Sunday, May 6, 2018

Cleveland's 10 Greatest Athletes

The last 2 athletes to lead a Cleveland team
to a World Championship: Jim Brown and LeBron James.

This weekend, the Yankees are playing the Cleveland Indians.

Cleveland's 10 Greatest Athletes

Honorable Mention to Cleveland Indians in the Baseball Hall of Fame, who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Elmer Flick, Addie Joss, Stan Coveleski, Joe Sewell, Earl Averill, Lou Boudreau, Bob Lemon, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Early Wynn, Gaylord Perry, Dennis Eckersley, Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar and Jim Thome.

Sewell, Doby, Paige, Wynn, Perry, Eckersley, Blyleven, Alomar and Thome might have made the Top 10 if they'd spent their entire careers in Cleveland. So might Shoeless Joe Jackson, who is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame -- for a reason that also prevented him from having an "entire career."

Honorable Mention to Bob Waterfield, who quarterbacked the Cleveland Rams to the 1945 NFL Championship, before the team moved to Los Angeles and he became a Hall-of-Famer there.

Honorable Mention to Cleveland Browns in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who did not otherwise make the Top 10: Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Bill Willis, Frank Gatski, Len Ford, Mike McCormack, Bobby Mitchell, Gene Hickerson, Paul Warfield, Leroy Kelly and Joe DeLamielleure. Mitchell and Warfield might be on this list had they played their entire careers in Cleveland.

Honorable Mention to Cleveland Cavaliers in the Basketball Hall of Fame, who did not otherwise make the Top 10. Actually, for the moment, there's only 4 Cavs in the Hall, and, between them, they played just 8 seasons in Cleveland: Lenny Wilkens (1972-74), Nate Thurmond (1975-77), Walt Frazier (1977-80) and Shaquille O'Neal (2009-10). No question those were some great players, but, despite Lenny later coaching the Cavs, none of them is remembered for their time with them.

Honorable Mention to Brad Daugherty, center, Cleveland Cavaliers, 1986-94. Probably the best player in Cavs history until LeBron came along, he made 5 All-Star Games, and had his Number 43 retired. He'd be much higher on this list if a back injury hadn't ended his career at age 28.

Now, the Top 10:

10. Ozzie Newsome, tight end, Cleveland Browns, 1978-90. Ozzie made 3 Pro Bowls, catching 662 passes for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns. These were fantastic numbers for a receiver in the era. He was a tight end, for which these numbers were unheard-of.

He is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, the NFL's 1980s All-Decade Team, and the Browns' Ring of Honor. Strangely, The Sporting News did not put him on their list of the 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999. But, in 2010, the NFL Network listed him 73rd on their list of the 100 Greatest Players.

He was in the Browns' front office when they moved to become the Baltimore Ravens after the 1995 season, receiving a ring for their win in Super Bowl XXXV. In 2002, he was named their general manager, the 1st black man to hold that office with any NFL team, and built the squad that won Super Bowl XLVII.

9. Napoleon Lajoie, 2nd base, Cleveland Blues/Naps, 1902-14. That's pronounced LAH-zhoh-way. He was known as Nap for short, the Frenchman for his ancestry, and Larry (I can't find the source of that nickname).

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.)

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 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.

8. Cy Young, pitcher, Cleveland Spiders 1890-98, and Cleveland Naps (forerunners of the Indians) 1909-11. He might be Number 1, certainly no lower than Number 2, on this list if he'd spent his entire career in Cleveland.

(If you're wondering about the name of the team that represented Cleveland in the National League from 1887 to 1899, it came from an observer saying that their fielders stopped so many grounders, they must have had 8 legs, like spiders.)

Of his all-time record of 511 wins, he won 241 games for the Spiders, and another 29 for the Indians, for a Cleveland total of 270. He pitched 3 no-hitters, the 1st for the Spiders, eventually becoming the 1st pitcher to throw no-hitters in both Leagues.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, in its 2nd round of elections, with the only pitchers preceding him in the previous year's election being Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. In 1999, 88 years after his last game, and 44 years after his death, The Sporting News ranked him 14th on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, again trailing only Johnson and Mathewson among pitchers. That same year, he was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, even though he was already 33 years old when the 20th Century began.

Supposedly, a few years before he died, someone walked up to him and said, "Didn't you used to play baseball?" Cy Young answered, "Mister, I won more games than you'll ever see."

7. Marion Motley, running back, Cleveland Browns, 1946-53. In 1946, just as the Los Angeles Rams were reintegrating the NFL with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the Cleveland Browns were making the All-America Football Conference integrated from its start, with running back Motley and guard Bill Willis. So pro football is sometimes said to have had "four Jackie Robinsons."

He helped the Browns win all 4 AAFC titles and the 1950 NFL Championship. He led the AAFC in rushing in 1948 and the NFL in 1950. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the NFL's 1940s All-Decade and 75th Anniversary Teams. The Browns have not retired his Number 76, but they have named him to their Ring of Honor, and the University of Nevada has retired the Number 41 that he wore there.

Motley became, after Bronko Nagurski, the model of the big bruising fullback, to be followed by men like Jim Brown and Jerome Bettis. He was also described by Blanton Collier, then an assistant to Paul Brown and later his successor as head coach, as someone who "had no equal as a blocker" and "a great, great linebacker."

When The Sporting News named their 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, they listed Motley 32nd. Jim Brown was listed 1st. In 2010, the NFL Network listed Motley 74th on their list of the 100 Greatest Players. Brown was listed 2nd. But no less a player than Motley's quarterback, Otto Graham, said, "There is no comparison between Jim Brown and Marion Motley. Motley was the greatest all-around fullback."

In his 1970 book The Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman called him the best player in the history of the sport. When "Dr. Z" updated that book in 1984, 14 years later, following a refresher on a lot of old football film, he refused to change that ranking.

6. Jim Thorpe, running back and defensive back, Canton Bulldogs, 1915-20 and 1926; and the NFL version of the Cleveland Indians, 1921. He'd be higher on this list if he'd spent his entire career in Northern Ohio, or if we had more film on which to see how good he was.

The 1st great pro football player, and the 1st player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was also the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon champion. And he was a good baseball player, an outfielder in the major leagues from 1913 to 1919. In 1950, the Associated Press chose him as the greatest athlete of the 1st half of the 20th Century.

How good a football player was he, by today's standards? Hard to tell, although the college award for the best defensive back is named the Jim Thorpe Award. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him 88th on its list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

In 2010, 57 years after his death and 82 years after he last played so much as a down in the pro game, the NFL Network ranked him 37th on the list of the 100 Greatest Players. I don't know what happened in the ensuing 11 years to make him jump 57 places in spite of new players making the list. Maybe some old film was discovered, providing previously lost insight.

5. Tris Speaker, center field, Cleveland Indians, 1916-26. Like Edwin "Duke" Snider, Richie "Whitey" Ashburn and Edward "Whitey" Ford, his prematurely light hair got him a nickname, "The Grey Eagle." (Always written that way, never as "Gray.") In the 1910s and 1920s, he was right up there with Ty Cobb as the best all-around player in baseball.

He was an incredible hitter, with a .345 lifetime batting average, and 3,514 career hits, a total still surpassed only by Cobb, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial. He holds the career record for doubles with 792. He was also the best-fielding outfielder of his time, and he still holds the career record for assists by an outfielder with 449.

He helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series in 1912 and 1915, was traded to the Indians, became their player-manager, and won the Series with them in 1920. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with its 2nd class in 1937 (along with Nap Lajoie and Cy Young), and ranked 27th on The Sporting News' 1999 list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

Despite allegations that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1947 Speaker came out of retirement, at the request of Indians owner Bill Veeck, to assist the American League's 1st black player, Larry Doby, in learning how to play center field, which he hadn't played before. Speaker assisted the other black players that Veeck brought in as well, and won another World Series ring as one of their coaches in 1948. Although he is in the Indians' team Hall of Fame (and the Red Sox' as well), the uniform number he wore as a coach, 43, is not retired.

4. LeBron James, forward, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2003-10 and 2014-present. Where to begin? He was the 1st high school basketball player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he's the only athlete to be named their Sportsperson of the Year twice. (In 2012 and 2016. He was preceded by Tiger Woods, but golfers are not athletes.) Being on the cover so often does not seem to have jinxed him.

The Akron native went straight from high school to the NBA, to his hometown Cavaliers, and became, except for Michael Jordan, the most-hyped player in NBA history. He was named Rookie of the Year in 2004. As of the 2017-18 season, he had been named to 15 All-Star Games, including 3 times being named the game's MVP. He led the league in scoring in 2008, and in the next 5 seasons, he was named to the All-Defensive First Team. He is a 4-time regular-season MVP.

But it's the postseason where the greatest of the great stamp their legends. In 2007, he got the Cavs to their 1st NBA Finals, but they got swept. After repeated Spring humiliations, and practically begging team owner Dan Gilbert to get better players around him, he played out his contract and, in a live ESPN special, said, "I'm taking my talents to South Beach." The people of Northern Ohio saw this as a massive betrayal, but let the record show that he did respect his contract, rather than forcing a move.

He went to the Miami Heat, played 4 seasons for them, and reached the Finals all 4 years, winning the title in 2012 and 2013. His contract completed there, he made peace with Gilbert, and returned to the Cavs. In his 1st 3 seasons back, he took them to the Finals all 3 times -- meaning he's now been to 7 straight Finals. In 2016, he finally got them their 1st title. For all 3 of his titles, he was named the winner of the Bill Russell Award as Finals MVP. He also led the U.S. team to the Olympic Gold Medal in 2008 in Beijing and in 2012 in London. He is 33 years old, and could have many more big years.

We are now hearing that he and Cavs management are feuding again, and people are already guessing where he will end up. Give it up, Knicks fans: He didn't want you last time, and he doesn't want you this time. He's had enough with chaotic management.

The Number 23 he wore with the Cavs in honor of Jordan, and the Number 6 he wore with the Heat in honor of Russell, will almost certainly be retired. He will almost certainly be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He will almost certainly be one of the first people selected in 2021 if the NBA names a 75th Anniversary 75 Greatest Players. (I say, "Almost certainly," because, as Pete Rose and the steroid users have shown us, there is no longer any such thing as a sure thing.

3. Bob Feller, pitcher, Cleveland Indians, 1936-56. In their 1981 book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time, Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig (one of them, anyway, but it's hard to tell which) wrote, "Bob Feller remains baseball's only prodigy." He debuted for the Indians while still in high school. To give you an idea: Joe DiMaggio also debuted in 1936, but he was 4 years older; Ted Williams was also born in 1918, but debuted 3 years later.

He set an American League record, striking out 17 batters in a game -- when 17 was also his age. In 1938, still not quite 19, he raised that record to 18. In 1940, he pitched a no-hitter, still the only one ever pitched on a season's Opening Day. he won the pitching Triple Crown that season, including 27 wins, a total only 1 American League pitcher has topped since (Denny McLain's 31 in 1968).

At the close of the 1941 season, just before turning 23, he was 107-54. For the sake of comparison: Warren Spahn, also decorated for heroism in World War II, wouldn't win his 1st major league game until he got back -- at age 25.

Feller missed the entire seasons of 1942, 1943 and 1944, and most of 1945 -- at the ages of 23, 24, 25 and 26 -- serving in the U.S. Navy. He said he didn't care what statistics or achievements he lost due to his wartime service, because The War was more important. He also had some words of wisdom for people who compare sports and war: "Anybody who says sports is war has never been in a war."

In 1946, his 1st full season back, he pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees, and struck out 348 batters. This was long believed to be a major league record, but a later check revealed that Rube Waddell, had 349 strikeouts in 1904, not 343 as previously believed. It was still the highest total between 1904 and 1965. In 1948, he finally won an AL Pennant and a World Series with the Indians. In 1951, he pitched a 3rd no-hitter, tying what was then the record.

He was an 8-time All-Star. There was no Cy Young Award in his era, but if there was, he probably would have won it 5 and possibly 7 times. As it is, he finished in the top 3 in the AL MVP voting 3 times. He won another Pennant in 1954, but all those early innings finally wore him down, and he retired after the 1956 season.

His final record was 266-162, with 2,581 strikeouts. Had he been exempted from service, and not gotten hurt in the meantime, he might have won over 350 games, and seriously challenged the career record for strikeouts at the time, Walter Johnson's 3,508.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his 1st year of eligibility. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him 36th on their 100 Greatest Baseball Players. The Indians retired his Number 19, and he lived long enough to see a statue of himself dedicated outside their current ballpark, what's now named Progressive Field. There is a Bob Feller Museum in his hometown of Van Meter, Iowa, whose architect was his son Stephen Feller.

2. Otto Graham, quarterback, Cleveland Browns, 1946-55. He played 10 professional seasons, all with the Browns, the 1st 4 in the All-America Football Conference, the last 6 in the NFL -- and brought them to their league's championship game in all 10 seasons.

He led the Browns to all 4 AAFC titles: 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949. He led the Browns to the NFL Championship in 1950, 1954 and 1955. He was an 8-time Pro Bowler (3 in the AAFC, 5 in the NFL), and a 5-time league MVP (twice in the AAFC, 3 times in the NFL).

Although he wore Number 60 at the beginning of his career, he switched to Number 14, and that's the number the Browns retired for him. He was named to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team, and the NFL's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams. He was voted 7th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999. When the NFL Network did the 100 Greatest Players in 2010, it put Graham 16th.

When you talk about the greatest quarterbacks of all time, you can mention Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning -- but you'd better also include Otto Graham, pro football's ultimate winner. And he is not known to have ever cheated, unlike Tom Brady.

1. Jim Brown, running back, Cleveland Browns, 1957-65. He was voted Number 1 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, ahead of Jerry Rice at Number 2. When the NFL Network did the 100 Greatest Players in 2010, it put Rice at 1 and Brown at 2. Here's why many think Brown is still Number 1:

He did all of the following despite playing just 12 games in a regular season from 1957 to 1960, and 14 from 1961 to 1965, as opposed to the 16 games a season has been since 1978. He played 9 seasons, and was named to the Pro Bowl every season.

He won the 1957 NFL Rookie of the Year award and 3 NFL MVP awards. He was the NFL's record holder for rushing yards in a game from 1957 (his rookie season) until 1976, for rushing yards in a season from 1958 (breaking Steve Van Buren's 1949 record by 381 yards) until 1973, and for rushing yards in a career from 1963 until 1984.

He was the 1st man to rush for over 9,000, 10,000, 11,000 and 12,000 career yards, and the 1st man to score 100 touchdowns, both overall and rushing. His 5.2 yards per carry remain an NFL record. He also caught 262 passes, at a time when that was a decent career total, and a record for a running back. He helped the Cleveland Browns reach the Playoffs 4 times, winning the 1964 NFL Championship.

Like Sandy Koufax, he retired at the peak of his game. Unlike Koufax, it was not because of injury. Rather, he decided that he wasn't going to leave the set of the film The Dirty Dozen and fly all the way across the ocean -- and who wants to exchange London for Cleveland? -- just because the owner of his team gave him an order.

At age 29, he decided he could make more money acting than playing football, which, at the time, was easily true. Or, as he later put it, he'd rather make love to Raquel Welch (his co-star in the 1969 "revisionist Western" film 100 Rifles) than take orders from Art Modell -- and that's an easy choice, even if you don't know what they both looked like.

After he and Modell made peace, the Browns retired his Number 32. He was named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team, its 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, and the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Although 9 players (currently led by Emmitt Smith, with 18,355) now have more rushing yards than his 12,312, he is still the standard by which big fullbacks are measured.

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