In the decade following WWII, Americans enjoyed a thriving economy and access to a range of new time-saving technologies. With more money to spend and an excess of leisure time, people turned to sports for recreation and entertainment. Baseball in the '50s arguably still reigned supreme, but other sports competed for the nation's attention.
TV Brings It Home
Television's increasing popularity during the 1950s had a dramatic impact on sports. Although TV was first developed in the 1930s, aggressive marketing of the newest technology didn't begin until after the war's end. In 1946, there were fewer than 17,000 television sets in the U.S. Three years later, consumers were buying sets at a rate of 250,000 per month. The buying frenzy continued throughout the 1950s and, by 1960, three-quarters of all American families owned at least one TV. Television brought sports -- from professional bowling and boxing to college football bowl games -- into family rooms across the country, creating a new generation of diehard fans.
The '50s produced its share of remarkable athletes, stellar teams and history-making sports events that grabbed the public's attention. Highlights from the decade include the following:
- In 1950, female tennis wonder Althea Gibson became the first black player to participate in the U.S. National Championships. Gibson went on to win the singles title at the U.S. Championships in 1957 and 1958; the French title in 1956; the Wimbledon title in 1957 and 1958; and five Grand Slam doubles titles.
- Over the course of the decade, the New York Yankees won eight American League pennants and six World Series. Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron and other baseball greats were hailed as national heroes.
- October 3, 1951 marked the first coast-to-coast television broadcast of a baseball game. The New York Giants' Bobby Thomson hit a home run that became known as the "Shot Heard ’round the World."
- In September 1955, over 400,000 people across America tuned in to watch Rocky Marciano defend his heavyweight boxing championship against Archie Moore.
- In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams became the first team in the National Football League to arrange for all its games -- both home and away -- to be televised.
- In 1952, hockey's Chicago Black Hawks began broadcasting their Saturday matinee games, which remained a Hawks tradition for years.
- Chuck Cooper was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1950, earning the title of first black player to enter the National Basketball Association.
- In college football, the Oklahoma Sooners won three national championships over the course of the decade. The team was undefeated from 1953 to November 1957.
Over the course of the decade, Little League baseball grew into a massive enterprise, attracting kids and fans from across the country. In 1949, there were a total of 307 leagues in the United States. By 1960, the number of leagues had jumped to 5,500, including programs that sprouted beyond America's borders. In 1955, future U.S. President George W. Bush played his first of four years at Central Little League of Midland, Texas; Bush was 9 at the time and played catcher for the Cubs. In 1959, the Howard J. Lamade Stadium was built in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to support Little League's explosive popularity.
The first issue of Sports Illustrated magazine was published on August 16, 1954. As was the case with television, SI brought sports news and analysis directly into people's homes. According to Earl Smith, editor of Sociology of Sport and Social Theory, the magazine had a major impact on the American sports-minded public. From the first issue, writes Smith, the magazine helped shape the public's perception of what was important in the world of sports.