If my wings should fail me, Lord, please meet me with another pair. — Led Zeppelin “In My Time Of Dying”
his subject has been swirling in my head for years. Who would make it if I were to pick my own personal Hall of Fame?
Would it just be sports? Would it just be famous people? Well, I finally have the time (voluntary layoff after 40 years writing for a newspaper) and the place (new website) to actually do something.
And so I’ve decided that the Class of 2020 will be made up of famous sports people — with a sprinkling of non-sports personalities to be added as years go by.
For instance, I can picture Jesus making it in the next class. He did not play sports and that’s the only reason he’s not in this one. No, not snubbed. Just didn’t fit the parameters. He, though, is my Lord and Savior, so … well let the snowballs or rocks fly at me, I guess. People gave Tim Tebow a hard time for it. I can handle.
My wife, dad and mom will make it some day, too, as will Hunter S. Thompson, who sought the truth and found it a surprisingly good many times despite his overindulgence in drugs. Ahhhhhhh, the Good Doctor, he could spot BS from two miles away even while he was seeing double. And don’t get me started. To this day, “Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72” is the best political treatise I’ve read. It hits close to the bone of the real behind-the-scenes treachery and comedy of the political machinery.
Eh, and I’ll continue with Thompson here because it is so critical to our understanding of today’s world. He followed a rather bland, but honest candidate, George McGovern, when he wrote that book.
Just the fact that Thompson chose that eventual colossal loser at the polls (Nixon won every state and D.C., except for my oft-rebellious home state of Massachusetts) to follow on the campaign trail tells us something highly instructive. The WHOLE country, or so it seemed, was behind a deceitful, corrupt liar, and as Thompson called on many occasions, scum. His word, not mine.
Jo Mamas. Was that me who wrote that last paragraph? Or did I steal it from HST? Very blurry indeed. But we are five paragraphs past the main point of this story, so it’s best to get back on track before eyeballs start wandering in a different website direction and not here where they belong, piling up the viewership numbers that my potential advertisers/partners want to see.
Topping the list of the inaugural class is Bobby Orr, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Boston Bruins, and to many, many, many knowledgeable hockey fans, the greatest hockey player of all-time. Yeah, yeah, more people say Gretzky. Ahhhh, but they never saw Orr, who was poetry in motion.
People may shout bias, and that is true. I am from the Boston area. But I implore anyone out there to show me evidence — via highlight reel — of any hockey player in the world who was more of a complete package than Orr.
Orr had speed, goal-scoring and playmaking ability. He controlled the flow of play. He was a hard-nosed, unyielding defenseman. He could hit. He could fight.
A little further down, you’ll see a highlight reel of him going end-to-end a ton of times. And that’s the biggest selling point of all. No one out there could touch him. Graceful. Do the eye test and put him against anybody else’s highlight reel. If you find one that you believe rates higher than Orr’s, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I met Bobby Orr at Marlboro Country Cub when he played in the Joe Lazaro Celebrity Golf Tournament. I was fortunate enough to talk to him in between the 8th green and 9th tee. I wrote about that encounter and it can be found somewhere in the archives of the Marlboro Enterprise and Hudson Daily Sun from the early ’80s. All I remember telling him is that me and my friends constantly recreated his famous 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal hundreds of times.
So, yes, Bobby Orr is my favorite athlete of all time and it will be hard to knock him off that perch.
“I like to call them the hockey Trinity — (Wayne) Gretzky
being the son, (Gordie) Howe being the Father, and Bobby Orr being
the Holy Ghost because he was truly amazing.”
— Bob Mackenzie, The Hockey News
My second favorite athlete of all time is Muhammad Ali, who we all know contributed so much to society with his brave — and unpopular at the time — opposition to the Vietnam War. He was ahead of his time on that belief. Historians generally regard that war as a quagmire that the U.S. was unnecessarily involved in.
But his beauty in the ring is the overriding thing here. He backed up his talk about being The Greatest.
He put down the unbeatable Sonny Liston (the Mike Tyson type of his time) twice. And then, later, took two out of three from his biggest rival, Joe Frazier.
Frazier’s left hook — a thing of beauty itself — caught Ali late in the first fight and that is still one of the most amazing sports photos of all time. He broke Ali’s jaw.
Yet, Ali came back to take the next two and then, later, on an aging frame, stole back the title he lost to Frazier — from new titleholder George Foreman — using an unconventional strategy. Ali had the balls to stand against the ropes and take punishment while Foreman tired. And then he unleashed a fury to put Foreman down. Yes, he slayed another big, brutish, unbeatable type.
That victory over Foreman is worth taking a closer look at for anyone who wants to know more about the Ali mystique. I recommend watching “When We Were Kings,” a documentary of that fight and the events leading up to it.
“I’ve always maintained that (Muhammad) Ali fought more big, talented, tough heavyweights than (Jack) Dempsey, (Joe) Louis and (Rocky) Marciano combined. He fought (Joe) Frazier three times (Ken) Norton three times, Liston twice, (Floyd) Patterson twice, (Jerry) Quarry twice, Foreman. Nobody else has ever gone through a list of guys like that.”
— Larry Merchant, TV boxing analyst
Many people are completely surprised when I tell them that Doug Flutie is one of my favorite athletes of all time. He’s third on the list, as a matter of fact.
I was fortunate enough to cover Flutie’s Boston College years for the Enterprise-Sun. It was not just the famous pass to beat Miami. It was magical the whole four years.
He was the fifth-string quarterback as a freshman and then when he got his chance he carried the Eagles on his shoulders. He grew up in Natick, Mass., a few towns over from my hometown of Marlboro.
I was struck by his ability to walk to the line of scrimmage with the utmost confidence that something good was going to happen. He brought that kind of energy and his teammates fed off to it. He found ways to get the job done, with his confluence of ability and belief.
Despite being in on interviews with Flutie, I never got the 1-on-1 chance to find out what was going on in his head.
In the NFL, Mike Ditka didn’t really give Flutie a shot with the Chicago Bears. And then, when Flutie went to the Patriots as a backup to an injured Tony Eason, he went 5-2 to end the regular season and put the team in the playoffs. But coach Raymond Berry made what I’ve always felt is a gigantic mistake by starting an ailing and ineffective Eason over hometown hero Flutie. It resulted in a playoff loss.
But the CFL came calling and Flutie produced. He won three Grey Cups and was the league’s Most Outstanding Player six times.
He came back to the Patriots and drop-kicked an extra point (for fun) in one of his last pro games.
This article would be incomplete without a Doug Flutie highlight real.
Interesting sidenote here, a high school player I knew in the early 1980s drop-kicked extra points in games more than a few times — Peter Percuoco of the Hudson Hawks, Marlboro’s arch rival. It made a splash in the local papers. Anyone else remember that? I know for sure it’s in the archives.
“The place will be rocking when that time comes. I’m not sure they understand. This is not the football capital of the world. I’m not sure they know what they’ve been seeing. I may find a guy who throws it as well, or runs it as well, but to get the total package? I don’t know if I’ll see that again.”
— Jack Bicknell, former BC coach, before Flutie’s last regular-season game
The hometown bias is super evident in the rest of the picks. There are six more entrants and three are Boston heroes. Larry Bird will someday make it, but I’m not a basketball guy and Bill Russell deserves first crack for hoops. Tom Brady may make it some day as well, but I’m lukewarm on the Patriots (which is not good enough for all the crazy Patriots fans who forget how miserable the franchise was in the early days, my formative sports fan years).
I guess Tiger Woods still has a shot to make it on my list, and Mark Fidrych (who went from from tiny Northboro, Mass., to short-lived big-league stardom is a likely shoo-in eventually. But Roger Clemens won’t make it, not so much because of the steroids as much as his eventual ties to the New York Yankees.
So, let’s continue with just a little bit about the rest of the inaugural class, starting with the Boston guys:
Ted Williams: World War II hero, last man to bat .400 or better in the major leagues, .344 lifetime batting average, 512 home runs, sometimes referred to as the greatest hitter of all time and considered by almost every baseball historian as “one of” the greatest hitters of all time. I was lucky enough to interview Teddy Ballgame in 1986.
“Greatest left-handed hitter I’ve ever seen.”
— Joe DiMaggio, Yankees’ great, on Ted Williams
One question pertaining to today’s NBA sums up Bill Russell. Whatever happened to defense? Russell was the consummate defender, shot-blocker and shot-angle changer. More importantly, he stopped scoring machine Wilt Chamberlain when it mattered most en route to 11 NBA championships. Russell was also a 12-time All-Star and five-time league MVP.
“Okay, nobody plays center but Russell.”
— Celtics coach Red Auerbach, after Russell complained
that everyone else on the team was posting up
during his 12th NBA game in his rookie year
Bill Lee did it his way and what shines the most (aside from his outspokenness) is his love for the pure game of baseball. It doesn’t matter how many games you win or how high you rise in your career, it’s getting out there and playing that matters most to Lee. At age 72, he is still playing and touring the country for games, according to various Internet reports. A documentary, “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey,” is an informative, fun romp about Lee’s life in baseball and it has great stuff on his baseball-playing trip to Cuba.
Some past zingers from Lee are worth putting here:
>> “The other day they asked me about mandatory drug testing. I said I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the sixties I tested everything.”
>> “You have two hemispheres in your brain — a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.”
>> “You should enter a ballpark the way you enter a church.” Sports Illustrated (April 7, 1980). >> I would change policy, bring back natural grass and nickel beer. Baseball is the belly-button of our society. Straighten out baseball, and you straighten out the rest of the world.” Los Angeles Times (Feb. 3, 1977).
“Bill realized very early the ludicrousness of being in a position where so many intellectual vegetables have so much authority and influence over the way he lives his life. I always thought Bill was an accident looking for a place to happen. But he’s too intelligent to be self-destructive. He knows marginal players have to play by the rules. Any deviation from the norm is a ticket out. But he’s a master at walking the tightrope. Bill never let anybody or anything diminish his character. And he never will.”
— Tom House, former Red Sox pitcher
Four Super Bowl victories. Like Flutie, Joe Montana had the confidence and the ability and the ‘We’re not going to lose’ attitude, and he did it at the highest possible level, the NFL. He played when quarterbacks were still fair game and there were no rules saying you couldn’t knock their blocks off. And passing 100 times per game was unheard of, so you couldn’t roll up these gaudy passing yards numbers that all quarterbacks do today. Joe Montana was a pure leader and he took the 49ers on quite a ride through the 1980s, and that was extremely fun to watch.
“When people talk about the greatest quarterbacks, they always use disclaimers. I’ll say it without any disclaimers: This guy (Joe Montana) is the greatest quarterback ever.”
— John Madden, after Montana’s last NFL game
Franco Harris was my favorite player back the day, but I loved everything about this team and rooted with a passion for all four Super Bowl victories. I couldn’t pick just one of the players here. The team was just so special. Linebacker Jack Lambert is up high with Harris, and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene is somewhere in the Top 10, along with receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, cornerback Mel Blount, safety Donnie Shell, running back Rocky Bleier, defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood and center Mike Wagner. Oh, and Terry Bradshaw had a pretty good arm, too!!!! The Steelers, and not the Patriots, were my team. I even won a Grace Circle Dice Football championship as the Steelers, circa 1975.
“If I could live my life over, I’d be a football player, and you damn well better believe I’d be a Pittsburgh Steeler!”
— Jack Lambert, in his Hall of Fame induction speech
What a lineup!!!!! And manager Sparky Anderson got the most out of his group of no-name pitchers, too. But, oh, that lineup!! C–Johnny Bench
I was torn in 1975. I was rooting for my hometown Red Sox in the World Series, who eventually lost to this superpower Reds team in seven games. The next year, I didn’t have that same problem when Cincinnati easily swept the New York Yankees in four games. I remember getting to know this Reds team as early as 1970, when they lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in five games, and in 1972, when they lost the series to the Oakland A’s in seven.
It must have been about 1972 when my neighbor Andy Gallagher started this poem that I still believe is unfinished: “Rose is a Red
Vida’s Blue” I wonder if Andy remembers that.
Like the Steelers, I won a Grace Circle Dice Baseball championship as the Reds, circa 1975.
“It’s much easier to remember the World Series heroics of Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan than it is to recall who set the table for Rose during Game 7 (in 1975). The Red Sox led 3-2 in the seventh when (Ken) Griffey drew a free pass. Not nearly as memorable as the home run Perez hit against
Bill Lee that made it a 3-2 ballgame, not nearly as memorable
as the hit Rose got to tie the game, and for sure not as memorable as the hit Morgan got to win it in the ninth, but … it’s a shame people forget Griffey stoke second base with two outs to get into scoring position.
— Tucker Elliot, “Cincinnati Reds IQ: The Ultimate Test of True Fandom”