The Best Multi-Sport Athletes In MLB History

multi-sport athletes
FEBRUARY 20: Tony Gwynn #19 of the San Diego Padres poses for a publicity photo during Spring Training on February 20, 1998. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Nothing fills the minds of a young kid more than the dream to be a professional athlete in their favorite sport. Only a precious few get to see those dreams transform into a reality. An even smaller percentage of those precious few, posses the talent to be multi-sport athletes, and thrive in multiple sports in the college or professional levels.

There is a long list of talented multi-sport athletes that have played in MLB. That list continues today with the likes of Amir Garrett, who played basketball at St. Johns University and Jeff Samardzija, who was an All-American football player at University of Notre Dame. Preceding them are some of the most well-known names in baseball and all of sports.

Bo Jackson

Considered one of the greatest athletes ever, Bo Jackson was a physically imposing force with blinding speed and power. This incredible athleticism led to his being selected as a MLB All-Star and NFL Pro Bowler in the same season (1989) with the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Raiders. He was named the MVP of the MLB All-Star Game. Prior to turning professional, he also won the 1985 Heisman Trophy in college football.

Jackson’s speed and athleticism allowed him to make numerous acrobatic plays in the outfield. It also helped him elude defenders and become the first player in NFL history with multiple 90-yard rushing touchdowns in his career. He had a prolific throwing arm, allowing him to make jaw-dropping plays from the outfield.

What gets forgotten with Jackson was his career as a track athlete. He was a two-time state decathlete in high school, and he very well could have become a world-class decathlete had he not chosen baseball and football. He qualified for the NCAA championships for the 60-yard dash and holds the Auburn University record. Jackson is not only one of the best multi-sport athletes to play baseball, but one of the best of all time.

Deion Sanders

Deion Sanders is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sanders, a multi-sport star, was a shutdown corner as well as a superb return man on the football field. He won two Super Bowl rings during his career. Sanders made the NFL Team of the Decade for the 1990s as both a cornerback and a punt returner. He was a nine-time first team All-NFL and an eight-time selection of the Pro Bowl.

While Sanders’s MLB career was not as prolific, he still had his moments in nine seasons with the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, and Cincinnati Reds. He led the league with 14 triples in 1992. That same season, he slashed .533/.588/.667 in 17 plate appearances in the World Series. During the four games he played in, he stole five bases. Sanders also stole 56 bases in 1997 with the Reds, after not playing baseball in 1996.

On October 11th, 1992, Sanders played a game for the Atlanta Falcons in Miami, and he flew from the game to Pittsburgh for the Braves NLCS matchup. While he did not get into that game, he is still the only player to suit up for two professional teams in two different leagues on the same day.

Dave Winfield

Getting drafted by multiple professional sporting leagues shows that an athlete possesses special talent. In Dave Winfield’s case, he was drafted by four. The Hall-of-Fame outfielder ultimately signed with the San Diego Padres and went straight to MLB. 

Out of college, Winfield was selected by the Utah Stars and the Atlanta Hawks during the ABA and NBA drafts, respectively, in 1973. The Minnesota Vikings followed by selecting him in the 17th round of that year’s NFL draft.

Winfield played baseball as well as basketball at the University of Minnesota, and he was involved in a major-basketball brawl against Ohio State University in 1972. He stopped playing football after high school, making his selection by the Vikings all the more impressive. 

Tony Gwynn

One of the greatest hitters of all time almost wound up as a professional on the hardwood. Tony Gwynn graduated from high school going undrafted in MLB. Additionally, he did not receive any college scholarships for baseball, but he did for basketball. 

Gwynn went on to play point guard for San Diego State University. He holds program records for assists (590), assists in a season (221), and assists per game in a season (8.2). He did not start playing baseball for the Aztecs until his junior season. The team won 55 games in Gwynn’s four seasons, winning the Pacific Coast Athletic Association in his freshman year before changing to the Western Athletic Conference. 

A tough decision followed college for Gwynn as he was drafted by two home-town teams. The Padres and the Clippers both wanted his talent to transform their franchises, but Gwynn chose baseball over basketball because of his lack of height. What followed was one of the greatest hitting displays any career has ever shown, amassing 3,141 total hits. 

Tom Glavine

Tom Glavine is another name on this list that is enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. His 305 wins, two Cy Young awards, and 1995 World Series MVP all cement his legacy as one of the best pitchers of all time. What goes forgotten is that he also excelled in the hockey rink. 

In 1984, Glavine was revered as one of the best high-school hockey players in the country, and he drew the attention of several scouts once the NHL Draft came around. Despite his clearly-stated intentions to commit to baseball, Glavine found himself drafted 69th overall by the Los Angeles Kings

He was drafted ahead of future-hockey-hall-of-famer Luc Robitaille. Scouts felt that Glavine could have had a productive career as a center had he chosen hockey over baseball.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson’s reputation will always be of the man who helped change baseball, and society in general, when he broke the color barrier in 1947. During his ten-year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson won Rookie of the Year in 1947, NL MVP in 1949, and a World Series championship in 1955.

Robinson’s slash line was .311/.409/.474, and he stole 197 bases, including 19 of home. Despite his success in a Hall-of-Fame career, Robinson initially struggled at baseball as a four-sport letter-winner at UCLA.

Robinson earned the nickname “Lightning Jackie Robinson” on the football field in college. He starred on offense and special teams for the Bruins, and he played safety on defense, earning All-conference honors. He was also a star for the track and field team where he won conference and NCAA championships in the long jump, with an ability to jump 25 feet. Additionally, he averaged 12.4 and 11.1 points in two seasons with the Bruins basketball team. He is the only four-sport letter-winner in UCLA history, cementing him as one of the best multi-sport athletes to play in MLB.

Brian Jordan

Brian Jordan played 15 seasons in MLB, primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals and Braves, earning an All-Star selection. He is one of the most recent multi-sport athletes to have played professionally in two sports. He spent three seasons in the NFL, playing for the Falcons. 

Jordan was selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 1988 draft. He collected over 1,450 hits and received MVP votes in three seasons, including one top-ten finish. Additionally, he played in nine postseason series during his career as well as playing in the 1999 World Series against the Yankees.  

On the football field, Jordan played defensive back, and he was drafted in the seventh round in 1989. He played in 36 games, starting 30 of them, and he recorded five interceptions. On special teams, he returned five kicks for 100 yards and 14 punts for 116 yards.

Kenny Lofton

While Kenny Lofton never received a phone call telling him he was elected into the baseball Hall of Fame, his career, spent primarily with the Cleveland Indians, presents a case for enshrinement. As a leadoff hitter, he led the league in stolen bases five straight seasons, and had six 50-steal seasons in a seven-year span. He also stole at least 20 bases in 14 of his 17 seasons in MLB. Lofton finished with 622 steals, 15th all time, and a .372 on-base percentage. He was a Gold Glove winning outfielder and an All-Star.

On top of his accolades as a baseball player, Lofton also played point guard for the University of Arizona in the late 1980s. He has the distinction of playing in both the Final Four, as part of the first Arizona team to make it so far, and the World Series.

Lofton was the back-up guard on the Final Four team as a junior, but he started all 33 games as a senior. He shot 43% from the floor, averaging 2.1 assists and 1.6 steals for his career.

Danny Ainge

Danny Ainge won two NBA championships and was an All-Star with the Boston Celtics. Ainge played eight of his 15 NBA seasons in Boston and is most remembered for his days with the team. He shot 46.9% from the field and 37.8% from the perimeter. Per game, he averaged 11.5 points and 4.0 assists.

Ainge also played in MLB, one of a select multi-sport athletes to play at the highest level in two leagues. He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 15th round in 1977. They signed him out of high school, and he played three years in MLB.

While playing second base, third base, and shortstop, Ainge slashed .220/.264/.269. He hit two home runs and stole 12 bases in 211 games.

Jim Thorpe 

In 1950, sportswriters voted on the best athlete of the first half of the 20th Century. The name that they came up with was none other than Jim Thorpe. Thorpe is revered for excelling at just about any sport imaginable during his life.

He won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. After the Amateur Athletic Union investigated his amateur status, he was stripped of those titles because it was found that he played semiprofessional baseball in 1909-1910.

After that, he went on to play MLB for three NL teams from 1913-1919 before becoming one of the first stars of professional football from 1919-1926. He also excelled at sports such as hockey, boxing, lacrosse, swimming, and basketball. Thorpe truly presents a case as the best mutli-sport athlete ever.

The amount of talent and athleticism necessary to play one sport professionally is incredible, but the amount required to excel in more than one is astounding. With the way youth sports continue to specialize and kids start to focus primarily on one sport growing up, it is hard to tell how many more multi-sport athletes will be seen in the future.

Main Photo:Embed from Getty Images

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DJ is a baseball fanatic that loves to talk about the game's history and debate it's current happenings. DJ always had a passion to write, even though he graduated college with a degree in Marketing, and it was one day while sitting in his cubicle at work that he decided to make a career change and put his journalism minor to use, applying to write for LWOS. He currently contributes in depth coverage of all of MLB with an emphasis on the Yankees and Mets. DJ also freelances at MLB/NHL Network in addition to writing for LWOS, and spends his free time reading and watching college basketball.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Very enjoyable article. I realize there is a longer list but I remember two oldies you could have mentioned, Dick Groat and Gene Conley.

    • Thank you! Yes, there’s definitely a longer list that can be put together and they could definitely be on it. Unfortunately, I had to cap the list at ten.

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