Baltimore’s Best Athletes Through the Decades
Growing up in Baltimore in the 60’s, sports was a major part and influence in my life. Not only did I participate in neighborhood sports such as baseball, football, basketball, and others, but I also followed the local sports teams; the Baltimore Orioles, the Baltimore Colts, the Baltimore Bullets and even the Baltimore Clippers. If I wasn’t playing sports, I would oftentimes be watching or going to the games at Memorial Stadium or the Civic Center in downtown Baltimore. Thinking about this, I thought I would make up a list of the top athletes that either grew up in Baltimore or played for one of the local teams. While my list is subjective, I have also tried to take into consideration athletes that participated in sports that might not have been something that I was interested in, or in some cases, not even considered a sport at all. With that in mind, here are some of what I consider to be some of Baltimore’s most noteworthy athletes to have graced us with their athletic skills.
- Brooks Robinson… Baseball
I would have to say that without question my favorite sports athlete growing up was Brooks Robinson. The ‘human vacuum cleaner’ as he was called played for the Baltimore Orioles throughout the 60’s and into the 70’s. Not only was he one of the best third basemen of all time, but he seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. I remember that several times he was the ‘grand marshal’ of our little league parade and if the team was in town, and it was an off day, he would hang around and sign autographs into the evening. My brother tells of a story in which his sister in law was at a ‘Goodwill’ store on Harford Rd, and as she was looking at books, she noticed a familiar figure stocking books on the shelves. The person happened to be Brooks and when she got up the courage to ask him for an autograph, he replied with a ‘sure hon’ and signed it for her. Brooks played his entire 23 year career with the Orioles. He won numerous awards during his long career including 16 consecutive ‘Gold Glove’ awards. Brooks was also an 18 time all-star, American League M.V.P. for the 1964 season and M.V.P. for the 1970 World Series. Brooks is truly a Baltimore Sports Legend.
2. Johnny Unitas…Football
John Unitas was the quarterback for the Baltimore Colts for many years. He was the quarterback that captained the team to championships in 1958 and 1959, in what many consider to be the game(1958) that put the NFL on the path to prominence. It was a different time back then, and as opposed to the showboating that goes on in NFL today, John was a no nonsense kind of guy that went out and led by example and exemplified a working class kind of team in a working class town. John played for 18 seasons in the NFL and except for the last year where he had an apparent falling out with Colts management, he played his entire career for the Baltimore Colts. Even today, with almost 50 years since he stepped on the gridiron, he’s considered by many to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. During his career, John won many awards including being named M.V.P. three times, in 1959, 1964 and 1967. He was also named to the Pro Bowl 10 times, and led the team to 4 championship titles.
3. Cal Ripken Jr. ..Baseball (The Ironman)
Anyone that has followed baseball knows of Cal Ripken’s achievements not just his baseball exploits on the field having racked up over 3,100 hits, 431 home runs, and 1,695 Rbi’s, but being the player that broke Lou Gehrig’s record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games, a record that may never be broken. Cal also won the MVP award twice and was a World Series winner in 1983. Cal was truly a ‘Baltimore boy’ having grown up in Aberdeen, Md., just about 30 minutes north of Baltimore. Cal is considered one of the best shortstops in major league history, having pioneered a new breed of shortstops being 6’4” tall as up until that time, most shortstops were of a much smaller stature. Cal still lives in the area and is part owner of Ripken stadium up in his childhood home of Aberdeen.
4. Babe Ruth…Baseball
When you think of baseball, one of the first names most people think of is Babe Ruth. He was a star for the New York Yankee’s for many years and one of the most feared hitters of all time. Although Babe Ruth never played professional baseball in Baltimore, the ‘Babe’ has a special connection to Baltimore in that he was born in Baltimore and spent time at St. Mary’s Reformatory which sits less than a mile from where I presently live. While known as a fun loving guy, Babe was not only a great hitter, but was also an excellent pitcher having a career record of 94-46 with an impressive 2.28 E.R.A.! Babe also held the record for home runs until the record was broken by Henry Arron. He also held records for many years including Slugging(.690) Runs batted in(2213) and bases on balls(2062).
5. Michael Phelps….Swimmer
While I confess that I know little about swimming, when you think of the Olympics and swimming, the name Michael Phelps surpasses all others. Phelps has more Olympic medals than any other Olympian having won 23 Olympic Gold medals. He also holds records for best time in numerous Olympic swimming events. Phelps was born and raised in Towson on the outskirts of Baltimore, and honed his swimming skills at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
6. Ray Lewis….Football
One of the best linebackers and the face of the Baltimore Ravens for most of their existence is NFL’er Ray Lewis. One of the most punishing linebackers in NFL history, Lewis played with an intensity that has seldom been seen in any sport. While short in height for most linebackers, Lewis made up for it with speed, instinct, emotion and a punishing style of play that made him one of the best Middle Linebackers to ever play the game. Lewis played all seventeen seasons for the Ravens, having won two Super Bowls and named M.V.P. in Super Bowl XXXV(35) He won numerous awards during his career including being selected to the Pro Bowl 13 times.
While some may not agree with the selection of Earl Monroe as one to be included among the best Baltimore athletes considering ‘the Pearl’ only played 4 complete seasons for the then Baltimore Bullets, if you were privy to Earl’s play during those years, who couldn’t help but marvel at his skills on the court. Earl was truly a wizard on the court, and the matchups between the Bullets and Knicks in the late 60’s, were something to behold. I can still recall the duel he and Walt Frazier would have in the playoffs, and it was some of the most enjoyable games a basketball fan could attend. For me, it was the Golden Age of the NBA, long before the thug mentality that you see in so many professional sports today.
While my list is not all inclusive, and to a point subjective, nevertheless I believe the people mentioned are indeed some of the best talented athletes to have connections to Baltimore.