Baseball's Two-Sport Stars
The biggest star in the history of baseball, Babe Ruth, was known for drinking, smoking, and competitive eating level of consumption of hot dogs. From the earliest days of the game baseball was known as a sport that fat slobs could excel and a ballpark was not a place spectators could expect to watch the finest athletes in the world. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, most sports were relegated to players of purely amateur status and athletes in the Olympic sports, football and sometimes basketball would need to find other ways to have any kind of income.
Cumberland Posey started playing with the Homestead Grays in 1911 of the Negro Leagues, when he was just 21 years old, was a player-manager by 1916, and owned the damn team by the early '20's. He also played basketball for Penn State and Pitt, where he earned a pharmacy degree in 1915 and he also played for Duquesne under a fake name until 1919. In the mid-1910's decade he started his own professional team where he played until the mid-'20's which was the dominant black team of its time. The events of the time collided with his greatness on the court when his skills were described as possessing "the mystic wand of... [that] ruled basketball with as much eclat as 'Rasputin' dominated the Queen of all the Russias," Harlem's Interstate Tattler, 1929. Today, Posey is the only man to have been inducted in both the Baseball and Basketball Halls of Fame.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is hiding a few other two-sport stars with plaques on their wall. Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins were both Harlem Globetrotters, Tom Glavine was drafted in the NHL draft although he didn't ultimately sign, Dave Winfield was drafted in the MLB, NBA, ABA, and NFL drafts. Depending on how much of a sport it is considered to be Ted Williams happens to a member of two different Fishing Halls of Fame for his fly fishing and deep sea fishing accomplishments. And in an even more dubious 'sport' Juan Marichal "participated as a soltadore on the Dominican cockfighting circuit," but that sounds more like an unfortunate cultural tradition that should be abandoned.
Through the years there have been quite a few athletes to play baseball and another sport at a professional level. As a UConn alumni I am legally required to mention that Scott Burrell was a minor league pitcher for a couple of years while he was playing basketball for the Huskies. He did a baseball pass with one second left, in-bounding to Tate George to beat Clemson on the way to the Elite Eight, the same year he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. He quit baseball to focus on basketball after two years in the minors, never going higher than Single A. The change in focus paid off as he was drafted by the Hornets in '93, had an eight year career in the NBA highlighted by an NBA Championship with the Bulls in '98 thanks to another minor league baseball player, Michael Jordan.
Jim Thorpe - every sport (NFL 15-28, Olympic Track 12, MLB 13-19)
It doesn't hurt to be named the best athlete in the first half of the twentieth century when it comes to making this list. When it came to any competition, Jim Thorpe wouldn't just be competitive, he would be the best. He's a member of the NFL hall of fame, he won an Olympic gold medal in the decathalon, went to a World Series with the Giants, and even won the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dance championship. Really.
He was a ballroom champion the same year that he went to the Olympics in Stockholm where he won golds in the two events where he competed, the decathlon and the pentathlon. The decathlon is considered one of the most demanding events in sports and the Olympic competition decides the crown of the best athlete in the world. On the trip to Stockholm (which the whole US contingent traveled on a single ocean liner for a two week passage) he also played in two baseball exhibitions at that Olympics and returned to a ticker tape parade in his honor on Broadway.
Baseball ended his amateur status for track and football during a time where college football was more prestigious than professional teams and amateur status of the Olympics gave an international stage. He was unable to continue with those areas of play and was stripped of his Gold Medals but baseball provided him with an income. He played in the majors from 1913 to 1919 although he was mostly what could be considered to be more of a visiting player. He would play sporadically, around his schedule of other sports or events. Only once did he come close to playing a full season, 1917, a year where he changed teams twice and hit 4 home runs in 338 at bats. It was the deadball era and the league leader that year hit only 12 home runs. He was an okay hitter batting .252 over his six year career of only 289 games. He mostly brought his athleticism to the base paths where he had 29 career steals.
Dick Groat - (MLB 52-67, NBA 52-53, Military Service 53-54)
He’s more than just the namesake of a fictional disease on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he won a World Series with the Pirates, in 1960 and another one in ‘64 with the Cardinals, both against the Yankees. He was the NL batting champion and MVP in 1960 and finished second in NL MVP voting in 1963 behind Sandy Koufax. He was also a two-time All-American basketball player for Duke in the early ‘50’s and was drafted by the Fort Wayne Pistons of the NBA where he played a single season. He was the national player of the year in 1952 and his number was the first to be retired by the Blue Devils, and no other number was retired by them until the 1980’s. During that 1952 year with the Pistons, he also played his rookie season for Pirates where he finished third in Rookie of the year voting finishing just behind Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm and just ahead of Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews thanks to a .284 AVG and his especially good glove at short.
Groat enlisted in the Army the next season for the tail end of the Korean War and spent the next two years at Fort Belvoir, Virginia where he led the fort’s baseball and basketball teams to the worldwide Army championship titles, the first Army base to win both titles in the same year. When he came back from his service he did not return to the NBA, but he did come back to the Pirates. His glove was a fixture at short, and although he didn’t have the best range, “he knew the hitters and was always in position,” Roy Face recounted. Before the 1960 season the Pirates were about to trade Groat for Roger Maris before manager Danny Murtaugh vetoed the deal. It worked out for everyone involved, Groat and Maris both won the NL and AL MVPs that season, met in the World Series and the Pirates won the title on a walk off home run. It wasn’t complete loss for the Yankees, they threw a ticker tape parade for their American League championship that year, their only ticker tape parade for a team that didn’t win a World Series. In a perplexing move, the Pirates traded Groat to the Cardinals after the 1962 where he revitalized his career and won another World Series. He finished his baseball career with 2138 hits, a .286 AVG, a 36.7 WAR, eight trips to All-Star Games (over five seasons, there were a few years that they would play more than one game a year) and two World Series Rings. In retirement he called Pitt Panther basketball games for fifty years and was inducted in the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Gene Conley - (NBA 52-69, MLB 52-63)
Not only did he win a World Series with the Braves in ‘57, he was also a member of three NBA Championsip teams with the Boston Celtics. Gene Conley is the only man to have won a Championship in both the MLB and NBA. During one six year stretch of his two-sport career, Conley played in 12 MLB and NBA seasons without a single day of offseason. He had been a college NBA star and was even drafted 90th overall, but had given up basketball for the start of his baseball career. His 1958 season with the Braves was so disappointing that he called up Red Aurbach for a tryout with the Celtics. Red hadn’t planned on taking him seriously before being won over by Conley’s hustle and jumping ability that rivaled anyone else in the league at the time. He proved to be a keen defender and an excellent rebounder with the C’s.
After a 1962 blowout loss against the Yankees, the Red Sox team bus was stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. Conley and Pumpsie Green decided to get off the bus to find a bathroom and when they were done relieving themselves they were unable to find the bus to rejoin the team. The pair decided on the next logical cause of action, they dot super drunk. Pumpsie then realized that as the first black member of the Red Sox team he was going to get in trouble with the famously racist ownership and headed back. Conley, however, had other plans. He made his way to the airport with the intent to buy a ticket to Jerusalem. He bought the ticket but wasn’t allowed on the plane because he didn’t happen to bring his passport with him on his bender.
Things were a little different back in Conley's college days. “As an 18-year-old and near his mature height of 6-feet-8, Conley chose Washington State University from the many prominent basketball schools that had offered him scholarships. At WSU he was also afforded an automobile and expenses by a grateful alumnus.” Over his 11 year career in the majors as a 6'8" right handed pitcher Conley played for the Braves, Phillies and Red Sox to four All-Star games in three years. Conley finished with 91 wins, 10 saves, a 3.82 ERA, the leader in ERA+ in 1959.
Dave DeBusschere - (NBA 62-74 [player/coach 64-67], MLB 62-63)
He only played two seasons in the MLB when he was 21 and 22 years old, but those two seasons were not too shabby. He “retired” with a 2.90 ERA with 36 games pitched, including ten starts. If he were pitching today he would surely be held as a legend for throwing a single shutout before the age of 24, alone. He pitched for the White Sox in the 1962 and ‘63 and was a rookie for the Detroit Pistons in the ‘62-’63 season, named to the All Rookie Team. He was the youngest coach in NBA history during his time as a player/coach for the Pistons, but the coaching side of things wasn't very successful and he transitioned back to just being a player when he joined the Knicks. It was just start for him to be on his way to being named one of the 50 greatest players of all time and winning two Championships with the Knicks. In his eleven year career he was an eight-time NBA All-Star, six-time member of the All-Defensive First Team and was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. After his retirement he worked in the Nets front office and helped facilitate the merger of the NBA and ABA.
Ron Reed (MLB 66-84, NBA 65-67)
For two years he played for the Pistons and in the minors for the Braves. During those two NBA seasons his coach, a player/coach, happened to be Dave DeBusschere and it was the former two-sport athlete that Reed told of his desire to focus solely on baseball. It was the 1967 season that he quit basketball he blossomed a dominant AAA pitcher. The next season he became the first Braves rookie ever to be named to an All-Star game. A starter for 11 year, he made a move to the bullpen in Philadelphia as a compliment to closer Tug McGraw. Reed picked up a save in the 1980 World Series and made three appearances in the ‘83 World Series. After choosing baseball, Reed went on to pitch in 751 games over 19 years, for a 3.46 ERA, 146 wins, 103 saves, a 24.9 WAR, an All-Star game, two NL pennants, and a five World Series games where he posted a 1.69 ERA.
Danny Ainge (NBA 81-95, MLB 79-81)
At just 20 years old, and still playing college basketball, Ainge was called up to the Blue Jays to play second base and a little at third and in the outfield. Over his three seasons he only hit .220 and his two home runs came in his rookie season. The first of those home runs made him now second to Vlad Guerrero Jr as the second youngest Toronto player to hit a home run in their history. Before his final season in baseball, Ainge won the Wooden Award as the best collegiate player in the country and was an Academic All-American. When he was drafted into the NBA in the 1981 draft, Ainge decided to choose basketball but, a decision that required a bit of a legal battle between the Celtics and the Blue Jays resulting in a buyout.
Things seemed to pan out for Ainge on the court, as a key member of Championship teams with the Celtics in '84 and '86 and was a member of the '93 Suns team that faced Michael Jordan's Bulls in the Finals.
Rick Rhoden - (MLB 74-89, seniors golf 03-09, celebrity golf 91-09)
He was a guy that always had to make the best of what he had. As a kid he had a disease where he wore a leg brace for year and one of his legs had to be shortened and when he was finally a pro pitcher he had to pitch after recovering from rotator cuff surgery. He made the best of what he had, and apparently a chisel and vaseline in his back pocket. He would say “When you pitch against Sutton, do anything you want to the ball. If they catch you, blame it on him.” He was a two-time All-Star, once with the Dodgers in the mid-’70’s and again with the Pirates as the ace of a team that was going through losing and drug problems. From ‘84 to ‘86 he won three straight Silver Sluggers (although maybe he didn’t deserve one in ‘85 when he had a .189 AVG). He was so skilled with the bat that after he joined the Yankees, in ‘88 he became the first AL pitcher in the designated hitter era to play a game as a DH. For his career he logged 151 wins, a 3.59 ERA, a 35.3 WAR and a trip to the World Series.
When he hung up his mitt to end of his career, Rhoden took to playing golf in his spare time. He wasn’t just another retiree on the links, he won numerous celebrity tournaments and logged a few top ten finishes on the Senior PGA playing against some of the best golfers of the past. By winning a senior Q school event in 2007 to join the Seniors tour for 2008.
Bo Jackson (NFL 87-90, MLB 86-94)
If they didn’t have video evidence of him and even if he never played a down of football, Bo Jackson would have been dismissed as an urban legend who couldn’t possibly have done the things on the field that are claimed. He is one of the only athletes ever where the highlights of his plays on the field are more impressive and more shockingly superhuman than the hyperbole of sportswriters. His physicality was imitated for some of the action scenes in Black Panther for the chase in South Korea. While he had incredible potential, he struck out a lot (breaking bats along the way), didn’t walk very often, and was often hurt.
Deion Sanders (NFL 89-00, 04-05, MLB 89-97, 01)
Primetime was such a talent as a defensive back, perhaps the most electric player at his position ever, that it overflowed into him returning the ball on special teams, playing in the outfield in the MLB, playing wide receiver in games where he was one of the best defenders on the field, being a terrible rapper, and a charming commentator. Perhaps if he had focused all of his time on being a baseball player he would have been great, but he didn’t need to do that to be a Hall of Fame defender in football. Nevertheless, he led the league in triples in ‘92 (14), stole more than 20 bags three times in nine seasons, he was the only person ever to play in a World Series and a Super Bowl and in that World Series in 1992 he was 8/15 (.533 AVG) with five steals. It is insane to think that Sanders and Jackson existed at the same time in history as two of the most physically gifted players in history. It’s amazing that they both played in the MLB and NFL at the same time and they not only played against each other in both leagues, they were involved in plays together in both sports. In the NFL Bo gave Deion a stiff arm on a touchdown run in college and Deion returned the favor in a less physical way by beating a Jackson throw to the plate on an inside the park home run as a member of the Yankees.
Brian Jordan (MLB 92-06, NFL 89-91)
At the same time that Jackson and Sanders were dominating football and impressing in baseball, Brian Jordan was outperforming both of them on the baseball field while doing double duty as a less legendary football player. He had longevity on his side and the consistency of a .282 hitter. Through his mixture of speed and power he hit 184 homers (four seasons with more than 20 dingers) and stole 119 bags (two years with more than 20 steals). He was an All-Star, earned MVP votes three times and was also on an Atlanta World Series team, 1999 for Jordan. He was a solid fielder, logged 1454 hits over 15 MLB seasons and a 32.9 WAR. He was a Pro Bowler and led the Falcons in 1991 and finished his three year baseball career with five interceptions and four sacks.
Jeff Conine - (racquetball 93, MLB 90-07)
One of the most improbable players to have ever played in the majors, Conine was a 58th round pick in 1987. It only took him three years to make it to the majors and he just kept playing for the next 17 years in the bigs. He was a bench player, a fourth outfielder, a utility man, a pinch hitter, and he was consistent, playing full seasons almost every year he was in the league. He was an unconventional player and he was a two-sport star. Unconcerned with being an average athlete, his other sport was an unconventional one, racquetball. After his first full season with the Marlins in 1993, a year where he played 162 games, he and his wife were planning to practice racquetball together on their honeymoon and decided to reroute to the national championships instead as an unseeded mixed doubles team. They beat the number two seeded team of the best women’s player in the country and the top ranked amateur male. They ultimately lost to a team that included the top women’s player in the world and a former pro at about the same time that Joe Carter was walking off the World Series for the Blue Jays. With their third place finish after entering the tournament on a whim, the Conine couple established themselves as world class racquetball players the year before Jeff went to two consecutive All-Star games. He was the All-Star MVP in ‘95, was a World Series Champion with the Marlins in both ‘97 and ‘03, gathered 1982 hits, 214 homers, and had a 19.5 WAR.
Although there has been a trend toward the specialization of one sport through travel leagues with youths and colleges that discourage multi-sport participation, the age of two-sport athletes is still alive. Last season's AL MVP Mookie Betts spends his off-seasons bowling and recorded a 300 game in the PBA World Series of Bowling. Giants starter Jeff Samardzija made himself a household name in college football before he ever made it to the majors. In 2006 he set almost every receiving record for Notre Dame, single season receptions, receiving touchdowns, consecutive games with a TD reception and touchdown reception, and career reception yards. He had planned on going pro in both sports until he was drafted by the Cubs and chose to focus on baseball.
The most famous two-sport star (to older generations), wasn't as famous for either sport as he was off the field. Chuck Connors played in the NBA from '46-'48 averaging 4.5 points a game, then played in the majors for a game in '49 and most of a season with the Cubs in '51 but only managed a .238 AVG and a -0.9 WAR. While his athletic career was short-lived, Connors went on to apparently become one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite actors playing a role on The Virginian (apparently along with Deathproof's Stunt Man Mike) and had the titular role in The Rifleman, who seems to have inspired the fictional show from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, "Bounty Law," and DiCaprio's Rick Dalton sure looks like he's inspired by Connors. Connors had one more big credit to his name, he played with the dolphins... not Miami, Flipper, in the 1963 movie.