Poll: The Most Respected Athlete of All Time

After seeing the nearly unanimous reaction of sadness to the news of Mariano Rivera’s injury, I began to wonder what other athletes in history had this kind of widespread affection at the time they were playing. There are certainly people who are looked back on now with great fondness and respect, but it is human nature to emphasize the good qualities of the past, and people are rarely seen in such a positive light at the time they are in the spotlight.

Rivera’s stature is that of a beloved living legend, and I don’t know a single person who responded in any way besides sadness when they heard that he had a torn ACL. This is not something I’ve ever experienced before in watching sports. So, I’m curious about the larger perspective. How do you perceive Rivera now relative to some of the other players during their playing days who were often talked about with reverence and widespread respect?

Poll after the jump.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

newest oldest most voted
Tyler
Guest
Tyler

How in god’s name is Jackie Robinson not an option?

marilyn
Guest
marilyn

Similarly, in his day, Joe Dimaggio was literally god across the US. His personal life only lifted him to infamy

Yirmiyahu
Member

Literally does not mean figuratively.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb

And someone doesn’t get “lifted” to “infamy.”

Sam Samson
Guest
Sam Samson

Don’t argue theology with marilyn — she may have insider information.

Brett
Guest
Brett

prescriptivist vs descriptivism. The argument rolls on.

Evan
Guest
Evan

Robinson was my first instinct

Evan
Guest
Evan

Did not read the part about at the time they were playing.

Psst
Guest
Psst

To my mind this list is missing
MLB
Lou Gehrig
Stan Musial
Jackie Robinson
Sandy Koufax
Cal Ripken Jr.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Nolan Ryan
Greg Maddux
Tony Gwynn

NFL
Walter Payton
Reggie White
Johnny Unitas
Fran Tarkenton

NBA
Larry Bird
Michael Jordan

NHL
Bobby Orr
Gordie Howe
Mario Lemiuex
Ray Borque

Boxing
Joe Louis
Joe Frazier

Those were the glaring ones for me

Jimm
Guest
Jimm

Fran Tarkenton? What about Staubach?

Jon L.
Guest
Jon L.

I’m sure Dave just wanted to present a manageable poll, but I like this longer list.

It’s hard to transcend both the present and your own perspective in figuring out who the most universally loved athletes were. I nearly voted for Magic Johnson, but then I remembered the prime of his playing career. As neither an L.A., Boston or Chicago fan, I would often root for Bird or Jordan against Magic. This was especially true when I perceived them as underdogs – and just about everyone was an underdog against the Lakers in those days. This suggests to me that there wasn’t a widespread feeling that Magic’s charisma and dedication lifted his persona above that of the other stars of the 80’s.

Polka
Guest

Walter Payton was my instinctual pick before I even read the names attached-

Cidron
Member
Cidron

Not sure I can agree with Jordan. Talented, yes. Respected, …. no. He is/was a jerk (maybe an outgrowth of his competiveness). Frankly, of Jordan, Pip, and Rodman (basically, the core of those teams, Jordan is easily the jerk (aka, not respected) of the bunch.

Matt NW
Guest
Matt NW

Pele!

Balthazar
Guest
Balthazar

Joe Dimaggio as mentioned above was easily the most popular athelete in mid-century America, inside and outside the game. Try finding negative quotes on him from other players in his day: not there. To me, he would head any list of baseball players.

But as Matt says below, it’s inconceivable that Pele doesn’t win a ‘most respected athlete’ poll of any kind. He didn’t have an enemy in the sport. His attitude was the gold standard for positive. He shed poverty and rascism like drizzle and wowed everybody who me him personally. He was the best player in his sport to that time, and arguably the most dominant player in the history of his sport still. That sport is worldwide, seen and played by billions.

Pele is the most respected. Bobby Moore would like place ahead of most of the baseball players mentioned also, the epitome of a ‘play the game right to win’ guy, and deeply respected throughout the game in his time.

Joe Louis really stood out amongst the boxers also.

Someone not known widely enough perhaps to qualify but who would from the standard of respect within his own area of competion would be Bjorn Dahle, the distance skier. There was a Scandinavian middle distance runner whose name is escaping me—Paavo Nuomi, got it Yes, he’s forgotten now, but he was simply the best in him time, a terrific competitor, and universally respected.

Those are the six I’d start with . . . .

Balthazar
Guest
Balthazar

To round out that list, Margaret Smith Court was surely the most respected tennis player an likely female athlete to her time. She’s tarnished her personal reputation over the last decade, but speaking to her playing days her standing was undeniable. I’d not be surprised if Kim Clijsters isn’t the most universally respected player in her sport by the time she’s finally done playing. Her record stands with anybody of this time, while her fitness and all-around game are top notch. A very real person, unlike many in athletics, and you have to love her kids. Who wouldn’t want Kim Clijsters’ life?

And a final mention would be Jahangir Khan. If you don’t know squash, you don’t know him: he didn’t lose a match for almost five years. He was an innovator in technique. His fitness was second to none in an era crazed over fitness. Everyone respected and respects him; all wanted to beat him, but no one could, and even after the streak he was a formidable big game player. Ask any squash player who they’d want to be, and they’d say “Jahangir”—except Jansher Khan, who’d find a bottom five on least respected players, magnificent talent nothwithstanding.

So Nine, going alphabetically:

Kim Clijsters
Margaret Smith Court
Bjor Dahle
Joe Dimaggio
Jahangir Khan
Joe Louis
Bobby Moore
Paavo Nuomi
Pele

with a shout out to Johan Cruyff.

Balthazar
Guest
Balthazar

Some great remarks below in Ayrton Senna and Steve Prefontaine. And not just because they died tragically young. They were both universally respected by competitors, fans, and the media.

And to come back to Lou Gehrig, yes, to me too he’d be the second baseball player on a list. Ruth was a massive impact and celebrity, but Gehrig was just flat out liked and respected by everyone.

Isn’t it something that perhaps the three most widely respected baseball players in the sport’s history—Dimaggio, Gehrig, and Rivera—have ALL been Yankees. I dislike the franchise as much as anyone, but this is something to put on the other side of the scale. Personally, I’d notch Gred Maddux for the first pitcher chosen, but it’s hard to see that he had the scope of appreciation, even in his time, as Dimag and Gehrig do still.

An interesting topic . . . .

Aaron Murray
Member

Jesse Owens?

Arsehole Guy
Guest
Arsehole Guy

Just click OTHER and type in his name. Got it champ?