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.
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.
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.
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 kid.
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.
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.
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!).
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.