May 6, 2020

Reaching a new milestone in sports shutdown

The dispiriting milestones have become a blur two months into the sports world’s COVID-19 shutdown, but this weekend brings a significant one, alas.

Come Sunday, it will have been 59 days since the last time an NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL game was played, at which point no one under age 107 or so will remember a longer such stretch.

The previous record-holder was the 58 days in mid-1981 when a baseball strike stopped the season from June 12 until a return for a delayed All-Star Game on Aug. 9. (Regular-season games resumed the next day.)

To find a stretch longer than that — as far as I can tell — one must go back to a time when neither the NBA nor NFL existed, in the autumn of 1919.

The Reds clinched their World Series victory over the team later known as the Black Sox on Oct. 9. The four-team NHL opened its season 75 days later, on Dec. 23, when the Ottawa Senators beat the Toronto St. Patricks, 3-0.

Please correct me if I am wrong. Better yet, if you are 107 and remember that fall, text me.

Anyway, let’s go back to 1981 before we bid that sports-challenged summer adieu, since there are many of us old enough to remember it.

Sure, there was golf and tennis. John McEnroe and Chris Evert won at Wimbledon. David Graham won the U.S. Open golf tournament at Merion. Bernard Hinault won the Tour de France for the third of his five times. And Sugar Ray Leonard added the WBA junior middleweight title to his resume.

Mostly, though, people were left to fend for themselves, sports-wise, and perhaps play golf, tennis or softball with friends.

For sports media outlets, the situation was similar to what we have faced this spring: Grim.

One of my college friends had what seemed like a sweet job that summer break doing sports updates for the campus radio station. Her experience was . . . more challenging than she expected.

How did Newsday handle those 58 days? Let’s a pick a date at random and check the archives. Say . . . July 15, a Wednesday.

There was a story about Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson reporting to Dolphins rookie camp in an attempt to restart his career. (He never played a regular-season game again.)

Another story quoted 15-year-old Patrick McEnroe saying of his older brother’s on-court antics, “If every tennis player was like Bjorn Borg and never said a word during a match, it’d be boring.”

Another reported on an editorial in The Sporting News calling on fans to wear black armbands or paper bags on their heads the first day baseball returns.

A University of Wisconsin sociologist said the strike was healthy for young people because it illustrated baseball simply is a business, “warts and all.”

And, finally, there was a Joe Gergen column that should make sports journalists of 2020 feel less bad about relying heavily on oldies to keep fans engaged. Our newspaper ancestors did it in 1981, too.

Gergen wrote about an upcoming PBS replay of a 1971 documentary based on Lawrence Ritter’s classic 1966 book, “The Glory of Their Times,” about early 20th century baseball.

He wrote of the film, “This is about the best baseball news we have had for a month.”

Fred Snodgrass and Rube Marquard were among players quoted in the column. (Ask your great-grandparents.)

In The New York Times that same day, columnist Red Smith pondered scenarios that might yield a meaningful baseball postseason, while the Justice Department threatened to strip baseball of its antitrust exemption.

The Giants, meanwhile, prepared to welcome rookies to training camp. The next day, they arrived. The day after that, coach Ray Perkins was quoted praising the early work of a linebacker named Lawrence Taylor.