Fifty years ago, Sam Shipley had a vision.
The York industrialist pictured national sports celebrities making appearances in his hometown every year, the way they did in neighboring Harrisburg and Lancaster.
Shipley, though, wasn't thinking of a sit-down dinner in a hall or restaurant at so many dollars a plate.
He wanted to do something unique: a show in an auditorium or gymnasium featuring not only well-known celebrities discussing their sports but also demonstrations of action sports (weightlifting, table tennis, gymnastics, karate etc).
Shipley's idea caught on, and the first-ever York Area Sports Night took place in 1964 at the York High auditorium.
The guests for the inaugural event included Olympic track and field great Jesse Owens; Baltimore Colts' stars Lenny Moore and Johnny Unitas, who were later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Irv Cross of the Philadelphia Eagles; Steve Barber of the Baltimore Orioles; Dallas Green of the Philadelphia Phillies; Elston Howard of the New York Yankees and Paul Dietzel, legendary football coach at Army and LSU.
Baseball greats Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson and football great Jim Brown made appearances in later years at Sports Night, which will present its 49th show on Thursday at Heritage Hills Golf Resort.
Sports Night has changed quite a bit since its debut almost a half-century ago.
The escalating cost of appearance fees over the years has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the talent committee to attract the huge names like in the early days. The committee, though, still manages to bring in a Hall of Famer each year.
The show switched venues a number of times, going from York High to the old Central York High School on Seventh Avenue in North York, to York College and then Heritage Hills. Also, the demonstrations are no longer a part of the show.
The event is now billed as the York Area Sports Night and Autograph Session.
It will begin at 3 p.m. Thursday at Heritage Hills with a celebrity reception and silent auction, which will run until 4:30 p.m.
A dinner for celebrities, hosts, sponsors and sponsor guests will take place from 4:45 p.m. until 6:30 p.m., and a public celebrity autograph session is set to run from 7 p.m. until 8 p.m.
Tickets for the celebrity reception and silent auction are $75 in advance and $100 at the door, and tickets for the public celebrity autograph session are $25.
The guests this year are Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins, five-time Olympic gold medalist Olga Korbut, former Penn State and Baltimore Colts tailback Lydell Mitchell, former Baltimore Colts All-Pro linebacker Mike Curtis, eight-time Baltimore Orioles Gold Glove center fielder Paul Blair and the York Revolution's new manager, Mark Mason, and first-year pitching coach, John Halama. Halama pitched in the Major Leagues for seven teams, including the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals.
The format has changed, but, thanks to the sponsors and numerous volunteers, sports celebrities are still finding their way to York on a winter night.
Hopefully, that tradition will continue through the golden anniversary show next year and for many years after that.
Dick VanOlinda covers high school sports for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at dvanolin email@example.com or 505-5407.