Top 50 Detroit Athletes of All-Time

Who is the greatest athlete that Detroit has ever called its’ own? Is it a baseball player, a football star, a hockey legend, or maybe a hoop icon? How about other sports?

How do the greatest of Detroit’s Golden Era of Sports rank alongside the stars of the last 20-30 years? Where do the old-time legends rate, the players only your great grandpa saw play?

If you’ve ever found yourself involved in a bar room debate about who the greatest was, you came to the right place.

Selecting the greatest in anything is a subjective practice that requires research and analysis. It also relies heavily on personal opinion. No list of the greatest anything is right or wrong. It’s a reflection of the opinions of the list maker.

Here at Detroit Athletic Co., we’re up for the task, so we asked our four regular contributors to select the greatest athletes in Detroit sports history. We took their lists and scored each athlete based on where they rated among our experts and came up with our final rankings. What we came up with is the Top 50 Detroit Athletes of All-Time.

We wanted to select a serious list, so we took the time to established a set of criteria, to help guide our picks. Namely:

  1. What were the athletes’ accomplishments in their sport?  Things to consider are titles won, championships, records set, rankings  within their individual sport, career statistics, all-star selections, and individual awards (especially MVP awards).
  2. What was the length of their career, and how significant was their contribution as a member of a Detroit team? Did they spend a large portion of their career in Detroit, or at least have major impact here representing the city?
  3. How popular was the athlete in Detroit and Michigan? Did he have a lasting impact on his sport or Detroit franchise that still exists today?
  4. Did the athlete transcend sports and have a cultural impact on Detroit in some way?
  5. Was the athlete a central figure in historical moments that are legendary in Detroit sports history?
  6. Was the athlete a major factor in a post-season or playoff series that resulted in a Detroit championship? Call this the clutch factor.
  7. Was the athlete inducted into the Hall of Fame for his sport?
  8. Did the athlete have an impact on the rules or equipment or play of their specific sport?
  9. After their active playing career, did the athlete contribute anything else (as coach, executive, owner, broadcaster, etc.) that significantly added to the enjoyment of sports in Detroit?
  10. Has enough time elapsed since the conclusion of the athlete’s career to properly assess his greatness? Or if he is still active, has he accomplished enough to be ranked among the greatest in Detroit sports history?
For the purposes of our Top 50, any sport or athlete who represented Detroit for a length of time was eligible, however the list is primarily comprised of men who played for the four major team sports (baseball, basketball, football, hockey). The breakdown of our Top 50 based on the major sports they came from:
  • Baseball – 19
  • Hockey – 11
  • Football – 12
  • Basketball – 6
  • Other – 2
Since pro baseball has been played in Detroit for more than 130 years, we feel the large number of baseball players is justified. In contrast, pro football, hockey, and basketball have shorter histories in the Motor City. If we look at the breakdown of the Top 50 based on their era, we see what we already knew – that the 1950s was the Golden Era of Sports in Detroit:
  • 1880s – 1
  • 1900s – 2
  • 1910s – 1
  • 1920s – 2
  • 1930s – 5
  • 1940s – 5
  • 1950s – 11
  • 1960s – 6
  • 1970s – 5
  • 1980s – 8
  • 1990s – 3
  • 2000s – 1
There was no rule excluding females, but since for much of history women have not had a professional league to show off their talents, none were selected. This does not diminish the accomplishments of Lynette Woodard and Swin Cash, both of whom starred for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock.

Our panel of experts:

  • Richard Bak, one of the foremost Detroit historians and author of several books on Detroit sports and history, including Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit and Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope.
  • Tom DeLisle, a longtime writer who has witnessed Detroit sports since the 1940s. In 1967 he was part of a group of writers for the Detroit Free Press who won a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for their coverage of the Detroit riots.
  • Bill Dow, a freelance sportswriter based out of Michigan who has contributed to several publications in the last 12 years and been following Michigan sports for four decades.
  • Dan Holmes, a writer and webmaster who worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and, is the author of one book on baseball, and contributor to two others, including Deadball Stars of the American League.


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