Rank 'em! Who were the best Major Leaguers to also play in the NBA?
With the Heat and Spurs battling in the NBA Finals and Tracy McGrady pitching for the Atlantic League's Sugar Land Skeeters (7.94 ERA through 5.2 IP), it's time to answer the question that is surely on everyone's mind: Just who is the greatest Major Leaguer who also spent some time gallivanting about in the NBA?
While MLB has seen a lot of great multi-sport college stars (Dave Winfield was drafted by both the NBA and the ABA and Tony Gwynn was a college star at San Diego State), there have only been a dozen players both talented and fortunate enough to play both sports at the highest level. Even Michael Jordan only hit .202 with 30 steals and three home runs in his taste of Minor League ball.
But enough about those that didn't play both sports -- today we aim to rank the 12 who did. Using Baseball-Reference's WAR as our guide, we look at the baseball boogiers who could also do the roundball rock.
12. Howie Schultz: -2.3 rWAR
(Photo by Charles T. Higgins/NBAE via Getty Images)
Anderson Packers/Fort Wayne Pistons 1949-50; Lakers 1951-53: 173 G, 5.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.7 APG
Dodgers 1943-47; Phillies 1947-48; Reds, 1948: 1,699 PA, .241/.281/.349, 24 HR, 208 RBIs, 15 SB
Schultz came out of the gate slugging, going 2-for-4 with an RBI in his Major League debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 16, 1943. Unfortunately, that kind of success would be far too rare for the first baseman. After being sent to the Reds in 1948, Schultz was platooned with Ted Kluszewski. But when Schultz injured his wrist, Kluszewski grabbed the role, eventually going on to hit 279 home runs while Schultz turned to basketball.
11. Danny Ainge: -2.0 rWAR
Blue Jays 1979-1981: 721 PA, .220/.264/.269, 2 HR, 37 RBIs, 12 SB
Concerned that Ainge would give up baseball after his successful college basketball career at BYU, the Blue Jays may have called up the infielder before he was ready. Though Ainge was the sixth-youngest player in the Majors when he made his debut on May 21, 1979, he went 3-for-4 with three runs and an RBI. He would never have another three-hit game.
Of course, Ainge went on to have a great NBA career, scoring nearly 12,000 points and winning two championships with the Boston Celtics.
Best Quote: During the 1981 NCAA finals, Ainge was quoted as saying: "I've failed at things before. I think I've failed at baseball the last three years. I've set goals for myself, and I haven't come close to them. If I keep failing for a certain period of time, I'll definitely try something else. Basketball? Probably."
10. Chuck Connors: -0.9 rWAR
(Photo by: Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Celtics 1946-48: 53 G, 4.5 PPG, N/A RPG, 0.8 APG
Dodgers 1949; Cubs 1951: 215 PA, .238/.280/.302, 2 HR, 18 RBIs, 4 SB
You may know Chuck Connors, but it's probably not because of baseball. Rather, it's because he was a true triple threat: MLB player, NBA player and actor. Connors starred in the western series The Rifleman along with 129 other films and TV shows including Old Yeller, Airplane 2 and Summer Camp Nightmare.
In fact, it was thanks to his baseball career that he became an actor. After being sent to the PCL Los Angeles Angels, Connors became a fan favorite with many producers, actors and film industry folks who came out to watch him.
Not that Connors was necessarily easy to work with. Said former general manager Buzzie Bavasi on contract discussions with Connors:
9. Dick Ricketts: -0.5 rWAR
(Photo by Charles 'Teenie' Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)
St. Louis Hawks 1955-56; Rochester/Cincinnati Royals 1955-58: 212 G, 9.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.1 APG
Cardinals 1959: 55 2/3 IP, 1-6, 5.82 ERA, 4.0 K/9, 4.9 BB/9
Though Dick Ricketts didn't last long in the Major Leagues, playing only one season for the St. Louis Cardinals, he did pitch in 10 Minor League seasons, winning 99 games along the way. Of course, Ricketts' real claim to fame was that he was selected as the first pick in the 1955 NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks.
Like several other players on this list, Ricketts' greatest Major League game was his debut. Despite taking the loss against the Reds, he pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowed three runs and struck out six.
8. Cotton Nash: 0.0 rWAR
(Photo by James Drake /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
Lakers/Warriors 1964-65; Kentucky Colonels 1967-68: 84 G, 5.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.8 APG
White Sox 1967; Twins, 1969-70: 13 G, 19 PA, .188/.316/.188, 0 HR, 2 RBIs, 0 SB
Nash was never a star in MLB or the NBA, but he's still regarded as a legend at the University of Kentucky, where he set the school's all-time record for scoring in the early '60s. And though Nash didn't play much in the Major Leagues, he hit 185 home runs in the Minors, including a career-high 37 with the Portland Beavers in 1971.
7. Dave DeBusschere: 0.8 rWAR
Pistons 1962-69; Knicks 1969-74: 875 G, 16.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 2.9 APG
White Sox 1962-1963: 102 1/3 IP, 3-4, 3.09 ERA, 5.7 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
Dave DeBusschere is best known for his Hall of Fame career with the Pistons and Knicks, but his skills on the mound led the White Sox to protect him over future 30-game winner Denny McLain in the 1963 Rule 5 Draft.
After spending the entire 1964 and '65 seasons in the Minors with the White Sox (while playing and coaching the Pistons at the same time), DeBusschere decided he needed to focus on basketball. While that that looks to be the right decision in retrospect (he won two championchips with the Knicks), in '65 DeBusschere had just completed a 244-inning season with a 3.65 ERA in the Pacific Coast League. Had he decided to focus on baseball, it's quite possible that he would have had a productive Major League career.
What!? Moment: While he was the commissioner of the ABA in 1976, DeBusschere participated in the Superstars rowing competition. Man, the '70s were weird.
6. Mark Hendrickson: 4.3 rWAR
76ers 1996-97; Kings 1997-98; Nets 1998-2000; Cavaliers 1999-2000: 114 G, 3.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.6 APG
Blue Jays 2002-2003; Devil Rays 2004-2006; Dodgers 2006-2007; Marlins 2008; Orioles 2009-2011: 1,169 IP, 58-74, 1 SV, 5.03 ERA, 5.1 K/9, 2.7 BB/9
Major League teams really wanted Hendrickson to play baseball, drafting him an absurd six times: the Braves in '92, Padres in '93, Braves again in '94, Tigers in '95, Rangers in '96, and finally the Blue Jays in '97.
Hendrickson had a very useful Major League career, making more than 30 starts three times and becoming the first Blue Jays pitcher to hit a home run when he knocked one out on June 21, 2003 against the Expos. He remains the only Toronto pitcher with a dinger.
Hendrickson is currently playing for the York Revolution in the Atlantic League, and has a 1.50 ERA in 18 innings this season. Unfortunately, the Revolution won't play the Skeeters again until August 6th, so it will be a bit of a wait for those dreaming of a Tracy McGrady versus Mark Hendrickson showdown.
5. Frankie Baumholtz: 7.6 rWAR
Cleveland Rebels, 1946-47: 45 G, 14 PPG, N/A RPG, 1.2 APG
Reds 1947-49; Cubs 1949, 1951-1955; Phillies 1956-57: 3,810 PA, .290/.342/.389, 25 HR, 272 RBIs, 30 SB
A member of the Cubs' "Quicksand Kids" outfield, so-called for their slow-footed ways, Baumholtz finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 1947 when he led the league in plate appearances.
But Baumholtz's career highlight came in 1952 when he hit .325 and finished second to Stan Musial for the National League batting title. On the last day of the season, with the Cubs facing the Cardinals and the title already clinched, Musial was brought in to pitch against Baumholtz. Baumholtz, a left-handed hitter, turned around to bat right-handed against Musial, and reached on an error at third base.
4. Steve Hamilton: 11.2 rWAR
Lakers 1958-1960: 82 G, 4.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.5 APG
Indians 1961; Senators 1962-63; Yankees 1963-70; White Sox 1970; Giants 1971; Cubs 1972: 663 IP, 40-31, 42 SV, 3.05 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
Starting his career with the Minneapolis Lakers, Steve Hamilton found his niche in the back of the Yankees bullpen, occasionally making spot starts. Hamilton's best remembered for the "Folly Floater," his version of an eephus pitch.
Here's the pitch in 1970 against the Indians' Tony Horton:
The best part of the clip is how Horton has no choice but to crawl back to the dugout in shame after getting out on the pitch. One umpire ruled the floater illegal, saying, "This is no halfway league."
Fun Fact: Hamilton is one of only two people to play in both the World Series and the NBA Finals. He lost in both.
3. Gene Conley: 15.7 rWAR
(Photo by George Silk//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Celtics 1952-53, 1958-61; Knicks 1962-64: 351 G, 5.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 0.6 APG
Braves, 1952, 1954-58; Phillies 1959-60; Red Sox 1962-1963: 1,588 IP, 91-94, 9 SV, 3.82 ERA, 5.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
Conley is one of only two people to win a championship in two different major pro sports (Otto Graham is the other). An All-Star in both 1954 and '55, he likely tore his rotator cuff in June of '55 -- catcher Del Crandall could hear it from behind the plate -- but still made his next start five days later.
Conley would go on to have plenty of highlights in his career. After earning the victory in the 1955 All-Star Game, he was a member of the 1957 World Champion Milwaukee Braves and even struck out Ted Williams in the 1959 edition of the Midsummer Classic.
Best Quote: "Red Auerbach used to say, 'Well, Gene, the playoffs are over, the season's over, now you can go down and try to get out of shape so you can pitch.'"
2. Ron Reed: 25.0 rWAR
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Pistons 1965-1966: 119 G, 8.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.5 APG
Braves 1966-1975; Cardinals 1975; Phillies 1976-1983; White Sox 1984: 2,477 2/3 IP, 146-140, 103 SV, 3.46 ERA, 5.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
Though Reed struggled in his two seasons with the Detroit Pistons (ironically enough, his coach was Dave DeBusschere), he was plenty successful in the Majors, going to the 1968 All-Star Game and finishing his career as one of only eight players with more than 100 wins and 100 saves.
Reed's even got himself a nice little footnote in history: While many people remember that Al Downing was the man who served up Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run, few recall that it was Reed who earned the victory that night.
1. Dick Groat: 36.7 rWAR
(Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
Pistons 1952-53: 26 G, 11.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.7 APG
Pirates 1952, 1955-62; Cardinals 1963-65; Phillies 1966-67; Giants 1967: 8,179 PA, .286/.330/.366, 39 HR, 707 RBIs, 14 SB
Not only does Dick Groat belong to select club of MLB/NBA players, but he also claims membership in the rare group of players who skipped the Minors entirely.
And while Groat showed impressive skills on the court, it was Branch Rickey who convinced the shortstop to quit the hoops scene by comparing him to Gene Conley and saying, "I think you should realize that eventually you won't justify your salary in either sport."
That decision seems to have been the correct one. Groat would play in five All-Star Games, two World Series and even win an MVP in 1960 when he hit a league-leading .325 while playing short.
Who will be the next player on this list? Only time will tell, but Notre Dame pitcher/basketball player Pat Connaughton, drafted in the fourth round by the Orioles, is one candidate. Let's cross our fingers.