The Big Five: The 5 Most Recognizable Athletes in Sports History

Bryn Swartz@eaglescentralSenior Writer IIINovember 18, 2008

This is an attempt to do the impossible: rank the five most recognizable athletes in the history of professional sports. These athletes are ranked for both their on-field accomplishments and their off-field accomplishments.

I included only American athletes, because it would be extremely difficult to rank a player from another country (specifically a soccer player, like Pele). I know next to nothing about soccer and chose to limit my ranking to athletes from within the 50 states.

5. Jackie Robinson

His name will forever be synonymous with 'first'—the first black baseball player in the 20th century.

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's unofficial color barrier on April 15th, 1947. He helped to end the belief that blacks and white should be kept segregated in professional sports.

Jackie dominated the game of baseball, winning the Rookie of the Year and the league MVP within his first three seasons. He led the Dodgers to six pennants and their first world championship (1955).

Robinson was possibly the greatest all-around athlete in history. Well known for his baseball ability, Robinson was a standout running back at UCLA. He started on the varsity basketball team. He also excelled at tennis and track, and possessed world-class speed.

Robinson, not Rosa Parks, was the first known black citizen to refuse to move to the back of the bus when commanded to by the bus driver. Jackie was arrested and received an honorable discharge.

Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson's #42 after the 1997 season, meaning no player may ever again wear this number. In 1999, Jackie was elected to baseball's All-Century team as the starting second baseman.

Robinson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to the civil rights movement.

4. Tiger Woods

Who would have thought that one man could take the sport of golf and turn it into a sport more popular than hockey or soccer in the United States? Tiger Woods became a legend almost instantly after his arrival into the pros.

He is arguably the most prolific golfer in history, winning 14 major golf championships. He was named PGA Player of the Year nine times and earned four Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year awards. He achieved the career Grand Slam by age 24.

He won the U.S. Open in 2008 after playing through a painfully torn ligament in his left knee, as well as a double stress fracture in his left tibia.

Tiger was the epitome of a child prodigy—playing golf by age two and appearing on The Mike Douglas Show. He appeared in Golf Digest by age five.

Tiger has been called the world's most marketable athlete. He has been a major spokesman for Nike, Gatorade, American Express, Gillette Champions, General Mills, and General Motors. He even has his own type of Gatorade, the “Gatorade Tiger”, which originated in March of 2008.

He has endorsed his own series of video games, the Tiger Woods PGA Tour, since 1999.

He is credited with being one of the first extremely successful multi-racial athletes in history. Woods is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Thai, one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American, and one-eighth Dutch.

Woods projects to become the first athlete to pass $1 billion in earnings in 2010. At his current rate, $1 trillion might be possible.

3. Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali transformed the sport of boxing as no athlete has before or since. The most popular athlete in the sixty years between Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, Ali's name was as recognizable as President John F. Kennedy's.

Ali's arrogance and desire to win was never more evident than the occasions in which he would predict which round he would knock out his opponent, often following through on his word.

Ali became the first boxer to rely on foot speed and quickness to avoid punches by keeping his hands low. He described his fighting style as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He perfected the “Rope-a-Dope,” a method effectively used to tire out his opponent.

Ali remains the only man to have won the heavyweight championship three times. He defeated Sonny Liston in the first round. He knocked out George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” He almost killed Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manilla.”

He successfully defended his title nine times, defeating every other heavyweight in his era—the golden age of heavyweight boxing. He was crowned the Sportsman of the Century in 1999.

Pound for pound, Ali may have been the strongest fighter in history. His psychological tactics before, during, and after fights became legendary. His pure athleticism may be unsurpassed by anyone in the history of the sport.

He had the honor of lighting the flame at the Olympics in 1996. He won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 1997, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, in 2005.

Ali's work as a civil rights activist surpassed any of his performances in the boxing ring. Ali is one of the three most recognizable African-American men in the history of the planet.

2. Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is the most popular athlete in the history of the world since Babe Ruth. He also might be one of the five most famous celebrities of the 20th century.

His success on the basketball court is unmatched by any player before or since. NBA.com states: “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” He was voted the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century.

He won five regular-season MVP awards and six more in the NBA Finals. He led the United States to two gold medals in the Olympics. He was the face of the “Dream Team.” He scored more points per game than any player ever, and is the epitome of “clutch.” He was the greatest offensive and defensive player of his generation, if not in the history of basketball.

His performance in a 1986 playoff game was described by Larry Bird as “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” His return to the NBA following his first retirement brought the highest TV rating for a regular-season game in 20 years. Television ratings have dramatically decreased since his retirement from the NBA.

Jordan appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated a record 49 times, 12 more times than runner-up Muhammad Ali. His play in the NBA, specifically his high-flying leaping ability, has greatly influenced future generations. Commentators have taken to dubbing the latest great basketball player “the next Michael Jordan,” but we may never again see his equal.

He is one of the most marketed figures in sports history. He has been a major spokesman for Coca-Cola, Nike, Gatorade, McDonalds, Wheaties, and Hanes.

Nike created a signature shoe for him, called the “Air Jordan.” The demand for this shoe became so great that several wearers found themselves involved in “shoe-jackings,” where people were robbed of their sneakers at gunpoint.

Michael Jordan will forever be associated with the classic animated basketball movie Space Jam, where he single-handedly defeats a group of five aliens with the talent of superstar basketball players.

In an era where the popularity of sports is at an all-time high, Jordan was truly the best of the best. His popularity may never again be surpassed by any athlete in any sport.

1. Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth was and probably always will be the most popular athlete in the history of professional sports. Babe Ruth was so popular that his accomplishments and legacy will forever be etched in the minds of those who only wish they could have seen him play.

Ruth is arguably the only athlete of all-time who can be described as mythical. He was more than the ultimate sports celebrity. He was the ultimate celebrity. During the 1920's, a time when sports were the considered the Golden Age of the Century, Ruth transcended sports onto the front pages of newspapers. Babe Ruth single-handedly made baseball the national pastime.

Ruth's unbelievable popularity was so widespread that even his enemies knew of him. In World War II, Japanese troops would charge American troops and sometimes yell, “To hell with Babe Ruth.” Not “to hell with FDR,” but “to hell with Babe Ruth.” What bigger compliment could an athlete receive?

His accomplishments can only be described as “Ruthian”. Has any other athlete had his last name changed into an adjective? He single-handedly changed the game of baseball from a pitcher's game into a hitter's game. He introduced the world to the home run—now the most exciting play in sports. He promised home runs to sick kids in the hospital. He pointed over the outfield fence in the World Series to announce where he was going to hit the next pitch—and then he did.

When pointed out that his salary of $80,000 in 1930 was more than President Hoover, he responded, “I had a better year than him.”

He was the best player on the best team in history. Babe Ruth and the Yankees are synonymous with each other. Yankee Stadium will always be remembered as the “House That Ruth Built.” Babe Ruth will always be known as the face of the franchise, the greatest franchise in the history of professional sports.

His story has become famous. He was wild in the streets as a kid, and placed in St. Mary's Industrial School. From there, he was introduced to baseball. More appropriately, baseball was introduced to Babe Ruth.

No athlete ever had more fun playing a game than Babe Ruth—not Michael Jordan, not Tiger Woods, not even Brett Favre. He was a big, goofy, loveable kid. He appealed to adults and kids at the same time.

The intensity for which fans loved Babe Ruth will never again be equaled, not for any athlete in any sport. He could have ran for President during the Depression—and probably won. His name is often the first athlete's name a child can recollect learning. Every five-year-old in the world has heard of Babe Ruth.

Michael Jordan may have had Space Jam, but Ruth had The Sandlot. And as he tells Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, “Heroes get remembered. But legends never die.”