Posted: Thursday February 17, 2011 11:21AM ; Updated: Thursday February 17, 2011 11:38AM
Richard Rothschild
Richard Rothschild>SPORTS HISTORY

Ranking generations of athletes

Story Highlights

Determining the best generation in U.S. sports history is no easy matter

Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, Michael Jordan, LeBron James not in top group

GI generation wins for contributions to society, but finishes second in sports

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Bill Russell, who was honored with the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, is a major reason why the Silent Generation is No. 1.
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When Bill Russell was winning two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal and 11 NBA crowns, championship teams rarely received invitations to the White House. It certainly wasn't like earlier this month, when the Super Bowl XLV champion Green Bay Packers could boast about a future engagement at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But as he usually did during his incomparable 13-year NBA career, Russell has gotten his due from the White House. The five-time MVP and the first black man to coach a major league team in the modern era was honored with 14 others Tuesday when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in D.C. Other honorees included Warren Buffett, poet Maya Angelou, baseball great Stan Musial and former President George H.W. Bush.

In addition to Russell's incomparable athletic accomplishments, the medal also was in recognition of his leadership for civil rights causes during a time when fans would cheer a black athlete when he played for their favorite team but voice a much different reaction if he tried to live in their neighborhood.

Times, of course, have changed, especially for the nation's youngest athletic generation, the Millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000. One should not think harshly of them if many of the conflicts involving race, sex and religion were settled long before they picked up a ball or competed in a race. They're judged mainly by how they perform in the arena, and it's been a memorable 12 months.

Skier Lindsay Vonn became the first U.S. woman to win gold in the Olympic downhill. Patrick Kane's overtime goal gave the Chicago Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Pitcher Tim Lincecum helped lead the San Francisco Giants to their first World Series championship since leaving New York in 1958. Most recently, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers beat Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first Super Bowl showdown between Millennial starting quarterbacks.

But how do the Millennials measure up with the previous six generations in U.S. sports? Are they in the same league as the generations of Babe Ruth or Joe Louis or Bill Russell? Which one is American sports' greatest generation?

Americans have been running, jumping and throwing since the early days of the republic, but let's start the conversation with athletes from the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, when golf's U.S. Open, the modern Olympic Games, the World Series, Rose Bowl and Walter Camp's first All-America football team helped inaugurate the modern era of U.S. sports.

(The names and dates of generations listed below are based on the research of Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, who wrote about generational topics in the 1990s and early 2000s.)

7) Missionary Generation (1860-1882)

Standout American athletes/officials: Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, Jack Johnson, Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Prominent Americans: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jane Addams, Douglas MacArthur.

The case for: Legendary athletes and four of baseball's greatest architects highlight the nation's first prominent sports generation. Young's 511 wins is one of the most unapproachable records in sports. Wagner, a .328 lifetime hitter, still tops some lists as baseball's best all-time shortstop.

Mack and McGraw, solid players in their own right, combined to win eight World Series as managers. Barrow was the general manager who helped construct the Yankees dynasty from 1921 to 1945. Rickey ended baseball's decades-old ban on black ballplayers by signing Jackie Robinson.

Heavyweight champ Johnson was the nation's first black sports star, although he alienated many whites with his refusal to bend to the racial mores of the era.

The case against: Other than Johnson and Stagg, it's all baseball and all white. Landis helped root out gambling in baseball but the game's first commissioner also prevented black players from integrating the majors. There were no prominent female athletes unless you headed to a Wild West show to see the wondrous sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

Conclusion: The lack of athletic, gender and racial diversity leaves Missionary standouts well short of what would come in later decades.

6) Millennial Generation (1982-2000)

Standout athletes: Michael Phelps, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Diana Taurasi, Lindsey Vonn, Landon Donovan, Nastia Liukin, Joe Mauer, Tim Lincecum, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Shaun White.

Prominent Americans: Mark Zuckerberg, Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart, Rihanna, Zac Efron, Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, Taylor Swift.

Case for: The Millennials, who kicked off their run with Tara Lipinski's gold medal in figure skating at the 1998 Winter Olympics, are starting to hit their stride.

Phelps rules all Olympic generations with 14 gold medals. Until Mauer, no catcher had won a league batting title since 1942. Mauer has three. All four starting quarterbacks in the NFL's conference championships were Millennials.

No American generation of athletes is as good in so many sports.

The case against: It's way too early. The Millennials' final athletic chapter won't be written until about 2040. And Millennials already have suffered some slips. Will Roethlisberger be remembered for winning Super Bowls or for his loutish behavior off the field?

No Millennial has been more publicized than LeBron, but this most physically gifted of basketball players still lacks an NBA title. His over-the-top announcement about joining the Miami Heat made him look horribly self-absorbed.

Conclusion: Check back in about three decades. As the first sports generation to have its entire athletic career (and private life) chronicled on websites, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the Millennials have little room for error with off-the-field shenanigans.

5) Lost Generation (1883-1900)

Standout athletes/coaches: Ty Cobb, Jim Thorpe, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Bill Tilden, George Halas, Casey Stengel, Knute Rockne, Avery Brundage.

Prominent Americans: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Mae West, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, Marx Brothers.

The case for: Ruth, Thorpe, Cobb, Tilden and Dempsey reside atop sports' Mt. Olympus. Mathewson and Johnson were supreme pitchers and exemplary individuals. Stengel, Halas and Rockne led their teams to multiple championships.

Losts knew how to win, particularly Thorpe, perhaps the greatest all-around U.S. athlete in history. The two-time Olympic track gold medalist was one of pro football's early stars and good enough to play baseball for McGraw's Giants.

The case against: The Losts were no angels. Cobb batted a record .366 for his career but was a racist and was known as one of baseball's dirtiest players. Ruth broke records but also set records for breaking rules.

Halas coached the Chicago Bears to six NFL titles but baited referees and was miserly with many of his players. Tilden won seven U.S. championships and dominated tennis in the 1920s but late in life he was imprisoned twice for inappropriate behavior with young boys.

Thorpe, too, ran afoul of rules, specifically the ultra-strict amateur statutes of the day. He was stripped of his gold medals after admitting he had accepted $25 a week to play minor league baseball before the 1912 Olympic Games. The medals weren't restored until 1982, 29 years after his death.

Lost ballplayers brushed shoulders with gamblers, most notably the 1919 Black Sox.

Blacks and women played little role in big-time athletics. Pro football was running on life support.

Conclusion: Ruth, Grange, Dempsey and Tilden helped their respective sports build national followings in what became known as sports' "Golden Age." But white men alone can't make the case.
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