A Challenge

by Mike P. Hamilton | 7/13/01 5:00am

About a month ago on Commencement Weekend, I was eating at Murphy's with a few of my '01 friends when one of us noted a picture hanging on the wall of three Boston sports legends autographed by each of them. Noting what an exceptional trio this was, a discussion ensued about what other city could boast of a better lineup of sports legends. This column will rehash that argument we had over dinner, and is one of the few reasons I can be happy to be a Boston sports fan.

First of all, let me explain why Boston's trio must go down as the greatest. I mean, how can you compete with Ted Williams, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird? Teddy Ballgame is simply the greatest living hitter in all of baseball. The last man to hit over .400, Williams was amazing. He amassed a lifetime .344 average, 521 career home runs, two triple crowns, six American League batting titles, and 18 All Star appearances. One can only wonder what numbers he would have put up if he hadn't lost 5 seasons in his prime due to military service in WWII and Korea.

Bobby Orr wasn't just one of the best players to ever live, he redefined his position, and by extension, his sport. When he entered the National Hockey League, defensemen were expected only to play defense and set up the offense with a good clear out of the zone. That was it. What Bobby Orr brought to the game was an electric style and bewildering playmaking and scoring skills. He had six season of greater than 100 points. Not too bad for a defenseman. Again, if it wasn't for the knee injuries that ended his career in an untimely fashion who knows what kind of numbers he would have and how many Stanley Cups he could have won.

Larry Bird may have not been the best natural basketball players ever, but his determination, leadership, and hustle was unparalleled. Larry Legend led one of the greatest dynasties in sports to three titles in the 1980s. This was no small task considering he was playing against great players like Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas virtually every year in the playoffs. Compare this with today's National Basketball Association with very little parity. How would Allen Iverson fare if he was going up against great players day in and day out?

So that is my trio of Beantown greats. You can substitute Bill Russell for Bird if you will, or even Cy Young for Ted Williams, but you would still have a hard time coming up with a better threesome. Let's go over some other possibilities.

New York, for all its championships, would still have difficulty putting up three stars of such stature. The Yankees have been graced with some great players. Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, take your pick. They are both on a level field with Ted. Who is next? The Rangers haven't had anyone on to compete with Orr. Sure they have had some greats, but none of them are synonymous with Rangers hockey. Boom Boom Geoffrion, Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk are all greats, but they only played for the Blueshirts for part of their career. Wayne Gretzky? Don't even go there. He belongs in Edmonton. The Knicks have had some stars, but will you put any of them in Larry Bird's category? Yes, sure New York had Joe Namath in football, so I'll concede that sport.

What other cities can come close? Chicago perhaps. They had Jordan. 'Nuff said. The Blackhawks had Bobby Hull. Pretty good goal scorer. But where do you go after that? Da Bears had Dick Butkus and Walter Payton. The Cubbies had Ernie Banks. The White Sox really haven't had anyone. You could have a good trio, but not like Boston.

Next we visit the Motor City. Gordie Howe is perhaps the only hockey player to rival Bobby Orr. We'll call that one a draw. The Tigers could put up Ty Cobb or Al Kaline maybe, but neither can compete with Williams. After that where do you go? The Pistons had some great teams in the 1980s, but Isaiah Thomas was no Larry Bird. The Lions? Barry Sanders was an exceptional back, but is too recent to be placed among the greats.

What other cities could put up three luminaries? San Francisco could produce Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, and Willy Mays too, but who else? Los Angeles had Sandy Koufax, a number of great basketball players like Kareem and Magic, but what about football or hockey? Pittsburgh may be the surprise in the bunch. The Pirates had Roberto Clemente, the Steelers had Franco Harris, and the Penguins have Super Mario. Still the Steel City comes a bit short.

It is pretty obvious that few cities can come close to Boston in producing sports legends. It is difficult to do. Many cities have a tradition of success in one or two sports, but very few have three or four. If I have overlooked any cities or players who belong on this list, please let me know. But for now I can bask in pride of my hometown. I guess I need something to compensate for not winning the World Series since 1918, the Stanley Cup since 1972, the NBA Championship since 1986, and the Super Bowl since never. Oh well, at least I can look back on the good old days, and the greats that played then.