Friday, March 2, 2018

New York's 10 Greatest Athletes

Four of the ten greatest athletes in New York Tri-State Area history.
Or, if you prefer, five of the Top 20.

This included players who played for New York Tri-State Area teams, although some of them are also from the Area.

I'm not going to include the old New York Cosmos, or the New York MetroStars/Red Bulls, because, no matter how good they were in soccer in Europe or South America, it just wasn't the same level of consequence here.

Honorable Mention to Hall-of-Famers from our teams that didn't make this Top 10. These players are listed in chronological order of their arrival with the team in question:

* New York Giants (baseball): Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, John Montgomery Ward, Mickey Welch, Tim Keefe, Jim O'Rourke, Amos Rusie, George Davis, Joe McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan, Rube Marquard (also Dodgers), Ross Youngs, Dave Bancroft, Frankie Frisch, George "High Pockets" Kelly, Travis Jackson, Fred Lindstrom, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Johnny Mize (also Yankees), Monte Irvin, Hoyt Wilhelm -- and Willie Mays, who only played 5 seasons for the Giants in New York, because of the Korean War and then the move. No matter how good those seasons were, it's not enough to put him in this Top 10.

* Brooklyn Dodgers: Dan Brouthers, Joe Kelley, Willie Keeler (also Yankees), Zack Wheat, Dazzy Vance, Burleigh Grimes, Arky Vaughan, Billy Herman, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella -- and Jackie Robinson, who would be Number 1 if by "Greatest" we meant "most important."

* New York Mets: Tom Seaver, Gary Carter and Mike Piazza. Nope, no Mets make the Top 10.

* New York Yankees: Clark Griffith, Jack Chesbro, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Joe Gordon, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rich "Goose" Gossage, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Wade Boggs. Honorable Mention also to Mariano Rivera, who becomes eligible for the Hall next January; and to Derek Jeter, eligible the January after that.

* New York Giants (football): Steve Owen, Ray Flaherty, Benny Friedman, Red Badgro, Mel Hein, Ken Strong, Tuffy Leemans, Emlen Tunnell, Arnie Weinmeister, Frank Gifford, Roosevelt Brown, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, Y.A. Tittle, Fran Tarkenton, Harry Carson and Michael Strahan. Honorable Mention also to Eli Manning, quarterbacker of 2 Super Bowl wins. One Giant makes the Top 10.

* New York Jets: Don Maynard, Joe Namath, John Riggins and Curtis Martin. No Jet, not even Broadway Joe, makes the Top 10.

When The Sporting News named its 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, they ranked Brown 57th, Tunnell 70th, Hein 74th, Huff 76th and Namath 96. When the NFL Network named its 100 Greatest Players in 2010, they ranked Tunnell 79th, Huff 93rd, Hein 96th, Strahan 99th, Namath 100th, and, inexplicably, dropped Brown from the list entirely.

* New York Knicks: Harry Gallatin, Dick McGuire, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, Richie Guerin, Tom Gola, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, Spencer Haywood, Bernard King and Patrick Ewing. One Knick makes the Top 10.

* Brooklyn Nets: Julius Erving, Drazen Petrovic. No, Dr. J doesn't make it. Despite being from Long Island, he only played 3 seasons for a Tri-State Area team, although they did include 2 ABA titles -- still the last league titles won by any pro basketball team in the New York Tri-State Area (and that includes the Liberty as well as the Knicks).

* New York Liberty: Rebecca Lobo.

* New York Rangers: Frank Boucher, Bill Cook, Frederick "Bun" Cook, Ivan "Ching" Johnson, Earl Seibert, Lynn Patrick, Art Coulter, Neil Colville, Bryan Hextall, Babe Pratt, Clint Smith, Edgar Laprade, Chuck Rayner, Buddy O'Connor, Allan Stanley, Andy Bathgate, Harry Howell, Lorne "Gump" Worsley, Bill Gadsby, Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Brad Park, Phil Esposito, Mike Gartner and Mark Messier. No, neither Adam Graves nor Mike Richter is yet in the Hall of Fame. One Ranger makes the Top 10.

* New York Islanders: Billy Smith, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Pat LaFontaine. One Islander makes the Top 10.

* New Jersey Devils: Brendan Shanahan, Peter Stastny, Viacheslav Fetisov, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. One Devil makes the Top 10.

Here they are:

10. Joe DiMaggio, Yankees, center field, 1936-51. Because of his World War II service and a heel injury that forced him to retire right after his 37th birthday, the Yankee Clipper played only 13 seasons. He was named to the All-Star Game all 13 times.

There was no Gold Glove Award to confer on the best center fielder of his generation, but he won 3 AL MVPs (1939, '41 and '47), 3 batting titles, 10 Pennants and 9 World Series: 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1950 and 1951. The 56-game hitting streak he had from May 15 to July 16, 1941 is what stands out, but what got remembered by those for whom he was the player in their youth was the way he glided around the bases, and around center field. Nobody ever looked more like a ballplayer than Joltin' Joe.

Oh yeah, he was a pop culture icon, too, with that hit song in 1941, his brief marriage to iconic actress Marilyn Monroe that boosted both of them to the stratosphere of American imagination, his commercials for The Bowery Savings Bank and Mr. Coffee, and his name-drops in Ernest Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea; in songs by Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Madonna; and on the TV show Seinfeld, some of these long after he hung up his spikes.

The Yankees retired his Number 5, and in 1977, President Gerald Ford awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the 1969 Baseball Centennial Team (including, perhaps incorrectly, as "The Greatest Living Player"), The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and the MLB All-Century Team. The latter 2 took place shortly after his death in 1999, at which point the Yankees replaced his Plaque in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park with a Monument, and New York City renamed the West Side Highway the Joe DiMaggio Highway.

Broadcaster Bob Costas put it best: "DiMaggio played his last game in 1951. I was born in 1952. And my dad, and every guy in my dad's generation, said the same thing: 'Willie Mays? Great. Mickey Mantle? Hit the ball out of sight. You never saw DiMaggio, kid. You never saw the real thing."

9. Denis Potvin, Islanders, defenseman, 1973-88. He was a star in junior hockey with the Ottawa 67s, and was taken by the 2nd-year expansion Islanders as the 1st pick in the 1973 Draft. He was supposed to be the Isles' Bobby Orr. He was more than that: He was enough of a star and enough of a leader so that, to extend the Bruin analogy, he was both their Orr and their Phil Esposito.

He remains the only man to Captain a New York Tri-State Area team to 4 Stanley Cup wins. In 1979, he became the 2nd NHL defenseman, after Orr, to score 30 goals and 100 points in a single season. At the time of his retirement, he was the NHL's leader in career goals and points by a defenseman.

The Islanders retired his Number 5, and he was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, The Hockey News' 100 Greatest Players in 1998, and the NHL 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players in 2017.

And, for the record, even Ulf Nilsson, the Ranger he injured in an infamous 1979 regular-season collision, has said it was a clean hit. Therefore, when Ranger fans shout, "POTVIN SUCKS!”"they are being idiots.

8. Brian Leetch, Rangers, defenseman, 1987-2004. In 1988-89, he set an NHL record that still stands with 23 goals by a rookie defenseman, and was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year.

A 10-time All-Star, he won the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman in 1992 and 1997. In 1994, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoffs MVP, the 1st American to receive it. And, in 1996, he captained the U.S. team to the World Cup of Hockey.

He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, The Hockey News' 100 Greatest Players in 1998 (while still active), and the NHL's 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players in 2017. At the retirement ceremony for his Number 2 in 2008, no less than Mark Messier called him the greatest Ranger of all time. This was backed up a year later in Russ Cohen and John Halligan's book 100 Ranger Greats.

7. Lawrence Taylor, football Giants, linebacker, 1981-93. For all the controversies, during and since his pro career, Taylor has been considered one of the best players ever. On TSN's 100 Greatest Football Players, L.T. came in at Number 4, the highest-ranking defensive player. On the NFL Network's 100 Greatest Players, named 11 years later, he was promoted to 3rd. The Giants retired his Number 56, and he was an easy choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

6. Walt Frazier, Knicks, guard, 1967-77. He was called "Clyde" because he reminded someone of the way Warren Beatty dressed in the film Bonnie and Clyde. But Clyde Frazier never killed anything except opponents' hopes, and he never robbed anybody of anything except the basketball.

It was a special time, with Tom Seaver, Joe Namath, and Frazier, each in their own way, being parts of it. Clyde and Broadway Joe seemed to move the culture, while Tom Terrific seemed to be great in spite of it. Clyde helped bring a 2nd title, and has since become a great analyst on Knicks' broadcasts, and remains a style icon.

The Knicks retired his Number 10, and he was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players. I'm not going to tell you that Walt Frazier is the coolest man who ever lived. But if you already believe that, I'm not going to try to change your mind.

5. Christy Mathewson, baseball Giants, pitcher, 1900-16. In addition to his fadeaway/reverse curve/screwball, Matty had one of the fastest fastballs of his time, a great curveball, and a troublesome "slow ball" (today we would call it a changeup). He might have had the best "stuff" in baseball history, and was renowned for his incredible control.

"Big Six" won 373 games, tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander for 3rd all-time and 1st in the NL. His career ERA+ was 136, and he struck out 2,507 batters, 2nd only to Cy Young at the time he retired. In the 1905 World Series, he shut out the Philadelphia Athletics 3 times, a feat never repeated in Series play. With him, the Giants won 5 Pennants and nearly 3 others.

Christy Mathewson might just have been the greatest pitcher of all time. In one way, we can say he was the Pitcher of the Century: He made his major league debut on July 7, 1900, and on October 25, 1999, during the World Series, he was announced as one of the pitchers on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, voted there by fans even though he pitched his last game 83 years (5/6th of a century) earlier.

In 1936, much closer to his time, he got the most votes of any pitcher in the 1st Hall of Fame election, thus making him the first pitcher elected. In 1999, The Sporting News listed him 7th on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

4. Lou Gehrig, Yankees, 1st base, 1923-39. It's not just the streak of 2,130 consecutive games played, a record long since broken by Cal Ripken. "The Iron Horse" was the American League's 1st baseman in the 1st 6 All-Star Games. He won 6 World Series with the Yankees: 1927, '28, '32, '36, '37 and '38.

He was named AL MVP in 1927 and 1936. In 1931, he had 184 RBIs, which remains an AL single-season record. In 1932, he became the 1st AL player to hit 4 home runs in a game (and a double off the wall meant he just missed becoming the only 5-HR-a-game man). He won the Triple Crown in 1934, the 1st Yankee to do so.

Only the illness that took ended his career, took his life, and came to bear his name stopped him from reaching 500 home runs (he finished with 493) and 2,000 RBIs (1,995). His lifetime batting average was .340 -- which, coincidentally, was Cal Ripken's peak for one season. His career OPS+ was 179. That's insane. The only guys who've done better are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds (and Bonds cheated).

His Number 4 was the 1st retired by any MLB team. The Yankees dedicated a Monument to him. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, out of (well-founded) fear that he might not live to see himself become eligible. He was named to the MLB All-Time Team in 1969, and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. That same year, The Sporting News put him at Number 6 on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players -- behind Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Hank Aaron.

3. Mickey Mantle, Yankees, center field, 1951-68. Yes, ahead of Gehrig, and ahead of DiMaggio. He was a 16-time All-Star. He won the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1956, 1957 and 1962, and was arguably robbed of it in 1955 (his teammate, Yogi Berra), 1958 (Jackie Jensen) and 1964 (Brooks Robinson). Only once did he win a Gold Glove, in 1962, although it should be noted that the award didn't begin until 1957. He won the MVP in 1956 by winning the Triple Crown, making him the last player to this day to lead both Leagues in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.

He hit 536 home runs, 3rd all-time at the time of his retirement. He won 12 Pennants and 7 World Series: In 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961 and 1962. He hit 18 home runs in World Series play, a record. And, despite all his injuries, he retired as the Yankees' all-time leader in seasons (18) and games played (2,401, both records later broken by Derek Jeter).

The Yankees retired his Number 7 and gave him a Plaque for Monument Park in 1969, and replaced it with a Monument in 1996, after his death. He was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and to The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Players (ranked 17th) and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1969.

2. Martin Brodeur, Devils, goaltender, 1992-2014. Is there another NHL team whose greatest player ever is a goalie? Along with his idol Patrick Roy and Terry Sawchuk, Marty is on the short list for the title of Greatest Goalie Ever.

Sawchuk's records of 447 wins and 103 shutouts were once thought of as unbreakable. Marty ended up with 691 wins (although Roy got to that record first) and 124 shutouts -- plus another 113 wins and 24 shutouts in the Playoffs. Seven times, he played the most minutes in goal in the NHL, and 9 times had the most wins, including a League record 48 in 2006-07. In the regular season and the postseason combined, he played 74,439 minutes in goal -- that's 1,240 hours, or 51 days, or over 7 weeks.

He should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in both 2000 and 2003. Seriously, in 2003 he had 3 shutouts in the Finals, something that had only been done once before and never since, and they give it to the goalie of the losing team (Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Ducks)?

He now has a statue outside the Prudential Center, the Devils have retired his Number 30, he was named to the NHL 100th Anniversary 100 Greatest Players in 2017. and he becomes eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame this year.

But is there any doubt as to who is Number 1?

1. George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Yankees, right field, 1920-34. 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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