Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana -- just about every living athletic immortal attended SI's millennium party at Madison Square Garden in December 1999. But my personal highlight by far was meeting Roger Bannister, SI's first Sportsman of the Year in 1954.
What made it special was not only Bannister's resume, which includes history's first four-minute mile and a career as a neurologist known throughout Great Britain. It's also the fact that, for me, he seemed to step out of the pages of history, a hazy archetype, a shadow man suddenly come to life.
In that spirit, then, my choices for Sportsman (sportsmen) of the Year are going to be athletes out of the past, those who did what they did before there was an SI. It goes without saying (I hope) that this is not a complete list. But in consultation with amateur sports historian Thomas"Nus"Hansen, I've come up with a top 10 that is (again I hope) deserving and intriguing.
1. 1910 -- Barney Oldfield
By this year, Oldfield had already brought worldwide attention to the nascent sport of auto racing with his showmanship and daring. But this was the year he took a Benz to Ormond Beach, Fla., for a special exhibition and broke existing speed records for the mile and two-mile runs.
2.1912 -- Jim Thorpe
This was the year he won the gold medal in both the decathlon and pentathlon (long jump, javelin, discus, 200-meter dash and 1,500-meter run) and was also fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump. By 1912, he was also the top collegiate football player in the nation and people would soon begin to find out about his baseball talents, too. I would hope that an SI of 1913 would've editorialized against the bogus eligibility claim that subsequently took away his Olympic medals.
3. 1919 -- Babe Ruth
There would be a lot of argument about this one because the Babe's Boston Red Sox stumbled to sixth place in the American League standings. But, still, this was the first season that Ruth, best known as a pitcher, became a full-time outfielder. He broke the all-time home run record with 29 yet still managed to go 9-5 with a 2.22 ERA as a pitcher. You all know what happened in the offseason: Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold him to the New York Yankees.
4. 1924 -- Paavo Nurmi
In this year, the Flying Finn won seven distance races (heats and finals) in six days at the Paris Olympics, earning five gold medals. There would be some sentiment in the SI offices to give the award to Red Grange, for this was the year he took it to the house (they didn't call it then) the first four times he touched the ball against Michigan.
5. 1932 -- Babe Didriksen
At the July 4 trials for the '32 Olympics, America's female Babe (she wouldn't be Zaharias until several years later) competed as the only member of the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas. She competed in eight of the 10 events and won six of them, thereby taking, singlehandedly, first place in the "team" competition. Oh, yes, she set world records in the 80-meter hurdles, javelin and high jump. That was the trio of events she chose for the Olympics (she was restricted to three) and went on to win golds in the first two and a silver in the high jump. She was also an All-American basketball player that year. Any questions about this choice?
6. 1936 -- Jesse Owens and Luz Long
Let's assume that SI missed naming Owens in '35, when Owens broke three world records at the Big 10 track and field championships in 45 minutes. The editors got a chance to redeem themselves the next year when Owens stuck it to the Führer by winning four gold medals at the Munich Olympics. Long was an also-ran at those Games, but even Owens would've approved of sharing the honor. The German long jumper put his arm around Owens and encouraged him after the American had fouled in his first two attempts in the long jump. "It It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler," Owens said later.
7. 1938 -- Joe Louis
Keeping things in the political spectrum, this was the year the Brown Bomber knocked out Max Schmeling in one round, avenging a '36 loss to Schmeling and, in the eyes of most Americans making the world safe for democracy against the Nazi representative. Louis was the second black heavyweight champ but the first to be embraced by white America.
8. 1941 -- Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams The extraordinary achievements of both the Yankee Clipper (hitting safely in 56 consecutive games) and the Splendid Splinter (.406 batting average) would've perhaps merited the award in any case. But let's assume some prescience on the part of the editors: Six decades later we're still chasing these numbers.
9. 1950 -- Ben Hogan
A no-brainer. A year earlier the taciturn Texan had a car accident that almost ended his life. But with the steely-eyed resolve and the sweet swing, he goes on to win the U.S. Open at Merion.
10. 1953 -- Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay
At 11:30 a.m. on May 29 of this year, the New Zealand climber and his Sherpa guide became the first human beings to reach Earth's highest point -- the summit of Mount Everest in the Himalayas. The editors are comfortable with their choice but prepare for the avalanche (perhaps not the best choice of words) of letters that will follow: What's this have to do with sports!!!