The Northeast has a very distinctive media market for sports, one that can give any player constant praise, and then the next day rip them to shreds. No place in the region is this more evident and pronounced on a national level than New York City. Over the years, the Big Apple has had a rich sports history and has been the home for some of the best players in all of the four major sports.
As alluded to, the fanbase and media for these teams have a distinct “die hard” mentality. It’s one that allows them to fully embrace the best of the players who don their colors, and ridicule those who under-perform to no end. The players on this list are true athletic legends in the realm of professional sports in New York City, and as such their legacies are that much more interesting. Included are an elite combination of sack masters, home-run hitters, and goal scorers who best represented the city in their respective sports. Needless to say, there were a lot of options for this, but the twenty athletes included here probably won’t raise an argument from any native New Yorker.
Ranked below are the top 20 greatest players in New York sports history.
20. Mark Messier
Messier only spent roughly half his career in New York, but he was certainly one of the most recognizable faces of the successful Rangers teams of the 1990s. He was a team captain, and scored the game-winning goal in game seven of the 1995 Stanley Cup, giving the Rangers the victory. Though statistically, he wasn’t nearly as prolific a goal scorer as he was in Edmonton just several years prior, he was consistently reliable, and stepped up in big games. Taking his career in full, he was surely one of the best hockey talents to ever pass through New York, and helped them capture a title in the process. He entered the Big Apple at the right time, but his play ensured success on the ice for the team. One of the best to ever wear a Rangers uniform.
19. Joe Namath
This one is a bit of a tricky case, as the QB position was vastly different when it came to expectations in the late 1960s, but “Broadway Joe” was a very good QB for his time, and remains one of the most iconic NFL figures of all time. He helped the Jets capture their only Super Bowl victory in the history of the franchise. In the 1967 season, he tossed 4,000 passing yards; an almost unheard of feat for that era. Namath was gifted with a powerful arm, and took the NFL by storm for about five years on the field, and remained a legend off of it. Sure, the fact that he often threw more INTs than TD passes may be a red flag to some, but again, the era in which he played didn’t necessarily demand differently for a QB. Without a doubt, the most notable Jets player in the history of the franchise.
18. Darrelle Revis
Revis is probably the best CB of the last ten years, and still going strong as a member of the Jets. Despite a brief two-year absence in 2013 and 2014, when he went to the Buccaneers and Patriots respectively, he’s spent his entire career in New York. In his seven seasons there, he’s racked up 24 INTs, and that’s with opposing offensive coordinators trying to limit his effectiveness, by trying to avoid throwing to his side of the field by design. As most current wide receivers throughout the league are aware of at this point, trying to take on “Revis Island” one on one is usually a losing prospect. Maybe the greatest player on the defensive side of the ball that the Jets have ever had, and he remains an elite player in the present day. When all is said and done, he could be ranked even higher after his retirement.
17. Willis Reed
One of the most dominant big men of his time, Reed is seldom recognized for his abilities in the modern day. He spent his entire 10-year career with the Knicks, and won two NBA titles during his tenure. A perennial dual threat as a scorer and rebounder, his best statistical season came during the 1968-69 campaign, where he totaled 21.1 PPG and 14.5 RPG. Reed’s dominance signaled one of the best eras in team history for the Knicks, who would only sparingly see the kind of success that Reed led them to. Though he is hardly mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, he really does deserve to be, at least on some level. One of the best players in the Knicks’ franchise history, but there is one player glaringly above him, coming later on this list.
16. Joe DiMaggio
DiMaggio was a powerhouse of a hitter for the Yankees during baseball’s “golden age”. Of course, everyone knows about the miraculous 56-game hitting streak, but that only scratches the surface of his greatness. The numbers are astounding, and serve as a testament to “Joltin’ Joe’s” consistency as an elite player. A career .325 batting average (including one season in 1939 where he hit a robust .381, a number near inconceivable today), a total of 1,537 RBIs and 361 home runs. Consider the fact that he also missed three years in the prime of his career due to military service in World War II, and his career was truly remarkable. Those numbers only would have increased, but as it stands, he’s still one of the greatest players of all time. If the Yankees didn’t have so many Hall of Fame talents, he’d be much higher up on this ranking.
15. Mike Richter
An essential compliment to Messier’s scoring capabilities during the 1990s Rangers teams was Richter’s stellar play in net. One of the best goalies in league history, Richter has a career 2.89 GAA, and over 17,000 saves in sum. He played for the Rangers in part of three different decades, and was arguably the face of the franchise from the 1990s onward. Surely, without his puck-stopping skill, the team never would have achieved the success that they did, and to this day he remains a fan favorite. Though perhaps not on such an elite level as, say, Martin Brodeur, Richter is pretty close, and most importantly, his goaltending oversaw winning teams. Ultimately, he’s arguably the best player in team history, and a fond memory for fans of the Stanley Cup-winning team in 1994. A beloved athlete throughout the city.
14. Osi Umenyiora
Along with Michael Strahan, Umenyiora was part of a Giants defensive line that was able to rush the passer with elite efficiency. He netted at least six sacks in every season he was in New York, except his first, and racked up three seasons of at least 11.5 sacks. He even maintained this effective play in two seasons where he missed substantial time due to injury. In all, he spent nine seasons with the Giants, and the defensive line unit that he anchored was arguably the biggest reason the team was able to win two Super Bowls in a five-year span. Given the sum 75 sacks, combined with championship success, Umenyiora has to be considered one of the best players in team history. Since his departure from the team in 2012, the defensive line unit has been questionable, which further demonstrates his value to the team, and just how rare of a talent he was.
13. Mike Piazza
One of baseball’s ultimate long-shot stories, Piazza was the last player taken in the 1988 Amateur Baseball Draft. He started off with the Dodgers, establishing himself as one of the best hitting catchers in the game, before taking his talents to the Mets in 1998. He was a complete hitter; he had the ability to hit for power, average and knock in runs consistently. His defensive play might have held him back from a slightly higher ranking, but not putting him on this list would be criminal. With a career 427 home runs, and .308 batting average, he’s probably the single best hitting catcher the sport has ever seen. He helped lead the Mets to a World Series appearance in 2000, which they ultimately lost to the Yankees in the “Subway Series”. Without question, one of the most revered players in Mets history, especially post-1990.
12. Odell Beckham Jr.
The fact that Beckham has only played two seasons of NFL football just shows the remarkable talent that he clearly has. In a total of 27 games played, Beckham has tallied 2,755 receiving yards, and 25 TD catches. It’s simply unprecedented, and he’s doing it with a QB in Eli Manning who while solid, is not elite. Barring any kind of career ending injury, it would be pretty difficult to think that he won’t have a Hall of Fame career, even with such a small body of work to his name. Of course, given this small sample size, it’s difficult to rank him any higher at the moment, but he predicts to be a terror on NFL secondaries for another ten years or so at least. That amount of time putting up similar numbers should allow him to break some records, and make him a top-five franchise player in the process. The most dynamic athlete New York has seen in several decades without question.
11. Curtis Martin
One of the most overlooked RBs of all time, Martin only rushed for less than 1,000 yards once in his 11-year career. He spent eight of those seasons with the Jets, and was consistently effective presence in the backfield for nearly all of them. He was durable, only missing five games for the Jets, and in general doesn’t get the credit that he deserves. The team had a bevy of QB rotation during Martin’s tenure, and he was easily the most dependable player on the offensive side of the ball. A prototypical power runner, he also was decent in the receiving game, posting at least 40 receptions in every season he was in New York. He wasn’t flashy, but he’s definitely one of the greatest Jet players ever, and a staple whenever anyone thinks of the best RBs, in the early 2000s.
10. Lou Gehrig
Gehrig remains one of the most iconic Yankee figures of all time, and his career numbers back up the reverence. He was a hair shy of both 2,000 career RBIs, and 500 home runs. He hit an astounding .340 for his lifetime average, and was arguably the best pure hitter of his era, which included come of the best to ever take the field. This fact is evidenced by his seven seasons where he accumulated at least 200 hits. Factor in his famous retirement speech at Yankee Stadium, and he is truly one of the best to ever play the game of baseball. If it was any other franchise in the sport, he would undoubtedly be a top-two talent, but the Yankees are obviously a different breed. Some would argue him be placed higher, but considering the other names in question, his placement is more than a hint of praise. A defining player of his era.
9. Mariano Rivera
Without question, Rivera set the standard for closers in baseball, and was a rock solid member of what was one of the best eras in Yankees history. For nearly twenty years from 1995 to 2013, he was lights out in the 9th inning. An appearance by Rivera meant that the Yankees were sure to go home with a victory, and he dominated one of the most deceptively difficult positions in professional sports. He helped lead the Yankees to five World Series victories, establishing himself as a staple of the team, and the anchor of the bullpen. While other closers such as Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith were also great in the same era, no other player at the position was ever better in the clutch, in games with such magnitude. A true top-five Yankee of all time, and one of the reasons why they are often considered the greatest professional sports franchise ever.
8. Dwight Gooden
A controversial pick, given his documented struggles with substance abuse throughout his life, when Gooden was on, he was unstoppable. His first three seasons with the Mets were outright remarkable, and he is arguably the pitcher who had the most sheer talent in the last 30 years or so. His 1985 campaign where he netted 24 wins, a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts is a top-flight candidate for the best season by a pitcher of all time. His stuff on the mound was just out and out electric. Had he not fallen victim to his demons at different periods during his 16-year career, he could have been the best to ever take the mound. He stayed in New York for nearly ten seasons, and though he never quite matched his performance during his first three, he remained consistently very good. He also was a member of the Yankees later in his career, tossing a no-hitter in 1996. If the criteria is just “greatest players”, Gooden fits the bill, though he may never have reached his greatest potential heights.
7. Tom Seaver
Seaver on the other hand, was consistently great throughout his career, spending ten seasons with the Mets. Winning 311 games during his career, he was rock solid on the mound, and a potent strikeout threat in his younger years in New York. Helping lead the Mets to a World Series victory, leading the league in strikeouts five times and ERA twice in an era that produced some of the pitchers to ever live, are just a few of his career highlights. He was everything a team could have wanted from an ace pitcher, and then some. His peers on the mound at the time, such as Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, may be talked about more, but Seaver was just as dominant as both. A true all time great for the Mets, and the game at large.
6. Alex Rodriguez
Though his career is laced with controversy, it would be foolish to ignore A-Rod’s accomplishments at the plate. You don’t hit 700 home runs unless you are a generational talent, point blank. Add on to that 2,000 career RBIs and over 3,000 hits, and he’s simply the best overall hitter of his generation, PED use (which has been documented heavily in the era that he played in) or not. His production may have wavered slightly since the time he arrived with the Yankees, but that is to be expected with increasing age. Taking his career in full, he’s one of the best players ever wear the pinstripes, which needless to say is high praise. He may not be popular, given the controversy surrounding him, but Rodriguez has been one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. Statistics, aided or not by PED use, still are a representation of the player first, whether fans want to acknowledge it or not.
5. Patrick Ewing
The single greatest Knick of all time, Ewing led the team for 15 seasons, establishing himself as one of the best big men of his era. He was a force in the paint; never averaging less than 20 PPG until 13 years into his career, when he was past his prime. As a rebounder, he averaged over 10 per game on nine different occasions. He was the staple player on the team during many successful seasons in the 1990s, and the face of the franchise at large. Probably only Hakeem Olajuwon gives him realistic competition as the best center of the era (Shaq’s prime came just a few years later), and Ewing is one of the best ambassadors for the game that there’s ever been. An all time great presence and talent in the sport of basketball.
4. Michael Strahan
No player in New York football history (or arguably, NFL history) exhibited sack dominance on the defensive line the way Strahan did for nearly his entire career. In his 14-year career he tallied up 141.5 of them, including one monstrous season in 2001, where he notched 22.5. He was the prototypical pass rushing DE, and one of, if not the best, the sport has ever seen. Today, many know him as a talk show participant and media personality, showing that he has crossover appeal as well, but in his heyday, there was hardly anyone better at getting to the QB in the NFL. In all, a true defensive juggernaut, and one of the best Giants players ever. That’s a recipe for success in the Big Apple, but there’s still one Giants defender ahead of him on this list…
3. Babe Ruth
If this list was being made 20 years ago, there’s a good chance that the “Sultan Of Swat” would take the number one prize. However, his legendary play and persona hasn’t been tarnished by time, and he takes a placing in the top-five. Ruth’s accomplishments have already been well documented, and really he’s one of the only athletes in professional sports who was probably bigger than the sport he participated in. A robust power hitter, and at one time, pitcher (though not for the Yankees), Ruth’s home run power, and influence on the game, has become nothing short of Americana. It was a storybook career for the second-best player ever wear the pinstripes. Ask any random person to name one baseball player, and chances are that they will say his name.
2. Derek Jeter
Of course, Jeter embodies everything that is Yankees baseball in the modern day. He was a perfect spokesman for the team and city. His play at SS was nothing short of phenomenal; a career .310 batting average, over 3,400 hits, over 1,300 RBI (mostly as a leadoff hitter), and nearly 2,000 runs scored. There’s really not much more a team could possibly ask a leadoff-hitting, everyday SS to do. Jeter kept up this production for his whole career, and was a symbol of stability in the Yankees organization. Not many could have fulfilled such a role, but his consistency, and penchant for coming up big in the clutch made him a perfect fit. Without question, the greatest Yankees player of all time, and one of the game’s greats, Jeter was everything anyone could ever ask for in a major league player.
1. Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor simply revolutionized defensive play in the NFL. There definitely wasn’t a better player on that side of the ball in the 1980s, and many still maintain that he was the best defensive force to ever play in the league. He notched 132.5 career sacks, with 20.5 of those coming in his hallmark 1986 season. He was a team leader, and intimidation personified. There was simply no way to stop L.T. when he was in his prime, and gave offensive coordinators all over the league nightmares just thinking about it. He simply dominated against both the run and the pass at the LB position, and is without a doubt the greatest Giants player of all time. As a sheer player, there was never one better to play in the Big Apple. He helped gain a Super Bowl victory in 1986, and arguably helped save Bill Parcells’s legacy. Tough defense was hardly ever played any better in the NFL. L.T. was just out of this world.
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