The Mt. Rushmore of Washington D.C. Sports
Walter Johnson Statue Outside Nationals Park
If one were to make a Mt. Rushmore of Washington D.C. sports figures and put it in Rock Creek Park who would make the cut? Of all the athletes who have played in the Nation's Capital since 1900, which ones are most revered?
Washington has had its share of great athletes in all of the major sports. Some of them have won championships. Others had careers worthy of their sport's hall of fame. Some were, and still are, beloved by the city and never have to buy dinner when they are in town. However, this does not guarantee having one's face carved into a mountain.
To qualify for Mt. Rushmore status an athlete or executive has to be someone that everyone agrees stands head and shoulders above the rest. They have to be so well known that the mention of their name is all anyone needs to hear to know who one is talking about. They have to be nationally known, not just famous locally. And they had to be a dominant figure in their sport.
Most people only consider athletes that they have seen in their lifetime for Mt. Rushmore status which is understandable. No one can definitively say that someone they never saw play was great. However, true greatness spans over decades and eras. It is the athletes who remain relevant long after they have left the game that deserve to be carved in stone. You should be able to see their face and say, 'I know who that is and what they did.'
With that in mind, here is the one executive and four athletes who would make up a Washington D.C. Mt. Rushmore.
Joe Gibbs, Head Coach Washington Redskins
When Joe Gibbs was hired as head coach of the Washington Redskins in 1981 no one in the area knew who he was. Then team owner Jack Kent Cooke was not sure if he wanted to hire him, but team General Manager Bobby Beathard was certain that Gibbs was the right man for a franchise that had not won an NFL championship in almost 40 years.
Twelve years later, Gibbs had only taken the Redskins to four Super Bowls and won three. He won the first in only his second year, 1982. Gibbs would go on to take five teams with four different quarterbacks to the NFC championship game. He would become, and still is, the only man to win the Super Bowl with three different quarterbacks.
In his first stint with the Redskins, Gibbs posted a record of 124-60 which was good enough to earn him a spot in the pro football hall of fame. He went 16-5 in post season play. Along the way, he notched post season victories over fellow hall of fame coaches Bud Grant, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Bill Walsh and Marv Levy.
After he retired in 1993, Washington owner Daniel Snyder called him back to coach in 2004. The news of Gibb's hiring re energized a fan base that had suffered in the decade since his departure. Though, his second term was not nearly as successful as the first, it did nothing to tarnish what Coach Joe had done in the 1980's.
He is, and always will be, the most beloved coach in D.C. sports history.
Sugar Ray Leonard, Olympic and World Welterweight Boxing Champ
Though professional boxing is being slowly replaced by Mixed Martial Arts, there was a time when it ranked right up with the major sports. When it did Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park, MD was one of its brightest stars. Leonard fought professionally for almost 20 years, but it is his amateur career and the first 10 that made him special.
After becoming a National Golden Gloves champion in 1973, Leonard made the U.S. Olympic team in 1976. At the Montreal Games he wowed the world with his skills and personality en route to winning a gold medal in the light-welterweight division. He became such a favorite of ABC announcer Howard Cosell that people would later call him 'Howard's Boy.'
When Leonard returned to the D.C. area he was the talk of the town. His original plan was to quit boxing and go to college, but finances forced him into the ring where he quickly moved up the professional ranks. By 1979, Leonard was welterweight champion of the world. He won his first 27 bouts before losing the title to Roberto Duran in 1980, ironically in Montreal. Leonard would regain the belt that same year by making Duran quit after eight rounds in the famous 'No mas' fight.
Leonard would go on to win titles in five different weight classes, making him one of only five men to do so. His biggest win was a victory over Marvin Hagler for the middleweight title after coming back from retirement. He and his contemporaries helped usher in the pay-per-view era of boxing that we know today. When Leonard fought everything stopped in the Nation's Capital.
When he enters a room in Washington, it still does.
Josh Gibson, Negro Leagues Catcher
Along with Leroy 'Satchel' Paige, Josh Gibson is considered to be one of the greatest baseball players in Negro Leagues history. He played for many teams, but spent a good deal of time with the Homestead Grays who played their home games in Pittsburgh and Washington.
While Paige is considered to be the Negro League's best pitcher, Gibson is considered its best all-around player. He was called 'The Black Babe Ruth', because of his ability to hit a baseball. Some say that Gibson hit more home runs than anyone who ever played that game, but this can not be proven as there are no definitive statistics to bare this out. On defense, there are those who believe that he is the best catcher of all time. Gibson had one of the strongest arms the game has ever seen and was a good handler of pitchers.
When he was not playing in the United States, Gibson played in Mexico. He was good enough to earn plaques in both countries halls of fame. Gibson was the second Negro League player behind Paige to be elected to the hall of fame in Cooperstown.
Like Ruth, legendary stories of Gibson's prowess abound. He is believed to have once hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium and Griffith Stadium. It is said that Gibson hit 70 home runs in one season. Only those who saw him play know for sure.
One thing that everyone knows is that it is a shame Gibson never got to play in the Major Leagues. When baseball integrated in 1947, he was 35 and past his prime. Gibson died in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
However, if Gibson played in the shadows and is still remembered he must have been worthy of a place on anyone's Mt. Rushmore.
Walter Johnson, Pitcher Washington Senators
Though he played his last game for the Washington Senators in 1927, the first great athlete in D.C. sports history is still considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Some consider him to be the greatest pitcher of all time. Johnson is a charter member of the baseball hall of fame. He is held in such high regard that a local high school in Maryland bares his name.
Johnson was known as The Big Train, because he threw harder than anyone before him. Those who saw him say that his fastball is the standard by which all others should be judged. Legends from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth felt that Johnson was the fastest they ever faced.
Johnson finished his career with 417 wins. He held the all-time strikeout record for 56 years before Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan surpassed him in 1983. Johnson won his first Most Valuable Player Award in 1913 and his second a decade later in 1924. He did all of this on a Senators team that was a perennial basement dweller.
Johnson was thought of in such high regard that when the Senators finally made it to a World Series in 1924, the nation rooted for him to win. After losing his two starts, he came out of the bullpen to help win game seven. It is written that fans felt that God just couldn't stand to let Johnson lose again.
The Senators left Washington for good in 1972 and haven't been remembered for much. When the Washington Nationals came to town and built their new ballpark a statue of Johnson was placed outside of one of the main gates.
The only thing left is to have his face carved into a mountain.
Sammy Baugh, Quarterback Washington Redskins
How can you keep a man who those that saw him play still consider to be the best quarterback in NFL history? Baugh retired in 1952 after a 16 year career. He left holding almost every passing and punting record in the book. Baugh was the first of the NFL's gunslingers and fans across the league paid their way to see the side arming Texan sling it.
Baugh and the Redskins both arrived in 1937. He was not a quarterback, but the tailback in a single wing offense. In his rookie season, Baugh led Washington to its first ever NFL championship. In the title game he threw for three touchdowns as the Redskins beat the Bears 28-21. He did this on a frozen Wrigley Field at a time when the passing game was as advanced as electric football is to Madden '13.
Baugh would take Washington to four more championship games and win again in 1942. His best season was 1943 when he led the NFL in passing, punting, and interceptions while leading the Redskins to their second consecutive Eastern Division title. Of course, this was during World War II when many of the best players were in the service, but Baugh's achievements are still impressive.
Baugh was so popular in D.C. and around the country that Hollywood hired him to play a cowboy in the movies as he starred in 'King of the Texas Rangers.'
When he retired, Baugh's number 33 went with him never to be worn again. Like Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, he was a charter member of his sports hall of fame in 1963.
While many fans argue over who is their team's best player of all time, the young and old in Washington put Sammy Baugh at the front of the line and everyone else must fall in line.