How does someone try to rank the 10 greatest American athletes of all time?
First, you have to look at how much they achieved within their own sport. This can be measured by championships, records, times, statistics and rings. Second, their legacy within their own sport must be examined. Were they the greatest player at their position? Do others try to copy what they did? Third, their impact on the world outside of their sport should be non-negotiable. This includes humanitarian impact, world notoriety, popularity and effects on social change.
Trying to pare this list down to the top 10 is like choosing which of your children you love the most, except that no one but your children cares what the answer is. Everybody has their own opinion on the top 10 greatest American athletes; here are our best guesses.
Those who just missed the cut: Jim Brown, Jim Thorpe, Joe Louis, Carl Lewis, Lebron James, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Martina Navratilova, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Joe Montana, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry Rice, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong.
10. Willie Mays. Twenty-four All-Star games. Twelve Gold Gloves. Two MVP awards. One World Series title. The Say Hey Kid was the greatest five-tool baseball player (fielding, throwing, speed, hitting for power and hitting for average) to ever play the game, and still is. He’s also one of the most beloved athletes of all time. Ted Williams said, “They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays.”
9. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. She started out like any regular athlete, winning two gold medals and one silver for track and field in the 1932 L.A. Olympics. This would have been enough for most people. She was also an All-American in basketball, an expert diver, roller-skater and bowler. And then, just for fun, she became the most dominant female golfer in the world from 1945-55, when she died of colon cancer. She’s not just on this list for being the best female athlete ever. She’s a legitimate top-10 athlete, regardless of gender.
8. Bill Russell. Much like Tim Duncan, the Boston Celtics’ Russell gets ignored because he was a good fundamental basketball player, and not very flashy. He also happened to win 11 NBA championships, two NCAA championships and five MVP awards. Is that not flashy?
7. Tiger Woods. He’s not the greatest golfer ever . . . yet. But he will be. He’s already back to No. 1 in the world after a few dark years, and that’s nothing but good for golf.
6. Jack Nicklaus. Between the years of 1962 and 1986, Nicklaus won 18 career major golf championships, and finished second or third 28 other times. Woods will catch him, but “The Golden Bear” will still be the most accomplished pro golfer of all time.
5. Jesse Owens. Occasionally, an athlete is presented with an opportunity to succeed while proving a point. Jackie Robinson did this, and so did many others in a dark time of American history. Owens did it first, and did it best, stealing four gold medals in track and field right out from under Adolf Hitler’s nose.
4. Michael Phelps. What do you do if you’re the most decorated Olympian of all time at the age of 28? Who knows? Perhaps the next chapter of the swimmer’s life will bump him up this list.
3. Muhammad Ali. Ali, like Tiger Woods, was, at several points in his career, the most famous athlete in the world. He brought grace to the brutal sport of boxing, and showed the world what it meant to back up your own trash-talking.
2. Babe Ruth. The Babe made baseball more than baseball. He hit home runs when everyone else was stringing together base hits. Not only did his teams win seven World Series, he also managed to pitch — yes, pitch — 94 winning games, with an ERA of 2.28.
1. Michael Jordan. It could be argued that Jordan is the greatest literal athlete to ever live. Currently working as (mediocre) owner of NBA Charlotte Bobcats, some of his players have said that, if he wanted to, he could put on a uniform today and still be the best player on the team at age 50. They’re probably right.