Johnny Unitas won MVP honors three times, played in 10 Pro Bowls (three-time MVP), and won the NFL Championship in 1958 and 1959. Uploaded by dpatsblog.blogspot.com.
Johnny U. can’t be credited with single-handedly making the NFL into America’s favorite sports league. Nor was he the league’s first superstar. But he did lead his Baltimore Colts to a sudden-death overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 Championship Game. And he did revolutionize the position of quarterback, helping to make the forward pass the game’s most exciting play.
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Unitas played collegiately at Louisville. At that time, the Cardinals weren’t exactly in the upper echelon of college teams – they played (and often lost to) such powers as St. Bonaventure and Eastern Kentucky. Unitas played both offense and defense and proved to be quite an athlete. Still, no pro team wanted him after graduation, and he worked in construction to get a paycheck. In one of their all-time smart (lucky?) moves, the Baltimore Colts invited him to try out before the 1957 season. He made the team, and became a starter midway through that campaign. Neither the Colts nor the NFL were ever the same.
Unitas set a boatload of records, most of which have been exceeded by pass-happy offenses of recent years. One remarkable one stands, however. He threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, something Marino, Fouts, Bradshaw, Montana, Brady, and Manning have been unable to match. Unitas was named league MVP three times, and NFL.com selected him as the sixth-greatest player of all time.
Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca were permanently linked by fate, and became good friends. Branca never became bitter about his role in baseball history. Uploaded by gothamist.com.
“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
That famous call by Russ Hodges punctuated what is probably the most dramatic moment in baseball history. Bobby Thomson of the Giants hit a pitch thrown by Ralph Branca of the Dodgers into the left field seats, securing a spot for his team in the World Series and a place for himself in baseball immortality.
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The play occurred at the end of the 1951 season, and it’s hard for a modern fan to appreciate what a momentous event it was. First, these two teams were then crosstown rivals with fans that chose sides and did so with great passion. And second, on August 11 the Dodgers had a 13 1/2 game lead over the Giants, and finished the season a more than respectable 26-22. But the Giants went on a phenomenal 37-7 tear to pull to an identical 96-58 record. The champion would be determined by a three-game playoff, and the two teams split the first two. Everything was on the line for this last game.
The Dodgers held a 4-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning. But the Giants rallied, and with a run in and men on second and third, Bobby Thomson came to the plate. The Dodgers brought in Branca as a relief pitcher, a curious decision considering Thomson had homered off Branca to win the first game of the playoff. With a one-strike count, Branca came in high and inside, and Thomson turned on the pitch and deposited it in the left field stands. And Russ Hodges – and Giants fans across the country – went crazy:
He put up unbelievable numbers in his career - yet he missed almost all of two seasons after being drafted during the Korean War. Uploaded by baseball-wallpaper.net.
Is he the greatest all-around player in baseball history? I think you can make the case. He had 660 home runs in the non-steroid era, 3,283 hits, a career batting average of .302, and he made the All-Star team a remarkable 24 times. This, despite missing most of two seasons during his prime after being drafted into the Army.
And all that doesn’t even take into account his amazing fielding prowess in center field. He won the Gold Glove twelve times, and anyone who follows baseball knows about “The Catch.” In the eighth inning of Game One of the 1954 World Series, Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians hit a drive to deep center field. Mays made a running catch over his shoulder without really looking back, preventing two runs from scoring, and keeping the New York Giants in a game they would eventually win in the 10th inning. The Giants went on to win the Series, the only title Mays won.
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He was named Rookie of the Year in 1951, and won the MVP honor twice (1954, 1965). He spent most of his career with the New York and San Francisco Giants, finishing with a brief stint as a New York Met. Interestingly, the Braves scouted Mays before he signed a Major League contract, but declined to sign him. Can you imagine – we could have seen an outfield with Mays in center field and Hank Aaron (Great American Things, October 29, 2009) in right field!
No one knows how Mays got his nickname, the “Say Hey Kid.” We do know that his accomplishments got him named as the “Player of the Decade” for the 1960s by the Sporting News, and that he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Great American Things, March 26, 2010) on the first ballot…
Copyright 2009-2011, Robin G. Chalkley. All material on these pages, and the listing of items as Great American Things, is copyrighted. The exceptions are the photographs and videos, which remain the property of their respective owners.
Header photo used courtesy of Flickr photographer too melo.