Ranking the Best Rookie Seasons in Sports History

Zack Pumerantz@z_pumerantzAnalyst IIINovember 14, 2012

Ranking the Best Rookie Seasons in Sports History

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    With Major League Baseball's MVP announcements on the horizon, most expect baby-faced Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera to haul in the prestigious piece of hardware for the American League. However, there is one 21-year-old slab of fresh fish by the name of Mike Trout flirting with the impossible.

    After shredding the majors with a .326 average, 30 home runs, a league-leading 49 steals and 129 runs, Trout was named AL Rookie of the Year, placing his name alongside the greatest rookie sensations in history. But was his onslaught the greatest first-year display of all time and enough to earn him the league's most illustrious award?

    Let's elude the blinding trophy case and see where Trout ranks among the greatest rookie sensations in sports history.

20. Tony Oliva, MLB Outfielder, 1964

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    Stats: .323/.359/.557, 32 home runs, 94 RBI, 43 doubles, 109 runs

    Many have considered former Twin Tony Oliva a Hall of Fame-caliber producer. His early years strongly concur with that notion: He was elected to the All-Star Game his first eight seasons, surpassing Joe DiMaggio's previous record of six. 

    But it was his earth-shattering rookie year that had opposing pitchers crumbling on mounds everywhere. The Rookie of the Year led the AL in hits (217), doubles (43), extra-base hits (84), total bases (374), runs (109) and batting average (.323), becoming the first player to win both the Rookie of the Year award and the American League batting title in the same year.

    Injuries would force the right fielder into a permanent designated hitting spot later in his career, but not before his legacy was permanently scripted.

19. Wes Unseld, NBA Forward, 1968-1969

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    Stats: 13.8 points, 18.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, .476 field-goal percentage

    A gritty, 6'7" slab of beef with an innate feel for the hardwood, Wes Unseld paid immediate dividends for the Washington Bullets after they chose him No. 2 overall out of Louisville in the 1968 draft.

    The second player in NBA history to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same year, Unseld didn't quite wow anyone with his modest scoring average of 13.8. But his 18.2 boards per game and his bruising nature helped the Bullets win 57 games after finishing 10 below .500 the year before.

    Unseld's name and legacy now permanently grace the Hall of Fame's iconic walls.

18. Albert Pujols, MLB Infielder, 2001

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    Stats: .329/.403/.610, 37 home runs, 130 RBI, 47 doubles, 112 runs

    It was in spring training of 2001 when Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire, in his final season, said to manager Tony La Russa, "If you don't put this guy on the roster for the 2001 season, it might be one of the worst moves you make in your career.''

    He was referring to a talented youngster by the name of Albert Pujols, eventually dubbed "Big Al." Well, 475 home runs and 2,246 hits later, McGwire may have been correct.

17. Terry Sawchuk, NHL Goaltender, 1950-1951

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    Stats: 70 games played, 44 wins, 13 losses, 1.99 GAA, 11 shutouts

    During an era when goalies were facially unprotected, Terry Sawchuk protected his net with a fearlessness rarely seen outside of Marvel comic books.

    In his rookie season, Sawchuk led the league with 44 wins and 11 shutouts, allowed a meager 1.99 goals per game and helped the Red Wings complete the first 100-point season (101 to be precise) in league history.

16. Fred Lynn, MLB Outfielder, 1975

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    Stats: .331/.401/.566, 21 home runs, 105 RBI, 47 doubles, 103 runs

    With a bat like Carl Yastrzemski's and a face like Stan Musial's, center fielder Fred Lynn offered Red Sox fans the slice of greatness they had dreamed of since the team's then-last pennant in '67.

    To coat a remarkable rookie season, Lynn secured a Gold Glove Award, a league MVP and, naturally, Rookie of the Year honors. While a triple threat that year, Lynn couldn't quite duplicate his early-career success. But what a 1975 it was.

15. Larry Bird, NBA Forward, 1979-1980

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    Stats: 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, .474 field goal percentage

    The "Hick from French Lick" meant far more to the Boston faithful than statistics, although he thrived on paper as well. But it was the 61 wins in Larry Bird's 1979-80 rookie season (32 more than the previous year) and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance that awoke the basketball world to the shaggy-haired, mustachioed baller's true otherworldly ability to lead his Celtic flock.

    Three championships later, Bird's gliding dominance is still being felt.

14. Ted Williams, MLB Outfielder, 1939

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    Stats: .327/.436/.609, 31 home runs, 145 RBI, 44 doubles, 11 triples, 131 runs

    A dedicated and nearly obsessive ballplayer, Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams was a pioneer in the art of hitting. With a short and clean stroke, the Hall of Famer didn't hit the ball, per se, but rather he swung cleanly through it.

    His rookie year was only an appetizer to a meal of pure greatness. Williams remains the last player to hit .400, which he did in 1941.

13. Mike Bossy, NHL Winger, 1977-1978

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    Stats: 53 goals, 38 assists, 91 points, plus-31 rating

    The first rookie in league history to reach the half-century mark (53 goals in 1977-78), Mike Bossy changed a losing culture on Long Island and shocked the world with his flair for the dramatic—as witnessed by his consecutive Stanley Cup-winning goals in '82 and '83.

    Several years after leading the Islanders to their first division title ever with a plus-31 rating, the winger led his club to four straight Stanley Cups between from 1980 to 1983.

12. Joe DiMaggio, MLB Outfielder, 1936

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    Stats: .323, 29 home runs, 125 RBI, 206 hits, 15 triples, 132 runs

    Simply named "The Yankee Clipper," Joe DiMaggio was a hero during a time when society yearned for one. His arrival in 1936 ignited an unprecedented run of four straight World Series titles for the Babe Ruth-deprived Yanks of the late '30s.

    DiMaggio was a consummate gentleman, eagerly willing to shoulder the pinstriped load. Joltin' Joe had an aura about him that was almost unreal, like being on vacation and finding out Seinfeld is on at 6:00 instead of 6:30.

11. Teemu Selanne, NHL Winger, 1992-1993

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    Stats: 76 goals, 56 assists, 132 points, plus-8 rating

    Teemu Selänne, dubbed "The Finnish Flash," shattered the NHL ice in 1992 with the type of swiftness rarely seen outside of the animal kingdom. A rookie-record 76 goals and 132 points was simply unheard of and gave fans a reason to believe in their new star.

    And a new era of breathtaking hockey.

10. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA Center, 1969-1970

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    Stats: 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, .518 field-goal percentage

    In 1969-70, Lew Alcindor led the league in scoring (28.8 points per game), was third in rebounding (14.5 rebounds) and even dished 4.1 assists a game. His prodigious influence helped the Bucks switch their record from 27-55 the year before to 56-26.

    The UCLA phenom even became a legendary comedian when he did a masterful impression of himself in the humorous classic Airplane.

9. Mike Trout, MLB Outfielder, 2012

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    Stats: .326, 30 home runs, 83 RBI, 182 hits, 27 doubles, 15 triples, 129 runs, 49 steals

    A 6'1" meteor with a nose for the ball and legs of steel, outfielder Mike Trout—the second fish after Tim Salmon to rock the Anaheim confines—was called up in late April to replace a .208-hitting Bobby Abreu and spark a fading, yet talented ballclub.

    All he did since then was grace major league stadiums like an airborne hawk bathed in sunset. The Melville product stole a league-high 49 bases and scored a league-leading 129 runs, while owning the leadoff spot for most of the season.

    At 21 years old, the catch of the year is only getting started.

8. Lawrence Taylor, NFL Linebacker, 1981

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    Stats: 133 tackles, 9.5 sacks, eight passes defensed, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception (unofficial stats)

    In 1980, the 4-12 Giants had the second-worst defense in the NFL. One year later, with North Carolina product Lawrence Taylor manning the weak side like a malnourished lion on the prowl, they had the third-best defense and made the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

    L.T. soon altered opposing game plans and single-handedly popularized the need for a dominant left tackle en route to becoming the most feared linebacker of all time.

7. Dwight Gooden, MLB Pitcher, 1984

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    Stats: 17-9, 2.60 ERA, league-high 276 strikeouts, three shutouts

    When 19-year-old hurler Dwight Gooden reached Shea Stadium in 1984, he proved to be a new breed of untouchable.

    Watching Gooden was like watching Pablo Picasso paint a revolutionary masterpiece every fifth day. A fireballer with a crumpling curve and a dazzling windup, he was perhaps the purest talent ever to approach the mound.

6. Eric Dickerson, NFL Tailback, 1983

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    Stats: 390 rushing attempts, 1,808 yards, 18 touchdowns; 51 receptions, 404 yards, two touchdowns

    A 6'3" thoroughbred stuffed with 220 pounds of unfiltered talent, Eric Dickerson made carrying the football a true art. A No. 2 overall pick out of Southern Methodist in 1983, Dickerson tarnished the professional gridiron with a rookie-record 1,808 yards, 18 touchdowns on the ground, 51 receptions for 404 yards and another two scores in the air.

    The goggled home run threat remains perhaps the most complete back ever to grace the football kingdom.

5. Ichiro Suzuki, MLB Outfielder, 2001

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    Stats: .350, 8 home runs, 69 RBI, 242 hits, 34 doubles, eight triples, 127 runs, 56 steals

    After nine seasons in the Japanese leagues, Ichiro infused the majors with a solemn dominance that couldn't be stifled.

    Using a cannon for a right arm and a CO2 canister for a motor, Ichiro tarnished the league in his 2001 debut season with a rookie-record 242 hits, a league-high batting average of .350 and an unholy total of 56 steals.

    He earned both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors as a result, becoming the epitome of a perfect contact hitter.

4. Tony Esposito, NHL Goaltender, 1969-1970

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    Stats: 63 games played, 38 wins, 17 losses, 2.17 GAA, 15 shutouts

    By the time Tony Esposito burst onto the NHL scene, his older brother Phil had already set the tone for genetic dominance. And the second coming didn't disappoint, tallying a record 15 shutouts in his first year.

    Calder Trophy, Vezina Trophy, All-Star nod—Esposito's first season gave the hockey world a glimpse of the future, as the quick-handed netminder was a pioneer in the butterfly style of goaltending.

3. Oscar Robertson, NBA Guard, 1960-1961

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    Stats: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists, .473 field-goal percentage

    Behind local Cincinnati product and No. 1 overall pick Oscar Robertson, the Royals improved from 19-56 the year before to 33-46 in 1960-61. "The Big O" set a standard for all-around ballers that has yet to be matched.

    After nearly averaging a triple-double in his remarkable rookie season, Robertson achieved the impossible in his second year. With averages of 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists, the thrifty point guard remains the only NBA player ever to finish a full season with triple-double averages.

2. Dick "Night Train" Lane, NFL Defensive Back, 1952

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    Stats: 12 games, 14 interceptions, 298 yards, two touchdowns

    A 6'1" steam locomotive who instilled fear in all who crossed his path, Dick "Night Train" Lane revolutionized the way defensive back was played.

    His 14 interceptions—still a rookie and NFL record (he accomplished this feat in just 12 games)—bone-crushing hits and two interception returns for scores made him the most remarkable rookie ever to cross the gridiron.

    Sixty-eight interceptions and a collection of ruthless, bone-jarring hits later, Lane sits comfortably in the Hall of Fame.

1. Wilt Chamberlain, NBA Center, 1959-60

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    Stats: 37.6 points, 27.0 rebounds, .461 field-goal percentage

    Rookie of the Year, first-team All-NBA, MVP. Even Billy Wilder couldn't have scripted such perfection.

    The 7'1" Redwood was expected to thrive, but he did far more than that in his rookie season. Coined "The Big Dipper" because of his need to dip underneath doorways, Wilt Chamberlain not only set NBA records with 2,707 points (37.6 points per game) and 1,941 rebounds, but he carried the Warriors, 32-40 the year before his arrival, to a 49-26 record and the Eastern Division Finals. 

    The rest, as you know, is history.

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