I’ve always loved the history of my favorite sports, whether it’s diving back into baseball’s dead-ball era or recreating the magic of the old Garden-era Bruins and Celtics in my head. It’s a lot of fun to look back and see what came before my sports consciousness began around 1988 or so.
And with that, I’ve developed a list of favorites that predate my own fandom. Of course, this skews towards some New England legends, but how else could it be, right?
1. Carl Yastrzemski
Boston Red Sox, 1961-83
Just one look at his stats is enough to send me into convulsions. How else to react to a career, spanning 23 seasons, that began as a phenom replacing a legend and ended as the elder statesman of a league? Yaz was great from about 1963-1970, but was very good the entire way, moving from the outfield to first base, then back to the outfield, and back to first base again, before winding up his time as a designated hitter.
He was a tireless worker who hit forever, but this is my favorite tidbit about him: After moving to first base in 1974 to accommodate a young Jim Rice, Yaz moved back to left field for the 1975 ALCS, and then spent the full 1977 season there, where, at age 37, he went errorless and captured his seventh and final gold glove. And (I’m basing this on highlight reels, of course), he could move. How many 37-year-old outfielders have you heard of who could really cover their ground? I’m guessing Ichiro next year could do it, but it’s a short list to be sure.
2. Bill Russell
Boston Celtics, 1956-69
When looking at Bill Russell, what jumps out first is that he was a winner. His Celtics won 11 championships in his 13-season run, while he redefined what players could do on the defensive side of the ball. Wilt Chamberlain scored more? That’s great. But I’ll take Russell as my center any day, and he’s second only to Michael Jordan in my list of NBA greats.
But what puts Russell over the top for me is his behavior and demeanor as a man. Playing in a horribly racist environment in Boston during the 1960s, Russell used the hate sent towards him as motivation, shutting out the bigotry and refusing to compromise. And he was more than a basketball player. As he famously said, “basketball is what I do. It is not who I am.”
3. Bobby Orr
Boston Bruins, 1966-76; Chicago Blackhawks, 1976-1979
Three consecutive Hart trophies as the NHL’s MVP, eight consecutive Norris trophies as the league’s best defenseman, two Conn Smythe trophies as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs, delivered the Bruins’ last two Cups, was the only defenseman to win the Art Ross trophy as the league’s leading scorer (and he did it twice), led the league in plus/minus six times, completely changed the game of hockey and how defense could be played, and of course there’s that goal he scored.
Honestly, what else is there to say? There will only be one number 4.
4. Terry O’Reilly
Boston Bruins, 1972-85
I can’t think of another athlete who did more with less. O’Reilly was not the strongest skater and not the most gifted athlete. But he worked, and worked, and turned himself into an elite scorer, leading the Bruins with 90 points in 1977-78, and eventually served as their captain in his final two seasons.
And memorably, if you crossed him, he had no issue with beating the ever-loving shit out of you.
5. Ted Williams
Boston Red Sox, 1939-60
When the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived plies his trade in your backyard, it’s hard not to go back and appreciate it. Last hitter to hit .400 (.406 in 1941 of course), 1942 and ’46 MVP, 521 career home runs, a career OPS of 1.119 and three fantastic nicknames (Teddy Ballgame, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid) would be enough. But these are three things that stand out for me:
- When he first enlisted in the Navy, doctors realized his vision was 20-10, or to put it another way, the best they’d ever seen.
- He inspired the greatest piece of sports writing ever, John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
- His pregame batting practice ritual of hitting home runs, followed by shouting, “that’s right, I’m Ted Williams! I’m Ted Fucking Williams!”
6. Bill Lee
Boston Red Sox, 1969-78; Montreal Expos, 1979-82
The Spaceman has made a nice little life for himself pontificating on all things pure in baseball, sharing his left-brained views in The Wrong Stuff and The Little Red (Sox) Book, as well as appearing in Ken Burns’ epic Baseball documentary. But beyond his opinions on the designated hitter, drugs, and aluminum bats, Lee also takes time to visit Cuba, bringing the game and plenty of equipment to the poor but baseball-loving country.
And, for what it’s worth, he was also a hell of a pitcher. He was a key to the Sox’ pennant-winning rotation in 1975, racking up 119 wins and a 3.62 era in a 14-year career that ended with a walkout from Montreal in protest of teammate Rodney Scott’s release.
7. Luis Tiant
Cleveland Indians, 1964-69; Minnesota Twins, 1970; Boston Red Sox, 1971-78; New York Yankees, 1979-80; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1981; California Angels, 1982
The accent, the crazy mustache, the gyrating windup and the “Looo-EEEE!” chant of the Fenway faithful all add up to as colorful a character as has ever taken the mound for the Red Sox. But we’re also talking about a dominant presence, too. As evidence, let’s look at his Game 1 start in the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds: a complete-game shutout, limiting the Big Red Machine of Morgan, Bench and Rose to five hits in a tidy 100 pitches.
But let’s look at his Game 4 performance, too: another win, another complete game, this time over a whopping 155 pitches, giving up four runs and striking out four. Gutty? I’d say so.
8. Gordie Howe
Detroit Red Wings, 1947-71; Houston Aeros, 1973-77; New England/Hartford Whalers, 1977-80
Like Yaz, Howe played forever, and by the time he retired, he was the proud owner of several records, including most goals and points in a career (later to be broken by another Kick Saves favorite, Wayne Gretzky). But let’s take a look at his last year, at age 51, with the Whalers:
80 games, 15 goals, 26 assists, 41 points
For random comparison’s sake, let’s also look the 2009-10 season of our favorite current Bruin, Patrice Bergeron (who is a snappy 24 years old):
73 games, 19 goals, 33 assists, 52 points
I think it goes without saying that players aren’t supposed to be that good when they’re 51 years old.
9. Wayne Cashman
Boston Bruins, 1964-65, 1967-82
Like Yaz, Cashman spanned three decades with one team, and like Howe and O’Reilly, he was as tough as they come. He gets lost in the shuffle of great Bruins behind the likes of Orr, O’Reilly, Derek Sanderson and Johnny Bucyk, but Cashman carved out a stellar career of his own, scoring 277 goals and racking up 1,041 penalty minutes as a hard-working right wing. Most memorably, he served as the Bruins’ captain from 1977 until he retired in ’83, leading Don Cherry’s Lunch Pail A.C.
10. Dave Cowens
Boston Celtics 1970-80; Milwaukee Bucks 1982-83
This is almost completely anecdotal, as I’ve never seen full games of Cowens and only snippets of highlights here and there. But from what I know, he was a 6’9″ center who had to battle the likes of Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won the 1973 MVP, led the Celtics to two banners in 1974 and ’76, and was basically forced to play much bigger than his frame. It’s easy to get behind someone who plays with such abandon all the time.
I always gravitated toward overachievers and hard workers, and it’s easy to say that pretty much everyone on this list were never short on effort in their careers. I didn’t get to see them, but I’m glad they were memorable enough for me to think about.