“What time is it? You mean now?” – Yogi Berra
If you were a time traveler from 1961, you’d notice some obvious changes in professional sports. In Major League Baseball, the athletes are bigger, in better shape, and wear tighter uniforms without the traditional stirrup socks. You don’t see anyone with a Babe Ruth physique in the big leagues anymore. Comparing Mark McGwire’s muscular physique to the Babe’s, it’s a wonder Mark didn’t hit 120 homers.
In all professional sports the pay is much higher. Willie Mays, one of the best baseball players in 1961, was paid $85,000, a good salary at the time. That’s equivalent to about $730,000 in today’s dollars. In contrast, today Mike Trout, a leading baseballer, is paid almost $38 million a year. LeBron James of the NBA is paid about the same. That’s much more than the salary of almost all CEOs and many times more than the salary paid the President of the U.S.
What else would you notice? In the NFL and NBA the players are also bigger and more muscular than their 1961 counterparts. Most players look like they pump iron, with the possible exception of Tom Brady. In the NBA, (I hope I can say this without getting in trouble), there are very few white guys left. In 1961 the leading players were Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Walt Bellamy but there were also good players like Jerry West, Bob Cousy, and Bob Petit. NBA teams today pick the best players without regard to race. They do this to win games. Makes sense.
Oh, the old school basketball shorts in 1961 were a lot shorter than they are today. The NBA has also expanded to China and sees China as a major new source of fans and revenue.
In the NFL, players are much bigger, stronger and faster. Quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes of the KC Chiefs can throw the ball to receivers 75 yards down field on target. In 1961 Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts had the reputation of having a rifle arm but I doubt he could throw nearly as far as Mahomes or Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills with such accuracy.
In professional golf, Arnold Palmer ruled the course in 1961. He smoked cigarettes as he played and threw his L&M on the green before each putt. Today professional golfers are much bigger, more muscular and non-smokers. Palmer, a man of average size with an unorthodox swing, could sometimes hit drives over 300 yards even with an old-fashioned wooden driver with a metal shaft . Tiger Woods broke the routine 300-yard drive barrier much like Roger Bannister made the 4-minute mile commonplace. Today pros like Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, using drivers with long, graphic shafts and aerodynamic-designed heads, often hit drives of 380 yards.
In tennis, the game has also changed. In 1961, the game was primarily a finesse game of serve and volley. Masters of the game were Rod Laver and Tony Roche from Australia and Margaret Court of the UK on the women’s tour. A few years later came John Newcombe of Australia and Billie Jean King of the U.S. Over the last 60 years the game has gradually changed to a power game. Rackets have gotten bigger and they are made of composite materials, not wood. Big servers deliver their serves at blazing fast speeds. People like John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg who ruled the courts in the ‘80s would not have a chance today. On the women’s side, Serena Williams’ power game has dominated women’s tennis for many years. The men’s tour is a little different. There are power players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and a few 6’9” super servers on tour. The one exception is Roger Federer who has a good serve but also a serve-and-volley finesse game.
Another change in sports is that today some athletes, like Hollywood entertainers, want to use their notoriety to publicly express their political opinions. Many NBA players, including LeBron James have spoken out on various issues. LeBron has let it be known that he would like to be considered a thought leader. Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player, famously refused to stand for the national anthem and was followed by many others.
In 1961 the world of professional sports was magical for 10-year-old boys. Today it’s different. Kids still have their sports heroes but the pro sports vibe is much more polished, more business-oriented. Today, even college athletes want to be paid. With few exceptions, gone is the pretense that players are in it solely for love of the game.