New York's Biggest Sports Heroes
Someday, young New York Giants stars like Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. may reach the top. Maybe Jets quarterback Sam Darnold will fulfill the promise of a No. 3 overall pick. Jacob deGrom already has a Cy Young under his belt after a stellar 2018 season with the Mets.
These players represent the present and future in Gotham, but the Big Apple is filled with dramatic sports heroes from the past.
They are the athletes who have played, run and fought in New York City — the best New York has ever seen.
#25: Eli Manning, Football
Experience: 15 years in NFL (2004-present)
Teams: New York Giants
Career stats: 55,981 passing yards, 360 touchdown passes, 232 games
Championships: 2 (2007, 2011)
New York has seen some great quarterbacks: Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Phil Simms, even Vinny Testaverde. But Eli Manning stands above them all.
Manning, who came from an amazing quarterback draft class that included Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, twice led the Giants on dramatic drives in the final two minutes to win a Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. With more than 55,000 yards passing, Manning is a career top-10 quarterback.
#24: Willis Reed, Basketball
Experience: 10 years in NBA (1964-74)
Teams: New York Knicks
Career stats: 12,183 points, 8414 rebounds, 650 games
Championships: 2 (1970, 1973)
Willis Reed spent his entire 10-year career with the Knicks.
The Rookie of the Year in 1965, he was a seven-time All-Star and led New York to NBA championships in 1970 and 1973, earning the Finals MVP award both times.
He is best remembered for limping onto the Madison Square Garden court for Game 7 of the 1970 finals against the Lakers with a torn muscle in his thigh and scoring the Knicks' first points of the night.
#23: Emile Griffith, Boxing
Experience: 20 years (1958-77), 112 fights
Fights in New York: 45
Career stats: 85-24-2
New York stats: 41-5
Championships: 4 (WBC and WBA welterweight, WBC and WBA middleweight)
Championships won in New York: 4 (twice won WBC and WBA welterweight titles, twice won WBC and WBA middleweight titles)
Emile Griffith was a bisexual trailblazer who won New York’s Golden Gloves in 1958. His pro career started out of St. Nicholas Arena. He fought 28 bouts at Madison Square Garden and was a three-time welterweight champion and two-time middleweight champion.
His most notorious fight came against Benny "The Kid" Paret at the Garden in 1962. At the weigh-in, Paret touched the former hat maker’s rear end and called him by a Spanish slur. Griffith responded in the ring, trapping Paret in the corner and beating him senseless in the 12th round. Paret never regained consciousness, and died 10 days later.
Thirty years later, Griffith was nearly beaten to death after leaving a gay bar on Manhattan’s West Side. He died in 2013 at the age of 75 after suffering from dementia pugilistica
#22: Mark Gastineau, Football
Experience: 10 years in NFL (1979-88)
Teams: New York Jets
Career stats: 74 sacks, 137 games
Mark Gastineau was a five time All-Pro, who twice led the NFL in sacks.
The fastest member of the Jets' imposing "Sack Exchange" (with Joe Klecko, Abdul Salaam and Marty Lyons), the speedy edge rusher holds the team’s single-season and career sacks records.
Gastineau celebrated bringing down a quarterback with his patented "Sack Dance" — until the NFL introduced the taunting penalty and banned the practice in 1984.
The following season, Jets fans were deprived of a lot of dancing while Gastineau recorded 22 sacks, setting an NFL single-season record that would last 17 years.
#21: Yogi Berra, Baseball
Experience: 19 years in MLB (1946-63 1965)
Teams: New York Yankees (1946-63), New York Mets (1965)
Years in New York: 19
Career stats: 358 home runs, 1,430 RBI, 2,120 games
Yankees stats: 358 home runs, 1,430 RBI, 2,116 games
Mets stats: 0 home runs, 0 RBI, 4 games
Championships: 10, all with Yankees (1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962)
Yogi Berra served in the Navy during the D-Day invasion of France during World War II, then came home to author a Hall of Fame career as the Yankees catcher.
As a player, he was a 15-time All-Star, a three-time American League MVP and a 10-time world champion. In 1947, he hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, and he caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
Berra's ebullient character and long career as a player and coach led to a number of "Yogi-isms," fun but odd quotes such as these:
It ain’t over 'til it's over.
Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
I never said most of the things I said.
#20: Grete Waitz, Distance Running
Experience: 19 years (1974-88)
Years in New York: 10 marathons
Career stats: Ran 2:25:28 in London in 1983
New York stats: Ran 2:25:41 in 1980
Career championships: 12 marathon golds, five world cross country championships golds, Olympic silver medal
Championships won in New York: 9 marathon golds (1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988)
Few athletes dominated a classic New York event like Grete Waitz dominated the New York City Marathon.
The Norwegian took two minutes off the women’s world record in her first effort in 1978, and won another eight New York titles over the next 10 years while dropping her time by another seven minutes. (The course record is now held by two-time champion Margaret Okayo of Kenya, who ran 2:22:31 in 2003.)
The New York Road Runners club still celebrates Waitz’s legacy with an annual 10K race dubbed "Grete’s Great Gallop" in Central Park.
#19: Pele, Soccer
Experience: 22 years (1956-77)
Teams: Santos, Brazil national team, New York Cosmos
Years in New York: 3
Career stats: 727 goals in 786 appearances (official), 1,281 goals in 1,363 appearances (unofficial)
New York stats: 31 goals in 56 appearances
Career championships: 3 World Cups (Brazil)
Championships won in New York: 1 (1977, NASL)
Regarded as the one of the world’s best-ever soccer players (and, for a time, the highest-paid athlete on Earth), Pelé made his "football" home in New York for three seasons with the Cosmos.
While the Brazilian superstar was just past his prime, he often showed flashes of the incredible ballhandling skill that gave "The Beautiful Game" its name — and scored 31 of his career 1,281 goals (unofficial) in his 56 games with the Cosmos.
His pro career ended at Giants Stadium in a friendly match between the Cosmos and his former Brazil club, Santos. He played one half for each side.
#18: Mike Tyson, Boxing
Experience: 21 years (1985-2005), 58 fights
Fights in New York: 3
Career stats: 50-6, 44 by knockout
New York stats: 3-0, 2 first-round knockouts
Championships: WBC, WBA, IBF heavyweight titles
Championships won in New York: 0
Mike Tyson was born in Brooklyn and rose from Bensonhurst to become the youngest man to win a heavyweight title in November 1986. He was 20 years, four months and ran his record to 37-0 before a stunning loss to Buster Douglas in Japan in 1990.
Along the way, Tyson largely eschewed Madison Square Garden for glitzy casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
Tyson won back the WBA and WBC titles before a loss to Evander Holyfield in 1996, then completely fell from grace by biting Holyfield’s ear during a rematch the following year.
Tyson’s pro record of 50-6 is only slightly tainted by three losses in his last four fights. In his prime, nobody hit harder, and nobody sent opponents to the canvas quicker than "Iron Mike" Tyson.
#17: Emlen Tunnell, Football
Experience: 14 years in NFL (1948-61)
Teams: New York Giants (1948-58), Green Bay Packers (1959-61)
Years in New York: 11
Career stats: 79 interceptions, 258 punt returns for 2,209 yards, 167 games
New York stats: 74 interceptions, 257 punt returns for 2,206 yards, 130 games
Championships: 2 (1956, 1961)
Championships won in New York: 1 (1956)
Emlen "The Gremlin" Tunnell was a Coast Guard hero who became the first African American to play for the New York Giants and — after a record-setting career as a defensive back, safety and kick returner — the first African-American inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A key to the defense that shut down the Chicago Bears to win the 1956 NFL title game 47-7 at Yankee Sadium, Tunnell played in nine Pro Bowls and retired with a then-record 79 interceptions.
#16: Curtis Martin, Football
Experience: 11 years in NFL (1995-2005)
Teams: New England Patriots (1995-97), New York Jets (1998-2005)
Years in New York: 8
Career stats: 14,101 rushing yards, 3,329 receiving yards, 100 touchdowns, 168 games
New York stats: 10,303 rushing yards, 2,439 receiving yards, 63 touchdowns, 123 games
Curtis Martin played three years with the New England Patriots, then followed his former coach Bill Parcells to the New York Jets in 1998.
In New York, Martin put together seven straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. His most dominant season came in 2004, when the five-time Pro Bowler led the league with 1,697 yards rushing, added 245 yards receiving and scored 14 touchdowns.
The Jets’ career rushing leader is fifth on the NFL’s all-time list.
#15: Tom Seaver, Baseball
Experience: 20 years in MLB (1967-86)
Teams: New York Mets (1967-77, 1983), Cincinnati Reds (1977-82), Chicago White Sox (1984-86), Boston Red Sox (1986)
Years in New York: 12
Career stats: 311 wins, 2.86 ERA, 3,640 strikeouts, 656 games
New York stats: 198 wins, 2.57 ERA, 2,541 strikeouts, 401 games
Championships: 1 (1969)
Championships won in New York: 1
The first Met elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Tom Seaver threw five one-hitters for the Amazins. He won 20 games five times and earned the National League Cy Young Award in 1969, 1973 and 1975. He led the league in strikeouts five times as a Met, and was the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series.
At Shea Stadium in 1970, "Tom Terrific" tied the then- MLB record by striking out 19 Padres in nine innings — including a record 10 straight to end the game.
Seaver, who also pitched for the Reds and briefly with both the White Sox and Red Sox, finished his career with 311 wins and is sixth on the all-time list with 3,640 strikeouts.
#14: Walt Frazier, Basketball
Experience: 13 years in NBA (1967-80)
Teams: New York Knicks (1967-77), Cleveland Cavaliers (1977-80)
Years in New York: 10
Career stats: 15,581 points, 5,040 assists, 825 games
New York stats: 14,617 points, 4,791 assists, 759 games
Championships: 2 (1970, 1973)
Championships won in New York: 2
Walter "Clyde" Frazier led Southern Illinois University to an NIT championship, winning the last college basketball game at New York’s "old" Madison Square Garden in 1967 before the Knicks took the 6-foot-4 point guard with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft.
Frazier went go earn seven All-Star selections and lead New York to two NBA titles in four years. One of the most recognizable Knicks, he still works with the team as a color commentator.
You can check out his signature style at the website "Clyde So Fly."
#13: Mark Messier, Hockey
Experience: 25 year in NHL (1979-2004)
Teams: Edmonton Oilers (1979-91), New York Rangers (1991-97, 2000-04), Vancouver Canucks (1997-2000)
Years in New York: 10 years
Career stats: 694 goals, 1,193 assists, 1,756 games
New York stats: 250 goals, 441 assists, 698 games
Championships: 6 (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1994)
Championships won in New York: 1 (1994)
Mark Messier spent 13 years playing for the Edmonton Oilers (winning five Stanley Cups) before donning Rangers Blues in 1991. He promptly led the Rangers to the NHL’s best record, but the Pittsburgh Penguins bounced them out of the playoffs in the second round.
Two years later, the Rangers again finished first overall. This time, the result was different. After knocking off the Islanders and the Capitals, the Rangers were down three games to two against the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals. Messier guaranteed a Rangers win in Game 6, and he delivered with a hat trick. After the Rangers won Game 7 in double overtime, they went on to beat the Vancouver Canucks for their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
Messier scored the Cup winner in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Messier holding the Cup over his head on the Garden ice is one of the most iconic images in New York sports history.
#12: Mel Ott, Baseball
Experience: 22 years in MLB (1926-47)
Teams: New York Giants
Career stats: 511 home runs, 1,860 RBI, .304 average, 2,730 games
Championships: 1 (1933)
Mel Ott played 22 seasons with the New York Giants. The powerful right fielder, a career .304 hitter, often took advantage of the Polo Grounds’ short-corner outfield walls but also had to overcome deep power alleys in the horseshoe-shaped field.
Ott was the first National Leaguer to reach 500 home runs and the first to drive in more than 100 runs in eight straight seasons.
He was a 12-time All Star and six-time NL home run leader, who drew more than 100 walks 10 times, including seven straight seasons from 1936 to 1942.
#11: Michael Strahan, Football
Experience: 15 years in NFL (1993-2007)
Teams: New York Giants
Career stats: 141.5 sacks, 216 games
Championships: 1 (2007)
Hall of Famer Michael Strahan spent 15 seasons with the New York Giants, setting the single-season sack record (22.5) in 2001. The defensive end with his trademark gap-toothed smile is sixth aall-time on the NFL sack list, and first among New Yorkers.
He went out on top, retiring after the 2007 season following the wild-card Giants’ stunning win over the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
The affable Strahan quickly found work in television, replacing Regis Philbin on what became "Live! With Kelly and Michael," then jumping to "Good Morning America" and "GMA Day" (retitled "Strahan and Sara" with Sara Haines), as well as contributing to NFL coverage on Fox.
#10: Patrick Ewing, Basketball
Experience: 17 years in NBA (1985-2002)
Teams: New York Knicks (1985-2000), Seattle SuperSonics (2000-01), Orlando Magic (2001-02)
Years in New York: 15
Career stats: 24,815 points, 2,894 blocks, 1,183 games
New York stats: 23,665 points, 2,758 blocks, 1,039 games
After Patrick Ewing had a stellar college career at Georgetown University — making the NCAA Finals game three times and coming away with one national championship — the Knicks won the NBA’s first draft lottery and made the 7-foot big man the first overall pick in 1985.
Ewing made an immediate impact, winning the Rookie of the Year award and going on to 11 All-Star teams.
As part of the inaugural "Dream Team," he won Olympic gold in 1984 and again in 1992. While Ewing led the Knicks to two NBA finals appearances, he did not win a title.
He played more than 1,000 games for the Knicks, scoring more than 23,000 point in New York and finishing with 24,815 points in his career.
#9: Lawrence Taylor, Football
Experience: 13 years in NFL (1981-93)
Teams: New York Giants
Career stats: 132.5 sacks, 184 games
Championships: 2 (1986, 1990)
The 1981 NFL draft was held in New York City, and to the roaring approval of the hometown crowd, the Giants used the No. 2 pick on a generational talent in outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
He made an immediate impact on the Giants defense, recording double-digit sacks in seven straight seasons. "L.T." was the league MVP in 1986, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and a key member of the "Big Blue Wrecking Crew" defense that brought home titles in Super Bowl XXI and Super Bowl XXV.
He retired with 132.5 sacks in his 13-year career.
#8: Serena Williams, Tennis
Experience: 23 years (1995-present)
Years in New York: 18 (1998-2002, 2004-09, 2011-16, 2018)
Career stats: 23-8 in Grand Slam singles finals
New York stats: 6-3 in U.S. Open singles finals
Career championships won: 23 grand slams
Championships won in New York: 6 (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014)
Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most in the Open era, and second only to Margaret Court’s 24. Williams also has won 14 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles with her sister, Venus.
Serena is 6-3 in U.S. Open women’s finals, held annually at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. She won her first Grand Slam event at the Open in 1999 and won three straight from 2012 to 2014.
Her lighting serves, powerful groundstrokes and colorful, take-no-prisoners style have made her one of the most popular players to grace the Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
#7: Mickey Mantle, Baseball
Experience: 18 years in MLB (1951-68)
Teams: New York Yankees
Career stats: 536 home runs, 1,509 RBI, .298 avg., 2,401 games
Championships: 7 (1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962)
A 20-time All-Star, Mickey Mantle was the AL MVP three times. He arguably was the best switch-hitter in baseball history, hitting tape-measure home runs from both sides of the plate, and won the Triple Crown in 1956.
"The Mick" started his career in right field, but took over in center after Joe DiMaggio retired, and hit 13 walk-off home runs among his 536 career dingers. He also dropped 80 bunt singles and reached base more times in a season than he made outs twice.
He was part of seven Yankees World Series championship teams.
#6: Joe DiMaggio, Baseball
Experience: 13 years in MLB (1936-42, 1946-51)
Teams: New York Yankees
Career stats: 361 home runs, 1,537 RBI, .325 avg., 1,736 games
Championships: 9 (1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951)
"Joltin’ Joe" DiMaggio spent just 13 years in pinstripes, but he was an All-Star each season and a three-time MVP. He retired with 361 home runs and a .325 career average.
Winning came easily for those Yankees, as they took home nine World Series titles during DiMaggio’s tenure.
"The Yankee Clipper" roamed center field and was perhaps best known for two things — his astounding 56-game hitting streak in 1941 (he broke the record with a made-for-the-movies home run against the hated Boston Red Sox) and later a made-for-the-tabloids marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe.
#5: Willie Mays, Baseball
Experience: 22 years in MLB (195-52, 1954-73)
Teams: New York/San Francisco Giants, New York Mets)
Years in New York: 8 (6 with Giants, 2 with Mets)
Career stats: 660 home runs, 1,903 RBI, .302 avg., 2,992 games
New York stats: 201 home runs, 553 RBI, .302 avg., 897 games
Championships: 1 (1954)
Willie Mays won the Rookie of the Year award with the New York Giants in 1951 and cemented his legacy as a New York City icon in the World Series against the Yankees that year by making The Catch.
The "Say Hey Kid" pulled in a Vic Wertz blast with an over-the-head basket catch, his back turned fully to the plate near the center-field wall during Game 1, although the Yankees went on the win the Series 4-2.
After time off to serve in the military, Mays led the major leagues with a .345 batting average in 1954, and this time, the Giants won the World Series. He followed that up with 13 triples and 51 home runs in 1955.
Mays’ amazing Giants career continued another 14-plus seasons as the Giants moved to San Francisco, before he returned to New York for a brief stint with the Mets.
His phenomenal career concluded with 660 home runs, 1,903 RBI and a .302 average.
#4: Lou Gehrig, Baseball
Experience: 17 years in MLB (1923-39)
Teams: New York Yankees
Career stats: .340 avg., 493 home runs, 1,995 RBI, 2,164 games
Championships: 6 (1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938)
Known as the "Iron Horse," Lou Gehrig was one of baseball’s biggest run producers and a key component to the Yankees' famed "Murderer’s Row" lineup in 1927.
He played 14 full seasons and had 13 straight with more than 100 RBI. The seven-time All-Star and six-time World Series champion with a staggering career batting average of .340 won the Triple Crown in 1934.
He set a record for consecutive games played (2,130) that stood until Cal Ripken surpassed him 56 years later.
He was forced into retirement at 36 by ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which is now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and died two years later.
The Yankee Stadium farewell speech where he said, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," is one of the emotional high points of New York City sports.
#3: Mariano Rivera, Baseball
Experience: 19 years in MLB (1995-2013)
Teams: New York Yankees
Career stats: 652 saves, 2.21 ERA, 1,115 games
Championships: 5 (1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2009)
The greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, Mariano Rivera actually started 10 games and went 5-3 in his rookie season. But after a stellar year in the bullpen in 1996, he took over as the closer.
He spent all 19 years of his career as a Yankee. "The Sandman" was a 13-time All Star. He helped the Yankees win five World Series, and was MVP of the 1999 Fall Classic.
Rivera’s wicked cut fastball gave him an amazing career 2.21 ERA to go with 82 wins and 652 saves, and he set the mark for most games pitched (and most with a single team) at 1,115.
In 2019, he became the first ever player unanimously elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
#2: Jackie Robinson, Baseball
Experience: 10 years in MLB (1947-56)
Teams: Brooklyn Dodgers
Career stats: 197 stolen bases, .311 avg., 947 runs scored, 1,382 games
Championships: 1 (1955)
Jackie Robinson broke the color line in modern baseball, starting at second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and winning the inaugural Rookie of the Year award.
Robinson was a six-time All-Star who finished his 10-year MLB career with a .311 average.
He twice led the National League in steals, including his banner 1949 season when he put up 37 stolen bases and 124 RBI.
The crafty and quick Robinson stole home 19 times in regular-season games — and once against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series. That series brought "Da Bums" of Brooklyn their only world championship before the team moved to Los Angeles.
Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by Major League Baseball.
#1: Babe Ruth, Baseball
Experience: 22 years (1914-35)
Teams: Boston Red Sox (1914-19), New York Yankees (1920-34), Boston Braves (1935)
Years in New York: 15
Career stats: 714 home runs, 2,214 RBIs, .342 avg., 2,503 games
New York stats: 659 home runs, 1,978 RBI, .349 avg., 2,084 games
Championships: 7 (1915, 1916, 1918, 1923, 1927, 1928, 1932)
Championships won in New York: 4 (1923, 1927, 1928, 1932)
"The Bambino." "The Sultan of Swat." His nicknames come from his prodigious batting statistics — 2,873 hits, a .342 average and a then-record 714 home runs over a 22-year career.
But George Herman "Babe" Ruth started out as a Boston Red Sox pitcher, twice winning 23 games in a season and winning three World Series in Boston before Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees, sparking the "Curse of the Bambino” and an 86-year title drought in Boston.
With the Yankees, Ruth transitioned to the outfield full-time, turned into a home run machine and won another four World Series titles, belting 60 home runs as he anchored the 1927 "Murderer’s Row" lineup that was arguably the best in baseball history.
During his 15 seasons in New York, the increasingly popular Yankees were able to leave the Polo Grounds and build the first Yankee Stadium — forever known as "The House That Ruth Built."