Professional sports finally captured the hearts of many sports fans across the world in the 1960s. During the monumental decade, professional basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and other sporting events like figure skating and boxing overlapped with each other, much to the delight of many sports enthusiasts. Sports coverage on television also vastly improved, capturing many dramatic and historical moments and helping produce some of the biggest and glamorous athletes and stars in sports history. In this article, let’s look back at the biggest names in sports during the 1960s, proving that the decade is one for the books.
Wilma Rudolph was a sickly child, having paralyzed by polio, and contracting pneumonia and scarlet fever during her early childhood days. While many physicians believed she might not regain her ability to walk, Rudolph proved them otherwise. With sheer determination, she was able to walk again by the age of 12. She joined athletics and competed in the 1956 Olympic Games, earning a bronze medal. Four years later, she joined the 1960 Olympic Games, winning three gold medals, making her the first female American athlete to make such an achievement in one Olympics. Decades later, Wilma Rudolph remains one of the biggest sports stars in the 60s and one of the greatest female track-and-field athletes in sports history.
Sandy Koufax catapulted to popularity during the peak of his career in the 1960s. He was part of the All-Stars for six consecutive sessions from 1961 to 1966, and earned three Cy Young awards (1963, 1965, and 1966.) Though he retired early from the sport, Koufax had a 137-70 record and led the NL ins victories, strikeouts, and average in most of stint in the 60s, easily placing him as one of the
as one of the greatest players in baseball history.
Hailed as one of the best offensive players in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain holds the single-game scoring record in the league after scoring 100 points against the Knicks in 1962, turning him not only to a star but a sports legend. In the same season, he also racked up 4,029 points with an average of 50.4 points per game. Michael Jordan is the only other player who scored more than 3,000 points in one season, proving Wilt Chamberlain’s dominance and making him one of the most prominent sports figures in the 60s.
Renowned as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Rod Laver is the only player, male or female, to win calendar Grand Slams in singles twice. In 1962, the Australian athlete emerged victorious in four major singles championships (Australian, Wimbledon, French, and the U.S.) and became the second male tennis player to achieve such a feat after Don Budge in 1938. Laver earned another calendar Grand Slam in 1969, making him the first male tennis player to win four major titles twice, a record he solely held for 52 years. Adidas launched the iconic “Rod Laver” tennis shoes in 1970 as an honor of his greatness.
Bill Russell is the long-standing, good-natured rival of Wilt Chamberlain. While the latter may have earned the scoring records, the outstanding Boston Celtics center led his team to a total of nine titles in the decade. Russell became the foundation of the Celtics’ supremacy in the 60s after revolutionizing the concept of defense in the NBA. Before Michael Jordan’s arrival in 1984, Russell has been widely glorified as the greatest player in NBA history.
Bobby Hull is acclaimed as one of the greatest NHL players in history. He won the Art Ross Trophy for scoring the most points in 1960, 1962, and 1966, and was hailed as MVP and earned the Hart Trophy in 1965 and 1966. Nicknamed as the “Golden Jet” due to his impressive skating speed, swift hard slap shots, and end-to-end dashes. Often, the opposing team tasked one or two more players to shadow Hull, a recognition of his amazing explosiveness and sheer talent.
Adored for her grace and beauty in and out of the skating rink, Peggy Fleming dominated the world-level women’s figure skating competition from 1964 to 1968. The icing on top of her career happened in 1968 after she became the only American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. Yet, her mark transcended that, as her victory renewed Americans’ interest in the sport. Fleming served as an important icon to many future champions in the world of figure skating.
Though Jim Brown only played six seasons in the NFL in the 1960s, he won a total of five rushing titles in the decade. He retired early despite being at his peak to focus fully on acting, but he left with glory as he played his season being the star of the league. Though he was far less successful as an actor, Jim Brown remains as one of the most dominant players of his era and the entire NFL history, being an eight-time rushing champion and three-time MVP in his nine years in professional football.
Starting his glorious career in baseball in the 1950s, Willie Mays continued his legacy in the 1960s. He belted 350 home runs in the decade. 53 of those came in 1965 when he also led the NL and won his second MVP award. Mays possessed extraordinary fielding and batting skills, which made him an invaluable asset to the team he joined until the end of his career in 1973. In 1979, Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979 and is still considered as one of the best all-around players in the sport.
Another household name in football is Johnny Unitas who is consistently listed as one of the greatest players in NFL history. His fruitful career spanned from 1956 to 1973 but he earned two out of his three MVP in the 1960s, in 1964 and 1965. Dubbed as the “Golden Arm,” Unitas was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979 and served as the modern prototype of an excellent marquee quarterback.
The biggest star of the 1960s and perhaps the world’s most renowned athlete, Muhammad Ali’s mobility, speed, power, and quick reflexes were a big surprise in the 60s. Adding the level of elegance and artistry he added to sport, which big men before him didn’t exude, Ali turned the audience’s perception of the sport tenfold. He dominated the world of boxing and became the first fighter to win the world heavyweight championship three times. Yet, he was more than just his dazzling fighting styles and skills, as he also used his words to send powerful social messages, making an impact beyond the world of sports. Today, Ali is still regarded as the most influential and the greatest boxer that ever lived.