With the sad news of legendary hockey Hall of Famer Gordie Howe’ passing, the sports world now will mourn the loss of a second iconic figure in a matter of a week. Muhammad Ali’s death touched generations of not just sports fans, but ordinary people who couldn’t help but hear Ali’s words and be influenced one way or another. Howe’s death is different – the beloved hockey star never was known for making political statements or having the cultural influence Ali had. But the 2 once-in-a-generation figures do share at least one similarity – they transcended their sport and influenced multiple generations of people and fans. And now both go to their final, respective, resting places having been the ultimate faces of their sports. You think boxing – you think Muhammad Ali. You think hockey – you think Mister Hockey, Gordie Howe.
Who are the legendary, iconic, larger than life sports superstars from the other major sports?
Of course, this is going to depend on a person’s age and familiarity with particular sports. But the way Ali and Howe were so influential was that their greatness was recognizable, tangible, and personal for not just millions of people but it stretched across many generations of people. That’s hard to do. And it’s hard for us to differentiate between levels of greatness. Take baseball for instance – Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax (to name only a few). Selecting the greatest among that handful of all-time great Hall of Famers is like asking an 8-year old “what’s better: cookies or soda?”. So who was the most iconic and transcendent face of baseball (maybe the player’s not even on that list)? And what about football, basketball, and golf? I never said it was an easy question to answer.
Let me start with what is the easiest one for me. Babe Ruth’s legend is beyond enormous. While players mentioned above are enshrined in baseball lore (and many others are as well), no one owns the sport quite like Babe Ruth’s legend. His stutter-step home run trot is mimicked by anyone who has ever picked up and swung a baseball bat. We’ve all “called our shot” in little league or out in the sandlot playing whiffle ball. Heck, Yankee Stadium (new and old) is known as “The House Ruth Built”. It’s impossible to think of baseball without thinking of “The Sultan of Swat”. He may not have had the deep cultural influence of a Jackie Robinson, but his numbers – both at the plate and on the mound – loom largest in a sport that’s predicated on numbers.
On the hard court, a few names come to mind – Michael, Magic, Bird, Wilt. There are other greats, like Jerry West, Kobe, Oscar Robertson, Kareem, Bill Russell, Dr. J. But none of those six players had to save the league or carry it on their backs. The Bird-Magic rivalry in the 80s is one of the greatest in all of sports. What Wilt did in his time was “Ruthian” like – he was unguardable and no team, no player had an answer for him. And Michael Jordan is widely recognized as one of the greatest icons sports has ever seen – not to mention the greatest basketball player of all time. What those 4 guys did for the league during their eras is beyond compare. If I’m pressed to pick one, it’s MJ. He single-handedly ruled the NBA for a decade – dominated it with his skill and competitiveness and his brand soared above the league that he carried.
When you talk about iconic football players, the criteria seems to shift – what football player has a lengthy career like Gordie Howe and influences multiple generations? What football player brands himself as successfully as Jordan or makes culturally-driven statements like Ali? It’s tough to find an NFLer who fits any of those molds. So more emphasis has to be placed on their dominance and the impact they had on their team. While a quarterback would seem to be a logical choice because they often are the face of their franchise and many times of the league as a whole – which leaves Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning. If you don’t like those choices, maybe you prefer Jerry Rice and his out-of-this-world skill set at the wide receiver position. Or how about going a little older – Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, or even Vince Lombardi. For me, I looked to statistics and dominance at his position and the ability to make his team championship-caliber. Then mix that with off-the-field contributions that led to the NFL naming their Man of the Year Award after him. Walter Payton played a glamorous position of running back, had a personality that people were drawn to and the media liked, and had the stats and the ring to back it all up.
This discussion when it comes to golf would have been much tougher 5 years ago when it appeared a formality that Tiger Woods would surpass Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major championships. Tiger’s victory total plus the impact on the game that he had would have been a great counter to Jack’s resume. The Golden Bear’s majors, overall victory total on tour, and his worldwide outreach as a course designer and ambassador for the game of golf makes him one of the great golf icons ever. And I would consider Jack the greatest figure the sport has ever seen. Tiger was on pace to hold that crown, I believe, until his career was derailed 6 years ago by marital problems and a life that seemed even more off-track than his career was about to become. Jack’s records remain and his face is forever etched atop the Mount Rushmore of greatest golf legends.
These are fun discussions to have. Please feel free to jump in and continue the conversation.