The reaction on social media was immediate and celebratory when American Pharoah won the Belmont early Saturday evening to become horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Some, I imagine, were even avid followers of the sport.
Everyone needed to let the world (the Twitter world, anyway) know that sports history had been made. They saw it! They recognized its rare and profound significance. Some mentioned it was the first Triple Crown of their lifetime, as if it had happened to them.
Whether you knew a furlong from a fur rug, it was a moment for all to share. It has been quite awhile since Affirmed won all three big races. Steve Cauthen, who was a mere 18 years old when he rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown in ’78, was at Belmont for the historic moment. I saw a photo of Cauthen and he looked like some weathered TV news correspondent.
Yeah, 1978 was a lifetime ago. There are people who don’t remember Bucky Dent hitting that famous home run at Fenway Park in a one-game playoff for the AL East title four months after Affirmed won the Belmont. I’ve been trying to forget it for years.
You missed a lot if you weren’t alive for the 1970s. A horse racing Triple Crown isn’t the only thing we haven’t seen repeated since then:
• No woman has won LPGA Rookie and Player of the Year in the same year since Nancy Lopez in 1978. Lopez, an ebullient 21-year-old from New Mexico, won a record five straight tournaments that season (later tied by Annika Sorenstam).
Lopez’s streak almost directly paralleled the ’78 Triple Crown. She started it on May 14 in Baltimore, six days before Affirmed won the Preakness there. She won her fifth in the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill in Rochester on June 18, 10 days after Affirmed won the Belmont to complete the Crown.
• The last major leaguer to get a hit in 40 consecutive games was Pete Rose in 1978. Rose hit in 44 straight, the second-longest in baseball history behind Joe DiMaggio’s 56 in a row. The streak began on June 14, four days after Affirmed won the Belmont and four days before Lopez won at Locust Hill.
• In September of ’78, Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight boxing title for the last time when he beat Leon Spinks, avenging a loss to Spinks that February. It was the first and only time a boxer won the “lineal” heavyweight title for a third time – that is, winning it from the man who actually owned the title.
• The last time a left-handed pitcher won 25 games was the Yankees’ Ron Guidry in 1978. He won his 25th in that one-game playoff at Fenway Park, when Dent hit that three-run homer that I long ago erased from my memory banks.
• While we’re wallowing in regret, the last game the Braves ever played was on April 9, 1978. They lost in Boston, 131-114. It was also the final NBA game for John Havlicek, who scored 29 points. The Braves left and became the Clippers, who have yet to break the curse and reach a conference final.
• The last British woman to win Wimbledon was Virginia Wade in 1977 – yes, three weeks after Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown.
• The last American to win a medal in Olympic cross country (nordic) skiing was Bill Koch, who won silver in the 30 kilometers at Innsbruck in 1976. He remains the only U.S. Nordic skier to win a medal at an Olympics.
• The last time the Bills led the NFL in passing yardage was in 1977. They went 3-11. Joe Ferguson completed 48.4 percent of his throws, with 12 TD passes and 24 interceptions. Hey, I found it interesting.
• The last unbeaten men’s Division I basketball team was Indiana in 1976. Kentucky gave it a run last season, but I don’t see any team getting that close again in my lifetime. Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers went 32-0.
• The last American to be world chess champion was Bobby Fischer in 1975. Fischer spent 54 months as No. 1, winning a historic match with Soviet Boris Spassky along the way. Fischer became a famous recluse. If you don’t think chess is a sport, send a complaint to my Mailbag.
• Not to reopen more old wounds, Buffalo fans, but the last man to lead the NHL in penalty minutes three years running was the Flyers’ Dave Schultz from 1972-75. Schultz had a record 472 PIM in ’75. Unlike some of his opponents’ faces, it’ll never be broken.
• The last – and only – black man to win a singles title at Wimbledon was Arthur Ashe in 1975. It was the last of Ashe’s three Grand Slam victories.
• The last pitcher to appear in 100 games in a season was Mike Marshall of the Dodgers in 1974. Marshall threw in 106 games. He had 15 wins, 21 saves and won the Cy Young Award. No other pitcher has ever appeared in 100 games.
• In 1973, Johnny Miller became the first and only male golfer to shoot 63 in the final round of the U.S. Open. It came eight days after another stunning finish – Secretariat’s 31-length win at Belmont to complete a Triple Crown.
• The Knicks won their last NBA title in 1973, five days after Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in record time. The Warriors haven’t won an NBA crown since 1975, but that streak is bound to end soon.
• The last American man to win the Olympics marathon was Frank Shorter in 1972, in his native Munich. I’ll never forget the headline on the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week: “In The Long Run, It’s Shorter.”
• The last D-I men’s basketball player to average 40 points for a full season was Mississippi’s Johnny Neumann. He went for 40.1 a game in 1970-71, one year after Pete Maravich ended his run of averaging 40 three years in a row.
• In 1970, Pele became the first and only player to win three World Cups when Brazil beat Italy in the final in Mexico City. Another record that isn’t likely to be broken in our lifetimes.