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Top 10 Greatest Philly Sports Stars of All Time

Michael CarrollAnalyst IJanuary 11, 2017

Top 10 Greatest Philly Sports Stars of All Time

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    As the birthplace of the United States of America, Philadelphia has played an invaluable role in shaping the USA as we know it today.

    In sports, Philadelphia is often viewed as an underachiever. Usually, Philadelphia teams and their athletes fall short. During my lifetime, only the 2008 Phillies have won their respective championship, although Philadelphia's major sports teams (Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, 76ers) have reached the championship round seven times since 1991.

    In between the Philly sports failures, though, there are many successes. Some of the greatest to ever play their respective sports represented the City of Brotherly Love. Today, I will honor what I feel are the top 10 biggest stars in Philadelphia sports history.

    By “stars,” I do not just mean athletes. In fact, I have given only one Philadelphia athlete his own slide.

    For all other slides, I have listed one star that I feel best represents that piece of Philadelphia sports history.

    None of the Philadelphia human sports stars listed are active and/or have not officially retired. Nobody can accurately define the legacies of active (or recently retired) sports stars, because their ultimate impacts on their sports have not yet been realized.

    Each of the 10 listed have made significant impact not just on Philadelphia sports, but on American sports as a whole.

    My greatest challenge in creating this list was deciding who made the cut, and therefore deciding who to leave out. After coming up with the 10, it was also difficult to rank them.

    The comments section is a great place to debate about the list. Who should I have left off the list? Conversely, who do you feel I left out? Who do you feel I ranked too high or too low?

    In the meantime, we will walk down memory lane—or Broad Street, more accurately—and remember the best of Philadelphia sports.

10. The Schuylkill River

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    Perhaps no American rowing venue has more history than the Schuylkill River.

    Many of Team USA’s finest rowing athletes found the Schuylkill River along their path. The Schuylkill River also hosts some of the most popular American rowing regattas.

    The Stotesbury Cup Regatta is “the largest high school rowing regatta in the world.” The Schuylkill River has hosted the Stotesbury Cup Regatta since 1927.

    The Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta is the largest intercollegiate rowing regatta in the country.

    Boathouse Row borders the Schuylkill River. It became a member of the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

    John B. Kelly, Sr.

    Kelly was arguably the first American rowing superstar.

    Kelly was the first American rower to win three Olympic gold medals. In the single sculls (1x), Kelly once won 126 consecutive races.

    Kelly is the only person to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame as a rower.

    During World War II, Kelly was the National Physical Fitness Director.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

9. The 1950 Whiz Kids (Phillies)

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    The 1950 Philadelphia Phillies were known as the Whiz Kids, because they were young but talented. The Whiz Kids’ average player age was 26.4 years old.

    The Whiz Kids lost to the New York Yankees in four games that year in the World Series, but the first three games were decided by one run.

    Two members of the 1950 Phillies are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

    Richie Ashburn

    Ashburn will always be No. 1 in the hearts of Phillies fans.

    In 12 years as a Phillie, Ashburn batted .311/.394/.388 and collected 2,217 hits. Ashburn is among the Phillies’ all-time leaders in many statistical categories.

    After his career as a player, Ashburn joined the Phillies broadcast team, where he stayed until his death in 1997.

    According to baseball-reference.com, Ashburn ranks third in Phillies history in career WAR for position players.

    The Phillies retired Ashburn’s No. 1 in 1979. Ashburn was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

8. The 1983 76ers

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    Prior to the 2008 Phillies, the 1983 76ers were the last Philadelphia major professional sports champions.

    Along with the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons, the 1983 76ers are the only team to win an NBA championship during the 1980s besides the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics.

    Some of the all-time 76ers greats were involved with the team, which won the title in dominating fashion (12 wins in 13 playoff games).

    Three members of the 1983 76ers are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

     Julius Erving

    Moses Malone won the 1982-83 NBA MVP Award, and was named the 1983 NBA Finals MVP, but I think Erving is the bigger “star” from this team.

    Philadelphia and NBA fans know him simply as Dr. J.

    Erving ranks in the top 10 in 76ers franchise history in virtually every statistic aside from three-point shooting. According to basketball-reference.com, Erving ranks second in franchise history in career win shares.

    Erving went to 11 NBA All-Star Games in as many seasons for the 76ers, the only NBA franchise for which he played. He won the All-Star Game MVP Award twice.

    Dr. J. was one of the all-time great dunkers in NBA history. Erving won the Slam Dunk Contest at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game. He also participated in the Slam Dunk Contest at both the 1984 and 1985 NBA All-Star Games.

    Erving won the 1980-81 NBA MVP Award.

    The 76ers retired Erving’s No. 6 in 1988. Erving was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

7. Boxing Legends

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    Philadelphia boasts a proud boxing history. The website PhillyBoxingHistory.com is a great place to learn about the history of boxing in the city.

    Two boxing legends from Philadelphia stick out as household names in American sports. Though I said I would only include one athlete per slide, I felt both people were equally deserving in this case.

    Joe Frazier

    Frazier will always be known as the first to defeat Muhammad Ali in professional boxing. That fight alone—“The Fight of the Century”—might have cemented Frazier’s status as a Philadelphia sports star.

    Frazier fought Ali twice more in his career, but he lost both times. The second of these fights is called “The Thrilla in Manila.”

    “Smokin’ Joe” won the 1964 Summer Olympics gold medal in heavyweight boxing. Professionally, Frazier went 32-4-1 with 27 knockouts.

    Frazier fought professionally ten times in his hometown of Philadelphia, most recently in 1968.

    Frazier first won the world heavyweight championship in 1970, but then lost the title in his first ever professional loss—to George Foreman in 1973.

    After his career ended, Frazier trained boxers at his gymnasium in Philadelphia.

    Frazier was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

    Rocky Balboa

    Okay, so Rocky Balboa was not a real person, but he represents Philadelphia so well that I had to include him.

    Balboa, of course, was a fictional boxer in the hit movie series Rocky.

    Rocky was a Philadelphia native who trained and boxed his way into Americana perhaps more so than most real boxers.

    Every time I see the montage of Rocky running through the streets of Philadelphia and up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps, I get motivated to become a better person.

    Rocky’s defeat of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV proves that man is more powerful than machine, and that courage and determination can overcome any force.

    Sylvester Stallone, the actor who played Rocky Balboa, was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.

6. Eagles Championship Trio

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    The Eagles won the 1948, 1949, and 1960 NFL Championship games.

    The 1948 and 1949 teams both shut out their opponents in the championship game.

    The 1960 team was the only team to beat legendary Green Bay Packers' head coach Vince Lombardi in his playoff coaching career.

    Eight Pro Football Hall of Fame members played on at least one of the teams.

    1960 Team: Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2006

    Chuck Bednarik

    Bednarik is one unique man who also happens to be the best player in Eagles history.

    “Concrete Charlie,” who got his nickname as a concrete salesman, was born in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania.

    Bednarik’s Philadelphia football legend began at the University of Pennsylvania, where he starred as a linebacker and as a center. A member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Bednarik won the Maxwell Award and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1948.

    The Bednarik Award, which is named in his honor, goes annually to the best defensive player in college football.

    The No. 1 overall pick of the 1949 NFL Draft was an eight-time Pro Bowl player and a 10-time First Team All-Pro player.

    Again, Bednarik played both linebacker and center in the NFL. Due to this, Bednarik is recognized as the last of the “60 Minute Men,” or NFL players who played both offense and defense. To this day, Bednarik lets people know it (see video above).

    In the 1960 NFL Championship game, Bednarik laid on Green Bay Packers ball-carrier Jim Taylor for the final seconds of the game to preserve an Eagles victory.

    Bednarik was such a ferocious tackler that he once sidelined Frank Gifford of the New York Giants for 18 months after hitting him so hard.

    According to pro-football-reference.com, Bednarik ranks first in Eagles franchise history in career approximate value.

    The Eagles have retired Bednarik’s No. 60 and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

5. The Big 5

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    Today it seems like basketball is all about the Big Three, but in Philadelphia, the Big 5 rules.

    LaSalle, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova make up a unique college basketball rivalry.

    The Big 5 is complete with its own championship trophy and Hall of Fame.

    The five men's teams have gone to a combined 10 Final Fours, and two have won the national championship (1954 LaSalle and 1985 Villanova).

    The Palestra

    The Big 5 has produced some of the greatest collegiate and professional basketball players ever. With so many players to choose from, I decided to shy away from them altogether.

    Besides, The Palestra is Big 5 basketball.

    The Palestra is the University of Pennsylvania’s home basketball venue.

    Most Big 5 games are played at the Palestra, and the arena has hosted more college basketball games than any other collegiate venue.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2006

4. The A's

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    The A’s, and not the Phillies, are the most successful professional baseball team to ever call Philadelphia home.

    The A’s played in Philadelphia from 1901-1954. They won five of the eight World Series in which they played.

    Now known as the Oakland A’s, the franchise won more than half of its World Series championships as the Philadelphia A’s.

    Nine members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame are enshrined as Philadelphia Athletics.

    1929 Team: Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2008

    Connie Mack

    Mack is the most experienced manager in baseball history.

    Amongst MLB managers, Mack has the most games managed, the most wins and the most losses. When you manage 2,658 more games than any other guy in major league history (Joe Torre), it is easy to acquire the top spot in all these categories.

    Mack also owned the A's while he managed.

    Mack was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

3. The 1980 Phillies

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    The Phillies needed 98 seasons to get its first World Series championship, but the wait was finally over in 1980.

    From 1976 to 1978, the Phillies got close, as they lost in the NLCS every season. The new decade brought new luck to the franchise, though.

    Tug McGraw’s weightless leap on the pitcher’s mound after striking out Willie Wilson of the Kansas City Royals is one of Philadelphia's most famous sports scenes.

    McGraw provided one of the greatest quotes in Philadelphia sports history during that time:

    “All throughout baseball history, Philadelphia has had to take a back seat to New York City. Well, New York can take this championship and stick it, because we’re No. 1!”

    Indeed, this was one of the few times Philadelphia could call itself a more successful sports city than the Big Apple.

    Two players on the 1980 Phillies went into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as Phillies.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2007

    Mike Schmidt

    Michael Jack Schmidt, as broadcaster Harry Kalas liked to call him, is the greatest Phillies player ever.

    Schmidt spent his entire career with the Phillies, where he established himself as arguably the greatest third baseman in major league history.

    The 12-time All-Star won three NL MVP Awards, 10 NL Gold Glove Awards, six NL Silver Slugger Awards, and the 1980 World Series MVP Award.

    Schmidt is No. 1 all-time in Phillies franchise history in WAR, offensive WAR, defensive WAR, games played, at bats, plate appearances, runs scored, hits, total bases, home runs, RBI, walks, strikeouts, extra-base hits, and sacrifice flies.

    The Phillies retired Schmidt’s No. 20 in 1990 and he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

2. The Broad Street Bullies (Flyers)

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    The Broad Street Bullies turned hockey from a finesse sport into a physical one.

    Broad Street refers to the famous Philadelphia street on which all championship parades are held. Bullies refers to the group’s physical brand of hockey.

    Many consider the Philadelphia Flyers franchise as a whole the Broad Street Bullies, but the Flyers of the 1970s are the original group.

    NHL fans are divided on whether to respect the Flyers for transforming hockey or to disrespect the Flyers for transforming hockey. Either way, nobody can deny the impact the Broad Street Bullies made on the NHL.

    Even today, films are made about the Broad Street Bullies. In 2010, HBO made a documentary called Broad Street Bullies. Also, filmmaker Rob Zombie announced he will add to the group’s legacy with his own film.

    Head coach Fred Shero came up with arguably the most iconic motivational line in Philadelphia sports history: “Win today, and we walk together forever.”

    Indeed, all championship teams walk together forever, and the Broad Street Bullies walk tall in Philadelphia.

    Four members of the original Broad Street Bullies are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup Teams: Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2009

    Bobby Clarke

    Clarke is the greatest Flyer ever. He was the captain of the Broad Street Bullies.

    The eight-time All-Star played his entire career with the Flyers. Clarke won three Hart Memorial Trophies, and he led the Flyers to consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 1974 and 1975.

    Clarke is No. 1 in Flyers franchise history in such categories as games played, assists, points, shorthanded goals, and offensive point shares.

    Clarke was also the Flyers’ general manager for 19 seasons following his playing career. Today, Clarke serves as the Flyers’ senior vice president.

    Clarke was able to do it all with Type 1 diabetes. When Clarke was drafted, many thought his diabetes would prevent him from ever playing in the NHL. Boy, were they wrong.

    The Flyers retired Clarke’s No. 16 in 1984 and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

1. Wilt Chamberlain

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    No Philadelphia sports star shines brighter than Wilt Chamberlain. He literally stands higher than anything and anyone on this list.

    Chamberlain was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 21, 1936. He attended Overbrook High School. In 1959, the Philadelphia Warriors drafted Chamberlain with their territorial pick; the rest is history.

    Chamberlain also played with the San Francisco Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers, but he was at his best in Philadelphia. He played with both the Philadelphia Warriors and the Philadelphia 76ers in his hometown.

    In 1959-60, Chamberlain won both the NBA Rookie of the Year Award and the NBA MVP Award. That year, Chamberlain led the league in scoring (37.6 points per game) and rebounding (27.0 rebounds per game).

    Chamberlain would go on to lead the NBA in rebounding in his first four seasons, as well as in scoring in his first seven seasons.

    “Wilt the Stilt” is responsible for the most dominant offensive performance in NBA history, when he scored 100 points on Mar. 2, 1962 against the New York Knicks at Hershey Sports Arena (see video above).

    Chamberlain led the NBA in minutes played per game six times, in field-goal percentage nine times, in rebounds per game 11 times, and in points per game seven times.

    Chamberlain went 13-for-14 in All-Star Game appearances, as he missed only the 1970 All-Star Game. In 1959-60, he won the All-Star Game MVP Award.

    Chamberlain was a two-time NBA champion, winning with the 76ers in 1967.

    According to basketball-reference.com, Chamberlain is second all-time in career win shares (247.3).

    Chamberlain was a four-time NBA MVP Award winner.

    Chamberlain is the 76ers’ all-time leader in field-goal percentage, minutes per game, points per game, and rebounds per game.

    Chamberlain is the Golden State Warriors’ all-time leader in total field goals, total points, minutes per game, points per game, and rebounds per game.

    The 76ers retired Chamberlain’s No. 13 in 1991. The Warriors retired Chamberlain’s No. 13 in 1999. Chamberlain was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979.

    Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2004

Final Thoughts

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    I have consciously omitted some of Philadelphia’s biggest sports stars, but that was only because I selected one person to represent each slide. I think the athletes selected are the best representatives for their respective slides, but certainly not the only worthy ones.

    Also, I think Wilt Chamberlain is the clear No. 1 Philadelphia sports star of all time. You could argue the other spots could be shuffled around, but not Wilt’s.

    Thanks for reading, and I hope you found this as enjoyable as I did writing it.

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