Deion Sanders and the Best Multi-Sport Athletes in Sports History

Joseph ChasanCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2011

Deion Sanders and the Best Multi-Sport Athletes in Sports History

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    Deion Sanders was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday in his first year of eligibility.

    As one of the most exciting cornerbacks in NFL history, there is little dispute that he deserved this honor.  His football accomplishments also stand out that much more when you consider the fact that he did what he did on the gridiron while also maintaining a reasonably successful career in Major League Baseball, to boot.

    It got us here at Bleacher Report thinking about multi-sport stars.  While they're certainly the exception rather than the rule, there have been a number of people who have made a name for themselves in more than one sport. 

    Here's a list of 15 of the best of them.

(Honorable Mention) Babe Ruth

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    Obviously, Ruth wasn't exactly a multi-sport athlete, but being a pitcher and a position player are so different, they almost qualify as different sports.

    Before Ruth was The Sultan of Swat, The Great Bambino, he was simply a top young starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.  For five seasons, from 1915 through 1919, Ruth was one of the best pitchers in baseball.

    His best season was 1916, when he went 23-12 with a league-leading 1.75 ERA and nine shutouts (also leading the league).  The next season, he went 24-13 with a 2.01 ERA.  He pitched in two World Series, winning all three of his starts with a cumulative 0.87 ERA.

    Of course, his talents as a hitter were too hard to ignore, and having him in the lineup everyday was more important than having him pitch every fourth day.  But had he remained a pitcher, he still might have become a Hall of Famer.

15) Brian Jordan

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    Brian Jordan enjoyed a long and successful career in Major League Baseball, playing mostly for the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves for 15 seasons, from 1992 to 2006.  But he first played professionally as a safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL.

    Yep, he was even a teammate of Deion Sanders with the Falcons for three seasons.  What is it with Atlanta teams and making a place for multi-sport stars?  His NFL career was brief, spanning just the three years he spent as a minor league baseball player.  He gave up football once he reached the major leagues.

    But in those three years, he showed promise, tallying five interceptions and four sacks, and he was a full-time starter in the Falcons defensive backfield in 1990 and 1991.

    In baseball, of course, he was an All-Star who established a reputation as a clutch hitter.  I think he chose the right sport.

14) Wilt Chamberlain

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    Yes, Wilt the Stilt did more than just play basketball.  No, I'm not talking about spending time with the ladies (although he did that, too).

    His first sporting love was actually track and field, and he excelled in a wide range of events, such as the high jump, broad jump, shot put and various sprinting disciplines.  But his eventual height made selecting basketball academic once he got older.

    After basketball, he turned his attention to volleyball.  He was a natural there, as well, as his height again afforded him a natural advantage.  He played in the International Volleyball Association during the late 70s, and was eventually enshrined in both the basketball and volleyball halls of fame.

13) Michael Jordan

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    Obviously, Michael Jordan's true greatness was exclusively on the basketball court, but his one-season detour as a professional baseball player was no mere publicity stunt.

    Jordan's first love as a sport had been baseball as a child, and in high school, he was a star on the basketball, baseball and football teams.  But after his much-mythologized experience of being cut from his basketball team as a sophomore, he began to focus more exclusively on the hardwood.

    And though his only minor league season, with the Double-A Birmingham Barons, resulted in a rather unbecoming .202 batting average with just three home runs, it is indisputable among those who saw him play that season (I being one of them) that he improved drastically over the course of the year, as evidenced by his .252 average in the 1994 Arizona Fall League. 

    And he was widely reported to be extremely committed.  This was, after all, Michael Jordan, notorious for having to win at anything he set his mind to, be it basketball or tiddlywinks.

    Had he focused on baseball from the beginning, there is no doubt that he could have become a Major Leaguer.

12) Lou Gehrig

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    Lou Gehrig is someone who probably could have become a star professional athlete in whatever sport he had chosen to concentrate.

    He was a scholar athlete at New York's Columbia University between 1921 and 1923.  He obviously made headlines as a baseball player, but less known is the fact that he actually attended Columbia on a football scholarship but was banned from playing during his freshman year due to eligibility questions arising from a short time spent playing minor league baseball the summer before college.

    His eligibility was restored for his sophomore year, however, and he spent the 1922 season as Columbia's starter at either fullback or halfback.  But the Yankees discovered him (Columbia's campus is just a few miles from Yankee Stadium), and the rest is history.

11) Danny Ainge

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    Danny Ainge played 14 years in the NBA during the 1980s and early '90s, most notably for the Boston Celtics.  He won two NBA championships and was an NBA All-Star in 1988.

    Less known, however, is the fact that he was also a talented baseball player, playing three years as a second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays between 1979 and 1981.  Although his major league career was less than spectacular, he does hold the distinction of being the youngest player to hit a home run in Blue Jays history.

    Going back further, he was a high school All-American in three sports: baseball, basketball and football.  He eventually dropped football to focus on baseball and basketball.

    Ainge may not have looked the part of the supremely talented multi-sport star, but he played the part better than most.

10) Dick Groat

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    Dick Groat was a starting shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals throughout the 1950s and '60s, making five All-Star teams, winning the NL MVP award in 1960 and playing for two World Series champions.

    He also was an All-American basketball player in college for Duke, averaging 25.2 points per game in 1951-52, and played a season in the NBA after being the third overall pick in the NBA draft in 1952.  He was a guard for the Fort Wayne Pistons, averaging 11.9 points per game in 26 games.

    He gave up basketball, however, to focus on his professional baseball career, but he remains one of Duke's basketball legends.  He was the first basketball player to have his number retired by the school and was inducted into the NCAA's Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

9) Charlie Ward

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    Charlie Ward was considered by most observers to actually have been a better football player than he was a basketball player.

    He won the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback for Florida State in 1993, when he led the Seminoles to the national championship.  He threw for over 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns against just four interceptions and was the team's second-leading rusher as well, averaging over five yards per carry.

    But he eventually decided that basketball offered a more secure, longer-term future than football, and he focused professionally on that sport.  He played in the NBA for 11 seasons, mostly with the New York Knicks, as he was their starting point guard for three full seasons in the late '90s, including during their trip to the NBA Finals in 1999. 

    He averaged career highs of 7.8 points and 5.7 assists per game in 1997-98.

    Oh yeah, and lest I forget to mention it, he was also drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1993 and the New York Yankees in 1994.

8) Dave Winfield

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    Dave Winfield eventually chose to focus on baseball, and he had a Hall of Fame playing career, primarily with the San Diego Padres and New York Yankees, from 1973 through 1995.

    But he was as multi-talented as athletes come, starring as both a baseball player and a basketball player in college for Minnesota.  His college coach, Bill Musselman, has called the 6'6" Winfield the best rebounder he ever had.

    Eventually, he would be drafted by the San Diego Padres (as a pitcher, no less), by the Atlanta Hawks and Utah Stars (NBA and ABA, respectively), and even by the Minnesota Vikings, even though Winfield hadn't played football in college.  Now that's respect.

7) Bob Hayes

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    Bob Hayes stood out in a unique combination of sports, track and football.

    A sprinting champion in college, he made the 1964 US Olympic team in track and field, and he excelled on the world stage, winning gold medals in both the 100 meters and the 4x100 meter relay, while setting new world records in both events.

    After the Olympics, he began a professional football career as a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys and proved himself equally worthy of acclaim.  He was a three-time Pro Bowler, twice named first team All-Pro, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

    He remains the only person to ever win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

6) Deion Sanders

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    Deion Sanders made his name in the NFL, but he also played Major League Baseball for parts of nine seasons.

    His success on the baseball diamond never approached his success between the hash marks, but he was nevertheless a valuable fourth outfielder who combined speed with decent power.  He batted .533 with five stolen bases in the 1992 World Series and led the league with 14 triples in 1992.

    He never played a full season in baseball, but that was because his primary focus was football—and for good reason.  His 19 defensive and return touchdowns in his career are still an NFL record, and he recorded 53 interceptions, leading to his selection this year to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

5) Bo Jackson

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    Rarely has there been a sensation like Bo Jackson in modern sports history.

    Bo won the Heisman Trophy as a running back at Auburn University in 1985, and his exploits there led to his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, and he is one of only three players to have his number retired by the Tigers.

    His speed also allowed him to be an excellent sprinter, and he was a member of Auburn's track and field team, as well.

    As a professional, he starred as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, and as an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals.  He combined blazing speed with exquisite strength, qualities which served him well on both the gridiron and the diamond.

    He was an AL All-Star in 1989 and an AFC Pro Bowl selection in 1990, making him the first athlete to be named an All-Star in two of the major North American sports.  A hip injury ended his football career in 1991 and prematurely ended his baseball career, but prior to the injury, was one of the best and most popular athletes in the country.

4) Jackie Robinson

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    Jackie Robinson's legacy will forever be at the forefront of baseball history, as the player who finally broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947.  He was a pioneer and a great player to boot, earning enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

    But if he had chosen, he could've made his mark in any number of other sports.  In high school and in college at UCLA, he was a letterman in four sports: baseball, football, basketball and track and field.  He won the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump and actually considered baseball his worst sport.

    His professional football career was ended by World War II and his entrance into the military.  After the war, he began to focus more on his baseball career, spending time in the Negro Leagues before his historic entrance into the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

    As an athlete, a gentleman and a pioneer, Jackie Robinson's accomplishments are the stuff of legends.

3) Babe Didrikson-Zaharias

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    Babe Didrikson-Zaharias was not only the most celebrated female athlete of all time but one of the most decorated all-around athletes, male or female.

    During an era when women were largely relegated to second-tier status in American society, Didrikson never settled for being treated with any less respect than a man.  She won three medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympic games, was an All-American basketball player and was arguably the best women's golfer in the world, as well.  She eventually was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

    As if all that wasn't enough, she claimed that she was dubbed "Babe" after that other famous Babe, when she hit five home runs in a baseball game when she was young.

2) Jim Brown

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    Jim Brown is best known as arguably the greatest running back in NFL history and as a man who retired at the top of his game.  But Brown was also a talented multi-sport athlete who earned acclaim for his accomplishments in track and field, basketball and lacrosse, in addition to football.

    While in college at Syracuse University, he was an All-American in lacrosse and has been named to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.  He was also one of the leading scorers on the Syracuse basketball team and was a letterman in track and field.

    After football, he moved his talents into the acting realm, and while it is not an athletic endeavor, his success in that field as well goes to further illustrate his many talents.

1) Jim Thorpe

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    Jim Thorpe has to top this list.

    Considered by many to be simply the greatest athlete of all time, with no further modifiers needed, Thorpe excelled at football, baseball and basketball and was an Olympic gold medalist in the decathalon and pentathalon.

    In addition, as one of the few people with Native American heritage who was prominent in the public eye in the early 20th century, he helped to battle racism and inequality and raise the profile of Native Americans in our society.

    Thorpe was a singularly gifted athlete whose accomplishments still reverberate throughout the sporting world more than a half century after his death.