Only five years remain before they start playing ball in 2000, when, looking back, some will ask one thing about our times: Who were the greatest American athletes of the 20th Century?
To this hour, Babe Ruth is first and Muhammad Ali second, I’d say--after watching most of the good ones for most of the century.
It’s a subject that came up recently in a different context. A guy in a locker room was wondering if Deion Sanders is in anybody’s top 10.
Well, he’s in mine.
He’s there for these reasons:
As a baseball player, Sanders, an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds last season after having played earlier for the Atlanta Braves, has been a disruptive force on the basepaths while hitting .283, .276 and .304 in the last three seasons--up from a lifetime average of .263.
As a football player, Sanders, a San Francisco 49er cornerback this season, became the NFL’s most valuable defensive player.
Ruth and Ali stand alone all-time. Sanders will never catch either. But in one respect he’s similar. They had multiple talents and so has he.
Look at Sanders this way: Michael Jordan of the NBA, a modern two-sport legend, hasn’t been able to hit minor- league pitching. A former legend, Jim Thorpe, ended six years in baseball’s National League with a career batting average of .252.
Here are two subjective criteria for all-time excellence:
* Although America’s best athletes are not and never have been decathlon winners--who simply do many things fairly well--most have proved their greatness doing at least two things very well.
* Most great American athletes have played the major team games, and the greatest have helped reinvent or redefine their sports or positions.
My 20th Century top 10:
1) BABE RUTH
He began as a superior pitcher with a 3-0 World Series record and finished as a superior hitter, averaging a home run for every 11.8 times at bat--or one every two or three days for 22 seasons. That transcendent versatility qualifies Ruth as best-of-century. In 1916, defeating Dodger Sherry Smith in the most remarkable of all World Series pitching duels, Ruth pitched the full 14 innings and won for the Boston Red Sox, 2-1. Sold to the New York Yankees in 1920, he changed the sport’s accent to power hitting--dramatically revising a seemingly changeless game. That was Ruth’s most historic achievement during a career in which, batting .342 lifetime, he hit 41 or more home runs 11 times and 54 or more four times.
2) MUHAMMAD ALI
The most intellectual of the boxers since Gene Tunney, he packed everything but a wallop, and that he didn’t need. By inventing or mastering three ways to fight, Ali won the heavyweight title three times. In his youth, with an unprecedented dancing style, he could hit people when he had both feet in the air. Next, after a 3 1/2-year exile for declining to participate militarily in Vietnam, Ali changed styles to regain the title in Zaire. That time, with perhaps the most imaginative defense in sports history, Ali, 28, backed continually into the ropes--landing hardly a blow--as George Foreman, 26, swatted wildly for eight rounds, punching himself into exhaustion. Finally, in Manila, an aging Ali beat Joe Frazier with the only thing he had left, the guts to take more than 400 punches in 14 rounds.
3) O.J. SIMPSON
The best football player I have seen. Gale Sayers and Hugh McElhenny had more moves, and Jim Brown more power, but Simpson did it all faster. Nobody could keep up with Simpson’s cuts. A 9.4-second sprinter, he was on the USC 440-yard relay team that broke the world record. More respected as a team player and team leader than most running backs, Simpson was the accepted best of class in both college and pro football--an uncommon achievement. Most other Heisman Trophy winners have faltered as pros. Simpson, who ran USC into the 1967 national championship, became the first NFL back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.
4) JACKIE ROBINSON
The most gifted of America’s four-sport stars, was a mid-century Hall of Fame second baseman for the Dodgers after a UCLA career in which he was less effective in baseball than any other sport. In basketball, he led the conference in scoring. In football, he set records for punt returns and average yards from scrimmage for the undefeated 1939 Bruins. And in track, flying 24 feet 10 1/2 inches, he was the 1940 NCAA long jump champion. Even though his best sport was football, he became the first of the great all-around athletes to choose baseball. And after 50 years, he remains the all-around athlete of the 20th Century.
5) JOHN UNITAS
He belongs at the top of the short list of great quarterbacks, just ahead of Joe Namath, whose bad knees beat him prematurely, and Joe Montana, who is still untested in the science of play-calling--traditionally half of a quarterback’s job. In and after 1958, Unitas, the leader of the old Baltimore Colts, was on three NFL champions--one fewer than Montana, two more than Namath--and he got there by thinking and throwing. For 18 years, in fact, the question was whether Unitas was winning with his arm or his head. He was the game’s greatest offensive strategist before Bill Walsh. The greatest defensive players were Deacon Jones of the Rams and Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears.
6) MAGIC JOHNSON
He played beautiful basketball in multiple ways, leading his team to NBA championships as point guard and as center--the sport’s two most dissimilar positions--and also as a showman. He enjoyed everything about the game. The NBA, before and after Johnson, has been a reservoir for great athletes. The greatest, many believe, was Jordan--but Jordan was a gifted hotdog who needed strong coaching to win. He was halfway through his NBA career before that happened. Johnson, right off, willed the Lakers in. He was the strategy coach of every team he played on. The dimension Johnson added was winning joyfully, winning with a smile.
7) TED WILLIAMS
His two skills were phenomenal. He was unsurpassed as a hitter. And he flew 39 missions one year as a fighter pilot in the Korean war. Few young men have the nerve, eyesight and reflexes of a fighter pilot, and even fewer can do what Williams routinely did to a pitched ball. When it was anywhere in the strike zone, Williams, a left-handed batter, pulled the ball to right almost every time up for 19 years--even against the so-called Williams shift--and still batted .344 with 521 home runs. Hitting toward Ruth’s porch instead of the depths of Fenway Park, Williams, as a Yankee, might have had 1,000 home runs. He is the all-time leader in a hitter’s most meaningful statistic, on-base average, with .488 to Ruth’s .474.
8) DEION SANDERS
America’s best active two-sport athlete. No other player has had the speed and skill to lead the National League in triples en route to the NFL Pro Bowl, where Sanders has shown that he belongs. And no other defensive back has had more impact on football. Sanders specializes in taking each opponent’s most feared receiver out of the game, allowing teammates to gang up on the others. As a week-in, week-out specialty, if that isn’t unique, it places Sanders with the century’s leaders--whoever they are--in pass coverage. Probably the fastest good player in football, he is also the NFL’s most underrated open-field runner.
9) BOBBY ORR
My idea of a hockey player. He played hockey the way O.J. Simpson and Jackie Robinson played football--at a tempo that made it seem a different game. Before Orr’s day in Boston, most defensemen brought the puck out halfway, bowed pleasantly, and said good night. By the 1970s, Orr was taking it end to end--eluding some players with his speed, some with power, some with finesse--and when he got there, he could make the shot. And so doing, Orr redefined both defense and hockey, a sport in which Wayne Gretzky has lasted longer and, with his singularly cerebral style, has accomplished more. Orr, quicker and bigger, was the better athlete.
10) JESSE OWENS
His two-year track-and-field outburst, unequaled in this century, is unlikely to be surpassed in the next. First, at a Big Ten meet in 1935, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth, advancing the long jump record to 26-8 1/2, where it remained for a quarter-century. A year later, dismantling Adolf Hitler’s Aryan-supremacy showplace at the Berlin Olympics, Owens won four gold medals--at 100 meters (10.3), 200 meters (20.7), in the long jump (26-5 5/16) and as a 400-meter relay team member. Although others were faster--Bob Hayes and Carl Lewis would, for example, finish 1-2 if matched at the same age at 100 paces--Owens remains the ultimate producer of the 20th Century.