The Two Most Versatile Athletes In U.S. History: Both Named Jackie, Both Attended UCLA
Any short list of the greatest multi-sport stars or athletes in U.S. history will take into account Babe Didrikson, Jim Brown, Jim Thorpe, Deion Sanders, Rafer Johson, Carl Lewis, Bo Jackson, Jackie Robinson, and Jackie Robinson. But the two Jackie’s were the greatest. And Joyner-Kersee takes the cake. Jackie Joyner was an all-conference basketball player at UCLA, when USC had Cheryl Miller, the McGee twins, and the hardest driving ballplayer I ever saw, Cynthia Cooper. In athletics, Joyner twice set U.S. records in the 100 meter hurdles, won gold in the heptathlon (making her symbolically the greatest athlete on earth) in both the ’88 and ’92 Olympics, won long jump gold at the ’88 Games, and took bronze in the long jump at the ’92 and ’96 games. She also won silver in the ’84 Olympic heptathlon. That was a 12 year span. During that period, she was a world class open 200 meter runner. In the World Championships, she was ’87 and ’91 long jump queen. Joyner-Kersee even had a cup of coffee with the Richmond Rage of the American Basketball League, averaging four points per game. She was 34.
Like Joyner, Robinson was a basketball standout at UCLA. He led the Pacific Conference in scoring at 6 feet tall, and later played with the semipro L.A. Red Devils. He led that team to a victory over the New York Rens, then one of the strongest teams in the U.S. 60 years later, former Rens star John Isaacs was asked if anyone of his era played basketball “above the rim”. After pausing, Isaacs named Jackie Robinson, the six footer.
As a football player, Robinson was a Rose Bowl hero, and later starred for the semi-pro Honolulu Bears. In a part-time pursuit, athletics, Robinson was 1940 NCAA long jump champ. There were no Olympic Games that summer due to World War Two. As a baseball player, he batted .349 to lead the International League in 1946 (the most competitive farm league at the time), then won Rookie of the Year honors in the majors in ’47. He batted .342 with 124 RBI and 37 stolen bases to win National League MVP in 1949, changed the game with his aggressive baserunning, and hit .329 with 95 RBI in 1953. He excelled in all of his sports.
Robinson and Joyner possessed speed, strength, agility and hops. Had Jim Brown pursued the decathtlon, he might be the greatest U.S. athlete ever. He did participate in the AAU nationals as a decathlete in both ’54 and ’55, with decent results for someone who was not a full devotee, but gave up the effort at age 19. There is no disputing his greatness in lacrosse. And he was a good basketball player at Syracuse University, who had turned down a big league baseball bonus. For Robinson and Joyner, we have more evidence of their performance in multiple sports, over a longer period. They are the premier athletes in U.S. history, and because Joyner(-Kersee) was an actual heptathlon champ, the nod goes to her.