Ranking generations of athletes
February 17, 2011 | By Richard Rothschild
- Determining the best generation in U.S. sports history is no easy matter
- Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, Michael Jordan, LeBron James not in top group
- GI generation wins for contributions to society, but finishes second in sports
When Bill Russell was winning two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal and 11 NBA crowns, championship teams rarely received invitations to the White House. It certainly wasn't like earlier this month, when the Super Bowl XLV champion Green Bay Packers could boast about a future engagement at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But as he usually did during his incomparable 13-year NBA career, Russell has gotten his due from the White House. The five-time MVP and the first black man to coach a major league team in the modern era was honored with 14 others Tuesday when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in D.C. Other honorees included Warren Buffett, poet Maya Angelou, baseball great Stan Musial and former President George H.W. Bush.
In addition to Russell's incomparable athletic accomplishments, the medal also was in recognition of his leadership for civil rights causes during a time when fans would cheer a black athlete when he played for their favorite team but voice a much different reaction if he tried to live in their neighborhood.
Times, of course, have changed, especially for the nation's youngest athletic generation, the Millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000. One should not think harshly of them if many of the conflicts involving race, sex and religion were settled long before they picked up a ball or competed in a race. They're judged mainly by how they perform in the arena, and it's been a memorable 12 months.
Skier Lindsay Vonn became the first U.S. woman to win gold in the Olympic downhill. Patrick Kane's overtime goal gave the Chicago Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Pitcher Tim Lincecum helped lead the San Francisco Giants to their first World Series championship since leaving New York in 1958. Most recently, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers beat Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first Super Bowl showdown between Millennial starting quarterbacks.
But how do the Millennials measure up with the previous six generations in U.S. sports? Are they in the same league as the generations of Babe Ruth or Joe Louis or Bill Russell? Which one is American sports' greatest generation?
Americans have been running, jumping and throwing since the early days of the republic, but let's start the conversation with athletes from the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, when golf's U.S. Open, the modern Olympic Games, the World Series, Rose Bowl and Walter Camp's first All-America football team helped inaugurate the modern era of U.S. sports.
(The names and dates of generations listed below are based on the research of Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, who wrote about generational topics in the 1990s and early 2000s.)
7) Missionary Generation (1860-1882)
Standout American athletes/officials: Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, Jack Johnson, Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Prominent Americans: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jane Addams, Douglas MacArthur.
The case for: Legendary athletes and four of baseball's greatest architects highlight the nation's first prominent sports generation. Young's 511 wins is one of the most unapproachable records in sports. Wagner, a .328 lifetime hitter, still tops some lists as baseball's best all-time shortstop.
Mack and McGraw, solid players in their own right, combined to win eight World Series as managers. Barrow was the general manager who helped construct the Yankees dynasty from 1921 to 1945. Rickey ended baseball's decades-old ban on black ballplayers by signing Jackie Robinson.
Heavyweight champ Johnson was the nation's first black sports star, although he alienated many whites with his refusal to bend to the racial mores of the era.
The case against: Other than Johnson and Stagg, it's all baseball and all white. Landis helped root out gambling in baseball but the game's first commissioner also prevented black players from integrating the majors. There were no prominent female athletes unless you headed to a Wild West show to see the wondrous sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
Conclusion: The lack of athletic, gender and racial diversity leaves Missionary standouts well short of what would come in later decades.
6) Millennial Generation (1982-2000)
Standout athletes: Michael Phelps, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Diana Taurasi, Lindsey Vonn, Landon Donovan, Nastia Liukin, Joe Mauer, Tim Lincecum, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Shaun White.
Prominent Americans: Mark Zuckerberg, Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart, Rihanna, Zac Efron, Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, Taylor Swift.
Case for: The Millennials, who kicked off their run with Tara Lipinski's gold medal in figure skating at the 1998 Winter Olympics, are starting to hit their stride.
Phelps rules all Olympic generations with 14 gold medals. Until Mauer, no catcher had won a league batting title since 1942. Mauer has three. All four starting quarterbacks in the NFL's conference championships were Millennials.
No American generation of athletes is as good in so many sports.
The case against: It's way too early. The Millennials' final athletic chapter won't be written until about 2040. And Millennials already have suffered some slips. Will Roethlisberger be remembered for winning Super Bowls or for his loutish behavior off the field?
No Millennial has been more publicized than LeBron, but this most physically gifted of basketball players still lacks an NBA title. His over-the-top announcement about joining the Miami Heat made him look horribly self-absorbed.
Conclusion: Check back in about three decades. As the first sports generation to have its entire athletic career (and private life) chronicled on websites, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the Millennials have little room for error with off-the-field shenanigans.
5) Lost Generation (1883-1900)
Standout athletes/coaches: Ty Cobb, Jim Thorpe, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Bill Tilden, George Halas, Casey Stengel, Knute Rockne, Avery Brundage.
Prominent Americans: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Mae West, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, Marx Brothers.
The case for: Ruth, Thorpe, Cobb, Tilden and Dempsey reside atop sports' Mt. Olympus. Mathewson and Johnson were supreme pitchers and exemplary individuals. Stengel, Halas and Rockne led their teams to multiple championships.
Losts knew how to win, particularly Thorpe, perhaps the greatest all-around U.S. athlete in history. The two-time Olympic track gold medalist was one of pro football's early stars and good enough to play baseball for McGraw's Giants.
The case against: The Losts were no angels. Cobb batted a record .366 for his career but was a racist and was known as one of baseball's dirtiest players. Ruth broke records but also set records for breaking rules.
Halas coached the Chicago Bears to six NFL titles but baited referees and was miserly with many of his players. Tilden won seven U.S. championships and dominated tennis in the 1920s but late in life he was imprisoned twice for inappropriate behavior with young boys.
Thorpe, too, ran afoul of rules, specifically the ultra-strict amateur statutes of the day. He was stripped of his gold medals after admitting he had accepted $25 a week to play minor league baseball before the 1912 Olympic Games. The medals weren't restored until 1982, 29 years after his death.
Lost ballplayers brushed shoulders with gamblers, most notably the 1919 Black Sox.
Blacks and women played little role in big-time athletics. Pro football was running on life support.
Conclusion: Ruth, Grange, Dempsey and Tilden helped their respective sports build national followings in what became known as sports' "Golden Age." But white men alone can't make the case.
4) Baby Boom Generation (1943-60)
Standout athletes/coaches: Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Mark Spitz, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Eric Heiden, Lawrence Taylor, Cal Ripken Jr., John Elway, Dale Earnhardt, Phil Jackson, Pat Summit.
Prominent Americans: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Spike Lee, Meryl Streep, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson.
The case for: From Ali (technically a Silent who was born in 1942), to Tommie Smith's medal-stand protest, to Joe Namath's Super Bowl prediction to the hair-raising Oakland A's and the raucous Bronx Zoo Yankees of the 1970s, to the outbursts of Connors and McEnroe on the tennis court, to King's tireless push for women's equality off it, this was a generation unafraid of offering opinions.
But there was more to Baby Boomers than chatter. Professor and author David Kaiser says this was a smart, well-conditioned cohort whose athletes competed far longer than previous generations. Jabbar, Ripken, Montana, Elway, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan blended lengthy careers with record-setting and championship performances.
Evert won 18 Grand Slam titles and joined the crusading King and the gifted Czech expatriate Martina Navratilova to give the U.S. a golden age of women's tennis.
Bird and Johnson resuscitated a listless NBA, whose championship games had been relegated to late-night taped broadcasts. Their Boomer-laden teams combined to win eight NBA titles in the 1980s.
Phil Jackson, Tony La Russa, Bill Belichick and Mike Krzyzewski are Hall of Fame-caliber coaches. Many sports utilize the statistical analysis pioneered by another Boomer, Bill James.
Barriers of race and gender toppled. Ashe was the first black man to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Cito Gaston was the first black manager to win a World Series and Tony Dungy the first black coach to win a Super Bowl.
Tennessee's Summit has guided the Lady Vols to eight national basketball championships and more than 1,000 victories in becoming one of the nation's superior coaches of any gender.
Late-wave Boomers propelled the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to a stunning victory over the Soviet Union.
The case against: Boomers were in the middle of the first work stoppages in baseball (1972, 1981) and the NFL (1982). Free agency triggered a financial windfall for athletes but frayed the bonds between team and community. Segregation shadowed the generation's early college football years as all-white Boomer teams claimed four national championships between 1963 and 1969. As for all that boastful noise that Ali, Namath and Reggie Jackson produced. Well, today such talk, as author Neil Howe says, "is no longer cool."
Conclusion: A very good athletic generation and one with longevity. Ali's heavyweight championship win over Sonny Liston and swimmer Don Schollander's four Olympic gold medals in 1964 kicked of the long Boomer run. At 51, Mark Martin finished second in the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Yet even with Ali added to the mix, the Boomers are not the greatest.
3) Generation X (1961-81)
Standout athletes: Carl Lewis, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Derek Jeter, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mia Hamm, Michael Johnson, Pete Sampras, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Williams sisters, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Jimmie Johnson.
Prominent Americans: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Malcolm Gladwell, MC Hammer, Kanye West.
The case for: Beginning with Jordan's jump shot that won the NCAA title for North Carolina in 1982 and continuing through a fifth NBA championship for Bryant last June and Serena Williams' fourth Wimbledon title in July, Gen X is leaving an indelible mark on athletics.
Jordan, Lewis, Joyner-Kersee, Rice, Woods, Maddux and Sampras rank among the best ever at their respective sports.
Gen X women were the first to benefit from Title IX legislation that ensured equal access to collegiate athletics and scholarships. Ex-Tar Heel Hamm joined her U.S. women's soccer teammates to provide athletic role models for a generation of American girls.
Across-the-board excellence in all sports is highlighted by the full inclusion of women and minorities. Coaches of color are central players in nearly every major sport except college football. Gen X athletes have competed under the full glare of ESPN, making them the most televised and publicized sports generation in history.
The case against: Steroids have mocked baseball's record book and performance-enhancing drugs have touched nearly every sport. PED allegations continue to cast a shadow over the achievements of Bonds, Clemens and Armstrong. Use of illegal supplements cost Marion Jones her five medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Floyd Landis his 2006 Tour de France title.
Woods' serial infidelity has taken a toll on his historic career.
Gen X coaches Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, Joe Girardi, Doc Rivers, Billy Donovan and Bill Self have won championships but the generation's overall sideline resume remains a bit thin.
Ever-increasing salaries and prize money continue to widen the gap between elite athletes and the public. Gen X athletes were caught up in work stoppages in the NFL (1987), baseball (1994-95) and the NBA (1998-99).
It's also hard to overlook the at-times suffocating commercialization of sports with what Neil Howe describes as "each individual athlete seeing themselves as a business."
Conclusion: The supremely talented Gen Xers still have a few chapters to write and may yet be viewed as sports' greatest generation. There's no questioning their skill on the field. Off the field is another story.
2) GI Generation (1901-24)
Standout athletes/coaches: Bobby Jones, Red Grange, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Helen Wills Moody, Don Budge, John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Bear Bryant, Red Auerbach, Eddie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Babe Didrikson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead.
Prominent Americans: Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Walt Disney, Charles Lindbergh, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Walter Cronkite, John Glenn.
The case for: Dubbed the "Greatest Generation," the cohort that survived the Great Depression, won World War II and helped fuel the postwar economic boom holds a special place in American memory.
Owens, Louis and Jackie Robinson transcended sports and proved that black athletes could compete on any playing field.
Didrikson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in track and a three-time U.S. Open champion in golf, often is regarded as the nation's best all-around female athlete. Moody won eight Wimbledon and seven U.S. singles titles.
Williams' .406 average, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Owens' four gold medals at Berlin, Louis' and Rocky Marciano's domination of boxing's heavyweight ranks, Budge's grand slam in tennis, Jones' grand slam in golf and Snead's record 82 PGA Tour wins are high points of U.S. sports history.
GI coaches were the greatest: Wooden, Lombardi, Auerbach, Bryant, Paul Brown and Eddie Robinson are giants. The underrated John Kundla led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA titles. Woody Hayes guided a college football dynasty at Ohio State and Adolph Rupp turned Kentucky into a college basketball titan.
Marvin Miller built the baseball's players association into the strongest union in sports.
The case against: It's like arguing against motherhood but there are chinks in the GI armor. Pro football was still a second-class citizen to the college game. Although blacks were starting to make a name in boxing and in the Olympics, major league baseball was off-limits to talented Negro league stars. Satchel Paige couldn't join the majors until well past his prime. Basketball remained a niche sport and women's athletics had a long way to go.
Conclusion: For courage and contributions to society, the GIs can't be beat. As athletes, however, the silver medalist of America's sports generations doesn't have the depth and diversity of their successor.
1) Silent Generation (1925-42)
Standout athletes/coaches/officials: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, John Unitas, Jim Brown, Pete Rozelle, Pancho Gonzales, Richard Petty, Wilma Rudolph, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Joe Paterno, Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Bob Knight, George Steinbrenner.
Prominent Americans: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Day O'Conner, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jesse Jackson, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden.
The case for: Benefiting from the exposure of television and the growth of sports as mass entertainment, the Silents put on quite a show.
Rivalries prospered: Russell vs. Wilt; Jack vs. Arnie; Willie vs. Mickey; Oscar vs. West. There are landmark numbers from the Silent athletes: Russell's 11 NBA championships; Chamberlain's 100 points in a game and 50.4 scoring average for a season; Unitas' 47 straight games throwing a touchdown pass; Mantle's 18 World Series home runs; Brown's 5.2 yards per carry for his career; Petty's 200 NASCAR victories; Nicklaus' 18 major golf titles.
Brown and Johnny U. helped the NFL become the nation's preeminent sport, while Russell, Wilt, The Big O and West took the NBA to the front page of the nation's sports sections. Palmer and Nicklaus did the same for golf.
Little Mo Connolly became the first woman to win tennis' grand slam. Althea Gibson in tennis and Wilma Rudolph in track brought black female athletes into the headlines.
Many black Silent athletes, notably Russell, Brown and Aaron, were "extraordinary for their sense of social responsibility," said author David Kaiser.
And this generation hung around. From the 1948 Olympic decathlon gold medal that Bob Mathias won at 17 to Nicklaus' 1986 win at the Masters at 46, the Silents performed at the highest level for nearly four decades.
No generation produced a more sterling class of NFL coaches. Shula, Walsh, Chuck Noll, Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells combined to win 14 Super Bowls.
Paterno is major college football's all-time winner. Knight and Dean Smith were college basketball titans, while Joe Torre has won four World Series and a record 84 postseason games. Herb Brooks is American sports' favorite miracle worker.
Rozelle presided over the spectacular growth of the NFL and the creation of the Super Bowl. David Stern has made the NBA a worldwide brand. Steinbrenner, anything but silent most of his life, was one of sports' most influential, albeit controversial, owners.
The case against: Women's athletics continued to be overlooked and sports medicine was in its infancy. Koufax, Unitas and Mantle all would have benefited from modern treatments. Major conferences such as the SEC, ACC and the old Southwest were whites-only enterprises until deep into the 1960s. Only one Silent black, Ernie Davis, won the Heisman Trophy.
Conclusion: For impact and achievement, the Silents are the champion generation. Their athletes and administrators vaulted the NFL and NBA to preeminent positions on the sports landscape, surpassing their college counterparts in popularity and significance. Silent golfers turned the PGA Tour from a country club pastime to a sport with mass appeal.
Silents maintained the popularity of baseball and achieved success in the Olympic Games of 1956, 1960 and 1964, particularly discus thrower Al Oerter.
Russell, Chamberlain, Brown, Mays and Aaron made black athletes highly visible in team sports.
Silent athletes rode the wave of what Neil Howe calls the American High, that era between the end of World War II and the JFK assassination, when the U.S. was on a two-decade winning streak -- a streak that included sports.
It is a generation, as Bill Russell demonstrated earlier this week, that Americans continue to honor.