SI's Favorite Athletes of the Century
Posted: Thursday July 08, 1999 05:41 PM
Click here for an action photo of each athlete.
Sandy Koufax |
He was an aristocrat in spikes, with a gentleman's carriage and
an assassin's arsenal -- his fastball and curve. His last six
seasons are mythic: 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 27 complete
games with a painfully arthritic arm in 1966 and then quit. He
slipped into a private life fundamentally no different from his
days as a beloved public icon: unfailingly true to his ideals. He
always put team before self, modesty before fame and God before
the World Series.
Muhammad Ali |
He was too many things to too many people to be pinned down for
history. Was he an entertainer, a fighter of supernatural guile,
a political activist, a martyr? "Here's what he really was," says
George Foreman, who lost to him in one of boxing's most fabled
fights. "He was brave. I'd hit him -- hit him hard -- and he'd just
keep at me. Nobody'd ever done that before. He'd come ready to
die! Now what are you going to do with a guy like that?"
Dick Butkus |
His goal, the true Monster of the Midway once admitted, was to
hit the ballcarrier so hard that his head came off. If the mayhem
he wrought in nine NFL seasons did not include any beheadings, it
wasn't for lack of effort. Butkus had range and brains, but the
thing that made him an archetype -- the best middle linebacker in
football history -- was his toughness, his Old Testament
malevolence, his wet-your-pants intensity. "What I miss," he said
softly a few years ago, "is the violence."
Babe Ruth |
Like rock-and-roll and the Model T, Ruth was a seminal American
invention. Be it his power at the plate, his popularity or his
various appetites, the Babe was huge. Most amazing of all, Ruth
was Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens -- he was a dominant pitcher
before becoming the founding father of the home run. The modern
game began in 1920 when he hit 54 home runs, surpassing his own
record by 25. To equal that kind of jump, McGwire would have to
hit 130 this year.
Michael Jordan |
Picture the last NBA shot he took (against the Utah Jazz in Game
6 of the 1998 Finals), and you have his essence. It practically
broke the ankles of his defender, as so many of Jordan's moves
did to so many defenders over his 12 1/2 seasons. It was
dramatic, as was so much of his scoring in the clutch. And it
won a championship, as he did six times for the Chicago Bulls in
the 1990s. It's not axiomatic, you know, that someone will
always come along who's better.
Mickey Mantle |
We liked the Commerce Comet because he could do it all. He could
bunt for a hit or he could blast a baseball 565 feet. He could
hit from both sides of the plate, run like a thoroughbred, play
with pain and win the Triple Crown. Yet his passing was as
memorable as his playing. Just before he died in 1995 from
complications of liver cancer, Mantle made a very public penance
for a life lived too hard with too many drinks. His last great
play was to raise awareness for organ donation. It was then that
we liked him best of all.
Arnold Palmer |
The huge, tan forearms.|
The lock of hair over the forehead.
The shirt half untucked, belt half unhitched.
The lit cigarette lying to the side.
The farm-boy grin.
The weeds up to the knees.
The finish, like a roundhouse right.
The women swooning.
The men sighing.
Johnny Unitas |
An unknown in college, rejected by his hapless hometown Steelers,
he became the intrepid leading man in that classic sports drama,
The Greatest Game Ever Played. How could you not admire the man
in hightops and horseshoes, standing fearless in the pocket,
surveying the fields of fire, pumping, threading the needle? He
threw touchdown passes in 47 straight games and virtually
invented the two-minute drill. As all modern thoroughbred horses
are descended from three Arabian stallions, all modern
quarterbacks are the progeny of Johnny U.
Wayne Gretzky |
He was the kid on the pond whom the older guys couldn't catch:
elusive, imaginative, untiring. With a spin and a feint, he'd
slide the prettiest pass you'd never seen onto the stick of a
teammate you hadn't known was open. Or he'd bounce a shot in off
the goalie. Or pass the puck off the net to himself. Night after
night, for 20 seasons, the Great One never stopped playing like a
Bill Russell |
The antistat man, he defined his basketball by one measure only:
winning. He was sui generis, changing the game with his almost
mystical ability to block shots. Off the court, he refused to
dispense autographs and was utterly forthright, unafraid to speak
out against racial injustice. Above all: No athlete ever had such
a positive influence on his teammates -- everybody was a better
player when Bill Russell was on their side.
Sugar Ray Robinson
Little-known fact: Sugar Ray invented the entourage. When he
fought his way across Europe in 1951, he brought along his wife,
his manager, his secretary, his valet, his barber, his golf pro
and two trainers. Duplicate trainers was the lone redundancy for
the fighter who's been anointed the best pound-for-pound because,
as the years have shown, there's never been another like him,
either in sheer talent or glorious self-assurance.
Ted Williams |
It is said, with only a touch of hyperbole, that Number Nine is
the only person to have been the best in the world at three
things. Ted's trifecta: casting a fly rod, flying a plane and
hitting a baseball. He grew, in public, from the Kid to the
Splendid Splinter to Teddy Ballgame and, astoundingly, has
evolved yet further into the beloved old man of baseball. The
last man to hit .400 and to argue 1.000.
Bo Jackson |
He was a marvel straight out of Marvel Comics. Bo once ran along
an outfield wall -- parallel to the ground -- after making a grab
(Vroom!), threw a ball from the warning track to home on the fly
to nail a runner (Whoosh!), hit one of the longest homers ever
off Nolan Ryan (Pow!), pancaked Brian Bosworth (Wham!) and became
the first NFL runner to break off two touchdowns of more than 90
yards (Zoom!). He also made one of the most courageous comebacks
in baseball history, playing with an artificial hip. Naturally,
Bo homered in his first game back (Gadzooks!).
Wilma Rudolph |
No other great athlete lived a life of such extremes. She
suffered from polio as a child and died too young of cancer, but
in between, she was a captivating and conquering sprinter. We all
fell in love with the prime Tigerbelle from Tennessee State at
the '60 Olympics in Rome, where she was so scintillating that she
made a young boxer named Cassius Clay an envious second banana.
He coulda been the Marlon Brando of tennis, but the best years of
his tennis life were spent in exile as a barnstorming pro, while
pasty-faced amateurs with half his talent won the Grand Slams.
Tall, dark and handsome, with a growl for a voice and a scowl for
a hello, he was still winning tournaments when he was a
grandfather. If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the man
you'd want serving to save humankind was Ricardo Alonso Gonzalez.
Jackie Robinson |
"He changed the game" is a testament used often in sports. All
such tributes are trivial, though, when measured against what
Robinson did. He had a quick bat, quicker feet and a fierce will,
yet it was his courage in the face of racism that made him an
unparalleled agent of change. He made it possible for baseball to
be the pastime for all America.
Roberto Clemente |
The slashing swing that could reach any pitch, the helmet-flying
fury on the base paths, the jaw-dropping throws from that classic
whirl-and-fire move in rightfield ... all Clemente signatures.
Yet he is best defined by his grace off the field -- he perished in
a New Year's Eve airplane crash in 1972 on a relief mission to
Nicaragua. Gone too soon with exactly 3,000 hits and far too many
lives touched to count.
Julius Erving |
In the fading light that is the ABA, you can still see him
swooping above everyone else. He was an Afroed sideshow before he
was the main act, and when he finally made it to the NBA, he was
as good as advertised. Yes, Jordan took Erving's aerial act to
another level, but Dr. J was the first man who walked on the
tightrope without a net.
Joe Louis |
He was a dependably devastating presence in the ring who seemed
capable of righting national and even international wrongs with
his thunderous punches. At a time when few sports were
integrated, Joe Louis made the color of his skin incidental to
his performances, and brought Americans together.
Chris Evert |
That Ice Maiden on the court was a fun, wise-cracking (even a
little bawdy) lady off it. Chris Evert was the ultimate baseline
winner. Billie Jean King may have won the battle of the sexes,
but Evert won the hearts, getting the ultimate backhand
compliment as millions of girls imitated her two-fisted ground
Issue date: July 12, 1999
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