Written by Rick Haggerty
Gerald Ford clutched a baseball in each hand. Moments earlier, the 38th President of the United States had received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd at Veterans Stadium and had taken his front-row seat next to soon-to-be-retired home run king Hank Aaron at the 1976 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
After Phillies pitching great Robin Roberts and former Cleveland Indians star Bob Lemon–both of whom were elected to the Hall of Fame that year and were serving as the honorary all-star captains–handed over the ceremonial first baseballs, Ford stood with a grin on his face.
The starting all-star catchers, Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds and Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees, lined up. Ford fired a right-handed strike to Bench and followed with a left-handed one to Munson. But the ambidextrous president–one month away from fending off Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention and four months shy of ceding the White House to Jimmy Carter–was not the only one with his hands full.
The 1976 Bicentennial sports calendar in Philadelphia was packed to honor the nation’s 200th anniversary.
In addition to baseball, America’s birthplace also hosted the NBA and NHL all-star games. And in the year in which Congress posthumously promoted George Washington to the highest rank in United States military history, another man known as “The General” – 35-year-old Robert Montgomery Knight – guided Indiana to an 86-68 victory over Michigan in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game at the Spectrum, capping what still stands as the last undefeated season by the men’s Division I champion. The all-star games and the Final Four may have been the highlights, but there was a different event nearly every week of the nation’s 200th birthday year. The first page of the NBA all-star program welcomed fans to
“Philadelphia: Hub of the Sports World in 1976” – a bold claim considering that Innsbruck and Montreal hosted the Winter and Summer Olympic Games, respectively, that year. Unlike the quadrennial games, though, there was something unique about what Philadelphia did.
“This is the Bicentennial Year and never in the 200 year history of our country has there been a sports happening as there will be this year in Philadelphia,” the NBA program continued.
“There are more national sporting events scheduled for the city and its environs than any locale in history.”
While that proclamation is impossible to verify, the events that the program went on to list were extensive. Beyond the major sports, the city played host to events as varied as the World Karate Games, the United States Badminton Championships, and the American Bicentennial Rodeo. And, of course, it goes without saying that there could have been no better home for the 1976 World Darts Championship. If only the City Tavern had sported a dartboard in 1776, surely Ben Franklin would have applied his natural organizing skills to start a league.
Eleven years from now, when our nation turns 250 years old, Philadelphia can again become the “Hub of the Sports World.”
USA250 has started the planning. At the Toast250 kickoff event on April 30, Phillies chairman David Montgomery announced that the Phillies are on board. They have already submitted their request to host the 2026 All-Star Game to the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office.
Citizens Bank Park is in its 12th year of operation and has never hosted the Midsummer Classic. Montgomery confirmed that is on purpose. While most baseball stadiums that have been constructed since 2000 have already hosted or are in line to host in the next few years, Montgomery said the Phillies “are being a little stubborn” and holding out for the 2026 game.
If the rest of the local sports scene follows the Phillies’ lead, the 2026 Philadelphia sports calendar can be even more impressive than the 1976 version. In 2014, the NFL proved that an outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl could be successful. There is no reason for Philadelphia not to have its opportunity to host. On a worldwide scale, there is speculation that the United States is the favorite to land the 2026 World Cup. While games would be held throughout the country, Philadelphia should be at the top of any list of potential host cities.
With the necessary facilities already in place and with appropriate planning, all of this is possible without incurring the financial calamities that so frequently befall Olympic host cities that spend billions on new facilities that sit empty and useless after the closing ceremony – a fate that Boston has been trying to avoid ever since the U.S. Olympic Committee named it as the nation’s candidate to host the 2024 Summer Games.
The Founding Fathers knew that the nation’s birthday would always be a cause for celebration – even if they could not conceive what that nation would look like after 250 years. Writing to his wife, Abigail, from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams thought that the anniversary of independence “ought to be solemnized with pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.”
Philadelphia’s sports community met Adams’s expectation in 1976 and has the chance to do so again in 2026. Montgomery told the USA250 crowd that his wish is that every major sporting event in 2026 be held in Philadelphia. The first steps have been taken. Now we need to find out if the World Darts Championship has made any plans yet.
Rick Haggerty is an attorney at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and a former sports writer.