Blasberg ’18: Boston claims more top athletes than any other city

Sports Columnist
Tuesday, March 10, 2015

After Tom Brady’s Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl last month, Brady solidified himself as one of the best quarterbacks ever. But he is just one of many great Boston sports figures that have graced the world of sports. The legends and lore of the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots are among the richest icons, and the characters that feature prominently in those stories are among the greatest athletes to compete in major American sports.

Boston is unique and the argument can be made that, for each of the four major sports, the greatest, most important athlete played the majority of his career in Boston.

First, I’d like to clarify that this is not an argument about who is the greatest player in each sport. I despise those conversations. They are arbitrary and rarely move beyond two or three names. My point is that the sports teams of Boston have produced a phenomenal athlete in each sport, and no other city can say that. 

The Bruins were  home to Bobby Orr, the wonder kid from Perry Sound, Ontario. He revolutionized the role of defenseman, and his vision and talent were unmatched. In conversations of the greatest NHL players, Orr and Wayne Gretzky dominate as the unquestioned two best. Though Orr played two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, knee injuries prevented him from being successful there. He will always be remembered as a Bruin.

The Celtics produced the great Bill Russell, who has more championship rings than fingers to put them on. A player-coach for three seasons, Russell was the undisputed best defender of his time and remains the greatest player basketball has ever seen.

For baseball, in 1939, the Boston Red Sox picked up 19-year-old Ted Williams, whom an announcer at the 1999 All Star Game described as “the greatest hitter that ever lived.” The Splinter was the last player to bat over .400, and he did it 74 years ago, which leads me to believe that it may not happen again.

The Patriots have produced Tom Brady, a four-time Super Bowl champion, who has been the undisputed leader of the franchise for over a decade. During his tenure, the Patriots have won 12 of 14 AFC East titles, and for one of the two years they didn’t win, Brady missed the season with an injury.

Many cities have produced great players. There is nothing unique about that. What is special about Boston is that each team has produced figures that are legends in their respective sports. New York has brought slews of great Yankees, but the Knicks, Nets, Giants, Jets and Rangers haven’t boasted players that can be considered the greatest of all time.

The same goes for Dallas. Their Cowboys have three all-time greats in Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, but other Dallas sports fall short. The two cities that can challenge Boston are Los Angeles and Chicago.

The city of Los Angeles has a tradition of great athletes that is comparable to but cannot rival that of Boston. The Kings were home to Wayne Gretzky for eight years in the middle of his career, but Gretzky’s greatest years came in Edmonton, where he won all four of his Stanley Cups. The Lakers have brought us Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, both of whom are worthy candidates for the best ever. The greatest L.A. baseball player was Sandy Koufax, a great southpaw pitcher who led the Dodgers to two World Series, but neither his level of play nor his overall contribution to the sport eclipses that of Ted Williams. The L.A. Rams’ Fearsome Foursome dominated during the 1960s, but no one player stands out as one of the greatest of all time.

Chicago is the city that most challenges Boston. The Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan, who won six championships in the Windy City. Though Jordan played elsewhere, 13 of his 15 seasons came with the Bulls. While he did not win as many titles as Russell, he won his in a more competitive era. The Blackhawks, an Original Six team, produced two stars in Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, but both of these players usually rank from 10 to 15 on all-time-greatest lists, while the likes of Orr and Gretzky consistently appear in the top three. The Bears had Walter Payton, a dynamic running back out of Jackson State University. “Sweetness,” along with Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, is one of the three most effective running backs the game has seen. Because of the nature of football, it is difficult to compare players of different positions; Brady’s Patriots have been more successful than Payton’s Bears, but Payton has picked up more MVPs than Brady has.

Finally, the greatest baseball player to come out of Chicago has to be Ernie Banks, a rare shortstop who hit for power. His career, characterized by both longevity and magnificence, is asterisked somewhat because he never played in the playoffs, but I see that as more reflective of the lowly Cubs organization than of Banks. The only thing I see keeping Chicago from Boston’s level is a great hockey player, and if Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane can augment their success in the next five seasons, they may enter the conversation.

But for now, Boston holds the crown as the only city with an all-time great in every sport. If this decade is any indication, Boston teams will continue to boast the greatest players of all time for years to come.

  • MotownSports

    You might want to look into Detroit sports history…. Wayne Gretzky says the greatest hockey player of all time without question is Gordie Howe. The NFL has been around long enough that you might want to consider pre Super Bowl era teams, or a couple of running backs. The Tigers have players in the same pantheon as Teddy Ballgame. There were quite a few Piston greats to match your list. Detroit might win the title, dig a little deeper. You also short changed Dallas sports – Dirk, Modano, Pudge, ARod, Nolan.

  • MotownSports

    And what about Pittsburgh?

  • Doug

    Chuck, I disagree homie. Russel has nothing on LeBron, MJ or the mamba.

  • yaboi

    Though you said you don’t like arguments about who the best player is, your arguments in the article ended up being based on assertions of that nature.