Twenty Greatest North American Athletes

by William C. Hub

I am sure many of you have been following ESPN's countdown of the 100 greatest athletes of the century. Anyway a couple weekends ago, I got into a serious debate about who the remaining 20 were. Granted, we did have many sports experts present, but I figured I would throw the nets a little wider to see what some other sports aficionado's thought.

First and foremost, I am convinced the only reason the title reads North American and not American is because all the good hockey players are Canadian. Every person in the top 100 is American with the exception of Hockey players. 

The discussion is slightly less timely now, but will always remain interesting.  If you want to participate in the debate, post them here.  If you want to see who the ESPN folks picked, check it out ESPN's PICKS 

The following will first detail the 80 athletes (21-100 top athletes) that ESPN has already named, and then speculate on the remaining athletes (top twenty).

Summary of 21 through 100

Summary of 21 through 100 The Top Twenty The Top Ten Post a Comment


Football (18) - The most athletes mentioned.

25 Joe Montana
27 Jerry Rice
28 Red Grange
32 Johnny Unitas
39 Walter Payton
40 Lawrence Taylor
49 O.J. Simpson
64 Sammy Baugh
70 Dick Butkus
72 Bo Jackson
74 Deion Sanders
75 Dan Marino
76 Barry Sanders
79 GaleSayers
86 Otto Graham
88 Joe Namath
93 Don Hutson
95 George Blanda

I don't think there is much room for any more football players, especially considering who has already made the list. The one exception is Jim Brown. The way I look at they have already named the greatest WR, QB, and defensive player (Montana, Rice, & LT respectively). Jim Brown has to make the list if OJ made it. The only debate surrounding football is how far ahead of Walter Payton should Jim Brown be. I certainly think 20 spots is already too far. So, I have Jim being named relatively soon.

Baseball (16)

22 Joe DiMaggio
34 Lou Gehrig
37 Mickey Mantle
42 Sandy Koufax
56 Pete Rose
60 Walter Johnson
61 Stan Musial
63 Satchel Paige
67 Bob Gibson
71Roberto Clemente
72 Bo Jackson
73 Josh Gibson
74 DeionSanders
77 Cy Young
83 Honus Wagner
89 Rogers Hornsby

16 players already named and I see room for a lot more. Nolan Ryan is going to be unfortunately left off the list. The all time strike out leader misses the cut because of his poor winning percentage. With that being said, Sandy Koufax can be named the greatest pitcher of the century. Position players is a different story. I believe Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Ty Cobb could have made the top 100, but how many can make the top 20? I say all of them.

Track & Field (8)

23 Jackie Joyner-Kersee
41 Wilma Rudolph
47 Edwin Moses
53 Rafer Johnson
68 Al Oerter
78 Bob Mathias
91 Bob Beamon
96 Michael Johnson

I think there is no room for Ray Ewry, despite his 10 total gold medals in four consecutive Olympics. Carl Lewis with 9 Olympic Gold, 8 World Championship titles, two time AP athlete of the year; surely must make the top 20. Jesse Owens earns top status almost on one day (May 25, 1935) - which he set 5 world records, but seals it by winning 4 gold medals in front of Hitler in the 1936 Olympics. And then there is Jim Thorpe, the original multiple sport athlete. It would seem odd that the player named by the AP, as the best athlete of half century doesn't make the top 100 for the century. He is another must.

Basketball (7)

26 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
30 Larry Bird
36 Oscar Robertson
43 Julius Erving
58 Elgin Baylor
62 Jerry West
94 Bob Cousy

More track stars than hoops is a distinct possibility. However, there are plenty of big players left: Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, & (yes Pete I will give him a mention) Bill Russell. I think all these guys will all make it. Frankly, I am bit disappointed that Magic is going to rank ten spots higher than Bird. Russell amazing knack for being on winning teams and his being the first black coach in the NBA is what pushes him into the top 20, despite the fact players like the Big O, Wilt the Stilt, and Kareem all have far better stats.

Tennis (7)

45 Bill Tilden
48 Pete Sampras
50 Chris Evert
59 Billie Jean King
65 Althea Gibson
81 Jimmy Connors
98 Don Budge

Much like track and field, there are plenty of great tennis players that would make the list if we included non-americans (notably Roy Emerson, Steffi Graf, Margaret Court Smith. However we gladly accept Czech defector Martina Navratilova into our top ten. Also, Jimmy Connors fans must be angry, that McEnroe is going to place over 60 spots higher. I am also seriously disappointed that Pete's 12 grand slam victories did not move him higher up in the list.

Boxing (5)

24 Sugar Ray Robinson
51 Rocky Marciano
52 Jack Dempsey
87 Henry Armstrong
100 Jack Johnson

I am bit disappointed there are so many boxers in the top 100. However, these seems to be two big gaps looking at who they have named so far: Mohammed Ali & Joe Louis. Noticeably absent, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. Two great boxers, but no where close to making the list.

Hockey (5)

21 Gordie Howe
31 Bobby Orr
55 Mario Lemieux
82 Bobby Hull
85 Maurice Richard

When your nickname is "The Great One", I think that means you probably qualify to make the top 5.

Horse Racing (5)

35 Secretariat
57 Willie Shoemaker
66 Eddie Arcaro
84 Man o' War
97 Citation

Impressive. But a horse making the fifty greatest athletes of the century. I think we should have left this competition to people.

Golf (4)

29 Arnold Palmer
38 Ben Hogan
44 Bobby Jones
99 Sam Snead

Golf Fans may bit disappointed that the all-time victories leader, Sam Snead, only placed 99; but as we all know it pays to win the Big Ones. However, I also think they are going to snub the number two guy all-time in major victories (11) Walter Hagen. However, they pay their respects to golf, by putting in the most amazing golfer known to man in the top five. Jack Nicklaus's unbelievable ability to come up big in the majors is simply uncanny. His 18 major victories (not to mention his 2 us amateur victories) are simply amazing.

Auto Racing (3)

80 A.J. Foyt
90 Richard Petty
92 Mario Andretti

Again, sure their good. But who doesn't like to drive their cars fast. No victory laps in the top twenty please.

Ice Skaters (2)

46 Eric Heiden
69 Bonnie Blair

The two all time leaders for medals in winter Olympics make the list (Eric's 5 and Bonnie's 6). Yeah that seems about right.

You mean Dan Jansen didn't make the list? Yes.

Swimming (1)

33 Mark Spitz

Matt Biondi is getting the shaft a bit, especially considering he has more Olympic medals than Carl Lewis. But Mark is the greatest swimmer the country has ever known.

Diving (1)

54 Greg Louganis

Sure put the token diver in. Four golds is impressive, however.



The Top Twenty

Summary of 21 through 100 The Top Twenty The Top Ten Post a Comment

20.  Willie Mays

The "Say Hey Kid" did it with style

  • played in 24 all-star games
    two time MVP
  • Led the NL in HR & SB four times
  • 3rd all-time in HR (660)
  • 5th all time in runs scored (2062)
  • 8th all time in RBI (1903)
  • 10th all time in hits (3283)

19.  Hank Aaron

Hank overcame constant death threats to beat the Babe for the all time HR record

  • played in 24 all-star games
  • NL MVP in 1957
  • led NL in HR four times
  • led NL in RBI four times
  • all time leader in HR (755)
  • all time leader in RBI (2297)
  • 2nd all time in runs scored (2174)
  • 3rd all time in hits (3771)

18.  Magic Johnson

Hoops with LA style.

  • won NCAA title in 1979
  • won 5 NBA titles
  • won Gold Medal with the original Dream Team
  • three time league MVP
  • three time NBA Finals MVP
  • 9 time all NBA first team
  • 2nd all time assists leader (10141)

17.  Ted Williams

Who knows what the "Splendid Splinter" might have accomplished if he didn't miss almost five full seasons serving his country in WW2 & Korea

  • two time AL MVP
  • won the triple crown twice
  • led AL in batting 6 times
  • led AL in HR 4 times
  • led AL in RBI 4 times
  • 2nd all time in walks (2019)
  • 2nd all time in slugging percentage (.634)
  • 6th all time in batting average (.344)

16.  Jim Brown

Barry Sander's dad even knows Jim Brown was the greatest running back ever

  • excelled in two sports (Member of the football and lacrosse Hall of Fame)
  • NFL rookie of the year
  • led league in rushing 8 of his 9 seasons
  • 8 time all pro
  • three time MVP

15.  Mohammed Ali

"Danced like butterfly and stung like a bee"

  • won 1960 gold medal
  • 56-5 record with 37 KO

14.  Jesse Owens

Jesse was on top of the world for a couple years

  • set five world records in one day
  • won four gold medals in front of Hitler

13.  Bill Russell

The consummate team player.

  • all American at U of SF
  • won NCAA title with SF
  • Won Gold Medal
  • won 11 NBA titles in his 13 year career
  • 5 time league MVP
  • 2nd all time in rebounds (21,620)
  • first African American to coach in the NBA

12.  John McEnroe

The greatest personality to ever play tennis really, really well.

  • won NCAA singles titles
  • 5 time Davis Cup winner
  • 4 time US Open winner
  • 3 time Wimbeldon winner
  • 154 total championships
  • ranked 1st in the world four times

11.  Ty Cobb

The "georgia peach" was the first baseball player elected to the Hall of Fame

  • AL MVP in 1911
  • Led AL in Batting 12 times
  • Led AL in SB 6 times
  • hit over .400 three times
  • all time batting average leader (.367)
  • all time leader in runs scored (2245)
  • 2nd all time in hits (4191)
  • 4th all time in RBI (1961)
  • 4th all time in SB (892)


The Top Ten

Summary of 21 through 100 The Top Twenty The Top Ten Post a Comment

10.  Martina Navratilova 

The most dominant tennis player in history.

  • won 37 Grand Slam doubles titles
  • won Wimbeldon 9 times
  • won the US Open 4 times
  • won the Australian Open 3 times
  • won the French Open 2 times
  • was the number one player in the world seven times
  • all time leader in men & women singles titles (167)

09.  Joe Louis

In my opinion the Brown Bomber is the greatest boxer in world history

  • world heavy weight champ for 11.75 consecutive years (world record)
  • 63 -3 record with 49 KO

08.  Jim Thorpe

Out of respect for my elders, J.T. makes the top ten
  • won pentathlon & decathlon at the 1912 Olympics
  •  played Major League Baseball for 7 years
  • played professional football for 9 years
  • named athlete of the half century by the AP in 1950
  • played Major League Baseball for 7 years
  • played professional football for 9 years
  • named athlete of the half century by the AP in 1950

07.  Wilt Chamberlain

If Wilt the Stilt won a few more championships, he would be even higher.

  • two time college all American
  • four time league MVP
  • won two NBA titles
  • NBA finals MVP in 1972
  • led NBA in scoring seven times
  • led NBA in rebounds 11 times
  • scored 100 points in one game
  • averaged 50.4 points per game and 27.2 rebounds a game in 1961 (both easily NBA records)
  • Field Goal percentage in 1961 was .727 (another crushing NBA record)
  • Wilt's fourth best season in rebounds per game and points per game beats every other NBA player's best
  • seven time all NBA first team
  • all time leader in rebounds (23924)
  • 2nd all time in points (31419)
  • 2nd all time in points per game (30.1)

06.  Carl Lewis

  • 9 gold medals (second only to Ray Ewry's 10)
  • 8 World Championship titles
  • Sullivan Award Winner in 1981
  • two time AP male athlete of the year

05.  Babe Ruth

The "Babe" was the greatest baseball player ever.

  • two time 20 game winner
  • 94-46 career record with
  • AL MVP in 1923
  • Led AL in slugging 13 times
  • Led AL HR 12 times
  • Led AL RBI 6 times
  • Won batting title in 1924
  • All time leader in walks (2056)
  • All time leader in slugging avg. (.690)
  • 2nd all time in HR (714)
  • 2nd all time in RBI (2211)
  • 2nd all time in runs scored (2174)
  • 10th all time batting avg. (.342)
04.  Wayne Gretzky

The "great one"  is the NHL's greatest star.

  • Won 4 Stanley cups
  • 2 time Stanley cup MVP
  • All time Stanley Cup leader in points, goals, and assists
  • Scored 200+ points in a season 4 times
  • 9 time all NHL first team
  • 10 time NHL scoring champion
  • 9 time regular season MVP
  • All time leader in points, goals, and assists
03.  Jack Nicklaus

The Golden Bear could always win when it counted.

  • Won Masters 6 times (oldest player to win Masters at age 46)
  • Won US open 4 times
  • Won the British open 3 times
  • Won the PGA championship 5 times
  • Won NCAA title and 2 us amateurs
  • 6 time Ryder Cup player and 2-time captain
  • PGA player of the year 5 times
  • named golfer of the century by the PGA
  • 70 PGA Tour Wins (2nd all time)
  • Won 7 majors in 6 years on senior PGA tour
02.  Michael Jordon

Michael redefined the concept of winning and basketball....

  • College player of the year in 1984
  • Won NCAA championship in 1982
  • Won two gold medals
  • Won 6 NBA championships
  • 6 time NBA finals MVP
  • Led NBA in scoring 7 years in a row (a total of 9 years)
  • 10 time all NBA first team
  • 5 time regular season MVP
  • 3 time AP Male athlete of Year
  • All time leader in points per game (31.5)
  • 3rd all time points (29277)
  • 3rd all time in steals ( 2306)
01.  Jackie Robinson

His amazing records are one thing, but he personally changed all sports as we know it.

  • four sport athlete at UCLA
  • played professional football in Pacific Coast League
  • first African American to play major league baseball
  • rookie of the year in 1947
  • won MVP and batting title in 1949
  • career .311 hitter


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