Henry (Hank) Aaron (1943-) is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Of his many achievements, the most remembered is that of hitting the most home runs in Major League history, earning him the nickname "Hammerin Hank".
Aaron, who is black, was born in the United States at a time when prejudice against blacks was extreme, especially in the state where he was born (Alabama). For many years, black baseball players were not allowed to play in the Major Leagues. Between 1920 and the early 1950s, blacks were only allowed to play in the so-called "Negro Leagues". It was in such a league that Aaron started his career, playing for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League.
Eventually, the Negro Leagues were disbanded, and the best black players were allowed to join the Major Leagues. Hank Aaron was the very last player to do so, joining the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. (The first such player, by the way, was Jackie Robinson [1919-1972], who started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.)
From 1954-1976, Aaron spent 22 years consistently playing first-class baseball, first as an infielder and then as an outfielder. In the process, he became one of the best hitters of all time, setting a large number of records. In addition to being the all-time home run king, Aaron was the league's Most Valuable Player 19 times, playing in 24 All-Star Games. He also led the league in home runs 4 times, in runs batted in 4 times, in hits twice, and in overall batting average twice.
However, it was on a single day, April 8, 1974, that Aaron set his most memorable record. On a muggy night in Atlanta, in the fourth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Aaron hit home run number 715, breaking Babe Ruth's record for career home runs. On that night, Henry Aaron, a poor, black kid from Mobile, Alabama, showed the entire country that, by working hard for decades, developing his skills, and overcoming extreme prejudice, he had become one of the most outstanding and beloved baseball players of all time.
American boxer Muhammed Ali (1942-) was one of the greatest athletes in history, retiring at the age of 39 as the heavyweight champion of the world. In his prime, Ali was a popular and controversial figure, captivating people around the world, not only with his prodigious skill as a boxer, but with his instinctive ability to draw attention to himself.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. As the legend goes, young Clay got his start as a boxer when, at the age of 12, his bike was stolen. When Clay happened to find a policeman in a gym, the young boy was so upset, he told the policeman he was going to find whoever had stolen the bike and "whup" him. The policeman told Clay that, if that was his intention, he had better learn how to box. According to the legend, Clay did start to box and, within a few weeks, weighing only 98 pounds, he had won his first bout.
Six years later, Clay had accumulated an impressive record, winning 6 Kentucky Golden Gloves championships, 2 national Golden Gloves championships, and 2 National AAU titles. He then joined the U.S. Olympic team and, in 1960, a few months after his eighteenth birthday, Cassius Clay became the Olympic Heavyweight championship, the best amateur boxer in the world.
Clay then returned to Louisville, where he changed his management and turned pro. During this time he developed an unorthodox boxing style which he used successfully for years. His strategy was to throw quick punches away from the body, all the while moving back and forth quickly, staying just beyond the reach of his opponent. (Later, this technique would come to be called the "Ali shuffle", a maneuver that the boxer would describe by saying, "I'll be floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee". )
As a young pro, Clay worked extremely hard and was successful in one bout after another. Finally, in 1964, just four years after his Olympic championship, Clay beat Sonny Liston to become the World Heavyweight champion, the best boxer in the world.
It was while he was training for this bout, that Clay joined the Nation of Islam and converted to be a Muslim. Soon after winning the championship, in deference to his new religion, Clay formally changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
In 1967, as the Vietnam War was escalating, Ali was drafted. However, citing his religious beliefs, he claimed to be a conscientious objector. When he refused to be inducted, it caused an immediate backlash across the country. His boxing licenses were canceled, and he was stripped of the championship title. At the same time, the government charged him with draft evasion, of which he was convicted.
Two and a half years later, however, as the mood of the country was changing, a judge ruled that Ali should, once again, be allowed to fight. He immediately staged a comeback, winning his first fight, but then losing his second to the then undefeated champion, Joe Frazier.
A few months later, the Supreme Court reversed Ali's conviction, upholding his right to be a conscientious objector. He was now free to travel and box anywhere in the world. After several bouts, with mixed success, Ali fought the new champion, George Foreman, in 1974, in a highly promoted bout in Zaire, Africa.
Because of the heat, Ali was not able to dance around in his usual manner. Instead, he stayed near the ropes, allowing Foreman to pound on him until Foreman got tired, the so-called "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. By the eighth round, Foreman was tired and Ali was able to knock him out, scoring a completely unexpected victory.
Once again, Muhammad Ali was the undisputed champion of the world. This time, Ali was able to hold the championship for several years, defending his crown successfully 10 times. However, in 1978, Ali lost the championship to a young boxer named Leon Spinks.
What happened next was not only remarkable, but unparalleled in the world of sports. Just seven months later, in September 1978, Ali and Spinks had a rematch and, this time, Ali won, regaining the title and becoming the only boxer in history to win the world heavyweight championship three times. He then retired, leaving a record of 56 wins (including 37 knockouts) and 5 losses.
During his tenure as a champion, Ali was lionized, not only for his athletic skills, but for his self-aggrandizing, outspoken personality. As he once put it, "It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am." On another occasion, he described his role in life, somewhat disingenuously, by saying, "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up." Such quotations -- along with the unusual ups and downs of his career -- garnered enormous publicity, making Ali, in his time, the most famous sports figure on Earth.
Although Ali retired a healthy, robust champion, his retirement was marred by serious health problems. Since 1983, Ali has been suffering from Parkinson's Disease, a neurological disorder that, it is thought, was brought on by his being hit in the head so many times over the years.
His personal life also had an up-and-down quality to it. In all, he was married four times, fathering nine children by three of his wives. (One of his daughters, Laila Ali, is an accomplished boxer in her own right.)
In perhaps, what is the most interesting twist of fate, Ali's last wife, Lonnie Williams, is the one he knew the longest. They met when he was only six years old, and her family moved in across the street. In this way, after so many years of boxing and traveling the world, Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay to a poor black family in Kentucky, was finally able to return to his roots.
In a professional career that spanned 21 years, Wayne Gretzky (1961-) -- nicknamed "The Great One" -- consistently demonstrated the highest level of achievement, both as a star in his own right and as a team player. Ask any Canadian what he or she thinks of Wayne Gretzky and you will hear the same thing: "He was the greatest hockey player who ever lived."
I grew up in Canada, so I know what a big deal this is. Like me and just about every other Canadian boy, Gretzky started by skating on homemade ice rinks in his backyard, playing with a hockey stick and puck whenever he got a chance. What made Gretzky stand out, however, was enormous natural talent and an insatiable appetite for practicing.
As a child, Gretzky was so good that he played in leagues with players who were several years older than he was. Regardless, he was always the best: By the age of 13, he had already scored over 1,000 goals. (To put this in perspective, my lifetime total is about 30.) As a young teenager, he played on several amateur teams and, each time, he was always the star, setting one record after another.
When he was 16, Gretzky was drafted by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, a junior team in the Ontario Hockey Association. When he joined the team, Gretzky wanted the number 9, in honor of his hero, Gordie Howe, who had played for the Detroit Red Wings. It happened that number 9 was taken, so Gretzky's coach suggested to the boy that he use the number 99. Gretzky did, and he kept the same number throughout his career.
Although you and I might not see this as a big deal, numbers are very important to hockey players: a player's number is part of his identity. For example, I grew up watching Gordie Howe play, and I think of him whenever I see anyone wearing the number 9.
Once in a great while, to commemorate an exceptional player, his team will take his number out of circulation when he retires. That is, no one on that team will ever wear that number again. This is considered to be the highest honor a hockey player can achieve. It is a mark of Gretzky's greatness that, when he retired, every team in the National Hockey League (NHL) retired the number 99.
In 1978, at the age of 17, Gretzky -- who was a center -- turned pro, signing with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association (a newly created rival to the venerable National Hockey League). After playing just eight games, Gretzky was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. In 1979, the two leagues were merged, and Gretzky officially began his NHL career. In all, Gretzky played ten years for the Oilers, followed by eight years for the Los Angeles Kings, part of a year for the St. Louis Blues, and a bit less than three years for the New York Rangers.
In that time, Gretzky set so many records and received so many honors that just to name them is impressive. During his career, Gretzky played on three Canada Cup world championship teams and four Stanley Cup NHL championship teams. He also played in eighteen consecutive All-Star Games.
At the time of Gretzky's retirement in 1999, he held virtually every NHL record for offense (61 of them). He was the all-time leading goal, assist, and point producer in the history of the league. He won the Art Ross Trophy (leading scorer) 10 times, the Hart Trophy (most valuable player) 9 times, the Conn Smythe Trophy (most valuable player in the playoffs) twice, and the Lady Byng Trophy (the most gentlemanly player) 5 times.
As impressive as these numbers are, however, they don't illustrate Gretzky's greatest trait: he was more than a star; he was a team player.
To appreciate exactly what this means, you need to know a bit about hockey. Hockey is very much a team sport in which passing the puck back and forth skillfully is crucial. Most goals are scored by at least two players working together, the first one passing the puck in just the right way to set up the second player who takes the actual shot. For this reason, hockey statisticians keep track of not only which player scores a goal, but who sets up the goal by passing the puck to the first player.
Passing the puck to someone who scores is called an "assist" and, in the world of hockey, assists are just as valuable as goals. In the statistics, a player is awarded one "point" for either a goal or an assist. So when I say that Gretzky was the leading scorer for many years, it refers to his total goals plus assists. In fact, Gretzky was such a good team player, he always accumulated a huge number of assists every season.
However, in spite of all the records and all the honors, the real reason hockey fans call Gretzky "The Great One" is because of the man himself. Over the course of the most astonishing career in the history of hockey, Gretzky was always a gentleman and a humanitarian. He was friendly and accommodating, with his fans, with children, and in his charity work.
Wayne Gretzky was not just the best hockey player who ever lived: he was one of the finest men to ever play the game.
Around the world, there are millions of young girls who want to grow up to be just like Mia Hamm, the most famous woman soccer player in history. This is because Mia Hamm is not only a great player; she is successful, confident, beautiful, and ever so sweet (unless you happen to have the ball and she wants it).
Mia (Mariel Margaret) Hamm (1972-) was born in Selma, Alabama, one of five daughters. At a young age, Hamm showed great talent as an athlete. When she was 12 years old, she played on her junior high school's football team (an unusual achievement, to say the least). Not long afterwards, Hamm switched to soccer and, at the age of 15, she earned a place on the U.S. women's national team, becoming the youngest such player ever.
As a college student (1989-1994), Hamm played for the University of North Carolina (UNC), where her intense on-the-field aggressiveness helped lead the team to 4 consecutive NCAA championships. In each of the last three years, she was an All-American and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. Such was her outstanding skill, that the other players gave her the nickname Jordan, a tribute to basketball star Michael Jordan, UNC's most famous alumnus.
Throughout this time, Hamm remained a member of the U.S. national team, playing with them until her retirement. During her years on the team, she competed in four Women's World Cup tournaments. In 1991 and 1999, the U.S. team won, and in 1995 and 2003, they came in third. (The competition is held only once every four years.) During the 1999 World Cup, Hamm was only 19 years old, making her the youngest American woman to ever play on a world championship team.
Aside from the World Cup, Hamm played in many international games as a member of the U.S. team, including three Summer Olympics (1996, 2000 and 2004). In 2004, she led the U.S. team to the gold medal. During the early 2000s, Hamm also played as a professional, for the Washington Freedom of the WUSA (Women's United Soccer Association).
By any standard, Mia Hamm was, far and away, the best woman player in the world. By the time she retired in 2004 (at the age of 32), she had scored 158 goals in international competition, far more than any other soccer player in history, male or female. In the process, she set numerous records, won everything there was to win, and received more honors than anyone can remember. (In addition, in 1997, People Magazine named her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People.)
If you were to ask Hamm, however, I think she would tell you that there are two particular achievements of which she is the most proud: bringing so much positive attention to women's soccer, especially in the United States, and leading her life in such a way as to become a role model and inspiration for so many young people around the world.
U.S. Basketball player Earvin "Magic" Johnson (1959-) played for the Los Angeles Lakers for thirteen years: from 1979 to 1991, and then for a short time in 1996. During that time, Johnson led the Lakers to 9 NBA (National Basketball Association) finals, winning the championship 5 times.
Johnson was born in East Lansing, Michigan. As a youngster, he showed enormous promise, starring on his high school team and then, for two years, at Michigan State University. As a sophomore, Johnson led his team to the national college championship in 1979. He then left college and entered the pros, joining the Los Angeles Lakers.
Johnson was a point guard, the most specialized position on a basketball team. As a rule, point guards are the smallest players on the team, and their job is to manage the offense by controlling the ball. For example, after the other team scores, it is the point guard who takes the ball down the court in order to begin the offensive play. Over the course of the game, it is up to the point guard to set up scoring opportunities by making sure that the ball ends up in the right place at the right time. For this reason, a point guard's performance is often measured in assists, rather than in number of points scored.
Magic Johnson was the best point guard in history, an accomplishment that was all the more astonishing given his size. (At 6'9", he was the tallest point guard in the league.)
If you examine his many records, you will see that most of them have to do with assists -- not with points scored -- which, as I mentioned, is how it should be with a point guard. For example, in 1980, as a first-year player, he set the record for average assists per game by a rookie (8.7). Overall, Johnson had the highest average number of assists per game (11.2), as well as the highest total assists in the playoffs (2,346) of any player in NBA history.
In his thirteen-year career, Johnson accomplished more than any other player in NBA history. For example, in his first year as a professional (1980), he helped take the Lakers to the NBA finals and won the finals' Most Valuable Player award. In all, he was the NBA's most valuable player (MVP) 3 times, the finals' MVP 3 times, an All-Star 12 times, and an All-Star MVP 2 times. He also played on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, winning a gold medal.
So what about the nickname Magic? When Johnson was 15 years old, a local sportswriter watched the boy's exuberant play during a high school game. (Johnson scored 36 points, with 16 rebounds and 16 assists.) In writing about the game, the sportswriter referred to Johnson as "Magic" and the name stuck.
However, the name "Magic" is a tribute to more than Johnson's skill with the ball. If you have ever seen the man being interviewed, you will know what I mean. Magic Johnson has a wonderful smile, and he is nice. More than anything, he loves to play basketball and, over the years, that childlike enthusiasm -- more than all the money and all the fame -- was all it took to make Magic Johnson happy. And when you watched him play, that happiness was contagious.
When we want to make the point that someone is extremely accomplished, we sometimes compare him or her to Michael Jordan. For example, we might say that Tiger Woods is the Michael Jordan of golf; or Mia Hamm is the Michael Jordan of women's soccer; or, for that matter, Warren Buffet is the Michael Jordan of investing.
We do this because -- to sports fans -- American basketball player Michael Jordan (1963-) is the epitome of success and accomplishment. During his 15 seasons in the NBA (National Basketball League), Jordan was, not only the best basketball player in history, but one of the greatest athletes of all time.
The manner in which he led his teams to victory, setting multiple records and winning award after award, transcends the usual accomplishments of sport. What Michael Jordan did was to excel so well for so long and rise so far above his fellows, that he set a new ceiling on human athletic achievement.
Jordan was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina. As a college student, he played for the University of North Carolina (1981-84); as a professional he played in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls (1985-93, 1995-98) and the Washington Wizards (2000-03). In 1984 and 1992, he was also a member of the U.S. Olympic team, leading them to a gold medal both times.
Jordan was a star when he was in college and a star when he was in the NBA. For most of his career, he played shooting guard, but he was so versatile that he would sometimes play point guard or small forward. Although most of his records are for offensive play, he was so tenacious and so skillful on defense that he was, far and away, the most consistently valuable player in the league.
Year after year, Jordan's playing was close to perfect. He played on 6 NBA championship teams (1991-1993, 1996-1998); held 10 scoring titles; was the NBA's Most Valuable Player (MVP) 5 times; led the league in steals 3 times; and was named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team a record 9 times.
Professional basketball is a tough, brutal game, much rougher than most people realize. In such an environment, it is extraordinary that Jordan was able to sustain such a high level of play for so long. In his first year with the Bulls, 1985, Jordan was the Rookie of the Year. In his last year with the Bulls, 1998, he led them to the NBA championship, and was elected to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-NBA Defensive Team.
In the same year, Jordan also captured the so-called "MVP triple crown" for the second time: in both 1996 and 1998, he was voted the regular season MVP, the finals MVP, and the All-Star Game MVP, the only player in history to do so twice.
Two days before the 1993-94 season, Jordan surprised the world by announcing he was retiring from basketball, in order to become a professional baseball player. At the time, he had been playing for the Bulls for eight years and was at the top of his form, so why would he make such a decision?
No one knows for sure, but here's what I think. In August of 1993, Jordan's father was killed in a horrible incident. The elder Jordan was driving on a freeway and had pulled over to take a nap. While he was sleeping, two men murdered him and stole his car (which was a gift from his son, Michael).
Michael, of course, was extremely upset and in such circumstances it is common for people to reevaluate their lives. To me, it seems that Jordan changed careers so abruptly because he was looking for meaning in his life. My guess is he was following a boyhood dream of becoming a baseball player.
Regardless of why he did it, Jordan's experiment in baseball was not a success. For one year, 1994, he played in the outfield for a Chicago White Sox farm team, the Birmingham Broncos. He did well, but not well enough, and he was never called up to a major league team. In the spring of 1995, Jordan made a decision to return to basketball. He returned to the Chicago Bulls in March, playing for the last part of the season.
After three more successful years as a basketball player -- and three more NBA championships -- Jordan retired once again, in January 1999. This time it lasted two years.
In 2001, he came out of retirement for a second time to play for the Washington Wizards. Although he was still better than most players, Jordan was getting old and his skills were significantly diminished. In 2003, he retired for the third and final time.
During the course of his professional career, Jordan averaged 30.12 points/game, the highest in NBA history. (Wilt Chamberlain was second with 30.06.) Such was Jordan's stamina that, at one time, he was able to play 840 consecutive games in which he scored in double figures. However, Jordan did a lot more than score points and lead his teams to victory. He permanently changed how people think about basketball and the importance it brings to their lives.
Consider this: Even though Michael Jordan retired for good in 2003, at the beginning of 2005 he was still the 4th highest-paid athlete in the world.
The U.S. boxer Joe Louis (1914-1981) -- born Joseph Louis Barrow -- grew up in poverty in cotton country near Lafayette, Alabama. Louis was the son of a cotton picker and the great-grandson of a slave.
Although Louis had some white blood and Indian blood in him, he was mostly black, and he grew up with the enormous discrimination and oppression that existed at the time in the southern United States. For example, in the 1930s, when Louis first started boxing, there had never been a prominent black man in the U.S. Within a short time, Louis had changed that. By the late 1930s, he was the very first black man to be honored and respected by whites and blacks alike.
Louis's family moved to Detroit when he was 10 years old, and it was there that the young boy became interested in boxing. At the age of 20, Louis competed as a light heavyweight and won the Golden Gloves (national amateur) championship. He then turned pro and started to compete as a heavyweight. He was undefeated in his first year, winning all 12 of his bouts.
Over the next few years, Louis climbed to the top of the U.S. boxing world faster than any other boxer in history. Every year, Louis faced tougher and tougher opponents, including former heavyweight champs, and he beat them all. By 1936, it seemed as if Louis was invincible.
It was then he had a major setback. In a highly publicized bout, Louis lost to the German fighter Max Schmeling, who knocked out Louis in the twelfth round of a long, tough fight.
The next year, however, Louis defeated the world heavyweight champion James J. Braddock. In doing so, Louis won the championship, establishing himself -- once and for all -- as the best boxer in the world.
In June of 1938, Louis fought what many people consider to be the fight of his career, the highly anticipated rematch with Max Schmeling. The publicity for this match was enormous, because people around the world saw the fight as being symbolic: Louis was representing the U.S., and Schmeling was representing Germany and white supremacy. This time, however, the fight was over quickly, and it was Louis who was victorious, knocking out Schmeling in the first round.
As a result, Joe Louis became the first black in the history of the United States to inspire hero worship. He was revered by people everywhere and came to be known throughout the world as "The Brown Bomber".
In all, Louis had the most remarkable record in boxing history. When he retired undefeated, in 1949, he had 70 wins, 0 ties, and only 1 loss (to Schmeling). Indeed, through all of boxing history, Joe Louis was the only heavyweight boxer who managed to retire as an undefeated champion.
Later in life, Louis had problems. Embroiled with financial setbacks, he attempted a comeback in 1951, but he lost a 15-round unanimous decision to Ezzard Charles (who had won the heavyweight title after Louis's retirement). After winning eight more fights, Louis fought one last time, losing to Rocky Marciano (the future world champion), who knocked out Louis in the eighth round.
Although Louis was to remain popular for the rest of his life, he was beset by major financial and medical problems. He spent his last four years in a wheelchair and, on April 12, 1981, died of a heart attack at the age of 66. At the request of then President Reagan, Joe Louis, the hero of millions for so many years, was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, while people around the world mourned the loss of one of the true champions of the 20th Century.
Jack Nicklaus (1940-), affectionately known as the "Golden Bear", was born in Columbus, Ohio. From the 1960s through the late 1990s, Nicklaus was the most accomplished golfer in the world. In fact, Nicklaus was so popular, he was able to change golf from the niche sport it used to be to an important part of the popular culture. It was Nicklaus (along with Arnold Palmer) who was responsible for convincing so many Americans to spend their weekend afternoons watching golf on TV.
As a young man, Nicklaus was an accomplished amateur. In 1959, at the age of 19, he became the U.S. Amateur Champion. In 1961, he won the U.S. Amateur Championship once again, as well as the NCAA (U.S. college) Championship.
In 1962, Nicklaus turned pro and, over the next three decades, won more major tournaments, more often than any golfer in history. In all, Nicklaus won 4 U.S. Opens, 3 Open Championships, 6 Australian Opens, 5 PGA Championships, and 6 U.S. Masters. In addition, he was judged the PGA (Professional Golfers Association) Player of the Year 5 times.
What is remarkable about Nicklaus is that he was extremely skilled throughout his entire life. When he was ten years old, in his very first game, he took only 51 strokes on the first nine holes. Over three decades later, at the age of 46, he set a record by becoming the oldest person ever to win the U.S. Masters. Then, after retiring from the regular PGA Tour, Nicklaus went on to play in the Champion Tour, still continuing to set records. ("Champion Tour" is the new name for the Senior Tour, a special set of competitions for golfers 50 years of age or older.)
In all, Nicklaus is the only person to ever win every major championship on both the PGA tour and the Champion Tour.
In addition to being a competitor, Nicklaus is also a golf course designer. In 1993, he was named the Golf Course Architect of the Year and, in 1999, a popular golf magazine ranked him as the world's leading active designer.
Interestingly enough, when asked what he considered to be his most important achievements over the course of a long, productive life, Nicklaus answered, "Being happily married to Barbara for 40 years and raising five children are my most significant accomplishments."
Canadian hockey player Bobby Orr (1948-) was born in the northern Ontario town of Parry Sound. From the time Orr could put on a pair of skates, he wanted nothing more than to play hockey. In time, he became one of the best players in history, demonstrating extreme natural talent coupled with the tremendous skill that comes from years of dedicated practice.
I used to play hockey as a child, so I can tell you: it is extremely difficult to be graceful on the ice -- especially when you are dressed in full equipment, using a long stick to chase a puck around the rink while trying to avoid eleven other people, six of whom (the other team) are doing their best to foil your every effort.
In my fantasies, I sometimes daydream that I am back on the rink and that time has slowed down, just for me. I see myself zipping around the other players who -- from my point of view -- are moving at a fraction of their normal speed. I control the puck; I skate in and out and around everyone, traveling the length of the rink with the grace of a ballet dancer. When I reach opposing the goal, I feint one last time and gracefully flick the puck past the goalie and into the net.
For me -- and I suspect, many other people who grew up playing hockey -- this dream is mere fantasy. But for Bobby Orr, it was a way of life. Orr was so quick, so graceful, and so acrobatic in his skating, puck handling and shooting, that he single-handedly redefined what it meant to be a hockey star. To watch Orr skate the length of the ice, weaving around the opposing players while controlling the puck so effortlessly was an experience of absolute beauty.
As a child, Orr demonstrated a natural ability that -- as the saying goes -- was far beyond that of mortal men. He played in his first organized league, for example, while he was still in kindergarten.
Over the years, Orr moved up to play in different leagues and, always, his immense natural skill was evident. At 9 years old, he won the Most Valuable Player award in the Peewee Division of the Parry Sound Minor Squirt Hockey League; and at the age of 12, he was discovered by scouts for the NHL (National Hockey League), while playing for the Parry Sound Bantam All-Stars.
The first time the scouts saw Orr play, they were astonished at how well the young boy could use his speed and his puck control to dominate the game, even when he was playing against older, more experienced players. The scouts also noticed that Orr was the only player who had the stamina and skill to stay on the ice for the entire game without taking a rest.
Two years later, at the age of 14, Orr was signed to a professional contract by the Boston Bruins of the NHL. However, the league had a rule that all players must be at least 18 years old, so Orr was required to play as an amateur for several more years. To do so, he moved to Oshawa, Ontario, and began to play for the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Junior "A" League, competing against boys who were five and six years older than him.
It was not until 1966, then, that Orr was able to make his official debut with the Bruins (the team for which he would play for the next ten years). In his first year as a pro, Orr won the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) and was given a spot on the second All-Star team.
Over the next nine years, Orr set virtually every record there was for a defenceman. In 731 games, he scored 296 goals and had 711 assists. (An "assist" is given to the last player who passes the puck to the player who scores the goal.)
Orr was the recipient of many awards. He won the Art Ross Trophy twice for the most points accumulated in a single season. (A player gets one point for each goal and one point for each assist.) He also won the Hart Trophy (most valuable player in the league) 3 times, and the Norris Trophy (best defensive player) 9 years in a row.
Perhaps more important, Orr led his team, the Bruins, to Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and 1972. And, during each of these championship, Orr won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the most valuable player during the playoffs.
Orr's most impressive accomplishment is that he was the only player ever to receive 4 individual trophies in a single season (the Hart, Norris, Ross and Smythe awards in 1970). To help you appreciate what an achievement all of this is, I'd like to give you a bit of background.
A hockey team has six players on the ice at one time: one goalie, three forwards, and two defencemen. The job of the forwards is to score goals. The job of the goalie is to stand in front of the goal and stop the puck from going in.
The defencemen play in between. Their job is to engage the opposing forwards and, whenever possible, take the puck away from them. Once a defenceman gets the puck, he normally passes it to one of his forwards, who then sets up a play.
Bobby Orr was unique in that he was a defenceman who played both defense and offense. (Imagine a baseball player who both pitched and played shortstop at the same time.) Although Orr played deep in his own zone, he would often take the puck away from an opposing player and then, maneuvering through the entire opposing team, skate the length of the rink to score or assist.
During his career, Orr averaged 1.393 points per game: the fifth best in NHL history and, by far, the highest for a defenceman. Indeed, he was the first defenceman to ever lead the league in scoring. As I mentioned, he won the award for best defenceman 9 years in a row.
Orr was innovative in another way. He was the first player to use a lawyer to negotiate his contract. Although this is a common practice now in all major sports, Orr was the one who introduced it to professional hockey.
During the time Orr played in the NHL, the game was rougher and more physical than it had been in later eras, such as the years when Wayne Gretzky was playing. Like other players of his time, Orr could take it and he could dish it out. (In fact, he had 39 fights in his career and he never lost one.) However, over the years, the brutal physical play took its toll. Orr suffered from serious injuries in both knees, having fourteen knee operations in all.
In 1976, Orr moved from the Bruins to the Chicago Black Hawks. However, after being able to play only 26 games in two years (because of his knees), Orr was forced to retire. He left behind an enduring legacy having redefined, not only what it meant to be a defenceman, but what it meant to play hockey.
And there was another legacy, for those of us old enough to remember. We can say, for the rest of our lives, "There was a time when I got to watch Bobby Orr play hockey."
The American James Cleveland Owens (1913-1980) was born in the small town of Decatur, Alabama. Owens, who was black, came from a very poor family and lived during a time of extreme racial prejudice. Still, by the age of 23, Owens had become the greatest track star in American history, having held or shared every world sprinting record.
Owens's grandparents had been slaves and his father was a sharecropper (a tenant farmer who gave part of his crops in lieu of rent). Although Owens was a small, sickly child, he grew up working hard, and by the time he was 7 years old, he was expected to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day.
As a child Owens was called J.C., but at the age of 9, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and the new teacher couldn't understand the boy's accent. When the teacher asked Owens his name, he thought he heard the boy say "Jesse", and the name stuck.
(By the way, a similar thing happened to my father, Murray Hahn. My grandparents immigrated to Canada when my father was 9 years old. At home, my grandmother always called my father "Morey". However, when he went to school, his teacher said that there was no such name; it must be Murray -- and that became my father's name for the rest of his life.)
In high school, Owens attracted the attention of the track coach, Charles Riley, who put the boy on the team and gave him the encouragement and help he needed to develop his talent. As a teenager, Owens was so good that he began to set world records.
After winning the state championship 3 times, Owens was heavily recruited by a number of colleges. He chose Ohio State University, and it was there that he had a brilliant career, setting record after record and becoming an All-American. (The "All-American" designation means that an amateur athlete is the best in the country at his particular position or event.)
On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten Conference Championships, Owens gave a performance that is considered to be the greatest feat in the history of track and field. Within the space of 45 minutes, Owens broke the world records for the long jump, the 220-yard dash, and the 220-yard low hurdles; he also tied the record for the 100-yard dash. (In fact, his long jump was so good, that the record stood for 25 years.)
However, this was the 1930s and Owens was still a black man. In spite of his tremendous accomplishments and the honor he was bringing to his school, Owens was not allowed to live in a campus dorm. Moreover, when he traveled with the team, he was not allowed to use the same hotels or restaurants as his white teammates. Even worse, because Owens was black, he was not allowed to receive a scholarship, which meant that the entire time he was in college, he was forced to work at a variety of menial jobs to support himself.
As accomplished as Owens was in high school and college, what people most remember him for was his performance at the 1936 Olympic Games.
The 1936 games were held in Berlin at a time when Hitler was firmly in control of Germany. Hitler, of course, was a white supremacist, and he fully expected the German team to dominate the Olympics. He saw the games as a world stage on which he could demonstrate the superiority of the master Aryan race. The Nazis portrayed non-whites as inferiors, and ridiculed the United States for letting "non-humans" like Owens compete on their Olympic team.
Owens, however, turned in a magnificent performance: he won gold medals for the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, the long jump, and (as a last-minute replacement) as a member of the 4 x 100 meter relay team. In doing so, Jesse Owens became the first American in the history of Olympic track and field to win 4 gold medals in a single Olympics.
(Notwithstanding, the German team did dominate the games, winning a total of 89 medals. The United States, in second place, won 56 medals, while Italy, in third place, won 22.)
Owens returned to the U.S. an international hero. He was given a ticker-tape parade in New York, as well as a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Today, an athlete like Owens would be offered so many lucrative endorsements, as to become a millionaire in short order. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States was not ready for a black hero. (In fact, when Owens arrived for his reception at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, after the ticker-tape parade, he was required to use the freight elevator.)
Although Owens was one of the greatest athletes of the century, he was treated more as a curiosity than anything else. As a result, for many years, he was forced to scramble to earn a living, and he suffered from severe financial problems.
In later years, however, Owens was honored. In 1967, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian award in the U.S.); and in 1990, he was, posthumously, given the Congressional Gold Medal (the congressional equivalent to the Medal of Freedom).
Perhaps more interesting, and certainly more ironic is that, in 1984, the city of Berlin named a street in Owens's honor.
The most popular sport in the world is soccer (known as football outside the U.S. and Canada) -- and, within the world of soccer, the most popular player of all time is Pelé.
Pelé (1940-), whose name is actually Edson Arantes do Nascimento, was born into a very poor family in Três Corações, Brazil. As a youngster, he played soccer for a local team until he was discovered by Waldemar De Brito, one of Brazil's best players. Brito brought Pelé to Santos, in the state of Sao Paulo, and, according to legend, he presented the young lad to the directors of the famous Santos Futebol Clube (Santos Football Club) declaring, "This boy will be the greatest soccer player in the world."
Whether or not the story is true, the prediction certainly was. Although Pelé was only of average height, he had great speed and ball control, and the ability to shoot extraordinarily well with either foot or with his head.
In 1956, at the age of 15, Pelé started his professional career with the Santos club, loyally staying with them for eighteen years. In 1974, he retired but, a year later, came out of retirement to join the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. After three more years, he retired permanently.
As you may know, soccer teams field eleven players at a time. Aside from the goalie, there are ten players, who are either forwards, midfielders or fullbacks. Pelé was so skillful, both offensively and defensively, that he could have played any of these ten positions. His official position, however, was as an inside-left forward who acted as a striker.
A striker is a forward whose main job is to score goals (as opposed to setting up plays or blocking the opposing defenders). As a general rule, strikers are poor defenders. Pelé, however, was excellent on both offense and defense, which made him unusually valuable.
During the eighteen years Pelé played for Santos, he had a brilliant career, unmatched by any player in history (except, possibly, Diego Maradona of Argentina). Pelé was so valuable, in fact, that in 1962, when he was 22 years old, the Brazilian Congress, concerned about the lucrative offers Pelé was getting from overseas teams, officially declared him to be a "non-exportable national treasure"(something the Canadian government neglected to do when I left Canada).
During his tenure with Santos, Pelé set many scoring records and received many awards. Along the way, he led his team to numerous state and national titles, including 9 league championships and 2 world club championships.
As a member of Brazil's national team, he played in 4 World Cup competitions, of which Brazil won 3 (1958, 1962, 1970). Indeed, in 1958, Pelé, who was 17 at the time, became the youngest player in history to ever play on a World Cup championship team.
In case you happen to be American or Canadian, I'd like to take a moment to put this into perspective. The World Cup is the most important international soccer competition; it is the most widely-viewed sporting event in the world, even more popular than the Olympics.
The World Cup is held only once every four years. In the two years leading up to the event, more than 160 national teams compete regionally for a place in the finals. The finals are played over a four-week period during which hundreds of millions of people around the world follow the action.
During the years in which Pelé was a member of the Santos club, he played on every Brazilian World Cup team. Unfortunately, he was sidelined with injuries for two of the four competitions. However, in both 1958 and 1970, Pelé played magnificently. (Overall, Pelé is the third-highest World Cup goal scorer, with 12 goals.) During these two competitions, Pelé thrilled fans everywhere, eventually becoming the most popular soccer player in the world.
When it comes to records, Pelé stands alone. Of his many achievements, the most cited is that of scoring 1281 goals in 1363 matches. (The numbers differ somewhat, depending on which source you find.) In his best season, 1958, Pelé scored 139 goals, an absolutely amazing statistic.
At the international level, Pelé played in 93 games, scoring a total of 97 goals, an average of 1.04 goals/game, more than any other player in history. To appreciate this, imagine a baseball player who is able to average one home run per game over the course of 93 World Series games.
After his retirement, Pelé used his immense popularity to promote Brazil and to act as an ambassador for the United Nations and for UNICEF (the part of the U.N. that works on behalf of children).
As Pelé put it, "Every kid in the world who plays football wants to be Pelé, which means I have the responsibility of showing them how to be a footballer, but also how to be a man".
The saying "the boy is father of the man" was especially true for George Herman Ruth (1895-1948). As a boy, George was, to put it mildly, a large handful. He was a temperamental kid who became wild and unruly. As a man, Babe (as he came to be known) was a hugely successful and popular baseball player, but he was also a trouble-making, self-indulgent, rule-breaker who, in later years, grew fat and unhealthy.
Ruth was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to a family that had eight children, of which only two survived infancy (George and his sister Mary). The family lived above a saloon, owned by George's parents, and George grew up mostly ignored. He ran wild, drinking and chewing tobacco, and nothing his father could do -- even to the point of beating the boy -- could control him. In desperation, when George was 7 years old his father sent him to live at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. The school was actually a reformatory and orphanage, and George's father signed over custody, hoping that a strong Catholic environment might keep the young lad in check.
It didn't. In the twelve years that George lived at the school, he was unruly and disrespectful, even to the point of being declared "incorrigible" (impossible to control). In a pattern that was to last a lifetime, George proved himself constitutionally unable to accept arbitrary authority and regimentation.
It was, thus, ironic that the Catholic priest who was to become the biggest influence in George's life was the school disciplinarian. His name was Brother Matthias, and he was the one man whom George came to respect. It was Brother Matthias who got the young boy interested in baseball, and who spent hour after hour working with him to perfect his skills. (Years later, the attention that Brother Matthias gave George would translate into a love of children, perhaps the most endearing trait the great baseball hero would ever demonstrate.)
By the time George was 19 years old, he was a large, strong young man with exceptional skills. He caught the attention of one of the best scouts in baseball, Jack Dunn, the owner/manager of the Baltimore Orioles. (At the time, the Orioles were a minor league farm team for the Boston Red Sox.)
George was signed to play for the Orioles and, when the other players saw the beefy new player, they jokingly called him "Jack’s newest babe". The nickname stuck and, from then on, George Herman Ruth was known as "Babe". Later, he would pick up two other nicknames: "The Bambino" (Italian for "baby"), and "The Sultan of Swat", referring to the way in which he swatted the ball.
Although it's hard to imagine now, in his time, Babe Ruth was so famous and so well-liked that the nickname "Sultan of Swat" was widely known, so much so that, in the late 1930s, when Count Basie was becoming a well-known musician, he was dubbed "The Sultan of Swing" as a tribute to his growing fame and popularity. (In later years, the term "Sultan of Swing" became so widely used as to be a meaningless cliché. But when you see the term, do take a moment to reflect that, indirectly, it came from Babe Ruth.)
After only five months with the Orioles, the Boston Red Sox bought Ruth's contract and, at the age of 19, he became a major league player. At the time, Ruth was a pitcher. He spent the next six years pitching and hitting for the Red Sox, setting records in both areas. Ruth was an excellent pitcher, winning 89 games in six years. In addition, in 1916, he set the record for pitching the longest number of consecutive hitless innings in a World Series game.
By the end of 1917, it was obvious that Ruth's skill as a hitter was his most important asset. (He had just finished the season with a .325 batting average.) The Red Sox decided it was more important to get Ruth in the lineup as often as possible than it was to have him pitch (since pitchers do not play in every game). In 1918, Ruth began playing in the outfield and, by 1919, he was a full-time outfielder -- which also made him a full-time batter -- setting a record for the most home runs in a season (29).
Also in 1919, the Red Sox changed ownership and, because of financial problems, the new owner decided to sell Ruth to the New York Yankees. At the time, the Yankees were a mediocre team, but that was all to change.
In his first season as a Yankee, Ruth rejuvenated the team. He hit 54 home runs, setting a new record and almost doubling his performance of the year before. Before long, Ruth's performance on the field and his breezy candor off the field turned him into an icon. At the time, the Yankees shared a stadium (the old Polo Grounds) with the New York Giants. However, because of Ruth's popularity, the Yankees sold so many tickets that they were able to build their own stadium, and in 1923, when Yankee Stadium opened, it was dubbed "The House that Ruth Built".
The most famous moment in baseball history came during Game 3 of the 1932 World Series when the Yankees were playing the Cubs in Chicago at Wrigley Field. It was the fifth inning. Ruth had already hit one home run and was at bat again. The count was 2 balls and 2 strikes and Ruth stood there, looking at the pitcher and listening to the loud heckling of the Cubs' fans.
Ruth pointed to the center field bleachers and, on the very next pitch, hit the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley Field, right above the spot to which he had pointed. The Yankees went on to win the Series, their third in four years.
Actually, the story may or may not be true. There were no pictures taken, and of course there was no television. Some people remembered the Babe pointing; others did not. What is not disputed is the idea that, true or not, the story represents the very best that baseball has to offer.
Away from the field, Ruth was a larger than life character. Because of his natural temperament and his neglect when he was young, the Babe developed an insatiable appetite for life, including food, women, and what we would now call "partying"; all of which served to generate enormous publicity and make him an icon of American popular culture.
During his career with the Yankees, Ruth set dozens of major league records, of which two are especially famous. First, Ruth had a lifetime total of 714 home runs, a record that was not broken until 1974 (by Hank Aaron). Second, Ruth was the first player to reach 30 home runs a year, then 40, 50 and 60. Indeed, his 1927 record of 60 home runs stood for 34 years, until Roger Maris (also a Yankee) hit 61 in 1961.
Let me take a moment to put this in perspective. In 1927, there were 154 games in a season, and the average starter hit about 6 home runs. In 1961, there were 162 games in a season and the average starter hit about 14 home runs. (In fact, Maris did not hit home run number 61 until the very last game of the season.) Although I won't go into the details, if you analyze the statistics carefully, you will see that Babe Ruth really was the very best hitter in baseball history.
In the process of setting so many records, Ruth led the Yankees -- a team that had never won a title -- to 7 pennants (league championships) and 4 World Series championships. In fact, many people consider the 1927 Yankees to be the best baseball team in history.
In later years, Ruth's performance on the field had its ups and downs and, after many years as a player, Ruth decided he wanted to be a manager. In 1934, he left the Yankees when they refused to make him manager and joined the Boston Braves. After one year, however, he quit when he realized he would never be made manager. In 1938, he took a job as first base coach with the Brooklyn Dodgers, because he believed that he would be taking over the manager's spot at the end of the season. Instead, however, the Dodgers gave the job to Leo Durocher and, once again, Ruth quit, this time for good.
Ruth spent the rest of his life as a personality: visiting children in orphanages and hospitals, talking on the radio, helping to sell war bonds, and so on. In 1936, he was one of the first five players inducted into the brand new Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1946, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and, on August 16, 1948, he died of the disease.
Over the next two days, Ruth's body lay in state at the entrance to Yankee Stadium: the house that Ruth built. More than 100,000 people came to pay their final respects. In death, as in life, Ruth was still an icon, a true national hero.
Jacobus Franciscus (Jim) Thorpe (1888-1953) was the best all-round athlete of the 20th century, distinguishing himself in track, field, baseball and football.
Thorpe was of mixed descent, half Indian (Native American) and half Irish and French. He was born on a reservation near the town of Bellemont, Oklahoma, and was raised as an Indian. (His Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which means "bright path".)
Thorpe lost his close family when he was young. He had a twin, Charlie, who died when he was 9 years old, and both his parents died while young Jim was still a teenager.
In 1904, when Thorpe was 16 years old, he was recruited to attend a vocational school for Indians, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Later that year, Thorpe's father died, and the young boy left school, only to return in 1907.
There is an interesting story (which may or may not be true) about how, upon his return to Carlisle, Thorpe began his athletic career. One day, as he was walking past the track, he saw some of the students practicing the high jump. On an impulse, Thorpe decided to try and, in his street clothes, he jumped 5'9". According to the story, the jump attracted the attention of the coach, Glenn "Pop" Warner.
During his time at Carlisle, Thorpe became a star, not only at track and field, but at everything he tried. He excelled at football, baseball, lacrosse and basketball, and also won a national ballroom dancing contest.
Of all the sports, however, football was Thorpe's favorite. Thorpe was a halfback, and in 1911 and 1912, while playing for Carlisle, he was voted All-American. During the 1912 season, Thorpe scored 25 touchdowns and 198 points leading his team to the national collegiate championship.
The year 1912 was also an Olympic year, and Thorpe went to Sweden as a member of the American team. In Sweden, Thorpe made his mark in the world, winning gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon. This was such an important achievement, that I would like to take a moment to discuss it.
In 1912, the pentathlon was a modified version of an ancient Greek contest, but the decathlon was brand new. The pentathlon and decathlon are both multi-event competitions and, as such, are very demanding. They require the utmost skill and training. Indeed, today, the winner of the decathlon is considered to be the best athlete in the world.
In the pentathlon, each athlete competes at five different events: long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter dash, discus throw, and 1500-meter run. The results are then tabulated using a special formula, and the athlete with the most points wins the competition.
The decathlon is similar, only there are ten events: 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter run, 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1500-meter run.
These competitions are so demanding that, in the summer of 1912, when a 24-year-old American Indian won both of them within the course of a week, it attracted worldwide attention. When Thorpe returned to America, he was given a hero's welcome, including a New York ticker-tape.
Unfortunately, the honor was short lived. In 1913, newspapers reported that Thorpe had played semiprofessional summer baseball, in 1909 and 1910, for the Rocky Mount Club of the Eastern Carolina Leagues. His pay was small, but the rules governing amateur athletes were strict. After an investigation, the Amateur Athletic Union withdrew Thorpe's amateur standing retroactively and, later that year, the International Olympic Committee stripped him of his medals.
However, such was his reputation that, as soon as it became known that Thorpe was a professional, he began to receive offers from major league baseball teams. From 1913-1916, he played as an outfielder for the New York Giants, Boston Braves and Cincinnati Reds. Interestingly enough, Thorpe's best season in the majors was his last, during which he batted .327 in 60 games for the Braves. His career as a baseball player was lackluster, but he did continue to play in the minor leagues until 1922. In all, he played 20 years of minor- and major-league ball.
What was most amazing is, through most of this time, Thorpe was also a professional football player. He started in 1915 with the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, leading them to titles in 1916, 1917 and 1919. In all, Thorpe played for six different football teams, retiring in 1928 at the age of 41.
In 1920, the Bulldogs and three other teams formed the American Professional Football Association. Thorpe served as the first president of the association (which, two years later, would become the National Football League). He continued to play for the Bulldogs and he coached the team, all at the same time. Thorpe remained a professional football player until 1928, when he finished his career by playing for the Chicago Cardinals.
After his retirement, Thorpe's fortune floundered and, during the Depression, he struggled unsuccessfully to support his family. He became an alcoholic and drifted from one job to another. His family life was also unsuccessful. (In all, he was married three times.) He was destitute through the 1930s and 1940s and, in 1953, at the age of 65, he died of a heart attack.
However, even in those late days, Thorpe wasn't completely forgotten. In the late 1940s, when it was discovered how poor he had become, groups across the country raised thousands of dollars to help him. And, in 1951, he had the honor of seeing the actor Burt Lancaster portray him in a movie called Jim Thorpe: All-American.
However, like most great men, it was only after his death that Thorpe's accomplishments were truly recognized in an enduring manner. Many of the honors came about because of the tireless work of his widow Patricia and his daughter Grace. For example, in 1954, Patricia brokered a deal whereby the town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, renamed itself to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. And, in 1982, after many years of lobbying, Grace succeeded in having her father's Olympic medals restored to him posthumously.
Medals and honors aside, Jim Thorpe's skill and natural talents were so exceptional as to make him one of the best, if not the best, athletes of all time. Just how good was he? Consider the following, which is my favorite Jim Thorpe story.
In 1941, after having been retired from football since 1928, Thorpe returned to Carlisle, the college he had attended thirty years earlier. While he was there, Thorpe stood in the middle of the football field and drop-kicked a football over the goalposts. He then turned around and kicked a field goal all the way to the opposite end zone.
He was 52 years old and wearing street shoes.
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