New York City has provided many of America’s greatest athletes and teams and seen them produce many of the country’s greatest sports moments. From the beginnings of boxing and baseball on the streets of New York in the early 19th century to more recent feats of Derek Jeter and Tina Thomson, the Big Apple has seen its stars reach heights higher than Washington did in Manhattan.
Compiling a indisputable list of the greatest athletic feats by New Yorkers is an impossible task of course. Sports is full of fan divisions and tribal loyalties. And different generations have their favorite stars. In making this list, I am endeavoring to look at the whole scope New York sports history, from the early 19th century to today, choosing from wide range of sports. Some of my choices may seem rather obscure now, but they were or are very significant in their time and perhaps later.
New York has always been a city of world class stars, and I am particularly mindful of achievements of global significance. I have included a few baseball moments in my list as well as others from US team sports, but I put greater stock in New Yorkers whose achievements are recognized around the world.
Finally, how do I define a ‘New Yorker”? Just as in other fields, New York has attracted great athletes from outside the city, so whether they are born here or not is not a satisfactory definition. I generally include for consideration any athlete who spent significant childhood in the city, who developed their career in the five boroughs, or who played for one of New York’s professional or college sports teams (in this case the achievement must be for that team).
This is a list of greatest individual achievements. Many are by players in a team sport, but the focus is on the individual. Some are career achievements over a period of time; some are feats of incredible brilliance in one day.
And so, on with the list…
10. Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon in 1957
When I set out to make this list, I wanted to focus on the athletic significance, not the social significance. However in some cases it’s hard to ignore as a factor in how we rate sports moments. How significant was Althea Gibson’s victory at Wimbldon? I think she said it best herself: “Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”
Gibson had already broken barriers by becoming the first African-American to play at the US Nationals (now the US Open) at Forest Hills Queens in 1950. That year she lost in the second round. She won her first major in Paris in 1956. In her career she would win five major singles titles and seven doubles. She ended her career prematurely as tennis at that time was primarily an amateur sport and she couldn’t afford to compete without pay. It would be 17 years until another person of color would win a major.
She entered Wimbledon in 1957 after a string of victories around the world. But Wimbledon was tennis’s Mt Everest. She reached the final and faced her doubles partner Darlene Hard, winning in two sets. At home in New York, she was honored with a ticker-tape parade.
Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina but her family moved to Harlem when she was age three. She played for the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, winning numerous titles in the area in paddle tennis and lawn tennis.
9. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scores a record 38,387 career points
Born in Harlem and later raised in Inwood, Lew Alcindor Jr., later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had many accomplishments that could be considered for this list. He won three straight NCAA titles, three NBA titles, and three NBA MVP awards; he also led his high school team Power Academy on a 71-game winning streak. However, the important record he has all by himself is his NBA career tally of 38,387 points. He set the record on April 5th, 1984, scoring a trademark skyhook over Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz allowing him to surpass Wilt Chamberlain’s previous record of 31,419 points. He continued to play for the LA Lakers until 1989, adding points to his record. 29 years after his retirement, the record still stands. It’s possible that Lebron James will catch Abdul-Jabbar (James has the advantage of having gone straight from high school to the NBA). James has over 7000 points to go and he’s just under 34 years old. So far Jabbar’s record has withstood assaults by Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neill, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant
8. Al Oerter wins four straight Olympic gold medals
Only three Olympic athletes have one four straight gold medals in one individual event: Carl Lewis in the long lump, Michael Phelps in the 200 meter individual medley, and the Astoria-born Al Oerter in the discus throw. Oerter won the discuss first in Melbourne in 1956 and repeated the feat three straight times.
Oerter’s feat is even more miraculous considering how he overcame many injuries that could have derailed his entire career. He was nearly killed in a car accident in 1957, but he managed to recover and win the discus in Rome in 1960. In 1964 in Tokyo, he was hampered by injuries just before the games and had to compete in significant pain. He won despite not being able to take his final throw. Finally, in Mexico, in 1968, he was considered perhaps too old to win, especially against fellow American Jay Sylvester. But Oerter managed to unleash an Olympic record throw of 212.5 feet, 64.8 meters and won a surprise 4th gold medal.
7. Sugar Ray Robinson goes on a 91-match unbeaten streak.
Like Abdul-Jabbar, Sugar Ray Robinson’s career is glittered with many impressive achievements. He’s regarded by many as the best boxer ever. He was the long time holder of both the World Welterweight and Middleweight titles. He had an 85-0 Amateur record. His victory in the sixth fight with rival Jake LaMotta, LaMotta’s only ever knockout, was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s film Raging Bull. He was born Walter Smith Jr. in Ailey, Georgia and moved to Harlem with his family at the age of 12. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School but dropped out to focus on boxing.
Robinson’s professional career starting amazingly enough with a 40-0 record. But he was defeated for the first time by LaMotta in 1943 in Detroit. Robinson would win a rematch with LaMotta less than a month later. Over the next eight years, he fought in 91 matches without a loss, winning 88 times, with two draws and a no-contest, and along the way he moved up from welterweight to middleweight and fought the most famous boxers of his day. It is the third longest unbeaten streak in boxing history. In 1951 he had a record of 128 wins, 1 loss and two draws–a phenomenal record. The streak ended in London’s Earls Court Arena against a fighter named Randolph Turpin. Robinson would win an immediate rematch back in New York’s Polo Grounds. He would continue to fight for 13 more years (with a brief 3-year retirement from 1952-55 and amassed 173 wins, 19 losses and 6 draws.
6. Christy Mathewson pitches a record three shutouts in the 1905 World Series
No pitcher has ever dominated a Major League post-season series like Christy Mathewson did in the 1905 “World’s Championship” as the World Series was first called. In a span of 6 days, Mathewson pitched three shutouts, leading New York to a 4-1 series win. The three shutouts in one series remains a post-season record.
In 1905 the World Series was still a novelty. The first was held in 1903. The American League was then only three years old and considered an upstart league by the National League, which was much older. However, the 1903 AL champions Boston challenged the NL pennant winner Pittsburgh to a post season championship, and Boston won in an upset. Next year, the New York Giants won the National League, and Boston won again. The Giants refused to face Boston, claiming they were inferior. There was no series. In 1905, New York won the NL again, with pitching ace Christy Mathewson having an incredible year–31 wins, a 1.28 ERA, and 206 strikeouts. The Giants agreed to face the American League champion, the Philadelphia Athletics (now the Oakland Athletics).
Mathewson started Game 1 in Columbia Park in Philadelphia and shut the Athletics out on four hits. Philadelphia won the next game to even the series. Three days after first start, Mathewson took the mound again in Game 3, again shutting out Philadelphia on four hits. New York won Game 4 as well In Game 5 at the Polo Grounds, only two days after his previous start, Mathewson won his third complete game shutout, allowing five hits this time. In total he pitched 27 innings, allowed 13 hits, struck out 18 batters and allowed only one walk.
To be continued….