June 14, 2019
While listening to a the Open Mike Show with Mike Bianchi the other day, the story of the recent unfortunate shooting of David Ortiz was a topic and the discussion was on how beloved Ortiz is in the city of Boston.
That got me to thinking, who are the most beloved athletes in every city that has at least two professional teams? Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Roberto Clemente immediately comes to mind for the Steel City. But then again there is Willie Stargell to consider.
Taking just Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League as the only considerations, I’ll give you my opinion on who might be the most beloved athletes of all time that played in cities making up those leagues but only for a city that has at least two franchises in either, any, or all of those leagues.
I’ll do this in alphabetical order and then leave it to you the readers to decide if I’m accurate or someone else deserves the honor.
This one might be easy because from baseball comes Hank Aaron, one of the greatest home run hitters of any era. Not too many football playing Falcons have made such a mark in history nor in the NBA. While Dominique Wilkins made his mark in pro basketball and was quite the player, any Atlanta fan will probably say it’s “Hammerin Hank” that would be this city’s biggest sports hero.
With the NFL’s Colts now in Indianapolis, they began in Baltimore. The Washington Wizards were once the “Bullets” of the NBA and formerly called Baltimore home. That leaves the Ravens, formerly the Cleveland Browns, and the Baltimore Orioles for beloved player consideration. The choice could easily be Ray Lewis, one of the greatest linebackers ever, but given some of his legal issues he experienced, the favorite meter might very swing in the direction of say Johnny Unitas or in baseball, Brooks Robinson.
Over the years, the city of Boston, Massachusetts and surrounding towns have seen their teams from each of the major professional leagues experience huge success. The Patriots have been dominating the NFL for several years now and the Celtics have seen their titles come to them and always have been rather competitive. The Boston Bruins reached the Stanley Cup finals this year and the Red Sox have one of the best teams in baseball.
There have been so many great athletes from Boston and it’s neighborhood cities it would be a tough choice to decide who the fans enjoy the most. As said at the start of this article, David Ortiz is well loved in Boston. Fans are pulling for him to make a full recovery from his shooting incident but on a popularity scale, how does “Big Papi” stand up to Tom Brady who has six Super Bowl rings? We also can’t forget about Larry Bird who worked magic on the hardwoods of the NBA. In listening to Bianchi and his crew, they mentioned Carl Yastrzemski as a fan favorite in the Boston area. Back in basketball there is always Bill Russell to consider or how about John Havlicek? Carlton Fisk was a very popular Red Sox. Grinding it down to one player however would be very difficult for any Boston area sports fan especially when considering all the pro teams and having to eliminate a Bobby Orr.
The city of Buffalo is known for its snow and for losing four straight Super Bowl games back in the 1990s. In hockey there are the Sabres but the city still loves the man who got the team to those NFL title games, Jim Kelly. Recently the former Pittsburgh-born quarterback was battling cancer and has been in and out of remission. But it is probably a good guess that of all the athletes that played in the snowy city, Kelly would be the fan favorite.
Heading to the southern states on the east coast we reach Carolina. In the Charlotte area you have hockey’s Hurricane, football’s Panthers, and the Hornets of the NBA. While Cam Newton is the Panthers’ most successful quarterback in history, I would point my finger at Alonzo Mourning or Muggsy Bogues as being the most popular athletes to play for a Charlotte team. In hockey, Ron Francis is the career leader for most of the team’s all-time records but Bogues because of his small stature and Mourning establishing himself as one of the league’s best players during his era probably would take the honor of being the city’s most popular and beloved athletes.
This city has a rich history in sports for all the different leagues the city is represented in. You have in Chicago the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls, and the Black Hawks all teams that have had absolute super stars playing for them. With several extremely popular athletes how can you possibly boil them down to one? Dick Butkus or Brian Urlacher? Stan Mikita or Bobby Hull? Ernie Banks or the amazing Michael Jordan? Old timers might mention Sid Luckman who led the Bears to several NFL titles. If I was a Chicagoan I would say Dick Butkus and not Jordan because M.J. did rub some people the wrong way where Butkus developed a reputation on the field of being a monster and good guy off it.
A town that once had a pro basketball team called the “Royals.” They eventually would become the Sacramento Kings but when the b-ball team was in Cincy, they had a star player named Oscar Robertson. In trying to determine the city’s most popular athlete, it would probably boil down to Robertson or a member of the former “Big Red Machine” baseball playing Reds. Pete Rose perhaps? Or maybe Joe Morgan or Johnny Bench? As for the Bengals who have made it to two Super Bowls only to lose, the football team has a far more negative reputation than do it’s sister basketball and baseball teams. I watched those powerhouse baseball teams from Cincinnati back in the 1970s when they were going head-to-head with my Pittsburgh Pirates and they always had a phenomenal team on the field. The men in the lineup were household names (Rose, Morgan, Bench, Cesar Geronimo, Dave Concepcion, and Tony Perez to name a few). Pete Rose was a hard nosed player who his peers did not particularly care for but the fans loved his style. I think the choice here would be Joe Morgan or Oscar Robertson.
Everything’s big in Texas they say right? So down in Dallas, does Roger Staubach take the “beloved” crown here or perhaps someone from the Texas Rangers, the Mavericks, or the Stars of hockey? Perhaps it’s another Cowboy although the recently retired Dirk Nowitzki is highly popular among Dallas fans. If you consider someone from the baseball Rangers, Nolan Ryan would be the first name that pops up. On the football field, Tony Dorsett was very popular as was Don Meredith but given his reputation off the field and how well he performed on it, Roger Staubach is probably the most beloved athlete in Dallas sports history.
Now we head west to the “Mile High” city of Denver. He wasn’t an athlete but a huge fan and icon for the Denver Broncos, that being Tim “The Barrelman” McKernan. I was friends with Barrelman before his tragic and untimely death in 2009. But he was and remains immensely popular among the Broncos faithful. The star of his beloved team for years and one of the best quarterbacks in history was John Elway. Elway remains with the team to this day as an executive and among the Nuggets, Rockies, and Avalanche, Elway probably gets named for this honor going away.
Back in the “Motor City,” is the most beloved athlete Barry Sanders who is one of the NFL’s greatest running backs ever? Or would it be an easier choice to say it’s Gordie Howe? While not an athlete of any of the four major sports, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns was a hall of fame boxer from Detroit who is a favored son. The bad boys of the great Detroit Pistons teams had some popular players and colorful ones at that (Dennis Rodman) but the choice here should be Howe.
Back to Texas we go and to the city of Houston. Houston, we have a problem. Who is your most beloved athlete ever? Earl Campbell? Dan Pastorini? Hakeem Olajuwon? Or perhaps Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Then there is one of the greatest pitchers in Major League Baseball history, Nolan Ryan who spent eight years with the Astros. It’s a toss-up but my guess would be Drexler or Earl Campbell since Ryan bounced around several teams during his career.
I spoke of the city of Baltimore above but the once Baltimore called Colts moved their franchise to Indianapolis where Peyton Manning would become a legend. His competition for popularity there is from the basketball playing pacers where the likes of Isaiah Thomas who was very popular. But it should be a hands down here for Manning.
The Chiefs thought they were Super Bowl bound last season in the NFL but they lost to the eventual champion Patriots. The current crops of players has a very popular and increasingly likable Patrick Mahomes. But has he become more beloved than any other athlete to have his career in this city? Len Dawson who played quarterback like Mahomes does was a very popular athlete for the city and got his team to the Super Bowl twice winning once. Dawson’s teammate Otis Taylor was also very popular. Even more loved in this city when it comes to football however was Tony Gonzalez but even more so probably Derrick Thomas who tragically died young. For the Kansas City Royals, George Brett was a very popular player. So was Amos Otis, but it is probably Thomas or Gonzalez that will be the first names that pop up when you ask a Kansas City sports fan who is their favorite K.C. athlete.
L.A. is a huge city and the state of California easily has the most professional teams. In L.A. alone you have the Angels, Clippers, Dodgers, the Chargers (moving in from San Diego), the Lakers, Rams, and the hockey playing Kings. So those teams have some pretty deep histories with tons of names that can be considered as most memorable or well liked. Where do you even begin?
Ervin “Magic” Johnson would be a good start and you can’t go wrong with Magic but given the circumstances of most recent position in the Lakers’ front office and how that abruptly ended, fans’ opinion of Johnson may have changed somewhat. The football teams have not had a lot of players that stood out in the fashion that would put them into this conversation, at least in my opinion. Like the Reds of the 70s, the Dodgers fielded teams with many popular players that were on the field on a consistent basis season-after season. There was Steve Garvey at first base and Ron Cey on the hot corner. Davey Lopes at second and Bill Russell at shortstop. Steve Yeager was the catcher and you had the immensely popular Fernando Valenzuela on the mound and before him Don Sutton. All those players were fan favorites. Most of the NBA’s Clippers have a history of losing so no one on that teams stands out as an all-time favorite. I think the man here that would be named more often would be that of either Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or the Magic man.
Being born and raised in the Steel City, I now call home Jacksonville, Florida where only the Jaguars exist and no other team in one of the four major leagues. But further south you have the city of Miami a town that is the only one that can claim a team that has gone through an entire football season undefeated and then win every playoff game and the Super Bowl. The coach for that team was Don Shula who is a household name not just in south Florida but around the world. Dan Marino may be the most popular player ever but it was Bob Griese who quarterbacked that undefeated team. The Miami Marlins are a newer baseball franchise and have changed their roster as often was we change clothes every day. The Heat represent the NBA and Duane Wade was their star for years until he finally retired this year. Wade holds most of the team historical records and while Shaquille O’Neal has set a few marks as well, his career was spent mostly with the Orlando Magic and the Lakers. Larry Csonka was a popular football player as was Mercury Morris but the man named here by Miami fans would probably be Dan Marino despite his lack of a title on his resume.
Milwaukee’s baseball team used to be the Braves then they moved to Atlanta. The Brewers became the next baseball team and Robin Yount one of their more popular players. Paul Molitor was another fan favorite. On the hardwoods, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got his pro start in Milwaukee but then bolted for the Lakers. Still, his first six years as Lew Alcindor before changing his name were spent as a Buck. Before moving to Atlanta, Hank Aaron was playing in Milwaukee but so was Phil Niekro a very popular player. Warren Spahn also played his baseball for this team but like in Atlanta, Hank Aaron would probably be the most memorable and liked player for this city.
Just as the Buffalo Bills did after them, the Minnesota Vikings went to the Super Bowl four times and lost them all. The only difference is that it was two different quarterbacks that took the “L” unlike Jim Kelly in Buffalo. Those losing QBs were Fran Tarkenton and Jack Kemp. The Tark took three of the four. Is Tarkenton still the most favored athlete in Minnesota? Or would it be someone from the icemen named the Wild? Kevin Garnett is the basketball representative career leader in most stats but Adrian Peterson was rather popular when running the ball for the Vikes. I’d say it is Fran Tarkenton for his playing style and likeability that gets him the nod for most beloved player.
An unlikely place for a pro franchise might be thought of in Tennessee, home of country music and several pro teams. Two to be exact, the NFL Titans and Predators of hockey. The Predators in the NHL are too young a franchise to get someone that means something special to the city yet and over in football, the Titans were the Oilers before moving to Tennessee. So a favorite player of the Oilers belongs to the city of Houston. As the Titans, the team moved to the city in 1997 and Steve McNair quickly became beloved by the fans. Although he had a tragic ending to his life being murdered, he still was beloved by fans. Eddie George his teammate was also very liked by the fan base. So the end result is having to name a player and ask a Titans fan and they would probably say despite the swirling negativity, Steve McNair and what he brought to the football field would be their choice.
We are inching closer to the end of this list and next up is The “Big Easy.” Two teams make this city home, in the NBA, the Pelicans and in the NFL the Saints. New Orleans did have the Hornets and Jazz of the NBA calling this city home at one time, but it would be the Saints most talked about. Without question, while Archie Manning was popular early on despite his teams being very awful, Drew Brees has taken the city by storm since arriving from San Diego and has gotten very involved with the community, thus he would certainly be the most beloved athlete.
The “Big Apple.” Another large city with a handful of professional teams. Eight to be exact (Nets, Giants, Jets, Knicks, Islanders, Mets, Rangers, Yankees). The town that gave us Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Joe Namath, Mike Bossy, Patrick Ewing, Yogi Berra, and hundreds more that probably deserve mentioning. With the difficulty of naming one person this city is probably the most tricky in saying who would be the most beloved. It’s nearly impossible to put your finger on just one man. But given his popularity around the world and considered by many to be the greatest baseball player that ever lived, how can you pass on Babe Ruth? Joe Namath guaranteed a Super Bowl win and delivered but aside from that, he didn’t adhere himself to fans the way the “Great Bambino” did. Lou Gehrig would run a close second and in more modern times, Derrick Jeter would give those two a run for their money. If not for his off-the-field troubles, perhaps Lawrence Taylor would get some love and on the basketball court, Bernard King was a star for the Knicks as was Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed. But I think baseball would rule the day here and the choice would either be Ruth or Jeter.
The city of Oakland will be losing their football team to the bright lights of Las Vegas but behind will be a legacy of winning and doing it at any cost. The old-time football players are probably cringing at the thought of their old team moving to a place like Vegas. The baseball playing Athletics nearly mirror the Raiders for reputation and style at least from the days of the 1970s. Wild and free would be good words to describe these two franchises and how they saw their style of game and play. The Raiders may have played a little dirtier but they were a scrappy group of guys that had color and style, much how the A’s came off in the 70s when they took the field. Ken Stabler would probably take the handle of most beloved and for baseball perhaps it would be Reggie Jackson. Jim “Catfish” Hunter was also a wildly popular baseball player. But those Raiders teams had guys on the roster that would break your neck on the field if they could. Jack Tatum and George Atkinson were a lethal pair of secondary men that would hit you like you had been hit with a sledge hammer. Still, in sticking to the topic at hand, I believe it would be Kenny Stabler who would get the label of most beloved.
Getting closer to my original home is talking about the city of Philadelphia. Hard nosed tough city right? It gave us Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” and in real life “Smoking Joe” Frazier in the boxing ring. Philadelphia fans also have the reputation of being the worst fans in all of sports and there is proof to back that up given their antics towards not just each other but fans from other teams. Do their athletes take on the same persona? They didn’t’ call the 1970s Flyers “Broadway Bullies” for nothing. So from the 76ers, Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers, who is the most revered? Bobby Clarke on the ice? Greg Luzinski or Mike Schmidt on the baseball diamond? Julius “Dr. J” Erving on the hardwoods of basketball? Or maybe Reggie White on the football field.
Now home of the NFL’s Cardinals is the area of Phoenix. Also hosts for the Diamondbacks in baseball, the Suns in basketball, and the Coyotes of the National Hockey League. Since the Cardinals were originally not from Phoenix, the Suns are. But despite having the football team only since 1988, I would put my money on Larry Fitzgerald as being that most popular and held closest to the hearts of sports fans in this town.
Now we get to my home city, one of which I cherished growing up in because of the neighborhoods and the reputation the sports teams established. I was lucky enough to be a youngster and teenager during the time of the great 1970s Pirates and Steelers teams. Later we had the Stanley Cup winning Penguins. As mentioned early on, Roberto Clemente immediately comes to mind and we now have Sidney Crosby. Myron Cope despite not being an athlete but a television and radio star could not be more loved by the city he represented. Bob Prince nearly attained that likeability level in broadcasting Pirates games. Bill Mazeroski is a forever hero in this town after his World Series winning home run of 1960. Honus Wagner is a folk hero and Pie Traynor a favorite. For me, it can only be Willie Stargell. “Pops” as he became known died earlier than he should have but among baseball fans in Pittsburgh, watching him play and following his career, many like myself will admit that you felt like you knew him personally even though you may have never met him. That is the impression Stargell gave because of his gentle nature, his kindness, his willing to give back to the community, and just his “fatherly” figure that endeared him to many. For me he is easily the choice as most beloved and no Pirates fan can ever forget “chicken on the hill with Will, his promotion that if you were in his chicken restaurant at the same time he was slugging one of his monstrous home runs, it was free chicken for you.
There are just six cities left (San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, Toronto, and Washington D.C.) and half are on the west coast, one in Florida, our nation’s capital and one across the border North. Out in San Diego, the Chargers left town for Los Angeles leaving just the Padres as the town’s only pro team. So San Diego gets an honorable mention here and while the Chargers were making San Diego home, Junior Seau was a huge fan favorite and tragically his life came to a screeching halt when he committed suicide. Ironically, another Charger who was immensely popular was Kellen Winslow who now is seeing a tragedy of another sort in his son who was recently convicted of rape. As for the Padres, Dave Winfield is the first name to come to mind but it’s probably Tony Gwynn who’s life also ended too soon that would most likely be the city’s favorite son.
With the San Francisco 49ers winning multiple Super Bowls and the town’s baseball team, the Giants winning several World Series, we also have the Golden State Warriors to consider when looking at San Francisco’s pro teams. Joe Montana? Now Stephen Curry even though his team failed to “three-peat” in losing to the Toronto Raptors in this year’s NBA finals? Willie McCovey was a huge baseball draw and I doubt very highly that Barry Bonds would get any consideration. Dwight Clark was also very popular, yet another athlete who didn’t get to live a full life. When it comes down to it, the positive and sportsmanlike character of Joe Montana would probably draw the most votes if a poll for most San Franciscan beloved athlete was conducted.
Out in Washington are the “12th man” throngs of fans they themselves the most beloved? Or, is a player in the Seahawks history say a Jim Zorn held in high regard? There used to be a pretty good NBA team that is now in Oklahoma City as the “Thunder.” When in Seattle, they were the Supersonics. Gary Payton was a pretty well liked player on that basketball team. In baseball, perhaps Ichiro Suzuki might get the overall nod for the city’s biggest hero. Or perhaps Randy Johnson who is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. “The Big Unit” might best be remembered for throwing one of his patented fastballs that killed a dove in flight. These days Russell Wilson is very popular but if I had to make the choice, it would be Jim Zorn.
The city with the famous arch used to have a football team called the Cardinals. But they are now in Arizona. When the Cards did call St. Louis home, Jim Hart was a well known quarterback. However, on the baseball diamonds, one of the great baseball players ever wore the baseball Cardinals jersey and that was “Stan the Man” Musial so probably in a landslide is this town’s most beloved athlete.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a start to their franchise history they would probably want to take back. But the Bucs have had some success since and along the way, Lee Roy Selmon became one of the team’s best players ever and one of the finest defensive players of his era. Due to complications from a stroke, Selmon died prematurely in 2011 at the young age of 56. The baseball playing Rays have a short history in Major League Baseball so any of their players probably would not be considered when having this discussion about most beloved although Evan Longoria has been one of the most successful players and most popular. As Lee Roy Selmon owned a restaurant in town he would probably be the pick here although John Lynch might give him a run for his money as would Ronde Barber. Forget about Warren Sapp.
Now that the Raptors are National Basketball champions, does that make Kawhi Leonard the town’s newest and biggest hero? Or would it be World Series hero Joe Carter? The National Hockey League Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup in their history and have been playing for a very long time. There have been a lot of great players on the ice so perhaps Mats Sundin the all-time leader in goals for the team would be revered the most. But unless fans are historians, they may only remember what might be the greatest moment in Toronto sports history and that was Joe Carter’s World Series winning home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993. That round tripper was not only just the second walk-off series winning home run (Bill Mazeroski had the other) but it was the only home run in the history of the World Series that came with a team on the losing end of a potential series ending game (the Phillies had a 3-2 series advantage going into the game). So Joe Carter it is.
This leaves us with our final city, our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Here we have the Redskins of the NFL, one of the league’s oldest franchises, the Wizards of the NBA, that Nationals in baseball, and the Capitals of hockey. It would be rather simple to just say Alexander Ovechkin is this town’s biggest hero but on the gridiron there was a man that once played named Sammy Baugh. The baseball team used to be the Senators but now there are the Nationals who used to be a Canadian team in Montreal called the Expos. The old Senators became what is now the Minnesota Twins but the great Walter Johnson would get consideration here. You also have Joe Theismann to think about. But given last year’s Stanley Cup triumph by the Capitals that saw Ovechkin finally get his due, he would be this story’s last beloved hometown hero.
So there you have it. Agree to disagree or visa versa. Your thoughts on this story are more than welcome especially if you hail from one of the cities aforementioned. There are heroes in every sports town and it is an extremely difficult task to name just one for any one city.