A Paper: Great Gentile Athletes of the Early 1970s, by Dan Bern

There were many great Gentile athletes in America during the early 1970s. One of these was Jim Palmer. What a player he was, and a pitcher. He was a Baltimore Oriole and won the Cy Young award many times over. He was also part of a staff of four 20-game winners on the same team in the same year. That’s only happened maybe twice.

By coincidence, all four of the pitchers on that staff–Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cueller and Pat Dobson–were Gentiles. The news guys got ahold of it and made a big deal about it, and the fans liked it. “Gentile 4” t-shirts were a hot item in Baltimore that summer.

Another great Gentile athlete of this period was O.J. Simpson. He had come out of U.S.C. as the Heisman Trophy winner for 1968. Then he joined the Buffalo Bills. After a few tough seasons on poor teams, the Bills finally built a strong front line and the gifted Simpson burst forth with the league’s first-ever 2,000 yard rushing season, in 1975.

That was also the dawn of Monday Night Football, during which Simpson got his 1,000th yard in just the 7th game of the year. The star of Monday Night Football was Howard Cosell. He was neither a Gentile nor an athlete.

No discussion of Gentile athletes of the early ’70s would be complete-not that this is to be by any means complete-without speaking about Wilt Chamberlain. By the early ’70s a lot of Chamberlain’s spring was gone but he could still intimidate and grab rebounds and dunk. He wore a yellow headband and he played on the Lakers and led them to 33 wins in-a-row at one point. Chamberlain was the cornerstone of what became a legacy of great L.A. centers, from Alcindor and Walton at UCLA, to Chamberlain, Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal with the Lakers. All of these centers-Walton, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal-have one thing in common, and that’s this: they’re all Gentiles.

One intriguing Gentile athlete of the early ’70s was Ilie Nastase, the tennis player from Romania. All of tennis’s charisma since then-which is to say, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and to some degree Andre Agassi and the Williams Sisters-can be traced to the slump-shouldered, cigarette-smoking devil from Bucharest. He blew Wimbledon to Stan Smith in 1972 and then won the U.S. Open. Borg was just getting going. Laver was done. Nastase was the best, and a Gentile, as were all those he paved the way for-Connors and McEnroe and Agassi and Venus and Serena. Brian Gottfried was not a Gentile but a very good tennis player. And Spiro Agnew was a Gentile, but no athlete. This paper is about Gentile athletes, of a particular period.

In conclusion, you have to mention, in this discussion, Roberto Clemente, the Gentile Pirate, and the 1972 Miami Dolphins who went undefeated fielding an entire squad of Gentiles, and Muhammad Ali, the great Gentile boxer, fresh out of suspension and back on the hunt again. In 1971 he fought another Gentile, Joe Frazier, in the “Fight of the Century.” A few years later he beat George Foreman, yet another Gentile, in the jungle of Zaire, to take back the title.

And Brian’s Song, a popular TV movie of the time, featured the bond between two Gentile Chicago Bears- Gale Sayers and the dying Brian Piccolo.

All in all, the early 1970s were a fertile time for the Gentile athlete in America. It was not without its sad times-the death of the Gentile Detroit Lion, Chuck Hughes, and the career ends of two great Gentiles, Joe Namath and Willie Mays, with strange teams and uniforms (although Mays no doubt enjoyed a final season in New York, and his first World Series in 11 years).

Still, despite these moments, the early ’70s were good for the Gentile athlete. Facial hair was flourishing. So were personalities. Gentiles like Namath, Nastase, Chamberlain, Reggie Jackson and Bill Lee were expressing themselves as had athletes never before-Gentile or otherwise. If the sports world was slow to absorb the social upheavals of the ’60s, by the early ’70s it was everywhere-sweatbands, afros, beards, colored shoes. And the Gentile athlete was in the middle of it all.