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Top 5 List: Cleveland's Greatest Pro Athletes of All-Time!

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One man's opinion of Cleveland's top-5 major sports athletes of all-time. Where will LeBron James rank?

Last week, this site put up an excellent post by John Bena that counted down Cleveland’s most popular athletes. Naturally, LeBron James was at the top of the list. I have to admit I am a sucker for list and my mind was set into an automatic frenzy. 

I couldn’t help but wonder what LeBron James’ proper place is among Cleveland’s all-time pro athletes (major sports only). Is he greater than Bob Feller? What about Otto Graham? Don’t tell me he’s ahead of Jim Brown…is he?

I think you know where this one is going. So without further adieu, here are my rankings of the top five Cleveland Pro Athletes of All-Time. Time to break it down, Rob Gordon style.

5. Tris Speaker – Indians – CF (1916-1926)

Wow, you know this is going to be a pretty loaded list when one of the greatest center fielders in the history of baseball barely cracks the top five. I have to admit, I'm holding Speaker back a little due to fact that half of baseball's talent pool wasn't allowed to participate during the duration of his entire career due to segregation. Speaker, also known as the Grey Ghost, is the owner of the fifth highest career batting average (.345) in MLB history and hit .354 during his eleven years with the Tribe. He’s a member of the 3,000 hit club and is also baseball’s career leader in doubles. Speaker was player-manager for the 1920 Indians team that won the franchise’s first World Series. Speaker entered the Hall of Fame in 1937.

4. LeBron JamesCavaliers – SF (2003-2010)

Admit it; you are a little bit surprised I have James at No. 4 on this list...free agency be damned. To be fair, everyone else on this list has won a championship in their sport while also dominating their respective eras. So why do I have James ahead of Speaker then? Speaker won one MVP, but that was in 1912 with the Red Sox. James has two MVP’s and has such a high ceiling to accomplish so much more in his career.  Will that ceiling be reached in Cleveland? No matter the answer to that question, there is no doubt that LeBron James is without question Cleveland's top athlete of the last half-century. It's not even close. It just goes to show how much James has already accomplished while with the Cavaliers, while also showing how much of an impact on his legacy an NBA title here would mean on his career. If James can win one championship in this town, he will immediately climb this list ahead of Feller. He also looks to be on his way to being in the discussion of the greatest to play his sport period...just like the guys who occupy top two slots.

3. Bob Feller – Indians – SP (1936-1956)

As a 17-year-old, Feller struck out 17 batters in a Major League game. Think about that for a second. The most dominant pitcher of his era retired with 266 wins and 2,581 strikeouts. He also threw three no-hitters and a record tying 12 one-hitters. Those numbers would be even greater if Feller hadn’t spent four years in the Navy during WWII. Feller led the Indians to their last World Series victory in 1948 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. Feller’s #19 is retired by the Indians and is the only Cleveland athlete to be currently honored with a bronze statue. Hopefully, Feller won't be the last local hero with such an honor in this town.

2. Jim Brown – Browns – RB (1957-1965)

Surprised to see Jim Brown as the runner up? Well, just wait until you read the resume of the guy who tops the list. First let’s say a few things about Brown. There is no doubt this is the greatest running back in NFL history. In his day, Brown played NFL seasons that only consisted of 12 and then 14 games (compared to 16 today) and most of his career records still compare to the numbers today’s players are producing. At the time of his retirement, Brown held the NFL career standard for yards rushing (12,312), touchdowns (126), and yards per carry (5.2). Brown won four NFL MVPs. Named to nine Pro Bowls and won an NFL title in 1964…which is the most recent in Cleveland sports history that matters. Brown's No. 32 has been retired by the Browns.

1. Otto Graham – Browns – QB (1946-1955)

Where do we start with Otto Graham? Is it the five total MVP awards in both the AAFC and NFL? What about the 9 combined All-Pro selections? For as impressive as those accomplishments are, Graham’s greatest achievement is winning. Hey, that's a rare achievement in this town. Graham led the Browns to the championship game ten times in ten years and won seven of those games. Oh, and he also led the league in passing in seven of those ten years to boot. Graham’s all-time record as QB for the Browns is 105-17-4. I don't care how many years were in the AAFC compared to the NFL. A winner is a winner, and Graham dominated both leagues. The Hall of Famer’s No. 14 (he wore No. 60 as an AAFC player) is retired by the Browns.
So, you don't agree with the list? That's to be expected because that's part of the beauty of sports. Like music, we all have our own standards and valued opinions. I favor the combination of winning and individual achievement above all else. You may have your own version of a top five. Feel free to share in the comments section.

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.