Wednesday, November 10, 1999

Athlete of the Century: Thanks, Thorpe




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Athlete of the Century is a question of criteria.

        If it's about importance, the answer is Jackie Robinson, by about the margin of Secretariat's Belmont. No sports event in the last 100 years — or the next 100 years, for that matter — could impact society more profoundly than the integration of baseball.

        If it's a matter of notoriety, though, maybe Muhammad Ali is The Greatest. If it's about mythology, Babe Ruth's the man. If it's about money — and what isn't? — that would be Michael Jordan.

        But if it's only about ability — about greatness at the games people play — the conclusions are not so clear. In its effort to identify the century's supreme North American jock, ESPN asked a panel of experts to evaluate the candidates out of context: Robinson without racism; Ruth without the Black Sox scandal; Jesse Owens without Adolf Hitler; Jim Brown without I'm Gonna Git You Sucka.

        Inherently, it's a matter of opinion. Inevitably, it's a source of argument. Inexorably, the list has been trimmed to David Letterman length. Ranked alphabetically, ESPN's Top 10 consists of Ali, Brown, Babe Didrikson, Wayne Gretzky, Jordan, Willie Mays, Jack Nicklaus, Owens, Ruth, Jim Thorpe.

        Our task today is to forecast the countdown. Here it goes:

        10. Jack Nicklaus. If golf were slightly less elitist, or required slightly more running, the Golden Bear might have attained a loftier place on this list after 18 major championships. “I never thought anyone would put (Ben) Hogan in the shadows,” Gene Sarazen said. “But he did.”

        9. Willie Mays. Hank Aaron would outlast his great contemporary, but he would only surpass the “Say Hey Kid” in terms of statistics. Mays was a marvel in all phases of baseball, the prototype for Ken Griffey Jr.

        8. Jesse Owens. At the 1935 Big Ten track meet, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth in less than one hour. Were it not for the Nazi backdrop of the 1936 Summer Olympics, his achievements in Berlin could have been considered an anticlimax.

        7. Wayne Gretzky. Only the relative size of hockey's regional talent pool keeps The Great One from a greater ranking. Nine times the National Hockey League's Most Valuable Player, Gretzky holds every significant scoring record in his sport.

        6. Muhammad Ali. If charisma and courage counts for nothing with ESPN, Ali was still a three-time heavyweight champion who successfully defended his title 19 times. If he ranks higher on other ballots, it is due to the difficulty in separating his personality from his performance.

        5. Babe Didrikson. Her stated goal was to be “the greatest athlete that ever lived,” and she did not miss by much. Didrikson won three track and field medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics, and 13 years later was named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year — as a golfer. In an age less receptive to women athletes, she became an icon.

        4. Michael Jordan. As a golfer, he's made a career as an easy mark. As an outfielder, he made a career out of making outs. But with a basketball in his hands — or in the hands of an opponent — no athlete was a better blend of talent and will. The wonder of Michael Jordan is that he never took his gifts for granted.

        3. Jim Brown. In his spare time at Syracuse, Brown became the finest lacrosse player in the country. He is remembered, however, for carrying the football. If he hadn't retired prematurely to pursue an unremarkable acting career, Brown's rushing records might have been beyond reach.

        2. Babe Ruth. The old newsreels depict a cartoon character — big belly, little legs — but the pre-bloated Babe was an incomparable athlete. He hit more home runs in 1920 than any other American League team. Had he never taken a turn at bat, however, he could have reached Cooperstown as a pitcher.

        1. Jim Thorpe. The Athlete of the Century was foremost a football player, but would distinguish himself in a dozen different sports, from basketball to billiards. When he won the Olympic decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, King Gustav V of Sweden proclaimed Thorpe "the greatest athlete in the world.”

        “Thanks, King,” Thorpe replied.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.