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ESPN Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century

We have a list of the top North American athletes of the 20th Century, according to ESPN. See how many you can name.
Last updated: January 07, 2019
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#
Sport
Athlete
1
Basketball
Michael Jordan
2
Baseball
Babe Ruth
3
Boxing
Muhammad Ali
4
Football
Jim Brown
5
Hockey
Wayne Gretzky
6
Track & Field
Jesse Owens
7
Many Sports
Jim Thorpe
8
Baseball
Willie Mays
9
Golf
Jack Nicklaus
10
Many Sports
Babe Zaharias
11
Boxing
Joe Louis
12
Track & Field
Carl Lewis
13
Basketball
Wilt Chamberlain
14
Baseball
Hank Aaron
15
Baseball
Jackie Robinson
16
Baseball
Ted Williams
17
Basketball
Magic Johnson
18
Basketball
Bill Russell
19
Tennis
Martina Navratilova
20
Baseball
Ty Cobb
21
Hockey
Gordie Howe
22
Baseball
Joe DiMaggio
23
Track & Field
Jackie Joyner-Kersee
24
Boxing
Sugar Ray Robinson
25
Football
Joe Montana
26
Basketball
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
27
Football
Jerry Rice
28
Football
Red Grange
29
Golf
Arnold Palmer
30
Basketball
Larry Bird
31
Hockey
Bobby Orr
32
Football
Johnny Unitas
33
Swimming
Mark Spitz
34
Baseball
Lou Gehrig
35
Horse
Secretariat
36
Basketball
Oscar Robertson
37
Baseball
Mickey Mantle
38
Golf
Ben Hogan
39
Football
Walter Payton
40
Football
Lawrence Taylor
41
Track & Field
Wilma Rudolph
42
Baseball
Sandy Koufax
43
Basketball
Julius Erving
44
Golf
Bobby Jones
45
Tennis
Bill Tilden
46
Speed-Skating
Eric Heiden
47
Track & Field
Edwin Moses
48
Tennis
Pete Sampras
49
Football
O.J. Simpson
50
Tennis
Chris Evert
#
Sport
Athlete
51
Boxing
Rocky Marciano
52
Boxing
Jack Dempsey
53
Track & Field
Rafer Johnson
54
Diving
Greg Louganis
55
Hockey
Mario Lemieux
56
Baseball
Pete Rose
57
Jockey
Bill Shoemaker
58
Basketball
Elgin Baylor
59
Tennis
Billie Jean King
60
Baseball
Walter Johnson
61
Baseball
Stan Musial
62
Basketball
Jerry West
63
Baseball
Satchel Paige
64
Football
Sammy Baugh
65
Tennis
Althea Gibson
66
Jockey
Eddie Arcaro
67
Baseball
Bob Gibson
68
Track & Field
Al Oerter
69
Speed Skating
Bonnie Blair
70
Football
Dick Butkus
71
Baseball
Roberto Clemente
72
Baseball/Football
Bo Jackson
73
Baseball
Josh Gibson
74
Baseball/Football
Deion Sanders
75
Football
Dan Marino
76
Football
Barry Sanders
77
Baseball
Cy Young
78
Track & Field
Bob Mathias
79
Football
Gale Sayers
80
Auto Racing
A.J. Foyt
81
Tennis
Jimmy Connors
82
Hockey
Bobby Hull
83
Baseball
Honus Wagner
84
Horse
Man o' War
85
Hockey
Maurice Richard
86
Football
Otto Graham
87
Boxing
Henry Armstrong
88
Football
Joe Namath
89
Baseball
Rogers Hornsby
90
Auto Racing
Richard Petty
91
Track & Field
Bob Beamon
92
Auto Racing
Mario Andretti
93
Football
Don Hutson
94
Basketball
Bob Cousy
95
Football
George Blanda
96
Track & Field
Michael Johnson
97
Horse
Citation
98
Tennis
Don Budge
99
Golf
Sam Snead
100
Boxing
Jack Johnson
+1
level 27
Jul 22, 2011
Sammy Baugh was a football player, not a basketball player....duh
+1
level ∞
Jul 23, 2011
Fixed the errors. Thanks!
+2
level 43
Jul 24, 2011
I remember hating this list at the time ESPN came out with it for many reasons. One was that it seemed to make little sense on who they considered to be North American and who they considered not to be (Navratilova became an American citizen after the start of her career and won a lot of her titles before the change), another was that it has horses on the list. Lastly was that, at the time, I was angered by the fact that Wayne Gretzky was lower than he should have been, and that Babe Ruth should have been #1, being farther ahead of the 2nd best baseball player during his day than Jordan ever was ahead of the #2 basketball player. I just figured Jordan got it because he was alive and because his playing days had just ended, making the memory of him fresh. I DO consider Jordan the greatest NBA player ever, just that the distance between him and the #2 all-time b-ball player is, in my estimation, smaller than between Ruth and the #2 in baseball and Gretzky and #2 at hockey. My top 5 would look like this: 1.) Rut
+1
level 47
Aug 2, 2018
I think no players were more dominant in their sport in the 20th century than Nicklaus and Gretzky. Nobody came close to those two in that time frame. I don't think Ruth was that much better than Gehrig (consider his numbers if he hadn't gotten ALS), Williams (several years missed for the war), Mantle, Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Willie Mays. I'd put Jordan ahead of Ruth in terms of dominance also.
+2
level 79
Jan 9, 2019
If you go by stats, the cricketer Don Bradman is the greatest sportman of all time. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Bradman#World_sport_context
+1
level 43
Jul 24, 2011
Cont: 1.) Ruth 2.) Gretzky 3.) Jordan 4.) Jim Brown 5.) Ali
+2
level 76
Nov 14, 2014
You might need to take it up with ESPN. This is just a quiz based on their rank, you know.
+2
level 47
Aug 2, 2018
I'd go Secretariat, Gretzky, Nicklaus, Brown and Jordan. Ali was a good boxer but mainly was known for fighting the draft and having a huge mouth. I'll give him credit for standing up for civil rights but the way he treated his opponents was shameful and if I did the same thing I'd be hounded off the face of the Earth. Calling Joe Frazier an Uncle Tom. Calling Foreman a gorilla. He took trash talking public and to an all time new low.
+2
level 47
Aug 2, 2018
Secretariat won the Triple Crown and still holds the time records in all three races 45 years later. There has never been a horse that could have beaten him in those races. The fact that Sham so gallantly tried is a testament to him.
+1
level 32
Jun 16, 2012
when did they publish this list?!
+1
level 57
Aug 2, 2018
Does it matter, given that it is "of the 20th Century"?
+1
level 69
Jul 3, 2012
i get don budge and bill tilden, but miss hank aaron...LOL
+1
level 55
Jan 24, 2013
I'm stunned that Nolan Ryan isn't on the list...
+1
level 48
Feb 22, 2013
He was one of the first names I typed!
+1
level 70
Jun 21, 2013
The fact that he only won 32 more games than he lost has something to do with it. Compare that to Koufax' 165-87 record.
+1
level 47
Aug 2, 2018
Nolan Ryan is the Joe Namath of baseball...big recognition but really not that good overall. Sure Ryan could strike out batters like no one else and he has all those no-hitters but he was never even the best pitcher on any team he played for. Mets--Seaver, Koosman, Gentry and McGraw were better. Angels--Tanana was better when they played together. Astros--maybe Ryan in 1981 but Niekro, Sutton, Ruhle and Scott overall performed better. Rangers--Brown and Guzman, even Witt sometimes. Ryan's an all time great but nowhere near the top ten in baseball.
+1
level 19
May 28, 2013
how is cy young 77th
+2
level 70
Nov 11, 2013
Seriously NONE of the distance runners of the 60s and 70s? No Steve Prefontaine, Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, Gerry Lindgren, Billy Mills?
+2
level 56
Mar 20, 2014
38/100 - not bad for an Englishman who would walk past Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana in the street and not recognise them. I did see Dr J in the street once though - shook his hand. Massive, massive hand that it was!
+2
level 70
Apr 28, 2014
Wish I had read the instructions more carfully. I kept putting in Laver, Rosewall, Pele, etc.
+1
level 59
May 20, 2014
Keep in mind the list is almost 15 years old.
+1
level 57
Aug 2, 2018
Relevance, given that the 20th century was over when it was made?
+1
level 67
Jan 12, 2019
Opinions change with time, even once all the records from that era are set in stone. Still, I haven't seen anyone bring up specific rankings that would have changed based on this, so I'm not sure what their point is either.
+1
level 80
Jun 14, 2014
Not really caring about sports I got 16 and am surprised it was better than almost 40% of people. I could've maybe gotten 10 more had I remembered everyone I know. Got at least 5 people by guessing common surnames :)
+1
level 32
Jul 13, 2014
Wow ... weird list
+2
level 46
Nov 14, 2014
Can Joyner be acceptable for Joyner-Kersee?
+2
level 75
Dec 30, 2016
+1
+1
level 60
Nov 30, 2014
I'm assuming that many people, including me, got Rafer, Michael, and Jack Johnson because they typed "Johnson" for Magic or Walter.
+1
level 67
Apr 3, 2018
That seems very likely. On the other hand, I got Magic while I was guessing Jack Johnson (I saw an open spot for a boxer and had already guessed most of the other big names). I'd have gotten Magic eventually, but definitely not Rafer or Michael.
+1
level 77
May 23, 2018
*raises hand*
+2
level 47
Jan 27, 2015
Surprised Joe Namath made the list. Somehow missing the cut: Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr., Randy Johnson, Bob Feller, Mike Schmidt, Jim Courier, Al Unser and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
+1
level 47
Jan 27, 2015
Correction Sr.
+2
level 75
Apr 1, 2015
How many of these people have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom or had a stadium named after them? Arthur Ashe should be on this list.
+1
level 70
Jun 17, 2017
Nile Kinnick has a stadium named after him, but he's not on the list. Ashe won 3 Grand Slams (which is 4 more than I ever would've won), but in the all-time category, that's not all that dominant. Ashe was great, and as a kid, I always rooted for him over obnoxious players like Connors and Nastase, but much of the recognition he got came for work he did after his playing days were over with is Foundation to battle AIDS. Tragically dying young doesn't raise someone's athletic prowess. (see Kinnick)
+1
level 53
Jan 11, 2019
He was the first black player to win a slam. But hey, Mcenroe won more than twice what ashe did and he didn't make the list either lol
+1
level 75
Jan 11, 2019
I grudgingly agree with you if they only used the playing stats. For me, other things can enter into whether or not a person should be considered great. Ashe broke the color barrier for tennis, just as Robinson did for baseball. It is believed he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion - so sad.
+1
level 70
Jul 7, 2015
I tried Gretsky twice and never thought to use a z.
+1
level 26
Aug 29, 2015
surprised tyson isn't there
+1
level 43
Oct 12, 2015
No tiger woods?
+1
level 37
Sep 5, 2017
20th century
+1
level 67
Apr 3, 2018
While the majority of his accomplishments did occur in the 21st century, Tiger became a pro in 1996, won the PGA Championship in 1999, and had a great year 2000 as well. But yeah, those two years alone probably wouldn't be enough to get him on this list. I'm sure if they did a "Top 100 Athletes of the 21st Century (So Far)" quiz, he'd be near the top, and definitely the highest ranked golfer.
+4
level 46
Oct 18, 2015
Baseball is not sport.
+3
level 43
Aug 19, 2016
LOL whatever dude. Try playing the sport for once and you'll be surprised.
+2
level 70
Jun 17, 2017
Uh, oh, looks like somebody needs attention. Go play buzkashi, or whatever it is that you consider to be an athletic activity.
+2
level 62
Sep 7, 2017
Typical Soccer fan. Baseball is the hardest sport to play.
+1
level 67
Apr 3, 2018
What a ridiculous claim. Baseball is more of a sport than half the sports on this list at least. If there's anything on this list that isn't a sport, it's auto racing.
+2
level 64
Jan 28, 2016
Why is Bobby Fisher not included? Is chess not considered as Sport?
+1
level 67
Apr 3, 2018
I wouldn't call it one.
+2
level 77
May 23, 2018
It's typically not, at least in the U.S. Chess is a game but not a sport. The physical component of chess is too insignificant.
+1
level 68
Jan 11, 2019
It's "FisCher".
+1
level 59
Apr 2, 2016
As a non-American, I have not heard of most of these people, and a few more that I have heard of weren't on here, so it's perhaps not a very good list from an internationally famous perspective. I also can't believe that I didn't realise "Horse" meant an actual horse. I assumed it just meant equestrian as a sport because all the other clues are specific sports and types of sports.
+1
level 75
Dec 31, 2016
I thought Navratilova was Czech. No, wait - American. No, wait - Czech-American.
+2
level 57
Apr 3, 2018
Nice to see Jim Thorpe still rates high. In a national sportswriters poll in 1950, Thorpe was ranked as the #1 athlete in the first half of the 20th century.
+1
level 56
Apr 18, 2018
29/100 Got about half of those by just writing common US last names :)
+1
level 47
Aug 2, 2018
Wow, Joe Namath is one I'd not have included. It was tough remembering all the way back to the 20th century. No Woods, James, Brady, Manning.
+1
level 67
Jan 12, 2019
Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and Peyton and Eli Manning all have most or all of their athletic accomplishments in the 21st century. Archie Manning, while apparently well respected, does not have the numbers to rate a place on this list. I don't know who James is.
+1
level 31
Aug 2, 2018
Wow! you haven't put Serena Williams. That's plain wrong. You are biased!!
+2
level 70
Aug 11, 2018
Take it up with ESPN, and also, check your centennial calendar for accuracy.
+2
level 70
Aug 11, 2018
Wow, could this list BE any more bereft of estrogen? Where are Mia Hamm, Flo-Jo, Mary Lou Retton, Wilma Rudolph, and Nancy Lopez – huh, ESPN? (I'm sure they're reading after Okoye called them out, just above.)
+1
level 60
Nov 6, 2018
52. I could have used more time. So many names...
+1
level 40
Jan 9, 2019
Bradman should be included. He is the best cricketer in history of cricket.
+1
level 56
Jan 11, 2019
As far as I'm aware, he wasn't North American... Read the instructions at the top.
+1
level 68
Jan 11, 2019
Blanda? An average player who just played forever.
+1
level 51
Jan 11, 2019
I see a lot of American football players, not football players
+2
level 49
Jan 11, 2019
American football is still football, you know what it means, you know what it is.
+1
level 55
Jan 11, 2019
Only read the headline. Got to number 4, and as Pelé, Maradona, Van Basten and Cruyff did not work, I just gave up... Totally forgot, that Football is something you play with your hands in the US :) Lesson learned. Read the description!!!
+1
level 65
Jan 11, 2019
Bjorn Borg was the first tennis player to win five Wimbledon finals in a row.
+1
level 28
Jan 12, 2019
American football not football.
+1
level 57
Jan 14, 2019
John Mcenroe!?!!
+1
level 57
Mar 22, 2019
North American as in USA and Canada obviously, for some reason. As there are no Mexican or other North American athletes in the list.