Best Athletes of the 1960s

The Top Ten
1 Wilt Chamberlain Wilton Norman "Wilt" Chamberlain was an American basketball player. He was born on August 21, 1936 in Philadelphia and died on October 12, 1999 in Los Angeles due to heart failure... read more

Of all of Wilt's achievements, one stands out, and no, it's not the 100-point game. The 1966-67 season was a change for Wilt. Instead of scoring a lot, he helped the team a lot for the Philadelphia 76ers. He had super sub Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Hal Greer, Luke Jackson, and Wali Jones. He still scored 24 points a game to now go along with 8 assists per game, a 68 percent field goal percentage, and the NBA MVP.

The 76ers then beat an aging Boston Celtics in the East Finals to go on to the NBA Finals and then beat the Golden State Warriors to become champs.

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2 Roy Emerson

Emerson's tennis skills are legendary, and throughout the 60s, no tennis player won more slams than Emerson, and that includes Rod Laver. His journey to the Tennis Hall of Fame began at the 1961 Australian Open in his home country. In a great match featuring two great sportsmen, Emerson beat Laver 1-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, beginning his mastery on the court for the decade. His one-handed backhand confused many of his players. Known as "Emmo" on the tour, the six-foot right-hander was known for training hard and always being ready for strenuous matches because of his outstanding level of fitness. He was primarily a serve-and-volley style player but was also able to adapt to the rigors of slow courts, allowing him to enjoy success on all surfaces.

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3 Bobby Hull

The Golden Jet at his best. Of all the records, slap shots, and goals, two moments stand out.

1. The 1960-61 Season: That season, he was on a team poised for Stanley Cup glory. He scored 31 goals, one of 13 straight years he scored 30 or more goals in a season. In the Stanley Cup Finals, the Blackhawks beat the Detroit Red Wings and Gordie Howe in six games to capture the Cup.

2. During one practice session, he found a curved stick, later known as a banana blade. This stick was unpredictable, but it was used well by Hull and in time forced goalies to wear masks. Hull was truly one of Chicago's best.

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4 Johnny Unitas John Constantine Unitas, nicknamed "Johnny U", or "The Golden Arm", was an American professional football player from the 1950s through the 1970s.

What made Unitas great was his courage to fight back through injuries to play again. In the 1968 final pre-season game vs. the Cowboys, Unitas tore his right arm, which would sideline him for the entire season. It was that right arm that would cause him pain throughout the 60s.

He returned to play in time for Super Bowl III, and in the 4th quarter, he fought bravely in a losing effort. After an offseason to repair his arm, he came back in 1969 and passed for 2,342 yards and 12 touchdowns in a Colts winning season. Johnny U at his very best.

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5 Willie Mays Willie Howard Mays, Jr., nicknamed "The Say Hey Kid", is an American former Major League Baseball center fielder who spent almost all of his 22-season career playing for the New York/San Francisco Giants, before finishing with the New York Mets.

What made Willie great in the 60s was his amazing greatness and staying on top of the game year in and year out. There are too many records and awards to fit the Say Hey Kid in this decade, but here are a few of the very best. On April 30, 1961, at Milwaukee's County Stadium, and despite feeling sick the night before, Mays hit 4 home runs, tying an MLB record, as the Giants beat the Braves 14-4. He was named National League MVP in 1965.

On May 4, 1966, he hit his 512th home run, a new National League home run career record, and it took 10 days to do it. Finally, on September 22, 1969, at San Diego, he hit his 600th home run, only the second man in MLB history. His amazing 60s ended when the Sporting News named him the Player of the 1960s. SAY HEY!
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6 Muhammad Ali Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, activist, entertainer, poet, and philanthropist. Nicknamed The Greatest, he is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sporting figures of the 20th century, and... read more

What makes Ali great was his speed, guts, and a will to win. My favorite Ali bout was against Ernie Terrell in 1967. Before the bout, Terrell refused to call him Ali, instead calling him Cassius Clay. Big mistake! During his title bout and all throughout the 15 rounds, Ali took his time and kept telling Terrell, What's my name! What's my name!

Ali fought so many great fighters throughout this decade, including twice with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Brian London, and Zora Folley.
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7 Pele Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as "Pelé", was a Brazilian professional footballer who played as a forward. In 1999 he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and was included in the Time list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. In 2000, Pelé was... read more

Pele was simply soccer's beautiful game, as he said. Among so many goals, championships, awards, and teams, one of the best in this decade was the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores. In those tournaments, Pele shined. First, his four total goals were the tonic that led his team, Santos, to the Copa Libertadores title in a 3-0 playoff win over Penarol. In 1963, his five goals once again helped Santos reach the finals, and it was no contest this time as Santos repeated as champions. Pele, the best.
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The absolute number 1 of the decade.

8 Jack Nicklaus

He was golf's new kid on the block and brought with him TV's big golf rivalry with Arnold Palmer. The 1962 U.S. Open was Jack's coming-out party at Arnie's place, Oakmont, PA. Back in the days, the final two rounds took place on Saturdays. Jack's sizzling 69 was enough to force a playoff with Palmer.

The next day, before an NBC Sports audience, Nicklaus's mastery on the green kept rolling. Only once in the tournament did he 3-putt on one hole, compared to Palmer's 10. That was more than enough for Jack to win the U.S. Open Golf Championship.

9 Hank Aaron Henry Louis Aaron, nicknamed "Hammer" or "Hammerin' Hank", was an American Major League Baseball right fielder who served as the senior vice president of the Atlanta Braves.
10 Larisa Latynina

This girl opened the door for Soviet Union gymnastics. This comment is only about her greatness in the 1960s. Four years after her breakthrough, she returned to the Olympic Games as a mom, but her domination as a gymnastics star rolled on. At the Rome Games, she won gold in the team event, all-around event, and the floor exercise. She also won silver in the uneven bars and the balance beam, and bronze in the vault.

She kept on piling up championships during the 1960s. At the 1964 Tokyo Games, she won gold in the team event and the floor exercise. She won silver in the all-around and the vault, and she won bronze in the uneven bars and the balance beam. She was one of the best.

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The Contenders
11 Oscar Robertson Oscar Palmer Robertson, nicknamed "The Big O", is an American retired National Basketball Association player who played for the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks.
12 Margaret Court

Most decorated tennis player ever.

13 Wilma Rudolph

As an Olympic champion in the early 1960s, Rudolph was among the most highly visible Black women in America and abroad. She became a role model for Black and female athletes, and her Olympic successes helped elevate women's track and field in the United States. Rudolph is also regarded as a civil rights and women's rights pioneer.

In 1962, Rudolph retired from competition at the peak of her athletic career as the world record-holder in the 100- and 200-meter individual events and the 4 × 100-meter relay. After competing in the 1960 Summer Olympics, the 1963 graduate of Tennessee State University became an educator and coach. Rudolph died of brain and throat cancer in 1994, and her achievements are memorialized in a variety of tributes, including a U.S. postage stamp, documentary films, and a made-for-television movie, as well as in numerous publications, especially books for young readers.

14 Sandy Koufax

Sandy had his share of those amazing six years with the Dodgers when he was great. One of those years was 1965. He pitched in 335 and two-thirds innings and led the Dodgers to another pennant. He led the MLB in wins (26), earned run average (2.04), and set a then-MLB record of 382 strikeouts. He held batters to 5.79 hits per game and allowed the fewest base runners per 9 innings in any season ever at 7.83. He even had an 11-game winning streak and pitched his fourth no-hitter, which was perfect. On September 9, he beat the Chicago Cubs 1-0 as Koufax struck out 14 batters.

In the World Series, he won Games 5 and 7 as the Dodgers won the World Series. Koufax did it despite having arm problems that would force him into early retirement in 1966.
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15 Garrincha Manuel Francisco dos Santos, known by the nickname Garrincha, was a Brazilian footballer who played right winger and forward.

When you talk about Brazil's World Cup glory days, Garrincha is mentioned as one of its immortals. In Brazil, he was known as People's Joy, and his skills brought Brazil the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. But it was in 1962 that Garrincha became a soccer immortal. At the World Cup, with Pele injured, he took charge and led Brazil to the cup with a 3-1 win over Czechoslovakia. For his amazing, superhuman efforts, he was named the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot of the tournament.

In retirement and sadly his untimely death, awards and honors kept coming to him. He was a member of the FIFA World Cup All-Time Team and the World Team of the 20th Century and inducted into the Brazilian Football Hall of Fame.
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16 George Best George Best (22 May 1946 – 25 November 2005) was a Northern Irish professional footballer who played as a winger, spending most of his club career at Manchester United. A highly skillful dribbler, Best is regarded as one of the best players in the history of the sport. He was named European Footballer... read more

Football's legendary comet. The man who had excellent skills on the pitch but, off the pitch, he had demons that would take his life. But what a thrill to see this once-in-a-lifetime player.
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17 Bill Russell William Felton "Bill" Russell was an American retired professional basketball player. Russell played center for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association from 1956 to 1969.
18 Eusebio Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was a Portuguese footballer who played as a striker. Eusébio is considered by many as one of the greatest footballers of all time. During his professional career, he scored 733 goals in 745 matches.
19 Abebe Bikila

Now here's a guy who had unbelievable running skills, especially in the Olympics. The 1960 event was the most epic marathon I'll never forget. It started in sunlight and ended in darkness, not at the Olympic Stadium, but at the famed Colosseum. Even more remarkable is that Bikila won the marathon without shoes and set a world record too.

Four years later, and running with shoes on, Bikila did it again, taking the gold. He would win 10 other marathons in a life that ended way too soon. But he was still one of the best ever.

20 Věra Čáslavská
21 Irena Szewińska
22 Mickey Mantle

Now, Mickey dominated baseball in the 1950s, but it was the 1960s that Mickey's popularity with the fans really began. In 1961, fans were rooting for him, not Roger Maris, to break Babe Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927. He suffered a late-season injury to his foot, but still, he walloped 54 and won the love of his Yankee fans. 1962 American League MVP and owner of the most home runs ever at the World Series, he got a big ovation after retirement for Mickey Mantle Day on June 8, 1969. Truly, a baseball legend for all times.

23 Jim Brown James Nathaniel Brown was a former professional American football player and actor. He was a running back for the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League from 1957 through 1965.

What made Jim a football legend is that he turns it on every time he carries the ball, and 1963 was his best year of the '60s. After Browns owner Art Modell fired head coach Paul Brown, he then hired Blanton Collier as the Browns' 2nd head coach in the franchise's history. Blanton loved Brown and wanted him to rush for more yards, and Brown did, establishing a still-standing Browns record of 1,863 yards and was named the Bert Bell Award for NFL Player of the Year.

24 Al Oerter

His record of 4 consecutive Olympic gold medals in discus (1956-1968) still stands.

25 Bob Beamon

The American long jumper set the 'World Record of the Century' with 8.90 m in the 1968 Olympics. Although the record wasn't the longest-lived in track and field (broken in 1991 by Mike Powell after a legendary competition with Carl Lewis in the World Championships), this record remains among the most amazing as Beamon improved the previous one by 55 cm.

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