Top 50 athletes in Detroit sports history

Some may shrink from the challenge, but not us. Here at Detroit Athletic Co., we’ve rolled up our sleeves in true Motor City workmanlike fashion and selected the Top 50 athletes in Detroit sports history. It wasn’t easy, but someone had to do it.

Special note: we originally surveyed our writers and compiled this list in 2011, so there are a few active Detroit athletes who are not on this list, namely Miguel Cabrera, Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and Justin Verlander. All four have the talent (and in the case of Cabrera and Verlander, the credentials) to earn a spot on this list. But it seemed premature to place them in the Top 50, since they most certainly will rise or fall. But all four will most assuredly earn a slot somewhere in the Top 50. Our panel did include Henrik Zetterberg, which may not make sense, but at the time he had logged a full decade in the NHL. None of the other four current stars have done so in Detroit.

Let’s start the countdown to #1, and let the debate begin! Add your comments below and tell us what we got right and where we went wrong.

50. Charlie Sanders
Though he played during a mediocre era in Detroit Lions history, there was nothing mediocre about Charlie Sanders. #88 was one of the best tight ends in NFL history, playing exclusively for the Lions from 1968-1977. Sanders combined incredible leaping ability with his large, strong hands to snatch 336 catches in his career, the most in Lion history at the time of his retirement. He was named to the Pro Bowl seven times and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

49. Dennis Rodman
Considering where he came from, Rodman is one of the most unlikely choices for our Top 50. He played college ball at tiny Southeastern Oklahoma State, and was not expected to be much more than a role player for the Pistons when GM Jack McCloskey drafted him in 1986. Instead, the man with spring in his legs went on to grab more offensive rebounds than any other small forward in NBA history, leading the league in rebounds seven consecutive times. “The Worm” was part of two Pistons title teams and is a Hall of Famer.

48. Henrik Zetterberg
Zetterberg is the lone active player on our list, but very deserving. The Swede center has already helped the Detroit Red Wings to their most recent Stanley Cup title in 2008, when he was named MVP of the playoffs. All that needs to be said about Zetterberg is that he was Steve Yzerman’s choice to succeed him as captain of the Wings.

47. Herman Moore
Before Calvin Johnson, there was Herman Moore, who broke and set nearly every receiving record for the Detroit Lions. With his massive set of mitts, Moore grabbed a league record 123 balls in 1995 and was an elite NFL wide receiver for most of the decade. He holds Lion records for career catches, yards, and touchdowns. Often overshadowed by Jerry Rice, Chris Carter, and other NFL WR’s, Moore was one of the best. Until Megatron breaks his marks, he belongs on our list.

46. Billy Sims
If Sims had stayed healthy he would be several pegs higher on our list. For sheer highlights, he ranks among the greatest Detroit athletes ever, with several stunning runs to his credit in his career as a halfback with the Lions in the 1980s. When the Heisman Trophy winner arrived in 1980 as Detroit’s #1 overall pick, he sparked the team to instant respectability, helping them to the playoffs in 1982 and 1983. His knee injury in 1984 ended his career, but not before the original #20 had flashed for more than 5,000 yards on the ground.

45. Charlie Bennett
Only two of our voters bothered to place Bennett on their ballot, but as the most famous and popular Detroit ballplayer of the 19th century, he earns a spot on our list. Bennett was a star defensive catcher for the Detroit Wolverines in the 1880s, also supplying slugging power. After the 1893 season he slipped under a train in an accident that cost him both his legs, and his career was over. The people of Detroit so loved him that they gave him a wheelbarrow filled with silver coins and the ballpark was named in his honor – Bennett Park.

44. Bill Freehan
A Detroit native, Freehan was the best catcher in baseball during the 1960s, hands down. He was named to 11 All-Star teams during his career and he won six Gold Glove Awards. The fact that he hasn’t earned more consideration for the Hall of Fame is a travesty. When the Tigers won the 1968 World Series, Freehan was their most valuable everyday player.

43. Bill Laimbeer
“When he’s on your team you love him, but when you play against him, he drives you crazy,” said a onetime teammate of Laimbeer’s. With his wide body and amazing basketball knowledge, Laimbeer worked himself into a great rebounder and interior defensive player. He was a key member of the Bad Boys. Some day, once the memory of his “nasty” play fades, he’ll be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

42. Bob Lanier
Hall of Famer Bob Lanier graced Detroit with his patented basketball moves for nearly a decade during the 1970s. The big center was the overall #1 pick in the NBA draft in 1970, and went on to fulfill his promise, earning eight All-Star nods while averaging more than 20 points and 10 boards per game. He’s a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

41. Alex Karras
One of the more colorful and controversial characters in Detroit sports history, Karras was a dominant defensive tackle for the Lions for about a dozen seasons. With Roger Brown, he formed one of the best defensive duos in NFL history on the line. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s.

40. Night Train Lane
When The Sporting News named their Top 100 players in NFL history in 1999, Lane came in at #19 – the top defensive back on their list. That’s how great “Night Train” was. he revolutionized the cornerback position in the 1950s, as the first man to blitz in what became known as the corner blitz. He also used vicious tackling tactics that became outlawed because he was so good at it. Lane is a Hall of Famer.

39. George Kell
The gentleman from Arkansas was a terrific ballplayer in his day. Not only was he the best defensive third baseman in baseball in the 1940s and 1950s, he was a .300 hitter who won a batting title. Later he was the voice of Tigers baseball on TV, delighting Detroit fans with his southern drawl. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983 along with Brooks Robinson, who grew up idolizing Kell.

38. Alex Delvecchio
As the third member of Detroit’s legendary “Production Line”, Delvecchio was often overshadowed by his famous teammates Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. But for more than two decades he was a critical piece of the Red Wings puzzle, winning three Stanley Cup titles. He was never the top scorer on the team, and one of our writers called him “overrated”, but Delvecchio consistently dished the puck to Howe and earned an assist on the subsequent goals. The Hall of Famer ranked 82nd on the NHL’s list of greatest players of all-time in 1998.

37. Dave Bing
It’s been quite a run for Dave Bing in Detroit. First, the point guard was NBA Rookie of the Year for the Pistons in 1966, then he led the league in scoring the following season. With his smooth ball handling and deadly jumper, he made seven All-Star teams from 1968-1976. After his playing career he remained active in Detroit, becoming a successful business owner in the city. In 2009 he was elected mayor. He was chosen by the NBA as one of the Top 50 players in league history and is a Basketball Hall of Famer.

36. Sergei Fedorov
Quote possibly the most gifted hockey player who ever wore the Red wings sweater, Fedorov was an amazing skater, puck handler, and passer. As one of the “Russian Five” he helped return the Red Wings to glory in the 1990s, helping the team to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1997 and 1998, and another in 2002. He ranks third all-time in Stanley Cup playoff goals. “He was the greatest skater I ever saw,” marveled teammate Steve Yzerman.

35. Kirk Gibson
Another hometown kid who did good. Gibson starred at Michigan State in football and could have been a star receiver in the NFL, but chose baseball and the Tigers. His awesome combination of raw power and speed prompted Sparky Anderson to compare him to Mickey Mantle. He was never Mantle, but he was a very good player who batted third in the ’84 lineup for the World Champion Tigers. His list of dramatic late-inning homers is equaled by few who ever played the game.

34. Marcel Pronovost
One of 11 Red Wings to make our Top 50, Pronovost won as many titles (four) as any member of the list in any sport. He was a top defenseman for four Stanley Cup championship teams in the 1950s, and won another with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978.

33. Sid Abel
Abel’s Hall of Fame career on the ice spanned two Stanley Cup stretches for the Wings. He was a member of the 1943 title team and later contributed as a veteran on the 1950 and 1952 Stanley Cup champs. As a left wing, he was the original third member of “The Production Line” with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Later he coached the Red Wings, leading them to four Stanley Cup finals. His #12 hangs in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena.

32. Lou Whitaker
For 19 seasons, “Sweet Lou” roamed the middle of the infield for the Detroit Tigers, flashing his great range and strong arm. He was a menace at the plate as well, serving as a leadoff man for most of his career, including for the ’84 World Series champs, hitting in front of his longtime double play partner Alan Trammell. Whitaker quietly put up gaudy career numbers for a second baseman and he rates as one of the best at the position who’s not in the Hall of Fame.

31. Norm Cash
Only a handful of players hit more homers during the 1960s than Tiger first baseman Norm Cash. Acquired in the best trade in Detroit sports history, Cash was a strong left-handed bat to compliment Al Kaline and Willie Horton in the Detroit lineup. He was one of the most colorful and popular athletes in Detroit history.

30. Turkey Stearnes
There was a reason that Turkey Stearnes was compared to Ty Cobb during his career – he was a great ballplayer. Stearnes starred in the Negro leagues for the Detroit Stars from 1923 to 1931, a great hitting outfielder with incredible power and a great throwing arm. He holds the record for most home runs in Negro League history and he frequently batted over .400 in league play. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.

29. Dutch Clark
In the late 1930s, Dutch Clark was the face of football in Detroit. As a triple threat (passer, runner, kicker), Clark led the Lions to their first NFL Championship in 1935. he starred for the team for five seasons, serving as player/coach for two years. He later coached the Lions and served as athletic director for the University of Detroit in the late 1940s. He’s a member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

28. Willie Horton
Horton’s place in Detroit history goes beyond sports. He was the first black star for the Tigers, and since he grew up in the city, he was very popular with Detroit blacks. During the riots in 1967, Horton famously went onto the streets in his uniform to try to plead with rioters to cease. In 1968 he had a career year, slugging 36 homers to help the Tigers to the World Series title. When he was traded to Texas early in the 1977 season, Horton cried. He is the only non-Hall of Fame player with a statue at Comerica Park.

27. Joe Dumars
When Joe Dumars was drafted out of McNeese State by the Detroit Pistons in 1985, few people knew he’d be so great for so long. Dumars spent 14 seasons in Detroit, much of them as shooting guard alongside fellow Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. He was NBA Finals MVP when the Pistons finally won their first title in 1989. he and Thomas represent one of the best guard duos in league history. As President of Basketball Ops, Dumars built the second Pistons dynasty and is hard at work building a third.

26. Jack Morris
If you went to an opening day game at Tiger Stadium in the 1980s, there was one thing for certain – Jack Morris would be on the mound. The ultra competitor started every opening day game for the Tigers from 1980 to 1990. Morris won more games than any other pitcher in baseball during the 1980s, and won seven of his first eight starts in the post-season. Until Justin Verlander adds more to his impressive resume, Morris rates as the greatest right-handed starting pitcher in Tigers history.

25. Mickey Cochrane
Though his time in Detroit was relatively brief, Cochrane holds a distinct place in city sports history. It was his hiring as player/manager in 1934 that brought a championship attitude to the Motor City. Within a year, the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings were champions. “Black Mike” led the Tigers to two pennants and a World Series title before nearly dying after being beaned in the head with a pitch in 1937. One of the game’s greatest catchers, he’s enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

24. Harry Heilmann
Like Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay, and Joe Dumars, Heilmann gets lost in the shuffle because he played with legendary teammates. For Heilmann it was Ty Cobb, the two of them playing together in the Tiger outfield in the 1910s and 1920s. Heilmann was a wonderful hitter, winning four batting titles in odd numbered years in the 1920s. He was one of the best right-handed hitters in the history of baseball, owner of a .342 career average. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1952.

23. Yale Lary
Nine Pro Bowls, nine All-Pro selections, a member of the 1950s NFL All-Decade team, and three championships with the Detroit Lions. Those are impressive credentials for Lary, who was both a defensive back and punter during his 13 years in the league. He picked off 50 passes in his NFL career, and in 1960, Detroit opponents averaged less than one yard per return on his kicks. Lary was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

22. Tommy Hearns
Nicknamed “The Hitman”, Hearns was the first fighter to win titles in five different weight divisions. The tall, muscular kid from Detroit’s Kronk Gym packed a devastating punch – 30 of his first 32 victories came via knockout. He was named Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year in 1980. Later he took part in classic matches with Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. Only four boxers ever beat him, and he retired with a record of 61-5-1.

21. Mickey Lolich
On two days rest, Lolich pitched a complete game victory in Game Seven of the ’68 Series, defeating Bob Gibson and the Cardinals to give the Detroit Tigers their first championship in 23 years. It was Mickey’s third win of the Series. No starter has matched that since. More than a post-season hero, he won 207 games for the Tigers in 13 seasons, and still holds the AL record for most strikeouts by a lefty, with 2,679. He remained modest, however. As the Detroit News said, “He didn’t act like a big shot superstar, he was one of us.”

20. Hal Newhouser
Just ahead of Lolich is another great Tiger lefty – “Prince Hal.” Newhouser had as great a three-year stretch as any pitcher in baseball history from 1944-1946. He won 29, 25, and 26 games, while leading the AL in strikeouts twice and ERA twice during that period. He was the ace for the World Champion ’45 Tigers, and in all he spent 15 years with his hometown team. A Hall of Famer, Newhouser won two MVP Awards.

19. Red Kelly
One of the greatest defensemen in NHL history, Kelly is the only player to have his name engraved on eight Stanley Cup trophies who didn’t win one with Montreal. He won four Cups with the Red Wings in the 1950s and four more with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960s. A Hall of Famer, Kelley was ranked 22nd on the NHL’s Top 100 Players of All-Time in 1998.

18. Jack Christiansen
The best defensive back in Lions history, Christiansen was also a dangerous return man who scored 11 touchdowns in that role, including two on punts in one game in 1951 (something he did twice). A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “Chris” was part of three championship teams with the Lions, and led the NFL in interceptions twice.

17. Sam Crawford
On moot teams, Sam Crawford would hold almost every batting record, but he shared the field with Ty Cobb for most of his career, so he ranks a notch below on the Tigers all-time lists. Nonetheless, “Wahoo Sam” was a great slugger, maybe the best of the Deadball Era. He still holds the all-time record for most triples, with an amazing 309. As the right fielder for the Tigers for 15 seasons, Crawford teamed with Cobb to form one of the most daring and dangerous batting and baserunning duos in history. “Wahoo Sam” was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1957.

16. Doak Walker
In an embarrassment of riches, the Detroit Lions had both Walker and Bobby Layne in the early 1950s. Teammates in high school and the NFL, Walker and Layne were an impressive duo. Where Layne was the threat to throw the ball deep, Walker was the “scoot back” out of the Detroit backfield, earning four All-Pro selections in his six years as a pro. Though he was small for his position, Walker was a tough, elusive runner. Rick Reilly wrote of him: “He was so shifty you couldn’t have tackled him in a phone booth.”

15. Terry Sawchuk
Many hockey experts rate Terry Sawchuk as the greatest goalie in NHL history. He was the man in the net for three of Detroit’s Stanley Cup titles, in 1952, 1954, and 1955. His #1 is retired by the Red Wings and hangs in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena. “He was the toughest goaltender who ever skated onto the ice,” Gordie Howe said. High praise, indeed.

14. Alan Trammell
Only Al Kaline and Ty Cobb played more seasons for the Detroit Tigers than did Alan Trammell. The shortstop was one of the best all-around players in the game during the 1980s, when he helped the Tigers to the ’84 World Series title (when he was named Fall Classic MVP). But his peak season was in 1987 when he moved into the cleanup spot in Sparky’s lineup and responded with a .343 average, 28 homers, and 103 RBI. Tram later managed the Tigers and helped lay the groundwork for the Tigers’ revival in 2006.

13. Joe Schmidt
As both a player and coach, Schmidt is an important figure in Detroit football history. As a rookie in 1953 he started at linebacker for the Lions when they won their second straight NFL title. Named captain of the team, in 1957 he made more than half of all the tackles on the defensive side of the ball for the Lions. The team once again were champs that season. He earned Hall of Fame selection based on his 13 years with the Lions, but also coached them for six seasons, posting a winning mark. In 1969 he was selected “Greatest Lion Ever” by the NFL.

12. Niklas Lidstrom
Some day soon Lindstrom will join other legendary Red Wings with his number hanging in the rafters. The captain spent his entire career with Detroit, winning seven Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman. He was nominated for that award an incredible 14 times. With the Wings, he won four Stanley Cup titles, making him one of the few Detroit athletes to win that many titles in team sports.

11. Ted Lindsay
“Terrible Ted” was one of the toughest players in the NHL, and he won four Stanley Cup titles as a member of the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s. He was the left wing with center Sid Abel and right wing Gordie Howe in the original “Production Line”. All three are in the Hall of Fame. As captain of the Wings in 1952, he was the first player to lift the Stanley Cup trophy above his head, starting an NHL tradition.

10. Isiah Thomas
Without Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Pistons don’t become the Bad Boys, and they don’t win consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. One of the greatest point guards in league history, Isiah was the heart of the Pistons during his tenure, turning them from also-rans into a dynasty. As with all of the top ten on our list, he’s a Hall of Famer in his sport.

9. Charlie Gehringer
In Detroit during the Great Depression, Charlie Gehringer was a superstar. The second baseman was consistently remarkable over his career, which was spent exclusively with the Tigers. He won a batting title in 1937 with a .371 mark, and hit .320 over 19 seasons. After his stellar playing career he was a Tiger executive during the 1950s. His #2 was retired by the Tigers in 1983. He’s one of four Tigers in our top nine on this list.

8. Hank Greenberg
For several reasons, Greenberg is one of the most important figures in Detroit sports history. He was the biggest bat in the Tigers’ “G-Men” lineup of the 1930s, and he hit home runs at an incredible pace, threatening Babe Ruth’s records. As the first Jewish superstar in sports, Greenberg was an inspiration to fans in Detroit and everywhere, He’s the only player to be part of four Tiger pennant-winning teams (1934, 1935, 1940, and 1945). His statue stands at Comerica Park.

7. Bobby Layne
Layne is the only quarterback on our list, and as one football’s greatest players of the 1950s, he deserves to be this high. He led the Detroit Lions to three titles and four championship games in the 1950s, and he helped usher in the era of passing that is so prominent today. Known for his comeback victories, teammate Doak Walker said, “Bobby never lost a game, time just ran out on him.”

6. Steve Yzerman
We’re in rarified legend status now, as we inch closer to the top of our list. When Yzerman joined the Detroit Red Wings in 1983 it was like a flip switched. The team became competitive again, and though it took years to steadily climb the hill, Yzerman led the club back to glory, winning titles in 1997 and 1998, and again in 2002. For more than 1,300 games, Stevie Y dressed as captain of the Wings, leading some of the most explosive and exciting scoring teams in league history.

5. Barry Sanders
Sanders is one of only three players in our top 15 who never won a championship in their sport. But that hardly matters, as he was arguably the greatest running back in the history of the National Football League. His list of accomplishments is as nearly as long as his yardage. He gained at least 1,500 yards in four straight seasons, and rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 1997. His retirement while he was still on top baffled and frustrated Detroit fans, but it only serves to add to his legend.

4. Al Kaline
In regards to continuity, only Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, and Steve Yzerman played more seasons as a Detroit professional than Kaline. “The Line” was steady for his 22 years as a Tiger, earning a batting title as a youngster, and winning a World Series title as a veteran in 1968. He was the best defensive right fielder in AL history, blessed with a rifle arm. Only frequent injuries kept him from amassing even more impressive numbers than his 3,007 hits, 399 homers, and .297 career batting average. He has been in employ of the Tigers for six decades.

3. Ty Cobb
Starting with Cobb, our top three can each lay claim to the title of best ever in their sport. Cobb put baseball on the map in Detroit, dazzling fans and opponents with his daring running and batting feats. He won 12 batting titles, accumulated more than 4,000 hits, 2,000 runs, and posted an amazing .367 career batting average. That’s for his CAREER! The Georgia Peach never won a title in Detroit, though he won three pennants with the Tigers.

2. Joe Louis
It’s hard to explain how big a deal Joe Louis was to Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s during his record-setting boxing career. As a Detroiter and a black man, Louis inspired a generation of Americans and helped transform boxing’s image into a more respectable one. In the ring he was the best there was, successfully defending his heavyweight title an astounding 25 times. “The Brown Bomber” was the champ from 1937-1949. His fist in statue form is an iconic symbol in downtown Detroit.

1. Gordie Howe
Howe rated no lower than third on any of our ballots. As “Mr. Hockey” in Hockeytown, he was the greatest goal scorer of his generation while also being one of the toughest players in the NHL, never one to back down from a fight on the ice. He won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in the 1950s, and went to the finals seven more times with Detroit in his 25 years with them. At the age of 44 he scored 100 points, and he played in five decades as a pro. Maurice Richard said it best: “Gordie could do everything.”

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.