Jeter breaks Yanks' drought with SI honor
Baseball has had several near-misses for magazine's recognition
NEW YORK -- They have 27 World Series championships, as you know, and those do not come easily. Many of the finest players in the history of baseball have passed through Yankee Stadium over the years. Many of the game's greatest achievements have come in pinstripes.
Yet do not be fooled by the team-first concept that permeates all they do -- the Yankees have had more than their share of individual standouts over the years. For almost seven decades, a Yankee owned the single-season home run record; for nearly half a century, the career mark belonged to a Yankee as well. Only one man in baseball history has thrown a postseason perfect game, and he wore pinstripes. Twenty-two other Yankees have earned Most Valuable Player Awards.
But until now, until Tuesday night, when Sports Illustrated officially honors Derek Jeter, the Yankees have not won a Sportsman of the Year Award. Funny how history unfolds.
It's not as if SI has ignored baseball in its annual quest to honor those who have had the greatest impact on the world of sports -- quite the opposite. In the 55-year history of the award, 13 baseball players and one club have been lauded, including three wins over the past 11 years. The team that unseated the Yankees in 2004, the Red Sox, won as a group. The pitchers that bested them in '01, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, won as a pair. But never in more than half a century has a Yankee been able to take home the award.
There are several reasons why. The Sportsman of the Year Award has only been around since SI was born in 1954, when Roger Bannister won it for breaking the four-minute-mile barrier. And that means that a half century of Yankees excellence -- from Babe Ruth to Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio -- never had a chance.
The Yankees, though, have had their share of standouts over the past half-century, winning 11 World Series titles since 1954. And they have had their share of Sportsman near-misses.
Consider 1956, the third year of the award's existence, when Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown in leading the Yankees to a World Series title. That year, Sports Illustrated opted instead for Bobby Joe Morrow, a sprinter who won three gold medals at the '56 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. The magazine has always taken time to acknowledge Olympians, including the most recent winner, swimmer Michael Phelps in 2008.
Sportsmen of the Year
|1979||Willie Stargell (with Terry Bradshaw)|
|1995||Cal Ripken Jr.|
|1998||Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa|
|2001||Curt Schilling/Randy Johnson|
|2004||Boston Red Sox|
In 1961, the Yankees had another chance, when Mantle and Roger Maris set the baseball world ablaze with their chase of Ruth's single-season home run record. Thirty-seven years later, Sports Illustrated honored Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for doing the exact same thing -- McGwire playing the role of Maris and breaking the record, Mantle proving to be a worthy competitor. And to top it off, the Yankees won the World Series in '61, as well.
That, though, hardly seemed to matter. Both Maris and Mantle, who could have been the first men to share the award, instead lost out to Jerry Lucas, a basketball player honored after his second collegiate season at Ohio State, one year after a gold medal run at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Lucas, who won the Final Four MVP despite his team finishing second that season, was the first basketball player to win the Sportsman of the Year Award. More than for his performance on the court, Lucas won due to his status as a leader in an emerging sport that was growing increasingly popular in America.
The Yankees didn't have another legitimate contender until 1977, when Reggie Jackson blasted three home runs in World Series Game 6 against the Dodgers, earning the famous moniker Mr. October and leading his team to the title. For a time, Jackson was on top of the baseball world. But he lost out to jockey Steve Cauthen, who took the horse racing world by storm in '77 and who, one year after winning SI's award, rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown.
And so the Sportsman of the Year Award continued to curl its way through the years, brushing up against the Yankees on three notable occasions but never making it all the way to them. Until now. The team that has been honored umpteen times, from the Bronx to the White House, can now call Jeter its first Sportsman of the Year.
Then again, the Yankees aren't exactly alone in their history of near-misses. Perhaps most notable was Hank Aaron, who, despite protests and death threats, broke Ruth's record for career home runs in 1974. In any other year, that might have been enough to win the Sportsman of the Year Award. But Aaron was up against Muhammad Ali, one of history's most revered athletes and who, in '74, became the reigning heavyweight champion after his famous "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman.
During that same era, Roberto Clemente could have been honored any one of three times -- in 1966, his MVP season, or in '60 or '71, his two World Series championship seasons. Like Jeter, who won his namesake award this October, Clemente was a humanitarian as much as a baseball player, and such are the ideals that the award seeks to recognize. But like Aaron, Clemente faced some stiff competition.
In 1960, Clemente's fifth season but his first as a bona fide superstar, legendary golfer Arnold Palmer took the award. In '66, miler Jim Ryun won. And in '71, when Clemente perhaps could have won as Jeter did this year, with a nod to his outstanding career and humanitarian work, golfer Lee Trevino won for his two major victories and PGA Player of the Year status.
Clemente aside, how about a nod to some of the greatest players in baseball history? Like Mantle, Ted Williams and Willie Mays -- the latter especially -- played large chunks of their careers in the Sportsman era. Williams could have won in 1954, when he hit .345 with 29 homers in his first full season back from the Korean War, or in '57, when he hit .388 as a 39-year-old. But those two awards went to Bannister, the inaugural Sportsman, and Stan Musial, another longtime achiever who hit .351 with 29 homers that season.
Likewise, Mays could have won in 1954, as an MVP on a World Series champion, or in '65, as an MVP once more at the end of a brilliant prime. But Bannister won the first time around, and Sandy Koufax took home the National League Cy Young Award, the World Series title and the Sportsman of the Year Award in '65.
And so the list goes on -- from George Brett, who hit .390 and won the pennant with the Royals in 1980, but who couldn't quite compare to the legendary U.S. Olympic ice hockey team, to Greg Maddux, who won his fourth consecutive NL Cy Young Award in 1995 and led the Braves to the World Series title, only to lose out on Sportsman honors to Cal Ripken Jr. and his consecutive games streak.
More recently, in 2001, Ichiro Suzuki could have won for his wild success upon becoming the first Japanese position player to play regularly in the Major Leagues. Hitting .350 for the Mariners, Ichiro became just the second player in MLB history to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards in the same season, also leading the Mariners to a league-record 116 victories. Yet the Sportsman of the Year Award tends to favor World Series champions, and Suzuki's Mariners were eventually upended by the Yankees, who in turn lost to the Diamondbacks and their two Sportsmen, Schilling and Johnson.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.