Celebrating the Fourth in Sports: Five Moments in July 4th Sports history

Josh McMullenCorrespondent IJuly 4, 2009

PESCARA, ITALY - JUNE 26:  Fireworks are displayed during the 2009 Mediterranean Games opening ceremony at the Adriatico Stadium on June 26, 2009 in Pescara, Italy.  (Photo by Getty Images)

Happy Fourth of July.

As we scarf down hot dogs and hamburgers, we are reminded of the history of America, from our humble beginnings as Pilgrims on the Mayflower, to today, when so many historic moments are happening.

A big part of America’s history has played out through sports, such as the Bambino’s called shot and Joe Namath’s guarantee in Super Bowl III. What follows are five moments that happened on this date that changed the sports world.

1984—The King Wins his Last Race

With President Ronald Reagan in attendance, the first sitting president to attend a race, Richard “The King” Petty won his 200th and last NASCAR race, the Firecracker 400 at Daytona.

In a race that would be shortened because of Doug Heveron’s crash on lap 158, Petty edged out Harry Gant for the victory in a one-lap shootout. Most people believe that Petty beat out Cale Yarborough, but Yarborough mistakenly went into pit road too early and finished third.

Petty didn’t go to Victory Lane afterward, but went straight to the press box to meet the president.

Petty would race for another eight years, but would never win another race. To commemorate his final victory, his number 43 car now sits in the Smithsonian.

Whether or not he won another race, this would always be one of Petty’s most memorable wins.

1910—The Fight Of The Century

On this date, boxer James Jeffries came out of a six-year retirement and put his undefeated record on the line to face Jack Johnson in Reno, Nevada.

When asked why he was going to do it, Jeffries said, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." Obviously, there was a lot of racial tension, egged on by the promoters who incited the all-white audience to “kill the ______.”

Johnson shut them all up, knocking down Jeffries twice for the first time in his career. His cornermen called it quits in the 15th round, to prevent Jeffries from being knocked out.

Johnson would earn $225,000 from the fight, and finally received the recognition from the critics, who called his victory over Tommy Burns “empty.”

1976—McCarver Makes the Bicentennial Memorable in Pittsburgh

On America’s Bicentennial, the future broadcaster would become the only person in major league baseball to blow a grand slam home run as a hitter.

In a game on this date, McCarver hit what was supposedly the game winning grand slam against Pittsburgh. During his trip around the bases, he passed teammate Gary Maddox. The confused umpires awarded McCarver a grand slam single.

Later, as host of the HBO series “The Not-So-Great Moments in Sports,” McCarver would claim that “I didn’t pass [Maddox], he lapped me.”

When asked how he could do that, McCarver replied, “Sheer speed.”

1934—The Brown Bomber Goes Professional

 On this date, Joe Louis made his professional boxing debut on Chicago’s South Side.

After winning a national amateur championship, he fought against Jack Kracken, who was making his last appearance in the ring. Louis bid farewell to Kracken by knocking him out in the first round, earning Louis $59, which wasn’t chump change in 1934.

While Kracken left professional boxing with a record of 10 wins and seven losses, Louis became one of the first African-American heroes in the United States.

What most people don’t know is that Louis was also a big part of breaking professional golf’s color barrier, when he appeared in a PGA event under a sponsor exemption.

1939—The Luckiest Man on The Face of the Earth

No sports event will ever match what happened at Yankee Stadium in 1939.

On this date, the “Iron Horse,” Lou Gehrig, made the speech that rocked the baseball world.

On Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium, an ailing Gehrig stood before thousands and thousands of fans and made one of the most poignant speeches in baseball history. After he was done, the audience stood up and applauded for two full minutes. The usually happy-go-lucky Babe Ruth came up to the visibly shaken Gehrig and hugged him. 

The New York Times called the speech “one of the most touching scenes ever witnessed on a ball field.”

They would retire his number four at the stadium that day, making him the first person in Major League Baseball to ever have that honor.

While Independence Day is a big day in American history, it’s also a pretty big day in sports history. Several events that changed the face of sports happened on this date, as well as one big event that, had it not happened, we might not have all the events mentioned here today.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.