Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

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Paleo2
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Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Paleo2 » Fri Jan 19, 2018 11:05 am

It is much harder to be a multi-sport athlete these days.

There were a number of them in the 20th Century, and some were quite good.

I'll give my top 5, but first some honorable mentions:

Billy Cannon -- great track star, AFL and NFL all-pro
Danny Ainge -- pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays, won the NBA Championship with the Boston Celtics
Dick Ruthven -- could've gone pro in basketball, won a World Series with the Phillies
Glenn Davis -- great track star, star halfback for the LA Rams, college baseball star
Herschel Walker -- All-American track star, great football player
Deion Sanders -- Great football player, offense and defense, very good baseball player. A case could be made that he should be in the top 5 instead of the #4 or #5 athletes.

.. and many more


Here are my top 5. Your opinion may differ. In fact, I hope it DOES differ.

5. O.J. Simpson. He had a World Record in track AND won the Heisman trophy in football the same year. On his way to the Bills, he carried the US flag in the 1968 Olympics, as a member of the US Olympic track team. One of the top running backs ever in the NFL. Hall of Fame football player.

4. Bo Jackson. He would be ranked higher if he hadn't been injured. College basketball star. Track star. World class decathlete. Great NFL player, great MLB player. Had he not been injured, no telling what he could've done.

3. Jackie Robinson. Not clear if he should be #3 or #2 on this list. Had there been Olympics during WW II, or if he had been from Madison, he would be a clear #2 or even #1. Track star -- his brother got a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics. jackie probably could've competed had the Olympics been held in 1940 or 1944. Tennis star. Football star. Basketball star. In fact, baseball wasn't his best sport, or even his second best sport. Baseball was what a black man could play in those days. And, he wound up as one of the best baseball players in history.

2. Eric Heiden. Probably jumped to #2 based on being from Madison. I can't see any other reason to put him ahead of Jackie Robinson.
Heiden was the greatest speed skater of all time. Excellent hockey player, too. Then, at the peak of his fame as a speed skater, he quit the sport and put together one of the very first American bicycle teams to compete in the Tour de France.
Then, Heiden wound up as a team physician for the US Winter Olympic team.
Hard to beat that.

1. Jim Thorpe. The best athlete in the planet in the first half of the 20th century. If I were to name the top 20th Century athlete, Thorpe would be my choice.
Track and field -- great runner, great at everything else. Thorpe set the school record while in college in the high jump BEFORE he joined the track and field team. He was wandering by the high jumpers, tried it as a lark wearing street clothes, and set the school record. Pop Warner asked him to join the school track team.
Thorpe blew away the rest of the world at the Olympics in the Decathlon, setting records that stood for decades. And, some of the events were very new to him. That is, he could learn a new event, and be one of the best in the world at that event within a few days.
Thorpe played professional baseball for the New York Giants.
Thorpe was one of the founders of the National Football League, and was the big star who drew the crowds in the early days of the NFL. Made the Hall of Fame.

I hope someone else has differing opinions.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby O.J. » Fri Jan 19, 2018 12:48 pm

Danny Ainge wasn't a pitcher, he mainly played 3rd and 2nd. I believe he's also the only first-team high school All-American in baseball, basketball, and football.

Jim Brown needs to be somewhere on that list.

Ted Williams is an interesting case -- Hall of Fame in baseball and game fishing, along with being a helluva fighter pilot.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby O.J. » Fri Jan 19, 2018 12:51 pm

Forgot about Bob Hayes, he needs to be mentioned.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Paleo2 » Fri Jan 19, 2018 1:02 pm

O.J. wrote:Forgot about Bob Hayes, he needs to be mentioned.


Great point. An argument could be made that he deserves the #5 spot ahead of OJ

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Paleo2 » Fri Jan 19, 2018 1:08 pm

O.J. wrote:Danny Ainge wasn't a pitcher, he mainly played 3rd and 2nd. I believe he's also the only first-team high school All-American in baseball, basketball, and football.

Jim Brown needs to be somewhere on that list.

Ted Williams is an interesting case -- Hall of Fame in baseball and game fishing, along with being a helluva fighter pilot.


Jim Brown deserves at least an honorable mention. He was good at everything, including LaCrosse.

Not sure about Ted Williams.
If you consider fly fishing an athletic event, he should be in the top 3. If one also considers being a fighter pilot an athletic event, he deserves the #2 or even #1 spot.

I consider fly fishing to be a less athletic sport. Even though being a fighter pilot used the amazing hand eye coordination, it isn’t a sport.

Ted Williams deserves his own category. He was one of a kind.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Paleo2 » Mon Jan 29, 2018 10:42 pm

I hadn’t realized they Bob Gibson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, had played for the Harlem Globetrotters

His roommate, Meadowlark Lemon, said Gibson was better at basketball than baseball

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Igor » Mon Jan 29, 2018 11:50 pm

Walter Ray Williams. Bowling and Horseshoe pitching. :)

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Henry Vilas » Tue Jan 30, 2018 8:32 am

Gene Conley who pitched in the majors for four teams, including the Milwaukee Braves and played forward in the NBA for the Boston Celtics.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby MPMay » Wed Jan 31, 2018 5:48 pm

Henry Vilas wrote:Gene Conley who pitched in the majors for four teams, including the Milwaukee Braves and played forward in the NBA for the Boston Celtics.


IIRC, Conley won a ring with the Braves and the Celtics. Impressive.

I think everybody lines up behind Jim Thorpe with one possible exception: Babe Didrikson Zaharias. The Babe won two gold medals in track in the 1932 Olympics, and went on to win 10 LPGA events. She was no slouch in baseball and basketball, in an era when there were few professional leagues for women. In most lists of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Thorpe and Zaharias are in the top 10 and the only ones in the top 10 listed for multiple sports.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babe_Didrikson_Zaharias

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Ducatista » Thu Feb 01, 2018 10:34 am

MPMay wrote: I think everybody lines up behind Jim Thorpe with one possible exception: Babe Didrikson Zaharias. The Babe won two gold medals in track in the 1932 Olympics, and went on to win 10 LPGA events. She was no slouch in baseball and basketball, in an era when there were few professional leagues for women. In most lists of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Thorpe and Zaharias are in the top 10 and the only ones in the top 10 listed for multiple sports.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babe_Didrikson_Zaharias

I'd been annoyed by the dudes-only theme of this thread, but sports bore the crap out of me unless I'm participating, so I didn't bother to investigate.

Then I caught a Drunk History marathon on Tuesday and they included the BDZ story in their Sports Heroes episode. Damned impressive. Popped in here to post about her, and there she was! Thanks, MPMay.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Paleo2 » Thu Feb 01, 2018 3:39 pm

You are correct.

Too much emphasis on the Dudes. Part of that is because men’s sports are bigger than women’s sports, and the pre-Title IX difference was even bigger.


I would put Thorpe and Zaharias as the top male and female mult-sport athletes of the 20th Century.


Any other great multi sport women?

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Igor » Thu Feb 01, 2018 3:47 pm

MPMay wrote: I think everybody lines up behind Jim Thorpe with one possible exception: Babe Didrikson Zaharias.


That is fair, although the absolute domination of both athletes likely had to do with the fact that there was little detailed training at the time, so being an incredibly good general "athlete" was sufficient.

I have no doubt that in today's world, both of the people listed would be top notch athletes in a single sport, controlling for factors like body size and nutrition. But I doubt that they would be able to put the time in to be world class athletes in multiple sports, particularly ones as divergent as the ones Thorpe and Zaharias dominated. I don't think there is enough time in the day anymore to train to be a world class Olympian and golfer - and if you don't start serious golf training until later, it will probably be too late.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Henry Vilas » Thu Feb 01, 2018 3:53 pm

Madison's own Beth Heiden excelled in both winter and summer sports: speed skating, cross-country skiing and bicycle racing. Her brother Eric was no slouch either, being a long track speed skater, road cyclist and track cyclist.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby Paleo2 » Thu Feb 01, 2018 3:58 pm

Henry Vilas wrote:Madison's own Beth Heiden excelled in both winter and summer sports: speed skating, cross-country skiing and bicycle racing. Her brother Eric was no slouch either, being a long track speed skater, road cyclist and track cyclist.


I listed Eric H as one of the very top male multi sport athletes of the 20th century. I knew his sister was an Olympic speed skater. Didn’t know the other stuff. No surprise at all. That was probably the #1 all time sports family in Wisconsin, though the Watt brothers aren’t far behind.

I talked to some old timers who knew the Heiden family. They were involved in every sport imaginable. Their father was a big name in amateur athletics in Madison for decades.

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Re: Great 20th Century Multi-Sport Athletes

Postby npler » Fri Feb 02, 2018 9:04 pm

How many sports did Michael Jordan play?


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