- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

If you surf the Internet perpetually or even occasionally, it’s easy to find all sorts of nutty stuff. Now there’s a new entry: A list of the 10 most influential people in sports history, as selected by a batch of pseudo-experts on behalf of Hall of Fame Magazine’s Web site (www.hofmag.com).

My first reaction: What were the panel members thinking — or drinking?

Could it be that distinguished journalists like Robert Creamer, Robert Lipsyte, Lesley Visser, Juan Williams and Charley Steiner weren’t taking this business seriously? Somebody voted for the Fabulous Moolah, a totally unfabulous lady ‘rassler a couple of generations ago. Somebody else fingered Tony Hawk, the skateboarder.

Hey, did anybody take this business seriously?

The idea of any list, of course, is to create controversy — but if it’s idiotic, it demands disdain instead. Some years ago, members of the Society for American Baseball Research, who presumably spend years poring over faded box scores in dusty attics, rated Ty Cobb (lifetime batting average: .366) as merely the seventh-best ballplayer of all time. Say what?

It would seem the folks at hofmag.com are skating precariously close to the edge of reason, with or without Tony Hawk.

Their list rates Muhammad Ali as the most influential sports figure of all time, which is sort of like calling Jimmy Carter the most influential president ever.

Now, nobody admires Ali more than I do for his willingness to stand up for what he believed and his current courage in battling Parkinson’s syndrome, but influential? Sure he had epic fights against the likes of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, but considering the sport’s sad state nowadays, what lasting effect did they have? Try none.

The obvious choice for No. 1 should be the tandem of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, who destroyed baseball’s unwritten color line and gave the larger cause of civil rights a big boost in the late 1940s. Jackie and Branch are a no-brainer selection in my book, but Robinson ranks only third and Rickey is nowhere in sight on this lousy list.

What gives here? Besides shoving baseball into integration, Rickey also created the farm system and served as president of the Continental League, which never played a game but whose prospective existence prompted the majors to expand in 1961.

If Rickey has access to hofmag.com in that great front office in the sky (and I certainly wouldn’t doubt it), he might be employing his favorite expression and inquiring, “Judas Priest! What does a guy have to do?”

I have no quarrel with the choice of George Herman Ruth as second-most influential, because the Babe took baseball by the scruff of the neck in 1919 and changed it forever, for better or worse. Without him, the erstwhile national pastime might still feature countless 1-0 games, tons of spit, emery and shine balls and lopsided, discolored horsehides with the consistency of mush.

The rest of the list, Nos. 4 through 10, shakes down this way: Billie Jean King, Jesse Owens, Roone Arledge, Arnold Palmer, Knute Rockne, Pete Rozelle and Michael Jordan. (What, no Howard Cosell?)

Some of the choices and omissions are ludicrous. Rozelle, the man who shepherded the NFL into its modern era and made it the nation’s favorite sport through judicious use of television, belongs much higher than ninth. And speaking of commissioners, where in the name of Gen. William Eckert — baseball’s version of the unknown soldier — are Kenesaw Mountain Landis and David Stern?

Landis took over as baseball’s despotic boss in 1920, following the Black Sox scandal, and made the game respectable for a quarter-century. Stern became the NBA’s main man at a time (1984) when the league was at its competitive and financial low ebb and turned it into a highly popular and highly profitable enterprise.

Other voices scream in your ear to be heard. George Halas, one of the NFL’s true pioneers and a highly successful coach with the Bears for decades. Lester Patrick, patriarch of the NHL’s all-time first family. Vince Lombardi, whose Packers symbolized winning for an entire nation. Red Auerbach, whose Celtics owned the NBA title for years. John Wooden, whose 10 NCAA basketball championships at UCLA surely will never be equaled. Wilt Chamberlain and Wayne Gretzky, superdupers of the court and ice whose like we might never see again. But they sit on the hofmag.com sideline while others take up room unnecessarily.

Not that the hofmag.com list really matters, because any minute now we’ll be concentrating solely on our March Madness picks. It’s just that the immortal Puck might have said it all about “experts” in sports and any other field: “What fools these mortals be.”

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