Baseball & Football Have Long Been Connected
For many sports fans, Super Bowl Sunday means more than the end of the football season. Because if the pigskins are done flying, then baseball has to be right around the corner.
But there has long been an intersection of the two sports in Cooperstown, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates the connection with artifacts, stories and – yes – even Hall of Famers.
The man in two Halls of Fame
Start with Cal Hubbard, who – judging by his resume – might have had the greatest career in American sporting annals. Hubbard remains the only man elected to both the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame thanks to his pioneering days as a National Football League linebacker followed by his 16 years as an American League umpire.
Hubbard played in the NFL during its infancy, starting with the New York Giants in 1927 before playing for Green Bay during the Packers’ first dynasty teams of 1929-33. He finished his career with another stint with the Giants and one game with Pittsburgh, pioneering the modern middle linebacker position along the way.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Hubbard – a giant in his time – was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 as one of its 17 charter members along with such illustrious men as Sammy Baugh, Red Grange and George Halas.
But as early as 1928, Hubbard was already working on his post-football career. He began umpiring minor league baseball games that season, and by 1936 was working in the American League. Until a hunting injury damaged his exceptional eyesight and ended his on-field career after the 1951 season, Hubbard was acknowledged as one of the top arbiters in the game. He worked World Series in 1938, 1942, 1946 and 1949 and also called three All-Star Games during that time.
In 1976, Hubbard became just the fifth umpire – and still only the 10th ever – elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jackie’s pioneering ways
Hubbard, however, is far from the only Cooperstown inductee to star on the football field. In fact, the man who broke the color line in baseball, Jackie Robinson, might have been an NFL star if he had wanted it.
Robinson was a brilliant athlete at UCLA in the late 1930s. After his family moved from Georgia to Pasadena, Calif., when Jackie was an infant, Robinson grew into an amateur sensation in a variety of sports and eventually earned varsity letters on four teams at UCLA (baseball, basketball, football and track) – the first Bruins athlete to do so.
Robinson was named a football All-American at UCLA, and as a running back he helped lead the 1939 Bruins to an undefeated record of 6-0-4. After leaving UCLA in 1941, Robinson traveled to Hawaii to play professional football and was climbing the pro ranks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.
Robinson quickly joined the Army, setting in motion a post-military career that would see him become the first African-American athlete to appear in a modern big league game in 1947. Within a few short years, Robinson’s baseball career had changed baseball – and America – in ways that he likely could not have imaged when he was playing football for UCLA.
Bo knows both
Forty years after Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, another running back took the sports world by storm when he simultaneously played pro football and pro baseball. Vincent “Bo” Jackson was the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn University, and was widely expected to be the first pick in the 1986 NFL Draft. But when Jackson could not come to an agreement with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he let it be known that he would pursue a career in baseball – a sport in which he also excelled at Auburn.
The Kansas City Royals took Jackson with their fourth-round draft choice in 1986, and by that fall Jackson was in the major leagues. With raw skills rivaling those of a young Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, Jackson quickly became known for his prodigious power and unbelievable foot speed. He was one of the game’s hottest young stars.
But in 1987, the Los Angeles Raiders took a chance with seventh-round pick – figuring Bo missed football – and tabbed Jackson in the NFL Draft. That fall, Jackson declared that he would play in the NFL as a “hobby” when the Royals’ season was over. In four years with the Raiders, Jackson rushed for 2,782 yards on just 515 carries, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Jackson was named to the 1989 American League All-Star team and appeared ready to take his game to the next level. But following the 1990 NFL season, Jackson sustained a severe hip injury in a playoff game. He missed the entire 1991 baseball season, and by 1992 required hip replacement surgery.
His miraculous recovery included 160 games over two seasons (1993-94) with an artificial hip with the White Sox and the Angels before retiring prior to the 1995 season.
In 1991, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum accessioned Jackson’s Raiders jersey to mark his incredible two-sport career.
Craig Muder is the director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum