Once upon a time, which is the way a story about a legend should begin, joe DiMaggio was asked how he felt about bieng inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.
"Now I've had everything," said DiMaggio, "except the thrill of watching Babe Ruth play."
Imagine that. For all the thing that came to him, DiMaggio still longed for the honor of seeing Ruth trot around the bases, just as many of us regret never having witnessed DiMaggio's running down a fly ball in the gap. What would we give for the opportunity to behold—in person—a Red Grange gallop or an Ali shuffle or a Richard rocket? Oh, to be able to say, of Hogan or Tilden or Cousy, "I saw him play."
In a way, those four little words are the acid test of who is a sports legend and who is not. When applied to the right athlete, they convey both privilege and reverence. I saw him play. The "him" might be a "her," and "play" isn't exactly what the boxer or the runner does, but you get the idea. I saw him play. Does the sentence fit Babe Ruth? Of course. Babe Didrikson? Yes, with a gender switch. Babe Parilli? Not quite.
December 23, 1991
Arrayed here are 10 athletes deserving of those words. Photographer Walter Iooss Jr. went from coast to coast, March to December, to capture them on film. He did it with mirrors and moxie and Mother Nature. "It may be the best assignment I've ever had," says Iooss, who has had a few in his 30 years of shooting for SI. "Some were more cooperative than others, but you could sense the enjoyment all of them got from their sports."
These athletes have something else in common. We can still see them play. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Jack Nicklaus are simply the best that ever were in their respective sports, and Michael and the Great One are still playing at that level. And while 35-year-old Martina Navratilova was battling her way into the 1991 U.S. Open finals, Jimmy Connors, 39, was proving there was life in the old boy yet. Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken Jr. continued their outrageous numbers game-that's seven no-hitters, 314 wins and 5,511 strikeouts for the 44-year-old Rangers hurler, and 1,573 consecutive games played and two MVPs for the 31-year-old Oriole star, who's arguably the best shortstop in baseball history. At 30, Carl Lewis put up a pretty good number himself, 9.86, to set the world record for the 100 meters. Two of these legends, Joe Montana, 35, and Edwin Moses, 36, spent the year on the sidelines, but we wouldn't count them out just yet.
If you think it is a privilege to see these athletes perform, consider how the people who really know them, who play against them and work with them feel.
"The first time I saw Jimmy play was at my first Wimbledon, in '73," says Navratilova. "He was playing my countryman Jan Kodes, and even though Jan won, I was awed by Jimmy. In one game Kodes hit four first serves and Jimmy hit four return winners. Years later, my coach, Mike Estep, told me nobody can hit four winners in a game, and I said, 'Wrong.'
"I love watching him play. He's like a surgeon. Every ball he hits is six inches over the net and lands six inches inside of the baseline. He has the best return of service I have ever seen."
Turnabout is fair play. "The first time I saw Martina?" asks Connors. "My, my, my. It was back when the Open was at Forest Hills. Her look was different, her game was different, her body was different. I know what she's had to do to get from there to where she is today, all the hard work, all the conditioning. Along the way, she changed women's tennis, she and Chris and Billie Jean. But she was really the first aggressive women's player. I hate to put it in these words, but as I am the Old Man of Tennis, she is the Old Lady."
Jerry Koosman's 1968 rookie card in mint condition is now worth $1,500. While Koosman was a pretty good major league pitcher for 19 years, the card's value is actually based on the other pitcher on the card: Koosman's fellow New York Mets rookie, Ryan. "We pitched together on the 1967 Jacksonville Suns," says Koosman, now a minor league pitching coach with the Mets. "To tell you the truth, Nolan wasn't the hardest thrower in the Mets organization back then. Dick Selma was. I even have this picture in my mind of me and Nolan warming up together in the bullpen, trying to see which of our fastballs would get to the catcher first.
"He doesn't throw it as hard as he used to, but he still throws it harder than 90 percent of the pitchers in baseball. And when he finally decides to become a finesse pitcher, he'll still have another five years left. Nolan throwing slop—when you think about that, it's pretty funny."
Pretty frightening, from a goalie's point of view, is the sight of the 30-year-old Gretzky coming down ice. Just ask Mike Richter of the New York Rangers. "His threshold of panic is extremely high," says Richter. "He'll hold the puck so long that you'll think, God, he should've done something by now. So you'll go down, and he'll flip it over you or set somebody else up. I know there are only so many options a player has when he has the puck, but it seems like Wayne always has two or three more.
"The thing I most admire about him is his love and respect for the game. We're talking about the best hockey player ever, and he never acts like it. He has never taken his skills for granted."
To fully appreciate a great player like, say, Jordan, 28, you have to work with him day in and day out. John Bach, the Chicago Bulls' assistant coach, does just that. "What can I say about Michael that hasn't already been said?" asks Bach. "That the Hall of Fame should start etching his plaque right now? That he is the embodiment of perfection on the basketball court? That he stepped down from Mount Olympus to play in the NBA? Let me put it this way. He is the Neil Armstrong of basketball. He is the first one to walk on the moon."
Mike Holmgren is the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, and as such, he has seen more of Montana in his five years there—in person and on film—than any man alive. "You would think after all this time that Joe has ceased to amaze me, but he hasn't," says Holmgren. "He'll do something on the football field, and you think to yourself, That was special. The first time that happened to me was against the Cardinals my first year. In the second half, Joe threw a touchdown pass on his fourth read. Most quarterbacks make two, maybe three reads, but Joe did it on his fourth. When I got him on the phone, I asked him, 'How did you know to go there?' And he said, 'I noticed early in the game the way the safety was playing in that situation.' There aren't many guys who can file it away like that."
Tom Tellez has been Lewis's track coach since 1979, when he persuaded the 18-year-old Lewis to attend the University of Houston. "Carl has been around so long that maybe he's been taken for granted," Tellez says, "but to my mind, he is the greatest athlete we've ever had. Only Jesse Owens is in his class. To be among the very best long jumpers in the world for more than a decade is amazing enough, but to also be among the very best sprinters...it's incredible."
Moses is to the hurdles today what Harrison Dillard was in the 1940s and '50s. "The first time I saw Edwin run was at the '76 Olympics in Montreal," says Dillard. "Even then, I could see that combination of brains and talent and joy. It's pretty amazing that he has been able to maintain his level of excellence this long. I only had a few years at the top, but then, back in those days, we athletes had to work for a living. Still, I don't think I could have done what Edwin has. Imagine competing as a hurdler in the Olympics 16 years apart."
Game appearances must sometimes feel years apart for the understudy of a star who never misses a performance. For three seasons, 1988 to '90, Rene Gonzales was the backup shortstop to Ripken. "I was like a big joke, the backup who never played," says Gonzales. "But what are you going to do when you play behind a Hall of Famer? It's not just that he never missed a game. He never missed batting practice. He never missed infield. And when there was a rain delay, he never missed a game of tapeball. You'd think he would let me win at that since he never let me play my position, but Cal just hates to lose at anything.
"Sometimes I would put myself in his position. What if I was as big as he is, as talented, as intelligent a player? And do you know what? I would want to play every day, too."
Nicklaus, who's now 51, stands out, even among these legends, because he has crossed generational bounds. He burst on the scene in the early 1960s, and he has competed on the PGA Tour against both Davis Love II and Davis Love III. "The first time I saw Jack, I was seven," says Davis III, who was on the North Carolina golf team from 1983 to '85 with Jack Nicklaus Jr., "and I've been lucky enough to play some rounds with him. The main thing about him is the supreme confidence he has in himself. He just believes that he is better than anyone else. And he is."
To have so many of these legends active at the same time is a great stroke of luck. The 1990s may even be a match for the '20s, when a similar harmonic convergence gave the sports world Ruth, Grange, Tilden, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Lou Gehrig et al. If you haven't seen the current greats, now's your chance.
Consider poor DiMaggio. When he was asked if he ever had the opportunity to see Ruth, Joe D said, "I was a kid of 13 when the papers said Babe would be on the [barnstorming] team that was coming to Frisco. There was going to be a special price of 25 cents for San Francisco kids."
So how come he didn't go?
"I couldn't raise the 25 cents," said DiMaggio.
The price of a ticket has gone up a little since then. But it's worth it to see a legend play.