Thursday, June 15, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Arkansas

June 15, 1836: Arkansas is admitted to the Union as the 25th State.

The 3 most famous people from Arkansas are probably more identified with other places. Paul W. "Bear" Bryant of Fordyce is remembered as the head football coach at the University of Alabama. Johnny Cash of Dyess is remembered for his connections to Tennessee, both Memphis where he began his recording career and Nashville where he had his greatest fame. And Bill Clinton of Hope and Hot Springs became President, and now lives in New York.

Speaking of Presidents, in 1983, Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Bryant the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Top 10 Athletes From Arkansas

Honorable Mention to Allan James Burnett of North Little Rock. A.J. helped the Yankees win the World Series in 2009.

Honorable Mention to Bill Carr of Pine Bluff. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, he won 2 Gold Medals, including in the 400 meters, setting a world record. A car crash a year later ended his career, and may have prevented him from repeating in Berlin in 1936, and thus rising much higher on this list.

10. Sidney Moncrief of Little Rock. He led the University of Arkansas to the Southwest Conference basketball title and the NCAA Final Four in 1978, and was named SWC Player of the Year in 1979. He became a 5-time NBA All-Star with the Milwaukee Bucks, who retired his Number 4.

How good was he? So far, the voters for the Basketball Hall of Fame haven't considered him good enough for election. But he's in the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame. And he was good enough for Michael Jordan to say this about him: "When you play against Moncrief, you're in for a night of all-around basketball. He'll hound you everywhere you go, both ends of the court. You just expect it."

9. George Kell of Swifton. A .306 lifetime hitter, the 3rd baseman for the Detroit Tigers was a 10-time All-Star. In 1949, he won the American League batting title, denying Ted the Triple Crown by the slimmest of margins. He then starred for the Baltimore Orioles, before age led them to turn to someone else on this list. He went back to the Tigers as a broadcaster, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His brother Everett "Skeeter" Kell also played in the major leagues.

8. Bobby Mitchell of Hot Springs. He starred in both football and track at the University of Illinois. He thought he could make the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown offered him a $6,000 bonus to play pro football, and he made the easy decision.

A 4-time Pro Bowler, he starred for the Browns before becoming the 1st black player for the Washington Redskins in 1962, returning a kickoff for 92 yards and a touchdown in his 1st game. He led the NFL in receiving yards that year and in 1963 (including catching a record-tying 99-yard touchdown pass from Sonny Jurgensen), and in receiving touchdowns in 1964.

A key figure in the long-terrible Redskins' return to respectability, he caught 521 passes, a huge number for his era. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the 70 Greatest Redskins (for the team's 70th Anniversary, and then the 80 Greatest for their 80th), and the Washington Redskins Ring of Fame. The Redskins don't retire numbers (except for Sammy Baugh's 33), but his 49 has rarely been given back out.

7. Charles "Sonny" Liston of Sand Slough. Because there was no birth certificate, we don't know exactly when he was born. Because he was found dead shortly after a New Year, we don't know exactly when he died. In each case, we don't even know the year for sure. He may be the most recent famous person for whom both of these facts are true. The best guesses are that he was born on July 22, 1930 and died on December 30, 1970.

I won't get into his past, other than to say that, when Muhammad Ali called him "too ugly to be the world's champ," he meant Liston's face, but could also have been talking about Liston's character. He was Heavyweight Champion of the World for 17 months, from September 25, 1962, when he destroyed Floyd Patterson at Comiskey Park in Chicago, until February 25, 1964, when Ali wrecked him at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Few people cheered when he won the title, and many did so when he lost it. Nevertheless, he was the champ, and that's something no other Arkansas-born or Arkansas-raised heavyweight can say.

6. Dizzy Dean of Lucas. Ol' Diz liked to tell different stories to different people. He told people his name was Jay Hanna Dean (which was true), Jerome Herman Dean, and Jerome Hanna Dean. He told people he was from Arkansas (which was true), Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. He told people he was born in 1910 (which was true), 1911 and 1912. He also told people he was the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

With a mouth like that, he had better have been great. He was: A 4-time All-Star, he led the St. Louis Cardinals' "Gashouse Gang" to the 1934 World Championship, going 30-7, making him, to this day, the last National League pitcher to win 30 games in a season. His brother Paul Dean, who didn't like being called "Daffy," was also a pretty good pitcher on that Cardinal team.

His career was cut short by a line drive hit by Earl Averill of the Cleveland Indians at the 1937 All-Star Game in Washington, smacking him on the toe. Supposedly, the doctor told him the toe was fractured, and Diz said, "Fractured, hell, the damn thing's broken!" To favor the toe, he altered his pitching motion, and he wrecked his elbow. The Cards traded him to the Chicago Cubs in 1938, and he had enough left to help them win the Pennant. But by 1941, age 31 (we think), he was done, except for a brief 1-game comeback in 1947.

That injury limited him to 150 wins. Nevertheless, he was dominant enough in his brief time, and enough of a cultural icon (in each case, like the much quieter Sandy Koufax 30 years later), that he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Cardinals elected him to their team Hall of Fame, and retired his Number 17. Second to Bobby Orr (the Boston Bruins' Number 4), he is probably the greatest athlete whose name rhymes with his uniform number.

5. Scottie Pippen of Hamburg. Say what you want about Michael Jordan, but he won nothing until Pippen arrived at the Chicago Bulls. Together, they won 6 NBA Championships in 8 years: 1991, '92, '93, '96, '97 and '98. Pip nearly led them to another title in 1994, coming a whole lot closer to a title without Jordan than Jordan ever did without him.

He was a 7-time All-Star, an 8-time All-Defensive First Temaer, and led the league in steals in 1995. He won Olympic Gold Medals in 1992 (the Dream Team, another title Jordan won with him) and '96. His Number 33 was retired by both the University of Central Arkansas and the Bulls. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.

He is now a senior advisor to the Bulls. In 2011, at age 45, he led the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game in scoring. Even more importantly, he blocked a shot by Justin Bieber: "He played pretty well, but he has an ugly shot." Pippen thus proved not only that he could still play a little, but that his eyes still worked.

4. Willie Davis of Texarkana. A 5-time Pro Bowler, he stands with Reggie White as the 2 greatest defensive ends (and, indeed, defensive linemen) in the long, proud history of the Green Bay Packers. He helped them win 5 NFL Championships, including the 1st 2 Super Bowls in 1967 and '68. He was named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players.

3. Brooks Robinson of Little Rock. In 1955, he arrived with the Baltimore Orioles. In 1960, he won his 1st Gold Glove at 3rd base, and made his 1st All-Star Team. In 1964, he was the 1st Oriole named American League Most Valuable Player. In 1966, he helped the Orioles win their 1st Pennant and their 1st World Series. In 1970, he won another World Series, redefining the way people viewed the playing of 3rd base, and winning the Series MVP. In 1974, he played in his last All-Star Game, his 18th, and made his 6th postseason appearance. In 1975, he won his last Gold Glove, his 16th.

In 1977, he retired, had his Number 5 retired, and, with Frank Robinson (no relation), became the 1st 2 inductees into the Orioles' Hall of Fame. In 1983, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was invited to throw out the ceremonial first ball before the last Orioles game at Memorial Stadium (along with Johnny Unitas of the Colts, who threw a football). In 1999, he was named to The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

2. Bill Dickey of Searcy. Though born in Bastrop, Louisiana, Arkansas is where he called home most of his life. He is on the short list for the title of "Greatest Catcher Who Ever Lived": A .313 lifetime batting average, 4 20-plus home run seasons (a big number for a catcher at that time), 4 100+ RBI seasons, and 11 All-Star Game appearances, including the 1st 2 and 10 of the 1st 11. He probably would have had 3 or 4 more had the ASG been established earlier.

He helped the Yankees win 8 Pennants (1932, '36, '37, '38, '39, '41, '42 and '43) and 7 World Series (all but '42). He briefly managed the Yankees in 1946, then returned in 1949 as a coach, turning Yogi Berra from a very shaky catcher into one who might have been even better: "Bill Dickey is learning me all his experiences."

The Yankees retired Number 8 for both Dickey and Berra. (Dickey wore 33 as a coach while Berra played and wore 8.) He is in the Yankees' Monument Park, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

1. Don Hutson of Pine Bluff. Raymond Berry may have put it into question in the late 1950s, but until Jerry Rice came along in the mid-1980s, Hutson was the greatest receiver in football history. (In 1989, Hutson graciously, and perhaps not prematurely, said that Rice had surpassed him.)

He led the University of Alabama to the 1934 National Championship, when "the other end" was a kid named Paul Bryant. The Bear had seen him star in high school: "He was something to see even then. We'd hitchhike to Pine Bluff just to watch him play."

It's unlikely anyone from Arkansas or Alabama hitchhiked all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin to watch "The Alabama Antelope" play. But for the Green Bay Packers, he won 3 NFL Championships: 1936, 1939 and 1944. He was NFL Most Valuable Player in 1941 and 1942. He was an 8-time All-Pro. In 1940, he led the NFL in receptions and interceptions, so he was great on both sides of the ball. He caught 488 passes for 7,991 yards and 99 touchdowns, all of which stood as records long after he retired. He also had 30 career interceptions.
Don Hutson, playing for the Packers against
the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field,
pioneering the use of eyeblack.
The photo is colorized, but accurate.

The Packers retired his Number 14, and elected him to their team Hall of Fame. He was elected to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame (with the latter, a charter inductee in 1963), the NFL's 1930s All-Decade Team, the 50th and 75th Anniversary All-Time Teams, The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players, and, in 2010, 65 years after his last game and 13 years after his death, Number 9 on the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players, 2nd only to Rice among receivers.

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