There is nothing like a classic debate regarding who is the greatest or best player in the history of any given sport.
To figure out which North American sporting icon stands alone as the greatest of the four major league sports, the difference between the words ‘greatest’ and ‘best’ must be framed.
When using the term ‘best’, it suggests a possession of incredible talent but is merely a simple comparison of two individuals in their prime – greatness, meanwhile, implies a legacy and aura that is almost unrivalled across a career.
Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky are generally considered the greatest players in their respective sports of baseball and ice hockey, while Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan will be used to represent the NBA and Tom Brady for the NFL.
Each will get a score out of 10 for key categories which determine their greatness, from trophy hauls to legacy, as we attempt to decide who is the greatest of the greats.
Naturally, the first and perhaps most obvious way to compare these superstars is by how many championships they won in their respective leagues.
In this regard, Babe Ruth stands tall with his seven World Series victories – three with the Boston Red Sox and four as a New York Yankee – eclipsing the other icons’ tallies.
Michael Jordan and Tom Brady both have six NBA and Super Bowl championship wins, although the edge goes to the former-New England quarterback as he has won more Super Bowls than any other player in his sport’s history.
Wayne Gretzky was a winner of four Stanley Cups, and while that is obviously impressive, it is the lowest total of our four selected players.
Brady – 10
Ruth – 10
Jordan – 8
Gretzky – 6
During his illustrious career, Wayne Gretzky won nine Hart Trophies – the NHL’s equivalent of the MVP award – which is the most across the four major league sports. On top of this, Gretzky was twice selected as MVP of the playoffs, and made eight All-NHL first teams.
Gretzky was also Sports Illustrated and AP Male Athlete of the Year for 1982, and was named the Athlete of the Decade for the 1980s.
In 1988, Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year and he was named to a record nine All-NBA defensive first-teams. Off the court, he was chosen as AP’s Athlete of the Year for three consecutive years between 1991 and 1993 and selected by ESPN as the best North American athlete of the 20th century.
As well as this, Jordan has been inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame after winning gold medals in 1984 and 1992.
Tom Brady falls behind Gretzky and Jordan in terms of individual hardware, despite being the oldest player to win MVP when he did so at the age of 40 in 2017.
He has won four Super Bowl MVPs – more than any other player – and Brady is a two-time Offensive Player of the Year whilst being named as a first-team All-Pro on three occasions.
The Buccaneers quarterback has been named Male Athlete of the Year too, as well as NFL Athlete of the Decade.
Similarly, Babe Ruth lacks the hardware to truly compete, but ‘The Bambino’ won the AL MVP in 1923 and was part of the inaugural Hall of Fame class of 1936.
Ruth was also named by ESPN as the runner-up to Jordan in their rankings of the best North American athletes of the 20th century.
Gretzky – 10
Jordan – 10
Brady – 7
Ruth – 6
Wayne Gretzky was the NHL points leader on ten separate occasions, and holds records for career goals, playoff goals, most goals in a season, most playoff assists, and most career assists.
Starting as a pure playmaker, Gretzky reacted to disruptive defences by shooting himself – with devastating results. Phil Esposito had set the previous goal-scoring record at 76 from 550 shots in 1970-71, but when Gretzky surpassed him, he notched his 76th goal with his 287th shot – and set his record of 92 goals from just 369 shots.
Brady is similarly dominant, and has the won the most games by a quarterback, the most games with two or more touchdowns and the most seasons as the NFL-leader in passing touchdowns, as well as the most playoff wins and most Super Bowl wins and appearances.
Brady is also behind only Drew Brees in career passing yards and is vying with the Saints quarterback for the lead in career touchdowns.
As for Michael Jordan, the Bulls icon led the NBA in scoring across ten seasons and led the league in steals three times. He also finished his career with an average of 30.1 points per game – the highest in NBA history.
Babe Ruth has fine stats himself, as he led the league in home runs and runs batted in (RBI) a total of twelve and six times respectively.
Ruth was also the first player to hit 50 and 60 home runs in a single season, and he subsequently became the first to score 500 career home runs.
Gretzky – 10
Brady – 9
Jordan – 8
Ruth – 8
Influence and legacy
In terms of influence, it is difficult to look beyond Michael Jordan.
He created his own brand, ‘Air Jordan’, which is now worth $1.6 billion, he owns the Charlotte Hornets and in 2016, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
However, arguably the most important aspect of Jordan’s influence is the fact that he transcended basketball. People watched the NBA because of Michael Jordan.
Television ratings increased during his time in the league, and the NBA’s popularity drastically fell when he retired. As late as 2015, ratings for the Finals had not returned to the level reached during Jordan’s final championship in 1998.
Wayne Gretzky was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in 1999 and became the tenth and final player to bypass the three-year waiting period.
The most impressive example of the admiration commanded by Gretzky is the fact that at the 2000 NHL All-Star Game, his number 99 was retired league-wide – no other player will don that number again.
Babe Ruth became a symbol of the United States throughout his career. During World War II, Japanese soldiers would anger American soldiers by yelling ‘To hell with Babe Ruth’ in English.
With a career in the pre-television era, Ruth’s legend relied on word of mouth and his greatness is almost mythical.
Tom Brady stands as inspiration for those that are underrated in both sport and the wider arena of life, as he was selected as the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft – but his cultural and sporting influence pales in comparison to the likes of Jordan.
Jordan – 10
Gretzky – 8
Ruth – 7
Brady – 5
So who is the greatest?
Ultimately, Michael Jordan wins our ranking and could be considered the greatest athlete of all-time across the major league sports thanks to his unique combination of skill and style, as well as being the pioneer of basketball’s transition to the mainstream.
Whilst Gretzky, Brady and Ruth are all sporting heroes, Jordan’s aura helped raise basketball’s popularity to a level never seen before or since, and he was arguably the biggest sportsperson in the world during his time.
Magic Johnson summarised it best when he said: "There's Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us."
Jordan – 36
Gretzky – 34
Ruth – 31
Brady – 31