The Sports World When Elvis Died


It’s safe to say the world changed on August 16, 1977, when Elvis Presley died at his Graceland mansion. But how much? How different is the world — and Memphis — today from that sad, late-summer day 40 years ago? I’ll leave the economy and geopolitics to other columnists. But the world of sports? Let’s take a look.

• 1977 was a dark year for professional baseball in Memphis, the last summer the Bluff City had no team to cheer. The Triple-A Memphis Blues had gone bankrupt after three seasons, former Detroit Tiger star Denny McLain proving not as capable in the front office as he’d been on the pitching mound. To the rescue came Avron Fogelman, the local real estate titan and baseball enthusiast. Baseball returned to Memphis in 1978 when the Double-A Chicks (affiliated with the Montreal Expos) joined the newly expanded Southern League. (The St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate spent precisely one season — 1977 — in New Orleans. It was a transition year between Tulsa and Springfield, Illinois.)

Up in the majors, a pair of American League expansion franchises — the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays — were playing their first season, but it was a pair of bluebloods on their way to the World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers (led by the likes of Steve Garvey and Don Sutton) were running away with the National League West and the New York Yankees (with Reggie Jackson playing his first season in pinstripes) chased down Boston and Baltimore to win the AL East. The Yanks beat L.A. in the Fall Classic, Mr. October hitting three home runs in the clincher.

• Two months before Elvis died, Al Geiberger made golf history at Colonial Country Club by shooting the first 59 in PGA history. He didn’t break 70 in his other three rounds, but Geiberger’s epic Friday earned him the winner’s check at the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. (Gary Player finished tied for second and Lee Trevino tied for ninth.) Jack Nicklaus only had 14 major titles in August 1977. The Golden Bear would win four more.

• Coach Wayne Yates commanded Memphis State basketball in 1977. The Tigers lost to Alabama in the NIT in March ’77 then missed out on postseason play the next year, posting a 19-9 record in 1977-78. Dexter Reed led the 1976-77 squad with 17.0 points per game. (The Tigers split their two 1977 meetings with Louisville.)

• The NBA grew from 18 franchises to 22 for the 1976-77 season with the addition of four ABA survivors: San Antonio, Denver, Indiana, and the New York Nets. (The Nuggets won their division.) Portland won a memorable championship behind Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, beating Philadelphia in a six-game championship series. A talented kid already known as “Magic” Johnson led Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, to a state championship.

• Fall camp was underway for the 1977 Memphis State football team when the news from Graceland broke. The Tigers had enjoyed four consecutive winning seasons and were on their way to a fifth (6-5) under third-year coach Richard Williamson. The ’77 Tigers lost to Ole Miss and Tennessee, but beat Mississippi State at the Liberty Bowl. Future NFL receiver Earnest Gray starred for the Tigers that fall.

• The NFL had 28 teams in 1977, among them the Baltimore Colts, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Oilers, and San Diego Chargers. The Oakland Raiders won the last Super Bowl Elvis (presumably) watched, beating Minnesota in Super Bowl XI (in January 1977). Five Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks were among the league’s ’77 passing leaders: Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, Kenny Stabler, Fran Tarkenton, and Terry Bradshaw. Archie Manning suffered his seventh straight losing season in the huddle for the New Orleans Saints. Tom Brady, it should be noted, was born 13 days before Elvis died. Legends come and legends go.

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