Top 10 Athletes From Indiana
Honorable Mention to Cal McVey of Indianapolis, the right fielder on baseball's 1st openly professional team, the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings. He was one of the Cincy players who went east to form the Boston Red Stockings, who dominated the National Association in the early 1870s, winning 2 batting titles, 2 RBI titles, and 4 Pennants.
Honorable Mention to Oscar Charleston of Indianapolis, 1 of the 5 Negro League players that The Sporting News included on its 1999 list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. In the 1920s and early '30s, when the white major leagues had Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, George Sisler and Rogers Hornsby, Charleston, a center fielder, was right up there with them as one of the best players in the game.
Honorable Mention to Indiana natives in the Baseball Hall of Fame who did not make this Top 10: Charleston, Edd Roush of Oakland City, Max Carey of Fort Wayne, Chuck Klein of Indianapolis, and Billy Herman of New Albany.
Honorable Mention to 2 of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers' "Boys of Summer," Gil Hodges of Petersburg and Carl Erskine of Anderson. Hodges was an 8-time All-Star, won the Gold Glove at 1st base the 1st 3 seasons it was awarded (1957-59), hit 370 home runs (10th all-time at the time of his retirement), and had 7 100-RBI seasons (and had 98 in another). He helped the Dodgers win 7 Pennants, winning the World Series with them in Brooklyn in 1955 and in Los Angeles in 1959. He also managed the Mets to their 1st Pennant and World Series win in 1969. It is a crime that he is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Erskine (or "Oisk" in Brooklynese) had the best curveball of the 1950s. He went 122-78, and helped the Dodgers win 5 Pennants, including the 1955 World Series. Ironically, his only All-Star appearance came in a season in which the Dodgers didn't win the Pennant, 1954.
Honorable Mention to Don Larsen of Michigan City, who pitched a perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, winning the Series' Most Valuable Player award. He also helped the Yankees win the World Series in 1958 and the American League Pennant in 1955 and 1957, and the San Francisco Giants win the National League Pennant in 1962, losing the World Series to the Yankees.
I previously had him on the Honorable Mentions for California, but found out his family didn't move to San Diego until he was 15, meaning he was already playing organized amateur baseball in Indiana by that point.
Honorable Mention to Don Mattingly of Evansville. He is the only person in honored Monument Park at Yankee Stadium -- aside from Jackie Robinson, Nelson Mandela, the 3 Popes and the 9/11 victims and responders -- who did not win a Pennant as a Yankee player. But he bridged the gap between the Reggie Jackson/Ron Guidry era and the Derek Jeter/Mariano Rivera era, so Yankee fans between the ages of 30 and 40 recognize him as their 1st Yankee hero.
Honorable Mention to Alex Karras of Gary. In 1957, at the University of Iowa, he won the Outland Trophy as the nation's outstanding interior lineman, and is in the College Football Hall of Fame. A 4-time Pro Bowler, he starred for the Detroit Lions at defensive tackle, and was named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team.
But not the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Why not? Some people point to his yearlong suspension for gambling in 1963. The thing is, he came clean immediately, never complained about the way he was treated, and was never a disciplinary problem again. And there's no evidence he ever compromised himself for a game through his betting.
And Paul Hornung, suspended at the same time, for the same crime, is in the Pro Football Hall. So why not Karras? It doesn't help that Hornung's Green Bay Packers dominated the decade: Not until 1970, Karras' last season, did the Lions make the Playoffs. He later built a career as a sportscaster and an actor.
Honorable Mention to Hank Stram of Gary, head coach of 3 AFL Championship teams with the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, winning Super Bowl IV in 1970.
Honorable Mention to Fred Williamson of Gary, a 3-time AFL All-Star defensive back, who played on Stram's team that won the 1966 AFL title, but lost Super Bowl I. "The Hammer" became an actor, specializing in the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s.
Honorable Mention to members of the Basketball Hall of Fame from Indiana, who didn't otherwise make the Top 10: Charles "Stretch" Murphy of Marion, Terry Dischinger of Terre Haute, and George McGinnis of Indianapolis.
Honorable Mention to John Wooden of Centerton, a star basketball player at Purdue University (where he was a teammate of Stretch Murphy) and for early pro teams in the 1930s, but better remembered as perhaps the greatest coach in the history of college basketball, winning 10 National Championships in 12 seasons at UCLA from 1964 to 1975, and coaching such players as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then named Lew Alcindor), Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Bill Walton and Marques Johnson.
He was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 1972 -- a tie vote, with tennis star Billie Jean King as Sportswoman of the Year. He was the 1st man to be named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. In 2003, George W. Bush awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Honorable Mention to Louie Dampier of Southport. A member of the University of Kentucky team that lost the 1966 NCAA Final to Texas El-Paso, he was a 7-time ABA All-Star, helped the Kentucky Colonels win the 1975 ABA Championship, and was the ABA's all-time leading scorer. He was named to its All-Time Team. After the 1976 merger, he played 3 seasons in the NBA, all with the San Antonio Spurs.
Honorable Mention to Steve Alford of the Indianapolis suburb of New Castle. The guard was a member of the U.S. team that won the Gold Medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles (selected by his college coach, Bobby Knight), and in 1987 was named Big Ten MVP, helping Indiana University win the National Championship. He played 4 seasons in the NBA, helping the Dallas Mavericks reach the Western Conference Finals as a rookie in 1988.
He went into coaching, and in 1999 got Southwest Missouri State (now just "Missouri State") into the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen. That got him the University of Iowa job, and people began to think he might succeed Knight at Indiana. That didn't happen, but he did win 2 Big Ten Tournaments. He was hired at the University of New Mexico, and won the Mountain West Conference regular season title 4 times and the tournament twice.
He did get one of the most prestigious college basketball coaching jobs, but not Knight's old job at Indiana -- rather, Wooden's old job at UCLA. He won the Pac-12 Tournament in 2014, and has gotten them to the Sweet Sixteen 3 times in his 1st 4 seasons. The best may be yet to come.
Honorable Mention to Don Lash of Bluffton. A record-setting long-distance runner, in 1938 he won the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award as America's most outstanding amateur athlete. He did not do well at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Games due to World War II ended his chances at a Medal.
Honorable Mention to Fred Wilt of Pendleton. Another long-distance runner from Indiana who won the Sullivan Award, in his case in 1950. He didn't do well in the Olympics in 1948 or 1952, but he is in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Dick Weber of Indianapolis. He and Earl Anthony are usually considered the leading contenders for the title of greatest bowler of all time.
Honorable Mention to DaMarcus Beasley of Fort Wayne. The greatest left back in the history of American soccer, he played in England for Manchester City, Scotland for Glasgow-based Rangers, Germany for Hannover, the Netherlands for PSV Eindhoven, Mexico for Puebla, and in America for the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Chicago Fire, and, since 2014, the Houston Dynamo.
With Chicago, he won the U.S. Open Cup in 2000, and that trophy and the Supporters' Shield in 2003. With PSV, he won the Eredivisie (league) and KNVB Beker (national cup) "Double" in 2005, and the league again in 2006. With Rangers, he won the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup in 2008, the League and Cup Double in 2009, and the League and the League Cup in 2010.
With the U.S. national team, he won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2002, 2005 (winning the Golden Boot as the tournament's leading scorer -- as a fullback!), 2007 and 2013. He played in the World Cup in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 -- and probably would have been one of the few players to play in 5 World Cups had the U.S. team not failed to qualify for 2018.
But as accomplished as he is, he's not the greatest soccer player from the State. I now begin the Top 10:
10. Lauren Holiday of Indianapolis. A midfielder, she won Olympic Gold Medals for the U.S. women's soccer team in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. In 2014 and 2015, she led FC Kansas City to the title of the National Women's Soccer League. The team retired her Number 12. In 2015, she scored one of the goals in the U.S. team's win over Japan in the Women's World Cup Final in Vancouver. Born Lauren Cheney, she is married to Jrue Holiday of the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans.
9. Tom Harmon of Gary. In 1940, the University of Michigan back won the Heisman Trophy. Nicknamed "Ol' 98" for his uniform number, his was the 1st to be retired by the school. In 2008, ESPN named ranked him 16th on their list of the Top 25 College Football Players of All Time. He took 1941 off to make a couple of movies, then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, surviving a plane crash in South America and being shot down China to reach the rank of Captain.
In 1945, just after being discharged, he played in the Chicago College All-Star Game. Despite not having played a down in 5 years, he scored all the All-Stars' points by returning a kickoff for a touchdown and kicking the extra point, in a 19-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers. He spent the rest of the season broadcasting for Michigan, played the 1946 and 1947 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams -- which his wife, actress Elyse Knox, appreciated, as it was close to the studios -- and retired to the broadcast booth.
His son Mark Harmon became a UCLA quarterback and an actor, known for Summer School, the baseball-themed film Stealing Home, the medical dramas St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope, and the Number 1 show on television, NCIS. Mark married Mork & Mindy actress Pam Dawber. Tom's daughter Kristin married singer Ricky Nelson, and their children are actress Tracy Nelson and singers Sam and the twins Gunnar and Matthew Nelson.
Tom's daughter Kelly married automaker John DeLorean. Begging the question, why did the time-traveling car in Back to the Future need to go to 88 miles per hour? Why not, in tribute to the builder's father-in-law, 98?
8. Ray Ewry of Lafayette. He was the 1st great U.S. Olympian. In events that are no longer part of the Olympic Games, the standing high jump, the standing long jump, and the standing triple jump, he won Gold Medals in Paris in 1900, in St. Louis in 1904, and in London in 1908, a total of 8 Golds.
7. Tony Zale of Gary. Born Anthony Florian Zaleski, he came from that steel-producing city in northwest Indiana, next-door to Chicago, which also produced Karras, Stram, Williamson, 1st black NFL quarterback George Taliaferro, Dick Barnett of the 1970 and 1973 NBA Champion Knicks, the singing Jackson family, and many other celebrities.
"The Man of Steel" -- he had the nickname before the comic books gave it to Superman -- won the Middleweight Championship of the World in 1941, then had an epic trilogy of fights with Rocky Graziano, beating him in 1946, losing the title to him in 1947, and getting it back in 1948, before losing the title for good later in the year to Marcel Cerdan. The Ring magazine named him Fighter of the Year in 1946. He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame.
6. Clyde Lovellette of Terre Haute. In 1952, he led the nation's college basketball players in scoring, was named Helms Foundation Player of the Year, led the University of Kansas to the National Championship, was named the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, and led the U.S. team to the Gold Medal at the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Kansas would retire his Number 16.
It could easily have been all downhill from there. It wasn't. He was signed by the Minneapolis Lakers, and was George Mikan's backup on their 1954 team, still the last Minnesota-based team to win the NBA Championship. He succeeded Mikan as their starting center, and was a 4-time All-Star. In 1962, he was traded to the Boston Celtics, and won titles with them in 1963 and 1964. He remains the only player to win NBA Championships with both the Lakers and the Celtics. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
5. Three-Finger Brown of Nyesville. He was born with the name Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown, "Centennial" because he was born in America's Centennial year of 1876, and nicknamed "Brownie" for his last name, "Miner" because he worked in a mine and "Three-Finger" (sometimes written as "Three-Fingered") because a farming accident cut off his right index finger and twisted his middle finger -- giving him, perhaps, baseball's 1st truly "wicked curveball."
In a 14-season big-league career, mostly with the Chicago Cubs, he went 239-130. He had 6 straight 20-win seasons, topping out at 29-9 in 1908. He long held the National League record for lowest ERA in a season, 1.04 in 1906 (later broken by Bob Gibson and his 1.01 in 1968); and still holds it for a career, 2.06. This was in the pre-1920 "Dead Ball Era," but he wasn't just benefiting from that, as his career ERA+ was 139, meaning he was 39 percent better at preventing runs than the average pitcher of his time. His career WHIP was an amazing 1.066.
He won Pennants with the Cubs in 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910, winning the World Series in 1907 and 1908; and in the Federal League with the Chicago Whales in 1915. He did this in spite of the strength of the New York Giants and their ace, considered the best pitcher of the time, Christy Mathewson. They opposed each other in 24 regular-season games, and Brownie beat Matty in 13 of them. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949, shortly after his death.
4. Rod Woodson of Fort Wayne. While Purdue University has produced a lot of good quarterbacks, this cornerback may be the best player they've ever had. An 11-time Pro Bowler, he was named AFC Player and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993. He intercepted 71 passes in his career, 3rd-most in NFL history, returning 12 of them for touchdowns, an all-time record. He won Super Bowl XXXV with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, losing Super Bowl XXX with the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers and Super Bowl XXXVII with the Oakland Raiders.
He was named to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team, and the 75th Anniversary Team of both the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Sporting News named him one of their 100 Greatest Football Players in 1999, and the NFL Network did so in 2010. He is now an assistant coach for the Raiders.
Griese -- not Dan Marino -- is also the only quarterback to take the Miami Dolphins to the NFL Championship, winning Super Bowls VII and VIII, and losing Super Bowl VI. On January 14, 1973, he won Super Bowl VII to complete the only unbeaten-untied season in NFL history, 17-0.
He was an 8-time All-Star, 2 in the AFL and 6 in the NFL. He won MVP awards in 1971 and 1977. The Dolphins made him the 1st Miami athlete to have his number retired, 12, and elected him to their Honor Roll. He is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He spent years as ABC/ESPN's leading college football color commentator, and now serves the Dolphins in that capacity.
His son Brian Griese also won a Rose Bowl (with the University of Michigan, also winning the National Championship in that 1997-98 season) and a Super Bowl (as John Elway's backup on the 1998 Denver Broncos), and also joined ESPN as a color commentator.
Honorable Mention to Bob Kuechenberg of Gary, Bob's teammate on the Super Bowl-winning Dolphins, a 6-time Pro Bowl linebacker who is also on the Dolphins Honor Roll.
2. Larry Bird of French Lick. Indiana is often thought of as the basketball State, and no native of the State is more associated with the sport than "The Hick From French Lick." Remember: John Wooden is now completely identified with UCLA and thus with California; and, for all his coaching achievements at Indiana University, Bobby Knight is from Ohio.
Knight recruited Bird for IU, but he couldn't handle the transition from small rural community to major state university, and left. He took a year off, then transferred to a local school, and then to Indiana State University, which was more to his liking, and he was named national Player of the Year in 1979. He almost singlehandedly led them to the 1979 NCAA Final Four, before losing in the Final to Michigan State, led by Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Boston Celtics general manager Red Auerbach swung the deal that enabled him to draft Bird in 1978, before he became nationally known. It would have been impossible later, thanks to the exposure that ESPN gives to college basketball, but also thanks to a rule that was changed to prevent it, now known as the Bird Collegiate Rule.
Larry was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 1980; MVP in 1984, 1985 and 1986; and Finals MVP in 1984 and 1986. He led the Celtics to the NBA title in 1981, 1984 and 1986.
He and Magic remained on a collision course, meeting in 3 NBA Finals, Larry winning in 1984, Magic winning in 1985 and 1987 (the Celtics beat the Houston Rockets for Larry's other 2 titles), and being on the opposing geographically-set teams in the NBA All-Star Game 12 times (Larry winning the Game's MVP in 1982), before finally uniting on the "Dream Team" that won the Gold Medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
His Number 33 was retired by the Celtics. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players. He was also called the best player in basketball by white fans who refused to accept a black man -- say, Magic, or Michael Jordan, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Julius "Dr. J" Erving, or Isiah Thomas -- as the best player.
This led director, screenwriter, actor and basketball nut Spike Lee, a Knicks fan, to recently call him the most overrated player in NBA history -- nearly 30 years after he had Mars Blackmon, his character in Do The Right Thing, say, "He's the ugliest (George Carlin word) in the league!"
This isn't among the reasons he's this high on the list, but he returned to his home State, to the Indiana Pacers organization, and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1998, getting them to the Eastern Conference Finals where they smacked into Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls; and was named NBA Executive of the Year in 2012.
He is 1 of only 4 men to win both, and while the other 3 were better coaches, none of them was anywhere near him as a player: His mentor Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and Frank Layden.
But "Larry Legend" isn't the greatest basketball player of all time. He isn't even the greatest basketball player from Indiana.
1. Oscar Robertson of Indianapolis. People talk about "triple-doubles": Getting double figures, 10 or more, in points, rebounds and assists in a single game. In 2016-17, Russell Westbrook of the Golden State Warriors had 42 triple-doubles, breaking the record of 41, and actually averaged a triple-double for a season, becoming the 2nd player ever to do so. The 1st, the only one to do so in the NBA's 1st 70 seasons, and the previous record-holder? Oscar Robertson, with the 1961-62 Cincinnati Royals: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 11.4 assists -- to Westbrook's 31.6, 10.7 and 10.4.
He and Jerry West of West Virginia -- an urban black man from a Northern State and a rural white man from a crypto-Southern State -- were named co-captains of the U.S. team that won the Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, a team often considered the best amateur basketball team of all time. (The 1984 team with Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing might have been better.) The aforementioned Terry Dischinger was also on that team, and it was, collectively, elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
A 12-time NBA All-Star, he was named All-Star Game MVP 3 times, Rookie of the Year in 1961, and MVP of the regular season in 1964. The Royals had Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman, Hall-of-Famers all, but they couldn't reach the NBA Finals, unable to crack the Boston Celtic dynasty, losing to them in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1963 and 1964.
In 1970, Robertson was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the young Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and Oscar finally got his ring in 1971. He closed his career by reaching the Finals again in 1974, but, again the Celtics were in the way. He retired as the NBA's all-time leader in assists (a record broken by Magic Johnson, who was surpassed by John Stockton) and steals (a record broken by Stockton).
He has the rare status of having 3 different uniform numbers retired: 12 by the University of Cincinnati; 14 by the Royals' successors, the Sacramento Kings; and 1 by the Bucks. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame (twice, in his own right and with the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team) and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.