You can observe a lot by just watching.
— Yogi Berra
Of the multifarious experiences into which I’ve blundered during a lifetime of unbridled optimism and bemusement, one of the top five must easily be my tenure as a docent at the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey. During the growth years of my son the sports freak, and with the then-new museum but a mile from home, it was just natural to sign on as a team and help out around the pile of MVP trophies, World Series rings, and fun memorabilia and video exhibitions as the place matured and became really interesting. And of course, we really did see Yogi and Carmen (his magnificent wife) quite a bit, along with their Yankee buddies and local notables like Larry Doby, one of the White Sox heroes of my youth and recipient of a Princeton honorary degree in 1998, 50 years after he became the first black player in the American League. When you see Jackie Robinson’s number 42 displayed in honor at every major league ballpark, you see Larry Doby too.
The point is that, since somebody with the transcendent reputation of a Yogi Berra can’t possibly be all the things that were written and mythologized, it was a true shock to find out that, if anything, Yogi’s image didn’t do the man justice. He loved human beings, he loved life, he adored his family, he really did say most of the things he said, and I always had the vague feeling he thought the hundreds of millions of people who admired him had somehow all bought tickets to the wrong movie at the Cineplex, and were cheering him to cover their own confusion at the mistake. That sense of wonder made him hyperreal, the rare legend that exceeds his billing.
There are such people in the real world, of course, but when we find them, I’m not sure we really know what to do. “Properly acknowledging” a Jimmy Stewart ’32, a Mother Teresa, or an Albert Einstein doesn’t even sound right as a phrase, much less give you a clue about how to pull it off.
So we make lists.
I’ve periodically complimented the editorial oligarchy of this, Your Favorite Periodical, on one of their most courageous efforts, the evaluation of the 25 Most Influential Princeton Alumni of all time, nine years ago. Very well researched and considered by a group of scholars who really took it seriously, it varied from Alan Turing *38 to Wendy Kopp ’89 to John Bogle ’51 and touched off the lively discussion you’d expect, which is of course the principal editorial reason to not venture into such hazardous comparisons to begin with, if you value your job and/or sanity. Anyway, it turned out really well, and it may be time soon to try it again, to see if – for example – any of our three current Supreme Court justices or perhaps Fargo’s Ethan Coen ’79 may mount an attack on Jeff Bezos ’86, Laurance Rockefeller ’32, or George Kennan ’25. Whoa.
As intrepid as they may have been in this, however, our thoughtful editors have never taken the next step toward the precipice and dared to choose the best Princeton athletes of all time. Close your eyes for a second, imagine the three most rabid sports freaks in your class arguing over the Princeton offense, the brand of artificial turf in the field hockey stadium, or the relative impact of the Ivy League’s AI policy (Academic Index, not artificial intelligence; if you have to ask, you really don’t want to know) and you see where this might lead. In this day and age it is much easier to coordinate a publication remotely, but still, moving the entire staff from Nassau Street to Guam would involve some significant relocation costs, not to mention the added food tasters.
Fortunately, where self-preservation has raised its ugly head in the adult world, the students have gleefully hopped into the vacuum. The year prior to PAW’s alumni list, the intrepid undergraduate sports staff of the Prince took a stab at the 20 Best Princeton Athletes of All Time (see list below). It was, like the PAW’s list, handled quite fastidiously, even to the point of including Robert Garrett 1897, gold medalist at the first modern Olympics in 1896, who became legend in part by winning the discus gold medal the first time he ever threw one. And I don’t believe I recall any of the Prince editors consequently being sent to Gitmo or relocating to Bora Bora. However, if this had been in PAW, all the alums who are convinced that men were better-looking, women were stronger (my apologies to Garrison Keillor), and cagers were cagier when they were on campus would have been all over the corridors filibustering for their beloved classmate, Pinky von Volksblatt ’27 and his memorable 88-yard reverse in the teeth of the Tsunami of the Tsentury. Just remember those three folks from your class. Trust me, this battle would have been far worse than James Madison 1771 vs. John Bardeen *36 vs. Scott Fitzgerald 1917 because when the prize is less substantive, the competitive intensity increases inversely.
There would be general unanimity about the top two spots: Sullivan Award winner Bill Bradley ’65 and Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier ’52 have pretty much wrapped up the conversation, to the point of having their coincidentally joint uniform number 42 permanently retired for all Princeton sports. Even the marvelous Yasser El Halaby ’06 and his four individual intercollegiate squash championships finish an honorable third to the two mid-century heroes, who may not be Yogi Berra or Larry Doby, but are certainly comfortable standing right next to them in the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame.
TALK BACK: Who ranks in your top 5 for the greatest Tiger athletes of all time? Share your views in the comments section
But beyond that, even on a dispassionate level, the potential honest disagreements are unavoidable. Despite Garrett and Lynn Jennings ’83 representing track and field on the list, how can you leave off Bill Bonthron ’34, who held the world 1,500-meter record for two years? Where’s All-American and Major League Soccer champ Jessie Marsch ’96? If multi-sport Chris Young ’02 makes it and you include only one other men’s basketball player besides Bradley, is it Geoff Petrie ’70, John Hummer ’70, or Brian Taylor ’84? Taking Kazmaier and Hobey Baker 1914 as givens, is the third football player Keith Elias ’94 or Cosmo Iacavazzi ’65? And it’s gotten even more intense since 2006: What about NCAA champs/Olympians Kathleen Sharkey ’13, Katie Reinprecht ’13, and Julia Reinprecht ’14 of field hockey; rowers Caroline Lind ’06 and Gevvie Stone ’07; or steeplechaser Donn Cabral ’12? Three-time All-American and Major League Lacrosse MVP Tom Schreiber ’14? Undefeated-season women’s basketball captain Blake Dietrick ’15? … The list goes on from there.
Fifty years after Bradley finished with 58 points against Wichita State in the NCAA Final Four, there’s a new wrinkle. Women’s water polo goalie Ashleigh Johnson ’17, in three collegiate seasons and one full year away with the U.S. national team, has rewritten a whole pile of records, adjectives, and opponents’ game plans. Her domination on the defensive end at the 2016 Olympics helped the United States earn a gold medal (the Americans trailed for only 44 seconds in the entire tournament). It’s just another step in her dominance of her sport, following a 2015 international season in which she was named the women’s world MVP.
It may depend in part on Johnson’s future achievements, but the debate is already staring us in the face: In Tiger sports history, is she the new No. 3? Kazmaier chose not to play after college, so perhaps she’s really the new No. 2? Bradley, like Johnson, has a gold medal as captain of the 1964 U.S. Olympic basketball team, and two NBA championship rings to boot, but she already has two world championships. What would it take to match him?
As you chew on this, for heaven’s sake set aside some time next spring to go to DeNunzio Pool and see the Tiger women, with Johnson leading the way from behind, trying to best their own NCAA fifth-place finish of 2014. For a Tiger sports fan, it’s your chance of a lifetime. To the degree that, in a bit of instant rethink, perhaps Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux ’91 and Bill Bradley would ask Johnson if she’d like to wear the number 42 on her cap during her senior season (yes, I know it’s illegal — for some reason, the NCAA requires goalies to wear “1”).
I’ll bet Dick Kazmaier (whose daughter Patty ’86 was such a fine Tiger hockey player) would have been pleased, and Yogi might have even chimed in that Jackie Robinson wouldn’t mind his 42 being unretired for the season, since it’s so popular nobody uses it anymore.
One point of view...
THE TOP 20 PRINCETON ATHLETES OF ALL TIME
As selected by The Daily Princetonian, December 2006
- Bill Bradley ’65 (men’s basketball)
- Dick Kazmaier ’52 (football)
- Yasser el-Halaby ’06 (men’s squash)
- Hobey Baker 1914 (football, men’s hockey)
- Chris Young ’02 (baseball, men’s basketball)
- Lynn Jennings ’83 (women’s distance running)
- Emily Goodfellow ’76 (field hockey, women’s squash, women’s lacrosse)
- Robert Garrett 1897 (men’s track and field)
- Nelson Diebel ’96 (men’s swimming)
- Wendy Zaharko ’74 (women’s squash)
- Jesse Hubbard ’98 (men’s lacrosse)
- Kelly O’Dell ’84 (women’s soccer, women’s hockey)
- Jed Graef ’64 (men’s swimming)
- Esmeralda Negron ’05 (women’s soccer)
- Theresa Sherry ’04 (women’s soccer, women’s lacrosse)
- Geoff Petrie ’70 (men’s basketball)
- Ryan Boyle ’04 (men’s lacrosse)
- Chris Ahrens ’98 (men’s rowing)
- Kirsty Hale ’99 (field hockey)
- Keith Elias ’94 (football)