Favorite National Athletes (Other than Colorado)

Well, it’s been a bit since I did a posting as frankly I haven’t had much to say.  One of my old posts was on my favorite Colorado athletes of all-time (feel free to read that one!) so perhaps it would be fun to do a posting about my favorite sporting figures all-time from places other than my home state.  In most cases these folk will likely come from my youth since I tended to follow people like that alot more back then.  Yes, I admit that there are no women on the list, but in my youth very few women were big name athletes save the every 4 year appearance of Olympic ice skaters like Peggy Fleming.   I will say some things that may rankle, but my opinion is my own.  Youth of today can find their own heroes I am sure, but at this point, I am so tired of some of the national sporting figures and the poor way they represent our country (Ryan Lochte please take a bow) or treat women (Ray Rice et al please stand up) or you name it (Tom Brady – deflategate anyone?) that it is hard to care anymore.  Okay, I sound like the old crabby guy that I am so here we go with my list – please feel free to reply with your faves:

1.Willie Mays  

He was a great player – the basket catch, the baserunning and especially the hitting.  Not only that, he seemed to be a generally good guy – someone a kid could look up to.  This may not seem like much in the modern world, but growing up in a pretty much white environment and idolizing a black ballplayer had to go a long way towards helping movement towards racial equality.  After reading his autobiography as an adult, it was obvious that he was a far more complex person than he seemed yet he still felt like someone you would enjoy spending time with.

2.Arnold Palmer 

He and Willie are really 1.a and 1.b. as I liked them equally.  Arnie was the people’s golf champion who always seemed to have time for his fans.  He is perhaps the #1 person on this list I most would like to have gotten an autograph from just to remember meeting which I never did (that’s why I get autographs – not for any monetary reasons).  Due to his charm and charisma, his fame has surpassed his sporting life which is pretty great (I suspect Peyton Manning may be able to do this as well in the future if he wants to).  Indeed when at age 86 he is still doing commercials on tv, that has to be remarkable (one wonders how many viewers don’t even know him as a golfer when he advertises Xarelto).  His autobio is a good read and shows alot of insight into his early struggles and how he frankly made gold into the sport it became (his battles with Jack Nicklaus stand up to Ali vs Frazier or Brady vs Manning for drama).

3.Babe Ruth 

Seemingly a mythological being, it is truly amazing how famous and iconic he still is.  He is Elvis and John Wayne famous – or maybe they were Babe Ruth famous since he was arguably the first media star.  Reading Creamer’s bio, it is interesting how much the man transformed the sport of baseball and transfixed the whole world while doing it.  Hank Aaron beating the Bambino’s homer record was painful – not because he was black as some would paint it, but because the Babe was bigger than the sport while Hammerin’ Hank was not the Baby – he was simply a good guy who did his job well but didn’t call much attention to himself.  I respect those sort of folk alot, but the Babe was the Babe and he has become a legend like Paul Bunyon.  Everything he did was bigger than life.

4.Satchel Paige 

In grade school they used to have the Scholastic Book Club where you received a list of books you could buy for seemingly pennies.  Paige’s autobio was one of my purchases and it was fascinating reading about this ageless pitcher from the Negro League era who might have been the best pitcher of all-time but for segregation in baseball.  When he finally got to the big leagues at a reported age of 42 (!!), he wasn’t the master of the Bee Ball or the Hesitation Pitch as in the old days but he still brought it big from the pitcher’s mound.  Heck, in 1965 he pitched in a game in the majors at age 59 – reading the stories about him is still alot of fun.  I’m sure his cocky style didn’t sit real well with a less racially tolerant U.S. back in the day, but today he sounds like a baseball version of Shannon Sharpe – quick-witted and funny.

5.Lou Gehrig 

Another almost mythological character from the past who is today perhaps known more for the way his sporting life ended than for his achievements in baseball which is too bad as he was a great ballplayer.  Most people might not know what you are talking about when you mention ALS, but then nod in understanding when you call it Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Certainly the iconic Gary Cooper movie is remembered more than the actual man, but he might actually have liked that as, by all accounts, he didn’t court the limelight as his teammate Babe Ruth did.  It almost seems a pity they couldn’t retire the Ironman record of consecutive games played before it was broken (I’m sorry because Cal Ripken was a fine player and gentleman but once again Lou seemed like some legend like Davy Crockett to a young kid growing up).

6.Johnny Unitas 

Well I wasn’t a big football fan as a kid (baseball was THE sport back then), but in an era of fairly dull games and players (Bart Starr and the tiresome Packers come to mind), Johnny U was a passer.  In my dad’s era it would have been Slingin’ Sammy Baugh but he was gone by the time I was a kid so if you wanted excitement you watched Unitas to Raymond Berry.  The flattop haircut places him in a certain time that seems a long way from the fantasy football modern game.  Reading his autobiography, it truly is amazing that stars like him back in the day still had to find off-season work to pay the bills.

7.Dizzy Dean 

Frankly the Ole Diz is known by me more as a baseball broadcaster than as a Cardinals pitcher.  He and PeeWee Reese were THE baseball broadcasting team back when you only had 1 national game on each week to watch and so you looked forward to it (why is it that the more games that are on, the less you seem to care?!).  Diz had a pleasant southern country boy feel about him over the air and could make a seemingly routine fly ball into one of the greatest plays ever.  He took a dull game and made it fun.  He was a fine pitcher whose career was cut short by injury but managed to last alot longer by force of personality.  The old movie about him doesn’t do him justice.

8.Joe Louis 

I like this image of The Brown Bomber rather than him boxing for the fact that I view him as a true patriot who loved the U.S. and did so much for his country yet was treated horribly by especially the IRS in perhaps the worst display of racism.  He became the first black idol of white Americans and an image of the good guy free world against the evil Nazi empire only to have Uncle Sam turn on him in later years because of the underhanded dealings of managers who took advantage of his lack of sophistication.  That he had to work as a wrestler and casino greeter to try to pay back his seemingly insurmountable IRS debt till a mobster helped pay some of it in disgust is a disgrace to our country.  He was the first boxer to be honored with a postage stamp and was buried with honors at Arlington Cemetary with his old German nemesis (and later good friend) Max Schmeling paying for his funeral and acting as pallbearer.

9.George Foreman 

Once again, here is an example of a man who is probably better known and more loved in later life than he was at the height of his sporting career (or at least his early career).  The man certainly is an example of someone growing into the public’s acclaim and love for in his early incarnation boxing the like of Ali, he seemed pretty scary and formidable.  It was, however, his comeback in his 40’s as a bald headed face of an aging athlete trying by force of will to summon one more moment of greatness that made us love him (not to mention his grills).  When he became at age 45 the oldest World Heavyweight champ when he knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994, he became the stuff of legend and gave all aging fans some measure of hope (if they could only put aside the Slim Jims and bags of Fritos).

10.Phil Mickelson 

He is the newest sports figure on this list yet seems like someone from a different era.  He is a golfer that doesn’t seems like a country club cut-out like everyone else in today’s game.  He is Arnold Palmer for a new generation – someone with a winning smile and time for every fan that demands his time.  For that reason his face can be seen in commercials and be known by non-golfers.  He may not win any more big tournaments but he will not lose his fans.

11.Wilt Chamberlain 

As a Harlem Globetrotter and especially as a hometown hero for the Philadelphia 76ers cagers he was the epitome of what a bigman became in the modern game of basketball.  Boston fans would likely hold up Bill Russell instead, but as a Sixers fan, Wilt the Stilt was my man.  When he scored 100 points in 1 game, that was simply amazing.  His high school played my mom’s back in the day – the short white kids didn’t stand a chance, but it must have been something to see.  My interest faded as he went to a bigger market team in search of more fame (and women apparently) which would sadly also become the template for modern basketball.

12.Meadowlark Lemon 

When all we had to look forward to from a sports standpoint on TV was Wide World Of Sports, the Harlem Globetrotters appearances became something to look forward to.  A live show in your town was like a rock band coming – they even inspired imitators which were never quite as good.  The biggest and baddest of all the Trotters, he was the “Clown Prince” of basketball for 22 years doing all the schtick that we loved while humiliating the team that played their straightmen – The Generals.   Wilt called him the greatest cager of all-time so he had skills but he also had a huge grin and great sense of humor.  Not too many basketball players became cartoon characters like ‘lark did (look it up).

13.Mickey Mantle 

For someone who roots for the underdog and doesn’t like frontrunners, I am shocked by how many Yankees are in my list but they always seemed to have iconic players.  As a kid,  the NL had Willie May while the AL had Mickey Mantle and I wanted both of their bubblegum cards to play leaners with or put in the spokes of my bike (sheesh, how much money did I blow by ruining their cards?!).  He was the 2nd best player to wear the #7 (to this Denver Broncos fan John Elway will always be #1, after all).  I wanted he or Willie to break Babe’s record if anyone did, but the Mick tore up his knee and spent too many nights out with the guys to challenge him seriously.

14.Jim Thorpe 

Talk about the stuff of legends, you can’t write a story any better than a Native American who could play any sport and excel.  For a kid growing up in the 60s, the 1912 Olympics was ancient history yet his story resonated long after his passing in 1953.  He won gold in the decathlon and the penthalon plus had a career that took him to the pro football hall of fame.

15.Bob Uecker 

The other baseball player on this list who is better known and loved as a broadcaster really only had to say 1 line to be remembered – “just a bit outside” (from the great movie Major League).  We loved Mr. Baseball with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and his nosebleed seats in Miller Lite commercials.  Milwaukee fans know him as the voice of the Brewers seemingly forever, but we all loved his quick self-deprecating wit.

16.Joe Frazier 

Okay, I admit it – I hated Ali which I know is not politically correct today, but he had a big mouth and rubbed me the wrong way.  I can see that he was a great boxer, but in general I have always preferred the athlete that does their job well and doesn’t rub it in the face of their opponent – shows a bit of class like Smokin’ Joe.  He was a relentless pounder and seemed unstoppable like the Terminator.  That don’t give up – keep on pushing forward style really appealed to me and he had some classic duels with Mr. Ali.

17.Haystack(s) Calhoun 

Well, this one was a weird leftfield choice for me, but as a kid this huge uncouth wrestler was an image made for early TV.  This Texas farmboy weighed over 600 pounds passing relatively young at age 55. We all knew wrastling (sic) was for show and Mr. Calhoun was a hi-larious showman in the ring.

18.Roger Maris 

Sorry, but here we go with yet another Yankee.   For that magical year of 1961 when he was chasing the Babe’s single season homer record of 60 (finally surpassing it, but with an asterisk – look it up) he was every kid’s hero.  Coming out of Dylan’s home of Hibbing, Minn. had a fine career, but that one year is all we needed to make him immortal.  He was another fairly young casualty at age 51 (lymphoma).  In spite of the many factual error’s in it, the HBO drama 61 (2001) is interesting for showing how stressful the whole chase of Ruth was on Roger.

19.Chi Chi Rodriguez 

Once again, here is an example of a character who stands out as not being some boring country club golfer.  Coming out of Puerto Rico he could play – maybe not as well as Arnie or Jack, but he had his moments.  His biggest win was probably the 1963 Denver Open.  His moves included putting his hat over the hole when he made a birdie or eagle and his toreador dance with his putter playing the part of a sword that he would then pretend to holster (see the above picture).  He made golfing fun and interesting.

20.Jesse Owens 

Mr. Owens stands as the symbol of the free world facing up to and defeating a dictator in his own house.  Perhaps that is way to strong of a statement, but 80 years after the fact we see the image of a strong and proud Jesse winning 4 gold medals in Nazi Germany in the 1936 Olympics and really getting under the skin of their rulers (you know their names).  There were others such as Colorado’s own Glenn Morris and the Univ. of Washington rowing team who helped to amass 56 medals (to the Germans 89), but Owens came to be seen as the face of those Olympics for the U.S.  Had his story ended there things would have been storybook, however the medals didn’t guarantee a living and Owens found the rest of his life a struggle to make ends meet as so many other Olympic medalists have found over the years.