Kansas’s Greatest Athletes of All-Time

As Kansas celebrates its 150th anniversary numerous lists have been posted.  I have enjoyed reading and discussing many of these lists of notable   listing the accomplishments of many notable  Kansans. The Topeka Capitol Journal has recently published its list of the best athletes from Shawnee County.  In that spirit  I thought it would be fun to blog a bit about who I consider the greatest athletes the Sunflower State has produced. My selection process is totally my opinion and you may not agree with these choices.  In choosing these performers I named only athletes who were born in the state of Kansas.

In football there have been players like John Riggins from Centralia , Nolan Cromwell from Ransom,  Darren Sproles  from Olathe, Terrence Newman from Salina, Jon McGraw and Jody Nelson from Riley County.  Quarterbacks Lynn Dickey from Osawatomie, David Jaynes from Bonner Springs and Steve Grogan from Ottawa.  From the city of Wichita, came the Kansas Comet– Gale Sayers. .All are great names and all went on to have great careers.  For my money the greatest football player Kansas has ever produced is Wichita’s Barry Sanders. Among Sanders  accomplishments were the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner, while playing for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.  His pro career included being named  a 10 time All Pro running back for the Detroit Lions.

In the sport of baseball, the list isn’t quite as impressive.  Still the list includes Steve Renko from Kansas City Kansas.   Bill Russell from Pittsburg, and Tony Clark from Newton and Mike Torrez of Topeka.  Making great contributions as managers were Ralph Houk of Lawrence, and Gene Mauch of Salina.   There is one name which stands out above them all Walter Johnson, from Humboldt Kansas. The “BigTrain” won  417  games, struck out over 3,500 batters.  He is still second only to Cy Young win total, and his strike out record lasted until the 1980’s.  Johnsons’ career spanned 19 years for the Washington Senators.  Johnson capped his career by being in the original class of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Perhaps no other sport in Kansas has as much tradition and emotional attachment as the game of basketball.  Darnell Valentine , Lynette Woodard and Antoine Carr were products of the Wichita high schools.  Wayne Simeon of Leavenworth, and  Kendra  Wecker of Marysville won Big 12 Player of the Year Awards their senior years.  Small Kansas towns produced Steve Henson, Nichole Ohlde and Jackie Stiles.  The Kansas City area produced players like Eddie Nealy , Larry Drew and Earl Watson. It may be a glaring mistake not to include Danny Manning to this list, but I only wanted to name Kansas born stars.  So  my choice as the greatest player the state of Kansas has ever produced is Lucius Allen from KCK’s Wyandotte High School.  Allen was a part of two National Championships at UCLA, this team is considered by many to be the best NCAA team of all time.  Allen was an  1968 All American. Drafted as the  third overall pick in the 1969 NBA draft, his 10 year pro career was highlighted by winning a NBA Championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971.

In other sports you can find excellent choices as well.  Boxer Jess Willard, who defeated the Jack Johnson for the heavyweight title  was born on a farm in Pottawatomie County.   Auto racing can claim Clint Bowyer from Emporia.  Track and field has produced  Olympic athletes  Glenn Cunningham, Wes Santee, Jim Ryun and Maurice Green. Jim Ryun was named by ESPN.com the number one  High School athlete of all time. At the peak of his career Maurice Green was  a 5 time world record holder.

These are just my opinion.  I saw a few of these people perform and some were dead before I was born.  You may agree with me and you may not.  One thing is for sure the state of Kansas has produced many outstanding athletes.

By the way did you know that the Shawnee County Sports Hall of Fame is housed in the Topeka and Shawnee County Library.  Stop by and take a look at the best of the best from Topeka and Shawnee County.

  • Ralph Sandmeyer

    I find it incredible to NOT have Ken Berry in your article.(Alan Kent Berry -born in KC, and raised in Topeka). I played baseball with both Ken Berry and Mike Torrez, in my youth in Topeka. Have you ever heard of Ken Berry’s baseball league in Topeka, for the past 30 years ?

    Here’s some facts – Only one player ever lettered in Baseball, football, basketball, and track all 4 high school years at Washburn Rural. Ken played baseball at Wichita State, and in 1962 started at Centerfield for the Chicago White Socks. He won a place on the All Star team in 1967, Won a Gold Glove award twice in the 70’s. Holds the Major lleague record for making 531 plays on the ball without an error, about 1970 – 72 when he was with the California Angels, and finished up his last 3years of a 14 year career with the Braves. His defensive numbers are better than Willie Mays, but not quite as good as Carl Yastremski.

    No one had the speed, or the power to tackle Ken Berry without help. No one could compete in several track events, or play all three fields in baseball. Few rivaled him in basketball, and one one or two men could catch fly balls like Ken. Someone even wrote a book about Ken climbing the centerfiel walls and robbing many a player of a homerun. His nickname was “The Bandit”.

    I’m from Topeka, and I was actually selected to play on Topeka’s bid to pitch in Babe Ruth league in the summer of 1960, and Mike Torrez was in that league. My employer lied to me and sent me to Louisiana, and I missed the baseball championship. Then less than 2 weeks later in football practice on labor Day,I got in a blocking contest and I broke my wrist on my throwing hand on the ulna joint, and my pitching career was over.

    Yes Mike Torrez was a great pitcher with 17 years in the majors, but he did not accell in other sports. Ken Berry also happens to be one of the nicest people I’ve met in my 67 years. I’m proud to say I knew him and went to Gage School with him.

  • Dave Coleman

    Sir you make a good point on Ken Berry. It was a pretty obvious ommission. Thanks for your comments. Ken Berry is a class act and was a great ballplayer and has contributed much to our community. In fact after I posted my blog I thought of a few others I could of included. Ken Berry, Ralph Terry from Larned he was a great pitcher for the Yankees and was on the Golf tour as well. Keep reading our blogs and feel free to comment at anytime

  • gmarchant

    My fondest memories groing up and I don’t know how many of them are from Kansas but the 1987 Washburn University basketball team won the NAIA national championship in Kansas City at Kemper Arena. My family went to all of the games. The team of Curt Annis, Joe Becker, Rod Dahl,
    James Davenport, Allen Dean, Pat Denney, Mike Dickerson, Keith Downing, Kevin Downing,
    Rich Hamilton, Tom Meier, Daymondy Patterson, Rob Reilly, Calvin Sprew, Troy Stremming, Bobby Sumler, John Wallisch, Greg Wilson. This was the best time for me as I was playing basketball a lot at this time. I learned a lot from Tom Meier and going to the Bob Chipman Basketball camp.

  • Dave Coleman

    GR, that was a great era for Washburn Basketball. I remember all of those guys as well. Might throw in a few other names like Tim Triggs and Rod Stacken though they were a bit earlier. You mention Rich Hamilton I know he played for a couple of years at Marymount in Salina before he went to Washburn, it seemed like he was in school for like 1o years…. District 10 (Kansas’s Disctrict) in the NAIA has had at least 5 National Champs in the NAIA. St. Benedicts once in the 50’s and in 1967. Fort Hays had back to back in the 80’s and of course the Washburn team. MArymount took 3rd once in that era. The old CSIC Conference had some great teams to watch. You had not only Washburn, and Ft. Hays but Emporia, and Kearney State from up in Nebraska. Thansks for responding. Your comments are welcome anytime.

  • roy daniels

    dear mike my name is roy daniels and I was the catcher for you and mike griffith in our youth days in topeka I been wondering how you are doing.I live in denver colo.I will look you up next year when I come back to topeka we have a lot to talk about. to see you again will be the best day of my life.let’s talk. please send me an e-mail roy daniels.