Baseball is famous for the rigors of its 162-game schedule, marching endlessly from the melting snows of spring to the swirling winds of autumn. But football and basketball can be just as unrelenting in the punishment they can put on the body. Each of these sports requires high-end stamina and
Baseball is famous for the rigors of its 162-game schedule, marching endlessly from the melting snows of spring to the swirling winds of autumn. But football and basketball can be just as unrelenting in the punishment they can put on the body. Each of these sports requires high-end stamina and durability, making the select group of professional athletes who have excelled in more than one of them truly extraordinary.
Major League Baseball and the National Football League have co-existed for nearly a century, and fewer than 70 men are known to have played in both. An even smaller group -- 12 to be exact -- played in both MLB and the National Basketball Association. Together, these lists include some of the most famous athletes in history.
Below is a quick look at some of the biggest crossover names who starred in both the Major Leagues and professional football or basketball:
MLB and NFL
Jackson has a claim to the title of greatest athlete of all time. Part of that reputation stems from Jackson being one of the few people in history to earn an All-Star selection in multiple sports (and the only athlete to do so in professional football and baseball). But it also stems from the sheer experience of watching Jackson perform, whether he was bowling over defensive linemen or scaling outfield walls.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Jackson with the top pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, but instead he chose to play for the defending World Series-champion Royals, who had selected him that year in the fourth round of the MLB Draft. It wasn't long before Jackson was a star on the diamond, winning the 1989 All-Star Game MVP with a dazzling two-way display of offense and defense. Incredibly, Jackson averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the NFL while also hitting 32 homers and driving in 105 runs in 1989. Two years later, a devastating hip injury while playing for the Raiders derailed what could have been several more years of dual-sport brilliance.
Known to many as "Primetime," Sanders had incredible speed that made him a two-sport star in the 1990s. Teams would famously avoid throwing to Sanders' side of the field when he played cornerback for the Falcons, 49ers and Cowboys, while opposing hitters saw deep drives go to waste when the rangy Sanders patrolled the outfields for the Yankees, Braves and Reds. At 21 years old, Sanders memorably hit a home run for the Yankees and scored a touchdown for the Falcons in the same week in 1989. He is also the only athlete to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series, going 8-for-15 in four games for the Braves in the 1992 Fall Classic, and winning the Super Bowl with the 49ers and Cowboys.
Thorpe's place in football history is unquestioned. He was part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 1963, and his statue greets visitors as they walk through the doors of the museum in Canton, Ohio. But Thorpe's athleticism extended far beyond the gridiron. He won Olympic gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912, and he joined the defending World Series-champion New York Giants the following year. Thorpe was a star of the Giants' famous world tour that winter, meeting Pope Pius X and playing in front of King George V of England. Thorpe would somehow balance football, baseball and basketball over the next several years, finishing with a career .252 average over 289 games on the diamond with the Giants, Reds and Braves.
Jordan is one of the most recent examples of a two-way star. He led the Falcons in tackles and was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl as a defensive back in 1991 before switching to baseball full-time the following year. He unquestionably made a greater impact on the diamond, spending 15 seasons with the Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers and Rangers. St. Louis fans will recall Jordan's game-winning home run in Game 4 of the 1996 National League Championship Series, and the outfielder earned his lone All-Star Game selection with Atlanta three years later. Jordan finished his career as a .282 hitter with 184 home runs.
The story of football in Chicago begins with "Papa Bear" Halas. The Windy City native founded the Bears franchise and co-founded the NFL in 1920, and served as a player, coach and owner for the Monsters of the Midway -- all at the same time. Die-hard Yankees fans will recall that Halas also played 12 games in pinstripes in 1919, manning right field in the Bronx just before the arrival of one George Herman Ruth. Halas joined Thorpe as an inaugural inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
Nevers was regarded as one of football's best triple threats during the 1920s for his ability to run, pass and kick. He was a four-sport star at Stanford, excelling at baseball, basketball, and track and field. Nevers was a right-handed pitcher for the St. Louis Browns while also starring for the NFL's Duluth Eskimos, compiling a 6-12 record and 4.64 ERA on the mound from 1926-28.
Henson is the most recent athlete to make the top level in both sports. He was named Baseball America's high school player of the year in 1998, and the Yankees drafted him in the third round that year and paid him a $2 million signing bonus -- even with the understanding that he was committed to playing football for the University of Michigan. Henson split time with Tom Brady as quarterback of the Wolverines, and ultimately appeared in eight big league games for the Yankees in 2002-03. He started the Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving Day game in 2004 and suited up for the Lions in '08.
Some other facts you should know about those who have crossed over from pro baseball to pro football, and vice versa:
• Jackie Robinson, who broke MLB's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was a four-sport star at UCLA, lettering in baseball, football, basketball and track in 1939-40. Before being drafted into World War II, he played semi-pro football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs and Honolulu Bears.
• Jackson is one of only two former Heisman Trophy winners to appear in a Major League game. The other was 1950 winner Vic Janowicz, who played two seasons with the Pirates after leaving Ohio State before returning to football with the Washington Redskins.
• There is only member of both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. That would be Cal Hubbard, who is one of only 10 umpires enshrined in Cooperstown and also played linebacker for the Giants, Packers and Steelers.
• A total of seven members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame also played in the Major Leagues: Red Bagro, Paddy Driscoll, Halas, Nevers, Ace Packer, Thorpe and Sanders.
• Legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson, one of the inaugural five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, played fullback for the Pittsburgh Stars professional football team in 1902 (18 years before the founding of the NFL).
• Only seven athletes have appeared in both professional sports since the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970: D.J. Dozier, Henson, Chad Hutchinson, Jackson, Jordan, Matt Kinzer and Sanders.
MLB and NBA
Ainge is the most famous modern athlete to play in both MLB and the NBA, manning second base for the Blue Jays between 1979-81 before winning multiple NBA titles with the Celtics and later starring for the Kings, Trail Blazers and Suns. Ainge became just the second player in NBA history to successfully make 900 three-point shots, and he is currently the Celtics' GM and president of basketball operations.
A first-team All-America guard for Ohio University, Baumholtz averaged 14 points per game for the Cleveland Rebels of the Basketball Association of America (the NBA's predecessor) in 1946-47. He went on to place fifth in the '47 MLB Rookie of the Year Award vote (won by Jackie Robinson) after tallying 182 hits for the Reds.
Conley collected plenty of hardware, capturing three NBA titles with the Celtics from 1959-61 while also contributing to the Braves' 1957 World Series championship as a pitcher.
Connors is actually known mostly for his work as an actor, playing Lucas McCain in ABC's "The Rifleman" from 1958-63. But Connors also helped lead the Rochester Royals to the 1946 NBL Championship before later joining the Celtics of the newly formed BAA. Connors promptly left the Celtics to play for the Dodgers, breaking in with Brooklyn in 1949. Connors was also drafted by the Chicago Bears, but he never played in an NFL game.
The defensive heart and soul of the Knicks' revered championship teams of 1970 and '73, DeBusschere was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983. The forward also pitched for the White Sox from 1962-63.
Trivia nuts will recognize Groat as the 1960 NL MVP, a season in which he hit .325 for the world champion Pirates. But Groat was also a two-time All-America basketball player at Duke University, and went on to play one season for the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1952.
Hamilton spent 12 big league seasons as a reliable big league reliever, finishing his career with a 3.05 ERA and making appearances in both the 1963 and '64 World Series for the Yankees. He also spent two seasons as a power forward for the Minneapolis Lakers from 1958-60.
A natural fit for the court at 6-foot-9, Hendrickson played in 114 games for the 76ers, Kings, Nets and Cavaliers from 1996-2000. The lanky lefty eventually turned his attention to baseball, finding more prolonged success as a reliever for five clubs over 10 Major League seasons.
Nash was a first-team All-America for the University of Kentucky before suiting up for the Lakers and San Francisco Warriors during the 1964-65 season. He found himself in the Majors two years later, eventually playing 13 games as a first baseman and left fielder for the White Sox and Twins.
Reed is the most accomplished baseball player on this crossover list, earning an All-Star nod in 1968 and lasting 19 seasons in the Majors. The righty finished his pitching career with a 146-140 record and 3.46 ERA. Reed also played forward for the Pistons from 1965-67, the same time he was breaking into the big leagues.
The St. Louis Hawks made Ricketts, a first-team All-America forward at Duquesne University, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1955 NBA Draft, and he played three seasons for the Hawks and Royals. Ricketts also signed as a pitcher with the Cardinals in '55, appearing in 12 big league games.
Schultz's height of 6-foot-6 kept him out of military service, thus allowing him to play first base for the Dodgers, Phillies and Reds from 1943-48. He would later suit up for the NBA's Anderson Packers, Fort Wayne Pistons and Minneapolis Lakers, claiming a ring with the 1951-52 Lakers squad.
No. 23 grabs a bat
The most famous crossover attempt from basketball to baseball belongs to one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. After capturing three straight NBA championships with the Bulls, Jordan retired from basketball in October 1993 and signed a Minor League contract with the White Sox the following February. Jordan manned the outfield for Double-A Birmingham and for Scottsdale of the Arizona Fall League, but he never found the success he enjoyed on the court. Baseball's strike hastened Jordan's return to the Bulls in 1995, where he went on to cement his status as perhaps the greatest of all time with three more titles.
Not in the NBA, but they could play
• One would also be remiss without mentioning the three Hall of Fame baseball players -- Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins -- who once played for the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters.
• Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was famously drafted by both the Atlanta Hawks and the ABA's Utah Stars, but did not suit up for either team.
• Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was drafted by the San Diego Clippers and the Padres on the very same day: June 10, 1981.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.