Greatest Two-Sport Stars Ever

December 17, 2018 by Grant Suneson

Source: Mike Powell / Allsport / Getty Images
Some athletes work their whole lives to reach their full potential in their sport. It can take years of nonstop effort to be good enough to earn a spot as a professional athlete, let alone a remarkable one. Yet there are some athletes who are so gifted that they can be successful in more than one sport.

It doesn’t happen very often, but throughout the history of American pro sports, a few athletes have made it to the pros in multiple sports. Playing two sports would seem to put these players at a significant disadvantage to their competitors, as they have less time to rest in the offseason or hone their skills. Yet the natural athletic gifts of these two-sport stars allow them to reach the highest levels of both pro sports.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed sports records and media reports to determine the greatest two-sport athletes of all time.

The two-sport professional athlete may be a dying breed. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray recently won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player, yet it appears he will never play a snap of pro football. Murray signed a contract to play baseball for the Oakland A’s organization. While he likely could draw some interest from NFL teams, he appears focused on baseball.

Click here to see the greatest two-sport stars ever.
Click here to see our detailed findings & methodology.

Source: Justin K. Aller / Getty Images

21. Kyler Murray
> Sports: Baseball, football

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray won the 2018 Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the country, but he plans to play professional baseball instead. He was drafted ninth overall in the 2018 MLB Draft by the Oakland A’s. Should Murray make it to the majors, which he figures to do quickly, he would be just the third Heisman Trophy winner, after Vic Janowicz and Bo Jackson, to play in the big leagues. Murray said he would like to be able to play two sports professionally, but his 5-foot-10 frame may hamper his NFL future.

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Source: Al Bello / ALLSPORT / Getty Images

20. Scott Burrell
> Sports: Basketball, baseball

Scott Burrell may not be a household name, but he has a unique place in sports history as the only person to be drafted in the first round of two different leagues. The Seattle Mariners selected Burrell 26th overall as a pitcher out of high school, but he declined their contract and chose instead to play basketball at the University of Connecticut. The 6-foot-7 Burrell was drafted 20th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in 1993. He played in the NBA for eight seasons, winning a championship with the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls.

 

Source: Tim Defrisco / Allsport / Getty Images

 

19. Tom Glavine
> Sports: Baseball, hockey

Baseball and hockey don’t really have much in common, but former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine mastered both skills. NHL scouts who watched Glavine play in high school said he could have become a terrific hockey player. Even though he made his intentions to play baseball known, Glavine was still drafted 69th overall in 1984. It seems Glavine made the right choice with baseball. He was a 10-time All-Star, won two Cy Youngs and a World Series, and was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Source: The rakish fellow / Wikimedia Commons

18. George Halas
> Sports: Football, baseball

George Halas is revered as a founding father of the NFL, leading the Decatur Staleys, who became the Chicago Bears, for decades. Many don’t know that his first professional sports career actually was in baseball. Halas played a dozen games for the New York Yankees in 1919. A hip injury cut his baseball career short, however, and he went on to play pro football for nine seasons.

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Source: Underwood & Underwood - Photographer [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

17. Ernie Nevers
> Sports: Football, baseball

NFL Hall of Famer Ernie Nevers spent his offseasons playing Major League Baseball. Nevers pitched for the St. Louis Browns from 1926 to 1928. He played fullback for the Duluth Eskimos in 1926, then added on coaching duties in 1927. He retired from baseball after 1928 and focused on football. Nevers was a below average pitcher, but he was a much better football player — he was named All-Pro in all five of his NFL seasons.

Source: Tim Bradbury / Getty Images

16. Danny Ainge
> Sports: Basketball, baseball

Danny Ainge’s name is synonymous with the Boston Celtics and basketball, but he also had a brief stint with the MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays. Ainge made it to the majors at just 20 years old, but struggled to make an impact, batting .220 over three seasons. Weeks after leaving baseball, he made his NBA debut and never looked back. He played in the NBA for 14 seasons, eight of them with the Celtics, where he won two NBA titles. He still works as the Celtics general manager.

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15. Jeff Samardzija
> Sports: Baseball, football

Jeff Samardzija was an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame and could have been drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Instead, he chose to pursue his dreams of pitching in the major leagues. Samardzija was drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft and quickly worked his way to the majors, where he has been since 2008. He was an All-Star in 2004.

Source: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

14. Ace Parker
> Sports: Football, baseball

In 1937 and 1938, Clarence “Ace” Parker played both baseball and football professionally. He was an All-Pro tailback for the Brooklyn Dodgers football team in 1938. Parker left baseball in 1938 after two seasons with the Philadelphia A’s and his NFL career took off, winning the 1940 NFL MVP. After returning from World War II, Parker also coached both sports. He was an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Duke University, from 1947 to 1965, and managed the nearby minor league Durham Bulls from 1949 to 1952.

Source: Fair Use / Wikimedia Commons

13. Vic Janowicz
> Sports: Baseball, football

Vic Janowicz was a rare talent whose athletic aspirations were cut short by unfortunate circumstances. Janowicz won the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State in 1950, yet he chose to play pro baseball over football. He played sparingly and hit just .214 in two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates before giving the NFL a shot. Janowicz won the Washington Redskins starting tailback job, but then sustained a brain injury in a car accident. He never played pro sports again.

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Source: Courtesy of Topps

12. Tom Brown
> Sports: Baseball, football

Tom Brown was a talented two-sport athlete at the University of Maryland in the 1960s. He initially chose baseball, making it to the Washington Senators’ roster before struggling and being sent back down to the minors. His switch to football seemed to be the right move, as he became a key player on the Green Bay Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowls.

Source: Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

11. Brian Jordan
> Sports: Baseball, football

After being cut by the Buffalo Bills in training camp in 1989, Brian Jordan caught on with the Atlanta Falcons, becoming their starting safety — all while he was also chasing his MLB dream in the minor leagues. Jordan played three seasons with the Falcons before the St. Louis Cardinals paid him a $1.7 million bonus to focus on baseball. That focus paid off, as Jordan played in the majors for 15 seasons, making one All-Star team.

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10. Dave Winfield
> Sports: Baseball, basketball, football, track & field

Dave Winfield was in high demand after college, where he played basketball and baseball. He was drafted by the MLB’s San Diego Padres, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, the ABA’s Utah Jazz, and even the the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, even though he did not play college football. This made him the only athlete ever to be drafted in four leagues. Winfield chose baseball and excelled, making a dozen All-Star teams and becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He signed the largest contract in sports history at the time, worth $23 million, in 1980.

Source: Getty Images

9. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
> Sports: Track & field, golf

Before Title IX gave women the same right to compete in sports as men, Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias established herself as one of the greatest athletes of all time, regardless of gender. In the 1932 women’s track and field championships, Didrikson won so many events that she claimed the team championship by herself. She entered the Olympics that year, setting records in the javelin, hurdles, and high jump events. Didrikson later took up golf and became arguably the greatest female golfer ever, winning 10 major events and earning a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Source: Clive Rose / Getty Images

8. Shaun White
> Sports: Snowboarding, skateboarding

Shaun White is one of the most dominant extreme athletes to ever compete. Since making his X Games debut in 2000, he’s picked up 23 medals, 15 of them gold, splitting his time between skateboarding and snowboarding. He also holds three Olympic gold medals in halfpipe snowboarding. He could add more Olympic medals in 2020, as skateboarding is being introduced as an Olympic sport.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

7. Bob Hayes
> Sports: Football, track & field

When Bob Hayes entered the NFL in 1965, he was already an accomplished athlete. “Bullet Bob” held the title as the fastest man in the world after going to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and winning gold in the 100-meter dash and 4×100 relay. Hayes used his prodigious speed to torch NFL defenses as a receiver and kick returner for the Dallas Cowboys. He was named to the Pro Bowl his first three seasons, won a Super Bowl, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Source: Jason Miller / Getty Images

6. Deion Sanders
> Sports: Baseball, football

Deion “Prime Time” Sanders never shied away from a challenge. Even though playing two pro sports at the same time is difficult, he did it, and did it well, for over a decade. From 1989 to 2001, “Neon Deion” played partial seasons in the MLB, skipping the 1996, 1998, and 1999 seasons for football. He was a solid hitter and outfielder, but truly excelled in football. From 1989 to 2000, he racked up eight Pro Bowl and six All-Pro nods, won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys, and was even named the 1994 defensive player of the year.

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5. Charlie Ward
> Sports: Basketball, football, baseball

Quarterback Charlie Ward had a dream season in 1993, leading the Florida State Seminoles to a national championship and running away with the Heisman Trophy. Yet that would be the last time he played football. Ward instead chose to go to the NBA, where his pro prospects were brighter. He was drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round and played in the NBA for 11 seasons.

Source: Unknown author [Public domain] / Wikimedia Commons

4. Gene Conley
> Sports: Basketball, baseball

Gene Conley was a rare combination of a pitcher and power forward. In 1952, he played for the Boston Braves of the MLB and the Boston Celtics of the NBA. After his rookie year with the Celtics, Conley focused on baseball, skipping the NBA for five seasons, before coming back in 1958 to help Boston to three straight world titles. On the diamond, Conley was an All-Star pitcher in three seasons and won the 1957 World Series with the Milwaukee Braves — the only athlete with rings in two sports.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

3. Jackie Robinson
> Sports: Baseball, track & field, basketball, football

Jackie Robinson is a baseball Hall of Famer, but that may not have been one of his best sports. At UCLA, Robinson was a record-setting kick returner in football and led the Bruins offense in a number of categories. He also led the Bruins basketball team in scoring in two different seasons and won the NCAA broad jump championship.

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Source: Mike Powell / Getty Images

2. Bo Jackson
> Sports: Baseball, football

Bo Jackson is the only person to make an All-Star team in two different pro sports. After winning the Heisman Trophy at Auburn University, Jackson didn’t want to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted him first overall in 1986, so he played baseball instead. After his rookie season with the Kansas City Royals, the Oakland Raiders drafted Jackson in the 1987 NFL draft, so he split his time between the two franchises. Jackson was a great running back, but a 1991 hip injury cut his NFL career short. He continued playing baseball until 1994.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

1. Jim Thorpe
> Sports: Football, baseball, track & field

There is little debate that Jim Thorpe is the greatest multi-sport athlete ever. He gained worldwide fame by winning gold in the pentathlon and decathlon events in the 1912 Olympics. The next year, he began his six-season MLB career, which lasted until 1919. In 1920, at age 33, he helped kickstart the football organization that would become the NFL, serving as the tailback and head coach of the Canton Bulldogs. He bounced around to several NFL teams, leaving an indelible mark on each. He was selected for the inaugural class of the NFL Hall of Fame and is known to this day as one of the greatest all-around athletes to ever live.

Detailed findings & methodology:

It can be difficult to objectively rank the greatest two-sport athletes of all time, as there is not an easy comparison between athletes of different sports, let alone players who play football and basketball versus those who play hockey and baseball and so on.

Many players on this list never actually suited up in their second sport, opting to focus on one. Yet many of these athletes were highly drafted in their second sport. Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Russell Wilson and John Elway had the chance to become professional baseball players, aided by their strong arms, but both chose to focus on football. Dave Winfield is a baseball Hall of Famer, but scouts believed he also could have thrived as a pro football or basketball player, had he given it a shot.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed American sports history to find players who either played in or were drafted in multiple professional sports leagues or Olympic sports. Players were sorted on their success or perceived potential.