The long history of successful two-sport athletes

Published 10:20 am Thursday, November 12, 2020

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Searching the archives of the Masters Golf Tournament has always been a study in fascination. The story of Georgian Sam Byrd is one which is a reminder that dual sports athletes on the professional level is nothing new.

We think about those who have succeeded in more than professional sport such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders and you conclude that these men possessed remarkable talents. Jackson, however, may have made the worst decision he could have possibly made. Established as a slugging outfielder who could hit for average with extraordinary power, blessed with base stealing speed and a powerful arm, why would he risk a Hall of Fame career by playing football? You can only imagine the anguish the Royals incurred when Bo couldn’t give up football.

Bo loved football too much not to sign with the Oakland Raiders when they offered him an attractive contract. You know the rest. A freak hip injury not only ended his football career, it also brought a conclusion to his baseball career.

Brian Jordan and Deion Sanders were successful at both football and baseball with the Braves and Falcons. Sanders playing for the Braves and Falcons but eventually stuck with football. Jordan chose baseball, enjoying success with the Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rangers. The most successful professional athlete at competing in two sports was Gene Conley, who won three NBA titles with the Celtics and a World Series ring with the Braves.

Charley Trippi was an exceptional athlete who was confident that he could have played major league baseball, but chose football, owing to a sensational contract of $100,000 in 1947 which was unheard of money for the times.

When asked if he ever considered a dual career such as the aforementioned, he said, “No. That would not have been fair to either team.”

Jim Thorpe, often recognized as the greatest athlete ever, was an Olympic champion who played both pro baseball football. He put up average numbers in the major leagues, forever having difficulty hitting the curve ball.

One of the most successful two-sport athletes which few know much about is Bremen-born Sam Byrd who played eight years in the big leagues and won eleven golf tournaments, six on the PGA tour. He played in five Masters tournaments and today would be a SportsCenter sensation. He would also be very rich.

Byrd was a fixture at the Masters from 1938 through 1951, playing in the tournament 14 times. His best finish came in 1941 and 1942, when he came in third and fourth respectively. He missed three cuts in all those years.

On the PGA tour, he was good enough to almost win the PGA championship back when the format was match play. He lost in the final of the ’45 PGA Championship to Byron Nelson, 4 and 3. That was the year Nelson won 18 times on the tour, 75 years ago. Time has subdued Byrd’s signature career—a man whose baseball career began with the Yankees May 11, 1929, and concluded Sept. 27, 1936, with the Cincinnati Reds. He became known as “Babe Ruth’s Legs” which had to do with Byrd taking over in the outfield in late innings and also seeing action as a pinch runner toward the end of Ruth’s career.

His record as an outfielder, playing for the powerful lineup of the dominant Yankees in one of their greatest years was noteworthy. His career batting average was .274 with 28 homeruns and 220 runs batted in. He won a World Series ring with the Yankees in 1932..0

What would his baseball and golfing skills be worth today if he spent eight years in the big leagues and could win six times on the PGA tour? Scott Boras would likely want him as a client. Lee Trevino would likely want to partner with him in friendly matches.

A forgotten competitor from the past, Byrd enjoyed a rich professional life and smelled the roses along the way.