Friday, April 28, 2017

Top 10 Athletes from Maryland

First in a series. Of, yes, 51.

April 28, 1788: Maryland ratifies the Constitution, and gains Statehood.

April 28, 2017, 229 years later: The Yankees begin a 3-game series against Maryland's Major League Baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles.

Top 10 Athletes from Maryland

For the record, neither the State of Maryland, nor any college therein, has ever produced a Heisman Trophy winner. The State has, however, produced 2 of the greatest racehorses ever: 1950s champion Nashua, at Belair Stud in the D.C. suburb of Collington; and 1990s champion Cigar, at Country Life Farm in Bel Air, Harford County.

Honorable Mention to Kevin Durant of Seat Pleasant, Prince George's County. He's the best the State has now, but he's still got a ways to go to catch Hall-of-Famers and all-time legends.

UPDATE: He subsequently helped the Golden State Warriors win the NBA Championship, and won the Bill Russell Award as Finals MVP. That didn't get him into the Top 10, though.

Honorable Mention to Jessica Long of Baltimore, a Paralympic swimmer who won the 2006 Sullivan Award as the nation's outstanding amateur athlete.

DeMatha Catholic High School in the D.C. suburb of Hyattsville has produced a lot of great athletes, but a lot of them are from the District, and thus can't be counted here. This includes basketball star Adrian Dantley and track Olympic Gold Medalist Derek Mills. Basketball star Danny Ferry grew up in Hyattsville, but wasn't good enough in the pros to crack this Top 10. Nor was Steve Farr from La Plata, Maryland, or Brett Cecil of Dunkirk, both pitchers who went to DeMatha. Nor were the football-playing brothers Brian and Byron Westbrook of Fort Washington.

Honorable Mention to Courtney Kupets of Gaithersburg, the University of Georgia gymnast who won the Honda-Broderick Cup as America's best female collegiate athlete in 2009. She won a Silver and a Bronze Medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Honorable Mention to Katie Ledecky of Bethesda, who won a Gold Medal in swimming at the 2012 Olympics in London, and 4 more at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and then the 2017 Honda-Broderick Cup.

Honorable Mention to these players who, in addition to those who made the Top 10, came from Maryland (in each of these cases, from Baltimore or its suburbs) and helped the Yankees win the World Series: Jim Spencer of Linthicum (1978), Jeff Nelson of Baltimore (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000), Denny Neagle of Gambrills (2000), and Mark Teixeira of Severna Park (2009).

10. Frank Baker of Trappe, on the Eastern Shore. Playing in the Dead Ball Era, he hit just 96 home runs. It was 2 particular home runs that he hit for the Philadelphia Athletics against the New York Giants in the 1911 World Series that earned him the nickname "Home Run" Baker.

He batted .307 lifetime. He starred with Connie Mack's "$100,000 Infield" on the A's, then became one of the first big stars signed by Jacob Ruppert after he began to build the Yankees into a champion. He played in the era before there was an All-Star Game, but he won Pennants in 1910, '11, '13, '14, '21 and '22; and World Series in 1910, '11 and '13. (He retired before the Yankees could win their 1st Series in '23.) He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

9. Joe Gans of Baltimore City. Nat Fleischer, long the boss of The Ring magazine, "the Bible of Boxing," called him the greatest lightweight boxer ever. He was Lightweight Champion of the World from 1902 to 1908. (He wasn't quite the 1st black champion in any weight class: George Dixon won the Bantamweight title in 1890, and was either that or Featherweight Champion, on and off, until 1900.)

Not counting draws, "no contests" and "no decisions," his fight record was 145-10. He was nicknamed the Old Master. Unfortunately, this nickname was only half-right: He never got to be old. He lost his title because he was beginning to suffer from tuberculosis, which killed him in 1910, when he was only 35. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. (Dixon, also in the Hall, had died from the effects of drinking in 1908, only 37.)

8. Leon Day of Baltimore City. One of the stars of the Negro Leagues in the years before, and immediately after, Jackie Robinson changed everything, he pitched the Newark Eagles to a Pennant in 1946 and the Baltimore Elite Giants to one in 1949. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

7. Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park, Prince George's County. He was an Olympic Gold Medalist in 1976, the Welterweight Champion of the World 1979-82, the Middleweight Champion briefly in 1987, and the Super Middleweight Champion 1988-90.

His fights with Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler are the stuff of legend. He was named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year in 1979 and 1981, and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year for 1981. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

6. Robert "Lefty" Grove of Lonaconing, in the Western Panhandle. Won 300 games as a pitcher. Perhaps the key figure, outside of manager-general manager Connie Mack himself, in the Philadelphia Athletics' dynasty of 1929-31. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1999 was named to both The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

5. Jimmie Foxx of Sudlersville, on the Eastern Shore. Only the 2nd man to hit 500 home runs, his 534 was 2nd-most all-time until 1966. Like Grove, starred on the A's dynasty. Also like Grove, was purchased by the Boston Red Sox, and had a few more good years there.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and named to The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players. The Oakland edition of the Athletics hangs banners honoring their World Series wins in Philadelphia, but they don't retire numbers from that period, so Foxx' 3 and Grove's 10 remain in the team's circulation.

4. Al Kaline of Baltimore City. An 18-time All-Star for the Detroit Tigers, he collected his 3,000th career hit against the Orioles, at Memorial Stadium in his hometown, in 1974. Won the 1968 World Series. His Number 6 was the 1st number retired by the Tigers. He was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame and The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

He remains the most popular athlete in Detroit history, ahead of Ty Cobb, Doak Walker, Barry Sanders, Isiah Thomas, Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman.

3. Cal Ripken of Aberdeen. It's interesting that Maryland has produced the most popular athletes in the histories of 3 metropolitan areas: New York, Detroit, and Baltimore itself. Like Kaline, Ripken is a member of the 3,000 Hit Club; unlike Kaline, he didn't get his 3,000th in Baltimore. (He got it in Minneapolis.)

He won the World Series and the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1983, won another MVP in 1991, and is best known for his record of 2,632 consecutive games played. The Orioles retired his Number 8. He was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame, The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Sports Illustrated named him their Sportsman of the Year for 1995.

2. Michael Phelps of Towson, Baltimore County. The greatest swimmer of all time, he won 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them Gold, 13 of those in individual events. 2003 Sullivan Award winner. Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year for 2008.

The International Swimming Hall of Fame is in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has not yet been retired long enough to be eligible for it. But he'll get in. He's the Babe Ruth of swimming.

Of course, the very fact that we refer to someone as "the Babe Ruth of (something)" shows you who's Number 1 on this list, and on so many others.

1. George Herman "Babe" Ruth of Baltimore City. Baseball Hall of Fame. Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Number 3 retired by the Yankees. 10 Pennants. 7 World Championships. 714 home runs. A one-man revolution.

In 1999, The Sporting News released its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. Editor John Rawlings admitted to Bob Costas in the accompanying TV special that the debate was always about who would fit in slots 2 through 100, and that Number 1 was never in question.
He didn't actually say this -- that was Art LaFleur, playing his ghost in the film The Sandlot -- but... Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.

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