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Rubino: Tonight Show's history filled with celebrity-athlete appearances

  • Johnny Carson, star of NBC-TV's "Tonight" show, watches world heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali hamming it up for a photographer in New York, Feb. 10, 1967. (AP Photo)

And so The Tonight Show tradition continues.

No, I don't mean Jimmy Fallon becoming the new host of the 60-year-old late-night television talk-show landmark, or the show's returning to its New York roots after a 42-year hiatus, although those are noteworthy, too.

I mean the tradition of athletes-as-celebrities appearing on Tonight.

Last Monday, Fallon's first night as the show's host, Joe Namath and Mike Tyson made brief appearances. Fallon himself has a connection, of sorts, with sports. In 2005, he starred in "Fever Pitch," a romantic comedy about a long-suffering Red Sox fanatic who has a pretty good year: He falls in love and gets to see his team win its first World Series in 86 seasons.

When Steve Allen hosted the debut of the original Tonight Show on Sept. 27, 1954, Willie Mays, then the toast of New York, was a guest. Unlike Tyson and Namath, whose glory days are long gone, Mays' star wasn't just ascending, it was soaring. The day before appearing on the first Tonight Show, Mays had just concluded the regular season with a .345 batting average, 41 home runs and 110 runs batted in. Two days after appearing on Tonight, he would make a still-celebrated catch in Game 1 of the World Series at the Polo Grounds as the Giants went on to sweep the highly favored Cleveland Indians.

What else was going on in sports when The Tonight Show took its first late-night bow in 1954? Well, you've got to remember, that was 60 years ago.

There were 16 major-league baseball teams, none west of St. Louis.

Rocky Marciano, weighing in at 188 pounds, was boxing's heavyweight champion.

The Minneapolis Lakers, with three consecutive titles, were the defending champions of the nine-team NBA.

The Detroit Red Wings were Stanley Cup champions of the six-team NHL.


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