The Top 25 Sports Personalities – Author James Campion’s list for the most influential athletes ever.


East Coast Rocker 7/3/96 The Last Shot


Just a little Star Spangled food for thought this Fourth of July. I submit the list that will launch a thousand Independence Day picnic arguments. Upon the festival celebrating our nation’s birthday the roll call of the 25 most influential, celebrated, infamous, and far reaching figures of the 20th Century in American sports.

Now, before you break out the heavy verbal artillery and call me those names usually left for those really ugly donnybrooks, I only spent 24 hours on this list. So don’t be calling the poor editors of this paper up around Christmas time to tell them what form of torture I should be subjected to before snuffing me out all together. I might have left somebody out who might otherwise belong, but that’s the beauty of lists, and more importantly, the beauty of sports lists. So read along at your own risk and just try and dispute the greatness before thee.

1. Muhammad Ali – Transcended all sports and was the most recognizable and influential figure in the latter half of a century dominated by the black athlete. Saved the sport of boxing and used the lofty pulpit of the heavyweight championship to exalt the underdog, express his freedom, and spread his love of God and man. Ali not only belongs at the top of this list, but near the top of any list of Americans period.

2. Babe Ruth – Professional sports first superstar. The most famous man on the planet who didn’t commandeer an army. Saved the national pastime after the 1919 World Series gambling allegations and then proceeded to change the game by introducing a little thing called the home run. The Bambino was not only the best everyday baseball player ever, he was probably the best pitcher as well. He practically invented the American sports hero as celebrity.

3. Jackie Robinson – The bravest man to ever don a uniform in any sport or era. He not only changed a game, but an entire country, by just stepping on a field. His pulling on a Brooklyn Dodgers hat was the most important event in American sports history. And, by the way, he was a damn good ballplayer who scared the hell out of opponents the moment he hit first base.

4. Billie Jean King – The mother of all modern women athletes. She stood in the face of pressures way beyond tennis and was always the rock from which respect was built. King stopped the nation cold when she wiped up Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome. She came a long way, baby.

5. Jim Thorpe – Arguably the greatest pure athlete this country has ever produced. A true American who re-invented any sport you’d put in front of him. Thorpe became a martyr for all amateur athletes and Olympic hopefuls when the government stripped him of his medals. The century’s shining beacon and hero of native Americans for eighty years.

6. Knute Rockne – The quintessential American coach. Invented modern football and the author of more inspirational speeches than anyone before or since. Ask the Gipper.

7. Joe Namath – Changed the pay structure of modern sport. A rebel, a hippie, a late night ladies’ man with a thirst for whiskey and mink coats. My first hero and the last hero to sport white shoes. There is no #12 or Super Bowl without him. I guarantee it.

8. Howard Cosell – The most hated man in America for an entire decade. Still the only true journalist in the history of sports, Cosell attended and commented on nearly every important sporting event of his time. There is no Monday Night Football without him. Just telling it like it is

9. Michael Jordan – Biggest sports star on the planet today. Solidified top ten status after the incredible events of this past year when he returned from a two-year hiatus after the death of his father to reclaim his kingdom as champion and finest to play the game. Nobody ever dominated a team sport more completely.

10. Joe Louis – Pound for pound the greatest pure boxer of all time? Yes. Threw the first punch of World War II when he dropped Max Schmelling in a title bout.

11. Curt Flood – Decided he wasn’t anyone’s property one hundred years after the Civil War, and as a result, established the voice of the professional athlete. Free agents of all sports owe him a feast of thanks.

12. Jesse Owens – The father of American track and field. Joined Joe Louis in running circles around racist dogma.

13. Joe DiMaggio – Elegance, grace, and power. Defined a nation and married Marilyn Monroe. “Where have you gone…?”

14. Mickey Mantle – The only man who could have followed Joltin’ Joe. The Hercules of the Baby Boomer Generation.

15. Willie Mays – The human highlight reel.

16. Red Auerbach – Eleven consecutive championships? Look it up

17. Secretariat – The crown jewel in the sport of kings.

18. Pete Rozelle – Fall, Sunday afternoons, pro football

19. Red Smith – THE American sportswriter.

20. Walter O’Malley – Villain.

21. Rocky Marciano – Undefeated.

22. Arthur Ashe – Hero of humankind.

23. Arnold Palmer – Don’t care about golf. Cared about Arnie.

24. Jim Brown – Unstoppable.

25. O.J. Simpson – Notorious

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