Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some Obscure Multi-Talented Athletes

     Even casual sports fans are usually familiar with multi-talented athletes like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.  For good reason--both these guys were skilled enough to play two major sports professionally, and play both of them well (both were clearly better at football than baseball, but each had their moments at their lesser sport).  Today I'd like to focus on some lesser known multi-talented athletes.  In some cases the second talent is actually non-athletic.  And in a couple of examples the people aren't really that obscure, but due to the passage of years I think the extent of their accomplisments aren't well remembered.  Finally, the "Some" that starts the title of this piece is there for a reason--this isn't meant to be a comprehensive list.

1) Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrickson Zaharias.  The Texan born Babe was by far the best female athlete of the first half of the 20th century, perhaps the entire century.  All this in a time when women were often strongly discouraged and criticized for playing sports in the first place, when major sportswriters such as Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram wrote, "It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up, and waited for the phone to ring."  Babe excelled at baseball, softball, basketball, track and field, golf, diving, and bowling, among others.  She won three medals at the 1932 Olympics--silver in the high jump, gold in the 80 meter hurdles and the javelin.  Next she turned to golf, and despite taking up the game at a late age she quickly dominated.  She had 41 pro wins, won the Grand Slam of the time in 1950 (3 events at this time, but still), and 10 majors all told.  Babe was also the only woman to make the cut in a PGA event, over 50 years before Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie, etc., and not via a sponsor's exemption (she played a 36 hole qualifier).  Alas cancer took her at a young age, although not without a fight.  She won the last of her majors after being fitted with a colostomy bag.

2) Toshiyuki "Harold" Sakata.  Harold is easily best known for being arguably the best enemy's side kick/muscle in arguably the best Jame Bond movie, "Goldfinger."  His role as "Oddjob," despite his being mute, was both intimidating and strangely endearing.  But fewer people recall that before Oddjob he was a fairly popular pro wrestler billed as "Tosh Togo," and before that, an Olympic athlete.  He won a silver medal for the U.S. (he was born in Hawaii) in weightlifting at the 1948 Games.

3) Bob Hayes.  Bob won two gold medals for the U.S. at the 1964 Olympics, in the 100 meter dash and the 4X100 meter relay.  He then decided to try out the NFL, as an offensive end (wide receiver) for the Dallas Cowboys, and quickly proved that the lightning-fast sprinter could also catch the ball and take a hit.  He became the premier deep threat of the NFL.  He also is the only man to both win an Olympic gold and a Super Bowl, with the 1971 season Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl played in early 1972).  Bob finally made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, a long time after he retired, almost certainly due to his personal life mistakes (he did 10 months in prison for delivery of drugs to an undercover police officer, and he struggled for years with alcohol and drug addictions) rather than his play on the field.

4)  Hugo Bezdek.  A bit of a stretch, since his accomplishments were as a coach rather than as a player.  Hugo coached college baseball, basketball, and football teams.  As a pro, he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1917-1919 (and did a fairly mediocre job).  Then, in 1937, he became head coach of the Cleveland Rams (and they did miserably, going 1-13.)  Thus, he became the only man to both head coach a modern NFL team and manage a MLB team.  (I say "modern NFL team" as longtime (50 years!) manager/owner Cornelius McGillicuddy (known as Connie Mack) of the Philadelphia Athletics also coached a football team (using some of his moonlighting baseball players) in 1902 in an early pro league which was also called the National Football League, but wasn't the one which became the eventual, modern NFL.)

5) Marion Jones.  Also a stretch, since Ms. Jones is fairly famous, or more accurately, infamous, for winning five medals at the 2000 Olympics on the U.S. team (Gold in the 100 meter dash, 200 meter dash, and 1600 meter relay, bronze in the long jump and 400 meter relay) and then having them stripped for testing positive for and later admitting to doing banned performance-enhancing substances.  She also did a six month prison sentence for lying to grand juries about both the steroids and her knowledge of her then husband's check fraud scheme.  What's not as well known is that Marion was also an excellent college basketball player, and after she got out of jail she was good enough to make the WNBA's Tulsa Shock squad in 2010-2011, albeit as a reserve player (at guard).  I imagine she had to take scores of tests, too, hopefully piss, blood, hair, etc.

6) Pat McInnally.  Pat was a good punter, and occasional wide receiver for 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 70's and 80's.  He was also the first Harvard grad to both be a Pro Bowler, and play in a Super Bowl.  His other talent, not surprisingly, was intellectual.  Since the early 1970's the NFL has prospective players take the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test (as do, apparently, tens of thousands of other companies, but it's best known with the NFL.)  Obviously, standardized tests are controversial, with some believing that they can be biased, or at the least that they're not effective predictors of success.  But, these qualifiers out of the way, Pat is the only person to have gotten a perfect score (50 out of 50 questions right.)  All scores mentioned are reported, by the way--evidently the Wonderlic test is a (poorly guarded) secret.  The average score for the general population is listed as 21, and the NFL prospect average is 19.  The highest position average is for offensive linemen, at 26, the lowest being halfbacks, at 16.  The lowest NFL player is Oakland Raider kicker Sebastian Janikowski, with 9.  Vince Young is alleged to have scored a 6 but his "official" (second?) score was 16.  The lowest reported score was 4, by Darren Davis, an Iowa St. running back who played in the CFL.  To support the contention that the Wonderlic is bullshit, or at least not foolproof, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino supposedly got a 16.

7) Gene Conley.  Gene was a fairly pedestrian pitcher with several MLB teams in the 1950's and 60's, finishing his 12 year career with a record of 91-96, and a 3.82 ERA.  However, he also played in the NBA for seven seasons.  In doing so he did something that no one else ever did, namely win championships in two different major sports (i.e. baseball, football, basketball, hockey).  Gene was on the 1957 World Series champion Milwaukee Braves team, and won three rings as a Boston Celtics reserve center in 1959-1961.

8) Bud Grant.  Bud had an eventful sporting life.  After college, he was drafted by the Minneappolis Lakers and played two seasons as a reserve forward, and was on the 1950 NBA Championship team.  Next he switched to football, joining the Philadelphia Eagles and playing as a defensive end in his first season, and at wide receiver in his second.  Embroiled in a salary dispute, he abruptly left to play in the Canadian Football Leaue.  After playing several seasons he was promoted to head coach, and took his Winnipeg Blue Bombers to six championship Grey Cups (winning four.)  Next, he went back to the NFL as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.  He spent a total of 18 seasons there, and finished with a record of 158-96-5.  Unfortunately for him, a la Marv Levy, he never won the Super Bowl, in four tries.

9) Byron "Whizzer" White.  White, of course, is best remembered as being a Supreme Court Justice from 1962-93. helping to judge many groundbreaking legal cases.  However, in his youth he was an outstanding football player.  He had a three year NFL career--in 1938 with the Pittsburgh Pirates (later changed to the Steelers), and in 1940-41 with the Detroit Lions.  He led the NFL in rushing in 1938 and 1940.  He cut off his football career to join the Navy when World War II broke out.  After the War he went to law school, and abandoned pro athletics.

10) Jim Thorpe.  I think most people are familiar with Okahoma born, American Indian Jim Thorpe's name, and status as a legendary athlete, but I believe most don't remember just how phenomenal an athlete he was.  In the 1912 Olympics he became the only person to ever win the pentathalon and decathalon in the same year.  His medals were stripped, of course, because of the rules of the time banning professionals, as he had played some pro baseball (don't get me started on this classist nonsense, that's a rant for another day).  Next he played major league baseball for six years (not spectacularly, it's true, but still) and then nine years in the NFL.  He even played pro basketball, although the records of this are skanty at best.  Happily, his medals were eventually restored, and his records reinstated, but unhappily this was done in 1983, or 30 years after his death.  Few people with any sense of history would dispute he was the best athlete of the 20th century (if not ever). 

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