Considering there are easily one hundred or more to select from in a myriad of sports, this was a difficult choice. When referring to most admired, it’s not only for athletic records, but other contributions as well. I based my selections on a mix of two criteria:
- Level of achievements and contribution to the sport
- Struggle, Integrity, Compassion outside the arena.
These are my opinions only
1. Jackie Robinson
The movie “42,” released in 2012, barely scraped the surface of this great man. While his on-field achievements did not assemble the gargantuan numbers of a Babe Ruth or Pete Rose, the complete package is hard to ignore when deciding who should be most admired in the history of sports.
First student at UCLA to win varsity letters in four sports. During WWII, served as a second lieutenant, then court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. With the help of Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the first to break the insurmountable color barrier in baseball when drafted from the Negro League to Minor League baseball in Montreal, and then to the Dodgers. He was met with huge rejection from fans and other players, often ridiculed and harassed, yet he stood his ground, kept composure and made his statement on the ball field, winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 and later, the Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1949.
He paved the way for the upcomings of great black players such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella. Enormous barriers were overcome with grace and integrity, setting an example for the future of black athletes in all sports, including basketball, tennis, football and golf.
2. Jim Thorpe
Sadly, not much is known by the average sports fan in today’s America about this incredible athlete. Another minority with huge mountains to climb to gain acceptance, Thorpe was a Native American who rose to stardom in the early 20th century, first as a school athlete then as winner of two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics, Track and Field. He was forced to return his medals later because of earning small money as a minor league baseball player, violating the rules. The medals were restored thirty years after his death. He later went on to enter professional sports in basketball, baseball, and football, breaking records and leaving his mark in various sports Halls of Fame. Many polls cite Thorpe as the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
3. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Texas born in 1911, Mildred Didrikson hit five home runs in one baseball game as a kid which earned her the nickname: Babe. Throughout high school, she excelled in every sport she played. She broke four world records in the 1932 Olympics in Track and Field when female participation was limited by rules. She could throw a baseball three-hundred feet and hit a golf ball as far as any man. She formed the Babe Didrikson All-American basketball team, and toured the vaudeville circuit. After her marriage to wrestler George Zaharias, she entered professional golf and blitzed the female circuit, winning seventeen consecutive tournaments between 1946 and 1947. By 1950, she had won every golf title available. From 1953 to 1956, she battled colon cancer, but still managed to play the circuit. She was still ranked number one in Women’s golf when she died. She also served as a founder of the LPGA. The Associated Press voter her the greatest female athlete of the half century.
4. Babe Ruth
Some folks will argue this selection because he was known to carouse, smoke cigars and drink. Baseball and media were different sets of entities between 1914 and 1935, when Ruth left his mark on the world of sports, particularly baseball. It was a hell-raising period where basic raw talent prevailed outside the gym, which had the greatest appeal to the average American enthusiast. Ruth, who didn’t look like an athlete, made baseball what it is today, drawing millions upon millions to stadiums for nearly twenty years, an icon of icons, setting records as a pitcher and then, a power hitter blasting balls out of the park in record numbers, even before the advent of the live ball. Home runs were not his only feat, as he recorded a lifetime batting average of .342, a number rarely seen today for one season. All the while, he was an idol-role model to young children to whom he shared his humble beginnings in a Baltimore children’s home. He often visited kids in hospitals wherever he was playing. If not the most moral of athletes, he certainly was the most beloved.
5. Michael Jordan
Hands down, the greatest basketball player that ever graced a court, though there are few nearly as good. But this was the Babe Ruth of basketball, not only setting records but thrilling fans with his natural grace, entertaining with his aerial exploits while charming fans with charisma. He became the idol of every aspiring basketball player from elementary schools to the pros. He holds six national team titles, five Most Valuable Player awards and ten scoring titles. His achievements on the court are matched by his array of charitable foundations and events in his name. A truly remarkable American and the ultimate role model for young men.
6. Roberto Clemente
There is a reason that the most prestigious off-field achievement in baseball is known as the Roberto Clemente Humanitarian Award. Yes, this gifted athlete racked up many impressive statistics in his 18 years with the Pittsburg Pirates, including four batting titles, eleven Gold Glove awards and over 3000 career hits. But he was also the Jackie Robinson of Latinos, breaking that unspoken barrier to become the most celebrated Puerto Rican athlete of all time. While his on-field exploits were remarkable, he was even better known for his love of people and his untiring devotion to helping the poor and needy, not only in his homeland, but Central America. He died in a plane crash en route to delivering supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake. He was a hero in every sense of the word.
7. Ted Williams
Arguably the greatest natural hitter of all time in baseball, with eye/hand coordination unmatched by anyone. Lifetime batting average .344 and the last to hit over .400 in 1941, Williams was not one of those self-aggrandizing stars who loved the limelight nor was he worried about setting records, it just came naturally. He was a six-time batting champion and twice the winner of the coveted triple crown (batting, home run and RBI titles) which no one else ever achieved since 1925. Consider this: While his lofty lifetime records are among the tops of all time, he missed five full seasons in the prime of his life in order to serve in the U. S. Military as an aviator during WWII and the Korean War.
The most telling of the integrity of Ted Williams is the story of his final batting average in 1941. On the last day of the season, Williams was batting exactly at .400. His manager offered to bench him, so he would finish with the coveted statistic. Williams refused, saying if he was going to bat over .400, wanted to deserve it. That day, he hit six hits in eight tries and finished the season at .406.
8. Billie Jean King
Long before the era of six-foot Amazon players like the Williams sisters and Maria Sharipova, Billie Jean king was racking up women’s tennis titles between 1961 an 1979 like Ruth in baseball and Jordan in basketball, totaling 20 titles alone at Wimbledon and 39 Grand Slams in total, including doubles. When former champ, Bobby Riggs boasted how women could not equal men in tennis, they played “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973, in which King won in three straight sets. Her contributions off court blazed the trail for women receiving equal shares of the money prizes, spearheading the drive and establishing the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). The National Tennis Center in New York, home of the U.S. Open, is now named the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in her honor. She serves on the boards of several charitable foundations.
9. Jim Brown
What sets Jim Brown apart from so many great football icons, is sheer accomplishments within a short (nine year) career, dominating the game like no other running back ever. While he set numerous running records for his era (which included less games per year than today), he never missed a game with the Cleveland Browns in nine years, and led the league in rushing every year but one. He retired at the top of his game and went on to a movie career, acting and starring in such hits as The Dirty Dozen (1967). While Brown’s personal life involved a low point in his domestic affairs, he turned it around by throwing his support behind many black-owned businesses and openly called for more involvement from other black athletes to be better role models for young people. One of a kind.
10. Rocky Marciano
This will likely be the most disputed of choices, particularly in the boxing world. In their primes, could he have beaten Ali? Joe Louis? Foreman? We’ll never know. We do know he defeated every boxer he ever faced in his 49-fight career, 43 by knockout, the best knockout ratio in boxing history. He was known, not because of his boxing prowess, but sheer power. That’s not bad for a small heavyweight tipping scales at a mere 185 pounds. Babe Ruth and Billie Jean may not have competed as successfully had they competed against today’s monsters, but in relative terms they were untouchable. Marciano was the ultimate champion, exciting and powerful, but a classy gentleman out of the ring, showing respect and honor to all of humanity and initiating a number of charitable programs for which he played a low profile. He smartly retired from boxing at age 32 and went into business. Like Roberto Clemente, he died in a plane crash in 1969, en route to a little boy’s birthday party in which he was to be the surprise.
Here are another ten names which I had considered for this list: Martina Navratilova, Gale Sayers, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Nolan Ryan, Joe Montana, Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammed Ali.