This annotated week in baseball history: March 14-March 20, 2010

On March 18, 2010, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will begin. In honor of this event, Richard looks back on the handful of players who saw time in the big leagues of both baseball and basketball.

Like all sports, baseball has elite groups. The 500-home-run club. The 40-40 club. The 300-win club. The members of those groups are exclusive company, and while new people come along every now and then, they figure to remain a very small percentage of players in the foreseeable future.

But not all such exclusive groups are based on one’s success in the majors. For some players, their membership comes from their ability to reach the highest level of two sports. This week we look at the MLB-NBA club, a group with fewer than a dozen members.

The active member of the group is Baltimore’s Mark Hendrickson. Last year the big lefty—everyone in this article is a “big,” in case you didn’t see that coming—had one of the better years of his career, posting a better-than-average ERA while appearing in 53 games for the O’s.

Hendrickson made his major league debut in 2002 for the Blue Jays, the team that had taken him in the 20th round of the 1997 MLB draft. But Hendrickson, who was less than two rebounds away from averaging a double-double during his college career, was taken in the second round (31st overall) by the Philadelphia 76ers and chose to head down the path of professional basketball.

Hendrickson would play in parts of four seasons with the 76ers, Sacramento Kings, New Jersey Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers before growing frustrated with his inability to hold a consistent job in the NBA. To this end, he decided to focus his efforts entirely on baseball. Hendrickson had been pitching in Toronto’s minor league system during the summers, and despite relatively pedestrian numbers he earned a promotion to the big club within a few years of his switch to baseball.

For his career, Hendrickson seems unlikely to end up in either Cooperstown (entering this year, his career numbers stand at 56-68, 5.00) or the Naismith Hall of Fame. But that doesn’t mean Hall of Fame-level basketball talent has never been seen on an MLB diamond, nor that baseball All-Stars have never set foot on NBA hardwood.

Probably the best player in either basketball or baseball to play in both sports is Dave DeBusschere. DeBusschere is also an example of a player who performed in the top leagues simultaneously: For 1962 and 1963 he was a member of both the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Pistons.

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Danny Ainge, NBA All-Star and lifetime .220 hitter (Icon/SMI)

Although DeBusschere was a pretty decent pitcher—his two-year baseball career ended with a 2.90 ERA across roughly a hundred innings—and played in the White Sox system for two years after his last major league game, he made the right choice sticking to basketball.

For his NBA career, DeBusschere scored more than 14,000 points, pulled almost 10,000 rebounds, was an eight-time All-Atar, was a member of the NBA’s 50th-anniversary team and is widely regarded as one of the league’s greatest power forwards. He was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1983, less than 10 years after retiring from the Knicks, a team for which he won two championships.

Almost unquestionably the best player for both basketball and baseball was Dick Groat, even if you would never know it looking at his professional career when it came to hoops. Signed by the Pirates out of Duke, where he had been a two-time baseball All-American, Groat made his debut almost immediately, never having played in the minor leagues. He hit .284 but drew few walks and had even less power.

In 1955, Groat returned to the team from time both serving in the Army and playing basketball for the Fort Wayne Pistons. Still just 24, Groat struggled initially, but by 1957 was playing well enough to draw top-15 MVP support. He did even better in 1960, winning the award of the World Series-winning Pirates. A five-time All-Star, Groat would win a second title with the ’64 Cardinals before retiring after the 1967 season.

Groat’s one season playing professional basketball is far more of a reflection on the nature of the professional game at the time than it is on Groat. Given the same credentials today, it seems far more likely Groat would be plying his trade in the NBA. Groat was a two-time All-American in basketball at Duke, set the NCAA single-season scoring record during the 1952 season and led the Blue Devils to two Southern Conference championships. In 2007, he was elected to the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

Other notables to see time in both sports include Gene Conley. A three-time All-Star as a pitcher, Conley also played in the NBA in his offseason. Conley won three titles with the Celtics, as well as one with the Milwaukee Braves, which I believe makes him the only player to win a title in two of the four major professional sports.

(Despite these accomplishments, I am obliged to point out that Conley is best known for having wandered off from the Red Sox team bus in the middle of a traffic jam to go drinking, an incident I covered in more detail in this column.)

The MLB-NBA club also features current Celtics executive Danny Ainge, as well as Chuck Connors. Despite playing in two high-level professional leagues, Connors has the neat trick of being best known for something else entirely: his career as the titular character on ABC’s The Rifleman.

(Connors also had something of an unlikely friendship with Soviet Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev was apparently a big Rifleman fan, to the extent of allowing it to be among the few American programs shown on Soviet television. Connors visited Brezhnev in Moscow and was later disappointed to be rejected from the official American party attending his funeral. This has nothing to do with anything, but I couldn’t let Connors’ story go by without mentioning it.)

It is true that, with a few exceptions, the players who have reached the highest level in both professional baseball and basketball are—by the high standards thereof—mediocre players at at least one, and sometimes both. That might be the inevitable outcome of trying to reach the pinnacle of two sports at once; the saying that someone who chases many rabbits will catch none would seem to apply.

But no matter the success they experienced at each game, these players remain in exclusive company, which is not to be overlooked.

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    Another guy for the list is Ron Reed. The longtime Braves/Phillies (etc.) reliever also played for the Pistons from ‘65-67.

  2. jmac_66 said...

    Cotton Nash also. I suppose you could include Bill Sharman, though he never actually got into a game for the Dodgers

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