Great athletes leave their marks on their respective sport by exceeding a level of excellence that is often unmatched by their peers. Some stand out individually, while others are able to elevate the play of their teammates. Whether it’s breaking records, having standout performances or winning numerous awards, any great athlete in any sport solidifies themselves as such by showing off a level of talent that separates them from other contenders.
That being said, there have been a number of talented Jewish athletes who’ve impacted each of their individual sports, respectively. From football to baseball to boxing, as well as a number of other sports, there are a multitude of Jewish athletes who’ve excelled at their individual sport and some have even shaped the rich history their respective field.
These are the 15 greatest Jewish athletes of all time.
15. Amy Alcott – LPGA
Amy Alcott was one the most successful female golfers to ever play the game. In 1975 she won the LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year Award. Throughout the course of her career Alcott won 29 LPGA Tours and totaled 33 professional wins by the end of her career. She was held out of the LPGA Hall of Fame until their judging criteria changed to a points-based one in 1999. After her career in golf had run its course, Alcott switched over to golf course design and is currently working as a member of the team designing the golf course for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
14. Barney Ross – Boxing
Apart from being a top notch boxing champ Barney Ross was also a decorated veteran of the Second World War. Ross boasts not one but three division championships, as a lightweight, light welterweight and welterweight champion. In his first 36 fights he went an astonishing 32-1-2, including a 10-fight winning streak to start off his promising career. During his last fight Ross famously took a pounding from another three-division champion, Henry Armstrong. Despite pleas from his trainers to pull out of the match Ross stayed in the ring, eventually losing to Armstrong by a decision in the 15th round. Throughout his career Ross was never knocked out and finished his career with 72 wins, 4 losses, 3 draws and 2 no decisions.
13. Marty Hogan – Racquetball
Mart Hogan’s racquetball career lasted 14 years and he was considered one of, if not the best to play the sport by the time he retired. In 1979 he won the Pro Racquetball Nationals, the Outdoor Racquetball Nationals and the Paddleball Nationals. He became the first player to ever win all three of those titles in the same year. By the end of his career Hogan had won over 100 international and national titles as well as six different US national championships, and gained notoriety as the first millionaire in the sport’s history.
12. Lenny Krayzelburg – Swimming
Lenny Krayzelburg moved to the US from the Ukraine at the age of 14 and by the age of 25 had become a four-time gold medal winner at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney. Krayzelburg competed in the backstroke at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, setting a couple of records during the 2000 games. In order to compete in the 2001 Maccabiah Games in Israel he skipped out on the Swimming World Championships in Japan. In doing so he fulfilled his childhood dream of visiting the holy land and had the opportunity to compete with fellow Jewish athletes, while representing the United States.
11. Benny Leonard – Boxing
Looking back on his storied career, Benny Leonard was certainly one of boxing’s all-time greats. In 2005, the International Boxing Research Organization listed Leonard as the best lightweight fighter of all time. After losing his first two matches against lightweight champion Freddie Welsh, Leonard finally beat Welsh in 1916 and claimed the title for himself. Over the course of his career Leonard had 183 wins, with 70 of those being wins by knock-out as compared to only 24 losses and 8 draws.
10. Ron Mix – Football
Coming out of USC, Ron Mix was a first round pick for the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in 1960 but instead chose the AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers who had also used a first round pick on him. Perhaps more impressive than his 6-foot, 5 270 pound frame entering the AFL was the fact that he’d only been called for holding twice by the time he’d left the sport in 1971. Mix played for the chargers for nine seasons and was voted to the AFL All-Star squad every year as a Charger. He was a huge part of the team’s success in the AFC West division during his early years and retired in 1972, being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
9. Benny Friedman – Football
A pioneer at quarterback and having played during the early days of pro football, Benny Friedman was considered by many to be the first great passer to play professional football. At Michigan Friedman played quarterback and placekicker, and also played a major role in the Wolverines’ defensive backfield. His NFL career started with the Cleveland Bulldogs in 1927. After a solid rookie season he went on to have an incredible sophomore campaign with the Detroit Wolverines. He led the NFL in passing touchdowns, rushing scores and extra points. He possibly led the league in several other categories but the NFL did not keep record of yardage stats in its early years. He went on to play a few more seasons with the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers before retiring in 1934 after a 7-year career. He was inducted into the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame in 1951 and 2005 respectively.
8. Max Baer – Boxing
Besides his career in the ring Max Baer also made a living off of television and movie roles in the 1930s. In his career Baer totalled 81 fights, winning an impressive 68 of those. What’s more impressive is that of his 68 wins, 52 were wins by knock-out. A heavyweight, Baer won one heavyweight championship in his career when he beat the massive Primo Carnera by technical knock-out and held the title for 364 days. Baer also acted in a number of films during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s totaling over twenty acting credits over his career.
7. Dolph Schayes – Basketball
Though he was drafted fourth overall by the New York Knicks in 1948, Dolph Schayes had his contract sold to the Syracuse Nationals, and spent his entire 16-year career with the Nationals and their successors the Philadelphia 76ers. Schayes was tall for his era standing at 6-foot-8, and was known as both an efficient rebounder and point scorer. By the end of his career he’d put up over 19,000 points and had over 11,000 rebounds. In 1955 he won his only NBA championship with the Nationals and was a perennial All-Star in 12 of his 16 seasons with the franchise. He retired in 1964 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
6. Hank Greenberg – Baseball
Hank Greenberg was one of the great sluggers of the 1930s and 40s and in 1938 tied Jimmie Foxx’s record for the most homeruns hit in one season behind only Babe Ruth with 58. Greenberg played the majority of his career with the Detroit Tigers where he was named a five-time All-Star and was part of two World Series championship teams. He was the home run champion for four separate years and ended his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. In 1956 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and had the incredible honour of having his number 5 retired by the Tigers.
5. Mark Spitz – Swimming
During the 1972 Summer Olympics Mark Spitz set a new record with a total of seven gold medals won. The record stood for 36 years until the 2008 Summer Olympics when Michael Phelps surpassed Spitz with eight gold medals. During the 1972 games, Spitz set new records in every category he participated in, a record unto itself which still stands today. Between 1968 and 1972, he won a total of eleven Olympic medals, nine gold, one silver and one bronze.
4. Al Rosen – Baseball
Al Rosen was known to be a proud member of the Jewish faith. There are several stories of Rosen being called anti-Semitic names by opposing players, to which his reaction would be to fight them on the spot. As a pro baseball player Rosen spent the entirety of his career with the Cleveland Indians. Finishing his nine-year career with 192 home runs, one AL MVP Award, and a World Series championship, he retired in 1956 as a four-time All-Star and his 1953 season is considered to be one of the greatest ever by a third baseman.
3. Dara Torres – Swimming
Dara Torres has the distinct honour of being the first and only swimmer from the US to compete in five Olympic Games. In each of the 5 games she participated in, Torres has won at least one medal, making her one of only a handful of Olympians to have this honour. Over the course of her decorated career – spanning over twenty years – Torres has won twelve Olympic medals, four gold, four silver and four bronze. At the age of 41 she participated in her fifth Olympic games, a first for any American female athlete over 40, and won three silver medals before finally calling it quits.
2. Sid Luckman – Football
Coming out of Columbia University as a tailback, Sid Luckman was the second overall selection in the 1939 NFL Draft and was tasked with helping a struggling Chicago Bears franchise. Luckman was well known for his big arm and proficiency in the now defunct T-formation. During his eleven-year tenure in Chicago Luckman was a five-time All-Pro and lead the Bears to four NFL championships. He lead the league in touchdown passes three separate years and is tied with several other NFL greats for most touchdown passes in a single game with seven.
1. Sandy Koufax – Baseball
Sandy Koufax was one of Baseball’s biggest stars but was forced to retire at the age of 30 when he developed arthritis in his left elbow. He was one of the few lefties in the game and debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955. That same year Koufax won one of four World Series titles he’d claim with the Dodgers, including the famous 1965 World Series when he refused to pitch Game 1 since it fell on Yom Kippur. He was the first major league pitcher to pitch four no hitters and despite the fact that his career lasted a little over a decade, retired with 2,396 strikeouts which was good enough for seventh all-time. At the age of 36 Sandy Koufax became the youngest player to ever be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.