Iconic moments in sports that defined the '70s

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August 12, 2019
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Iconic moments in sports that defined the '70s

More than just bell-bottom jeans and permed hair, the 1970s were another transformative decade in American history books. Coming off the heels of the tumult and revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, the seventies saw a nation adjusting to life after a devastating war and integrating new technologies that drastically altered everyday life. In the world of sports, the decade was flooded with events both dramatic and inspirational that are remembered just as well as the Watergate Scandal, the Camp David Accords, and the sheen emanating from disco balls that spun round and round into the wee hours of the morning of New York's trendiest clubs.

The decade opened with a merger between the American Football League and National Football League, which catapulted professional football even higher in popularity. The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich became recognized for otherworldly feats by athletes like swimmer Mark Spitz, but the celebrations were dampened by a hostage situation that resulted in the death of athletes from Israel. America lost several other sports heroes during this decade, from Roberto Clemente—who died in a plane crash on his way to deliver humanitarian supplies to Nicaragua—to Thurman Munson—who perished while practicing flying his own craft on an off day during the 1979 Major League Baseball season.

Stacker looks back at 30 of the most iconic moments in sports that defined the 1970s. There were great champions like the 1970 New York Knicks, inspired by the grit and determination of Willis Reed, and pioneers in the fight for gender equality like Billie Jean King, who didn't back down from any challenge—man or woman—on the tennis court. Click through to find the backstory behind these memorable scenes, as well as the rivalries that brewed and the champions whose legacies still live on today.

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Brazil, the best ever?

The 1970 World Cup was broadcast to record audiences around the globe who witnessed a dominating performance by Brazil. Led be Pelé, Brazil captured their third World Cup. Some consider the 1970 Brazil team the best ever—they won each of their quarterfinal, semifinal, and final matchups by two goals or more.

There goes that man

That catchphrase probably would have been uttered by broadcaster Mark Jackson if he were calling the 1970 NBA Finals. In a decisive Game 7 between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, a hobbled Willis Reed emerged from the locker room to return to the floor after missing Game 6 with a torn thigh muscle. Reed inspired the Knicks to a 113-99 victory and their first championship.

Pete Rose earns the nickname Charlie Hustle

Catcher Ray Fosse was named an All-Star for the first time in 1970, but his participation in the Midsummer Classic would end with a violent collision at home plate. In the 12th inning, Pete Rose came charging down the third-base line attempting to score and ran Fosse over. Rose’s National League side won on his run, 5-4, but Fosse separated his shoulder. Rose showed little remorse for running over a catcher in what was supposed to be an exhibition game. 

AFL-NFL merger

Beginning with the 1970 season, 10 teams from the American Football League entered the NFL. Two 13-team conferences were created within the new NFL—the American Football Conference and National Football Conference. An eight-team playoff featuring four teams from each conference was instituted.

Her Court now

Margaret Court became the first woman in the Open Era (generally agreed upon as 1968 onward), and only the second woman ever, to complete the Grand Slam (win all four major tennis tournaments in one year). Court had missed a Grand Slam by one event—Wimbledon—in 1969, and actually won two doubles majors to boot in 1970. Serena Williams is now chasing Court, sitting one behind tying her record of 24 career Grand Slam singles titles.

Tragedy strikes Marshall

Returning home from a game at East Carolina University, 37 Marshall football players and eight coaches died in a plane crash. Coach Jack Lengyel and others kept the program from being discontinued and Marshall football carries on today, having fielded some of college football’s greats like Chad Pennington and Randy Moss. Tragically, a few weeks prior to the Marshall crash, 14 members of the Wichita State football team were killed in a plane crash. 

Title IX

On June 23, 1972, Title IX became law. The law states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” For over 45 years, Title IX has greatly increased athletic opportunities for female athletes.

Spitz sets records before terror strikes

American swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals and set seven world records at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. However, his triumph was short-lived, as the games soon became overshadowed by a massacre when members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed. Spitz, who identifies as Jewish, was protected by guards once word spread of the hostage situation and was eventually taken to London then the U.S.

A Cold War controversy

The 1972 Summer Olympic men’s basketball final pitted the U.S. against the Soviet Union. In the game’s final moments, the U.S. led 50-49, but a controversial timeout call and clock malfunction led to the Soviets gaining multiple attempts at a game-winner. After the two false starts, the Soviets hit a layup as time expired for the win. The U.S., furious at the officiating, did not claim their silver medals.

The NHL faces new competition

In October 1972, the World Hockey Association began play. Bobby Hull was one of the first major stars to jump from the National Hockey League to the WHA. In 1979, a merger was formed and four WHA teams continued on in the NHL, including the Edmonton Oilers, who soon won five Stanley Cups.

Death of Roberto Clemente

On New Year’s Eve 1972, Roberto Clemente was headed to Nicaragua to bring earthquake-relief supplies, when the plane carrying him crashed. Clemente, who had just wrapped up a season with the Pittsburgh Pirates where he collected his 3,000th career hit, was only 38. Today, Major League Baseball gives the Roberto Clemente Award annually to a player who exemplifies Clemente’s spirit of community charity.


Dolphins achieve perfection

During the 1972 NFL season, the Miami Dolphins went 14-0 during the regular season. Guided by a “No-Name” defense (Manny Fernandez and Bill Stanfill were some of the actual names leading the unit), the Dolphins swept through the playoffs, capped by a 14-7 win in Super Bowl VII over the Washington Redskins. No other NFL team has won a Super Bowl with a perfect record.

The DH era begins

Beginning in the 1973 MLB season, the American League allowed teams to use a designated hitter. MLB rules state that with a DH rule, another player can bat in place of a pitcher. Over the past 45 years, the AL has become known as a league with more offensive output thanks in part to the DH, with Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz among the game’s most recognized sluggers to play that role.

Secretariat scampers to success

For the first time in 25 years, thoroughbred racing anointed a Triple Crown champion. Secretariat, a three-year-old stallion bred in Virginia, set a track record in the Kentucky Derby and easily took the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Billie Jean King wins the Battle of the Sexes

Former tennis star Bobby Riggs was known for controversial, even chauvinistic statements. Billie Jean King, one of the greatest tennis players of the 20th century, accepted a challenge from the 55-year-old Riggs in 1973, to prove that female athletes were on par with—and could even outperform—male athletes. In front of an estimated 90 million television viewers, King defeated Riggs in straight sets at the Houston Astrodome, acing a moment that would continually inspire generations of athletes to come.

UCLA’s reign (momentarily) ends

The University of California, Los Angeles men’s basketball team had seven straight national titles under their belt entering the 1974 Final Four. North Carolina State, led by David Thompson, upset the Bruins, 80-77, in double overtime. NC State won the title, but UCLA would not be down for long; they captured the 1975 national championship.


Hank Aaron becomes the HR king

Henry “Hank” Aaron hit career home run 715 on April 8, 1974. Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth’s career record for home runs and would finish his career with 755, a record that stood until 2007, when Barry Bonds became the new all-time leader.

The Rumble in the Jungle

The 1974 title fight between champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Foreman entered as a heavy favorite, but Ali, a former champion, outsmarted his foe and knocked him out in the eighth round. Throughout the fight, Ali employed his now infamous “rope-a-dope” tactic and cemented his place as one of boxing’s greatest heavyweights.

Carlton Fisk waves it fair

In Game 6 of the 1975 World Series at Boston’s Fenway Park, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk hit a walk-off home run in the 12th inning. Fisk hit a high fly ball toward the left-field wall and waved his arms to the right, hoping the ball would stay fair. It did, but the Red Sox dropped Game 7, losing the World Series.

The end of the ABA

The New York Nets won the 1976 ABA Finals, officially ending the upstart league’s history. After the last game, the Nets were one of four teams to join the National Basketball Association. The ABA led to such inventions in the NBA as the Slam Dunk Contest and the usage of a three-point shot.


A perfect 10

At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Nadia Comăneci became the first Olympic gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 score. Comăneci received 10s on both the uneven bars and balance beam and went on to win three gold medals in 1976 (she added two more golds at the 1980 Olympics).

America’s decathlon hero

Caitlyn Jenner won the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Games with a world-record score. Jenner memorably obtained an American flag and ran around the Olympic track with it in a victory lap. She later adorned the cover of a Wheaties box and was revered on television shows and with numerous awards. Later in life, Jenner has become an advocate for transgender rights.


Seattle Slew follows in Secretariat’s horseshoes

Seattle Slew entered the 1977 Kentucky Derby without having ever lost a race and by the end of the Belmont Stakes, the perfect record was still intact. Seattle Slew became the first undefeated thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown.

The legend of Mr. October

Reggie Jackson earned the moniker “Mr. October” during the 1977 World Series. In Game 6, Jackson hit three home runs, keying the New York Yankees’ 8-4 clinching victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Overall, Jackson hit five home runs in the series and earned Most Valuable Player honors.

Affirmed affirms a Triple Crown

For the second straight year, a thoroughbred won horse racing’s Triple Crown. In 1978, Affirmed, following Seattle Slew and Secretariat, became the third horse during the 1970s to take the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Affirmed would be the last horse to win all three until American Pharoah copied the feat in 2015.

Bird vs. Magic

In the 1979 NCAA men’s basketball title game, Indiana State took on Michigan State. The Sycamores were led by local legend Larry Bird, while the Spartans’ key star was Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The game has long held the distinction as the highest-rated college basketball game on television, with Johnson’s Michigan State team winning the title. Bird and Magic would carry on their rivalry to the NBA, where they suited up for the Celtics and Lakers, respectively.

Disco Demolition Night

A ballpark promotion called “Disco Demolition Night” went about as well as you would expect. On July 12, 1979, the Chicago White Sox advertised that they would blow up a crate of disco records in between games of a doubleheader against the Tigers at Comiskey Park. The aftermath of the explosion and the damage induced by the ensuing rush of fans on the field caused the cancelation and forfeiture of the second game.

Thurman Munson dies

During an off-day on Aug. 2, 1979, New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson planned to fly a small Cessna aircraft. An amateur aviator, Munson crashed the plane and died. Munson, 32, had his #15 retired by the Yankees.

Tracy Austin, 16, wins U.S. Open

Less than one year after turning pro, Tracy Austin won the U.S. Open. At 16 years, 9 months, she became the youngest ever champion of the tournament. Austin never won another Grand Slam as a singles competitor but did capture a mixed-doubles title at Wimbledon in 1980.

A Pirate family

The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates were identifiable by their usage of the Sister Sledge disco hit, “We Are Family.” The song became a rallying cry throughout the season, as the Pirates went on to win the World Series, topping the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. The leader of this baseball family? Of course, it was Willie Stargell, also known as “Pops.”

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