closer Bob Stanley to face Mookie Wilson. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat Stanley threw a wild pitch, allowing the tying run to score and the other runner to move to second.
On the next pitch Wilson hit his slow grounder, which resulted in the infamous error. While the error is symbolic, and certainly came at the worst possible time, it was merely the last in a series of improbable events. Bill Buckner took a lot of undeserved grief about it.
9. Miracle on Ice
Everyone knows this one. The 1980 US Men’s Hockey Team defeated the powerful Soviet Union 4-3 in an upset for the ages and won their first Gold Medal since 1960.
It wasn’t the Gold Medal game. In 1980, like today, the teams in the tournament entered into pools where they would play a round robin. The top two teams from each pool advanced to the medal round. But unlike today, where the medal round is a single elimination tournament, the top two from each pool would play the top two from the other pool in another round robin for the medals.
It gets even weirder. Those top teams would carry over their points earned against the other team from their pool who also advanced. The U.S. and Sweden tied in pool play, so they each brought in one point. The Soviets defeated Finland in pool play so they brought in two points, while Finland brought in zero. So before a game in the medal round had even been played the Soviet Union was leading the pack.
By beating the Soviets the U.S. went up three points to two, but the Soviets could still win the gold with a win over Sweden (who they beat 9-2) and a U.S. loss to Finland. Even worse, a Soviet win and U.S. tie against Finland would’ve resulted in gold for the Soviets as well, since goal differential was the first tie breaker.
But the U.S. defeated Finland 4-2 after coming back from a 2-1 third period deficit, and we were spared having to go through such a ridiculous explanation as to why the U.S. staged one of the biggest upsets in history but still finished behind the team they beat.
8. Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”
Every baseball player’s dream is to hit the big walk-off homer. In 1951 Bobby Thomson got that wish when he hit a dramatic three run homer off Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth to win the National League Pennant for the New York Giants. This was in the very early days of TV broadcasts, and the calls from the announcers are legendary.
The Giants would go on to lose the World Series to the Yankees in six games. Just to add to it, Bobby Thomson hit an unimpressive .238 with no home runs. It would be like, well, the U.S. defeating the Soviets and then losing to Finland.
7. Kerri Strug’s Vault
Everyone’s seen the image. It’s shown before every Olympic broadcast. Kerri Strug, one of the “Magnificent Seven” members of the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team at the 1996 Olympics, lands a beautiful vault on her injured and heavily wrapped ankle. It’s the embodiment of the Olympic spirit — just look at the pain on her face!
Strug wasn’t the star of the team. She wasn’t expected to medal in any of the individual events. But then her team needed her. On her first attempt she fell. But with the encouragement of her coach, Bela Kurolyi, she nailed her second attempt and the U.S won gold for the first time ever. Kerri Strug was vaulted (see what we did there?) into superstardom and Olympic immortality for coming up big when it mattered the most.
The team had already secured the gold medal before she landed the vault. Kerri almost certainly wasn’t aware of that, nor was it likely that any of her teammates knew. At the time there was a very complex scoring system, and the scores of the eventual silver medalists (Russia) were being tabulated more or less simultaneously. So while it was an awesome moment, Strug could’ve fallen flat on her face and the result would’ve been the same.
One scary theory is the debate over whether or not the American coaches knew they had already won. There’s a rumor that Bela Kurolyi, who did not coach Strug individually but did coach teammate Dominique Moceanu, sent her out there just to fail so she would be eliminated from individual competition. Think about that the next time you see the other iconic image of him saying “you can do eet” and promptly carrying her out for the medal ceremony.
6. Michael Jordan’s Shot
You’ve seen it in Nike and Gatorade ads. The NBA used it in their promos forever. With two seconds remaining and his team down by one, Michael Jordan takes the inbound pass, dribbles quickly towards the foul line, jumps high in the air, buries the jumper and pumps his fist in celebration. It’s the defining moment of the career of a man who nailed numerous clutch shots while winning six NBA titles.
This only clinched a first round win two years before his first title. It was 1989. The Bulls were the sixth seed and were tied with the third seeded Cavaliers 2-2 going into the final game in Cleveland. When Jordan hit the game winner it was just another sad chapter in the infamous Cleveland curse. The Bulls would go on to defeat the New York Knicks in the second round before falling to the Detroit Pistons 4-2. More impressively, those were the only two games the Pistons lost in the playoffs on their way to their first of back to back titles. It’s cool to watch, and it was a sign of things to come, but it was far from Jordan’s greatest moment.
5. Billie Jean King v. Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes
In 1973, women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King defeated men’s tennis legend Bobby Riggs in front of 30,000 spectators and an estimated 90 million television viewers, in what has become known as the Battle of the Sexes. It was a triumph for the women’s liberation movement, proof that a top female athlete could compete against a top male athlete on equal ground.
Bobby Riggs was 55 at the time. Quick, name a great 55 year old athlete. Exactly. He was way past his prime. The oldest winner of a Grand Slam title was 37. The average winner is in their early 20s. Even golf’s oldest major winner was 48.
Not to mention that Bobby Riggs was far from one of the greatest of all time. He won an impressive three grand slam titles, but there are over thirty men who’ve won more than three. And his most recent was in 1941, when he was 23 years old.
Billie Jean King is one of the greatest athletes of all time, and her win was an important symbol for the era’s feminist movement. However it would’ve been much more impressive if it came against one of the top players of 1973, not 1943.
4. Scott Norwood, Wide Right
1991, Super Bowl XXV, eight seconds left. Scott Norwood, place kicker for the heavily favored Buffalo Bills attempts the game winning field goal, but misses wide right. The New York Giants win 20-19 in the closest Super Bowl ever. Had Norwood not blown it the Bills would’ve won 22-20.
It was a 47 yard attempt, not exactly a chip shot. During the 1990 season NFL placekickers as a whole were successful only 62% of the time between 40-49 yards. Notwithstanding the enormous pressure he was under, his kick was on the back end of the 40-49 range. By comparison, the success rate from over 50 yards in 1990 was 42%. So he was pretty much in the 50-50 range. Also, the game was played on a grass field, not the Astroturf that the Bills played on at home and favored kickers.
And remember that the Bills were heavily favored, yet were trailing by one in the waning moments of the game. It certainly came down to much more than one missed long field goal attempt.
3. Bob Beamon’s Long Jump
At the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, Bob Beamon shattered the world long jump record by over two feet, winning the gold medal in style. It was the culmination of one of the most dominant stretches ever for a track and field athlete, as he’d won 22 of the previous 23 events he’d entered. His record would stand for 23 years, an eon for a track and field world record.
The 1968 Olympics were held in Mexico City, a city with an elevation of 7000 feet. Anyone who’s ever been to such an elevation knows that the thin air can make breathing difficult at times. But it also means a lot less resistance — is it any wonder the longest field goal in NFL history was in Denver? Or that Denver’s Coors Field is built with such enormous dimensions to prevent constant home runs? Try hitting a golf ball at those altitudes, it’ll do wonders for your ego. And guess what? You can also jump a lot farther.
We don’t want to take anything away from Beamon — he dominated the competition all over the world all year. He beat the silver medalist, who had the exact same altitude advantage, by almost two and half feet! That’s the equivalent of winning a football game by 35 points. Or if you’re not North American, that’s the equivalent of winning a football match by six goals. The gold medal was certainly impressive, but it’s reasonable to say the world record would’ve likely been broken after just a few years instead of a few decades had it been set elsewhere.
2. Steve Bartman
In 2003 the Chicago Cubs held a 3-2 series lead against the Florida Marlins for the National League Championship. One of the Cubs’ two superstar pitchers, Mark Prior, was on the mound as the Cubs led 3-0 in the eighth. The Cubs were just five outs away from going to their first World Series in 58 years and an opportunity to win their first World Series in 95 years.
But then Luis Castillo hit a fly ball towards the left field foul line. It was drifting towards the stands, but Moises Alou had a shot at it. He leaped into the air and reached for the ball… but fate intervened in the form of a fan named Steve Bartman, who also reached for the ball and interfered with Alou’s attempt.
The Cubs would go on to lose the game. The next night they would lose again and fall short of the World Series. Had it not been for one overzealous fan, lifetimes of frustration for countless other fans would’ve been over.
The Cubs would go on to give up eight runs that inning. Had Alou made the catch it would’ve been the second out with only one runner on. Instead Castillo walked, and the next batter singled in a run. But that was just the start.
The most notorious moment came next when Miguel Cabrera hit an easy ground ball to short, a classic double play ball that should’ve ended the inning. But usually sure handed shortstop Alex Gonzales misplayed the ball and both runners were safe. After that the floodgates opened, and the Marlins took an 8-3 lead they would not relinquish. And then the Cubs went out and blew a 5-3 lead in game seven the next night, eventually losing 9-6.
11 years later Cubs fans are still waiting for a chance to come so close again. Certainly Steve Bartman’s interference hurt matters, and it’s symbolic of the debacle. But there were many other preventable aspects that everyone should just leave the poor guy alone.
1. Miracle on Ice (Part II)
The Miracle on Ice really was an upset for the ages, right up there with the Giants upsetting the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and Villanova upsetting Georgetown in the 1985 National Championship game.
Those were pros beating pros, or amateurs beating amateurs. While the 1980 Olympics were technically an amateur event, the communist definition of amateur wasn’t exactly the same as that of the capitalist definition. The Soviet players did nothing but play hockey. Many were technically in the Army or had some other job title for the state, but realistically they were spending all of their time playing hockey in state of the art facilities.
Meanwhile the top American players were all playing in the NHL, and since they were being paid to play they were not eligible to compete in the Olympics. The American team was made up of the top college players, and a team of college All-Stars has a shot against a team of professional All-Stars, right?
Except hockey has a rather extensive minor league system. So while the best American players were in the NHL, dozens, if not hundreds, of other top Americans were playing for minor league teams all over North America. Which of course made them ineligible pros as well.
So the top several hundred American players weren’t eligible, while a broad definition of amateur allowed the top players from the hockey mad Soviet Union to compete. Fast forward to 2014 where pros played pros in the Olympics and the U.S. had to go to a shootout to beat the Russians. No wonder it’s arguably the highest profile upset of all time.