Thursday, June 1, 2017

Top 10 Athletes From Kentucky

June 1, 1792: Kentucky gains admission to the Union as the 15th State.

Like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia, Kentucky is officially self-designated as not a "State," but a "Commonwealth": The Commonwealth of Kentucky. The University of Kentucky's football facility is even named Commonwealth Stadium. (And a school in Virginia is named Virginia Commonwealth University, or VCU.) In legal effect, however, there is no difference.

Top 10 Athletes from Kentucky

Note: This is for people. No matter what they achieved, I'm not counting Kentucky-bred horses Man o' War and Citation. I am, however, including Citation's jockey.

All-Star. Milestone. Number retired. Hall of Fame.

10. Jim Bunning of Southgate, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. While the Republican, who died last week, had a record in both houses of Congress that leaves a lot to be desired, he was only the 2nd pitcher to win 100 games in both Leagues, and only the 2nd to pitch no-hitters in both leagues, including a perfect game. (In each case, the 1st was Cy Young.)

He was a 9-time All-Star, 7 times with the Detroit Tigers and 2 with the Philadelphia Phillies. Had there been separate Cy Young Awards for each League in 1964, he probably would have won it. He won the 1st game at Veterans Stadium in 1971. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Phillies retired his Number 14 and elected him to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame.

9. Harold "Pee Wee" Reese of Ekron. He was 5-foot-10, so it wasn't a lack of height that got him his nickname. Rather, as a boy, he was a marbles champion, and marbles were often called "pee wees."

A Dodger from 1940 to 1958, including the 1st year in Los Angeles, he was Brooklyn's Captain from 1950 onward. He played shortstop on Pennant winners in 1941, '47, '49, '52, '53, '55 and '56. When the Dodgers finally won the World Series in 1955, it was fitting that the last out was a grounder to him. He was a 10-time All-Star, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Dodgers retired his Number 1.

More importantly, this Southern-born team Captain's acceptance of Jackie Robinson, the 1st black player in baseball's modern era, showed the bigots that Jackie wasn't going anywhere.

8. Cliff Hagan of Owensboro. For all the University of Kentucky's basketball achievements, their best homegrown player only makes it to Number 8 on this list. Hagan  won the 1951 NCAA Championship, then became a 5-time All-Star with the St. Louis Hawks, reaching the NBA Finals in 1957, '58, '60 and '61, winning the Championship in 1958, still the only title won by the team.

Now in Atlanta, the Hawks have not retired his Number 16, but UK have retired his Number 6. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

7. Phil Simms of Louisville. A lot of people don't like his broadcasting, but he quarterbacked the New York Giants to 2 Super Bowl wins. He he got hurt in the NFC Championship Game the 2nd time around and missed Super Bowl XXV, but was 22-for-25 in pass attempts in Super Bowl XXI, winning the game's MVP and ending a 30-year NFL Championship drought for the G-Men.

He was a 2-tie Pro Bowler, and the Giants retired his Number 11 and elect him to their Ring of Honor. I can't understand why he hasn't been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

6. Mary T. Meagher of Louisville. She didn't get a chance to go to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow due to the boycott, but "Madame Butterfly" won 3 Gold Medals at Los Angeles in 1984, adding a Bronze Medal at Seoul in 1988. The University of California swimmer won the Honda-Broderick Cup as the top female collegiate athlete of the 1986-87 schoolyear.

5. Wes Unseld of Louisville. A 2-time All-American at the University of Louisville, he was a 5-time All-Star for the team known from 1963 to 1973 as the Baltimore Bullets, in the 1973-74 season as the Capital Bullets, and from 1974 to 1997 as the Washington Bullets. He was the NBA's Rookie of the Year and it's Most Valuable Player in 1969.

He led the franchise to the NBA Finals in 1971, '75, '78 and '79, teaming with Elvin Hayes to win the title in 1978, and being named the Finals MVP. His Number 41 was retired by the team, now known as the Washington Wizards. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.

4. Eddie Arcaro of Newport. A lot of great horses have come from Kentucky, but there had to have been at least 1 great jockey from the Bluegrass State. You bet: Eddie. He is the only jockey to have won the Triple Crown twice: On Whirlaway in 1941, and on Citation in 1948. He also rode 1955 Horse of the Year Nashua, 1957 Horse of the Year Bold Ruler (Secretariat's father), and Kelso, who was Horse of the Year in 1960, '61, '62, '63 and '64 -- into the 1980s, the all-time moneywinner among horses.

He won the Kentucky Derby 5 times, and the other 2 legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, 6 times each. In all, he won 4,779 races, and was the 1st jockey to have over $30 million in winnings.

Honorable Mention to Steve Cauthen of Walton. In 1977, he became the 1st jockey to earn over $6 million in a year, and Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year. He remains the only jockey to win that award. But his greatest achievement was yet to come. In 1978, he rode Affirmed to win the Triple Crown. It would be 37 years before Victor Espinoza, aboard American Pharoah, became the next one.

But Cauthen never won another race in the Triple Crown series, mainly because he went to Europe. He won several major races there, including England's Ascot Gold Cup in 1984, the Epsom Derby in 1985, and both races in 1987. He is the only jockey to win the Kentucky and Epsom Derbies, each the greatest horse race in its country. He was elected to the United States Racing Hall of Fame, but, in all honesty, career-wise, I can't put him in this Top 10.

3. Dave Cowens of Covington, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It's a bit surprising that, given the Commonwealth's basketball history, the greatest basketball player they've ever produced is only Number 3 on this list.

Despite being within close range of such great basketball schools as Kentucky, Louisville, the University of Cincinnati, Xavier, Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue, he went to Florida State. He must have made a good choice, because the Boston Celtics made him the 4th pick in the 1970 NBA Draft. He was an 8-time All-Star, the 1971 Rookie of the Year, the 1973 MVP, and led the Celtics to the NBA Championship in 1974 and 1976.

His Number 13 was retired by Florida State, and his 18 by the Celtics. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players. Bob Ryan, who has covered the Celtics for The Boston Globe for half a century, and been a pundit on ESPN for a quarter of a century, and knows basketball about as well as any non-player ever has, has called Cowens his favorite player of all time.

2. Paul Hornung of Louisville. We associate him with Wisconsin, because he starred for the Green Bay Packers. And we associate him with Indiana, because the University of Notre Dame is in South Bend. But, since Notre Dame has a national student body, it's easy to forget where guys like Hornung, Joe Montana, Tim Brown, and so on actually come from. In Hornung's case, it's Louisville, Kentucky. (It's also strange to find out that fellow Heisman winner Roger Staubach, of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and the Dallas Cowboys, is from Cincinnati, Ohio. It's not like we've ever seen him wearing a Bengals uniform or a Reds cap.)

At Notre Dame in 1956, "The Golden Boy" was awarded the Heisman Trophy, giving him 2 distinctions that remain unique: He the only Kentucky native and the only player from a team with a losing record so honored. He also played basketball at Notre Dame.

The Packers drafted him, moved him from quarterback to running back, and in 1960, he set an NFL record by scoring 176 points: A League-leading 13 touchdowns, 15 field goals, and a perfect 41-for-41 on extra points. That record stood until 2006, but LaDainian Tomlinson needed 14 games to surpass what Hornung did in 12, eventually reaching 186. If the 2 touchdown passes Hornung also had that season are counted (though that's not how it's done)., that's 188, and he would still hold the record.

In 1961, he set an NFL Championship Game record by scoring 19 points, and the Packers won. They would do it again in 1962 and 1965. He was sidelined with a neck injury for much of the 1966 season, and did not play in Super Bowl I, but it did earn him his 4th World Championships.

That injury ended his career at age 31. He rushed for 50 touchdowns, and had 12 more receiving. He was a 2-time Pro Bowler, won the 1961 NFL MVP, and was named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team, the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, and both the College and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 2000, NFL Films did a special on the Hall of Fame, and asked honorees who they would pick if they were starting a team, and could take any player from all of history. Hornung was honest: "I would pick me." Since he could pass, run and catch, he's got a case. He might have been the most versatile player of the two-platoon era.

But he wasn't the greatest player of that time. And he wasn't the greatest athlete from Kentucky. You know who the greatest was.

1. Muhammad Ali of Louisville. Before he was The Greatest, and even before he was Muhammad Ali, when he was still Cassius Clay, his big talk earned him the nickname "the Louisville Lip." He lived long enough to establish the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville -- ironically, 2 blocks from an art museum named Frazier. (No word on whether either of them is run by someone whose title is "Foreman.")

Before Michael Jordan, no one had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated more times than Ali. This included their 1974 end-of-year issue, where he was named Sportsman of the Year.

The only excuse not to put Ali at Number 1 is if you don't believe that boxing is a "sport." If it is, then he might be Number 1 among all States. Granted, he only played 1 sport (although he was interested in all of them, particularly basketball, given that he was from Kentucky); and, given his physique and his ambition, he probably could have played at least 1 more at the professional level had he so desired. But he only tried 1. (He liked golf, but wasn't very good at it, and that's not a sport.)

But, at the sport that he tried, even if he wasn't actually (in lower-case letters) the greatest of all time, he was, at the very least, 1 of the top 3 heavyweights ever, along with Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. But his talent, the force of his personality, and the times that shaped him, and which he helped to shape right back, are what made him The Greatest Of All Time.
"Fool, I told you I was The Greatest!"
Yes, you did. And you were right.

There could never be another Muhammad Ali. And even if there were, he would be only that: A second Muhammad Ali. There would always be the first, against whom to measure him.

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