Is it Walter Johnson, Sammy Baugh, Wes Unseld, and Alexander Ovechkin as the Mt. Rushmore of DC athletes? Do we do the right thing and add the greatest D.C. athlete, Katie Ledecky, who is probably the greatest female swimmer ever? There are so many questions to ask and answer. And what about Sugar Ray Leonard who was a great boxer or athletes who grew up in Washington and played elsewhere? Ledecky, Leonard, Maury Wills, and Elgin Baylor never really played in D.C. although they all grew up in the area. Nobody will ever agree on who the greatest athletes are from D.C. and maybe it is best to look at the team sport athletes for the Mt. Rushmore who actually played long stretches of their careers in D.C. We have Max Scherzer with five years of tenure as a D.C. athlete, and he has to be the best baseball player since Walter Johnson who donned the W on a baseball cap. But is five years enough?
Recency bias will say you have to win a D.C. championship to even qualify as the greatest athlete which certainly supports the case for the Nats and Capitals. That probably will keep Bryce Harper from that list, and when his career ends — those seven years wearing the Curly W will be a footnote on what could be a Hall of Fame career. Rushmore candidates usually matter in how they finished and not necessarily how they started. It makes a great case for Scherzer, but he doesn’t have the stats to overtake Walter Johnson. Scherzer’s D.C. script is not completed and the same for Stephen Strasburg. Do you go with Darrell Green as a Redskins star with 19 years in Washington over Sammy Baugh? Some would say John Riggins is a great comp to Scherzer as Riggo went from the Jets to the Redskins and brought a Super Bowl championship to Washington.
Speaking of recency bias, there is Mr. National aka Ryan Zimmerman aka the Face of the Franchise and Mr. Walk-off. His career in D.C. is nearly as long as Green’s. Zim actually grew up in a state that borders Washington, D.C., and he went to college at the University of Virginia and has lived in the D.C. suburbs since the day he was called up in September of 2005. Zim has been a two-time All-Star and now a World Series champ. His career was headed for greatness but derailed by injuries, and that will keep him from baseball’s Hall of Fame. But he will be in the Nats Park exclusive Ring of Honor and casted for a statue down the road for placement at Nationals Park. He has to be in the Top-10 DC athletes, but will fall short of the Rushmore.
Last year, NBC Sports Washington did a Top-10 of DC athletes in their “Ranking the 10 greatest Washington D.C. athletes of all time” and the best D.C. baseball player in their Top-10 was nobody. They put in Cal Ripken Jr. if you want a good laugh, and they placed him at No. 4. Who was doing their selections? Their criteria and thoughts were:
“With the Capitals finally hoisting the Stanley Cup, Alex Ovechkin has shaken up the pantheon of Washington D.C. sports legends. His rise up the list prompted us to re-evaluate the greatest D.C. athletes of all time, based upon overall ability, longevity, and meaning to the city.”
How does Ripken have great meaning to this city? While Ovechkin is in our Rushmore, we are not going to include Ripken. The debate is on Unseld, who like Ripken played in Baltimore in the days when Washington, D.C. had no NBA team or a baseball team. So yes, many D.C. fans cheered on Ripken and Unseld for their entire careers while those were the closest teams to cheer for, and of course Unseld actually played for a team associated with Washington.
Do we have to include a D.C. basketball player in the Rushmore? Does Wes Unseld qualify? He played in Baltimore as well as in Washington as the best Bullets player ever. Unseld had 8 years in D.C. (Largo, Maryland) and 5 years in Baltimore. He has that 1978 NBA Championship to his credit as a Washington Bullet — the only time the D.C. basketball team has won a championship. His hardware includes the NBA MVP in 1969 and 5 All-Star selections and he was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. With that NBA Championship, he is just a click better in the “Where’s My Ring” accomplishments than Bryce Harper who also boasts an MVP and one more All-Star selection at six and his career is far from over. Harper just won’t be doing it for Washington in the future. Unseld is in our Top-10 D.C. players but not in the Rushmore.
Slingin’ Sammy Baugh quarterbacked the Redskins for 16 years and brought the city two football championships before they were known as Super Bowls in 1937, his rookie season, and 1942. He was also the QB who revolutionized the position as a pass first position, and he held passing records for decades. He was the Walter Johnson of throwers and amassed 21,886 yards. Baugh was also an accomplished baseball player signed by the Cardinals as a pitcher and ultimately chose football over baseball and was the Redskins quarterback and punter. He was an All-Team first or second team selection all but two years in his career. “Slingin’ Sammy” was part of the NFL’s first Hall of Fame class, in 1963.
The Big Train aka Walter Johnson was the greatest baseball player in Washington, D.C. He made his home in Montgomery County Maryland and raised his family there. He has two MVP’s to his name long before the Cy Young award was first given out in 1956. If there was a Pitcher of the Year award back then he might have won 10 to 12 of them since he was so dominent. His accumulated WAR was 164.3 according to BBRef. His 417 career victories are second only to Cy Young’s 511. Johnson had eleven 20-win seasons and 110 career shutouts and 3,509 strikeouts back when batters never K’d 100 times in a season.
For Ovechkin, he will probably be one of the Top-5 hockey players ever when his career ends. He has spent his whole career in Washington, D.C. and arrived on the scene months after Zimmerman. Before the world came to a halt with COVID-19, Ovie was already at 706 career goals and that put him in 8th place in hockey history and within 188 of the Great One (Wayne Gretzky). Ovechkin has 3 MVP (Hart) Trophies, and a dozen All-Star selections and was an integral part of the Capitals first Stanley Cup championship team in 2018.
10. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals
9. John Riggins, Washington Redskins
8. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
7. Wes Unseld, Washington Bullets
6. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
5. Darrell Green, Washington Redskins
The Rushmore athletes:
4. Sammy Baugh, Washington Redskins
3. Walter Johnson, Washington Senators
2. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Let’s not give up the number one spot yet. That seems destined for Juan Soto if he stays in the Nation’s capital. He has a chance to be one of the Top-10 greatest baseball players ever given what he accomplished already as a teenager, 20 year old and as a World Champ during the week he turned 21. If this season was not halted, he had a real shot to challenge for the most home runs ever accumulated by a 21 year old. It won’t happen now, but he is headed towards greatness at level far above the great things he has already accomplished.