Sports fans love to rank and categorize things. And we love to use metaphors that link important yet unrelated topics to our silly games. More than anything, we like to use the same catchy sports clichés over and over and over like that one guy who kept beating his horse after it was already dead, which incidentally is sick. And wrong. But I digress…
My criteria for the “Mount Rushmore of American Sports Figures” includes:
- We’re ranking individuals, not teams, or groups or duos. Specific people. Just like Mount Rushmore.
- Their level of fame has to transcend the individual sport in which they competed. They have to be (for lack of a better term) “cultural icons”.
- But they have to be more than just culturally iconic; they must be legitimately one of the greatest to ever compete in their given sport.
- This is the Mount Rushmore of American Sports and by that I don’t mean that the athlete must be American necessarily, but their fame and accomplishments are going to be gauged from a decidedly American perspective. So, sorry Wayne Gretzky and David Beckham.
So with that, let’s get to the unveiling. In chronological order:
The passage of time can either cement a legend’s status or cause it to decay and be forgotten. In the case of the Great Bambino, the former is most certainly the case. Though it has been 80 years since he made his last triumphant trot around the base-paths, his name is still synonymous with the great American Pastime.
For the first five years of his career, he was an excellent – though not particularly noteworthy – pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. But the owner of the Red Sox loved Broadway more than he loved baseball, and to finance a theatrical production, he sold Ruth to the rival New York Yankees for $100,000.
Despite being a first-rate pitcher, Ruth had begun to show a propensity for prodigious pops with a bat in his hand, and the Yankees moved him off the mound to accommodate these talents. His home run exploits changed the game forever. Ruth showed everyone that if you swung hard and packed a wallop, the game would be more exciting and popular than ever.
Ruth’s stature grew to larger-than-life proportions. During the roaring 1920s, when American celebrity culture was just beginning to take off, Ruth was almost certainly the most famous man in the country, and according to the AP the most photographed man in the world every year from 1923 to 1934.
He’s still one of the most recognizable figures in all of sports, and he’s been dead since for 65 years.
The name Muhammad Ali is universally revered these days, but that was not always the case. Not by a long shot. Despite plenty of in-the-ring success, his provocative nature and flamboyant character won him few admirers in his heyday and made him persona-non-grata among the sports establishment.
He burst on to the scenes in the 1960s Olympics (as Cassius Clay, his given name) and three years later he won the heavyweight championship of the world, after brashly declaring that he was going to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” against the heavily favored Sonny Liston.
Soon after, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali (as part of his conversion to Islam) and defended his belt in several classic battles, including one against Floyd Patterson who infuriated Ali by refusing to call him by his new name. Ali retaliated in the ring by administering an epic beat-down, all the while taunting Patterson with a repeated “what’s my name?” refrain.
Already a lightning rod for criticism, Ali was thrust to the forefront of the debate over the War in Vietnam when he infamously told a reporter “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
He refused to be drafted into the army, causing the revocation of his boxing license, the stripping of his title, and a charge of draft evasion that would earn him a five-year prison sentence. Though he never served any of the prison term – his conviction was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court – Ali remained a pariah in the boxing world, unable to fight for three years, until he was finally reinstated in 1970.
He soon was heavyweight champion again, and in the 1970s participated in several of the most iconic fights in boxing history, the so-called “Fight of the Century”, the “Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manilla”.
An athlete and a cultural icon of nonpareil status, Michael Jordan was simultaneously the greatest basketball player to ever put on a uniform, the most marketable athlete (or maybe person) in the rich history of American advertising, and quite literally one of the most recognizable figures in the world.
Jordan’s relentless drive to be the best on the hardwood was equaled only by the meticulous branding of his off-the-court persona.
What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? There was the tongue-wagging, the dunk contests, the shoes, the six NBA titles, the sabbatical from hoops so he could play minor league baseball, the scoring titles and MVPs, dozens of memorable and iconic advertising campaigns, the buzzer beaters, the time he was too sick to stand up but still scored 38 points including the game winning three pointer in the NBA finals that carved the hearts out of the poor Utah Jazz, the nicknames, the Dream Team, and on, and on, and on.
It’s always difficult to judge a performer’s legacy when they are still in action. It’s generally best to wait until you have the benefit of hindsight before you anoint them as the crème de la crème. Because you never know when the other shoe might drop, splashing a dab of tarnish over the acclaimed legacy.
But I’m going to make an exception in the case of Tiger Woods, because frankly that other shoe already dropped and it doesn’t really change my opinion on the matter.
Really, Tiger’s fall from grace – starting with his personal crisis and continuing with some golf course struggles – only confirms his legendary and iconic status. If he wasn’t so culturally iconic, his failings as a husband wouldn’t have been worldwide news. And if he hadn’t eclipsed every other golfer that came before him, it wouldn’t have been so noticeable when he slipped and became simply “one of the best three or four golfers in the world.”
It is strange to watch Tiger these days, because he clearly doesn’t have the same aura of invincibility he once possessed. This is fitting, however, as golf is a sport of tremendous ups and downs, of winning some but losing more, and of constant frustration that you can’t play just a little bit better – even when you are the best player who ever lived.
Scott McCormick loves a good sports debate, tired clichés and ham & cheese sandwiches. His sports commentary appears courtesy of Golf Now Phoenix and Golf Now San Diego. For more of McCormick’s commentary, see his recent post on recovery from a poor golf outing.