Monday, October 13, 2014

How Do We Track the New York Athlete Championship Belt? (Part 1)

In a recent edition of the New York Daily News, Mike Lupica penned a column about how Eli Manning is taking the mantel from Derek Jeter as New York's No. 1 athlete. In the rival New York Post, Mike Vaccaro wrote that Carmelo Anthony has the best shot to "become the next Jeter." That's two of the Big Apple's top sportswriters, rushing to find a replacement for the city's most important athlete of the past two decades.

While reading those articles, I had an idea: I should rip off a gimmick from myself that I had already ripped off from Grantland a few months ago. Grantland has given out championship belts in a bunch of different categories, including the Action Hero Championship Belt and the Pitching Championship Belt. In July, I hijacked that idea and retroactively determined the Dominant Team Championship Belt. This week, let's track the New York Athlete Championship Belt!

Before we start, here are a few guidelines we'll be using:
  • The most important New York athlete is usually easy to spot. The Belt is held by each superstar for as long as he dominates the sports conversation in the city. That almost always entails at least one memorable season that garners a great deal of media attention.
  • It takes true dominance to steal the belt away. This point should go without saying, but it's extremely important. It takes a lot to knock the top guy off his perch. The most recent season matters the most, but it isn't necessarily enough to change the titleholder. So even if Joe DiMaggio didn't have his best season in '47, he retained the Belt because no other player dominated enough to rise to the top that year.
  • Cultural relevance matters. The title of "most dominant athlete" goes beyond the playing field. Cultural icons (Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath) should expect to fare very well. A great nickname or pop culture crossover appeal certainly helps.
  • We'll start in the 1920s. Since we're mostly confining this list to pro sports, we'll skip over the early part of the 20th century, when boxing and horse racing dominated the American consciousness. However, even using the '20s as an arbitrary starting point, we should be prepared to see a bunch of baseball players as the earliest Belt-holders.
  • Subjectivity = Fun. I realize that this list is incredibly arbitrary, and that's by design. I will factor subjective measures like "coolness" into my decisions, so feel free to hit me over the head with a beer bottle if you disagree with me. Now that we got that disclaimer out of the way, let's track the history of the New York Athlete Championship Belt!
1921-33: Babe Ruth
Just as Ruth's Yankees monopolized the Dominant Team Championship Belt in the '20s, the Bambino was the most important athlete in New York (and the world) during this time. Coincidentally, his first great year was 1920, also his first season in the media capital of the world. Ruth epitomized the Roaring Twenties and set the precedent for all future New York superstars.

1934-39: Lou Gehrig
Ruth's hard-living ways started to catch up to him in '33 and his less outgoing teammate soon snatched the Belt away. The first baseman averaged 163 RBIs in the four seasons before he dethroned Ruth, but those ribbies were largely a function of The Bambino's incredible knack for reaching base. However, when Ruth's stats and popularity started to wane, the Iron Horse soon became even more beloved than his teammate. Gehrig's reign at the top culminated in his "Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" speech in '39.

1940-42: Joe DiMaggio
Even though Joe D had stormed onto the scene a few years earlier, he wasn't wresting the Belt away from Gehrig until the latter's retirement. From 1940-42, though, DiMaggio took over New York with historic feats like his 56-game hitting streak in '41. I don't care that such streaks are overrated. Fifty-six games is insane!

1943: Count Fleet
During the World War II years, most great American athletes went overseas to help whoop some Axis ass. DiMaggio, Joe Louis, and pretty much every other able-bodied young man joined the Allied Forces, leaving the New York Athlete Championship Belt up for grabs.

That's why most of you probably just said something along the lines of "Who the hell is Count Fleet?" Well, except for Erin from The Office.

As Erin remembered, Count Fleet was horse racing's sixth Triple Crown winner, completing the feat by dominating New York's Belmont Stakes by an incredible 25 lengths.

I hope the Belt was able to fit around the horse's ample midsection.

1944: Beau Jack
What a weak year in sports. The Masters, British Open, Olympics, and Wimbledon were all canceled, and many of the world's best athletes didn't play a single game. There must have been something else going on in '44.

Anyways, Beau Jack gets the nod for winning the August 4 "War Bonds Fight" at Madison Square Garden. The fight raised tens of millions of dollars for the American war effort just weeks before Jack and opponent Bob Montgomery were drafted into the army. Just more proof that athletes were way bigger badasses back then.

1945: Frank Parker
In '45, Parker became the first tennis player to hold the New York Athlete Championship Belt. In the final year of World War II, Parker won the men's singles title at the U.S. National Championships, the only Grand Slam event of the year. The tournament was held in Forest Hills, allowing Parker to give New York sports fans something to cheer about. (Besides our victory in the war.)

1946-50: Joe DiMaggio
Joltin' Joe returned from the service and had a subpar year (.290/.367/.511) by his standards. Still, there was no bigger celebrity in New York, and the Yankees bounced back to win the World Series in '47, '49, and '50.

The Yankee Clipper won nine World Series, holds one of the most recognizable records in sports, and married Marilyn Monroe. The Italian kid from Northern California owned New York like few athletes ever have.

1951-53: Yogi Berra
DiMaggio retired after a rough season in '51, and (probably) ceremonially passed the Belt to Berra at some point during the season. Yogi won the first of his three MVP awards that season as the Yanks won the Series.

In terms of off-field relevance, Yogi might have been the most quotable, cutest. best-nicknamed athlete in sports history.* About that nickname: Expect to see it in our upcoming Athlete Nickname Draft.

*On a personal note, Yogi once got drunk with my grandpa and stole a golf cart on a U.S. military base somewhere in the Pacific. Like much else about Yogi's party life, details of the incident are hazy.

1954: Willie Mays
Yogi won the MVP award in '54, but so did Willie. After returning from Korea, Mays had an otherworldly season (1.078 OPS) as the Giants cruised to a World Series title. The Say Hey Kid spent at least that one season as the top athlete in the world's greatest city.

Oh, and '54 was also the year of The Catch.

1955: Duke Snider
Snider shows up in the middle of a seven-year run of center fielders as Belt-holders.

The title of most popular Dodger ever is a tricky one, but Snider can definitely make a case. In '55, specifically, he led Brooklyn to its only World Series title by clubbing 42 homers and driving in a league-leading 136 runs. Those were two of the only stats people cared about back then, and Snider won the Belt pretty comfortably based on those numbers.

1956-60: Mickey Mantle
One of the most beloved athletes in the city's history, The Mick held off crosstown rivals Duke and Willie -- as well as teammate Yogi -- for the Belt. Mantle won the MVP in '56 and '57, and he wowed New Yorkers at the plate, in the field, and out on the town.

When the Dodgers and Giants moved to California in 1958, it made Mickey the clear-cut Belt-holder for a few years.* It also guaranteed that the New York Athlete Championship Belt would remain in the Yankees clubhouse until '65.

*Frank Gifford had a pretty high profile, but nobody would argue about the supremacy of baseball in New York during the '50s.

1961: Roger Maris
The other M&M Boy was never as popular as The Mick, but his play on the field was enough to win him the Belt in '61. Let's play some show-and-tell with Red Barber:

Not exactly Gus Johnson on the call, but still pretty cool. (Also, how technologically advanced was that flashing "61" graphic?)

1962: Mickey Mantle
Maris didn't hold the Belt for long. Mantle won the MVP in '62, snatching the Belt back from the winner of the previous two MVPs.

1963: Whitey Ford
Mantle and Berra each played fewer than 70 games in '63, but their buddy had a great season. The Chairman of the Board pitched to a 2.90 ERA to lead the Yankees to the pennant. It's rare for a pitcher to hold the Belt because he can only appear once or twice a week, but Whitey wouldn't be the last hurler to own New York.

1964: Mickey Mantle
Number 7 had his last great season in '64, finishing second in the MVP voting and posting a league-leading .423 on-base percentage.

1965-66: Lew Alcindor
This was a tough year for professional sports in the Big Apple. The Yankees, Rangers, Jets, and Knicks all had losing records; the Mets went an atrocious 50-112; and the Giants were outscored by 68 points over the course of a 7-7 season.

In light of that mediocrity, it's tempting to award the Belt to Rangers great Rod Gilbert as a sort of lifetime achievement award. But let's not constrain ourselves to pro sports.

Before switching coasts and starring for UCLA, Lew Alcindor took Power Memorial to three straight New York City Catholic championships. By the end of the '64-65 season, he had earned the Belt. The next year, he and his team completed its legendary 71-game winning streak. As a senior, Alcindor surpassed 2,000 points and rebounds.

The year after Kareem's New York Athlete Championship Belt, the NCAA outlawed the slam dunk. I'd say he was pretty dominant.

1967: Tom Seaver
In '67, Tom Terrific made the All Star team and won Rookie of the Year, giving the Mets their first bona fide superstar.

1968-69: Joe Namath
Namath's stats were nothing to marvel at, as he often threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Still, Broadway Joe had "it," that combination of style and substance that New Yorkers somehow know when they see. We'll give him the Belt for the magical '68 season, culminating in the iconic Super Bowl III upset in January '69. Namath's Guarantee earned him enough goodwill to ensure that not even a member of the '69 Miracle Mets could wrest the Belt from him.

1970: Walt Frazier
Willis Reed was the Knicks captain and league MVP, but Frazier was the flashiest and most recognizable player on the team. If it were up to my father, hard-nosed Dave DeBusschere would have donned the Belt in '70, but Frazier's 36-19-7 line in the Finals-clinching Game 7 assured his status as the top athlete in New York.

To find out who won the Belt each year from 1971-2014, click here for Part 2.

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