The Fourth of July stands out for those living in the United States for a number of reasons. It serves as an opportunity to celebrate independence, a chance to bust out the grill for a barbecue, and an excuse to set off fireworks for family and friends.
Even under normal circumstances before the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the day falls in the downtime of the sports calendar, with the NBA and NHL postseasons generally just wrapping up and NFL teams prepping for the start of training camp.
MLB then takes center stage as far as the Big Four sports leagues are concerned, living up to its nickname as “America’s Pastime,” while other sports like soccer, boxing, MMA, tennis and more join the fray.
Despite the inactivity in some cases when Independence Day rolls around, the holiday has still provided for some memorable sports moments over the years. So, to celebrate in the only way we know how, it’s time to count down the Fourth of July’s top six sports memories.
6. July 4, 1985: Mets and Braves go 19 innings
Considering this list is focused on the Fourth of July itself, it’s tough to start it off with a game that technically ended on July 5. However, when “America’s Pastime” leads to a game going 19 innings, it’s okay to let some criteria slide.
On July 4, 1985, the Mets and Braves squared off at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, with first pitch hitting the catcher’s mitt around 9 p.m. that night. Unfortunately for those suited up to play in the game, and those watching in the stands, the game wouldn’t end for another six hours, finally finishing up after the clock struck 3 a.m.
There were 29 total runs over the span of those near-20 innings, nine of which were scored in the final two innings alone. Most notably, pitcher Rick Camp, with a sub-.100 lifetime batting average, hit the lone home run of his career to tie the game in the 18th inning.
In the end, the Braves couldn’t send their fans home happy, as the Mets scored five runs in the top of the 19th before sealing a 16-13 win.
The game gave fans a nice “two-for-one” deal that shoppers have become accustomed to when the Fourth of July rolls around, and seems like a fitting first stop on this six-part tour around the country.
5. July 4, 1980: Nolan Ryan becomes fourth pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts
Next up, we travel back in time five years, and fly from Atlanta up to Cincinnati for a game between the Astros and Reds.
Heading into the day, a then-33-year-old Nolan Ryan was in search of three more strikeouts in order to reach a historic mark in baseball lore. He was aiming to become just the fourth pitcher in MLB history to record 3,000 strikeouts, and was ready to hit the milestone on Independence day.
He struck out two batters, including Ken Griffey Sr., in the first inning, before Cesar Geronimo stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the second.
The Reds outfielder became a part of baseball history at that moment: He struck out to become Ryan’s 3,000th victim, and for the second time in his career, Geronimo was on the receiving end of a pitcher’s 3,000th punchout (he was at the plate when Bob Gibson reached the mark, as well).
Ryan’s Astros didn’t get the last laugh on the night, however, as the Reds won 8-1 with ease. But, the night will always be remembered for Ryan’s history-making moment, and springs it into the top five on this list for that reason.
4. July 4, 1981: John McEnroe wins the first of his three Wimbledon titles
Just like the first moment on this list didn’t technically end on the Fourth of July, this memory didn’t even take place in the United States. But, it involves a pivotal point in the career of an all-time American in the sport of tennis, and a rivalry between two of the best to ever hold a racquet.
On July 4, 1981, John McEnroe took on Bjorn Borg in the Wimbledon finals, in search of his first title at the event. Meanwhile, Borg entered the battle on an absolute tear, holding a 41-match Wimbledon winning streak while looking to take home his sixth straight title.
The setting could not have been more perfect for the 22-year-old American, as he battled back to make his country proud, defeating the Swedish tennis star to earn the first of what would become three Wimbledon crowns.
Unfortunately for McEnroe, however, three wasn’t the magic number when it came to this countdown, as his victory slides him into the fourth spot on this Pick-Six.
3. July 4, 1984: Richard Petty records 200th and final victory at the Firecracker 400
If you ask NASCAR fans, there’s nothing more American than sitting at the racetrack on a Saturday afternoon and watching drivers go to work with hundreds of laps at their disposal. On the same note, the sport’s fans may think that Richard Petty is the definition of an American hero.
Petty, fittingly nicknamed “The King,” appeared in almost 1,200 races throughout his career, and holds numerous records in the NASCAR history books. His seven NASCAR Cup Series championships are tied for the most in the sport’s lore, and his 200 career wins made him the all-time leader in the NASCAR Cup Series.
But, there may not be a better moment than that final, 200th victory, which came on July 4, 1984. Just two days after his 47th birthday, Petty took home the win at the Firecracker 400 at the Daytona International Speedway after a heated last lap against Cale Yarborough.
The win would turn into Petty’s final in the NASCAR Cup Series, with the driver unable to pick up a victory over the span of the next eight years before his retirement.
It’s not often that a NASCAR driver earns a Presidential Medal of Freedom, but Petty received just that in 1992, showcasing his impact on the country as a whole.
Add in the fact that President Ronald Reagan was in attendance for the event to become the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR race, and there’s not much more you can ask for when you’re searching for all-time moments on Independence Day.
2. July 4, 2016: Kevin Durant announces he will sign with the Warriors
When it comes to NBA Free Agency, two names stick out among the rest when it comes to earth-shattering, league-altering decisions: LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
James’ initial departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with the Miami Heat on July 8, 2010 remains one of the most-talked-about moments in both basketball and sports history.
Then, Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder in favor of the Golden State Warriors, who had already compiled a 73-9 regular season record a year prior, likely sits in second place.
After weeks of courting from numerous teams around the league, Durant broke the entire world on July 4, 2016. He wouldn’t be staying with the Thunder. He wouldn’t be heading to a franchise on the brink of success like the Celtics or Clippers. He would be joining the very team that beat him in the postseason just a few months prior: the Warriors.
Unlike the other five picks on this list, there’s no single game, match, race or anything like that when it comes to this Fourth of July moment.
There are, however, multiple years’ worth of games where the Warriors were able to send out a starting lineup that included the likes of Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Zaza Pachulia.
There are multiple years’ worth of NBA Finals battles with LeBron James’ Cavaliers, and multiple years’ worth of NBA Finals MVP honors for Durant to put on his resume as a result. It changed the tone of the year for three years, and even jumpstarted a new superteam in Brooklyn when Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan signed with the Nets in 2019.
While it isn’t tough to earn this title when there aren’t any games to be played on July 4, Durant’s signing with the Warriors remains, and likely will continue to stay, the single-largest event in basketball history on Independence Day.
1. July 4, 1939: Lou Gehrig delivers iconic “Luckiest Man” speech
“For the past two weeks, you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Lou Gehrig is known for a lot that happened throughout his career on the diamond. He notoriously played in 2,130 consecutive games, won six World Series titles during his time with the Yankees, and was a two-time American League MVP and seven-time All-Star.
But, many will know him for a speech he gave on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day,” less than a month after the baseball star was forced to retire due to an ALS diagnosis.
In front of a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig delivered one of the iconic lines in baseball’s history, declaring himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
And, on a day literally named in appreciation of his efforts throughout his life, he was willing to give his thanks to those in attendance on that memorable day.
“I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans,” he said.
Some view the day as a sad reminder of Gehrig’s tough luck towards the end of his life, but others will focus on the positives of the situation. On a holiday where many show their gratitude for the life they are able to live in the United States, Gehrig was able to express his appreciation in front of the audience that was along for the ride, and on the very diamond that made it possible.
“I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”