Even if you had been there, you wouldn’t have seen it: the Babe pointing to the seats. Dempsey falling through the ropes. Merkle forgetting to touch second base. You would have been getting a red-hot. Reading a program. Calling the office. Did anybody actually witness those great moments in sports, or did sportswriters like Grantland Rice make them up against a blue-gray October sky, the lug in front of me stood up and blocked my view. All those years of everybody missing everything came to an end one fall afternoon in 1963, when a CBS producer named Tony Verna went to the videotape during an otherwise unmemorable Army-Navy game and invented television’s single greatest contribution to sports: instant replay. Verna ran a line from a camera to a borrowed tape machine in a nearby van and—voilà! Nobody was more surprised than Verna at the success of his primitive setup, or more relieved, because the tape he used already had an I Love Lucy show and a laundry-powder ad on it. “If a Duz commercial had come up there, it would have been professional suicide,” he recalls.
From that moment on, staying at home became better than being there. Leave the living room for a minute and what do you miss? Nothing. You’ll see it again and again and…nobody ever said TV was subtle…again. Aaron’s 715th homer. Flutie’s Hail Mary TD pass. Say what you will about the pithiness of the bleacher experience or the lyric stroll to the ballpark,-they can’t compete with slo-mo and super slo-mo and freeze-frame and guys named Vin, Al, John and Beano up in the booth telling you more than you ever wanted to know about the play you just saw.
Alas, TV couldn’t limit itself to elevating the viewing experience. Once the astonishing appeal of sports was understood—five of the Top 10 programs of all time have been Super Bowls—TV began turning spectator sports into spectator spoofs. Television gave us 11 A.M. NBA basketball games and college football games when college wasn’t in session. Television created The Superstars, The Women Superstars, The Challenge of the Sexes, Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes and, inevitably, the Joe Garagiola/Bazooka Big League Gum Blowing Championship. It made moto-stuntrider Evel Knievel, after 16 Wide World of Sports appearances, a living—if battered—legend. And though it is unnecessary to bespeak the fact, it gave us that intolerably intelligent, overwhelmingly omnipotent, profoundly polysyllabic master of the microphonic arts, to say nothing of the very long sentence, the man uniquely known as Howard Cosell.
Instant replay itself perpetrated no abuses, unless you count its latest incarnation as a second-guesser of NFL referees. And it has given us bountiful blessings. Before instant replay, who ever actually saw a goal scored in hockey? How could we have savored Carlton Fisk’s arm-waving leaps down the first-base line when his homer against the Reds stayed fair? How would we stop Magic Johnson in midair on his journey toward a slam-dunk, see the great putt Jack Nicklaus made on 17 while we were watching Arnie’s drive on 15, understand the sheer impossibility of Connors’s winning crosscourt forehand, which he smacked from way, way beyond the doubles line? If only instant replay had been around for Mantle’s 565-foot home run in 1953 or Sarazen’s double eagle in 1935. Imagine what the people who were there would have given for the blessing bestowed on us by television: a second chance.