Monday, April 2, 2018

Philadelphia's 10 Greatest Athletes

The Mets were supposed to start a 3-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field this afternoon. It will be a 2-games series starting tomorrow, and today's game has been moved to be part of a single-admission doubleheader on July 9.

Continuing the series I began with St. Louis. I'm using the same rules, which is that, unlike when I did this for the States, only players for a metro area's teams are uses. So you won't see Joe Frazier or any other boxer. Or tennis legend Bill Tilden, or the rowing Kelly family that produced Olympic Gold Medalist John and his son Jack -- not to mention John's daughter, Princess Grace Kelly or Monaco; or her son, Prince Albert II, an Olympic yachtsman who married an Olympic swimmer.

Honorable Mention to Philadelphia Athletics in the Baseball Hall of Fame, who did not make this list: Eddie Collins, Eddie Plank, George "Rube" Waddell, Albert "Chief" Bender, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons.

Honorable Mention to Philadelphia Phillies in the Baseball Hall of Fame, who did not make this list: Sam Thompson, Billy Hamilton, Ed Delahanty, Nap Lajoie, Chuck Klein, Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning and Jim Thome. If Pete Rose is ever reinstated and makes the Hall, he can be added.

Honorable Mention to Philadelphia Eagles in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who did not make this list: Bill Hewitt, Alex Wojciechowicz, Pete Pihos, Tommy McDonald, Norm Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgensen, Jim Ringo, Bob Brown, Claude Humphrey, Reggie White and Brian Dawkins.

When The Sporting News listed its 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, White came in  22nd, while Van Brocklin, until Peyton Manning the only quarterback to lead 2 different franchises to an NFL Championship, wasn't listed at all. When the NFL Network listed its 100 Greatest Players in 2010, 11 years and several great players' added credentials later, White was promoted to 7th, while Van Brocklin was listed at 83rd.

Honorable Mention to Philadelphia Warriors in the Basketball Hall of Fame, who did not make this list: Joe Fulks, Andy Philip, Paul Arizin, Neil Johnston, Tom Gola and Guy Rodgers.

Honorable Mention to Philadelphia 76ers in the Basketball Hall of Fame, who did not make this list: Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson.

Honorable Mention to Philadelphia Flyers in the Hockey Hall of Fame, who did not make this list: Bernie Parent, Bill Barber, Mark Howe, Eric Lindros and Mark Recchi.

10. Grover Cleveland Alexander, pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies, 1911-17. He was only with the Phils for the 1st 7 seasons of his career, but they were spectacular seasons. He led the National League in wins 6 times, ERA 4 times, and strikeouts 6 times. In 1915, he helped the Philadelphia Phillies win their 1st Pennant. He won Game 1 of the World Series. The Phillies wouldn't win another Series game for 65 years.

In 1916, he pitched 16 shutouts, despite the Phils' Baker Bowl having only a 280-foot right field foul pole. In 1918, fearing that they would lose him to World War I, the Phils traded him to the Chicago Cubs, and he helped them win the Pennant.

But he did have to go off to war. He returned to baseball, and he was still a great pitcher, but he was never the same man. In 1926, the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals, not yet their arch-rivals. He helped the Cards win the Pennant, then beat the Yankees in Games 2 and 6 of the World Series, before being called on to save the day in Game 7. His bases-loaded fanning of Tony Lazzeri in the 7th inning is the most famous strikeout in baseball history, and he finished the game off.

In 1938, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Since he pitched before uniform numbers were worn, the Phillies honored him with a "P" monogram, resembling their team logo of the era, in place of a retired number, and elected him to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame. In 1999, 69 years after his last game and 49 years after his death, The Sporting News ranked him 12th on their 100 Greatest Baseball Players, trailing only Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson among pitchers.

9. Julius Erving, forward, Philadelphia 76ers, 1977-87. An All-Star 5 times in the ABA and 11 times in the NBA, "Doctor J" became the stylish symbol of 1970s and early '80s basketball. He did something no one thought possible. Philly fans' favorite athletes are the tough guys, the ones who get knocked down, get back up, and do the business. Dr. J. showed them that a man could do that and still look cool. He showed them that it was okay to love a pretty boy.

He got the Sixers into 4 NBA Finals, winning the title in 1983. They retired his Number 6, and dedicated a statue to him outside The Spectrum, moving it to the Wells Fargo Center. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and was 1 of only 5 players named to the ABA All-Time Team (he was easily the greatest player in that league's 9-year history) and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.

8. Steve Van Buren, running back and cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles, 1944-51. "Moving Van" made 6 Pro Bowls, getting the Eagles to 3 straight NFL Championship Games, as the best running back in the NFL, and as a deadly tackler as a defensive back.

They lost to the Chicago Cardinals in 1947. Then "Supersonic Steve" braved the elements. The day of the 1948 Championship Game, 10 inches of snow fell on Philadelphia, and he almost didn't get to Shibe Park. Somehow, he got through the snow outside, and the snow inside, scoring the game's only touchdown to get the Eagles their 1st World Championship. In 1949, the weather struck again. A rare Southern California rainstorm hit the Los Angeles Coliseum, but he led the Eagles to victory over the Rams. To put it another way: In those 2 seasons, the Eagles won 2 titles; it would take them another 69 years to win another 2.

Injuries forced him to retire after playing his last game in 1951, with 5,860 rushing yards and 69 rushing touchdowns, both records at the time. He was the 1st Eagles player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1965. He was named to the NFL's 1940s All-Decade and 75th Anniversary Team. The Eagles retired his Number 15, and named him to their Hall of Fame and their 75th Anniversary Team.

In 1999, he came in 77th on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Football Players. Somehow, by 2010, he had grown in the estimation of football historians, because the NFL Network raised his ranking to 58th.

7. Robert "Lefty" Grove, pitcher, Philadelphia Athletics, 1925-33. Here are Grove's won-lost records 1927 to 1933: 20-13, 24-8, 20-6, 28-5, 31-4, 25-10 and 24-8. That's 172-54, or an average of 24-8. This included the American League Pennants of 1929, 1930 and 1931, and the World Series wins of 1929 and 1930. All this before Connie Mack's fractured finances forced him to sell of the A's stars, including Grove to the Boston Red Sox for 1934.

Grove also led the AL in strikeouts his 1st 7 seasons in the major leagues, and in earned run average 9 times, the 1st 5 in Philadelphia. His ERA+ for his career was 148, 151 in his Philly years. That is insane for a starting pitcher. It would be amazing for a reliever. And he did this after the dawn of the Lively Ball Era.

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.

6. Jimmie Foxx, 1st base, Philadelphia Athletics, 1925-35. He was only the 2nd man to hit 500 home runs, and his 534 was 2nd-most all-time until 1966. Like Grove, starred on the A's dynasty, where he hit 302 of those home runs, including 58 in 1932, still a record for honest righthanded hitters. Also like Grove, Mack sold him to the Boston Red Sox, and he 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.

5. Bobby Clarke, center, Philadelphia Flyers, 1969-84. Philly fans may have hated "Bob" Clarke, the general manager; but they still love "Bobby" Clarke, the player turned team legend.

The Flyers' 1st great player, and still their all-time greatest, he made 8 NHL All-Star Games, won 3 Hart Trophies as Most Valuable Player, and led the team to the Stanley Cup Finals 4 times, winning it in 1974 and 1975. His overtime winner in Game 2 in 1974, against the Boston Bruins at the Boston Garden, is considered a turning point in team history.

He scored 358 goals and 852 assists. He also helped Team Canada beat the Soviet Union in the 1972 "Summit Series" and in hockey's 1st version of a "World Cup," the 1976 Canada Cup. And he did all of this while dealing with diabetes.

He was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy for advancement of hockey in America in 1980, while still playing. The Flyers retired his Number 16, and dedicated a statue of Clarke and Bernie Parent lifting the 1974 Stanley Cup, outside the Wells Fargo Center.

He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and to lists of the 100 Greatest Players produced by The Hockey News in 1998 for its 50th Anniversary and the NHL in 2017 for its 100th Anniversary. And, unlike some of these guys, spent his entire major league career in Philadelphia, producing a higher rank than he would have if he were compared to their entire careers.

4. Steve Carlton, pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies, 1972-86. As great as Alexander and Grove were in the short term, Carlton was as good, and for longer. He was a 10-time All-Star, and the 1st man to win the Cy Young Award at least 4 times: 1972, 1977, 1980 and 1982.

In 1971, the Phillies stunk, and were desperate for pitching, sending Rick Wise to the St. Louis Cardinals for Carlton in a "my headache for your headache" trade. In 1972, Carlton went 27-10, a 162-game pace for 118 wins; otherwise, they went 32-87, a pace for 117 losses. On days when he was scheduled to pitch, he told his teammates, "It's Win Day."

By 1976, the Phils had a lot more Win Days. He helped them begin a string of 8 seasons with 6 Playoff berths, and was the starting and winning pitcher in Game 6 of the 1980 World Series, the 1st title the Fightin' Phils ever won -- their ultimate Win Day. He had 329 Win Days, 241 of them for the Phillies.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 1st year of eligibility. The Phillies retired his Number 32, named him to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, and dedicated a statue of him outside the left field corner at Citizens Bank Park. In 1999, The Sporting News listed him 30th on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

3. Mike Schmidt, 3rd base, Philadelphia Phillies, 1972-89. A 12-time All-Star, a 10-time Gold Glove winner, a leader of the National League in home runs 8 times and in RBIs 4 times, he has been called the greatest 3rd baseman who ever lived. His 548 home runs led all National Leaguers, and all righthanded hitters, in his generation. (Among American Leaguers and lefthanders in his generation, only Reggie Jackson had more.)

He was named National League Most Valuable Player in 1980, 1981 and 1986 -- the last of these, in spite of the Mets finishing 21 1/2 games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1980, he was named MVP of the World Series, the Phillies' 1st title. In 1983, as part of the team's Centennial, fan balloting named him the greatest player in franchise history -- and he still had 163 home runs, an MVP, and a Pennant ahead of him. All told, he helped the Phillies reach the postseason 6 times -- and they'd only done so twice before.

His Number 20 was retired, and he was easily elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 1st year of eligibility. In 1999, he was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, and was ranked 28th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, making him not only the highest-ranking 3rd baseman, but the highest-ranking player who debuted after 1967.

Fast facts with which you can amaze your friends: On June 23, 1971, Rick Wise pitched a no-hitter for the Phillies, and the last out was a line drive to 3rd baseman John Vuckovich; on August 15, 1990, Terry Mulholland pitched a no-hitter for the Phillies, and the last out was a line drive to 3rd baseman Charlie Hayes; in between was the entire career of Mike Schmidt, but he never played in a winning no-hitter.

2. Chuck Bednarik, center and linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles, 1949-62. Despite the name of his birthplace -- Bethlehem, Pennsylvania -- he seemed more demon than divinity. He was called "Concrete Charley," but not because he was such a tough hitter on the football field. It was because selling concrete, which he turned out to be very good at, was his off-season job.

The son of Slovakian immigrants came from the mining region of the Lehigh Valley, and was a gunner on a B-24 bomber in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. Doesn't sound like an obvious Ivy Leaguer, does he? Surprise: He not only got into the University of Pennsylvania -- and the Ivy League schools have never given out athletic scholarships, so he got in on brains -- but was an All-American for them, finishing 3rd in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1948, an astounding achievement for a center or a linebacker, and he was both.

He was drafted by the Eagles, and was the only player to bridge their 1949 and 1960 NFL Championships. He continued going both ways, even as the NFL adopted "two-platoon football," meaning players would play on only offense or only defense. He was "the Last of the Sixty-Minute Men," and, at age 35, played 58 of the 60 minutes of the 1960 NFL Championship Game, at his former college home of Franklin Field on the Penn campus, tackling Jim Taylor of the Green Bay Packers and holding him down as the clock ran out.

A 1969 poll for the 100th Anniversary of college football named him the greatest collegiate center of all time. He was a 10-time All-Pro in his 14 seasons. The Eagles elected him to their Hall of Fame and their 75th Anniversary Team, and retired his number -- which, in a neat coincidence, happened to be 60. He was elected to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, and to the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team and 75th Anniversary Team.

When The Sporting News listed its 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, he came in 54th. When the NFL Network listed its 100 Greatest Players in 2010, 11 years and several great players' added credentials later, he was promoted to 35th. His legend had grown.

In a City that puts so much value on toughness, Chuck Bednarik was the toughest bastard of them all.

1. Wilt Chamberlain, center, Warriors 1959-62 and 76ers 1965-68. True, Wilt only played 6 seasons of professional sports in his hometown. But that did include the Sixers' 1966-67 NBA Championship season, when they may have been the greatest team in NBA history.
Here is what Wilton Norman Chamberlain did just in the 1961-62 season, the Warriors' last in Philadelphia before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. He played all but 4 minutes of the season, including overtimes, meaning that he averaged 48.5 minutes per game, and a regulation game is only 48 minutes long. He led the league in rebounds per game with 25.7. And he averaged 50.4 points per game. We make a big deal about players scoring 50 points in a single game -- Wilt averaged that over the entire season.

On March 2, 1962, at HersheyPark Arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Wilt scored 100 points in a 169-147 Warriors win over the Knicks. This included the defiance of his difficulties with shooting free throws, as he set records that still stand with 32 attempts and 28 successfully. He also did it having gotten no sleep the night before. There is no surviving video, just a radio broadcast, so we can't know how many of his shots would have been for 3 points under today's rules. For all we know, those shots might have been worth 120 points under today's rules -- and the next-best single-game point totals in NBA history are 81 by Kobe Bryant, 78 by Wilt Chamberlain, and 73 by both Wilt Chamberlain and David Thompson.

Among records he set as a Philadelphia player, he still holds those for points in a game (100), for a season (4,029), and per game for a season (50.4); for rebounds in a game (55, against the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell, in 1960), for a season (2,149, also in 1960-61), and per game for a season (27.2, in that same 1960-61 season). In 1967-68, his last season in Philadelphia, he led the league in assists. As a center. No one else has ever done that, not in the NBA, not in the WNBA, not in the NCAA (men or women).

He was the 1960 Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star 13 times, including all 6 seasons in Philly. He was MVP of the regular season 4 times, all with Philadelphia teams, in 1960, 1966, 1967 and 1968. He was MVP of the All-star Game in 1960.

He was the easiest of choices for the Basketball Hall of Fame, and for the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players. The Warriors and 76ers have both retired his Number 13, and a dual statue of him stands outside the 76ers' new arena, the Wells Fargo Center. It shows 2 figures: Wilt in full height, throwing down a dunk, and seated in street clothes and smiling, holding a ball, as if offering it to the viewer. Of course, he deserves a dual statue: He wasn't quite as tall as 2 adult men, but, culturally, he was twice as big as anybody he played against.

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