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Call it in the air (4 historically significant decisions made by the flip of a coin)

February 9, 2010

The coin toss.  It’s a 50/50 chance.  Heads or tails.  They just did it in the Super Bowl to see who receives the opening kickoff.  They then spent more time explaining which side was heads and which side was tails than they did flipping the coin.  It seems to me it would have been much less complicated if they had just used a quarter.  Anyhow, the legal tender of any country can be doubly used as a decision maker for the more important parts of your life.  Which movie to see?  Flip a coin.  Beef or chicken?  Flip a coin.   Budweiser or Bass Ale?  Forget the coin, Budweiser is awful.  Scary Latin hitman trying to decide whether or not to kill somebody?  You know the drill.

Recently, Private Practice star Kate Walsh and her ex-husband tossed a coin to see who got to pick first when it came to dividing up their assets.  Who needs lawyers?  Big decisions have come down to heads or tails several times in the past.  Many of the results changed a little bit of history.  Here are the more notable occasions.

The day the music died

In February 1959, there was a major concert tour consisting of Richie Valens, Buddy Holly,  and J.P. Richardson, also known as “The Big Bopper”.   They were preparing to travel to the next site after they finished a show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  (I don’t know why it was called the Surf Ballroom.  There aren’t too many good sets rolling up on the beaches of Iowa. But I digress…)   Buddy Holly had chartered a plane out of Fargo, North Dakota to fly his band out after one of the buses broke down.  Richardson managed to get on the plane after pleading with Buddy Holly’s guitarist (Waylon Jennings) for his seat.  Holly’s other band member flipped a coin with Richie Valens to see who got the other seat.  Valens won.

The plane, taking off in a blinding snowstorm, crashed into a cornfield instantly killing Holly, Richardson, Valens, and the 21-year-old pilot.  It became known as the day the music died.

Green living or green beer?

In the Pacific northwest, there was a lot of land to decide what to do with.  Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy shared the deed on a 640 acre parcel that they foresaw as being a great place where people would want to live.  The only thing they disagreed on was the name.  Lovejoy wanted to name the plot after his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, while Pettygrove was insistent on naming it after his roots in Portland, Maine.  After much discussion, they flipped a coin for it.

Pettygrove won the toss and now we have Portland, Oregon.  It makes me wonder how different it would be if it were named Boston instead.  Maybe there would be less facial hair,  microbreweries, and flannel and instead annoying accents, baked beans, and people saying that something is “wicked awesome”.

3rd is the new 1st

This one also involves Portland.  Before the NBA draft lottery system, the first pick in the draft was decided by a coin flip.  My beloved Lakers drafted Magic Johnson after a coin flip, so it can certainly end good.  Not in this case.  The Houston Rockets won the flip and claimed the #1 pick in the 1984 draft.

That’s not what makes this interesting, though.  Houston picked Hakeem Olajuwon first overall.  Portland, in all their glory, picked Sam Bowie second.  Who’s Sam Bowie, you ask?  Well, it doesn’t matter, because that’s still not what makes this interesting.  You see, Chicago had the third pick.  Since Olajuwon and Bowie were already taken, the Bulls had to go to the bottom of the barrel and picked a guard out of North Carolina named Michael Jordan. 

Yeah, but who does everybody remember?

In 1903, a couple brothers took a contraption to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  The brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, planned to take to the skies in their newly built “airplane”.  Since it only held one person, the brothers flipped a coin to see who would be the first person in history to make a powered flight.  Wilbur got that distinction… sort of.

Wilbur won the toss and went to the air in the Wright Flyer.  He stalled after takeoff and was only in the air for about three seconds.  To add insult to injury, he also damaged to plane when he crashed.  The next day, Orville made his attempt, flying 120 feet in 12 seconds.  His flight is generally considered the first successful powered flight.  Sorry Wilbur.

So remember, the next time you can’t decide between Mac n’ Cheese and Top Ramen, flip for it.  There have been several much more important decisions made that way.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2010 10:05 am

    This article was wicked awesome.

  2. Jason permalink
    February 9, 2010 10:49 am

    The ordering of the title “Siskel and Ebert” was decided by a coin toss.

  3. February 9, 2010 11:13 am

    Wicked good article.

  4. Pi Guy permalink
    February 9, 2010 12:05 pm

    True, Wilbur got to do the test flight because of a coin toss, but how do you know he WON the coin toss?

  5. Ultra Lounge permalink
    February 9, 2010 6:43 pm

    I’m a chronic coin flipper. My girl friend hates it but I think it makes life simpler.

  6. ashleyroad permalink
    February 9, 2010 6:52 pm

    i just flipped a coin with my friend to see which one of us got to get the last ticket to go to Japan with our friends family. i lost. Tip: dont pick tails. :(

  7. herr barium permalink
    February 10, 2010 7:03 am

    me and my wife decided 2 weeks before we got married, which would become our last name …
    and, luckily enough, i won……
    that was the most important decision i ever put in the hands of fortuna……

  8. Gratefuldead permalink
    April 9, 2011 5:56 pm

    Me and my girlfriend had a fight a month or 2 ago and I wasnt sure if I wanted to break up with her or not so I flipped a coin heads I break up with her tails I try to talk it out. I got tails and everything worked out and I wouldnt want to be with anyone else.

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