Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Great One: Even Better Than You Think

The 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs have begun, and life couldn’t be better for all of the United States of America’s sixteen hockey fans. Underdogs are winning games on the road; stupid, pointless fighting is pretty much nonexistent (and even the less stupid with-a-good-reason kind of fighting is down quite a bit); goaltenders have stepped up their games;1 and matchups that may have been mundane a month ago are now fraught with tension and energy. So to celebrate the happiest time of the hockey fan’s year, and in keeping with the Bowling in the Dark spirit of talking about people and events long after they’ve happened and/or were relevant, today’s topic is a guy who hasn’t played hockey for a decade: Wayne Gretzky.

While it can conceivably be argued that somebody else is the best hockey player ever—a credible case could probably made for Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, or Mario Lemieux—Wayne Gretzky is unquestionably the game’s greatest scorer, and long after his retirement remains one of the game’s most recognizable and revered stars. He retired with sixty-one regular-season, playoff, and All-Star Game records, and in the ten years since then, he’s lost only two of them, and even gained one.2

That said, though, what the casual hockey fan (or non-hockey fan) probably doesn’t fully appreciate is how absurdly far ahead of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors Wayne Gretzky is.

Gretzky finished his career with 2,857 regular-season points, on 894 goals and 1,963 assists. In second place is Mark Messier with 1,887 points (694 goals / 1193 assists) and in third is Gordie Howe with 1,850 (801 goals / 1049 assists). Assuming my math holds up, this means that Gretzky has 51.4% more points than the second-highest scorer in the history of the league.

To help put that in perspective, I’ve frittered away part of my afternoon putting together a comparison of notable achievements from other sports with which the American public and our vast army of readers are probably more familiar, in the hopes of showing just how extraordinary this is.

Please keep in mind that I'm not trying to argue that scoring a goal (or getting an assist) is more or less difficult than hitting a home run, rushing for a yard (or 3.8, or five), or getting one of those basket thingies in basketball.3 And I'm definitely not saying that they’re exactly comparable to one another in their value to a specific game or importance to a career. This is just a simple food-for thought comparison based on the ideas that (1) one’s greatness is best judged in comparison to one’s peers and (2) Wayne Gretzky is a badass.

Pete Rose, Major League baseball’s all-time hits leader, had 4,256 base hits (roughly 4,255 of them singles); second place belongs to Ty Cobb (4,189) and third to Hank Aaron (3,771).4 Rose leads Cobb by 1.59%. To become the Wayne Gretzky of baseball (the base-hit version)—that is, to lead Rose by that same 51.4% margin Gretzky owns in hockey scoring—a guy would have to end his career with 6,444 hits. If he averaged 262 hits per year—tying the current major-league record, every single year—he’d have to do so for right around 24.5 years. That’s staggering.

Same sport, different statistic: Barry Bonds hit 762* home runs in his career; Hank Aaron comes in second at a wholly legitimate 755, with Babe Ruth in third at 714 home runs. The difference between the top two is about 0.92%. The Wayne Gretzky of baseball (home run version) would have to hit 1,153 home runs to have 51.4% more than Bonds (or 1,143 to be ahead of Aaron, if that’s the way you choose to look at it). If he hit 73 home runs per season—tying Bonds’ single-season record* every year—this would take him just under 16 years.

Moving along to football: Emmitt Smith ended his career with 18,355 rushing yards; Walter Payton is second with 16,726 yards,5 and in third place is Barry Sanders with 15,269. So the difference between the top two is about 9.7%. A 51.4% statistical lead here means a guy would have to rush for 27,790 yards in his career; given how old Emmitt looked at the end of his career, it's hard to imagine that this is remotely possible without some sort of robotic implants. Tying the NFL-record of 2,105 yards in a season every year would get you to 27,790 yards in just over thirteen years—not an impossibly long career for an NFL running back, but far beyond the league average. And also one has to take into account the “tying the record every single year” thing, which, by all estimates, is pretty difficult.

Switching to a sport about which I know very little: Michael Jordan leads the NBA in career points per game, at 30.12; Wilt Chamberlain is second at 30.07, for a measly difference of 0.16%. (LeBron James is third, at 27.83 ppg.) The Wayne Gretzky of basketball—assuming he wasn’t actually a 5'11" Canadian with little upper-body strength and undetermined off-ice coordination—would have to average right around 45.6 points for his career.

To look at it in a perhaps more applicable way (because scoring 46 points in one’s first game and then retiring would result in that average, but wouldn’t really count), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 38,387 points. Karl Malone, with 36,928 points, is just under 4% behind him; Michael Jordan is in third with 32,292 points over fifteen seasons. To create a 51.4% difference between himself and a second-place Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Wayne Gretzky of basketball would need to score 58,118 points. Over a fifteen-year career, that’s an absurd 47.3 points per game; if he settles for matching Jordan’s record of 30.12 points per game, it’d take him until halfway through his twenty-fourth season to reach that total, assuming he never missed a game.

There’s no way I’m going to just come out and say that Wayne Gretzky is the greatest athlete ever, although I think it goes without saying that he deserves to be included in the conversation.6 ESPN, in its ranking of the greatest North American athletes of the twentieth century, put Gretzky fifth, behind Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, and Jim Brown. I won’t necessarily argue against any of those guys in particular, although I will suggest that ESPN’s judgment is a bit suspect; first, they’re barely willing to acknowledge that the NHL exists; and second, for some reason saw fit to rank a freaking horse at #35.7

I will, say, though, that Wayne Gretzky stands head and shoulders above his fellow hockey players to an astounding degree that, to my knowledge, no other athlete ever has—and, in my opinion, no athlete ever will. Which is why he’s the greatest athlete ever, ahead of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and several athletes of other random species.9

1. San Jose/Colorado and Detroit/Phoenix games excepted, apparently.
2. At retirement, Gretkzy’s average of 1.92 points per game was second only to Mario Lemieux’s; after Lemieux’s second return to the NHL, his average dropped to a still-mind-boggling1.88 points per game.
3. Although getting a basket thingy is obviously pretty easy (for a basketball player, that is); goaltending, the backbone of any good hockey team, is illegal in basketball. How odd.
4. It should be noted that of these three, Hank Aaron is far and away the statistical leader in “not being a dick.”
5. And one fewer Super Bowl touchdowns than William “The Refrigerator” Perry. It’s been twenty-five years, but I still think that’s bullshit.
6. Or at least it would have gone without saying, if I hadn’t just gone and said it.
7. If you’re going to include horses in the rankings, I’m pretty sure your top 100 athletes would all be horses. And if we’re going to be ridiculous, why stop at horses? Flipper was a hell of a swimmer, put his ass on the list.8
8. Assuming dolphins actually have asses.
9. I don’t know if I actually believe this; I'm mostly just bored and trying to start an argument.


  1. Ooh, an argument!

    When Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927, it accounted for 14% of all home runs hit that season. Today, a guy would have to hit 300+ homers to equal that ratio.

    When Ruth hit his 500th home run in 1929, he was the only member of the 500 home run club. In 1940, Jimmie Foxx joined him, and in 1945 Mel Ott his his 500th. They were the only three until 1960, when Ted Willams hit his 500th. Keep in mind, of course, that by the time Foxx hit his 500th, Ruth had hit another 214 of them.

    I'd say that, in comparing stats to their contemporaries, Ruth actually might exceed Gretzky in some respects. I think what makes them both stand out is not only how great they were, but the fact that they entered (or created) a new era in their sports. Ruth marked the beginning of a new type of baseball and new type of baseball player; Gretzky did the same for hockey. They were both better AND different than those they played against, and that combination made their accomplishments almost unbelievable.

    People have obviously matched many of Ruth's records (although it's astounding to see how many he still holds, and how many more he's still in the top 5 or so), some of them even doing it without cheating. People will approach and surpass Gretzky's accomplishments, too, but it might take a very long time.

  2. I am shocked (and somewhat dismayed) that Dr. Brainsmart and I agree about something (I think - maybe Brainy is just aruing again - it's not clear).

    But just for fun, think of all the awesomeness Ruth generated with his bat, eloquently discussed by Brainsmart above. The go take a gander at Ruth's pitching stats - yes, for a 2-3 year period he was possibly the best PITCHER in the game, before he decided to only focus on hitting.

    I believe ESPN included off-field stuff in their factors, meaning some got credit for political activism or culture-defining sports moments. But I think sports-wise, it's very difficult to see anyone other than Ruth as the best athlete (if Ruth actually qualifies as an athlete).

    And come on, Some Guy - ALL the top 100 are horses?? I'd like to see Secretariat drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!

  3. Okay, the Top 100 would actually be 99 racehorses plus Gus, the Field-Goal-Kicking Mule.

    For a player to have gotten 14% of all the goals scored in the NHL this year, he'd have to have scored 978 times, or just slightly under 12 goals per game. That would probably be impossible in a league without goaltenders.

    . . . but was Babe Ruth an athlete? Clearly he was extraordinary, and unless whiskey and hot dogs enhanced performance, he was clean his whole career . . . but I'm having a tough time admitting/believing that "athlete" is the best way to describe him.

  4. Babe Ruth has, to this day, the 17th best career ERA, 14th best hits per 9 innings, 13th in HR per 9 innings, and 11th best career W/L percentage (minimum 100 decisions) among pitchers. There's little doubt among the opinions I've read that he'd have been in the Hall of Fame as a pitcher.

    Babe Ruth was a five-star badass. People call Gretzky "the Great One," but people call great accomplishments "Ruthian." They had to make up a freakin' word for the guy... I rest my case.

    And I think your 100 top athletes all being horses demonstrates a huge bias towards running. He might steal a lot of basts, but you think Sea Biscuit could hit a curveball? He couldn't even hold the bat! Plus his strike zone would be HUGE, he'd never reach base at all. He'd be Wily Taveras.

  5. And come on, man! Not even a tiny bit of recognition for my Airplane! line??

  6. The Airplane! line spoke for itself; I didn't want to do some sort of Jay Leno thing by pointing out an obvious punchline.

  7. I would have been more impressed by the Airplane! reference if Some Guy hadn't included a picture from the movie in the post. Points lost for lack of originality!