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Bo Jackson and the 10 Most Incredible Athletes in Baseball History

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2017

Bo Jackson and the 10 Most Incredible Athletes in Baseball History

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    While baseball may not demand the level of athleticism as the other major sports (basketball, football and hockey), make no mistake about it—professional ballplayers are great athletes.

    Take, for example, Oakland A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. As this video went viral and worked the baseball world into a frenzy, there was little in the way of real baseball to be seen. 

    It was Cespedes' athleticism—athleticism that some compared to Bo Jackson—that had teams foaming at the mouth for a chance to sign the Cuban defector.

    Now, Cespedes is a terrific athlete—of that there's little doubt—but he's no Bo.

    Nobody is.

    Jackson is one of a handful of players in baseball history who were truly athletic freaks, and while not all of them were incredible baseball players, they left their marks on the game.

    Let's take a look at the 10 most incredible athletes who join Jackson in that select group.

Honorable Mention

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    Coming up with a top 10 list of incredible athletes in baseball history is a daunting task, one that requires making some difficult cuts being made. 

    Were this a top 25 or top 50 list, you can rest assured that these players most definitely would have made the cut:

    Johnny Bench

    Barry Bonds

    Roberto Clemente

    Lou Gehrig

    Vladimir Guerrero

    Joe Mauer

    Tim Raines

    Mariano Rivera

    Babe Ruth

    Duke Snider

Bob Gibson

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    The epitome of intimidation on the mound, Bob Gibson would come high and tight to a batter if he felt that the batter looked at him the wrong way, much less said something or, God forbid, got a hit off of him.

    His accomplishments on the mound are impressive: 251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts, a 2.91 ERA and three complete game victories in the 1967 World Series.

    But did you know that Bob Gibson was a phenomenal baller as well?

    Gibson was a three-year starter at Creighton University, averaging 20.2 points per game. While the St. Louis Cardinals handed him a $3,000 bonus to sign with them after college, Gibson put his baseball career on hold for a year, instead playing with the Harlem Globetrotters.

    He'd earn the nickname "Bullet" Bob Gibson for the speed of his passes, and while he was one of the team's stars, he eventually decided to give baseball his full attention.

    Nobody would dare argue that he made the wrong decision. 

Ken Griffey Jr.

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    I remain convinced that were it not for injuries, Ken Griffey Jr. would be widely accepted as the greatest baseball player who ever lived.

    It didn't matter what team you cheered for, people couldn't help but root for "The Kid" when he stepped to the plate. His personality and genuine love of the game was infectious, and there wasn't anything that he couldn't do on the field.

    Blessed with tremendous power and the sweetest swing the game has ever seen, Griffey Jr. finished his career with 630 home runs, 2,781 hits and a slash line of .284/370/.538. 

    Watching him patrol center field in his prime was a thing of beauty. Griffey Jr. would climb, bounce off and, sometimes, knock down outfield walls to make seemingly impossible catches, winning 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards in the process.

    Unlike many of his contemporaries, there was never a whisper of PEDs or steroids associated with Griffey Jr., something that only makes his career seem even more impressive over time.

Rickey Henderson

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    If Rickey Henderson had his way, he never would have set foot on a major league field.

    "My dream was to play football for the Oakland Raiders. But my mother thought I would get hurt playing football, so she chose baseball for me. I guess moms do know best" (h/t New York Daily News).

    A highly sought-after running back at Oakland Technical High School, Henderson turned down multiple scholarship offers and signed with the Oakland A's, who selected him in the fourth round of the 1976 amateur draft.

    I'd say he made the right decision.

    Henderson led the AL in steals 12 times and holds the record for steals with 1,406, runs scored with 2,295, unintentional walks with 2,129 and leadoff home runs with 81.

    The 25th player in baseball history with at least 3,000 hits for his career, Henderson appeared in 10 All-Star games and was named the 1990 AL MVP.

Bo Jackson

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    From 1982 through 1986, former Kansas City Royals scout Ken Gonzales took four separate trips to watch Vincent Edward Jackson play baseball at Auburn University. The more Gonzales saw of him, the more he liked him, something that wasn't lost on ESPN:

    Bo Jackson's scouting report from 1985 states, "Can simply do it all." This scout knows Bo (via @baseballhall) ->…

    — ESPN (@espn) May 8, 2013

    But take a closer look at Gonzales' scouting report from 1985 and you'll notice this bold statement: "A gifted athlete; the best pure athlete in America today."

    That's actually selling Jackson short, for not only was he the best athlete in America at that time, he redefined what a modern athlete was and will forever stand as one of the most spectacular athletic specimens that the human race has ever produced.

    Bo Jackson was the first athlete to be named an All-Star in two sports: as an outfielder with the Royals in 1989 and as a running back with the then Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL in 1990. Over a four-year span, from 1987 through 1990, Jackson excelled on the field for both teams.

    In January of 1991, in the divisional round of the 1990 NFL playoffs, Jackson was tackled by Kevin Walker of the Cincinnati Bengals on this play—a play that changed the course of history.

    The hip injury would end his football career (which Jackson planned on ending following the playoffs, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale) and should have ended his exploits on the diamond as well. But it didn't.

    After surgery and rehabilitation to repair the hip, he began the 1992 season with the Chicago White Sox. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition that ultimately required a full hip replacement. Surely this would bring an end to Jackson's short yet remarkable career.

    It didn't.

    Jackson would return to action for the White Sox in 1993 and the California Angels in 1994, playing in a combined 160 games, all with an artificial hip.

    In parts of eight major league seasons, Bo hit .250 with 141 home runs, 415 RBI and 82 steals. He had four consecutive 20-home run seasons from 1987 through 1990, including a 32-home run, 105-RBI campaign in 1989.

    It wasn't just his power and speed that wowed us with Bo—it was his deadly accurate cannon of a throwing arm, something he put on display in what is one of the greatest throws in baseball history.

    In the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game against the Seattle Mariners in 1989, Jackson caught the ball off of the left field wall and, from the warning track, fired a strike to home plate as the speedy Harold Reynolds circled the bases.

    He'd nail Reynolds at the plate—on the fly.

    From his mammoth home runs to his acrobatic catches in the outfield, everything that Bo Jackson did on the diamond was larger than life—just like the man himself.

Brian Jordan

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    Before becoming an everyday starter for the St. Louis Cardinals, Brian Jordan spent the first three years of his career riding the minor league shuttle while moonlighting as a safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL.

    During the 1992 MLB season, the Cardinals offered Jordan a new contract, one that included a nearly $2 million signing bonus to give up football. The move paid off for Jordan, who would spend 15 years in the big leagues, finishing his career with a .282 batting average, 184 home runs and 821 RBI. 

    Four times Jordan hit more than 20 home runs in a season, hitting over .300 and driving in at least 100 runs twice.

Mickey Mantle

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    When Mickey Mantle arrived on the scene with the New York Yankees in 1951, he ran faster than anyone else in baseball. He had more power from both sides of the plate than anyone else in baseball.

    And he captivated a nation unlike anyone else in baseball.

    There wasn't anything that the Mick couldn't do, from hitting prodigious home runs to making scintillating defensive plays in center field.

    During the course of his 18-year career, Mantle won three AL MVP awards, played in 16 All-Star games and won the Triple Crown in 1956, setting multiple postseason records that still stand today.

    Injuries and bad habits off of the field would lead to diminished skills and, by the time his career ended in 1968, Mantle was a shell of the player that he once was. 

    Yet he remains an icon—not only in baseball, but as one of the premier athletes in American history.

Willie Mays

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    You can't discuss the greatest athletes in baseball history without including the "Say Hey Kid."

    A two-time NL MVP, Willie Mays was a 24-time All-Star who thrilled fans with his sweet, powerful swing and even sweeter fielding ability.

    Mention "The Catch" to any baseball fan and they'll know you're talking about Mays, who made what many still consider to be the greatest defensive play in the history of the game in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series between Mays' New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians.

    Mantle's equal in almost every facet of the game, the debate about who was better, Mays or Mantle, rages on to this day, nearly 40 years since they last played.

Jackie Robinson

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    Before Bo Jackson, Brian Jordan and Deion Sanders became the poster boys for the two-sport athlete, there was Jackie Robinson.

    While Jackie made his mark in baseball, he was the first four-letter man in the history of UCLA, excelling in basketball, football and track. Baseball, ironically, was the sport where Jackie had the least success during his time as a Bruin, hitting just .097 as a senior in 1940.

    Robinson was a dynamic basketball player, twice leading the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring.

    On the football field, Robinson led the nation in punt return average in both 1939 (16.5 yards) and 1940 (21.0 yards), and his career return average of 18.8 yards ranks sixth all time in NCAA history. In 1940, Jackie also led the Bruins in rushing (383 yards), passing (444 yards) and total offense (827 yards).

    His most impressive feats may have come on the track. After missing most of the 1940 track season due to his baseball commitments, Robinson won the broad jump at the Pacific Coast Conference championship meet, earning him a place at the NCAA championships, where he'd claim the title.

    Thankfully, Jackie made the choices he did coming out of college, as he clearly found his calling on the diamond.

Deion Sanders

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    The only player to have played in a Super Bowl and a World Series, Deion Sanders was a Hall of Fame defensive back and a mediocre hitter with game-changing speed and a flair for the dramatic.

    A two-time Super Bowl champion who appeared in eight Pro Bowls, Sanders was fully committed to football—not baseball—and it showed. Owner of multiple NFL records, including for most non-offensive touchdowns (19), "Prime Time" finished his NFL career with an impressive 53 interceptions. 

    But that talent didn't translate to his part-time job as a major league outfielder.

    In parts of nine different seasons with the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants, Sanders hit .263 with 39 home runs and 163 RBI. In six of those seasons, Sanders used his world-class speed to put up double-digit stolen base totals.

    Only once did Sanders play in more than 100 games in a season—115 with the Reds in 1999—when he hit .273 with 56 stolen bases in 69 attempts, finishing the season four swipes behind Tony Womack for the league lead.

    You can't help but wonder how good Sanders could have been had he dedicated himself to baseball on a full-time basis, but there's no denying that "Neon" Deion was one of the greatest athletes to ever take the field in either sport.

Jim Thorpe

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    Still considered by some to be the greatest athlete of all time, Jim Thorpe could do it all.

    Consider what he accomplished in 1912.

    Thorpe won gold in the decathlon and pentathlon at the Olympic Games, led his Carlisle Indian School team to the national college championship and took home the top spot at the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship.

    That's right, Jim Thorpe was the James Brown of ballroom dancing.

    The only Olympian to compete in 17 different events, Thorpe also spent eight seasons as a halfback in the NFL with six different teams.

    As for baseball, Thorpe spent parts of six seasons with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves, finishing his career with a .252/.286/.362 slash line, seven home runs and 82 RBI in 289 games.

Dave Winfield

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    Dave Winfield's accomplishments over a 22-year major league career are well documented: 12 consecutive All-Star games, seven Gold Gloves, six Silver Slugger awards, 3,110 career hits and 465 home runs, all which earned him entry into the the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 2001.

    But Winfield was far more than a Hall of Fame slugger.

    An All-American pitcher at the University of Minnesota, he led the Big Ten with an ERA of 1.48 (to go along with an equally impressive 8-3 record) as a sophomore. As a junior, he starred on the hardwood for the Golden Gophers, leading the team in rebounding and to its first conference title in 53 years.

    He would go on to become the only athlete ever drafted by four teams in four different leagues in three sports, as great a testament to his athletic prowess as you can find.

    The San Diego Padres made him the fourth pick of MLB's 1973 amateur draft. The Atlanta Hawks picked him in the fifth round of the NBA draft, the Utah Stars drafted him in the fourth round of the ABA draft and the Minnesota Vikings took him in the 17th round of the NFL draft, despite Winfield having never played a single snap of college football.

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