Top 50 Detroit Athletes of All-Time

1The staff at Detroit Athletic Co.’s blog has selected the Top 50 Athletes in Detroit History. The criteria was their greatness in their field of play, contribution to championships in Detroit, impact on the history of their sport and/or sports in Detroit, their longevity, popularity in Detroit, and their stature as a great in their sport (were they elected to their sports’ Hall of Fame and what awards or records did they set?). We also gave weight to whether or not the athlete was central in a great moment in Detroit sports history.

In addition, we attempted to ensure there was a fairly equal representation of all the major professional team sports: baseball, football, hockey, and basketball, as well as the individual sport of boxing.

Ultimately we arrived at our Top 50 Athletes in Detroit History in December of 2011. We have updated the list in December of 2014 with some minor adjustments for current players and a few shifts of historic players.

1. Gordie Howe

2. Joe Louis

3. Ty Cobb

4. Al Kaline

When he signed with the Tigers as an 17-year old in 1953 who knew Al Kaline would spend the rest of his adult life as an employee of the Detroit baseball club? After winning the batting title at the ripe age of 20 in 1955, Kaline established himself as the best right fielder in the American League and an annual All-Star. He led Detroit batters in hitting in the ’68 World Series and ended up with more than 3,000 hits in his playing career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1980. He is truly “Mr. Tiger.”

5. Barry Sanders

To many football experts, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back in the history of the NFL. He was a big play waiting to happen, capable of running 80 yards for a touchdown or making a linebacker look ridiculous with a wiggle move. He topped 2,000 yards in a season and retired in the top three all-time in rushing yards.

6. Steve Yzerman

It seemed impossible that an 18-year old could essentially take over an NHL team and become the de facto leader almost immediately, but that’s what Stevie Y did when he arrived in Detroit. Yzerman’s amazing scoring skills lifted him to a level in rarefied air with Gretzky and Lemieaux. In the middle of his career however he sacrificed his own stats and toned down his game to be more of a team player. As a result, the Red Wings won three Stanley Cup titles and became a dynasty. He, as much as anyone, restored ice hockey in Detroit as a major sport and built “Hockeytown.”

27. Bobby Layne

After more than 50 years, Layne remains the most raucous and wild character to ever have a major impact on Detroit sports. He was a crazy, beer-drinking maverick who loved to sling the football. He basically created the two-minute offense and in an era when the forward pass was still unusual, Layne picked apart opposing teams with his long tosses. He led the Lions to three titles in five years and nearly won another. His trade from the Lions is one of the worst decisions any Detroit team has ever done. Like everyone else on this list from #13 on down, Layne is a Hall of Famer.

8. Hank Greenberg

Gehringer’s longtime teammate is the greatest pure slugger the Tigers have ever had. He’s also one of only two players to be part of four Detroit pennant winners and the only one who was an integral part of each team. His homer to clinch the ’45 pennant just weeks after returning from years away in World War II is the most heroic moment in franchise history. Greenberg hit 58 homers in a season and drove in more than 180 runs, both marks rest at the doorstep of records set by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Hank was also a pioneer in that he was the first Jewish superstar in baseball. He endured much of the same sort of treatment that Jackie Robinson would years later when he broke the color barrier.

9. Charlie Gehringer

Deserves a place in the in the discussion of the greatest second basemen of all-time. Gehringer was never dynamic or flashy, but he was more than just steady. He was consistently great year after year after year, barely losing any of his skills as his career chugged along. He was in the middle of the diamond and the Detroit lineup for three Tigers’ teams that won the pennant. He was an MVP and a batting champion and had there been Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards in his time he would have carted off many.

10. Isiah Thomas

Thomas resurrected the Pistons when he arrived as their #1 pick in 1981. Eventually he shaped the team into back-to-back champions with his unyielding determination and leadership. Early in his career was a fantastic scorer who could take over games, but he molded himself into more of a floor leader and toned down his own need to score points as he guided the team to the top of the NBA. May be the best player under 6’2 to ever play the game.

11. Ted Lindsay

One-third of the famed Production Line, Lindsay was the ultimate team player in his 14 seasons in a Detroit sweater. He sacrificed his own scoring to enable his line to play at a high level and as a result he won the Stanley Cup four times with the Wings in the 1950s. A Hall of Famer, he retired as one of the highest scorers in NHL history.

12. Nicklas Lidstrom

Could be the best defenceman in the history of the NHL and he was captain of the Red Wings for six seasons after longtime teammate Steve Yzerman retired. Lidstrom played all 20 years of his career in Detroit and was named the best defenceman in the game a phenomenal seven times. He won four Stanley Cup titles in Motown.

13. Joe Schmidt

Schmidt was the heart and soul of the Lions’ defense as their middle linebacker for 13 seasons. He won two titles with the Lions and later coached the team on his way to a Hall of Fame selection. One of the most important figures in the history of the Lions.

14. Alan Trammell

Spent 20 seasons as a member of the Tigers and helped lead the team to their most recent World Series title as he was named MVP of the Fall Classic. Also could be the best player who is not in the Hall of Fame based on his playing merits.

15. Terry Sawchuk

Holds a claim as the greatest goalie in the history of the National Hockey League and he won three Cup titles as a member of the Red Wings.

16. Doak Walker

The running threat in the Lions’ offense in the 1950s when they won three NFL titles.

17. Miguel Cabrera

It’s hard to rate a player when he’s in the middle of a great career. Miggy already has two MVP awards in Detroit, a triple crown, three batting titles, and four trips to the postseason, including one World Series. He;ll finish his career as a Tiger and most likely rank in the top ten by the time he’s done. He will rank among the very best right-handed hitters in the history of baseball.

18. Sam Crawford

No one is alive who saw him play, but Wahoo Sam was one of the best right fielders and power hitters of the Deadball Era. He was also masterful with teammate Ty Cobb in completing many hit-and-run and double steal plays.

19. Jack Christiansen

Not only was he the best pass defender of the 1950s, Christiansen also was one of the best kick returners of that era too. He won three NFL titles in his eight seasons in a Lions’ uniform, making him one of the most successful athletes in Detroit sports history.

20. Red Kelly

As a defenceman with the Red Wings, Kelly won four Stanley Cup titles in the 1950s and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Which is why he ranks in our top twenty.

21. Hal Newhouser

For a three or four year stretch, Newhouser was one of the best players in baseball, period. He won an MVP Award twice and is a Hall of Famer.

22. Mickey Lolich

Though many will remember Mickey for his three wins in the ’68 World Series, he was much more than that. The durable lefty set records for innings and strikeouts for the Tigers and was a huge fan favorite.

23. Thomas Hearns

The “Motor City Hit Man” was a terror in the ring, winning five championship belts in five different weight divisions. He packed an incredible punch, knocking out his opponent in more than 90% of his victories.

24. Yale Lary

A tremendous defensive back and also a great punter, Lary won three NFL titles with the Lions in the 1950s. He might not be remembered by many, but he was one of the greatest football players to ever wear a helmet in Detroit.

25. Mickey Cochrane

Though his time was brief in Detroit, Cochrane was the man who turned the Tigers into champions. He guided Detroit to pennants in each of his first two seasons as player/manager.

26. Joe Dumars

A great defender, passer, and shooter, Dumars was a perfect back court partner for Isiah Thomas on the Bad Boys who won two NBA titles. He’s also a member of the Basketball Hall of Famer.

27. Harry Heilmann

Succeeded Sam Crawford in right field and won four batting titles for the Tigers in the 1920s. He rates as one of the ten best right-handed hitters for average in baseball history.

28. Jack Morris

One of the great big game pitchers in his era, Morris was the anchor of the Detroit rotation for more than a dozen years. Leads all pitchers from his era in starts, innings, complete games, and wins.

29. Willie Horton

A power-hitter and team leader who capably filled the middle of the lineup in 1968 when the Tigers roared to a World Series title.

30. Dutch Clark

The first star of the Detroit Lions, Clark led the team to their first NFL championship.

31. Turkey Stearnes

The greatest negro leagues ballplayer in Detroit history, Stearnes was a power-hitting outfielder for the Detroit Stars in the 1920s. He was also a fine defender and could run well. He is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

32. Norm Cash

The big left-handed bat in the Detroit lineup in the 1960s, Cash was a character who helped keep his team loose.

33. Lou Whitaker

One half of the greatest double play combination in baseball history. Whitaker rarely won accolades but he was very, very good for a long time. Like Freehan, and his partner Alan Trammell, Whitaker deserves a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

34. Sid Abel

The least famous of the original Production Line, Abel was the center and goal scorer on many feeds from teammates Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. His career in Detroit was short so he rates a little lower.

35. Marcel Pronovost

A great goal scorer on several Red Wings’ teams during their glory days and a Hockey Hall of Famer.

36. Kirk Gibson

Like Fedorov, Gibson was at his best on the big stage. He hit two monster homers in Game Five of the ’84 World Series and came through huge again late in the ’87 season to help lead the Tigers to a division title.

37. Sergei Fedorov

Key contributor on three Stanley Cup champions in Detroit, and most importantly he came up big in the playoffs.

38. Dave Bing

Spent nine seasons in a Pistons’ uniform and won a scoring title, but he never guided the team to an NBA Finals and that’s why he ranks a little lower despite being a Hall of Famer.

39. Alex Delvecchio

Could rank higher based on longevity (no athlete played longer in Detroit than his 24 seasons) and records. When he retired he ranked second in NHL history in goals, assists, and points, only behind long-time teammate Gordie Howe.

40. George Kell

When he retired in the late 1950s, Kell was considered by many to be one of the two or three best defensive third basemen in baseball history. Add in the fact that he won a batting title and hit over .300 for his career and you have a great player.

41. Night Train Lane

One of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL in his era and a Hall of Famer. Would rank much higher base don his entire career, but he spent only six seasons (his final six) with Detroit and never got to the championship with the Lions.

42. Alex Karras

The pest on defense for the Lions in the 1960s, Karras played about 10 years too late, he would have fit well into the rousing 1950s NFL.

43. Bob Lanier

Unlike Laimbeer, Lanier could score down low, almost at will when he was at his peak. He was unfortunately never on very good teams, but for a few years in the 1970s he was as feared as almost anyone in the NBA.

44. Bill Laimbeer

There’s no way the “Bad Boys” Pistons reach the heights they did without Laimbeer’s unflinching drive and determination. Few players got more out of their talent than Laimbeer, who couldn’t jump, was slow, and never had a low post game. He was an enforcer, a master interior defender, and a fantastic rebounder. The big guy could also knock down a long range jumper and was an excellent free throw shooter. Should be in the Hall of Fame with his two championship rings.

45. Bill Freehan

The best catcher in baseball in the 1960s, Freehan made the All-Star team 11 times and is one of the best at his position not in the Hall of Fame. He was a key member of the 1968 World Championship team.

46. Henrik Zetterberg

Like teammate Datsyuk, Zetterberg is still adding to his credentials. Our guess is that he’ll eventually play long anough and accumulate enough personal records to rank in the top 25.

47. Billy Sims

Ranked here solely on his peak talent which was quite considerable. Sims was a rare breed when he entered the NFL – a fast runner who was tough as nails. A crippling injury ended his career prematurely or he could have entered the top twenty.

48. Pavel Datsyuk

Still writing his resume, Datsyuk is a dazzling puck handler with a lot of grit. If he can add another Stanley Cup title or two he’ll climb higher on this list.

49. Herman Moore

For about four seasons, Moore was the best receiver in the NFC after Jerry Rice passed his prime. Moore set a league record for most receptions in a season and had amazing hands. He was the marquee receiver during the Lions’ run to six playoff appearances in the 1990s.

50. Dennis Rodman

The Worm was the best pure rebounder in NBA history and he was under 6 foot 8 inches tall. He was also one of the greatest defenders in the history of the league. Yes he was crazy, but Rodman worked his ass off to do everything that most basketball players hated to do. He was a two-time champion with the Pistons and a Hall of Famer.

About the Author

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.