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Thursday, January 29, 2009
Bo, Deion among two-way stars

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

Let's play a little word association. If I say "two-sport star," what do you say?

Sure. Deion Sanders. Bo Jackson. Michael Jordan.

OK, maybe not Michael Jordan (though he did give it a shot.) But you might be surprised at how many athletes have starred -- or more often, tried to star -- in two sports.

Would you believe that 68 major league baseball players also have played in the NFL? In the early years of that league, this was a common phenomenon; in the 1920s, dozens of major leaguers picked up a few extra dollars on the gridiron. Granted, most of them failed to distinguish themselves in either sport. But there were a few big stars. So with the Super Bowl now just a few days away, we thought it might be fun to create an all-star baseball team composed of the best (or most interesting) football players.

P Ernie Nevers

Nevers
Nevers
In the late 1920s, Nevers made his name as one of the great pre-World War II running backs, right up there with Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski. But at the same time, he was spending his summers as a pitcher with the St. Louis Browns; in 1927, Nevers gave up two of Babe Ruth's record 60 home runs. He did enjoy a bit of mound success, but spent most of 1928 and all of '29 in the Pacific Coast League. That fall, having left his PCL team early to join the NFL's Chicago Cardinals, Nevers scored all of his team's 40 points in a Thanksgiving Day game against the Bears. According to Brian McKenna, writing in "The National Pastime" (SABR, 2006), "To date, no one has surpassed his point total; it is the NFL's oldest surviving significant record." Nevers played in only five NFL seasons, but was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Almost everyone below was a fantastic football player with enough talent to play major league baseball, too (if sometimes only briefly) …

C Charlie Berry

Berry
Berry
An All-American football player in 1924, Berry starred at left end for the NFL's Pottsville Maroons in 1925 and '26. But football in those days was both rough and low-paying, so in 1928 he turned to baseball, and enjoyed a long career as an American League catcher with the Red Sox, White Sox and Athletics. And Berry gets extra credit for what he did after his playing career(s). First he served as a coach with the Philadelphia A's from 1936 through '40. Then, after a brief stint as a minor-league manager, Berry took up umpiring, reached the majors in the fall of 1942, and served as an American League arbiter through the 1962 season. But that wasn't all! Berry also officiated football games, and in 1958 he worked in the World Series and the NFL championship (the Giants-Colts game often described as the greatest in the league's history).

1B Tom Brown

Brown
Brown
At 22, Brown made his professional baseball debut with the Washington Senators, who lost 106 games in 1963 because they were doing stupid things like giving 116 at-bats to raw kids like Tom Brown, who batted all of .147. Brown did spend all of 1964 in the minors, batted .217, and that fall turned to a more productive position: playing safety for the dynastic Green Bay Packers. From 1964 through '68, Brown played in every Packers game, including three NFL Championship Games and two Super Bowls, all of them Green Bay wins.

2B Paddy Driscoll

When Driscoll came out of Northwestern University during the first World War, the NFL was not even a gleam in George Halas' eye. There were professional football teams, but for a respectable young man that profession was a last resort. So instead, Driscoll wound up with the 1917 Chicago White Sox, and played in 13 games before getting farmed out in August (thus missing the White Sox's World Series championship). Three years later, Driscoll joined the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL's inaugural season, and quickly established himself as a star quarterback and kicker; he eventually made a number of all-pro teams, and in 1924 drop-kicked a 50-yard field goal. In 1965, Driscoll entered Pro Football's Hall of Fame.

SS Ace Parker

Parker
Parker
Parker starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers. No, not those Brooklyn Dodgers. Parker played quarterback for the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers, and played well enough to eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, when Parker played -- in the late 1930s and early '40s, mostly -- it was a different game. In his career, Parker threw for 4,698 yards … less than Drew Brees totaled in 2008 alone. Anyway, Parker's baseball career wasn't quite as impressive. In two seasons with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, he batted .179 and fielded .934 at shortstop. Parker spent World War II in the service, and afterward played minor league baseball for years (and won the Piedmont League batting title in 1946). Today he's the Pro Football Hall of Fame's oldest living member at 96.

3B Vic Janowicz

Janowicz
Janowicz
It's tempting to go with Josh Booty or Drew Henson here -- both were highly touted baseball players who probably should have stuck to quarterbacking, and eventually did reach the NFL -- but Janowicz gets the nod as the first Heisman Trophy winner to play major league baseball. He won the Heisman in 1950, when Janowicz was a junior at Ohio State. After his senior season and a year in the army, Janowicz -- who hadn't played baseball as a Buckeye -- signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $25,000 (more than NFL teams were paying). At that time, a player who received a bonus as large as Janowicz's had to be kept on the major league roster, so he didn't spend a day in the minors. Rather, he got into 42 games with the Pirates as a rookie in 1953 and batted .252 (but struck out in a quarter of his at-bats). And in 1954, batting just .151 in early September, Janowicz gave up baseball and joined the Washington Redskins (who had drafted him in '52). He played sparingly for the Redskins that fall, but in 1955 saw plenty of action at halfback and kicker, finishing the season with 88 points, second-most in the NFL. He might have become a star, but the following summer during training camp he suffered a serious brain injury in a car accident and was partially paralyzed. Though he eventually made a full recovery, he never played football (or baseball) again.

LF Bo Jackson

Jackson
Jackson
For a year or two in the late 1980s, Bo Jackson might have been the most famous athlete in America -- either him or Michael Jordan. Not coincidentally, both were kept very busy hawking most of Nike's many products. While MJ was essentially limited to basketball gear, Bo -- via the ubiquitous "Bo Knows!" campaign -- could sell just about anything. But it wouldn't have worked if Bo hadn't known at least a couple of sports pretty well. And in 1989, he led off the All-Star Game with a home run and gained nearly 1,000 yards on the ground with the Raiders.

CF Deion Sanders

Sanders
Sanders
Even if Sanders -- who was, oddly enough, originally nicknamed "Prime Time" for his exploits as a basketball player -- wasn't ticketed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he would belong on anyone's football-baseball team for a singular accomplishment: He's the only man to play in both a World Series and a Super Bowl. (Additionally, it's widely reported that he's the only man to play in a major league baseball game and an NFL game on the same day. However, while he did play in a game for the Atlanta Falcons before putting on his Braves uniform that evening, he didn't actually play in that one.)

RF Jim Thorpe

Thorpe
Thorpe
Thorpe is most famous for winning two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics. The King of Sweden told him "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world;" Thorpe replied "Thanks, King." Beyond his Olympic performance, he's most famous for his football exploits, first with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and later in the nascent NFL. What's not so famous is his professional baseball career. Thorpe spent six seasons in the major leagues, mostly with the Giants, but didn't hit much. Upon washing out of the majors, he returned to the high minors and enjoyed three highly productive seasons. When he was in the majors -- and forever after -- "they" said he couldn't hit the curveball. But they throw curves in the minors, too, don't they?

Those are great athletes, for sure. And we've not even mentioned Jackie Robinson (who starred as a halfback for UCLA); Jackie Jensen (an All-American football player who pitched for a California team that won the first College World Series and played in the 1949 Rose Bowl before winning the American League's MVP Award in 1958); or Red Badgro (a Pro Football Hall of Famer who took off a couple of football seasons and played for baseball's St. Louis Browns instead). And most recently, Brian Jordan enjoyed a 15-season career as a major league outfielder after two fine seasons as a safety with the Falcons.

Finally, we should choose a manager/coach for our group of two-way players. If we're looking for that football mentality, the obvious choice is George Halas, who played a dozen games for the Yankees in 1919 before essentially creating both the Chicago Bears and the National Football League. And if we're looking for the consummate baseball tactician, we might turn to Charlie Dressen. Listed at 5-foot-6 and 147 pounds, Dressen spent eight seasons as a National League infielder … but before that, he played in the NFL and started seven games for the Racine Legion in 1922. But Dressen's greatest fame came later, when he managed five major league teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers in three of their finest seasons.

Most of the players listed above couldn't really cut it in both sports. Halas and Dressen, though? We should be able to find room for both of them in our organization. Whichever the sport.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.