The 10 Biggest Folk Heroes in Sports
The history of sports is a unique cross-section of competition, athleticism, accomplishment and even life itself. In a relative flash, its participants paint a picture that can be and often is remembered for years and generations.
Athletes leave an indelible mark not only for the fans but often for something bigger—a league, a university, a city and at times a country or more. That is the power that sports can have.
Throughout the years there have been figures that have defied these boundaries and become more than active participants but part of American folklore for their accomplishments.
10. Joe Gaetjens
You may remember the story ESPN did on Gaetjens prior to the U.S.-England matchup at this year's World Cup. Gaetjens was the man who scored the winning goal in the United States' 1-0 victory over England at the 1950 World Cup.
Gaetjens, a Haitian-American, became an iconic figure in his home nation of Haiti and was celebrated as the greatest athlete in the history of the country.
Gaetjens was arrested by a squad ruled by Haitian autocrat Francois Duvalier and later sentenced to death in prison.
Nevertheless, he remains one of the biggest icons in Haiti's history.
9. Herb Brooks
The "Miracle On Ice" is the most celebrated sports moment in American history and at the forefront of that moment was Team USA hockey coach Herb Brooks.
In what can only be described as a Hollywood-like story line (and was eventually made into a movie), Brooks steered a group of college-aged amateur players through the highest level of international hockey.
Brooks' team vanquished the internationally impenetrable Soviet hockey team, setting the stage for the most iconic moment in American sports history and finishing with the gold medal.
For being the man attached to the most recognizable moment in American sports, Herb Brooks will never be forgotten.
8. George Gipp
George "The Gipper" Gipp was Notre Dame's first All-American and the most celebrated Notre Dame athlete during the 1920s. It was Gipp's use of "win one for the Gipper" while laying in his hospital bed with a fatal illness that led the term to be used for decades beyond.
Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne later used Gipp's illness and story of courage during a pregame speech prior to a game with Army in 1928. The phrase has withstood the test of time and so has Gipp.
7. Joe Louis
Before there was Jackie Robinson, there was Joe Louis.
Louis had a long, prestigious boxing career but it is perhaps his win over Max Schmeling in June 1938 at Yankee Stadium that has endeared him in the annals of sports folklore.
Nazism in Germay was at its pre-war peak when Louis KO'd Schemling, who the Nazis believed to be far superior to the African-American Louis, especially after Schmeling defeated Louis in 1936.
It was a far different story in the second fight as Louis personified America's opposing will and moral scope counter Nazi Germany. Louis defeated Schmeling and became an American icon.
6. Jesse Owens
Before Joe Louis in 1938, there was Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Owens was considered inferior to Nazi Germany's Aryan athletes. However, Owens went on to win four gold medals at the 1936 Games and like Louis did later, shattering perceptions of African-American inferiority and cementing his place in American history.
5. Lou Gehrig
Lou Gehrig was already one of the best players in the history of Major League Baseball, but it was his tragic, early death by a then-unknown disease and now famous "Luckiest Man Alive" speech which have elevated him into folklore status.
Gehrig's name is not only tied to the disease that took his life, but his speech from July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium is one of the seminal moments in sports history.
In the seven decades since his death, it can be argued that his illness and speech have eclipsed his fantastic career as a player.
4. Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan is not as old as others on this list and his time didn't come decades ago, but Jordan's aura still hangs over not only the NBA but the sports world as a whole.
He is the Babe Ruth of basketball, one whose presence and accomplishments will rule over the NBA long after his career and his time have gone.
Jordan's mystique as a dunker, a competitor, a finisher, and a winner are unparalleled in NBA history.
3. Jim Thorpe
In 1950, the Associated Press tabbed Jim Thorpe as the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century and for good reason. Thorpe won two gold medals as the 1912 Summer Olympics, played six seasons of professional baseball and 13 seasons of professional football before retiring in 1928.
Thorpe is heralded for his versatility as an athlete, but he enters folklore territory because his life and career happened long before the advent of committed sports coverage.
It has been almost 100 years since Thorpe won his gold medals, yet he is still celebrated as one of America's all-time greatest athletes.
2. Jackie Robinson
Does Robinson's role in sports folklore even need to be explained?
The man who broke baseball's color barrier created a seismic shift around America.
It can be argued Robinson's arrival in Major League Baseball was very important for the race barrier in America during that generation.
He put a face to the racial disparity in America and was politically active during the Civil Rights Era after his career ended.
1. Babe Ruth
There is no athlete whose name and aura ruled over sports like Babe Ruth.
From him famously making more money than President Hoover in 1930, to his legendary home run prowess, to his charity with children, to his ghost lording over baseball for decades after his retirement, to the Curse of the Bambino, Babe Ruth served as the icon for Americana in the first half of the 20th century and beyond.
It has been 96 years since Babe Ruth arrived in Major League Baseball. Yet, he remains the greatest power hitter the game has ever seen but the number of people who actually saw Ruth play decreases every day further enhancing his folk status.