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The Best Athletes of All Time, By Sport

Updated on April 20, 2011

Having been a sports fan for virtually my entire life, I have often pondered this question:

If I had to choose one greatest athlete in each major team sport, who would it be?

I know full well that though the athletes about to be listed here are true legends in every sense of the word, many will disagree with these choices, as they are purely my opinion.

But that's OK.

I won't waste any more time; let's start with my choice of the all-time greatest player of our national pastime:


New York/San Francisco Giants, New York Mets: 1951-1973

Hall of Fame 1979

I'm a lifelong fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the longtime rivals of Mays' primary team, so the fact that I choose this man as the greatest baseball player should say something; this "Say Hey Kid" is the reason why unlike so many other Dodger fans, I don't hate the Giants.

His 660 home runs - still fourth on the all-time list - 1,903 runs batted in, 3,283 hits and 12 Gold Gloves in center field over a 22 year career, along with a still-record 7,095 outfield putouts, speaks for itself.

Not to mention that legendary over-the-shoulder catch in Game One of the 1954 World Series vs. Cleveland.

The reason I pick Mays as the greatest player over guys like Babe Ruth is the fact that Mays was the ultimate five-tool player, excelling at hitting, hitting with power, running, fielding and throwing; it is said that any two of those skills can keep a guy in the big leagues, but Mays could do all five, and do them extremely well.

Ruth, while hitting 714 home runs with a career batting average of .342 and being a top-notch pitcher the first few years of his career, could have done even more if he had taken better care of himself and not partied like Charlie Sheen for most of his days as a Red Sox and especially a Yankee.

That's why Mays gets my nod here.


Cleveland Browns: 1957-1965

Hall of Fame 1971

A lot of fans tend to balk when asked to name their choice for the single greatest football player, as there are so many to choose from.

I reckon most folks would pick a quarterback like Johnny Unitas, or more likely guys like John Elway or Joe Montana; Jerry Rice, a wide receiver, was chosen as the number one player ever by one source a few years ago.

Don't get me wrong - all of those athletes are great choices, but in my view there was no one like Jim Brown, and there will never be anyone like him again.

When he retired after nine years in Cleveland, he did so as the NFL's all-time single season and career leading rusher (1,863 yards in 1963 and 12,312 for his career), as well as the all time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126) and all-purpose yards (15,549).

Yes, I know all of those marks have been surpassed, particularly the single season rushing record as several guys, notably O.J. Simpson, have gotten 2,000 yards in a season, but I still pick Brown as the best.

Nearly 50 years after he retired, he is still the only rusher in NFL history to average over 100 yards rushing a game for his career, and he is still eighth among career rushers as well as number one on the Browns' all-time list. And he was named by the Sporting News as the greatest pro football player ever in 2002.

The things that I personally admired about Jim Brown were that he retired at the peak of his career, before his skills began to decline (unlike so many other athletes), and that he has done much to help the African American community with his Amer-I-Can program; he's a very good role model for Black people.

And he wasn't a bad actor, either.


Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards: 1984-1993, 1995-1998, 2001-2003

Hall of Fame 2009

On the surface, this is the most obvious choice on this list. However...

If I had written this article in the 1980's I probably would have picked Earvin "Magic" Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and before that I would have definitely picked Wilt Chamberlain. But...

It's clear that "MJ" more than deserves the nod here:

Six NBA titles in eight years.

Two Olympic Gold Medals.

32,292 points all-time; only Kareem and Karl Malone have scored more.

Number one in NBA history in points per game average (30.1), playoff points per game average and points scored in the playoffs (33.4 and 5,987 respectively), as well as ten NBA scoring titles.

A five-time MVP and a 14-time All-Star.

He was placed on the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team; a no-brainer there, I'm sure.

He was a master of Marketing with his "Air Jordan" shoes and countless other endorsements.

And on top of all that, Jordan placed second to Babe Ruth on the Associated Press' list of 20th Century athletes, and ranked first on ESPN Sports Century's Top 100 athletes of the 20th Century.

Personally, I think it was his charisma and spectacular dunks that endeared him to America and, along with Magic and Larry Bird, brought the NBA to the prosperity that it still enjoys today. I admire him for being part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, as well as having the courage to try a career in baseball.

Like Jim Brown, Michael Jordan is a role model for those reasons.


Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues: 1979-1999

Hall of Fame 1999

Despite everything this "Great One" has done on the ice, I'm sure that some fans would pick Gordie Howe or Bobby Hull as the best hockey player of all time.

After looking at his numbers, however, it's crystal clear that Gretzky gets the nod as when he retired, he held no less than 61 NHL records, including 894 goals, 1,963 assists, and 2,857 points, all at the top of the list along with his single season mark of 92 goals in 1981-82.

His eight consecutive Hart Trophies from 1980-1987 and four Stanley Cups with Edmonton are not too shabby, either.

Not to mention his having the most playoff goals, assists and points with 122, 260 and 382 respectively.

And his being chosen as the Associated Press' Athlete of the Decade in the 1980s, the #1 Canadian Athlete of the Century, Sports Illustrated's Hockey Player of the Century, and picked fifth in ESPN Sports Century's Top Athletes of the 20th Century, behind Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Jim Brown.

Along with being the only athlete, along with Jackie Robinson in baseball, to have his uniform number (#99) retired by an entire league, as the NHL did.

A great illustration of Gretzky's impact is that when he was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, all of Canada reacted similarly to Americans when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, with shock and sadness, and painted the owner who traded him as the devil incarnate.

If that doesn't show how much of a legend he is, nothing does.

SOCCER: PELE (Edson Arantes do Nascimento)

Santos Club, Brazil: 1956-1974

Brazilian National Team: 1957-1971

New York Cosmos, NASL: 1975-1977

Most people, when they think about the world's most popular sport that football, which soccer is properly called, is, think of this man as the best ever, and his numbers certainly support that notion:

1,281 goals in 1,363 matches, including 730 goals for Santos, 92 goals for Brazil's National Team, and 12 in the biggest sporting event on Earth, the World Cup, in which he participated in four of them, winning three.

Pele's biggest impact, I feel, is him increasing awareness and interest in the only place where soccer is not really huge, the United States, when he joined the NASL's New York Cosmos in 1975 and won a championship for them in 1977.

Though the interest didn't last for too long, as he was past his prime and the league folded a few years afterward, it's clear that AYSO, the Little League of soccer, wouldn't be as big as it is, there wouldn't be an Major League Soccer, which is flourishing, and the U.S. National Team wouldn't be respectable with regular World Cup appearances if it wasn't for Pele coming to these shores.

He has been, and continues to be, a great ambassador for the sport.

I'm sure that lots of sports fans will agree with me on these choices.

I'm also sure that lots of other folks will vehemently disagree on at least some of the names that I've listed here, particularly baseball and football - but that's all right.

There is one thing for certain, however: No one can deny that these five men were great players - legends, really - in their respective sports.

Now the debating can commence.


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    • Dhart profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Culver City, CA

      @thehemu: Thanks for the comments -

      I don't know anything about cricket, it's not really played where I'm from, so I can't name an all-time greatest there. As for tennis: there's a lot to choose from - Who would you suggest?

      And I'll always pick Pele over Maradona any day.

    • thehemu profile image


      7 years ago from New Delhi, India

      hey dude you have not added maradonna and anyone from tennis and cricket.

    • celebritie profile image


      7 years ago

      I will have to agree with you on Michael Jordan he is undefeated.

    • Matt in Jax profile image

      Matt in Jax 

      7 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

      I honestly have to agree with your list. Maybe I'd like to see a list of runner-ups though. Multi-sport athletes could definitely be thrown into the mix as they are great athletes, but not necessarily the best in their individual sports. Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, and John Elway.


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