Sunday, May 6, 2012

Samardzija, Mays, and Halas: All Played Multiple Sports

We look back with fondness at many of the classic sports figures. After all we publish books that discuss people like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays,(The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Success in Baseball (and Life)) Johnny Evers, Frank Chance, Honus Wagner, John McGraw, (Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle) George Halas, Art Rooney, Walter Payton, Bill Wade, Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus (Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout). See more here.

It is interesting to note that many athletes excelled at more than one sport and deciding which sport to choose was often difficult. Even today with all the special focus on sport-specific and year-round training, some athletes participate in more than one sport. Here are three very different athletes who have or had skills in multiple sports.

Jeff Samardzija Just Getting Started

Jeff Samardzija comes to mind today because here in Chicago he has been in the news. If you watched Notre Dame football when Samardzija played, he was always the most competitive guy on the field. He looked like he had great career potential in football. As a big 6'5" 215 lbs. receiver, he broke a number of record for the Fighting Irish football team. Samardzija played his last two years during Charlie Weis ND coaching tenure. As a Junior in 2005, Samardzija had 77 receptions for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 16.2 per catch. Samardzija set ND records for receiving yardage and touchdown receptions. He was named by the NCAA as a consensus football All-American for 2005. In 2006, as a senior he caught 78 passes for 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 13 yards per catch. Once again, he was named by the NCAA as a consensus football All-American. Samardzija played baseball as well. He was an excellent pitcher with the Irish baseball team. In baseball, Samardzija saw plenty of playing time during his college days. He had a 3.82 ERA and he recorded 21-6 career record.

Samardzija chose baseball over football. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs coming out of college and received a generous contract. Known for his intense play in college, he struggled some in Major League Baseball his first few years. Some thought he needed to settle down and relax. Others thought he needed to develop more pitches and gain seasoning. Some pundits wrote Samardzija's baseball career off altogether after a few years. Things changed for the better during the 2011 season when Samardzija as a reliever improved to post an 8-4 record with an ERA of 2.97. The year 2012 may be a breakout year for Samardzija who is now in the Chicago Cubs starting rotation. He has come out strong this year with a 3-1 start and a 3.41 ERA.

Athletes like Samardzija who have talent in both football and baseball sometimes chose baseball as a safer bet--safer in terms of a sport that might offer a longer career. Pitching however, offers a set of unique physical challenges that pose perhaps more risks---at least that's how Willie Mays's father saw things.

Willie Mays One of the Greatest Athletes of All Time

Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays played baseball, football and basketball during his High School years. He was exceptional at everything he did. As a high school quarterback he could throw the ball 70 yards. In basketball he played forward and was the leading scorer for Fairfield Industrial High School in Fairfield, Alabama when he led his team to the state championship. In baseball, playing for various teams (his HS didn't have a team) there was nothing Mays couldn't do. He could hit, field, throw and pitch. In fact he was an excellent pitching prospect, but his father saw pitching as a risky endeavor especially unnecessary for someone with Mays talent. Mays's coach moved the great talent to center field.

Mays had a 22-year career in baseball where he played in 2,992 games with 10,881 at bats. He had 3,283 hits including 660 home runs (4th most in history), and 1,903 RBIs. His career average was .302. He had a remarkable arm and he led the league in steals four years in a row. Many consider Mays as the best baseball player in history--he is certainly in the running for the top spot on most everyone's list.

George Halas Casts a Long Shadow

Another multiple sports athlete is legendary Bears Coach and owner George Halas. Halas is known for many things in sports. As an athlete, owner, coach and league founder--few people have had as great an influence on modern sport than George Halas. An owner who was a chief architect of the NFL, Halas was extremely talented athletically. Not only did he play for the Bears for 10 years, he was signed by the New York Yankees. At the University of Illinois, he played baseball, football and basketball. He left the University of Illinois with a few months left in his senior year to serve during World War I. It was a big loss to the basketball team where Halas had served as team captain. After his time in the service, he signed with the Yankees and was sent down the minors. Halas had a difficult time hitting the curve ball in the pros and left the Yankees when he would have been starting his second year to seek other options. Interestingly enough, a few scouts had a similar criticism for none other than Willie Mays--"can't hit the curve."

Halas put himself on the line physically, emotionally, intellectually and financially for professional football. In the age of leather helmets, he broke his jaw at the University of Illinois and punished his body playing against much bigger men in the NFL. He stuck it out in football for over 60 years. It was no easy ride. Players could not tell Halas he didn't know what it was like to play the game. He coached from the early days featuring the T Formation to the complex modern game. He managed simple handshake agreements and saw the development of agents, TV contracts, and million-dollar endorsements. He ran the Bears when players made $100 a game to when they earned more than the President.

More information on Sporting Chance Press books.

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