Monday, May 29, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Rhode Island

May 29, 1788: Rhode Island becomes the last of the original 13 States to ratify the Constitution, thus gaining true Statehood. Note the 13 stars on the State Flag.

Top 10 Athletes from Rhode Island

Honorable Mention to Chris Terreri of Warwick, whose backing up of Martin Brodeur in goal helped the New Jersey Devils win the 1995 and 2000 Stanley Cups.

Honorable Mention to Norman Taber of Providence. He won a Gold Medal in the 3,000-meter relay and a Bronze Medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. On July 16, 1915, he set a record in the mile run: 4 minutes, 12.6 seconds. The record stood for 8 years.

10. Ernie Calverley of Pawtucket. In 1944, the guard led all college basketball players in scoring average, and got the University of Rhode Island into the NIT Final, losing what was then still considered the real national championship to Kentucky by 1 point.

He played in the early NBA with Rhode Island's team, the Providence Steamrollers, and later coached URI to 2 NCAA Tournament bids in the 1960s.

9. Marvin Barnes of South Providence. "Bad News" Barnes teamed with Ernie DiGregorio to lead coach Dave Gavitt's Providence College team to the NCAA Final Four in 1973. He became one of the stars of the ABA, playing for the Spirits of St. Louis, winning the league's Rookie of the Year in 1975 and making its '75 and '76 All-Star Games. He was later named to the ABA All-Time Team.

After the merger with the NBA, he played for the Detroit Pistons, the Buffalo Braves (after they let Ernie D go), the Boston Celtics (ditto) and the San Diego Clippers (whom the Braves became in 1978). His career was ruined by cocaine abuse, and, after getting clean, he became an anti-drug counselor. Providence retired his Number 24.

8. Steve Furness of Warwick. He starred for URI in football and track, and was invited to attend the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials for his success in the hammer throw. He turned it down, as it would have conflicted with attending training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He made the right choice: It's hard to imagine whatever he could have done in the Olympics, with the hammer thrown then dominated by steroid-ridden Eastern Europeans, with the 4 Super Bowl rings he won as a Steeler defensive tackle. When Steeler assistant coach George Perles was named head coach at Michigan State, he took Furness on his staff, and he helped them win 2 Big Ten titles.

7. Ernie DiGregorio of North Providence. Like Pistol Pete Maravich, Ernie D got a lot of hype in the 1970s, a time when the black takeover of the NBA was completed, for being a white basketball player with a lot of talent and a cool nickname.

In 1973, he and the aforementioned Marvin "Bad News" Barnes led Providence College to the Final Four. In 1974, playing for the Buffalo Braves (the team now known as the Los Angeles Clippers), he led the NBA in free throw percentage and assists per game, and was named Rookie of the Year. In 1977, he led in free throw percentage again.

Ultimately, though, his career was a disappointment. The Los Angeles Lakers acquired him for the 1977-78 season, hoping that he and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could lead them back to the title, which he never got close to in Buffalo. But the bigger market proved him to be a big fish in a small pond. The Lakers waived him after only 25 games.

He was picked up by the Boston Celtics in 1978, and they soon let him go, too. By the time both teams had won the title again (the Lakers in 1980 and the Celtics in '81), Ernie D was finished, having played his last NBA game at age 27. In today's expansion-ridden league, he'd probably have hung on for a few more years.

He became a high school coach, including at a school for the deaf. He now works at Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut, not far from his North Providence hometown. Providence retired his Number 15.
Bad News Barnes and Ernie D in 1973

6. Mark van Eeghen of Cranston. He set the single-season rushing record at Colgate University, and at the time of his retirement, he was the all-time leading rusher in Oakland Raiders history, winning Super Bowls XI and XV.

He returned to New England to finish his career with the Patriots, finishing with 6,651 yards rushing, 1,583 receiving, and 41 touchdowns. His daughter Amber van Eeghen became a Patriots cheerleader, and is married to Dan Koppen, a Pro Bowl center for the Patriots.

5. Gerry Philbin of Pawtucket. A defensive end, he was a member of the Jets' Super Bowl III team. He was twice named to the All-AFL team, and was named to the All-Time AFL Team and the New York Jets Ring of Honor.

4. Mathieu Schneider of Woonsocket. Although born in Manhattan, and spending part of his childhood in West New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island was where he was trained to play hockey. He won the 1993 Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey with the U.S. team. In 22 NHL seasons, he scored 223 goals and had 520 assists, very good totals for a defenseman.

3. Vinny Pazienza of Cranston. He has since legally shortened his name to "Vinny Paz." I'm not going to argue with a man whose nickname was "The Pazmanian Devil."

He won the IBF Lightweight Championship by defeating Greg Haugen at the Providence Civic Center (now the Dunkin Donuts Center) on June 7, 1987. Just 8 months later, Haugen took the title back at Convention Hall in Atlantic City (another name change, it's now Boardwalk Hall). On October 1, 1991, he scored a TKO victory over Gilbert Dele to win the WBA Light Middleweight Championship at "The Dunk," a title he was later forced to forfeit when an injury made him back out of a defense.

Was it the hometown factor? Maybe not: While he was 12-0 in Rhode Island, he was a strong 19-3 in New Jersey, his other losses there being to Hector "Macho" Camacho and Roy Jones Jr. He also lost to Roger Mayweather (brother of Floyd Sr. and uncle of Floyd Jr.). Overall, he was 50-10, but was 40-5 as late as June 1995.

2. Davey Lopes of East Providence. He pronounces it as one syllable (Loaps), instead of the traditional two (LOH-pez). New England has a significant Portuguese community, and Portugal once had extensive colonial holdings in Africa, now independent nations. This included the islands of Cape Verde, and Lopes may be the most famous living American of Cape Verdean descent. This would not be true if Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of TLC, not known to be related, were still alive. Wayne Fontes, who briefly played for the Jets in their early days as the Titans, and coached the Detroit Lions to 4 Playoff berths, is also of Cape Verdean descent.

The 2nd baseman and leadoff hitter for the 1970s Los Angeles Dodgers, he was a 4-time All-Star, led the National League in stolen bases in 1975 and '76, won a Gold Glove in 1978, and helped the Dodgers win the Pennant in 1977, '78 and '81, facing the Yankees in the World Series all 3 times, driving them nuts with his speed and surprising power (he hit 3 home runs in the '78 Series), finally winning it in 1981.

He was also a member of the 1984 Chicago Cubs and the 1986 Houston Astros, who won Division titles but lost in the NL Championship Series. He stole 551 bases in his career, and his steal percentage of 83 percent is 3rd-highest among all MLB players with at least 400 attempts.

The Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies have faced each other in the NLCS 5 times, and Lopes was involved in all 5. As a Dodger player, he won in 1977 and '78, and lost in '83. As a Phillie coach, he won in 2008 and '09, and the Phils won the Pennant both times, winning the World Series in 2008 and losing it to the Yankees in 2009.

He also reached the postseason on the coaching staffs of the San Diego Padres in 1996, '98 (reaching the World Series in '98 but losing to the Yankees) and 2005; the Phillies in 2007 and '10; the Dodgers in 2013, '14 and '15; and the Washington Nationals last year. (And they are on pace to get back in this year.) He has had one managing job, with the Milwaukee Brewers from 2000 to 2002.

1. Napoleon Lajoie of Woonsocket. That's pronounced LAH-zhoh-way. Known as Nap for short, the Frenchman for his ancestry, and Larry (I can't find the source of that nickname), he hasn't played a game in over 100 years, but he's still tops.

Charles Leo "Gabby" Hartnett, the great Chicago Cubs catcher who also managed them to the 1938 Pennant, was also born in Woonsocket, but grew up in nearby Millville, Massachusetts, and thus qualifies for that State.

In 1901, the American League's 1st season, playing for the Philadelphia Athletics, Nap became its 1st batting champion, and set a League record for batting average. For a long time, it was listed as .422. It was eventually checked, and revealed to be .426, the highest batting average for a single season in the 20th Century. He was also the AL's 1st leader in home runs and RBIs, thus winning him the Triple Crown.

Since he had jumped Leagues, having previously played for the Philadelphia Phillies, legal issues prevented him from playing in the State of Pennsylvania for any team but the Phillies. So the A's had to trade him in 1902, and he went to the Cleveland Blues. He proved so popular there that, in 1905, not only was he named player-manager, but they were renamed for him: The Cleveland Naps. (In 1915, after he left, they were renamed the Indians.)
A colorized photo

He won 3 AL batting titles. He batted .339 lifetime, and collected 3,252 hits. He wasn't as good as a manager, never coming closer to a Pennant than a near-miss in 1908. He was among the earliest inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame, attending its opening ceremony in 1939, along with Tris Speaker, who may have succeeded him as the Indians' greatest player. He was also one of the most admired players of his time, but fans and opponents alike.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, in its 2nd round of elections, the 1st player at 2nd base chosen. He is in the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame, but, although he starred for both the Phillies and the A's, he has never been elected to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame. He played before there were All-Star Games, and also before there were uniform numbers, so, of course, there's no number to retire for him.

Nevertheless, Nap Lajoie is still on the short list for the title of greatest 2nd baseman who ever lived, and he's Rhode Island's greatest athlete.

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