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SportsCentury is an ESPN biography program that reviews the people and athletic events that defined sports in North America throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

In 1999, ESPN counted down the Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century, selected from North American athletes and voted on by a panel of sports journalists and observers, premiering a new biography highlighting each top athlete every week throughout the year. The episodes for the top two athletes, Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, appeared on a special combined edition broadcast on Christmas Day on ABC. The top two names were announced in no particular order, and the final positioning was announced at the conclusion of the two episodes. An additional list of numbers 51-100 were announced on the ESPN SportsCentury website. Themed specials such as Greatest Games, Greatest Coaches, Greatest Dynasties, and Most Influential Individuals were premiered throughout the year, as well as six SportsCenter of the Decade programs.

After the initial run was complete, the episodes were rerun at various times on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic. The original plan for the series was to expand to include #51-#100. Ultimately, the series featured nearly every athlete from #51-#100, and numerous other personalities, especially those who were recently deceased, or notable for more recent accomplishments.

ESPN Classic began to feature the program with host, Chris Fowler, as the highlight of its weeknight prime-time programing, airing five nights a week. After cycling through the entire series several times, and after debuting several new episodes, it was removed as a nightly program. As of 2007, reruns of the documentary series airs Monday through Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern time. The last original program was that of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., which aired in August 2006.


Typical of such projects, the final order of choices led to argument, some of which came from the SportsCentury camp. Bob Costas, one of the series' voters, said, "I had Babe Ruth as my number one, but I think the list they came up with was a good one. Everybody more or less deserved to be there." ESPN writer Bud Morgan conceded that the Secretariat pick "was kind of controversial because a lot of people took the attitude 'What is a four-legged animal doing on this list?'"

Tony Kornheiser, whose ballot was topped by Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, said, "I can't conceive of how Ruth didn't finish number one. He had the greatest impact of anybody on a sport by far... Michael Jordan didn't have as many championships as Bill Russell and didn't score as many points as Wilt Chamberlain, and really didn't do anything to advance his sport, so maybe in retrospect I upgraded him a bit too much because the way he performed was so spectacular, and because of television I got to see highlights. They may have overpersuaded a lot of us... Did Jim Thorpe get the praise he deserved? Probably not, because there weren't enough people old enough to really remember him."

ESPN anchor Charley Steiner said "I think picking [Jordan] number one was a generational decision, not a historical one. Babe Ruth deserved it more."[1]

SportsCentury: Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century (Original series)[edit]

Number Athlete Sport
1 Jordan, MichaelMichael Jordan Basketball
2 Ruth, BabeBabe Ruth Baseball
3 Ali, MuhammadMuhammad Ali Boxing
4 Brown, JimJim Brown Football
5 Gretzky, WayneWayne Gretzky Ice hockey
6 Owens, JesseJesse Owens Track and field
7 Thorpe, JimJim Thorpe Multiple sports
8 Mays, WillieWillie Mays Baseball
9 Nicklaus, JackJack Nicklaus Golf
10 Zaharias, BabeBabe Zaharias Multiple sports
11 Louis, JoeJoe Louis Boxing
12 Lewis, CarlCarl Lewis Track and field
13 Chamberlain, WiltWilt Chamberlain Basketball
14 Aaron, HankHank Aaron Baseball
15 Robinson, JackieJackie Robinson Baseball
16 Williams, TedTed Williams Baseball
17 Johnson, MagicMagic Johnson Basketball
18 Russell, BillBill Russell Basketball
19 Navratilova, MartinaMartina Navratilova Tennis
20 Cobb, TyTy Cobb Baseball
21 Howe, GordieGordie Howe Ice hockey
22 DiMaggio, JoeJoe DiMaggio Baseball
23 Joyner-Kersee, JackieJackie Joyner-Kersee Track and field
24 Ray, SugarSugar Ray Boxing
25 Montana, JoeJoe Montana Football
26 Abdul-Jabbar, KareemKareem Abdul-Jabbar Basketball
27 Rice, JerryJerry Rice Football
28 Grange, RedRed Grange Football
29 Palmer, ArnoldArnold Palmer Golf
30 Bird, LarryLarry Bird Basketball
31 Orr, BobbyBobby Orr Ice hockey
32 Unitas, JohnnyJohnny Unitas Football
33 Spitz, MarkMark Spitz Swimming
34 Gehrig, LouLou Gehrig Baseball
35 Secretariat, Secretariat Horse racing
36 Robertson, OscarOscar Robertson Basketball
37 Mantle, MickeyMickey Mantle Baseball
38 Hogan, BenBen Hogan Golf
39 Payton, WalterWalter Payton Football
40 Taylor, LawrenceLawrence Taylor Football
41 Rudolph, WilmaWilma Rudolph Track and field
42 Koufax, SandySandy Koufax Baseball
43 Erving, JuliusJulius Erving Basketball
44 Jones, BobbyBobby Jones Golf
45 Tilden, BillBill Tilden Tennis
46 Heiden, EricEric Heiden Speed skating, cycling
47 Moses, EdwinEdwin Moses Track and field
48 Sampras, PetePete Sampras Tennis
49 Simpson, O. J.O. J. Simpson Football
50 Evert, ChrisChris Evert Tennis

SportsCentury: 51-100[edit]

Number Athlete Sport
51 Marciano, RockyRocky Marciano Boxing
52 Dempsey, JackJack Dempsey Boxing
53 Johnson, RaferRafer Johnson Track and field
54 Louganis, GregGreg Louganis Diving
55 Lemieux, MarioMario Lemieux Ice hockey
56 Rose, PetePete Rose Baseball
57 Shoemaker, BillBill Shoemaker Horse racing
58 Baylor, ElginElgin Baylor Basketball
59 King, Billie JeanBillie Jean King Tennis
60 Johnson, WalterWalter Johnson Baseball
61 Musial, StanStan Musial Baseball
62 West, JerryJerry West Basketball
63 Paige, SatchelSatchel Paige Baseball
64 Baugh, SammySammy Baugh Football
65 Gibson, AltheaAlthea Gibson Tennis, golf
66 Arcaro, EddieEddie Arcaro Horse racing
67 Gibson, BobBob Gibson Baseball
68 Oerter, AlAl Oerter Track and field
69 Blair, BonnieBonnie Blair Speed skating
70 Butkus, DickDick Butkus Football
71 Clemente, RobertoRoberto Clemente Baseball
72 Jackson, BoBo Jackson Baseball, football
73 Gibson, JoshJosh Gibson Baseball
74 Sanders, DeionDeion Sanders Baseball, football
75 Marino, DanDan Marino Football
76 Sanders, BarryBarry Sanders Football
77 Young, CyCy Young Baseball
78 Mathias, BobBob Mathias Track and field
79 Sayers, GaleGale Sayers Football
80 Foyt, A. J.A. J. Foyt Auto racing
81 Connors, JimmyJimmy Connors Tennis
82 Hull, BobbyBobby Hull Ice hockey
83 Wagner, HonusHonus Wagner Baseball
84 o' War, ManMan o' War Horse racing
85 Richard, MauriceMaurice Richard Ice hockey
86 Graham, OttoOtto Graham Football
87 Armstrong, HenryHenry Armstrong Boxing
88 Namath, JoeJoe Namath Football
89 Hornsby, RogersRogers Hornsby Baseball
90 Petty, RichardRichard Petty Auto racing
91 Beamon, BobBob Beamon Track and field
92 Andretti, MarioMario Andretti Auto racing
93 Hutson, DonDon Hutson Football
94 Cousy, BobBob Cousy Basketball
95 Blanda, GeorgeGeorge Blanda Football
96 Johnson, MichaelMichael Johnson Track and field
97 Citation, Citation Horse racing
98 Budge, DonDon Budge Tennis
99 Snead, SamSam Snead Golf
100 Johnson, JackJack Johnson Boxing

Athlete statistics[edit]

Mario Lemieux was number 55 on the list of athletes in the 20th century, although he continued to play several years into the 21st century.
By sport
  • Baseball: 23
  • Football: 20
  • Track/Field: 12
  • Basketball: 11
  • Tennis: 8
  • Boxing: 7
  • Hockey: 6
  • Golf: 6
  • Horse racing: 5 (2 jockeys, 3 horses)
  • Auto racing: 3
  • Swimming / Diving: 2
  • Speed skating: 2
  • Gymnastics: 1
By gender
  • 89 men
  • 8 women
  • 3 horses

SportsCentury: Greatest Coaches of the 20th Century[edit]

Other SportsCentury figures[2][edit]

SportsCentury: Greatest Games of the 20th Century[edit]

SportsCentury: The Year in Review[edit]

1. 2001, including the death of Dale Earnhardt, Barry Bonds' assault on the home run record, and the effects of September 11, 2001 on the sports world

2. The top sports stories of 2000 are highlighted, including the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA championship, the Mike Piazza-Roger Clemens controversy and Bob Knight's dismissal from Indiana.


  1. ^ Miller, James and Shales, Tom, Those Guys Have All the Fun, Little Brown & Co., 2011, pgs. 420-422
  2. ^
  3. ^

External links[edit]