ESPN book debates a century of sports
October 25, 1999
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- The sport of watching sports, for those who don't know much about sports, is really the debate of it all. Couch potatoes and bar patrons tuning in to the latest televised contest inevitably battle it out over who is the greatest boxer, the greatest baseball team, the greatest golfer or the greatest quarterback.
And then there's the ultimate debate: Who is the greatest athlete of all time?
Trying to compare competitors from different athletic endeavors -- Muhammad Ali and Jim Thorpe, Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, Bo Jackson and, uh, Bo Jackson -- proves a nearly impossible task.
"If you have a vote for the most significant athlete, then you have Ali, then you have Babe Ruth, then you have Michael Jordan. They changed the face of sports."
But as any sports fan knows, ESPN has been trying to do just that with its ongoing series, "ESPN SportsCentury." The network, using the opinions of sports reporters, authors, academics and observers, is counting down its top 100 athletes of all time. So far, they've reached No. 14; the top athlete remains a mystery, though the list has been narrowed to a chosen few.
And to compliment the show, the sports network that started in 1979 has released a new book by the same title. The compendium, published by Hyperion, features recollections on the sports century that was by top writers and sportscasters, including Dick Schaap, Joyce Carol Oates, Chris Berman, David Halberstam, Roy Blount Jr., and Thomas Boswell.
The book is divided into decades, with at least one athlete highlighted as the defining athlete of that time period. Fighter Jack Johnson, for instance, represents the 1900s; basketball star Michael Jordan defines the 1990s.
In decades between, readers will find lengthy pieces on Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Joe Louis and Babe Didrikson, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, Johnny Unitas, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and Pete Rose.
"I think it's a labor of love for everybody who was involved with it," says Schaap, the author of several sports books, the former editor of Sports Magazine and current host of ESPN's "Sports Reporters." Schaap, who praised ESPN's Mark Shapiro for organizing the book, writes about Unitas. Schaap says the former Baltimore Colts quarterback, like many athletes, has become a symbol of the era in which he played.
"I always thought of him as a stoic, solid person, that I think was typical of that era of the 1950s," says Schaap. "People came out of the war years with great hope and great faith in the future. Unitas sort of represented that."
'Who would win most?'
So, who did Schaap vote as his greatest athlete ever? Let the debate begin.
"My top three were Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain and Bo Jackson," says Schaap. He realizes that his picks might not top the ultimate ESPN list -- Jackson is not even offered in the network's Top 20 -- but he thinks he used a different scale to appraise athletes.
"I did not choose necessarily on the basis of significance," says Schaap. "If you have a vote for the most significant athlete, then you have Ali, then you have Babe Ruth, then you have Michael Jordan. They changed the face of sports. But I voted purely on what I considered to be athletic ability, and if I had anything in the back of my mind it was, 'If you put these guys on a field and they played each other in 20 sports, who would win the most?' I think Jim Brown would win the most, and I think Chamberlain would be awfully close."
'I love the controversy of it'
The ESPN pick that caused the biggest grumble from sports fans was No. 35. The athlete ranked in that spot: Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner. It seems some thought the list should only list human athletes.
"I think anybody is entitled to vote for whomever they want, and I think Secretariat does qualify as an athlete," says Schaap. "(But) I wouldn't have voted him very high. My complaint was that he only played one sport.
"I also love the controversy of it. Even if I didn't think he should be up that high, I like the controversy it created."
But Schaap points out that the list has another source of contention.
"We are limiting it to North Americans," he says. "We don't have Pele in there. So we missed Pele, but we had Secretariat."
And the debates continue.
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