City of Champions
[Edited to correct several typos.]
Winning a championship in a major pro sport is great, and fans in many cities have experienced it. You don’t have to be from a booming metropolis to share with your favorite team the thrill of victory. Hell, even Kansas City has had two championships: the Chiefs in Super Bowl IV, and the Royals in the 1985 World Series. Have you been to Kansas City? I have, and I can attest that it’s nothing exciting. If folks in KC can have a championship, anybody can.
But while many places have celebrated one or more titles, few if any have enjoyed the success that has graced the Boston area in the last decade. Come to think of it, Boston has never before enjoyed this level of success in such a short span of time. And some people hate us for it, think we’ve gotten spoiled, especially now that the Bruins have joined the pantheon of recent victors. Not that we haven’t had winners before these last ten years; we have. Just not so close together.
Some background is in order. We’ve had pro sports around here pretty much since there have been pro sports. The Boston Red Stockings baseball club was established in 1870 and played here, last as the Boston Braves, through the 1952 season. That National League franchise, now based in Atlanta, lays claim to being “the oldest continuously operating professional sports franchise in America.” And it was here for more than 80 years, including the 1914 season when they won the World Series.
In 1901, another baseball league formed to rival the National League. The American League began with eight teams in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Washington DC—and Boston. The Americans, as they were known for years before becoming the Red Sox, competed quite successfully for the attention of the city’s baseball fans, and when the rival leagues decided to play a “World’s Series” in 1903, the Americans began a run that brought them five titles in the next 16 years. Then the well ran dry, and the Sox made it back to the World Series only four times in the next 85 years, each time losing in seven games.
The National Basketball Association has a shorter history, but as with Major League baseball, Boston was there at the start. Or to be more accurate, Boston was there before the start. The NBA was actually the combination of two other leagues, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and an older National Basketball League (NBL). It was the BAA, the premier league of the two, founded in 1946, of which the Boston Celtics were a charter member. Interestingly, the BAA was an international league at the beginning, with a charter franchise in Toronto that lasted only one season. (That Canadian city was the site of what NBA historians consider the league’s first game even though the league wasn’t yet called the NBA. But that’s another story.)
It took the Celtics a decade to achieve the dominance for which they were to become known, and in the 1956-57 season they enjoyed the first of nine consecutive season in which they led the league. They won championships in eight of those nine years and in five of the 11 years after that. They added four more titles in the 1980s, then entered a dry spell from which it seemed they might never emerge.
If Boston has been a presence from the inception of major professional baseball and basketball, the same can’t be said with football. The original National Football League, founded in 1920 and first named the American Professional Football Conference, didn’t have a Boston team until the Pottsville (Pennsylvania) Maroons moved to Boston in 1929 and renamed themselves the Bulldogs. They folded a year later, and pro football wouldn’t return to the area until the Boston Yanks (no, really) from 1944-48. But the Yanks moved to New York and folded a few years later. Then in 1959, in response to the growing popularity of the NFL, a rival American Football League (AFL) formed, fielding its first teams in 1960. One of those teams was the Boston Patriots, who played six of their ten seasons at Fenway Park. Shortly after the AFL merged with the NFL, the Patriots moved to Foxborough, Massachusetts, and renamed themselves the New England Patriots.
The Patriots had many years of futility peppered with some success. They made the playoffs once in the 1960s, twice in the ’70s, three times in the ’80s, and four times in the ’90s. They even made it to the Super Bowl twice, in 1986 and 1997, losing both times in humiliating fashion. They were the red-headed stepchild of Boston sports, having never won the big prize.
And then there were the Bruins. Like their basketball and baseball neighbors, the Bruins were there from the start, sort of. The National Hockey League had been formed in Canada in 1917, but it was comprised entirely of Canadian teams. The Bruins became the league’s first U.S. team in 1924. The next two decades saw lots of NHL expansion activity but also the departure of several teams, and the league contracted down to six teams in 1942. Those six teams, of which the Bruins are one, are now known as the “Original Six” even though only two of them were in the league from its inception.
From their founding through the end of World War II, the Bruins won three Stanley Cups and lost in the finals twice. They also lost four more times in the next 15 years, but help was on the way as the team spent the 1960s assembling what would be the building blocks of championship teams in 1970 and 1972. Though they continued to be a contender, appearing in five more Stanley Cup finals, they didn’t win it again. After the 1989-1990 season, the glory years became a distant memory.
In the aggregate, from three of our four major sports teams, we enjoyed championships from one team or another in every decade from the 1900s through the 1980s. But after the Celtics won their 16th title in 1986, it all came to a halt. Until…
The Patriots changed ownership a few times, finally ending up the property of Robert Kraft, who pledged to turn the hapless franchise into a winner. His plan came to fruition at the end of the 2001 season with an underdog victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Pats won two more titles in the next three years. In the meantime, the Red Sox also got new ownership who were as committed to winning as the Kraft family was. Their efforts paid off with a World Series championship in 2004, the team’s first in 86 years. Then they won again three years later, just to prove ’04 wasn’t a fluke. The following spring, the Celtics won their first title in 22 years.
It was an embarrassment of riches, a glut of happiness for a city and a region that had forgotten what is was like to win anything. Three of our teams won a total of six championships in seven years. Yet the Bruins remained on the outside looking in.
That changed on Wednesday night. With the Stanley Cup back in Boston, our hockey team is right back on the front burner. Claude Julien joins guys named Belichick, Francona, and Rivers as a leader of the very best. The Bruins are “no longer just a suburb in the City of Champions. They’re full-fledged residents.”
Younger people around here take all this for granted. Winning is all they know; of course they’re spoiled. But the rest of us aren’t, believe me. We know what it’s like to lose, and we know that this is better. We appreciate the success and are enjoying it while we have it, just like you’d do in our position.
So don’t hate us. Let us have our fun. And when your team wins, it will be your turn.