Baseball stats–pure and simple.
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Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr need to be in this conversation. Coming out of high school, they were two of the best prospects ever. Incredible natural talents honed for baseball.
Your last sentence negates your first sentence.
Can you explain more Andy? I’m not sure I agree that the last sentence negates the first.
Jr and A-Rod are great baseball athletes but I’ve never seen them play football. I have a hard time imagining they could be as good at football as Deion or Bo was.
Does being able to play two professional sports, and not being all that good at one of them (Neon was not a good baseball player) make someone a better athlete than one who is truly great at one sport?
No matter, even if you hadn’t provided choices and just ask the general question who is teh best athlete to play MLB since the 1980s, I would have picked Bo Jackson.
“Other” option doesn’t allow you to type in a name.
I know it’s almost a century ago, but Jim Thorpe may have been as gifted an athlete as anyone who has ever played in MLB. Proof that it takes more than superlative athletic ability to be a good MLB hitter.
I agree on Jim Thorpe, but since no one alive saw him compete, it is hard to really know how gifted he truly was. BTW, his career OPS+ is 99, so his hitting wasn’t horrible and honestly, he never really got a shot at playing full time (most games was 103 in 1917) and of course, the dead ball era really messes with his stats, so it is hard to analyze them (in 1918, his slashes were .248/.286/.381 and his OPS+ was 103)
It’s true that no one around now saw Thorpe perform, but we don’t disregard (well, most of us don’t) Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner and Larry Lajoie when discussing the all-time great MLB players, for that reason.
Besides, there were many writers around then who DID see Thorpe, and we have their observations to go by (as imperfect as that is). Plus, there’s that decathlon he won in the 1912 Olympics.
There are 2 other baseball players who were Olympians and participated in a sport other than baseball. They both competed in the 1900 Olympiad in Paris. One was Ed Minahan (track and field) and the other was Al Spalding (shooting, if you want to call that a sport).
According to legend, Sweden’s King Gustav V, upon hanging the decathlon gold medal around Thorpe’s neck, said to him, “You, Sir, are the finest athlete in the world.” (To wish the abashed Thorpe supposedly replied, “Gosh, thanks King!”)
So there’s that, anyway.
I, too, would vote for Thorpe. Bo probably in the same league.
It’s always hard to compare the older guys with recent ones. I mean, Bo’s 16-year-old decathlon times and distances shatter Thorpe’s mature ones. Okay, such a comparison obviously is unfair, but in Bo’s case you’re talking about a guy who at the state HS level would lead the decathlon by so much he wouldn’t have to run the final event, the mile, which he hated; a guy who after a few tutorials in the javelin and shot put was posting state-qualifying distances; a guy, basically, who competed in and dominated the decathlon just because he could, not because he even liked it.
Bo was actually faster than Deion and still has the top 40 time ever at the NFL combine (4.12, and backed up later in the week with a 4.18), which, even allowing for the hand timing back in the day, is off-the-charts, world-class blazing. He qualified, in a fiercely competitive NCAA environment, for the NCAA 60-yard indoor and 100-meter outdoor dash championships basically devoting as much time to them as I do to yard work. His vertical leap at the combine was NBA level, and he could bench press double of what, say, Deion could do. Plus, his arm – throwing a baseball, football, what have you – was Barfield-ish.
Basically, Bo was the ultimate five-tool guy. Whether had he quit his “hobby” and put in more of the necessary reps he would have become an all-time great baseball player is speculation, of course. But his “athletic” credentials are beyond dispute and place him with Jackie Robinson at the top of baseball athletes. Personally, I think the greatest athlete ever is a contest between him and Jim Brown.
Bo, without a doubt. Deion could run and broke on a thrown football better than any defensive back I have ever seen, but he couldn’t tackle or block or do any of the other things a football player is expected to do. Bo knew tackling and blocking, as well as anything else a football player is expected to do.
Neither was a polished baseball player, but Bo did things on a baseball field I have never seen anyone else do.
Brian Jordan was a pro bowl caliber football player and was a better baseball player than either one. I don’t think I would name him a better athlete than either guy though.
And lets not forget Vince Coleman and Darin Erstad either.
But yes, Bo Jackson is the most talented athlete that I have ever seen. There were moments when he was on the field when it looked like Clark Kent had stepped out of the phone booth wearing a baseball uniform.
Andy, I realize that you may have a specific purpose in limiting the pre-set choices. But I think a general poll of best all-around athletes ever to play MLB would do well to include Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson and Dave Winfield, for starters.
This poll came from a Twitter discussion about those 2 guys specifically, being the best athletes of the last 30 years. It wasn’t meant to be an all-around all-time poll.
Found these comments about Dave Winfield.
- he never played in the minors
- drafted by both the Atlanta Hawks and the Utah Stars
- even though he never played a single down in college, the Vikings selected him in the 1973 draft
- No other athlete has ever been drafted in all three pro sports
How about Chuck Connors? Played in the MLB and NBA plus was drafted by the Chicago Bears. Later went on to have a long acting career, mostly known for playing the title role in the tv series The Rifleman.
It’s a big question whether Winfield could have made it in the NBA, let alone become an All Star, as a 6-foot-6 ‘tweener who specialized in rebounding. He’d even have had less of a chance, I’d guess, in the pre-pass whacky NFL, though today he’d be a perfect tight end, a la Antonia Gates and Jimmy Graham.
All around athlete, no, but the best two professional sport performer might be Gene Conley.
The only thing about Deion is that he was basically just speed and spatial awareness/hand eye coordination, whereas Bo brought all of that plus ridiculous strength. On the football field Deion was known for being a poor tackler and never flashed much power with the bat (sub-.400 slugging, and that’s even helped by his big triples numbers) whereas Bo was a pummeling RB and was known for his tape measure jacks.
Deion was good at football only. Bo was good at both.
3 of the 4 years Bo played football he had the longest rush of any player for the season while playing about 60% of the games.
While I agree that he was a considerably better football player, Deion probably could have developed into a pretty good baseball player if he’d dropped football to focus on it. In 92/93 he played 192 games for the Braves with a 118 OPS+ with 45 steals and 20 triples while playing a solid center field.
Of course, if he’d never played baseball he might have learned how to tackle and become the greatest CB of all time, so, you know.
Just my opinion, but –
In Deion’s best year, ’92, over half his hits were infield hits; his career rate was 25%. If you chop his infield hits in half, which still leaves him with a high rate, his career BA drops from .263 to .230.
His RBI rate was horrible, because infield hits and outfield singles don’t drive in many runners. Even his Runs rate was unimpressive, since he didn’t walk or get extra-base hits. He never scored 60 runs, nor drove in 30. Even projecting his stats out to 700 PAs per season, he averaged 93 Runs and 50 RBI. He didn’t hit lefties at all.
He just wasn’t a good MLB hitter, and wasn’t really making any progress. His career OBP was way below the league average, reducing the value of his speed. And except for 1997, he wasn’t a high-percentage base stealer — 72% outside of that year.
And he had a poor throwing arm. Basically, he was Otis Nixon with a lot of hype, though in a pinch I’d take Otis.
I don’t think quitting football and concentrating on baseball would have helped Deion much. Very few guys learn to be good major-league hitters if they haven’t had many thousands of ABs before their mid-20s.
Bo Jackson was better without question, in my opinion. He was an All Star in both sports. Considered by many, one of the most exciting football players in his prime, too bad an injury cut short his football career. On the baseball side, he had tremendous power an an incredible throwing arm. I still like to watch those highlights when he ran on the wall in Baltimore(?) or when he threw Harold Reynolds out at home plate with a perfect throw from left field in Seattle. Amazing athlete.
I voted Bo for two reasons: running thru Bosworth and that 91 yard run on MNF, and he could hit a 400 foot home run.
Bo is one of the ultimate “what if” athletes. He split his time playing baseball and football in college, and when drafted by the Royals was considered one of the most gifted prospects in a generation, perhaps ever, yet still quite raw. After a short time in the minors, he was rushed to the majors, perhaps in fear by the Royals they’d lose him completly to football once he re-entered the NFL draft. Not sure.
He would have benefited greatly from more time in the minors, as well as playing in the fall leagues, and getting back the ABs he was losing by cutting short his baseball season to play football. Repetition and plenty of ABs were what he needed to help refine those great skills.
Yet even without that, and with his on-the-job training coming at the MLB level, it was clear he was as talented, if not more so, than any player in the game. His OPS+ increased every year, and was at 142 the year prior to the injury. He was beginning to put it all together. Rumor was he planned to retire from football to prevent the type of injury that he eventually suffered. If so, I think he would have put up some crazy numbers in the homer-happy 1990s.
Yet perhaps the legend of Bo Jackson is greater because he made the All-Star games in two professional sports, and his career ended well before he ever fulfilled that great baseball promise, leaving us to all wonder “what if?”
And on top of that – he came back and actually played with his artificial hip. This is a real thing that really happened. It’s like living in a cartoon or something… Bo could probably paint a hole in the side of a wall and run through it like the Road Runner.
Bo Jackson ran like the Road Runner; Bo _Diddley_ recorded “Road Runner”.
Wiley Coyote couldn’t keep up with either of them. Why did he keep buying from Acme?
Not even close – Jackson was a fast as Sanders and 40 pounds heavier. Obviously, Jackson was a helluva whole lot stronger. A NYY scout had Jackson as the highest rated prospect he had seen for foot speed, arm strength, and power since Mickey Mantle. I’m sure Sanders also is losing points in this whole debate on the basis of being somewhat disliked by quite of few of us.
When asked by esteemed bow-tie wearing, Washington Nationals’ fan and Princeton student George Will who he believed to be the greatest basketball player he had ever seen, Butch van Bredakoff responded, “a kid from Wampum Pennsylvania named Richie Allen”.
In his autobiography, Reggie Jackson raved about Rick Monday and his 9.7 100 yard dash speed. Still, somewhat pedestrian comapred to Willie Davis and Bobby Bonds
No mention yet of the MLBers who also played basketball at a high level (NBA or major college). Among these players, my vote might be for Kenny Lofton, Bob Gibson, or Dick Groat.
don’t forget Frank Howard
Gene Conley @12 above. I’m not sure, but I think he’s the only person to play in the World Series and the NBA Finals—on the winning side, too. He was a three-time All Star, twice for Milwaukee, once for the Phillies, and a role-player on several Celtic championship teams in the Cousy-Russell era.
Certainly the best pitcher who did well as a pro in another sport. The best MLB player in the NBA? Danny Ainge, unless I’m forgetting someone.
Richard Chester will correct me, if I’m wrong.
Yes, nsb, I’m pretty sure you’re correct about Conley. Tim Stoddard played in both the World Series and the NCAA basketball championships. I think he won a game in the ’79 Series but the Os fell to the Pirates, and at NC State he won the ’74 NCAA title, though due far less to his efforts than those of David Thompson and, probably, those (i.e. the questionable recruiting practices) of Norm Sloan.
Stoddard’s same East Chicago, IN high school also produced Kenny Lofton, who is the only other player to play in a WS and an NCAA Final Four. Must be all the heavy metals in the drinking water or something…
Actually the best MLB player in the NBA would be Dave DeBusschere who’s in the basketball HOF and was named as one of the 50 best players in NBA history. His MLB career was short but it looks like he could have been a very good pitcher if he had stuck with baseball. Career ERA+ of 124 in 102.1 innings, pitching as a 21 and 22 year old.
Frank Howard, the original Hondo?, was 2nd team all america at Oho State in ’58 though I’ll be darned if I can find any stats for him
Here you go…Howard averaged 17.4 points and 14.4 rebounds per game for Ohio State. He still holds the OSU record for most rebounds in a game with 32.
Yes, the baseball Hondo played on OSU just before the basketball Hondo. The latter was on the NCAA championship squad in 1960 with Jerry Lucas and Bob Knight before going on to his all-time great career with the Celtics.
Thanks, I see he still holds the team record for rebounds in a game, 32
Thanks for mentioning Gibson, who starred in hoops for Creighton and then played for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Before signing with the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax played basketball at Cincinnati.
There are quite a few baseball players who excelled in college football including Harry Agganis, George Stirnweiss, Eric Tipton, Sam Chapman, Vic Janowicz, Paul Giel, Ernie Nevers and Ace Parker. Some of them like Stirnweiss and Chapman had some good years. Agganis tragically died in his second year. Parker quit the game and went on to become a pro football HOFer.
Kirk Gibson. He was sure to be a high NFL pick among wide receivers, or maybe even overall, but his senior year he decided to play baseball also, and based on that one year performance the Tigers drafted him and the rest is history. I was on the MSU JV team at the time and saw this unfold. The guy was a stud in all respects.
And there was also this skinny fellow with a big smile taking the college basketball world by storm the same year, and that’s a whole nother story. It was quite a year to be a Spartan.
A lot of people don’t realize the package of speed and power that Gibson was. He may have been the fastest white football player of his generation, and as you said was a stud in every respect. I covered him when he as at Evansville and he was a monster in the making. Gibson almost posted 30 HR / 30 SB seasons several times but always just fell short.
I think Bo’s career was paralleling Gibson’s before Bo’s injury. They both struck out a lot early, but improved markedly with each passing season. Bo’s OPS+, as MikeD pointed out above, jumped a good 18 points in successive years to All-Star level, and he was still learning the game.
tag, very cool that you got to see Kirk in his early years when he was quite the raw phenom. Re “monster in the making”: some folks tried to pin “the next Mickey Mantle” label on him. I don’t know how that affected him. He has a very good head on this shoulders, very grounded, but when you’re only 19,20 years old, things like that can of course affect you. I also respect the fact that he decided not to try to be Bo Jackson #2 when he was considering trying to play some pro football at one point. He had a lot to learn quickly to be a good MLB player, which he was.
Paul, no I have never heard of those guys. I have the feeling I should have though…old MSU ballplayers?
MSU ? Are you an acquaintance of Darwin “Big Daddy” Gibson or Elliott Tabron?
Grrr … I was in ANN ARBOR from 1977-81, and the way I saw it, whatever Gibson did on the gridiron was quickly superseded by one ANTHONY CARTER.
School-ties posturing aside, Kirk Gibson was quite a specimen when he reached the Tigers, but unbelievably raw. His misadventures in the outfield became legendary — as I recall, he had a ball bounce off his head and out of the park long before Canseco made that his signature move.
The most eye-popping athletic thing I ever saw Gibby do was in a 1983 game that I watched from the CF bleachers. With Whitaker on 1st and 1 out, he drove one over the CF’s head. Lou didn’t get a great jump, and by the time he reached 3rd, Gibby was already flying past 2nd. The throw went to the plate, and Lou was out in a cloud of dust. But Gibson never stopped, and before the dust had cleared, he slid in safely.
From our vantage point, almost 500 feet away, we couldn’t make out the details — whether the catcher had lost the ball after tagging Whitaker, or just what the hell had happened. And I never did get to see a replay. It was scored as a double, with Gibson taking 2nd on the throw home — which seems ridiculous, since he was absolutely going to 3rd even if Whitaker had stopped there — and scoring on an E2.
I don’t know just how a catcher gets an error on a play at the plate immediately after tagging out another runner. It definitely wasn’t a throwing error. Maybe he just dropped the ball, or froze upon seeing the Gibby express barreling down on him (though Rich Gedman was no shrinking violet himself).
But the point is: Gibby was fast.
It’s in the 6th inning here.
The “Back to Baseball” recreation says that “Gedman fumbles the ball,” but I don’t know where their info comes from — they don’t even describe Whitaker being out at the plate on the same play; he just vanishes off 1st base in the midst of their little graphical replay.
P.S. Detroit’s starting first baseman that night: Ricky (the Peach) Leach, the Guts & Glue of the Maize & Blue.
uh oh, a Wolverine and a Spartan/Buckeye on the same board…this could get ugly quick
The play you describe surprises me not in the least John–that was vintage Kirk. He’d as soon run over a defensive back as around him.
According to this article, Gibson’s earlier homer was 523 feet. And they mis-identify the catcher:
Here’s a great description pf the play:
Great finds, Voomo! My memory mussed a few details from 29 years ago.
John Elway deserves mention also, opting for football instead of baseball.
Bo was the goods. I have never seen anyone like him before and doubt anyone will every see his likes again.
Deion was great, but don’t sleep on Brian Jordan. While he played for teams I despise, he was a damn good baseball player and football player.
As for old time guys, my knowledge begins and ends with Joe Thorpe, sort of the Bo Jackson of his time.
And then there was Charlie Berry. He was selected by Walter Camp for his All-American football team, played in the NFL and in the ML. He later became a baseball umpire and an NFL head linesman. In 1958 he umpired in the WS and was the head linesman for the NFL title game between the Colts and the Giants. He probably was the only guy to officiate in a WS and an NFL title game.
As long as we’re going ancient—like you and me, RC—I’ll drop the name of George Halas, a three-sport star at Illinois and MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl playing for Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He came up briefly with the Yankees late that year, broke his hip, and subsequently turned his focus to football as a player, coach, and owner, coincidentally helping to found the NFL, in an iconic career that lasted over sixty years. He was All-Pro as a player, outstanding as a coach, winning his first pro championship in 1921 and his last in 1963, with a record of just 6 losing seasons out of 40 coached.
Even some of the younger guys here may have heard of him.
Here’s the video of Deion Sanders as a Florida State freshman attempting to tackle Bo Jackson. I’m not sure if it’s this commentary or not but I heard him somewhere describe the stiff-arm shiver that Bo gave him at the 10-yard line as a “sit DOWN, young man” kind of play:
Great clip, this should be posted at the top of this.
I went with Bo, though if we were to go further back, Jim Thorpe and even Jim Brown were excellent athletes in their own right who did two sports.
“Gifted athlete” is sort of a nebulous category, but I will say this: Deion Sanders actually played a sport at a Hall of Fame level (he may be the greatest defender of WRs footabll ever saw), while all of Bo’s incredible raw skills never added up to a particulary great career in either sport. Yes Bo was as impressive a RB as we’ve seen (5.4 yards a carry, several 70+ yard runs), but he never rushed for even 1,000 yards in a season, got close only once. He simply did not do enough to make the football HOF, while Deion helped several teams win championships. Also, I think Deion would definitely have been a star CF if he committed to baseball. While his overall stats are not overly impressive, he picked up and dropped the game several times. During the first half of 1992, he played like an MVP candidate (his ’92 slugging % was impressive in the dead ball pre 1993 game), and if he honed his fielding he would have been an easy gold glover in CF. And the man did hit pretty well in a World Series. Bo was a superior athlete, but Deion had the greater sports career by quite a bit, IMO.
It’s kind of late in the string of comments to raise this, but I will—what the heck.
Opinion: If you can excel at baseball, at least as a position player, you’re likely to have skills that make you capable of excelling at other sports. Excelling at football, basketball, swimming, track events, soccer, golf—most often these are focussed and narrow endeavors compared to those required in baseball. I can see Mantle and Mays as great running backs. I can see Ted Williams at end or forward. I can’t see Tiger Woods or pick almost any name you like (I admit some exceptions) even being offered a contract with a big league team.
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