Baseball Players Can Be Great Athletes, Too


Former Philadelphia Phillie John Kruk once famously said he was a baseball player, not an athlete, but there have been numerous baseball players through the decades that were good enough to play another professional sport as well. In the old days, the typical high school star athlete was a three-sport competitor, going from football to basketball to baseball as the seasons changed.

Making it to the top level of a game in one sport is a special achievement, but with specializati0n taking hold of kids by the time they are 10, coaches growing ever more demanding, and seasons growing longer there is a pretty good chance we have seen the last of Major League baseball players ever dabbling in another major sport.

For the younger set and those with short memories, it might be startling to learn that this ever occurred. But it did on many occasions. Although this is probably short of a complete list I dug up the following group of players who competed in Major League baseball and another major American sport.

Let’s start with way back when. It is no wonder Jim Thorpe has been proclaimed the greatest athlete of all time. He not only won the Olympic decathalon he was a pro football Hall of Fame running back circa 1920 and played Major League baseball with a lifetime .252 average between 1913 and 1919.

One of the players given a tryout in right field before the New York Yankees acquired Babe Ruth was a man who is much more famous for his exploits in football, as player, coach and owner of the Chicago Bears. George Halas was an NFL institution, but his baseball career was very brief and he batted .091.

Bill Sharman, one of three people (John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens are the others), to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach, was a fine baseball player. In the early 1950s, when he was trying to choose between baseball and basketball the Brooklyn Dodgers made him a September callup. It was 1951 and Sharman never got off the bench as the Dodgers blew their enormous National League lead to the New York Giants on Bobby Thomson’s famous homer. That was as close as Sharman got to a Major League appearance. Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first African-American to sign an NBA contract and he played baseball in the Negro Leagues.

Dick Groat, the star shortstop on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1960 World Series champions was a Duke University All-American basketball player and he briefly played in the NBA for the Fort Wayne Pistons, forerunners of the Detroit Pistons.

Gene Conley, a 6-foot-8 pitcher/backup center to Bill Russell, is the only player to win a World Series ring (with the Milwaukee Braves) and an NBA championship ring (with the Boston Celtics). Speaking of the Celtics, current general manager Danny Ainge was a former NBA player, but also played baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays.

It wasn’t the NBA, but few remember that Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins both played basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters (not at the same time).

Steve Hamilton pitched for a variety of Major League teams and also played for the Minneapolis Lakers before they moved to Los Angeles. Dave DeBusschere tried to do double duty pitching for the Chicago White Sox and playing for the Detroit Pistons, but found the tasks too overwhelming. He became player-coach for the Pistons at 24.

Ron Reed pitched 19 seasons in the majors and played in the NBA in the 1960s for two years with the Detroit Pistons. Frank Baumholtz was a 1940s and 1950s outfielder who played one year for the defunct Cleveland Rebels in pro basketball. In the 1950s, Dick Ricketts played three seasons in the NBA with the Hawks and Royals and also pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals.  A spectacular college basketball player as a two-time All-American at Kentucky, Cotton Nash played a handful of seasons in the NBA and the American Basketball Association while having a cup of coffee with the White Sox and Twins.

More recently Mark Hendrickson pitched for several teams, including the 2011 Baltimore Orioles, while also playing forward in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. Could be that Hendrickson will be the last of athletes who can keep up the pace of playing pro basketball and Major League baseball.

Now broadcasting, Deion Sanders was an eight-time NFL Pro Bowl player who excelled as a defensive back and kick returner, but was also able to play in more than 500 baseball games for four Major League clubs. Sanders is the only athlete to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series.

Essentially matching Sanders’ on-field ccomplishments was Bo Jackson. Jackson was the Heisman Trophy winner in college football, a star running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, and played parts of eight years in the majors with 141 home runs and a .250 average. Jackson was the first athlete to make Major League and NFL All-Star teams.

Of course none of these guys was as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan, but they all out-did him on the diamond since he never got out of the minors.  And as an aside, all of this leaves me wondering if Major League players are such talented athletes, how come pitchers still can’t hit?