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CHGO Ranks: The Top 25 all-time athletes in Chicago sports history

CHGO Staff Avatar
August 31, 2023

Who are the Chicago athletes that we’ll remember forever?

Though our rafters aren’t packed with banners, we’ve been blessed with a surplus of standouts when it comes to the fields, diamonds, courts and rinks in Chicago. We can lay claim to the arguable greatest of all time in any sport and our lone Super Bowl champion featured five Hall of Fame players with a sixth on the way. That’s not even mentioning all of the Hall of Fame-bound Blackhawks who helped the team to three Stanley Cup titles in the last 13 years or the quartet of Cubs who led the team during the 60s and 70s.

While ranking the top 25 all-time Chicago athletes is an impossible task, we decided to go ahead and try anyway. There weren’t a lot of hard and fast rules, but we did limit it to pro athletes. Championships mattered. Numbers mattered. Cultural impact mattered.

We’ll be releasing the names of five athletes per day with the top five being unveiled on Friday, September 1. And while we’re pretty sure you’ll be able to guess who’s atop the list, the journey to No. 1 is going to be a fun one as we debate our picks on social media. Make sure you’re locked into our Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts for more CHGO Ranks content this week!

Now onto the Top 25 all-time athletes in Chicago sports history!

25. Candace Parker

As we’ll see later in CHGO Top 25 all-time athletes, being a hometown hero can matter. The bulk of Candace Parker’s WNBA success came in Los Angeles with the Naperville native winning two league MVPs (2008, 2013) and a ring with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016. But here’s why she’s on this list: When she signed with the Sky as a free agent before the 2021 season, it was because she was viewed as the missing piece to a potential title run. Parker responded by returning home and immediately helping the franchise to its first-ever world championship. Parker’s incomparable stature in the history of Illinois high school hoops cements her spot on this list.

24. Richard Dent

An eighth-round draft pick in the legendary 1983 Bears draft, the Sack Man showed up in Chicago and made it his mission to smother as many quarterbacks as possible. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 137.5 sacks with 17.5 of them coming during a then-record 1984 season and another 17 during the 1985 Super Bowl year. Over a 10-year period from 1984-1993, Dent recorded at least 10 sacks in eight of them. He remains the only Super Bowl MVP in Chicago history.

🎧 Listen: Richard Dent on the CHGO Bears Podcast

23. Dan Hampton

The fourth overall selection in the 1979 draft, Dan Hampton was there from beginning to end as the Chicago Bears’ defense rose to prominence in the 1980s. He was also one of the biggest — if not the biggest — reasons for its success as the double teams he drew consistently opened opportunities for his teammates. All of Hampton’s 12 NFL seasons came in a Chicago Bears uniform and he earned All-Pro first- or second-team status in six of them. And while it’s crazy to imagine that “Danimal” could’ve been any better, the 10 knee surgeries that he endured introduce a slight “what-if?” element to his career.

22. Tony Esposito

There have been a lot of great netminders to stand between the pipes at Chicago Stadium and the United Center, but no one did it as well — or for as long — as the great “Tony O.” Esposito was a true NHL pioneer with his butterfly style putting him near the top of the list for the NHL’s greatest goaltenders ever. He won the Calder Trophy for the league’s best rookie after the Hawks swiped him from Montreal and then picked up three Vezina trophies over his career as well. He later made new generations of fans as a Blackhawks ambassador with his gentlemanly style making him a fan favorite during the Blackhawks dynasty era.

21. Ron Santo

Few Chicago athletes were as beloved as Santo, who manned the hot corner at Wrigley Field for 14 seasons and the broadcast booth for another 20. While the Hall of Fame shamefully overlooked him until after his death in 2010, Chicagoans knew just how valuable of a third baseman he was, making the All-Star team nine times and laying claim to five Gold Gloves. He also hit 342 career homers and hit .300 with more than 30 homers in four different seasons. Santo did all of this while battling diabetes and his work raising money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation was unparalleled. While Ernie Banks will forever be known as “Mr. Cub,” no one quite lived and died for the team like Ron Santo.

20. Minnie Minoso

The period between the 1919 Black Sox and the 2005 World Series team was largely fallow, but one of the true bright spots in the franchise’s history has been Minnie Minoso. The native Cuban was a perennial All-Star outfielder for the White Sox in the ‘50s and ‘60s, renowned for his all-around play in both the field and at the plate. A trailblazer in every sense of the word, Minoso was the first Afro-Latino player in Major League Baseball player. He was not only the first Black player in White Sox history, but the first in a long line of star Cuban players to excel at the corner of 35th and Shields. He remained an excellent ambassador for the game long after his career and was posthumously recognized by Cooperstown with induction in 2022.

19. Derrick Rose

Two Chicago Bulls players have won the NBA MVP award. One is Michael Jordan. The other is Derrick Rose, who in 2011 became the youngest player in league history to win the award at 22. While Rose’s impact on Chicago may be lost on future generations, the Simeon product was a force of nature for his first three seasons, playing an electrifying brand of basketball and leading the Bulls franchise out of its prolonged post-Jordan funk. While his heartbreaking knee injury in the 2012 playoffs will always lead any description of his career, the fact remains is that only one Chicago basketball player ever eclipsed what Rose did in his first three seasons and you’re going to find him at the top of this list.

18. Billy Williams

Spending all but two of his 18 seasons on the North Side, Billy Williams earned his “Sweet Swingin’ Billy from Whistler” nickname by swatting 462 career home runs. His 392 homers with the Cubs are the third-most in franchise history (behind a couple of sluggers who may show up on the list later this week). A six-time All-Star, a two-time NL MVP runner-up and the 1961 NL Rookie of the Year, Williams was a mainstay on the late ‘60s-early ‘70s Cubs that put together six straight winning seasons for the first time since the ‘30s. Williams still shows up around Wrigley Field, helping everyone remember a true Cubs legend.

17. Devin Hester

While this list is full of dominant athletes, how many could flip the entire course of a game in less than 10 seconds? How many started the biggest event on the planet with a 92-yard kickoff return after a week of the opposing coach saying he wouldn’t think of kicking to him? While Hester never made a true impact at wide receiver, there’s no denying he was one of the most dangerous weapon that a Chicago team has ever had at its disposal and his 20 career touchdown returns are proof positive of that. It’s only a matter of time before his bust is resting at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

16. Ferguson Jenkins

While others have arguments, the greatest pitcher in Cubs history is Jenkins. Even Pat Hughes said it himself at Jenkins’ statue dedication last year. In his 10 seasons on the North Side, here’s some of what he accomplished: 53.6 Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs, most by a pitcher in franchise history), 2,038 strikeouts (most), 2,673.2 innings (third-most), 29 shutouts (fourth-most), 167 wins (fifth-most), three All-Star selections and the 1971 NL Cy Young Award. That’s not to mention the fact the he even played for the Harlem Globetrotters for a few years in the ‘60s. Getting his statue at Wrigley Field was long overdue, but Jenkins is in the upper echelon of Chicago athletes.

15. Duncan Keith

Chicago loves its defenders and it didn’t take long for the city to fall in love with Duncan Keith. Though Keith loved to avoid the spotlight in the dressing room, he never hid on the ice and ate a mountain of minutes each night while serving as the team’s unstoppable motor. His return in Game 4 of the 2010 Western Conference Finals after losing his front teeth was the stuff tall tales are made of and he was the biggest reason the team won its third Stanley Cup in 2015. A two-time Norris Trophy winner, Keith stands alone in a franchise that has had its fair share of excellent d-men.

14. Brian Urlacher

It’s been 38 years (and counting) since the Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XX. Is there any doubt that the best player in all of these long years in between was No. 54? Urlacher was drafted out of New Mexico in 2000 and immediately became a game-wrecker by winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The linchpin of Lovie Smith’s vaunted Cover 2 defense, Urlacher also won the 2005 Defensive Player of the Year award and led the defense to the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance. A Bear from the beginning of his career to the end, Urlacher was an eight-time Pro Bowl and a four-time first-team All-Pro.

13. Ryne Sandberg

The Cubs acquired Sandberg from the Phillies before the 1982 season, and the trade is now considered both one of the best in the former’s history and one of the worst in the latter’s. In his 15 seasons with the Cubs, Sandberg earned 10 All-Star nods. His nine Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers — both the most of any player from either Chicago baseball team — solidified him as a two-way star. His 1984 season, which included not-soon-to-be-forgotten “The Sandberg Game” and earned him the NL MVP, led the way as the Cubs reached the postseason for the first time since their 1945 World Series appearance. One of the most celebrated players in franchise history, the Hall of Famer is one of the biggest stars in Chicago sports history.

12. Bobby Hull

Until Michael Jordan came along, no one in Chicago Stadium history quite made the crowd rise to its feet like the Golden Jet. An unparalleled goal score, Hull recorded the first 50-goal season in NHL history and seeing him go end-to-end with the puck was a sight to behold. Hull led the league in scoring on three different occasions, won two league MVPs and 604 of his 610 NHL goals came while wearing a Blackhawks sweater. While Hull made an effort to positively connect with many fans off the ice, serious allegations of domestic violence in his personal life damaged his reputation with many other Chicagoans.

11. Sammy Sosa

Few Chicago athletes captivated the city — and, frankly, the entire country — like Sosa. From 1993-2004 (spanning 12 of his 13 years with the Cubs), nobody hit more home runs than Sosa’s 537 or had more RBIs than his 1,389. “Slammin’ Sammy” hit 66 homers in 1998, trailing only Mark McGwire’s 70 in the race to set the single-season record, and he won that year’s NL MVP. Sosa went on to slug 63 in ’99 and 64 in ’01, giving him the most 60-plus home run seasons in MLB, period, and his 609 career homers (including 545 with the Cubs) rank ninth all-time. He also earned seven All-Star nods and six Silver Sluggers and played a major role on the ’03 team that nearly ended the then 58-year pennant drought. The end of Sosa’s Cubs career and PED allegations damaged his relationship with the organization, but the mark he left is undeniable.

10. Stan Mikita

Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith may have led the Blackhawks to a dynasty, but no one represented the franchise longer or better than the late Stan Mikita. Playing all 22 of his seasons in Chicago, Mikita scored 541 goals and notched 926 assists while winning two Hart Trophies for league MVP and four Ross Trophies for the scoring lead. Mikita was named to the NHL’s 100th anniversary team and will always remain the standard when it comes to humble superstars in Chicago.

9. Dick Butkus

Look up “old-time football” in the dictionary and you’re likely to find a picture of the entire Green Bay Packers line trying — and failing — to stop Dick Butkus. While the Bears have featured a long line of all-time great linebackers, Butkus still manages to stand alone for his ferocity and talent while playing for his hometown Bears. The Chicago Vocational and University of Illinois product won two Defensive Player of the Year awards (1969 and 1970) and he was named first-team All-Pro in more than half of his seasons. He was also named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary all-time team and has remained in the sport’s popular imagination for over 60 years.

8. Gale Sayers

Younger Chicagoans had Derrick Rose as their what-if story. Older Chicagoans have the great Gale Sayers. Had he remained healthy, it’s very possible Sayers would be even higher on this list. As it were, he put together a Hall of Fame career that left him among the greatest to ever carry the football. In just seven seasons, Sayers was named first-team All-Pro in five of them. He also led the league in rushing twice and set an NFL record with six touchdowns in one game against the 49ers at Wrigley Field. THE NFL’s rookie of the year in 1965, he was also named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary all-time team in 1965.

7. Scottie Pippen

Is Pippen too low here at No. 7? You can certainly make the argument. The Robin to MJ’s Jordan — and oft upset at that comparison — Pippen was the only other Bull to collect six rings during the ’90s. “Pip” was a two-way player who could play most any spot on the floor, long before that became the norm with the NBA’s top players. Though Pippen never won big without Jordan, the same can be for the reverse. Pippen was a member of the NBA’s Top 50 team in 1996 and of course made the Top 75 team in 2021. Staying on the bench during Toni Kukoc’s gamewinner in 1994 hurts his cause a little, as does his recent run of jealous gripes toward Jordan. There’s still no question we would love to get back in a time machine and watch Pippen show everyone how it was done.

6. Jonathan Toews

Toews set the standard for leadership in Chicago and left the Blackhawks last spring as the longest-tenured captain in franchise history. He was also an absolute force on the ice, playing a two-way game that set the standard and tone for his Stanley Cup-winning teammates. He won the Conn Smythe in 2010 as the team won its first Cup in 49 years and was given the Selke Trophy as the game’s best two-way forward during another Cup-winning year in 2013. He finished his Hawks career with 372 goals and 511 assists. It’s only a matter of time until his No. 19 reaches the United Center rafters and he’s given a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

5. Patrick Kane

The Blackhawks organization has been so loaded with great players that it’s hard to pick someone to be at the stop. You could make a great case for Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita or Jonathan Toews. But at the end of the day, the distinction lies with Kane, the greatest American-born player in NHL history and also the most physically gifted of the four. Though small in stature, Kane fulfilled the promise that he brought as the top pick in the 2007 NHL draft. He played 16 seasons with the Blackhawks, scoring 446 goals and 779 assists while filling his trophy shelf with three Stanley Cups, a 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy and the 2016 Hart Trophy. Oh yeah, he also scored the overtime goal that broke the Hawks’ 49-year Stanley Cup drought and landed on the NHL’s 100th anniversary team a few years later. A unique player with a surplus of talent, drive and confidence, we’re not likely to ever forget watching Kane play.

4. Ernie Banks

It’s only right that Banks is the top Cub on this list. He was first black Cubs player, the first player to have his number retired by the franchise and a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1977. Throughout his 19-year career (all with the Cubs), Banks earned 14 All-Star nods, a Gold Glove in 1960 and back-to-back NL MVPs in 1958 and ’59. His 512 career home runs are tied for the 23rd-most of all time and he’s among only 28 players to join the 500-homer club. Banks’ squads didn’t experience much success — he actually holds the major league record for most games played without a postseason appearance at 2,528 — but he never lost his love for the game. His “Let’s play two!” attitude is the ultimate example of that. Despite his career ending over 50 years ago, there will forever be only one “Mr. Cub,” and he deserves a spot among the all-time great Chicago athletes.

3. Frank Thomas

Want to pick your jaw up off the ground? Go take a look at Frank Thomas’ Baseball-Reference page. The Big Hurt was an absolute terror for pitchers in the ’90s, looming over curve balls and hung sliders like the football player on the loose that he was. Thomas hit 521 homers in his career and retired with a .301 career average to take his rightful spot as one of the greatest right-handed hitters in history. He also did it the right way, slugging with power and never getting tied up into any of the steroid use allegations that plagued his era. He won the AL MVP award in 1993 and 1994 and should have won it in 2000 ahead of Jason Giambi. Thomas was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.

2. Walter Payton

If this were a list of the most beloved athletes in Chicago sports history, Sweetness would take the top spot. Even though it’s been almost 25 years since his death, Walter Payton remains such a large presence on the Chicago sports scene that it’s still hard to believe he’s gone. Payton first joined the Bears in 1977 and was often the only reason to tune into some bad Bears teams as he piled up yard after yard against overmatched defenses. Payton ran his way to the NFL career rushing record with a humble approach, simply tossing the ball to officials after touchdowns and treating his teammates with respect. The epitome of what a football player should be, Payton is an inner ring NFL Hall of Famer and the greatest Chicago Bear of all time.

1. Michael Jordan

Did you really expect anyone else? The GOAT would top many greatest athlete lists not limited to our immediate geographical area and there’s probably no chance we’ll ever see anyone like him again. While we had to share him with the rest of the world, only one city can say they had a front-row seat to the legends that MJ wrote on a nightly basis at the Chicago Stadium and United Center. We were truly blessed for those 13 seasons with Michael Jordan and have the six rings to prove it. Now excuse us while we go watch The Last Dance for another time.

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