As Tim Tebow eyes baseball, here are the six best MLB/NFL players
- Tim Tebow knows? The former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL bust is taking aim at MLB, but he's a long shot to make this list of the best ever to play both football and baseball professionally.
By now, you have likely heard that Tim Tebow, former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback, is “actively pursuing a career in professional baseball,” according to a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter. According to his agents, Tebow has been training as an outfielder for the last year and is ready to hold workouts for major league teams. Former major league catcher Chad Moeller, who has been training Tebow, issued a favorable evaluation of Tebow’s abilities, as has All-Star outfielder-turned-player agent Gary Sheffield (though he is not representing Tebow).
Though his NFL career was a bust, Tebow is a world-class athlete, so it’s not surprising that he looks impressive in practice. He will turn 29 on Sunday, however, and hasn’t played baseball competitively since high school. The chances of Tebow reaching the major leagues—never mind of having a major league career of any consequence—are close to zero.
As a reminder of just how difficult and rare it is for a football player to have a baseball career, here’s a quick look at the all-time Wins Above Replacement leaders (baseball-reference.com version) among players who played in both MLB and the NFL. In the 96-year history of the NFL, these are the only six men ever to have a major league career worth more than a couple of Wins Above Replacement. They are ranked subjectively by how good their major league careers were.
1. Brian Jordan, outfielder and safety: 32.8 bWAR
Sixty-seven men have played in both the NFL—which was founded in 1920—and the major leagues, and none had even half the baseball career that Jordan did. That surely has a lot to do with the fact that he gave up football before ever reaching the majors. Chosen by the St. Louis Cardinals with the 30th pick in the 1988 MLB draft and by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the NFL draft the following April, Jordan spent three years as a safety for the Atlanta Falcons as he worked his way through the minor leagues. In 1991, his final NFL season, he led the Falcons in tackles and was named a Pro Bowl alternate, but that April, he opened the 1992 MLB season as the Cardinals’ rightfielder; in June, St. Louis gave him a $1.7 million bonus to give up football. He did, and went on to play 15 years in the major leagues.
After returning to Atlanta with the Braves as a free agent in 1999, Jordan made his first and only All-Star team and set a career-high with 115 RBIs. From 1998 to 2002, he hit .289/.342/.479 (110 OPS+), averaging 22 home runs and 92 RBIs per season. That belated prime came in Jordan’s age-31 to 35 seasons; an injury-prone player, he only qualified for a batting title twice outside of that five-season run. He was an excellent defensive outfielder, however, and was worth more than five Wins Above Replacement in both of those seasons, finishing eighth in the National League's Most Valuable Player voting in 1996, his best showing on any ballot. Between the 1996 Cardinals and two stints with the Braves, Jordan also appeared in the playoffs five times, including Atlanta's 1999 World Series loss to the Yankees in which he went 1-for-13 for an .077 batting average.
2. Bo Jackson, outfielder and running back: 8.3
If Tebow does reach the majors leagues, he’ll be the third Heisman Trophy winner to do so. The first was former Ohio State halfback Vic Janowicz, who spent two years as a bonus baby with the Pirates in 1953 and '54 before jumping to the NFL in the fall of the latter year. The second was Jackson. Due to conflicts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted him with the No. 1 pick in the 1986 NFL draft, Jackson chose to play baseball exclusively out of Auburn. Drafted by the Royals in the fourth round in 1986, Jackson reached the majors to stay that September. The Buccaneers released his rights, however, leading to the Los Angeles Raiders drafting Jackson in the seventh round in 1987. After working out a deal with Raiders owner Al Davis that allowed him to join the team mid-season after the completion of the Royals’ season, Jackson became a bona fide two-sport superstar.
Jackson was an excellent baseball player and showed steady growth toward his natural age-27 prime. In 1989, at the age of 26, he hit 32 home runs, stole 26 bases, drove in 105 runs, made the All-Star team and finished 10th in the American League's MVP voting. The next year, he hit .272/.342/.523 (142 OPS+), with all of those rate stats as career-bests. Along the way, his jaw-dropping power at the plate, throws from the outfield and almost comical athletic ability made him a highlight-show superstar. As good as he was at baseball, he was also great at football, where he was a devastating, nearly unstoppable running back.
Unfortunately, football would be Jackson's undoing: A hip injury suffered in a playoff game in January 1991 ended his NFL career after just four seasons. That injury also derailed his baseball career, as he would play just parts of three more seasons with the White Sox and Angels before retiring at 32 during the 1994–95 strike. In the final accounting, his low on-base percentages and poor grades for his overall fielding would have him third on this list, but I can’t list him any lower than second.
3. Chuck Dressen, third baseman and quarterback: 8.5
Dressen is best remembered as a manager, specifically as the skipper of the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers in their pennant-winning seasons of 1952 and '53, though he also managed four other teams in a 16-year career that stretched from 1934 to '66. Like Jordan, he played in the NFL prior to reaching the majors, serving as the backup quarterback in the future Chicago Bears’ lone season as the Decatur Staleys in the league's inaugural season of 1920 before moving on to the Racine Legion, for whom he started seven games, in '22 and ’23. This was at a time that the passing game was still in its infancy and a 5’5” wisp of a man like Dressen could be an NFL quarterback.
In 1925, Dressen reached the major leagues as the Reds’ third baseman. For three seasons, his slick fielding and strong on-base percentages made him a valuable player (8.9 bWAR from 1926 to '28), but he turned 34 at the end of the last of those three campaigns, and his playing career ended soon after.
4. Evar Swanson, outfielder and running back: 6.1
Lightning fast, the 5’9”, 170-pound Swanson was a multi-sport star at Lombard College and a running back in the NFL from 1924 to '27, primarily with the Chicago Cardinals. He spent those summers playing baseball in the Pacific Coast League and eventually got his chance in the majors with the Reds in 1929, where he became teammates with Dressen. Swanson had a strong rookie season as a full-time outfielder for Cincinnati, but a shoulder injury shortened his sophomore campaign, and he found himself back in the minors in 1931. He returned to the majors with the White Sox in September 1932 and had his best season in '33 (.306/.411/.384, 117 OPS+), but after his age-31 season in 1934, the chronic arm injuries that had plagued him since college ended his career. If Swanson is remembered at all today, it is for setting an unofficial record by circling the bases in 13.2 seconds as a member of the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association in 1931.
5. Deion Sanders, outfielder and cornerback: 5.5
Seven men in the Pro Football Hall of Fame played at least one game in the major leagues, including George Halas (12 games with the Yankees in 1919) and Jim Thorpe (six years as a replacement-level outfielder, primarily with the New York Giants). Sanders was by far the best baseball player of the bunch, but that’s not saying much. His draft positions are fairly representative of the difference between his MLB and NFL careers: He was taken in the 30th round by the Yankees in 1988 and with the No. 5 pick by the Atlanta Falcons in '89.
Knowing they had a superstar on their hands, the Yankees rushed Sanders to the majors in mid-1989, only to grow frustrated with his flashy play, poor results and annual departures for the NFL prior to the end of the regular season. Sanders was released by New York after the 1990 season, then signed with the Braves, with whom he had his best major league season in '92, hitting .304/.346/.495 (130 OPS+) and leading the majors with 14 triples despite making just 325 plate appearances. That September and October, Sanders tried to split his time between the Braves and the Falcons, even once attempting to play for both teams on the same day. On Oct. 11, 1992, he suited up for the Falcons in a 21-17 loss at Miami that afternoon, then showed up for Game 5 of the NLCS in Pittsburgh (though he did not wind up playing in the Pirates' 7–1 win that forced the series back to Atlanta).
Later that month Sanders hit .533 with five stolen bases in the Braves' World Series loss to the Blue Jays, then hit a combined .280 with 57 steals over the next two seasons. He would continue to participate in both leagues through 1995, but it became increasingly clear that he was a far better football player than baseball player. After an injury-shortened season with the Dallas Cowboys in 1995, he skipped the '96 baseball season. He returned to play a career-high 115 games for the Reds in 1997, but despite his career-best 56 steals that season, he was merely a replacement level player and did not return to baseball again until 2000, when he played just 25 games, all in Triple A.
Sanders retired from the NFL in early 2001 at the age of 33 and attempted to pivot back to baseball, but after a season split between the Reds and Blue Jays and jumping between two levels—the majors and Triple A—he retired from baseball as well. He would later stage a two-season comeback with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens in 2004 and '05 and was inducted into the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame in '11.
6. Charlie Berry, catcher and offensive end: 5.4
Berry spent two years as an offensive lineman for the Pottsville Maroons in 1925 and '26 before his major league career took off. Though he did make his major league debut in the summer of 1925, that was a mere 10-game cameo; his major league career proper began in 1928 with the Boston Red Sox. A part-time catcher for eight years, Berry was a typical weak-hitting, catch-and-throw type who regularly bested league average in his caught-stealing percentages. His best season came in 1932, when he hit .291/.351/.453 (a 113 OPS+) and led the AL by throwing out 56% of attempting base stealers.
Berry took his love of both football and baseball beyond the playing field. The head football coach at Grove City College for five years in the 1930s, he not only coached with the Philadelphia Athletics but also spent half a season as a minor league manager. He then turned his attention to officiating, spending 21 years as an AL umpire (1942 to '62) and 24 years as a head linesman in the NFL. As an ump, he took part in five World Series, five All-Star Games and the one-game playoff to determine the 1948 AL pennant, and he was calling balls and strikes for Bob Feller’s third no-hitter in '51. He also officiated 12 NFL championship games, including the famous 1958 title game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants at Yankee Stadium that is often described as “the greatest game ever played.”