30 Best Athletes to Star for their Hometown Team

Avi Wolfman-Arent@@awolfmancomethCorrespondent IIOctober 11, 2011

30 Best Athletes to Star for their Hometown Team

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    In the mercenary world of professional sports, it’s refreshing and rare to see a local kid wearing the hometown colors.

    For these lucky few, their careers become a chance to represent their corner of the world and embed themselves in the fabric of the community that made them great.

    Imagine that, LeBron.

    Here’s a nod to those great athletes with an opportunity to play in their own backyards—and a window into what they made of it.

Ground Rules

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    1. The player in question must have grown up "in or around" the city where he or she played his or her professional ball. They need not have been born near that city, but they do need to have spent some significant portion of their life there.
    2. “In or around” roughly equates to within 100 miles of the city proper.
    3. The player in question must have played a significant or meaningful portion of his or her career in his or her hometown city. That means they either spent some of their prime there or helped the hometown team win a championship. Basically, you have to associate the player with his or her time in the hometown.This rule is meant to purposefully exclude players like Paul Molitor and Wade Boggs who returned to their respective hometowns simply to end their careers.
    4. Players who moved somewhere for college ball and then stayed in that town for their pro careers (Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, etc.) do not count.
    5. No soccer players. Soccer players too often get their start playing for a local academy that eventually leads them to the top local club. We allow that, and footballers will flood the list.
    6. They have to be (or have been) really, really good.

Cal Ripken Jr.: Baltimore

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    Cal Ripken, Junior was born a Baltimore Oriole.

    His dad, Cal Ripken, Sr., spent 36 years in the Baltimore organization, and the namesake son never knew any way other than the “Oriole Way.”

    Raised in Northeastern Maryland, Ripken Jr. spent 21 years in the orange and black. He made 19 All-Star appearances, won two AL MVPs, helped the franchise to its third World Series championships and had over 3,000 hits in his illustrious career.

    Most baseball fans remember Ripken for that impossible September night in 1995, when he broke Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive games played. With baseball still reeling from the fallout of 1994’s player’s strike, Ripken buoyed the game and city he so loved.

Derrick Rose: Chicago

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    Derrick Rose is entirely too young and unaccomplished to land on this list.

    Yet the all-too-active voice in my head tells me Rose belongs, that the youngest MVP in NBA history already feels like a Windy City all-timer.

    Hailing from the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, Rose first captured the city’s attention as a high school standout at Simeon Career Academy. After a brief stopover in Memphis for the shortest of college “careers,” Rose returned to the shores of Lake Michigan as the No. 1 overall pick.

    In the three years since, he’s quickly redefined the point guard position with his prodigious scoring ability and has Bulls fans dreaming of another dynasty.

    Standing in line behind Ryne Sandberg, Dick Butkus, Sid Luckman, Ernie Banks and, yes, Michael Jordan, Rose has the skills to join Chicago’s elite. He may even have a built-in edge on the seemingly untouchable Jordan—he’s one of their own.

Doug Harvey: Montreal

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    Before Bobby Orr redefined the role of defensemen in ice hockey for good, Doug Harvey was busy pushing at the boundaries of convention. The smaller Harvey used his speed and puck skills to spearhead an early version of the transition attack, torching teams that preferred more physical defenders.

    Harvey carried the revolution in hometown of Montreal, playing a central role in six Canadiens Stanley Cup wins.

    Eventually exiled to the New York Rangers because of his lead role in organizing a player’s association, Harvey would finish the last decade of his career bouncing from the NHL to AHL and back again. Despite the dispiriting longevity of his career, fans still remember Harvey for his visionary days on Montreal’s back line.

Jack Ham: Pittsburgh

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    Jack Ham’s linebacker pedigree is so perfect it sounds like a cliche.

    Born in the gritty rust belt town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Ham played his college ball at Penn State (aka Linebacker U) before spending 12 years at the heart of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain defense.

    That is so...linebacker.

    Ham played quickly, physically and soundly, exactly how a kid from Western Pennsylvania forged in the fires of Happy Valley ought to play.  Ham playing in the Black and Gold completes the classical linebacking portrait that was his career.

    Ham, in his durability (missed just four games in his first 10 NFL seasons) and his excellence (eight Pro Bowl selections), represented the highest ideal of each place that formed him.

Joe Mauer: Twin Cities

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    The Minnesota Twins love to shop locally.

    Minneapolis native Kent Hrbek played 13 solid seasons in Minnesota, and St. Paul’s own Jack Morris made a heroic, one-year return to his hometown during the team’s championship 1991 season.

    Among those heroes, no player better represents the Twins’ affinity for hometown stars better than MVP catcher Joe Mauer.

    During the 2001 amateur draft, the “safe pick” was supposed to be USC hurler Mark Prior. The Twins, who owned the first overall selection, flouted convention and opted for Minnesota high school legend Joe Mauer.

    Some speculated that the Twins made the move because they thought a local product would be easier and cheaper to sign. Whatever their motivation, Mauer quickly validated their choice and rose to the big league club in three short seasons.

    Health permitting, the three-time batting champ has a chance to be one of the greatest catchers ever. A recent $184-million contract extension assures he’ll make that pursuit wearing the hometown colors.

Julius Erving: Long Island

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    NBA fans may remember Julius Erving as a Philadelphia 76er. Basketball fans remember him as a New York Net.

    It was as a Net that Dr. J reached the height, and I do mean height, of his revolutionary powers. Playing in the wide-open ABA, Erving popularized the “slam” dunk with his spectacular aerial acrobatics. For three seasons in New York, Erving put ball in hoop using methods yet unimagined.

    Basketball has been played five feet in the air ever since.

    In those days the Nets played their ball in Long Island Nassau Coliseum, just four miles from Erving’s hometown of Roosevelt, New York.

    As fate would have it, Erving didn’t need to travel far in order to move basketball many light years forward.

Maurice Richard: Montreal

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    When Montreal’s Maurice “the Rocket” Richard stepped down after just two weeks of coaching the WHA’s Quebec Nordiques, he cited distance from family as a major concern. Apparently, even a cross-Province assignment in Quebec City felt too distant for the consummate Montrealer.

    The goal-scoring phenom, born in the hardscrabble Bordeaux section of the city, played every one of his 19 NHL seasons in Montreal. As a keystone member of the Canadiens’ 1950s and 60s hockey dynasty, one that ranks among the greatest in all professional sports, Richard won eight Stanley Cups and played in five others. He was the first to score 50 goals in a season and the first to 500 for a career.

    After retiring in 1960, the NHL waived the customary three-year waiting period in Richard’s honor and elected him into the Hall of Fame in 1961.

    During the Quiet Revolution that swept across Quebec in the years just after his playing career, Richard would become an unintentional political symbol for Quebecois difference in the battle for French Canadian separatism. Everything from his name to his roots to his Canadiens sweater made him a de facto spokesman for French Canadian culture and the vitality of that identity in an Anglicized hemisphere.

    Few athletes inspire such lofty and heady associations between their careers and their hometown.

Red Grange: Chicago

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    Red Grange, a man so fast and elusive fans swore he was an apparition.

    The “Galloping Ghost” hailed from Northeastern Pennsylvania but grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Illinois.

    At the University of Illinois, Grange went out for the football team on a whim and finished his career with over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns—all in just 20 games. The electric halfback became college football’s main attraction, playing an incalculable role in popularizing the sport during its early days.

    He would carry that momentum into a spectacular—but brief—pro career split between the competing leagues of the 1920s and 30s. Grange first signed with the nearby Chicago Bears and owner George Halas, attracting sellout crowds of 36,000 and 70,000 in each of his two pro appearances.

    Those were unheard-of figures for the time, and they helped lend legitimacy to the fledgling pro game. After a brief stint with the New York Yankees of the American Football League, Grange returned for a second tour with the Bears and helped them win the 1933 championship.

Lou Gehrig: New York

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    The ferocious power, the uncommon intellect, the unspoken grace, Lou Gehrig embodied New York at its very finest.

    Forget iconic Yankees moments or even iconic baseball moments—Gehrig’s farewell address at Yankee Stadium is one of the most distinctly New York moments in the city’s cherished history.

    Born in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, Gehrig attended Columbia University in Harlem before distinguishing himself in a 17-year career for New York Yankees.

    Always moving north but never beyond the city limits.

    Perhaps best known for his consecutive games streak, Gehrig’s dependability often overshadowed his calculable greatness. He batted .340 for his career and hit over 30 home runs with 100+ RBI in each of 10 consecutive seasons, numbers that rank him alongside teammate Babe Ruth as perhaps the greatest hitter to ever live.

    Yet Gehrig’s greatness often reverts back to sentiment, the ones that indelibly etch him into New York’s grandest vision of itself.

LeBron James: Cleveland

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    You’ve heard the story before: basketball wunderkind from Northeast Ohio matriculates to the NBA the same year the long-suffering Cleveland Cavaliers score the draft’s first overall selection.

    The Cavs eagerly pluck the basketball savant from their own backyard and install him as the franchise’s young face. No more memories of the Jordan over Ehlo, the King had arrived.

    For seven years, his reign was a good one. He became the league’s premier player and he carried the franchise to its greatest period of sustained excellence.

    He hadn’t delivered a championship yet, but it was only a matter of time.

    Then the script turned sour. The King absolved himself from power without forewarning and announced absolution with such discourtesy that it forever scarred his relationship with the once-loyal subjects.

    This was no fairytale.

    In an objective sense, LeBron James is—without question—one of the greatest hometown stars ever. On a sentimental level, however, his story feels woefully out of place here.

Dickie Moore: Montreal

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    Another member of the Montreal Canadiens dynasty that featured so many homegrown stars, Dickie Moore played alongside Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey and Jean Beliveau on some of the best teams in NHL history.

    Known as an offensive force with a wicked slapshot, Moore led the league in scoring twice and played a part in six Stanley Cup wins. Moore honed those skills as a youngster in Montreal’s talent-laden youth leagues, leagues that would become the fountainhead for the Canadiens’ mid-1950s dominance.

Chuck Bednarik: Philadelphia

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    The NFL’s last 60-minute man developed his legendary toughness in the Northeastern Pennsylvania factory town of Bethlehem, where his father worked in the Steel industry. After a decorated career as an Army pilot, Bednarik took his hard-nosed style to the more genteel haunts of West Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania .

    Bednarik would stay on campus for the rest of his playing career, starring for the Quakers as an All-American before embarking on a 14-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles during a time when both teams shared space at Franklin Field.

    In that red brick cathedral to football, Bednarik delivered the last championship in Philadelphia Eagles history—a 17-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers in which Bednarik stopped Packers standout Jim Taylor at the eight yard line as time expired.

    Perhaps Bednarik’s familiarity with the terrain gave him an edge against Taylor on that decisive play. No one could have known the hallowed grounds better than he.

Rickey Henderson: Oakland

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    Where did Rickey learn how to play like Rickey?

    Rickyville, a.k.a. Oakland, California.

    After Rickey graduated Oakland Technical High School as a three-sport star, Rickey signed with the Oakland Athletics and went on to four separate stints with Rickey’s hometown club.

    Over a quarter-century career, Rickey became one of the greatest all-around baseball players in the game's history.

    Rickey walked, Rickey hit, Rickey stole and Rickey fielded. There wasn’t much Rickey couldn’t do.

    Lost in all of Rickey’s idiosyncrasies? Rickey’s greatness.

    As the great Bill James put it, on Rickey’s behalf, “If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.”

Pete Rose: Cincinnati

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    A river rat from Cincinnati’s Sedamsville neighborhood, Pete Rose parlayed his blue-collar upbringing into a remarkable career as baseball’s most talented scrapper.

    Nowhere was Rose’s frenzied style of play more celebrated than in his hometown, where he spent the first 16 years of his record-breaking career. Rose fueled the Big Red Machine to two World Series championships before winning one more in Philadelphia

    Reviled by much of the sports world for his general scumbaggery, Rose received a hero's welcome last year in a rare sanctioned return to Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark.

    Like Barry Bonds in San Francisco, the great hitting king can do no wrong in Cincy's eyes.

Clyde Drexler: Houston

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    Drexler’s return to Houston had all the telltale signs of an aging legend coming home to retire.

    When Portland honored Drexler’s trade request midway through the 94-95 season, he was already 11 years into an illustrious career and clearly on the way down. Returning back to Houston, the place where he played his high school and college ball, felt more like closure than climax.

    Anywhere else, Drexler might have wilted. Instead, playing in the same town where he led the legendary University of Houston Phi Slamma Jamma squads, Drexler was born anew.

    Drexler averaged 20.5 points per game to go along with seven rebounds and five assists during the 1995 NBA playoffs, lifting sixth-seeded Houston to an improbable championship. After failing to win an NCAA championship in two Final Four appearances, Drexler finally brought the hardware home.

    He finished his career with three more solid seasons before retiring as a Houston Rocket.

Mark Messier: Edmonton

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    American sports fans may best remember Messier for his time as a New York Ranger, but he accomplished far more during his tenure with the hometown Edmonton Oilers.

    After playing his junior hockey in Alberta, Messier began a 12-year run with the Oilers that culminated in five Stanley Cup victories over just seven seasons. Even on teams that included Wayne Gretzky at his peak, Messier was the beating heart of Edmonton’s dynasty.

Dick Butkus: Chicago

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    Dick Butkus is so Chicago they should slather him in concrete and stick him atop the Sears (Willis) Tower.

    Born on the city’s South side, schooled at nearby University of Illinois and canonized as a stalwart member of the Chicago Bears for nine NFL seasons, Butkus toughness became the stuff of Windy City legend. It would seem no one collected more miles of Soldier Field sod on their jersey than the relentless Butkus, who left most contests caked in mud and blood.

    Known as the most feared man in football, Butkus took a keen interest in the game’s most gladiatorial aspects and became a Chicago legend in the process. Every linebacker since, both in and out of Chicago, lives in his considerable shadow.

Honus Wagner: Pittsburgh

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    There are few things more Pittsburgh than the life of Honus Wagner.

    Born in the Chartiers neighborhood of the city (now Carnegie, PA), Wagner dropped out of school at age 12 to work with his brothers in, what else, Pittsburgh’s coal mines. When Wagner’s Louisville Colonels team contracted following the 1899 season, the young hitting prodigy ended up with his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.

    Wagner would then spend the last 18 years of his career with the Bucs, winning eight batting titles and making his case as the greatest shortstop of all time. In 1936 he joined Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb in the baseball Hall of Fame’s flagship class.

    Once his playing career ended, Wagner stayed with the Pirates’ organization for 36 more years as a a coach. He died, at 81, in the same town where he was born.

Dave DeBusschere: Detroit

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    Before a single Bad Boy donned the red and blue, Dave DeBusschere personified Detroit Piston toughness.

    Born in Detroit, DeBusschere attended the city’s Austin Catholic Preparatory School before playing college ball at the University of Detroit. The Pistons drafted the 6’6” forward in 1962, and he quickly proved his worth as a physical defender and rebounder with a surprisingly adept scoring touch.

    DeBusschere’s ruthless and team-oriented style of play earned him a promotion to player-coach in just his third NBA season. When the team failed to develop around him, the Pistons shipped DeBusschere to the New York Knicks midway through the 1968-69 season.

    In New York, DeBusschere became a bona fide star and two-time NBA champion. He got his start, however, leading the hometown Pistons.

Chris Chelios: Chicago

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    Arguably the greatest American-born player ever, Chris Chelios’ ironman career as an NHL defenseman helped establish U.S. hockey at a time when Canadians dominated the upper ranks.

    That career peaked during Chelios’ eight seasons playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, a run highlighted by two Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman and an appearance in the 1992 Stanley Cup.

    Born in Chicago and raised in the nearby suburb of Evergreen, Illinois, Chelios' golden days on the Blackhwaks gave fans a rare chance to cheer a native son on the ice.

Mike Haynes: Los Angeles

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    Hall of Fame cornerback and return man extraordinaire Mike Haynes experienced instant gratification upon his return to Los Angeles. Playing for this first time in his hometown, Haynes helped lead the Raiders to a 1983 Super Bowl win in which he had an interception.

    After seven seasons in snowy New England, the championship and the sunshine must have felt especially sweet.

    Haynes would play out the final seven years of his career in L.A., garnering three of his nine Pro Bowl selections while a core member of the Raiders’ D.

Nolan Ryan: Houston

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    Though he’s now most associated with the Texas Rangers, it was Ryan’s nine seasons with the Houston Astros that earn him a place on this list.

    Ryan hails from the Houston suburb of Alvin, Texas, and it was there where baseball’s most durable hurler first honed his “effectively wild” pitching approach. Relying heavily on a fastball that went 100 miles per hour in any number of directions, Ryan’s pitches were as easy to guess as they were impossible to hit.

    Embodying the Texas-gunslinger archetype, Ryan remains a popular figure in southeast Texas. The Astros retired his No. 34, and Ryan threw out the first pitch for an Astros playoff game in 2005.

Paul Arizin: Philadelphia

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    In basketball’s dark ages, courts were called cages, “fast breaks” were a form of injury* and the preferred method of scoring was a stationary maneuver known as the two-handed set shot.

    Paul Arizin was having none of that.

    The Philadelphia-native left the rest of the league flat-footed when he busted onto the NBA scene in 1950 with a new offensive weapon, the jump shot.

    It doesn’t sound so revolutionary now, but in his time. Arizin was a regular Wilbur Wright. Before Julius Erving and Michael Jordan reached the moon, there first had to be someone willing to leave the ground.

    Even an era that valued excess offensive deliberation without the benefit of a shot clock, Arizin averaged 17.2 points per game his rookie season and upped that average to a league-leading 25.4 per game in his sophomore campaign.

    The Villanova alum played all 10 of his NBA seasons with the Philadelphia Warriors, opting to retire when the team moved to San Francisco. In 1956, he led the franchise to its only NBA championship while based in Philadelphia.

    *Ok, I made that one up.

Whitey Ford: New York

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    If Lou Gehrig represented New York class, Whitey Ford spoke for the city’s wild side.

    He had a lot of fun doing it, too.

    When the deft lefty wasn’t dominating AL opponents during his 16-year career with Yankees, Ford could be found navigating the city’s liquid underworld with fellow boozers Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. With Gotham’s gaping night-scape at their feet, the trio’s club conquests became the stuff of New York legend.

    Equally legendary was their ability to recover from the aftereffects in time for the next day’s game.

    Ford was also—in the parlance of the 1950s—a heck-of-a ballplayer. As the ace of arguably the greatest Yankee dynasty, Ford led the league in wins three times and never once had an ERA above 3.25.

Lisa Leslie: Los Angeles

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    Lisa Leslie laid the foundation for women’s basketball in Los Angeles well before a professional league existed.

    The world first heard of Leslie in 1990, when the Senior at Morningside High in Inglewood, California scored 101 points against South Torrance High—in the first half. It was the last game of a legendary high school career that earned her—and women’s basketball—mounds of attention in the L.A. area

    She continued to build on her local celebrity by rejecting hundreds of other scholarship offers in orde to play her college ball at USC in nearby Watts. There Leslie was a three-time All-American and national player of the year in 1994, her Senior year.

    After a brief hiatus, Leslie returned to L.A. in 1997 with the founding of the WNBA and her hometown Los Angeles Sparks. Over a 13-year career, all of it with the Sparks, Leslie became the most recognizable figure in women’s basketball and one of the most well-known in all women’s sports.

    She won three league MVP awards, led the Sparks to two championships (both which earned her Finals MVP awards) and finished her career with WNBA records in points and rebounds.

Frankie Frisch: New York

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    I can forgive you forgetting the great Frankie Frisch. It’s been a while since the “Fordham Flash” last manned the middle of the diamond for four World Series champions in the 1920s and 30s.

    Time shouldn’t, however, discredit all the Bronx-born Frisch accomplished in his big league career. Frisch got his baseball start across the Harlem River playing second and third base for John McGraw’s New York Giants. There the New York kid made a name for himself with his adept fielding, steady bat and blinding speed.

    In a 19-year career split between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals Frisch batted .300 or above 13 times, including a stretch of 11 consecutive seasons between 1921 and 1931. Frisch retired in 1937 and entered Cooperstown exactly ten years later.

Tracy McGrady: Orlando

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    After four difficult years in a foreign country with way too much snow, the sleepy-eyed kid from Central Florida wanted to come home.

    So, Tracy McGrady and agent Arn Tellem helped engineer a 2000 sign-and-trade that saw him move from the Toronto Raptors to the Orlando Magic in exchange for a first-round pick.

    Back in the Sunshine State, McGrady’s game began to blossom. Just five years removed from high school, McGrady emerged as the NBA’s premier scorer. All of the talent that laid untapped in Toronto came to fruition back home. Taking full advantage of his first shot as a No. 1 option, McGrady won back-to-back scoring titles in 2002-03 and 2003-04.

    Eventually McGrady would leap once more, this time to Houston, in pursuit of a title chance. By the time he left, T-Mac was a household name and an elite player, his story a testament to the power of coming home again.

Carlton Fisk: Boston

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    No other city’s sports teams play into a regional identity the way Boston’s do. From Providence to Manchester to Burlington to Bangor, the whole of New England claims Boston sports by way of distinguishing their corner of the world.

    Transfer that logic onto the calculus of hometown heroes, and it’s clear that Carlton Fisk qualifies. In a seemingly interminable career split between Sox—both Red and White—the New Hampshire-bred backstop known as “Pudge” set new position standards for hitting and durability.

    His decade on the Red Sox remains the most enduring stretch of his career, a run highlighted by his fair-or-foul home run against the Cincinnati Reds in the 1975 World Series.

    It was the apex of a glorious career that spanned four decades and eventually led him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where he would don the cap of his hometown team.

Dennis Eckersley: Oakland

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    Dennis Eckersley was born twice in Oakland, California.

    The first was a literal birth, the one that ushered him into this world in October of 1954. The second was a baseball birth, or re-birth, that saw the washed-up starter take a career-saving turn as Tony LaRussa’s closer on the Oakland Athletics of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    Eckersley entered Oakland in 1987 as a once-great starter on the wrong side of 30, he left the Bay Area eight years later with a World Series championship, a Cy Young award, an AL MVP and a place in baseball history as one of the game’s first superstar closers.

Wilt Chamberlain: Philadelphia

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    The gangly, freakishly athletic kid from West Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood wasn’t interested in playing basketball. He thought it “a game for sissies" and said he preferred track.

    Eventually he relented to the pressure of basketball-mad Philadelphia and gave the ball and hoop a shot.

    Turns out Wilt Chamberlain was pretty good at basketball—maybe even better than anyone who’s ever tried it.

    A national sensation at Overbrook High School, Chamberlain took a quick detour for three years of college ball at the Univeristy of Kansas before returning to play for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959.

    The Warriors picked up stakes and moved to San Francisco in 1962, taking the Philadelphia native with them. After two-and-a-half years in San Francisco Chamberlain and Philly would meet once again when the Warriors traded (traded!) him to the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1965 season.

    Chamberlain would play in Philadelphia for three more full seasons, delivering the franchise’s first championship since moving from Syracuse to the City of Brotherly Love.

    Despite his successes Chamberlain never seemed at home in Philadelphia. Cast out as a teen because of his height, Chamberlain relished the opportunity to play his college ball in far-away Lawrence, Kansas. Even when he played for the 76ers Chamberlain frequently commuted from a home in New York City.

    An unabashed fan of celebrity and comfort, Chamberlain found precious little of either in Philadelphia. Like he had at the end of high school, Chamberlain pined for a fresh start.

    He got his wish in 1968 when the 76ers traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, satisfying in the process his taste for the West Coast’s free and easy lifestyle. Not surprisingly, Chamberlain would live the rest of his life in Southern California.

    He felt, in many ways, too big for the town that raised him.


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