In the Year That Was, 1979:
Muhammad Ali -- "The Greatest" -- retired. Finally, and officially. This time, no clinging doubt. On June 26, he put it in writing. To the World Boxing Association, in the formal statement befitting his eminence: "I don't want to kill myself training for 15 rounds. When I was 26, I could chew up and spit out the likes of Larry Holmes and Earnie Shavers and Gerrie Coetzee. But now I'm too old for that."
Little was heard of him for the rest of the year.
And for the whole year, little was heard of golfer Jack Nicklaus. Incredibly, he didn't win a single tournament, this man who was for so long the lord of the links, whose name was always on tongue's tip whenever pro golf was in mind. First time, including his rookie year of 1962, that he was shut out. The man who had never failed to finish among the top four earners in any year of tournament play was an unbelievable 71st on the money winners' list. He couldn't believe it either. He'll be 40 on Jan. 21 and hints of retiring.
Tom Watson and Nancy Lopez both had big golf years, again.
A slew of the big names of 1978 plummeted. Remember the four teams that figured in the 1978 baseball playoffs, the Yankees and Royals, the Dodgers and Phillies? They were all wiped out and didn't get into the playoffs in '79. The new faces were those of the Orioles and Angels, Pirates and Reds.
Remember good kindly Bob Lemon who began the season as a manager of the '78 World Series-winning Yankees? Gone, and before the 1979 All-Star Game break, fired by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who had Billy Martin in mind again. Never mind that Martin had been fired by Steinbrenner in mid-'78 when the Yankees were struggling. Now, under Lemon in mid-'79, the Yankees appeared to be out of it again so it was so long Bob, come back Billy.
Martin got a new three-year contract. My how it raced to an end, in October of the same year it signed. Bill in one of his moods, slugged a marshmallow salesman in the mouth dislodging several teeth. This unseemly behavior in a Minneapolis bar ofended Steinbrenner and he fired Martin again. Incidentally, the Yankees under Martin had finished in ignominious fourth, perhaps a factor.
It went to seven games in the World Series between the Orioles and the Pirates. Ol' Pappy Willie Stargell won it for the Pirates with a home run late in the final game. Willie does not run fast anymore, and his first baseman's mitt does not pick up speeding ground balls on either artificial turf (Pittsburgh) or natural grass (Baltimore). But in the final game he was proving the bat was mightier than the sward.
Edward Bennett Williams in August brought off the baseball buy of the century, the first man to succeed in persuading Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger to sell, for a measly $12 million, a World Series-bound team for the same price Charlie Finley is asking and will get for his Oakland Nothings. How did Williams alone among would-be wooers of Hoffberger's favor succeed? Hypnosis, perhaps.
Unabated was baseball's dollar explosion. Free agents continued to operate in high clover. Nolan Ryan asked for emancipation from the Angels and got a cool $5 million for five years from Houston, but Ryan had the best strikeout pitch in the majors. The Bizarre deal for himself was made by Al Hrabosky, reliever with not much of a record, who got $5.9 million for signing on with Ted Turner, flamboyant Atlanta owner, for 35 years, plus regular cost-of-living raises. He also promised a sportcaster's job at the end of his baseball usefulness.
Boxing did not go dead with the retirement of Ali, as was predicted. Only the heavyweight division suffered, dishing up pale successors in Larry Holmes, his former sparring partner, and John Tate, a very new newcomer, who are sort of cochampions.
Palmer Park's Sugar Ray Leonard, ambitious to be an Ali in miniature, grabbed up the torch in boxing. He whooshed through everybody in the welterweight class, now has won all of his 26 fights and the world title (WBC version), gained by stopping Wilfred Benitez six seconds before the end of their 15-round war in Las Vegas. More spectacularly, his base pay lately has been $1 million per fight; he will get far more as defending champ, and he has a greater cash flow than most heavyweights.
Racing belong to Affirmed, who at 4 had two duels with the 3-year-old Spectacular Bid and won both from that near winner of the Triple Crown, affirming again that he is the horse of the year, just as 1978. Poor Spectacular Bid won everything, including the Derby and Preakness, until that dratted safely pin got stuck in his hoof just before the Belmont (they say) and he lost that one to Coastal.
Tennis belonged to Bjorn Borg (again), who won at Wimbledon once more, and to Martina Navratilova, also a Wimbledon repeater, and to precocious Miss Pigtails, who is Tracy Austin, U.S. Open queen. John McEnroe whipped Borg at the Open while Jimmy Connors lost, pouted and watched his bank account grow.
The Bullets lost the basketball title they won the year before because they couldn't handle the Seattle SuperSonics in the championship series. Later in '79, they were playing as if they had little intention, at least little chance, of getting into the '80 playoffs against anybody.
College football had another famous coaching casualty, recalling the late '78 firing by Ohio State of Woody Hayes, who mauled a Clemson player on the sideline for an action Hayes didn't like, specifically his interception of a Buckeye pass. This time it was Frank Kush, longtime coach at Arizona State, dismissed, not only for allegedly punching an ASU punter whose punt he didn't like, but for trying to get his assistants to help cover up for him.
Alabama, Ohio State and Southern California are still in the running for No. 1, depending on what happens in the New Year's bowl games and the mood of the pollsters on Jan. 2.
Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah, a hurdler from the University of Maryland, was the track athlete of the year in the United States while Sebastian Coe of England made his mark with a 3:49 mile.
Magic Johnson led Michigan State over Larry Bird's Indiana State team to win the NCAA championship. Those two are in the NBA now -- Johnson with the Lakers and Bird with the Celtics -- helping improve their teams and boosting attendence throughout the league.
Montreal won a fourth consecutive NHL title in 1979, but Philadlephia has the hot skate now. The Capitals changed coaches in 1979.
Women continued to participate more on all levels of sports. Title 9 is the major reason.
The top auto drivers were Jody Scheckter, A. J. Foyt and Richard Petty. Bill Rodgers wasn't as fast as these guys, but he was the best runner in a nation gone nutty over running.
Pro football doesn't have a new champion yet. That will be decided in January's Super Bowl. But January 1979 brought a renewal of the Pittsburgh reign when they beat the Dallas cowboys, cheerleaders and all, in the big one. It was close, but only because the Steelers relaxed in the final minutes.
Two big coaching changes occurred. The Cardinals fired Bob Wilkinson because he wasn't using Steve Pisarkiewicz, the owner's pet, at quarterback. Wilkinson and everybody else preferred the proven Jim Hart. Owner Bill Bidwill got his wish, and in the Cardinals' final game Pisarkiewicz completed five of 28 passes, one reason the Cardinals lost to the Bears, 42-6, distressing news to the Redskins who thus were beaten out of the playoffs.
Ted Marchibroda was dumped by Robert Irsay, heavy-handed boss of the Colts with a reputation as an owner you'd least like to work for.
It was a 1979 Redskin team without the old faces of Billy Kilmer, Chris Hanburger, Ron McDole, Harold McLinton and Jake Scott, all of them fired, retired or traded with no great sense of loss by Coach of the Year Jack Pardee. The Redskins did better without them, especially Joe Theismann, who came of age at 30 as quarterback. Theismann reminded people who had questioned his guts that he used to run back punts for the Redskins on a volunteer basis, when he first joined the team.
The one thing that undid the Redskins, more even than the last second on the clock the referee wouldn't give them against Dallas, was their failure to hold leads of 17 and 13 points against the Cowboys at Dallas. Roger Staubach, not the referee, did them in.
At Kennedy Stadium, there was a change in the Redskins' Royal Box, Jack Kent Cooke moving in from his previous abode in Las Vegas after settling his wife's divorce suit for $26 million. To accommodate 85 percent owner Cooke and his friends, they enlarged the box formerly reserved for years for friends of Ed Williams, the 15 percent owner. Cooke was the new activist in the box, up on his feet, down in his chair and up on his feet again, a handshaker and mover, and the climate there was different. Williams' old buddies still occupied the box but they could think of an appropriate song: "They've Broken Up That Old Gang of Mine." The old ambience at the club was gone. Another casualty of '79. from the field.
Meanwhile Maryland was smoking. Ernest Graham (16 po