IT WAS 90 YEARS AGO today that American boxer Jack Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia to become the first black man to win the heavyweight championship of the world.
OK, so I'm a sucker for anniversaries. Of all kinds. Sporting events, political events, entertainment happenings, social issues. Put me on the game show "Jeopardy" with a crack at an anniversaries category, and I'd probably run it.
The Johnson-Burns fight had sporting and social significance. Johnson didn't just deliver some smarting blows to Burns' head to knock him out in the 14th round to become the first black heavyweight champion. "Papa Jack," as Johnson was known, dealt some devastating blows to the concept of white supremacy as well. Claiming racial superiority, white champions before Burns refused to face black challengers. There's an ironic twist to Johnson's holding the heavyweight crown from 1908 to 1915: he didn't face a black challenger while champion either.
1998 marked another pugilistic anniversary: the 60th one of Joe Louis' defeat of German heavyweight Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938. This was the only true "Fight of the Century" worthy of the name. Schmeling had knocked out Louis two years earlier, prompting Adolf Hitler's propaganda machine to indulge in a spate of hideous crowing about Aryan supremacy. Louis' one-round disposal of Schmeling ended, for the moment, the Nazi bragging about racial superiority and gave Hitler and his boys a preview of what awaited them when they fought the Yanks in WWII.
This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Baltimore Colts-New York Giants National Football League championship game in Yankee Stadium. It's been called the "greatest game ever played." Older Colts like Lenny Moore, John Unitas, Art Donovan and others scoff at the claim. Their greatest game, they insist, was the 1958 regular season game in which they clinched the NFL Western Conference title by overcoming a 27-7 halftime deficit to whip the San Francisco 49ers 35-27.
They're all wrong, of course. The greatest game the Baltimore Colts ever played was one they didn't win. It was the Western Conference playoff game against those hated Green Bay Packers in December 1965. Unitas was out with a knee injury, inflicted late during the regular season -- deliberately, I'll always believe -- by those even more hated, despicable and downright dirty Chicago Bears. Colts backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo was out with a shoulder injury. Colts head coach Don Shula converted halfback Tom Matte to quarterback and strapped a wristband to his arm with the team's plays written on it. The Packers won it in overtime, with the help of some rulings by the officials that seemed suspiciously like they were called to help Green Bay. The game was, nonetheless, the Baltimore Colts' -- and professional sports' -- finest moment.
The 1958 game did make professional football a wildly popular game and helped the NFL become what it is today. Had we known then what we know now about the NFL, we might have begged the Colts to tank it.
In early November, some of those old Colts gathered for a reunion and celebration of that 1958 title game. On the same day, current and former members of the Johns Hopkins University Tutorial Project gathered for their 40th anniversary.
"The greatest game ever played was the one that started here in 1958," Dr. Chester Wickwire, the retired Hopkins chaplain who started the tutorial project, told those assembled in the university's Levering Hall. Hopkins students tutor inner city children in reading and mathematics. The game started 40 years ago with the inception of the tutorial project is one that hasn't been won yet, because the game will never end.
It was 35 years ago that civil rights activists converged on Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore County to protest the owners' policy of not admitting blacks. Sun reporter Linell Smith wrote an outstanding, two-part story in August on that struggle, which ended with the owners -- brothers Arthur, David and James Price -- agreeing to admit blacks and integrate the park.
Activists who demonstrated on July 4, 1963, at Gwynn Oak included the above-mentioned Wickwire and Michael Schwerner, a Congress of Racial Equality member who would be one of three civil rights workers killed a year later in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The demonstrators had noble motives, but 35 years later we should reflect on whether they used the best tactics. The better approach may have been for those who truly believed in integration to raise the money to build a rival amusement park, open it to all races and watch gleefully as the Price brothers were run out of business.
Pub Date: 12/26/98