Was Jordan Really Any Better than Joe D.?
(published December 1999)

When ESPN inexplicably named Michael Jordan its athlete of the century over Babe Ruth and others, my mind raced to answer the question, Why?  Initially, I dismissed the pick as the last in a series of examples demonstrating that ESPN's list left a lot to be desired.  But upon further reflection, I became convinced that there is a deeper answer:  ESPN failed to realize that we are now at a point in basketball history similar to that which baseball reached around 1950. 

Basketball has been played well only for about the past 50 years—and that may be a generous estimate.  Baseball, meanwhile, has truly spanned the century.  If you imagine baseball in 1950—at that point, it too had been played well only for about 50 years—then you can imagine its history to that point looking a lot like basketball's history looks today.  What is the relevance of this to an all-century list, you might ask?  The key point is as follows:  it is a lot easier to be the best player in the span of a half-century than the best in the span of a full one. 

Thinking of all the baseball greats of the past 100 years, I realized that the player whose career most resembled Jordan's was the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.  One could reasonably ask, Was Jordan really any better than Joe D.? 

Both players had brilliant careers of relatively short duration.  Jordan played 13 seasons plus one partial season; DiMaggio played 13 seasons over a span of 16 years (he lost three years to war service).  Both could do essentially anything their sport asked.  DiMaggio hit for average, hit for power, and excelled defensively and on the basepaths; Jordan buried jumpers, drove the lane, excelled defensively, and contributed significant numbers of assists and rebounds.  Jordan won five Most Valuable Player awards, second to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (ranked #26 by ESPN), who won six; in a sport with many more candidates and many more one-year wonders, DiMaggio won three (no baseball player has won more).  Each was widely considered the finest player of his generation and perhaps beyond.  During baseball's centennial celebration in 1969, DiMaggio was voted the game's greatest living player—an award Jordan would doubtless win for basketball if such a vote were taken today.  Beyond all this, each had an indomitable will to win.  Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six World Championships; DiMaggio led the New York Yankees to nine. 

Down the line, these two athletes are neck-and-neck.  If an edge is to be given here, it is not evident to whom. 

But while DiMaggio and Jordan run neck-and-neck, it is not clear that DiMaggio was even the second-best player in Major League Baseball history—at the least, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays also vie for that honor.  What is clear is that DiMaggio was not the very best.  In terms of greatness, Joe was no Babe—and neither was Michael. 

Babe Ruth dominated baseball like no one else has, and like Jordan never dominated basketball.  He posted a career ERA of 2.28 as a pitcher; he posted a career batting average of .342 (a mark that has been bettered by only one player—Williams, at .344—in the past 60 years); and when he retired after hitting the last of his 714 career home runs, no one else had even hit 400.  He was the greatest and most colorful player in the history of baseball, and he saved the game. 

Jordan has been retired for less than two years, yet he holds none of the NBA's most cherished records (except for that of endorsement revenue).  Bill Russell won more titles; Kareem scored more points; Wilt Chamberlain scored more points in a season and in a game.  Jordan is most known as a scorer, yet he already trails Karl Malone in career points—and Malone entered the league a year after Jordan.  Furthermore, most of Jordan's greatest heroics came after fellow-greats Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had left the court.  Few would consider the Jordan era (1991-1998) to be one in which an abundance of great teams and players roamed the NBA.  When the late Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray was asked why he voted Jordan 15th on his ESPN ballot (which he submitted shortly before his death), he replied, "I'd like to see Michael Jordan try to dunk a basketball over Bill Russell." 

If ESPN wanted to award its "Athlete of the Century" to the greatest all-around athlete, then it should have honored Jim Thorpe (Olympic gold-medalist in the decathlon; Olympic gold-medalist in the pentathlon; 6-year Major League Baseball player; named the top football player of the half-century by A.P.)  If it wanted to honor the greatest player in a single sport, then it should have honored Babe Ruth (as A.P. did).  If it wanted to honor the player who demonstrated the most courage and contributed the most to social justice, than it should have honored Jackie Robinson.  If it wanted to honor Michael Jordan, then it should have attached an asterisk and explained how he was better than its #22 selection, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. 


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