It’s Thursday, August 29, 2019, so I know a lot of you are sitting around wondering what the biggest sports story was on this day in 1974.
I’m just joshing – none of you were wondering that.
But now some of you might be, and before you can consult the sports desk calendar you got for Christmas, I’ll tell you what some people think was the big news.
On this date 45 years ago, 19-year-old Moses Malone became the first player to go directly from high school to major professional basketball when he signed with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association.
Granted, that was a pretty big deal.
For me, however, that news was secondary to an event that would take place beginning at 8 o’clock that night. That was the time and Chicago was the place the Birmingham Americans became the first pro football team from Alabama to appear on national television.
And I was pumped.
If you’ve ever read me, met me or been forced to sit next to me on a plane, you know that I have great affection for the World Football League and, especially, its franchises in the Magic City.
The WFL is as vivid to me now as it was when I was a kid, and when you’re a kid who has recently been gifted with a pro team to call your own, you soak in everything about it.
The WFL featured colorful uniforms (Southern Cal wore magenta and orange), cool nicknames (the Portland Storm and Detroit Wheels) and innovative rules (touchdowns were worth seven points and the “action point” replaced the PAT).
But it also had a television contract with TVS Sports, meaning the league would be broadcast nationally – or at least to markets that opted to carry the independent network. TVS covered 80 percent of the nation and had almost 100 stations on board.
The WFL scheduled most of its games on Wednesday nights, but the TVS telecasts were all on Thursdays with Merle Harmon providing play-by-play and Alex Hawkins doing color.
Finally – eight weeks into the season – it was Birmingham’s chance to shine on the national stage.
The Americans had already played seven games and won them all, and leading up to their trip to the Windy City I witnessed them beat Southern Cal, Memphis and Detroit in person at Legion Field.
But back in the 1970s there was still something special about televised games, and getting to watch “my” team take on the Chicago Fire at historic Soldier Field was a source of pride and cause for genuine excitement. It was also the first opportunity I’d have to see Birmingham wearing blue jerseys; one of the WFL’s gimmicks was that most teams wore white at home.
With my dad in his usual lounge chair perch and me sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV – armed with a large bowl of popcorn and youthful enthusiasm – this was my version of must-see TV.
It sounds silly now, especially considering the number of great televised sporting events I’ve seen in my lifetime, but this week eight showdown from a fledgling (and as we’d soon learn, flailing) league still stands out.
Former NFL standout Alex Karras (who, at the time, was riding high from his star turn as Mongo in 1974’s “Blazing Saddles”) joined Harmon and Hawkins in the booth, and all three had plenty of good things to say about the Ams. Birmingham was the only team in the league that had an unblemished record, and was generally considered the team to beat. Apparently Chicago fans were impressed, too, since the Fire’s largest crowd of the season – 44,732 – came to watch.
For the record Birmingham won, 22-8, getting rushing touchdowns from Jimmy Edwards and Art Cantrelle and a George Mira to Paul Robinson scoring toss.
The Americans never trailed but I never got too comfortable, either, since they led just 14-8 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
But this was a team that had built its reputation on surviving close calls, and in their national TV debut they came away with an 8-0 record and two game lead over both Chicago and Memphis in the Central Division.
While they didn’t have the same “wow” effect as the first time, Birmingham appeared on national TV twice more that season, with both games beaming live from Legion Field. The Americans beat Shreveport, 42-14, on September 19, and edged the Florida Blazers, 22-21, in the World Bowl (the WFL championship game) on December 5. That contest was the last for the Ams; the franchise folded and was replaced by the Birmingham Vulcans in the league’s ill-fated 1975 reboot.
For many the WFL is long forgotten, if it’s even remembered at all. Malone’s signing with Utah, on the other hand, was a seminal moment in professional sports.
So if you want to tell me his $3 million contract with the ABA was the biggest sports story of August 29, 1974, I can’t argue with you.
But as someone who still pines for the Birmingham Americans, I can’t agree with you, either.