The 100 Most Beloved Athletes in Sports History

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2011

The 100 Most Beloved Athletes in Sports History

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    31 Jan 1999:   John Elway #7 of the Denver Broncos celebrates on the field during the Superbowl XXXIII against the Atlanta Falcons at the Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Florida. The Broncos defeated the Falcons 34-19. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello  /Allsport
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    One of the most beloved players on the Philadelphia Phillies is catcher Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz, which might seem to be a conundrum, as he is about the 10th most talented player on the team.

    But there is more to it than talent. He is a gritty, hardworking player who leaves everything he has on the field. He calls a smart game and has earned the respect of his all-world pitching staff. In the past four postseasons for the Phillies, he has been a source of clutch hitting.

    In Philadelphia, we like his style, and we relate to his work ethic. He is the sort of player we would want to be.

    Sports is full of such players, beloved figures we choose to emulate. Truthfully, some are loved for their talents alone, while others are embraced for their intangibles or the legacy they've created off of the field.

    One way or the other, these men resonate with us, and we find ourselves cheering them on, even when they don't play for our squad.

    So who are the most beloved figures in sports history?

    Glad you asked.

    Note: This is mostly written from an American perspective, so while the inclusion of foreign athletes does take into consideration the love they receive worldwide, it is primarily concerned with how their worldwide status has parlayed into popularity in the States.

    Hence, you won't find any Rugby or Cricket players on this list. If any of the above bothers or offends you, feel free to not mention it.

Reasons Athletes Are Loved

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    TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Fans of the Arizona Cardinals, show support for the late Pat Tillman, against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Steelers won 27-23.  (Photo by Chris Gr
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Respect as an Athlete - My favorite athlete ever is Allen Iverson. It isn't because he was a model citizen (he wasn't) or a good teammate (we're talking about practice!), but he gave you everything he had every time he stepped on the court, throwing his body around and making ridiculous plays.

    Love for an athlete always begins with how they play the game.

    Respect as a Man - Pat Tillman will be appearing on this list, and it isn't because he was an amazing safety. 

    Personality brought to the Game - Only fans of baseball's history and some of the older readers probably know Dizzy Dean, which is why he won't appear on this list. But he is one of the game's greatest characters and was a popular player in his day because of it (that, and he was a Hall of Fame pitcher).

    Popularity during playing days - There are some athletes who were so popular during their playing days that they couldn't be ignored for this list, even if they aren't as loved as they once were. And some are popular even if they aren't dominant or more skilled than others in their sport.

    It will be pretty clear who falls under either one of these conditions.

    Status as an Icon of the Sport - There are always those players who weren't necessarily popular as players but have become beloved as icons of the games they played (though it doesn't work for those athletes who are icons but still remembered as salty individuals—I'm looking at you, Ty Cobb and Ted Williams).

    Crossover Appeal - Players who act as ambassadors for the game they play and attract an audience that isn't normally interested in the sport often become beloved figures.

100. Charles Barkley

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Former NBA player Charles Barkley arrives to the T-Mobile Magenta Carpet at the 2011 NBA All-Star Game on February 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
    Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

    He's loud, outspoken, often brazen and almost always controversial.

    That also makes him extremely entertaining.

    Sir Charles isn't for everyone, but those who enjoy him love him. So he just squeaks on this list.

99. Alexi Lalas

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    17 Jul 1999:  A close up of Alexi Lalas #22 of the West Team as he stands on the field before the MLS All-Star Game against the East Team  at the Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The West defeated the East 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw  /A
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    I mean, who wouldn't love that hair?

    Lalas is one of the more beloved American soccer players in its history and is currently a pretty solid soccer analyst for ESPN and ABC.

98. Steven Gerrard

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Steven Gerrard of Liverpool in action during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Liverpool at the Boleyn Ground on February 27, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
    Scott Heavey/Getty Images

    Admittedly, I'm no soccer expert, but I wanted to include soccer players on this list since the sport is still quite popular in America, even if it isn't as popular as the footballs or basketballs of the world.

    I have it on good authority that Gerrard is a beloved figure in the soccer world, so there you have it.

97. George Best

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    See Gerrard, Steven.

96. Yao Ming

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 06:  Yao Ming #11 of the Houston Rockets reacts to a foul called on him in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 6, 20
    Harry How/Getty Images

    Yao Ming gets a vote here for his crossover appeal, as he is one of the most famous men in China, even today.

95. Michael Schumacher

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    Since I'm not much of a racing guy myself, I'll just pass along the following information for you to take a look at:

    Famous for his 11-year spell with Ferrari, Schumacher is a seven-time World Champion who holds many of the formula's driver records, including most championships, race victories, fastest laps, pole positions, points scored and most races won in a single season—13 in 2004. In 2002 he became the only driver in Formula One history to finish in the top three in every race of a season.

    Oh, and we shouldn't forget this:

    Off the track Schumacher is an ambassador for UNESCO and a spokesman for driver safety. He has been involved in numerous humanitarian efforts throughout his life and donated tens of millions of dollars to charity.

94. Randy Couture

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    PHOENIX - AUGUST 13:  Randy Couture watches the Strikeforce Challengers Main Card bout at Dodge Theater on August 13, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Couture is probably the most recognizable—and arguably the greatest—fighter in MMA history.

93. Eric Heiden

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    Eric Heiden's 1980 Olympics were the greatest for a single individual in the Winter Olympics, as he won five gold medals that season.

    (Gosh, having Heiden totally rock along with the US hockey team's defeat of the Soviets made the 1980 Olympics a totally rocking affair for America. Yeah, patriotism!)

    It turns out this Heiden guy was a pretty good speed skater:

    Heiden is the only athlete in the history of speed skating to have won all five events in a single Olympic tournament and the only one to have won a gold medal in all events. He is considered by some to be the best overall speedskater (short and long distances) in the sport's history. Heiden ranked No. 46 in ESPN's SportsCentury 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century in 1999, the only speed skater to make the list...

92. David Robinson

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    Who wasn't happy for "The Admiral" when he finally he got his championships alongside of Tim Duncan?

    After all, David Robinson wasn't just a great center, he was also a generous man:

    In recognition of his outstanding contributions to charity, in March 2003, the NBA renamed its award for outstanding charitable efforts in honor of Robinson. Winners of the NBA's Community Assist Award receive the David Robinson Plaque, with the inscription "Following the standard set by NBA Legend David Robinson who improved the community piece by piece." The award is given out monthly by the league to recognize players for their charitable efforts. Robinson is also the recipient of the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership.

91. Apolo Anton Ohno

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    What do you think is more intriguing about Ohno:

    The eight overall Olympics' medals in speed skating, including two golds?

    Or the gnarly soul patch?

    Take your time, it isn't an easy choice.

90. Frank Thomas

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    As a kid in the '90s, I recall Frank Thomas being one of the most popular players of his generation.

    He had a great nickname ("The Big Hurt"), his baseball card was always worth a lot according to Beckett Magazine and he was never tied to the Steroid Era once the crap hit the fan.

89. Jimmie Johnson

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    Perhaps there are a lot of racing fans out there that don't love the greatest driver in NASCAR today, but I can't imagine there are many who don't respect him.

    Frankly, his name now carries weight with a lot of non-fans of racing as well (present company included). If I were to turn on a race, it would be to see what all of this Jimmie Johnson fuss was all about.

    That's crossover appeal, people.

88. Willie Stargell

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    Stargell was one of his generation's greatest hitters and also has perhaps the greatest quote about hitting in baseball history:

    "Trying to hit Sandy Koufax was like trying to drink coffee with a fork."

    A bunch of ESPN writers also thought he was pretty lovable, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt since a lot of their other picks matched up with my own.

87. "Sugar" Ray Leonard

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    Leonard was named the "Boxer of the Decade" in the '80s, and in his career, he won titles in five different weight classes.

    He is widely considered one of the greatest boxers of all time.

86. Kirby Puckett

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    I have a theory about players like Kirby Puckett—part of their popularity stems from the fact that they don't appear as though they should be stellar athletes but do great things nonetheless.

    Here stands a man that isn't a sculpted, Greek God of an athlete but rather a regular-looking fellow such as myself. And look at what he can accomplish!

    Puckett was also a stellar human being, as he won the Branch Rickey Award in 1993 for his lifetime of service to the community.

85. Tony Gwynn

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    See Puckett, Kirby.

    But also see this: 3,141 career hits and a .338 batting average.

    Simply put, Gwynn was one of the best for-average hitters in baseball history.

84. LaDainian Tomlinson

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    LaDainian Tomlinson was the best running back of his generation (which we will call the time period between Emmitt Smith and Adrian Peterson), and a humble and genuine person off of the field.

    There isn't much to dislike here, unless you happened to be a defensive player during Tomlinson's prime.

83. Pedro Martinez

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    Few pitchers combined Pedro Martinez's talent with his engaging and quote-worthy personality.

    You may not have ever cared for the Red Sox, but I find it hard to believe you weren't at least occasionally amused by Pedro.

82. Shaun White

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    Since Tony Hawk, no "extreme" athlete has captured America's attention quite like Shaun White has.

    He's the greatest trick snowboarder that ever lived, and he's a pretty darn good skateboarder as well. Plus, that gnarly hair is pretty iconic at this point.

81. Ronaldinho

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    I mean, have you seen his highlight reel?

80. Jennie Finch

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    ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 11:  Softball Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch pitches during the MLB All Star Game Celebrity Softball Game at Angels Stadium of Anaheim on July 11, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
    Michael Buckner/Getty Images

    If I say softball, you'll say Jennie Finch.

    And if I'm saying Jennie Finch, I should probably add that she's the most famous and one of (if not the) most accomplished softball players in American history.

    Her looks didn't hurt, either.

79. Mia Hamm

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    Perhaps the most famous female American soccer player of all time, Hamm is apparently a capable athlete in a number of sports.

78. Pete Sampras

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    Sampras didn't have the pizazz of an Andre Agassi, but he sure did win a lot: 14 Grand Slam singles titles, in case you were counting.

    He was one of the best male tennis players ever and is remembered as such.

77. Dirk Nowitzki

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    DALLAS, TX - JUNE 16: Forward Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks waves to fans during the Dallas Mavericks Victory celebration on June 16, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Wade/Getty Images)
    Brandon Wade/Getty Images

    He beat the sporting world's enemy No. 1, LeBron James.

    He will be forever loved.

76. Ernie Banks

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    I'm too young to have watched Ernie Banks play, but I hear he was quite the popular ballplayer in his day.

    After finding a section on his Wikipedia page entitled "Years led league by statistical category," I think I can see why:

    Shortstop Major League Leader:

    Fielding Average - one time

    Fewest errors - one time

    National League Leader:

    Games played - six times

    Extra base hits - four times

    Home runs - two times

    RBI - two times

    Slugging percentage - one time

    Total bases - one time

    At bats - one time

75. Usain Bolt

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    ROME, ITALY - MAY 26:  Usain Bolt of Jamaica wins the men's 100m at the IAAF Compeed Golden Gala at Stadio Olimpico on May 26, 2011 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
    Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

    He is the fastest man ever, and it doesn't hurt that he has the greatest name for a sprinter of all time.

    At the apex of his record-breaking 9.58 100-meter sprint at the 2009 World Championships, Bolt reached a speed of 27.45 MPH.

    Which means he was running faster than your Grandma drives on the highway. Think about that for a second.

74. Kerri Strug

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    If you can watch this and say it isn't one of the bravest things you've ever seen in sports, you simply don't understand sports.

    One of the great moments in American Olympics history.

73. Phil Mickelson

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    BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 18:  Phil Mickelson walks off the 18th green during the third round of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 18, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    "Lefty" will go down as the second-best player of his generation, but after the Tiger scandal, he might go down as the time period's most popular player.

    Look at the goofy grin—how could you not like the guy?

72. Ronaldo

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    A soccer player so nice they didn't need to name him twice, Ronaldo is one of those fancy Brazilian superstars that the average American sports fan is actually aware of.

    It didn't hurt that the man had some serious game.

71. Maria Sharapova

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    PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 02:  Maria Sharapova of Russia serves during the women's singles semi final match between Na Li of China and Maria Sharapova of Russia on day twelve of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 2, 2011 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Cliv
    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Sharapova is a talented tennis player that also happens to be popular as one of sport's hottest sex symbols.

    And her grunts are pretty legendary as well.

70. Drew Brees

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    SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 08:  Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints scrambles against the Seattle Seahawks during the 2011 NFC wild-card playoff game at Qwest Field on January 8, 2011 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Imag
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Among his long list of achievements, perhaps the most telling sign that Brees is beloved was his 2010 crowning as Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year:

    For not only leading the New Orleans Saints to the first Super Bowl title in the franchise's history, but also for helping lead the city of New Orleans' rebirth after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, quarterback Drew Brees is the recipient of Sports Illustrated's 57th Sportsman of the Year award.

    There you have it.

69. Kevin Garnett

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    BOSTON, MA - MAY 09:  Kevin Garnett #5 of the Boston Celtics reacts after a foul is called on the Miami Heat in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 9, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Other players make not like him, but fans seem to enjoy his passion and dedication to the game.

    Even his really weird post game interviews are somewhat endearing.

68. Steve Nash

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    PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 13:  Steve Nash #13 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs at US Airways Center on April 13, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usi
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Steve Nash is one of basketball's most creative passers and resourceful scorers, which helped him to consecutive MVP trophies in 2005 and 2006.

    He is also one of the most intelligent and interesting players the game has seen.

67. Ray Bourque

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    9 Jun 2001:  Ray Bourque #77 of the Colorado Avalanche kisses the Stanley Cup as an Avalanche in Denver, Colorado after 22 seasons in pursuit of the NHL Stanley Cup Championship.  DIGITAL IMAGE.  Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr/ALLSPORT
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Ray Bourque is one of hockey's greatest defensemen and leaders in the game's history. Before Steve Yzerman would surpass his mark, Bourque held the distinction of being the longest-tenured captain in NHL history.

    And truthfully, I don't think there was a soul unhappy when he won the Stanley Cup in 2001. Frankly, even Devils' fans had to be at least a little happy for Ray when he finally got his name on the cup after 22 seasons.

66. Ichiro Suzuki

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    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 23: Ichiro Suzuki #51 of the Seattle Mariners bats against the Minnesota Twins during their game on May 23, 2011 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Rockies won 6-5. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Ichiro isn't just a well-liked player in America—he's revered in his home country of Japan as well.

    Let's put it this way:

    Ichiro's agent Tony Attanasio described his client's status, "When you mail Ichiro something from the States, you only have to use that name on the address and he gets it [in Japan]. He's that big.

    That said, this list is about popularity here in the States, and I think you would be hard-pressed to find an athlete more widely respected and admired in baseball than Ichiro Suzuki.

65. Billie Jean King

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    King entrenched herself as a beloved figure in women's tennis when she defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973 in a "Battle of the Sexes" match.

    But King was a darn good player beyond that one victory, winning 12 Grand Slam singles titles. Still, her victory over Riggs will always be remembered as her crowning achievement for the casual tennis fan.

64. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 19:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 19, 2011 in Brooklyn,
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hasn't had the success on the race track his father had, but he has done alright for himself in other regards—he has been named NASCAR's Most Popular Driver on eight occasions and was named Forbe's third-most influential athlete.

    He may not be the greatest racer in the world, but he certainly is one of the most popular.

63. Rafael Nadal

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 20:  Rafael Nadal of Spain returns a shot during his first round match against Michael Russell of the United States on Day One of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 20, 20
    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Before he is done, Mr. Nadal may unseat Roger Federer as the best to ever play the game.

    Until that day, he will have to be content with being one of the most popular and recognizable players in the game today.

62. Richard Petty

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    Sweet ride. I'm not as sold on the belt buckle or hat, but to each their own.

    Richard Petty was voted as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver on eight occasions.

    And he is only halfway to the leader in that department...

61. Bill Elliot

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    Bill Elliott won NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award 16 times, the most ever.

    Need I say more?

60. Chris Evert

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    She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and is remembered for her spirited rivalry with of Martina Navratilova.

59. Steffi Graf

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    Listen, Ron Swanson is in love with Steffi Graf—that is enough for me.

    From the man, the myth, the legend and the fictional character himself:

    I've established a scientifically perfect, 10-point scale of human beauty. Wendy is a 7.4, which is way too high for Tom, who is a 3.8. Ten  is tennis legend Steffi Graf.

58. Maradona

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    Ask a casual American soccer fan to list off some of the most famous, talented and entertaining soccer players in the game's history, and I promise you Maradona's name will be one of the first uttered.

    Simply a joy to watch.

57. Mark Messier

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    A six-time Stanley Cup champion, Messier is considered one of the greatest leaders in hockey's history.

    His combination of skill and aggressive play made him an easy choice for first-ballot selection into the NHL Hall of Fame.

56. Lionel Messi

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona in action during the UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United FC at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    He is unquestionably the world's best player, and he will only turn 24 on June 24th.

    To watch him is to love him, as any American with at least a passing interest in soccer will tell you.

55. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    He has the sex symbol status of Beckham, a highlight reel that reminds one of Ronaldinho and BM (before Messi) was the best player in the world during his prime.

    What he doesn't have?

    A World Cup.

54. Bobby Orr

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    Bobby Orr is one of the greatest, most iconic players in NHL history.

    Don't believe me?

    As of 2011, Orr remains the only defenceman to have won the league scoring title with two Art Ross Trophies and holds the record for most points and assists in a single season by a defenceman. Orr won a record eight consecutive Norris Trophies as the NHL's best defenceman and three consecutive Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player (MVP)

53. Jim Thorpe

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    What sport wasn't this guy good at?

    Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football (collegiate and professional) and also played professional baseball and basketball.

    Sadly, one of America's greatest athletes is now the center of a posthumous controversy surrounding his burial. 

52. Emmitt Smith

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    Emmitt Smith won three Super Bowls, set the NFL record for rushing yards and was a class act throughout his career.

    Even an Eagles fan regularly tortured by the man during the '90s holds no ill will toward the man.

    Though the whole ESPN experiment was more than a bit painful.

51. David Beckham

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    Beckham's crossover appeal cannot be overstated—he was the one athlete little American girls were almost guaranteed to have heard of.

    He had a friggin' movie named after him, for heaven's sake.

50. Arnold Palmer

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    I mean, he has a drink named after him. And it's the combination of lemonade and iced tea, or as I like to call it, "What summer tastes like in America."

    He made the list based on that alone.

    Well, that and he was golf's first television superstar in the '50s.

    But the drink was a big part of this as well.

49. Jack Nicklaus

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    The "Golden Bear" won the most major championships in golf history with 18, a number which may yet elude the grasp of Tiger Woods (14 career major championships).

    He is also responsible for one of the most famous shots in golf history, his birdie on the 17th hole during the last round of the 1986 Masters.

    Is Jack Nicklaus beloved?

    YES SIR!

48. Landon Donovan

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    There simply was nothing like it.

    Thanks Landon—we'll never forget it.

47. Andre Agassi

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    I mean, look at that hair.

    Agassi was talented, full of personality and a whole lot of fun to watch.

46. Michael Phelps

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    SANTA CLARA, CA - JUNE 19:  Michael Phelps sits by the side of the practice pool during day 4 of the Santa Clara International Grand Prix at George F. Haines International Swim Center on June 19, 2011 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Two things hurt Michael Phelps, aka the World's greatest Olympic Champion in the history of the games. One is inevitable, and the other was ridiculous.

    Inevitable—Olympians are relevant once every four years, and then people sort of forget about them with all of the other sporting options available. It's simply the way of the American sporting cycle.

    Ridiculous—The whole pot-smoking incident. Listen, I'm not condoning drug use or anything, but people went crazy after reading that a 23-year-old smoked pot. Honestly, it's generally more surprising when a 23-year-old doesn't smoke pot.

    OK, so that's an exaggeration, but the world lost its sit-with-an-"h" when they heard the news.

    He was a kid who made a bad decision and more pertinently, was documented doing so—end of story.

45. Roger Federer

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 21:  Roger Federer of Switzerland returns a shot during his first round match against Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan on Day Two of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 21,
    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    He's the greatest men's tennis player who ever lived. If you don't believe me, consider that his 16 Grand Slam Titles are the most ever, as are the 237 consecutive weeks he spent ranked as the ATP's top player.

    Plus, he is a blast to watch.

    Were tennis as popular as some of the other sports on this list, Federer would be higher. As is, he deserves top tennis billing here.

44. Tiger Woods

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    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 12:  Tiger Woods hits a tee shot on the fifth hole during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 12, 2011 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/G
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Before he went through his, "I sleep with women from strip clubs, pornographic movies and crappy chain restaurants" phase, Tiger Woods wasn't just the most popular golfer ever.

    He was one of the most famous and loved athletes in American history and certainly one of the most recognizable faces in the world.

    Golf used to be a bunch of middle-aged white guys who dressed like idiots and didn't relate to the vast majority of the population.

    Tiger changed that in a big way. Even if most of the golfers on tour remain middle-aged white guys who dress like idiots.

43. Kobe Bryant

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    DALLAS, TX - MAY 08:  Guard Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers wipes his face during play against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 8, 2011 at American Airlines Center in Dall
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Did you know that in 2010, according to a Harris poll, Kobe Bryant was the most popular athlete in America?

    Here's some pretty solid analysis from Kurt Hellin on how that came to be:

    Kobe was mighty unpopular himself a few years back. But he embraced the polarizing nature of his personality—love me or hate me, but you will respect my game. Marketing him became more about marketing his will and drive than his personality. And eventually that evolved because people did start to respect him then like him again. He leads the league in jersey sales, his popularity is global.

    There you have it.

42. Shaquille O'Neil

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    Shaq wasn't just a dominant center, but he was also a humorous personality prone to saying or doing outrageous and entertaining things.

    I was anti-Lakers during the Shaq and Kobe days, but even I had to admit that Shaq had a way of making everything a little bit more fun.

41. Jim Brown

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    As a runner, no one has ever combined his size, strength, agility, speed and vision into one package (Bo Jackson might have had football not been his hobby). Other players have been faster or stronger, sure, but none combined them all quite like Brown did.

    In fact, few have ever been better athletes than Jim Brown was. After all, who else can boast of being in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, along with the Lacrosse Hall of Fame?

    His legacy as one of the greatest, most-respected legends of the game lives on.

40. Steve Yzerman

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    DETROIT - FEBRUARY 8:  Steve Yzerman #19 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on against the Nashville Predators at Joe Louis Arena on February 8, 2006 in Detroit, Michigan. The Red Wings won 6-0. (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
    Dave Sandford/Getty Images

    I'm just going to start rattling off all of the reasons Yzerman has to be a beloved figure for any true fan of Hockey that didn't live in Denver during the '90s:

    Prior to the 1986–87 season at the age of 21, Yzerman was named captain of the Red Wings and continuously served for the next two decades (dressing as captain for over 1300 games), retiring as the longest-serving captain of any team in North American major league sports history. Once voted to be the most popular athlete in Detroit sports history, locals often simply refer to Yzerman as "The Captain."

    Keep in mind that Barry Sanders, Isiah Thomas, Hank Greenburg, Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Al Simmons and Ty Cobb all played in Detroit. And that's the short list of Detroit greats. Need more reasons?

    Sixth in NHL history in points, eighth in goals and seventh in assists.

    I think my work is done here.

39. Joe Namath

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    "Broadway Joe" may have been somewhat overrated as a quarterback, but his guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III and his sex-symbol status have made Joe Namath a truly beloved athlete nonetheless.

38. Julius Erving

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    Few athletes have ever been as graceful or athletic as Dr. J, one of the truly enjoyable men to watch play the game.

    If you don't believe me, watch for yourself.

37. Ken Griffey Jr.

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    Since Willie Mays, only one player has exhibited an otherworldly talent in every aspect of the game, and the ability to have fun on the field and truly be a joy to watch for fans.

    That man is Ken Griffey, Jr. Were it not for all of his injuries later in his career, he may have gone down as the greatest to ever play the game.

    As it were, he was one of the most fun to watch in the game's history and remained clean in the midst of the Steroid Era.

36. Reggie White

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    The man they called the "Minister of Defense" was one of the most dominating defensive forces in NFL history (NFL Network named him the seventh greatest player of all time) and an ordained minister to boot.

    One of the most regretful moments in Eagles history is the day the team allowed him to sign with the Green Bay Packers. White should have retired as a member of the Eagles.

35. Kurt Warner

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    FLAGSTAFF, AZ - JULY 31: Quarterback Kurt Warner #13 of the Arizona Cardinals laughs during the evening team training camp at Northern Arizona University on July 31, 2009 in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    You know the story by now.

    From stocking shelves at a grocery store, to Arena Football stardom, to a brief (and highly successful) stint in NFL Europe, to a career in the NFL that saw him win a Super Bowl, two NFL MVP awards and should end in his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    It is one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in sports history, and through it all, Warner was a humble, likeable figure.

34. Wilt Chamberlain

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    If you listen to people who watched "The Stilt" play, they talk about him in otherworldly terms, as he was a remarkable athlete and dominant basketball player.

    My grandfather raves about the athleticism of this man, and he saw him in person when the two were high school kids in West Philadelphia.

33. Barry Sanders

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    Has there anyone been as much fun to watch play a sport than Barry Sanders?

    The answer to that is no, by the way.

32. Tim Tebow

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    NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 01:  Quarterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Florida Gators throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Louisana Superdome on January 1, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Get
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Has there ever been a more beloved—or accomplished, for that matter—college athlete than Tim Tebow?

    He was an amazing player who was portrayed as a truly kind and giving person off of the field. I've been known to suspect that he might be a bit too good to be true, but nothing has ever come out to give my suspicions any credence.

    As of now, Tebow will always remain College Football's Chosen One.

31. Pat Tillman

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    TEMPE, AZ - OCTOBER 4: FILE PHOTO  Safety Pat Tillman #40 of the Arizona Cardinals looks on during a game against the Oakland Raiders at the Sun Devil Stadium October 4 1998 in Tempe, Arizona. Tillman, a U.S. Army Ranger and former Arizona Cardinals stron
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    We will never forget the sacrifices you and other troops like you have made, Pat Tillman.

    Thank you.

30. Peyton Manning

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    INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 08:  Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts looks to pass in the first quarter against the New York Jets during their 2011 AFC wild card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 8, 2011 in Indianapolis, Ind
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    I've personally never witnessed a more complete or intelligent quarterback than Peyton Manning.

    He's basically an offensive coordinator on the field, he has the perfect height and vision, a strong and accurate arm, the ability to take a hit in the pocket, a quick release and the moxie to lead a team down the field late in a game.

    He may not have the sex symbol status or cool aura of Tom Brady, but for my money, he's the better quarterback (by a slim margin, but better nonetheless).

29. John Elway

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    It's hard not to love a man who orchestrated so many amazing comebacks and was responsible for so many magical plays.

    Plus, who doesn't like a hero who rides into the sunset a champion?

28. Mario Lemieux

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    This memory of Philadelphia's beloved Spectrum should give you an idea of how respected Mario Lemieux was:

    March 2, 1993: Flyers vs. Penguins; Mario Lemieux’s first game after undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. When Lemieux skates out for pregame warmups, the crowd greets him with a standing ovation. Once he realizes the famously hostile Philly crowd is cheering for him, an emotional Lemieux bends over for a few moments, then rises up and waves his stick in the air to acknowledge the crowd. One of the most heartwarming moments I’ve ever experienced.

    There are many honors in sports, but if you are an opposing player that never played in Philadelphia and a Philly crowd gives you a standing ovation, you've received an honor few will ever experience.

27. Tom Brady

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    FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots signals during their 2011 AFC divisional playoff game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Image
    Elsa/Getty Images

    I have a friend who is a diehard Eagles fan (really, a diehard Philadelphia fan). I mean, this guy lives and breathes the Eagles.

    But he owns a Brady jersey.

    He loves and respects Tom Brady's game so much that he actually purchased the jersey of another team.

    Sure, it is the ultimate fan violation (and my friends and I roast him endlessly about it), but it also speaks to the admiration the average football enthusiast has for Tom Brady.

26. Joe Montana

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    He was a master of the comeback, and he was Mr. Cool.

    Plus, he is responsible for one of the coolest Super Bowl stories ever:

    Take the 1989 Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals. The San Francisco 49ers were down by three points with 3:20 left when Montana spotted—no, not an open receiver—but a personality. "There, in the stands, standing near the exit ramp," Montana said to tackle Harris Barton. "Isn't that John Candy?" And then he led the 49ers 92 yards, throwing for the winning touchdown with 34 seconds left.

    Joe was the man.

25. Derek Jeter

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    ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 03:  Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees looks on prior to the start of the game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 3, 2011 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Full disclosure: I hate the Yankees, with their big-spending ways, smug fans and larger-than-live iconography.

    But I have to admit that I love Derek Jeter. I love the way he plays the game like every one is his last. I love how intelligent he is.

    And I deeply respect that he simply wins.

    And we all know a whole lot of people think just like me, even if they won't admit it.

24. Lou Gehrig

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    The full magnitude of this man's amazing career is often overshadowed by the man who batted in front of him in the Yankees lineup, Babe Ruth.

    But Gehrig was a quiet, decent man who showed up to work 2,130 straight times.

    And his retirment speech is the classiest, most-famous farewell in sports history, both for its humility and its brevity.

    It's hard not to love the "Iron Horse."

23. Walter Payton

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    The man they called "Sweetness" wasn't just loved because of his playing style or his Hall of Fame career.

    No, he was loved because of the man he was off of the field as well. To this day, the NFL gives its "Walter Payton Man of the Year" award to the athlete who is recognizable both for their achievements on the field and their charity and volunteer work off of it.

    So cheers once more to you for a life well lived, Mr. Payton.

22. Wayne Gretzky

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    They called him "The Great One," and for good reasons—nobody has the remarkable records or accomplishments that Gretzky has.

    My personal favorite of his records is the following:

    He is the only NHL player to total over 200 points in one season—a feat he accomplished four times.

    There is a reverence used when speaking about Gretzky, as though he is a hockey deity we were blessed to witness.

    Gretzky isn't just beloved—he's almost holy.

21. Bill Russell

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    If he is not the greatest center ever, he is certainly on the short list and certainly the best defensive and rebounding center ever.

    Due to the racism still prevalent in America in the '50s and '60s, Russell had a contentious relationship with the media and fans.

    But that has not tainted his legacy, as it shouldn't. Rather, people tend to get wide-eyed in admiration when told he won 11 titles in his 13-year career.

    As they should.

20. Larry Bird

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    Bill Simmons calls him "Basketball Jesus," for heaven's sake.

    He combined a perfect shot, intelligence and intensity, a passionate desire to win, the habit of always being clutch at the end of games and a few championships to boot.

    Unless you lived in LA or Philly during the '80s, chances are you've got a whole lot of love for Mr. Bird.

19. Jerry Rice

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    17 Oct 1999:  Jerry Rice #80 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on the field during the game against the Carolina Panthers at 3Com Park in San Francisco, Califonia. The Panthers defeated the 49ers 31-29. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule Jr.  /Allsport
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Take one part talent, 10 parts hard work and determination, leave out the public controversies, throw a dash of Joe Montana and Steve Young into the mix, and you have Jerry Rice.

    He's not just the greatest receiver of all time—according to the NFL Network, he's also the greatest football player of all time.

    He is certainly one of the most respected and loved.

18. Yogi Berra

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    Yogi is one of baseball's best characters. But you don't have to take my word for it.

    From the man himself:

    "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't come to yours."

    "Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical."

    "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true."

    "I never said most of the things I said."

    "If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be."

17. Brett Favre

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    Sure, he sullied his name later in his career with his retirement indecisiveness and the Jenn Sterger fiasco.

    But during his prime, no one in the NFL was more loved than Brett Favre. He was tough, passionate and exuberant. He was the consummate gunslinger, which made him that much more fun to watch.

    He was a media darling, came across as a funny and enjoyable teammate and was the perfect reflection of how the average person would like to think they would play the game if given the chance.

    Were it not for the end of his career, he would be even higher than this.

16. Gordie Howe

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    His nickname was Mr. Hockey.

    He has a hat trick named after him (the "Gordie Howe" hat trick, in which a player scores a goal, logs an assist and gets in a fight during a game).

    He makes funny commercials later in life.

    He is the greatest combination of skill and grit in NHL history.

    Need I go on?

15. Magic Johnson

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    I think NBA.com did a pretty good job of summing up what made Magic so special and loved:

    Whether it was a behind-the-back pass to a streaking James Worthy, a half-court swish at the buzzer or a smile that illuminated an arena, everyone who saw Johnson play took with them an indelible memory of what they had witnessed. From the moment he stepped onto the court, people pondered: How could a man so big do so many things with the ball and with his body? It was Magic.

    If you watched Magic play and didn't have fun, you didn't have a pulse (unless you lived in Boston, that is). The man loved the game, and people loved watching him play it.

14. Cal Ripken, Jr.

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    Cal Ripken wasn't the most flashy or exciting or even the best player of his generation.

    But for 2,632 straight games, if you bought a ticket to watch the Orioles play, you knew you were going to see Mr. Ripken out on the field.

    He was a student of the game, a Hall of Fame talent and he showed up to work every day and gave the fans their money's worth—how could you not love this guy?

13. Stan Musial

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    Stan the Man was the perfect nickname for Musial, but not because it rhymed. No, it was perfect for Musial because that is exactly what he was: A man.

    No more and no less.

    He wasn't a mythic figure like other ballplayers, and he wasn't beloved for having an entertaining public persona or a flashy style of play.

    He was simply a very good ballplayer who consistently performed and a very good person off the diamond to boot.

    He was "The Man," and long will he be beloved for it.

12. Jesse Owens

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    Take that, Nazis:

    This was the background for the 1936 Olympics. When Owens finished competing, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly crushed Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy.

    He gave four virtuoso performances, winning gold medals in the 100- and 200- meter dashes, the long jump and on America's 4x100 relay team. Score it: Owens 4, Hitler 0.

11. Joe Louis

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    Take that, Nazi.

    And take that, most boxers Joe Louis fought.

    Joe Louis was one of the first black athletes that became a national hero in America during his reign in the late '30s and '40s.

10. Joe DiMaggio

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    Years later, it would be reported that Joe DiMaggio was a fiercely private, cantankerous man.

    But in his playing days, he was a celebrity to end all other celebrities. It isn't hard to imagine why—his resume includes three AL MVP awards, nine World Series championships and 13 All-Star selections (in a 13-year career).

    Oh, and did I mention he once hit in 56 straight games?

    "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away."

9. Roberto Clemente

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    Clemente's career was cut tragically short in 1972 when his plane crashed en route to Nicaragua, where Clemente was delivering goods for the victims of an earthquake.

    For Clemente, the Hall of Fame voters waved the mandatory five-year waiting period for induction into the Hall, electing him in 1973.

    Clemente was an excellent player, having accumulated exactly 3,000 hits (reaching the mark on his last regular season at-bat), a lifetime .317 batting average, two World Series championships, 12 Gold Gloves, one NL MVP (in 1966) and 15 All-Star Game appearances.

    Clemente was well-known for the charity work he took part in, and today the Roberto Clemente Award is given to the MLB player who best exhibits Clemente's humanitarian spirit and gives back to the community.

8. Lance Armstrong

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    BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JULY 04:  Lance Armstrong of the USA and Team Radioshack rides in the peloton during stage one of the 2010 Tour de France from Rotterdam to Brussels on July 4, 2010 in Brussels, Belgium.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
    Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

    He survived cancer, he won a race only one American before him (Greg LeMond, three championships) had ever won, and he wasn't finished there.

    He won the Tour de France seven straight times, setting the record both for consecutive Tour wins and total Tour wins. In fact, only four countries can claim more titles in the history of the race (not including the United States, which would only have three victories without Armstrong's achievements).

    Until there is some form of definitive proof he was doping, Lance Armstrong remains an American hero.

7. Pele

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    Whether or not he is the greatest soccer player is a moot point—his name is the most synonymous with soccer around the world and certainly in the United States.

    But I'll let someone a whole lot smarter than me tell you what he thought of the man:

    "Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us," said former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. "For those who love soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, generally known as Pele, is a hero."

     

6. Mickey Mantle

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    Mickey Mantle will always be baseball's tragic hero, a man with enormous talent who was nonetheless his own worst enemy and drank his career away.

    But few have ever left fans in awe quite as Mickey Mantle did, and even his flaws seemed to have made him a sympathetic rather than despised figure.

    A hero's talent, an average Joe's faults.

5. Willie Mays

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    Have you ever heard a soul say a bad word about Willie Mays?

    Ever?

    Not only did Mays excel (and exceed his peers) at nearly every facet of baseball, he did so with a genuine joy for the game he played.

4. Muhammad Ali

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    He may have been a controversial and polarizing figure during his career, but there is no question that future generations consider him boxing's greatest icon in the sports' history.

    Ali wasn't simply a boxer, of course—he was a political figure who became a strong face for the civil rights movement.

    He was the fighter America needed.

3. Babe Ruth

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    Babe Ruth was not the most savory figure in baseball history. To put it simply, he was a man who lived for excesses, be it the amount he ate and drank or the number of women he, um, dated.

    Right.

    But all of Ruth's faults have only added to his legend, not detracted from it. It is as though we judge his consumptions off the field as simply a metaphor for all of the big things he did as a ballplayer, from his towering home runs to the incredible number of them he hit for a player of his time.

    He isn't just a man; he's also a myth. And we love both equally.

2. Michael Jordan

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    I don't think I need to explain this.

1. Jackie Robinson

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    I can put up all of the criteria I want, there is no objective way to declare who the most beloved man in the history of sports is.

    And so I can only tell you who I think it might be and perhaps more importantly, who it absolutely should be.

    And in that regard, there is no question who that man is.

    Jackie Robinson.