Greatest athlete of all time? There’s only one choice, and it isn’t Deion Sanders

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 11, 2011 – Sometimes you get so mad, your blood boils. Earlier this week, the spasmodically-insightful Skip Bayless gushed over newly-inducted pro football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders as the “greatest athlete of all time” on ESPN’s “First Take” show.

Then, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Matt Stevens produced a story in today’s edition on “Who are the top all-time athletic athletes”and included a list of 13 noteworthy individuals, including Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrikson and contemporary stars such as Tony Gonzalez and LeBron James.

Are you kidding me? What about the man who is clearly the greatest athlete ever? Who graced the basketball court, diamond, gridiron and track with more ability, versatility and courage than anyone before or since . . . Jackie Robinson.

Is it really necessary to recite – once again – his brilliant athletic achievements, well beyond his humanitarian contributions as the man who broke baseball’s color barrier? Apparently, yes:

• At Muir High School in Pasadena, Robinson won letters in baseball, basketball, football and track, not to mention the Junior Boys Singles title at the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament and was named to an area all-star baseball team which also included future Major League stars Bob Lemon and Ted Williams.

• He competed in the same four sports at Pasadena Junior College (1937-39) and at UCLA (1939-41), becoming the first four-sport letterman for the Bruins.

• In football at UCLA, Robinson led the nation in punt returns in both of his seasons; his career average of 18.8 yards still ranks fourth all-time. Playing in the same backfield as All-American Kenny Washington (who would later break the NFL color barrier with the Rams) in 1939, the Bruins were undefeated for the first time (6-0-4), ranked seventh in the nation and tied third-ranked USC, 0-0. As a senior in 1940, Robinson led the Bruins in rushing, passing, total offense and punt returns.

• In basketball, Robinson led the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring in 1940 and 1941, pretty good on a team which was only 14-37 in his two seasons in Westwood.

• In baseball, Robinson played only in 1940, batting .097 for the season, but then again he was busy on the track.

• As a long jumper, Robinson won the Pacific Coast Conference and NCAA titles in 1940, with a best of 25-0. He ranked no. 4 on the world long-jump list for the year and had three of the top seven jumps of the season. In 1938, he had the world’s leading jump of 25-6 1/2, and would have been one of the gold-medal favorites at the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo had the Games been held; they were cancelled thanks to the Japanese being busy overrunning China at the time. The Olympics ran in the family: remember that his older brother Mack won the silver medal in the 200 meters in Berlin in 1936 behind Jesse Owens, and the ultra-competitive Jackie would have loved the chance to out-medal his brother four years later!

• Like Thorpe, Robinson’s opportunities as a professional athlete were limited. The NFL was in its infancy and did not admit black players until Washington signed with the Rams in 1946; the NBA didn’t begin operations until the 1946-47 season. So he played baseball – his worst sport at UCLA – with the Kansas City Monarchs and then the Dodgers. Beyond his heroic breaking of the color barrier in what was indisputably the most important sport in America, Robinson was brilliant on the field as well, with a .311 career average, six All-Star Game selections, Rookie of the Year (1947) and Most Valuable Player (1949) awards in a 10-year Dodger career and induction to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1962.

And on top of all this was his well-documented, immortal contribution to race relations in becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball. For all of these achievements, it’s simply astonishing that Robinson isn’t automatically at the top of everyone’s list of the greatest athletes in history; in my view, only Thorpe and Didrikson stand with him for accomplishments, versatility and courage. There are many others who were great, but Robinson is among the handful who are legendary.


So what can we say about Bayless and Stevens? Perhaps they can share the Sergeant Schultz Award, after the “Hogan’s Heroes” guard whose iconic reply to any question was, “I know nothing.”

(Special thanks to Track & Field News editor-in-chief Garry Hill for noting Robinson’s then-World Junior Record and 1938 world-leading jump of 25-6 1/2.)

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

2 Comments

  1. Dion Sanders was a Hall of Fame defensive back who was a master at covering wide receivers, but tackled like a girl. He also was just an average journeyman baseball player and track man(never was a top ten U.S. ranked sprinter). Robinson was an All-American football, basketball and track and field athlete(baseball wasn’t his best sport). Taking everything into account Robinson was a far better baseball player than Sanders was in football. Sanders and his horribly embarrassing “hey look at me!” minstrel shows after touchdowns are his most outstanding legacy.
    Robinson’s sacrifices are the reasons we had to put up with Sanders self-humiliating displays.

    Sanders should be embarrassed by the comparison.

  2. You guys are confusing the time, civil rights, and african american acheivements with this comparison. although Jackie robinson was great..you’re talking about the 1930’s and ’40’s. A black man couldn’t even go to a white school in the midwest and south. There wasn’t many black athletes that he had to beat out at UCLA. The talent of athletes period could not have been up to par when you have a guy that plays on the tennis team, football, basketball, baseball, and track. That tells you the competition wasn’t up to par. No way you can play that many sports today because time itself and the talent won’t allow it. I credit Jackie for being the first and paving the way..but he’s not the best. As far as Deion Sanders……here’s a guy that came up in the era of big money. The NFL, The NBA, MLB, and Track and Field. An era where african americans dominate college and professional sports. Way more competition for starting positions. these days you concentrate on your dominant sport because of the prospective of going pro..not because you’re decent at it. Deion ran 10.26 in the 100 meters and he didn’t even do track fulltime because of baseball. Translate 10.26 on a long jump runway and I’ll give you a 27 foot long jumper. Deion could go pro in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field and this is in an era of great athletes and competition!!! For this reason…..Deion is the greatest but he wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for Jackie Robinson!

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