Quick Bit: It’s impossible to get the Big Apple monument “right,” because so many sports legends have played in the metropolitan area. After the Bambino, it’s a free-for-all.
The SN Rushmore project named four pro athletes from the 13 cities that have had at least four of the following five leagues represented for at least 20 years — NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA. While there were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected, our panel of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Multiple players from the same franchise were allowed, and not every franchise needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.
It’s important to stipulate that it is impossible to get such a list “right.” The New York metropolitan area has too many all-time great athletes and city legends for this project, which is why there is a companion piece you absolutely need to check out. Maybe that’s the more accurate collection. It’ll be worth having the debate.
The guiding forces for this list were on-field success and cultural importance to the New York City/northern New Jersey region. In short: win and become synonymous with the city.
Those criteria produced the Bambino, the Iron Horse, LT and Clyde. From those four men come tales of success and failure, of forgiveness, of heartbreak, and of enduring popularity.
BABE RUTH (Yankees, 1920-34)
Ruth is beyond New York, of course. He has held a place in global culture for a century. But a Mount Rushmore of the city’s sports icons needs to have his mug etched into it.
For without Ruth, there is no Yankees dynasty and the palace that was built to house the Sultan of Swat would not have become a shrine.
Ruth was already a three-time world champion when the Red Sox sold his contract to the Yankees after the 1919 season. His new team hadn’t won a thing since starting play as the Highlanders in 1903.
His gigawatts of star power, now emanating from America’s largest city, energized baseball and the country on the heels of World War I ending and the Black Sox Scandal erupting.
Ruth’s first season in New York was his first exclusively as an outfielder. He ended up outhomering every other AL team in 1920 with a then-major league record 54. The next year, he raised the bar with 59 homers as the Yankees captured their first league crown.
“It was really remarkable, to show the power of the home run,” Tyler Kepner, national baseball writer for The New York Times, told The Sporting News. “You look at a contemporary of his being Ty Cobb, who won the Triple Crown with nine home runs (in 1909).”
The power game “turned it from a completely different game in terms of almost exclusively a contest of hitting and putting the bat on the ball and small ball and running, to putting the ball over the fence. It revolutionized baseball.”
And all that power made Ruth feel impervious. In the 1921 offseason, Ruth defied new baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis by organizing an illegal barnstorming tour. Landis suspended him for the first month of the ’22 season.
The Yankees barely skipped a beat during the ban, and they repeated as AL champs. They faced their Polo Grounds landlord, the Giants, in a second consecutive World Series and lost again.
The ’22 season would be the Yankees’ last at Coogan’s Bluff. The Giants evicted them as the American League rival was growing in popularity. But the Yanks weren’t homeless; a new palace about a mile away on the other side of the Harlem River was going up.
Yankee Stadium — the House that Ruth Built — opened on April 18, 1923. Ruth, naturally, homered in the game. The Yankees won the pennant in that debut season and finally beat the Giants in the Series.
America was roaring in the 1920s and Ruth was one of its boldest and brassiest heroes. He eventually became a crossover superstar with a stage and screen presence. (Here’s his IMDb page.)
“He always had the right one-liner,” Kepner said. The one about having had a better year than President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression was a great example. “He was marketed extremely well by Christy Walsh, maybe the first agent in baseball. He was everywhere and he was, I think, as a big a celebrity as there was in the country.”
The decade also played right into Ruth’s insatiable appetites for food, drink and women.
His gluttony helped to keep him out for the first two months of the 1925 season. The cover story in the newspapers was that too many hot dogs gave Ruth a “bellyache.” The more accurate tale was that gallons of booze did a number on his insides and sent him to the operating table.
But, Ruth being Ruth, he recovered and then posted three of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history from 1926-28. He slashed a combined .350/.488/.740 with 161 home runs in his early 30s. He was the centerpiece of one of the sport’s greatest teams, the 1927 “Murderer’s Row” squad. That was the year he hit 60.
The Yankees won the pennant all three of those seasons and then one more flag with Ruth in 1932. You might remember that ’32 World Series for the Bambino pointing toward the corner of Waveland and Sheffield in Chicago. That’s a project for another day.
Ruth left the Yankees after the ’34 season and finished his career back in Boston with the Braves. The Yankees proceeded to rip off 22 AL pennants and 16 World Series wins from 1936-64.
Those teams also had stars who became celebrities — Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to name several — but they followed George Herman Ruth, the toughest of acts to follow.
Ruth By The Numbers
Career on-base plus slugging
World Series championships
LOU GEHRIG (Yankees, 1923-39)
Gehrig was New York to the core. He born in the city at the turn of the 20th century to German immigrant parents who wanted him to be an engineer instead of a ballplayer.
With his mother setting the example, he cultivated a work ethic that would become an outsized feature of his career.
Sports won out in the Gehrig household as the kid’s talent blossomed. Young Lou moved from the sandlots to high school to the Ivy League, all in Manhattan. He was a lot more athlete than student at Columbia, but boy, what an athlete he was.
And, like the best New York stories, there was even some scandal. Gehrig was suspended for the Lions’ 1922 season after playing semipro ball in Connecticut the year before under an assumed name.
Once he took the field for the ’23 season, there was no denying the big fella had big league potential. Yankees scout Paul Krichell sure knew it. After seeing enough massive homers, he convinced the team to sign Gehrig.
Four months later, Lou was playing in the House that Ruth Built.
Two years after that, he embarked on becoming the greatest co-star in baseball history, the stoic sidekick to a bombastic showman.
“Ruth and Gehrig were this famous pair but they weren’t twins by any means. They both brought different reasons to root and a different kind of appeal. I think that made the Yankees even more interesting, because there were kind of multiple personalities to cheer for who were both extraordinarily productive,” Kepner said.
Gehrig still holds the MLB record with 23 grand slams and the single-season American League RBI record with 185 in 1931. There’s also the unmatched feat of 13 consecutive seasons of 100 or more runs scored and 100 or more RBIs.
When Gehrig was forced to stop playing in 1939 because of the rare disease that would take his life two years later, he was second to Ruth on the all-time home run list with 493.
That’s not just a product of being in the lineup every day for 15 years in a row.
“I think there’s an appreciation for what an extraordinary hitter he was,” Kepner said. “All it takes is one fleeting glance at his stat page to see all the black ink and all the things he led the league in and his numbers are just extraordinary.
“Part of the whole majesty of Gehrig is that, beyond having a very interesting story, he was unquestionably an all-time great on the field.”
But The Streak does hold some sway over his story.
Gehrig surpassed Everett Scott’s iron-man record by close to 800 games. He set a bar that took 56 years to clear. Many of his 2,130 games in a row were played through severe injury.
That made his terminal diagnosis even more difficult to comprehend. People hoped that his strength could beat ALS, not knowing that the disease is more powerful by magnitudes. More than 80 years on, there has been scant progress in slowing it, let alone curing it. The fight continues in his name.
Gehrig By The Numbers
Consecutive games played
World Series championships
TSN Archives: Lou Gehrig’s Death Shocks All in Game (June 5, 1941)
LAWRENCE TAYLOR (Giants, 1981-93)
Fallen heroes get places on monuments, too, especially ones who have generational talent and a redemption story, although in Taylor’s case that story became a large bit of fiction.
Taylor’s off-the-field life has been sordid for four decades. That is not disqualifying here. His on-field feats were Ruthian. He revolutionized NFL defense with skills that were honed by none other than Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.
LT was a 6-3, 237-pound, 3-4 outside linebacker who had the speed, athleticism, power and mean streak to destroy blockers and chase down both runners and passers. He came out roaring after being drafted second overall by the Giants out of North Carolina in 1981 (Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers went first to the Saints).
These were his first two seasons in the league:
Back-to-back Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year
Back-to-back All-Pro selections
Back-to-back Pro Bowl selections
Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year
He did all that in the New York market for a franchise and fan base that were nostalgic for the defense-driven Big Blue teams of the 1950s and ’60s.
“He was danger, he was trouble, he was this looming threat every down he was on the field,” said Kepner, who viewed LT from the perspective of an Eagles fan. “His quickness and aggressiveness was a sight to behold, even for a fan who wasn’t rooting for the Giants.”
It made Taylor an NFL superstar, which in the ’80s meant he had non-stop access to drugs. Cocaine and crack were the go-to narcotics.
By 1985, his double life was taking a toll. He tested positive for coke in the preseason but avoided punishment by later submitting another person’s clean urine samples. He wound up with 13 sacks that year.
LT finally entered a rehab program following the Giants’ 21-0 loss in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Bears. The stint lasted about a week before he decided to try golf therapy.
Once he was declared clean, the Giants and their fans gladly took him back.
The love only grew stronger as Taylor turned in a historic 1986 season. He set a record for linebackers with 20.5 sacks and became the first (and still only) defensive player to be voted Associated Press NFL MVP, an honor first awarded in 1956. And then came the topper: The Giants won Super Bowl 21 for the franchise’s first NFL title since 1956.
Behind the scenes, however, the drug use never stopped. There were failed tests in 1987 and 1988 (Taylor said he got caught trying to get by with someone else’s dirty sample). The latter one drew a 30-day suspension from the league. There were also brushes with the law.
And still, Taylor produced on the field. There was another Super Bowl win, too, four years after the first, against the high-powered Bills.
“I think that when you win two championships and you’re acknowledged as the best at your position, I think you overcome that,” Kepner said of the question of whether Taylor got the most out of his ability. “It was a shame, but I don’t think it’s like Dwight Gooden or Darryl Strawberry, where you feel like they should have been greater and that they got in their own way.”
Taylor retired after the 1993 season at 34. He was first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer over the objections about his character.
Taylor’s post-career life has been dogged by more addiction and arrests. Most disturbing was his guilty plea in 2011 on charges he had sex with an underage prostitute in an upstate New York motel. (Taylor did cooperate with authorities to help root out human trafficking.)
He was busted last December in Florida after allegedly failing to notify authorities he had changed residences, something that sex offenders are required to do.
So there is no happily ever after here. Taylor is a monument to superhuman talent being able to overpower human failings.
Taylor By The Numbers
Sacks (official total)
Super Bowl championships
NFL All-Pro selections
Pro Bowl selections
TSN Archives: Lawrence Taylor, linebacker at large (Nov. 17, 1986)
WALT FRAZIER (Knicks, 1967-77)
Clyde’s run in New York is one of the longest — and brightest and most colorful — threads in Knicks history.
He can look up from his courtside seat during a broadcast at The Garden and admire the retired No. 10 jersey and the two championship banners he saw raised to the rafters.
“When you can sort of have a second life beyond the court, that’ll connect you to another generation of a fan. I think when you’re talking about fame and you’re talking about impact, that’s definitely a big deal,” Kepner said.
As to how that first banner got raised . . .
May 8, 1970. Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Garden. “Here comes Willis.”
The lasting images of that night are of an injured New York center Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel and making his first two shots against the Lakers. The rest of the story: Reed went 0 for 3 after that and the Knicks’ third-year point guard took over the game.
As Frazier the broadcaster might say of Frazier the player, he was swishing and dishing. And he was doing it in the biggest moment of his career.
Frazier torched the Jerry West-Wilt Chamberlain Lakers for 36 points and 19 assists in 44 minutes as the Knicks rolled to a 113-99 win. The 19 dimes are still a record for a Finals Game 7.
The win made New York an NBA champion for the first time and finalized the city’s adoption of an Atlanta kid who played his college ball two hours south of St. Louis at Southern Illinois.
Here was a young star athlete playing in Manhattan. He was in the Joe Namath-Tom Seaver pantheon. And he was decidedly more Broadway Joe than Tom Terrific.
With a lot of help from the media, Frazier and his Clyde alter ego rose to greater heights. It was the total package: the cool vibes, the nightlife, the toys (not least the Rolls-Royce), the fashion. So. Much. Fashion.
And he took care of business on the hardwood a lot better than Joe Willie did on the gridiron. At his peak, Frazier made seven consecutive NBA All-Defensive teams, six consecutive All-NBA teams and seven consecutive All-Star teams. The Knicks made six consecutive East finals from 1969-74, winning three.
After winning it all in 1970, New York lost in the 1972 Finals to a Lakers team that won a record 33 in a row during the regular season. Then came a rubber match in 1973. New York spotted Los Angeles Game 1 before winning the next four. Frazier spearheaded a rotation that included six members of the NBA 75 team.
Frazier’s playing career didn’t end in New York, though. He was sent to the Cavaliers in 1977 as compensation for New York signing free agent Jim Cleamons. A foot injury in Cleveland ended his Hall of Fame career in 1979 at 34 after 13 seasons.
Eight years later, Frazier began parlaying his fame and popularity into a second career as a team broadcaster. His outfits have played great on TV (and, later, the internet), his rhymes have become his trademark, and he remains a keen observer of the game.
And now, the 77-year-old Frazier is a Hall of Fame broadcaster to go with his playing honor. He will be enshrined again in Springfield in September, joining primary broadcast partner Mike Breen.
“It’s not just that he’s so visible, it’s what he does with it and how magnetic and charismatic he is,” Kepner said. “(He’s) really a guy you have to love and you have to consider the entirety of his contribution to New York sports, and it really is enormous.”
And that’s why, to us, he is one of the faces of New York sports.
Frazier By The Numbers
All-NBA first team
All-Defensive Team first team
TSN Archives: Walt Frazier leads Knicks in style (Feb. 14, 1970)
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