The final days of seventh grade were winding down as I walked to Staley Junior High School in my hometown of Rome, N.Y. that sunny June morning 50 years ago. Had the circumstances been different, there would have been a pep in my step. I would have bounded to school, excited about the impending end of classes and the arrival of a summer vacation replete with sunrise-to-sunset sandlot baseball games, neighborhood bicycle races and tubing down the Mohawk River.
Instead, I found myself trudging, preoccupied with yet another national tragedy. I discovered that I was not alone in my sadness and confusion. Many of us impressionable 13-year-olds couldn’t help but wonder if this country known as the United States of America was being torn asunder.
Five years earlier, we had experienced the official end of our innocence when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. And only two months before the completion of my first year of junior high, America suffered another mortal blow when Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. We were still processing that tragedy that June 6 morning when we received the terrible news that Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
Riots and protests became widespread as the nation grappled with racism, sexism and concerns about an increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia. While revered CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite questioned the government’s claims that the U.S. was winning the Vietnam War, we continued to feel the Earth move under our feet as B-52 bombers and fighter jets continually rumbled down the runways of Griffiss Air Force Base, just a few miles from my home.
At times, the world felt chaotic and unrelenting—as if God, the universe and the fates were piling on. It was surreal before we understood the meaning of the word.
I took the murder of RFK especially hard. The year before, the United States senator from New York had sent me a heartfelt letter after I mailed him a copy of the mimeographed book our sixth grade class had published on whether communist China deserved to be a member of the United Nations. In retrospect, this project was the start of my journalism career. In his letter, Kennedy wrote: “I am sure that you have all learned a lot not only about China, but about how to become informed—and that, after all, is the real purpose of your education.”
After Kennedy announced his intention to run for senator in 1964, my dad and I attended a campaign rally at a park bordered by my church and the county courthouse. Despite the raw weather, thousands crammed the grounds for his speech. There was just something about Kennedy’s words that late afternoon that resonated with me. He seemed to offer hope during a time we were feeling hopeless.
And then, just like that, he, too, was taken from us.
His life and that most turbulent of years is back in the news again, as historians and media attempt to dissect an era when we seemed every bit as divided and polarized as today.
And as I look back on that tumultuous time, I remember how many of us sought solace in sports. The games we played and watched provided respite from our troubles, united us even when we felt divided. But, like today, sports was not a total escape. Societal ills visited our playgrounds and arenas then as they do now. Sports, politics and culture intersected.
Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 kneel-down, which prompted numerous other National Football League players to take a knee and fueled angry tweets from the President, is not the first time a protest has been conducted during the national anthem. One of the most vivid sports images of the 20th century is of American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved fists in a Black Power salute atop the medal stand during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City while the Star-Spangled Banner was being played.
The times, as singer Bob Dylan reminded us, were “a changing” as brash athletes began speaking their minds and challenging social and cultural mores. Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali became a conscientious objector. His refusal to be drafted into the armed forces resulted in him being vilified, ostracized and stripped of his title. Trend-setting New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath wore ostentatious fur coats and radiant white cleats while becoming equally adept at breaking records and curfews. Before capping that season with a guaranteed Super Bowl upset, Broadway Joe would be Ordinary Joe against the Buffalo Bills, throwing five interceptions, including three that were returned for touchdowns, in a 37-25 loss. It was Buffalo’s only win that season, a dismal record that enabled them to draft Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson with the first pick.
In 1968, Arthur Ashe would serve up a Jackie Robinson moment at the U.S. Open by becoming the first African-American man to capture a grand slam tennis title.
Baseball would be ruled by pitchers, especially Bob Gibson, who threw a mind-boggling 13 shutouts, and Denny McClain, who became the first hurler in 34 years to win 30 games in a season. Hitters were at a loss to keep pace. Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 batting average.
But “The Year of the Pitcher” also would be “The Year of Tigers.” They would edge Gibson’s Cardinals in a seven-game World Series that provided a temporary balm for the deeply wounded Motor City. The year before, Detroit experienced one of the most violent riots in U.S. history, resulting in 39 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries and close to $300 million (in today’s money) in damages. That Tigers title briefly brought a divided city together; provided some temporary sanity. It was one of the few things that made sense that year.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.