We look at today's athletes, the astonishing way they are
rewarded for their peculiar and largely irrelevant talents, and
it's hard to make sense of our own lives. Well, it's impossible.
A guy in plaid pants can ball roll into a hole, earns $100
million? He rolls it in more easily than we do, sure, but is
that worth $100 million? A head scratcher.
As we roll ourselves into the next millennium, our only advice
is, don't think about it too much. Unless there's some cosmic
corrective looming that we don't know about (in our experience,
cosmic correctives always take you by surprise), the premium for
play is only going to go up. And the people who putt, pass,
pitch and punch will continue to enjoy positions of importance
that, in any other time (before ESPN? Monday Night Football? The
Industrial Revolution?), would be baffling.
Still, there is the occasional athlete who satisfies our
old-fashioned (and increasingly desperate) need for proportion,
who actually gives us more than he gets. It's not that he's so
much better than the rest, or works so much harder. That's
appreciated and goes without saying. It's something else. The
ability to generate awe while performing in the compression of
crisis--which is what sports is, right?--is so rare that we'll
only see it a few times in our lives.
You know what we're talking about, even if you can't articulate
what that something else is any better than we can. There's some
charisma, some extravagance of spirit that goes beyond talent.
That makes us care about certain athletes far past their ability
to putt and pass.
July 11, 1999
How many of these athletes are there whose peculiar and largely
irrelevant talents stir a society, whose otherwise pointless
play looms heroic, whose brief careers become reference points
not just for their sport but for us, whose brave little
performances help us make sense of our own brave little lives?
Not many, for sure. But let's say 20.
1 Sandy Koufax
He was an aristocrat in spikes, with a gentleman's carriage and
an assassin's arsenal--his fastball and curve. His last six
seasons are mythic: 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 27 complete
games with a painfully arthritic arm in 1966 and then quit. He
slipped into a private life fundamentally no different from his
days as a beloved public icon: unfailingly true to his ideals.
He always put team before self, modesty before fame and God
before the World Series.
2 Muhammad Ali
He was too many things to too many people to be pinned down for
history. Was he an entertainer, a fighter of supernatural guile,
a political activist, a martyr? "Here's what he really was,"
says George Foreman, who lost to him in one of boxing's most
fabled fights. "He was brave. I'd hit him--hit him hard--and
he'd just keep at me. Nobody'd ever done that before. He'd come
ready to die! Now what are you going to do with a guy like that?"
3 Dick Butkus
His goal, the true Monster of the Midway once admitted, was to
hit the ballcarrier so hard that his head came off. If the
mayhem he wrought in nine NFL seasons did not include any
beheadings, it wasn't for lack of effort. Butkus had range and
brains, but the thing that made him an archetype--the best
middle linebacker in football history--was his toughness, his
Old Testament malevolence, his wet-your-pants intensity. "What I
miss," he said softly a few years ago, "is the violence."
4 Babe Ruth
Like rock-and-roll and the Model T, Ruth was a seminal American
invention. Be it his power at the plate, his popularity or his
various appetites, the Babe was huge. Most amazing of all, Ruth
was Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens--he was a dominant pitcher
before becoming the founding father of the home run. The modern
game began in 1920 when he hit 54 home runs, surpassing his own
record by 25. To equal that kind of jump, McGwire would have to
hit 130 this year.
5 Michael Jordan
Picture the last NBA shot he took (against the Utah Jazz in Game
6 of the 1998 Finals), and you have his essence. It practically
broke the ankles of his defender, as so many of Jordan's moves
did to so many defenders over his 12 1/2 seasons. It was
dramatic, as was so much of his scoring in the clutch. And it
won a championship, as he did six times for the Chicago Bulls in
the 1990s. It's not axiomatic, you know, that someone will
always come along who's better.
6 Mickey Mantle
We liked the Commerce Comet because he could do it all. He could
bunt for a hit or he could blast a baseball 565 feet. He could
hit from both sides of the plate, run like a thoroughbred, play
with pain and win the Triple Crown. Yet his passing was as
memorable as his playing. Just before he died in 1995 from
complications of liver cancer, Mantle made a very public penance
for a life lived too hard with too many drinks. His last great
play was to raise awareness for organ donation. It was then that
we liked him best of all.
7 Arnold Palmer
The huge, tan forearms.
The lock of hair over the forehead.
The shirt half untucked, belt half unhitched.
The lit cigarette lying to the side.
The farm-boy grin.
The weeds up to the knees.
The finish, like a roundhouse right.
The women swooning.
The men sighing.
8 Johnny Unitas
An unknown in college, rejected by his hapless hometown
Steelers, he became the intrepid leading man in that classic
sports drama, The Greatest Game Ever Played. How could you not
admire the man in hightops and horseshoes, standing fearless in
the pocket, surveying the fields of fire, pumping, threading the
needle? He threw touchdown passes in 47 straight games and
virtually invented the two-minute drill. As all modern
thoroughbred horses are descended from three Arabian stallions,
all modern quarterbacks are the progeny of Johnny U.
9 Wayne Gretzky
He was the kid on the pond whom the older guys couldn't catch:
elusive, imaginative, untiring. With a spin and a feint, he'd
slide the prettiest pass you'd never seen onto the stick of a
teammate you hadn't known was open. Or he'd bounce a shot in off
the goalie. Or pass the puck off the net to himself. Night after
night, for 20 seasons, the Great One never stopped playing like
10 Bill Russell
The antistat man, he defined his basketball by one measure only:
winning. He was sui generis, changing the game with his almost
mystical ability to block shots. Off the court, he refused to
dispense autographs and was utterly forthright, unafraid to
speak out against racial injustice. Above all: No athlete ever
had such a positive influence on his teammates--everybody was a
better player when Bill Russell was on their side.
11 Sugar Ray Robinson
Little-known fact: Sugar Ray invented the entourage. When he
fought his way across Europe in 1951, he brought along his wife,
his manager, his secretary, his valet, his barber, his golf pro
and two trainers. Duplicate trainers was the lone redundancy for
the fighter who's been anointed the best pound-for-pound
because, as the years have shown, there's never been another
like him, either in sheer talent or glorious self-assurance.
12 Ted Williams
It is said, with only a touch of hyperbole, that Number Nine is
the only person to have been the best in the world at three
things. Ted's trifecta: casting a fly rod, flying a plane and
hitting a baseball. He grew, in public, from the Kid to the
Splendid Splinter to Teddy Ballgame and, astoundingly, has
evolved yet further into the beloved old man of baseball. The
last man to hit .400 and to argue 1.000.
13 Bo Jackson
He was a marvel straight out of Marvel Comics. Bo once ran along
an outfield wall--parallel to the ground--after making a grab
(Vroom!), threw a ball from the warning track to home on the fly
to nail a runner (Whoosh!), hit one of the longest homers ever
off Nolan Ryan (Pow!), pancaked Brian Bosworth (Wham!) and
became the first NFL runner to break off two touchdowns of more
than 90 yards (Zoom!). He also made one of the most courageous
comebacks in baseball history, playing with an artificial hip.
Naturally, Bo homered in his first game back (Gadzooks!).
14 Wilma Rudolph
No other great athlete lived a life of such extremes. She
suffered from polio as a child and died too young of cancer, but
in between, she was a captivating and conquering sprinter. We
all fell in love with the prime Tigerbelle from Tennessee State
at the '60 Olympics in Rome, where she was so scintillating that
she made a young boxer named Cassius Clay an envious second
15 Pancho Gonzalez
He coulda been the Marlon Brando of tennis, but the best years
of his tennis life were spent in exile as a barnstorming pro,
while pasty-faced amateurs with half his talent won the Grand
Slams. Tall, dark and handsome, with a growl for a voice and a
scowl for a hello, he was still winning tournaments when he was
a grandfather. If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the
man you'd want serving to save humankind was Ricardo Alonso
16 Jackie Robinson
"He changed the game" is a testament used often in sports. All
such tributes are trivial, though, when measured against what
Robinson did. He had a quick bat, quicker feet and a fierce
will, yet it was his courage in the face of racism that made him
an unparalleled agent of change. He made it possible for
baseball to be the pastime for all America.
17 Roberto Clemente
The slashing swing that could reach any pitch, the helmet-flying
fury on the base paths, the jaw-dropping throws from that
classic whirl-and-fire move in rightfield ... all Clemente
signatures. Yet he is best defined by his grace off the
field--he perished in a New Year's Eve airplane crash in 1972 on
a relief mission to Nicaragua. Gone too soon with exactly 3,000
hits and far too many lives touched to count.
18 Julius Erving
In the fading light that is the ABA, you can still see him
swooping above everyone else. He was an Afroed sideshow before
he was the main act, and when he finally made it to the NBA, he
was as good as advertised. Yes, Jordan took Erving's aerial act
to another level, but Dr. J was the first man who walked on the
tightrope without a net.
19 Joe Louis
He was a dependably devastating presence in the ring who seemed
capable of righting national and even international wrongs with
his thunderous punches. At a time when few sports were
integrated, Joe Louis made the color of his skin incidental to
his performances, and brought Americans together.
20 Chris Evert
That Ice Maiden on the court was a fun, wise-cracking (even a
little bawdy) lady off it. Chris Evert was the ultimate baseline
winner. Billie Jean King may have won the battle of the sexes,
but Evert won the hearts, getting the ultimate backhand
compliment as millions of girls imitated her two-fisted ground
To view classic photos of these athletes in action, go to