We’ve already taken a look at the most overrated athletes in history, which generated quite a bit of, uh, friendly discussion. So we decided to take a look at the other side of the coin and discuss some of the most underrated sports stars in history. Again, the term underrated is relative. Some of these players are already legends while some have been virtually forgotten, but what all have in common is that they were all better than what the general perception of them happens to be. So without further ado, let’s just get on with it, shall we?
Photo credit: Dennis Rodman image by Joe Seer/Shutterstock
10 Ron Francis
Ron Francis has already been largely lost to time even though he retired less than a decade ago, which is a shame because Francis was one of the best all-around players in the NHL for twenty years. But those twenty years also coincided with the heydays of players named Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Hull, Messier and so many other legends that Francis’ name is — and was, even when he was playing –- easily forgotten. But the reality is that Francis deserves his place amongst those legends. For starters, Francis is second all-time, only to Gretzky, in assists and he’s fourth all-time in overall points. And while a lot of that has to do with Francis’ remarkable longevity at such a high level –- which is in itself pretty damn impressive –- at his peak, he was pretty great too, winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins and reshaping his game so that not only was he a devastatingly effective offensive force but so that he was also one of the premier defensive forwards in the league, crucial during a time when the NHL began to shift to a more defensive oriented philosophy. In fact, Francis won the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward following the 1994-95 season. There are few players in hockey history who combined Francis’ offensive brilliance, his reliability and his defensive prowess, yet for some reason -– probably because he wasn’t anywhere near as flashy as some of his more famous contemporaries -– Francis doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves, and really, that’s the point of this list.
Photo credit: YouTube
9 Bobby Dandridge
Who? Exactly. Most people today can’t even tell you who Bobby Dandridge is, yet there was a time when he was the best small forward alive. A talented all-around player, Dandridge was a fine offensive player who also doubled as one of the best defenders in the league, starring for a string of very good teams in Milwaukee and Washington in the 1970’s, winning two NBA titles along the way. Dandridge’s career culminated with his leading the Bullets to the title in 1978. He was arguably the best player on the team -– only a handful of players in NBA history can say they were the best player on a championship team -– and he followed that performance up with an All-Pro season in which Sports Illustrated proclaimed him as “the best all-around player at his position in professional basketball.” How can a player like that go from those kind of accolades to the anonymity in which Dandridge’s reputation resides today? I don’t know. Perhaps he just thrived at the wrong time, in an era when the NBA was at its nadir in terms of popularity, just before Magic and Bird arrived to change the league forever. Whatever the case, what I do know is that Bobby Dandridge deserves to be better known than he is today and that’s why he’s on this list.
Photo credit: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons
8 Lenny Moore
If you asked most people to tell you what they know about Lenny Moore, they’d just stare at you in confusion, shrug and say something like “Isn’t that the dude who works the counter at 7-11?” Which is an utter shame because once upon a time, Lenny Moore was one of the best football players on the face of the earth. During a decade long career as a hybrid running back/wide receiver, Lenny Moore made 7 Pro Bowls and was a 5-time All-Pro. He was a vital cog on back to back NFL champions in 1958 and 1959 and he terrorized opposing defenses, rushing for over 5,000 yards with a career average of 4.8 yards per carry and had over 6,000 yards receiving with a ridiculous career average of 16.6 yards per catch. There has never really been another player like him since. Moore was a unique weapon who played for a great team and spent an entire decade as one of the best players in the world, but sadly for Moore, his decade of success came just a touch too early, just before the Super Bowl era and before every NFL star became a household name. If it wasn’t for that, Lenny Moore would likely be remembered today the way she should be, as a revolutionary offensive weapon and as one of the best playmakers in NFL history.
Photo credit: YouTube
7 Dennis Johnson
On the surface, Dennis Johnson’s numbers don’t seem all that great, but a look below reveals one of the most underrated guards in NBA history. Even though he never averaged more than 19.5 points per game in any one season, Johnson was a 5-time All-Star, a 2-time All-Pro and a 9-time member of the NBA’s All-Defense team, all while playing during one of the most competitive eras in NBA history. He was the NBA Finals MVP with Seattle in 1979 and after he led them to a title, he took up a spot as a vital cog on those great Boston Celtics teams of the 1980’s, winning two more titles. Probably the best defensive guard in basketball during that era, Johnson was tasked with guarding players such as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, and did a good enough job that no less a sage than Larry Bird called Johnson the best player he had ever played with. Considering Bird played with names like Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Bill Walton and Tiny Archibald, that’s a hell of a statement. Johnson didn’t even make the Hall of Fame though until three years after he died, but hopefully as the years pass, his reputation will grow to at least approach the kind of esteem in which he’s held by Bird. Until then, he belongs firmly on this list.
Photo credit: Steve Lipofsky, Wikimedia Commons
6 Chris Osgood
There is a general perception that Detroit Red Wings goalies are just along for the ride, that they’re more lucky than good. And while that is probably true to at least a small extent, you simply can’t win a Stanley Cup without your goalie playing like one of the best in the world, and that’s exactly what Chris Osgood has done for the Red Wings on a couple of different occasions. His best performance probably came in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs in which Osgood proved once and for all that he’s more than just a lucky bum, putting in a dominating performance in which he stole several games for the Wings on the way to the Cup. There is a good argument to be made that Osgood deserved the Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP that season even though that honor went to teammate Henrik Zetterberg. But Osgood is more than just that one scintillating Cup run. He was also the man in goal when the Wings won the Cup in 1998 and he came within an eyelash of being the Cup winning goalie in 2009 when the Wings lost to the Penguins in 7 games. Osgood was great in that Cup playoff too and probably would have won the Conn Smythe had the Wings prevailed. But aside from team accomplishments, Osgood has a damn fine resume. He is one of only 10 goalies in NHL history to have won 400 games, he has 50 career shutouts, 24th all-time and for the first 15 years of his career Osgood never had a losing record, and while yes, a lot of those years came with the dominant Red Wings, a couple of those seasons were spent as the goalie for crappy Islanders teams. Say what you will about Osgood, but the guy has stats most goalies only dream of, he’s one of the biggest winners in NHL history and he has a trio of Stanley Cups to remind him and everybody else of all that he’s accomplished. And yet, Osgood will likely never get the recognition that he deserves. He’s talked about only occasionally as a borderline Hall of Fame candidate and it seems like he’s being constantly dismissed as just a guy along for the ride. But read everything I’ve just written again and tell me how that makes sense. And that’s why Chris Osgood is one of the most underrated athletes of all-time.
Photo credit: Dan4th, Flickr
5 Dennis Rodman
Mention the name Dennis Rodman today and you’ll likely be met with laughter and a ton of lame jokes. And you know what? He’s earned it. But what you won’t hear is people raving about what a great player Rodman was for so many years. Sure, you might here some talk about his rebounding, but that’s about it. It’s a testament to just how great a rebounder Rodman was –- the best over the last 40 years or so of professional basketball -– that people still remember that despite all of his ridiculous antics. Rodman led the league in rebounding 7 straight seasons and for his career averaged over 13 boards per game. But Rodman was even more than just a freak who could grab rebounds better than any man on Earth. He was also one of the best defensive players in the NBA. Rodman earned a spot on the NBA’s All-Defense team 8 times during his career and he was named the Defensive Player of the year twice during that span, in 1989-‘90 and 1990-‘91 -– which happened to double as the most competitive time span in NBA history. Even more than that, Rodman was a winner. A member of 5 NBA championship teams, Rodman first helped create the legend of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons before becoming the rebounding and defensive stalwart for those great Chicago Bulls teams of the mid to late ‘90s. For his career, Rodman played for a losing team only once -– a 40-42 season by the Pistons in 1992-93 and will go down in history as one of the most successful team players in NBA history. That’s almost disorienting when you think of his reputation but it’s also true. Rodman was a winner, he was the best rebounder in the last 40 years and he was one of the best defensive players of all time. So laugh at him all you want but also recognize that he belongs in the Hall of Fame and that he is one of the most underrated athletes ever.
Photo credit: Dennis Rodman image by Featureflash/Shutterstock
4 Stan Musial
Today, Stan Musial is thought of as a baseball legend from yesteryear, and rightly so. Yet, he’s still underrated. Why? Because when people think of him, they think of a great player whose name and reputation rests alongside that of a lot of other great players. But rarely does that name get thrown out when people are talking about players like Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Babe Ruth. And it’s a shame because Musial belongs right alongside of those names as one of the greatest of the great. Over a 22 year career, Musial led the league in hitting seven times, led the league in hits 6 times, in runs 5 times, in doubles 8 times, in triples 5 times, in on-base and slugging percentage 6 times, in total bases 6 times, racked up 24 All-Star game appearances (from 1959 to 1962, MLB played 2 All-Star games for some dumb reason) and won the MVP 3 times. Oh yeah, his Cardinals –- for whom he played his entire career –- won 3 World Series with him as their best player. For his career, Musial compiled an amazing .331 batting average, hit 475 home runs and ranks in the top 10 all time in runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles and RBI. He amassed the second most total MVP votes for his career of any player in history and he did all this even though he missed a year of his prime to go fight in World War II. Well… damn. Baseball is maybe the one sport there is in which stats are almost the definitive explanation for a player’s career thanks to the individual nature of the sport -– for batters anyway -– and what Musial’s stats explain is that he is one of the greatest players of all time. And while he does get some of that recognition, he deserves even more.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
3 Len Dawson
Len Dawson is one of the NFL’s forgotten greats and while people are busy slobbering over Joe Namath, what they fail to realize is that it was Dawson –- not Namath -– who was the AFL’s best quarterback before the merger with the NFL. With the Kansas City Chiefs, Dawson led the league six times in both completion percentage and passer rating. He also quarterbacked the Chiefs -– then known as the Dallas Texans -– to the 1962 AFL championship and was the quarterback for the Chiefs when they represented the AFL in the very first Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. Dawson then won the Super Bowl MVP for his performance in the Chiefs victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV after leading the Chiefs to the championship during the AFL’s final season. Namath was louder and he’s immortal because of his famous guarantee, but Dawson was better. Most people don’t realize it but it’s true. He was the best of the best in the AFL and while Namath’s mouth might have ensured the merger between the two leagues, it can be argued that it was Dawson’s play which helped legitimize the AFL and which really forced the merger between the two leagues. Taking all that into consideration, there can be no doubt, at least in my mind, that Len Dawson was one of the most underrated sports superstars in history.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
2 Arvydas Sabonis
Most sports fans know Arbonis as the lumbering center for those competitive but infamous Portland “Jailblazers” teams of the late 90s/early 2000s. Some of those fans might also talk about what a creative passer and surprisingly effective all-around player Sabonis happened to be. But what few will talk about is that Sabonis was already 31 years-old when he showed up in Portland and his body had been ruined by terrible injuries, injuries which left him immobile and a shell of his former self. For you see, once upon a time, Arvydas Sabonis probably had a legitimate claim as one of the two or three best players in the entire world. It’s just that, unlucky for him and for us as fans, he spent his best years toiling away in the Soviet Union. There were always rumors though, rumors of a Soviet super center with frightening athleticism who saw the court like Bird or Magic, rumors that were enough to get the Portland Trailblazers to spend a first round draft pick on Sabonis a full decade before he ever played a game for them. And then came the 1986 World Basketball Championships in Spain, in which Sabonis was utterly dominant, dunking and blocking shots, throwing crisp and ridiculous passes, doing anything and everything one man could do on the court. The highlight came in the game against the United States, in which Sabonis made David Robinson –- David Robinson! –- look overmatched and silly. You can still find the highlights of that performance on YouTube. Sadly, though, that’s the only place where even a hint of Sabonis’ greatness lives on. Who knows what he would have done had he stayed injury free and managed to join the Trailblazers when they first drafted him in 1986? Chances are, we’d be remembering him as one of the greatest players in NBA history and not just as a gimpy -– albeit surprisingly effective -– big man who only played for a few decent seasons before it was all over.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
1 Ted Williams
This selection might prove a little controversial. After all, Ted Williams is widely regarded as one of the best players in baseball history. But the thing that most people don’t seem to realize is just how great Ted Williams really was. To me, he’s no less than the greatest hitter who ever lived. That’s a bold statement to make and I’ll try my best to back it up. Williams compiled a .344 batting average in 19 seasons along with 521 home runs. He led the league in batting average 6 times –- including the season in which he hit .406, which remains the last time any player hit over .400 -– and he led the league in on-base percentage a staggering 12 times. He also led the league in slugging percentage 9 times, in walks 8 times, in total bases and runs 6 times and in home runs 4 times. He was a 19-time All-Star, a 2-time AL MVP (he was also named MLB Player of the Year 5 times) and he won the Triple Crown in 1942. He’s first all-time in on-base percentage, which means that there is not a man who ever lived who was better at getting on base than Williams, and he’s second all-time in slugging percentage. But here’s the really scary thing -– for as great as Ted Williams’ numbers are, they should be even better because he missed 3 full seasons during his prime serving in World War II and most of 2 other seasons serving in the Korean War. That’s 5 seasons worth of baseball that Williams basically missed. When you take his average season –- just an average one for him, which actually makes these projections a little light since they ignore that the bulk of the time that he missed came during his prime –- Williams would have likely hit over 700 career home runs, had over 3,500 career hits, and had almost 2,500 RBI. That is a resume that no other hitter who ever lived -– not even Babe Ruth –- would have been able to match. So while it may seem absurd to say that a player generally considered to be one of the top 10 players of all time is underrated, it makes a lot more sense when you realize that player deserves no less than to be called the greatest hitter of them all. And that’s why Ted Williams is on this list.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
(previously published on May 24, 2011.)
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