In honor of Randy Moss’ retirement on Monday,
I have decided to run over a traffic cop we here at Rumors and Rants have been inspired to look back at some of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of sports. For this purpose, we’ll focus on the four major North American sports that people have been watching for years, since I don’t pretend to know who the best rookies in X-Games and billiards history might be.
Lawrence Taylor, 1981 (NFL) — Before L.T. landed with the Giants, New York was in the midst of a Pirate-like 18-year playoff drought that stretched back to their loss in the 1963 NFL title game.
That all changed when No. 56 suited up and started plowing through opposing ballcarriers and quarterbacks like they were cocaine on an underage prostitute’s ass.
Taylor finished with 9.5 sacks, while his presence bolstered a defense that went from allowing 450 points in 1980 to 257 in ’81. He became the only rookie to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, launching a Hall of Fame career.
He batted .331, led the AL in slugging at .566, scored a league-high 103 runs and drove in 105 more with 21 home runs. Lynn accounted for 26.1 percent of Boston’s runs that year, which is even more impressive when you consider they led the league with 796.
If his bat weren’t enough, Lynn also won a Gold Glove for his play in center field. With his overall excellence, Lynn nudged past the likes of the greatest Red Sox of them all, Ted Williams (1939), and pitching sensations Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (1976) and Fernando Valenzuela (1981) to make our top three, although certainly one could make an argument for any of them to be on this list as well.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, 1979-80 (NBA) —It was hard to pick which of these two had the more impressive rookie accomplishments, so we’ve decided to lump Larry Legend and Magic together. Since no one has mentioned one without the other since the 1979 NCAA championship game, it only seems fitting.
Bird won Rookie of the Year honors, leading the Celtics with 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds a game while getting 143 steals. Boston went from winning just 27 games the season before it landed Bird to 61 his rookie year.
However, the playoffs were the time for Magic to prove his mettle. Playing out of his natural position, Johnson took over at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the NBA Finals and proceeded to get 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in leading the Lakers to the title while being named Finals MVP.
Ken Dryden, 1971 AND 1972 (NHL) — How badass is Ken Dryden?
In addition to waiting to join hockey’s greatest franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, until he get his degree from Cornell University, Dryden became the only player to ever be named the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs the season BEFORE he was Rookie of the Year.
After winning all six of his starts late in the ’71 season, Dryden was named the Habs’ starting goalie for the playoffs. Dryden led Montreal past the favored Bruins in a 7-game first-round series, then the North Stars in 6 before downing the Blackhawks (or as they were then called, Black Hawks) in 7 for the Cup.
The next year Dryden started from the get-go and was named the Calder Trophy winner, which presumably looked nice on the mantle with the Conn Smythe he had already won the previous spring.
Teemu Selanne, 1992-93 (NHL) — Maybe it was because he played in Winnipeg. Or perhaps because he was Finnish, and Finns don’t naturally seem to draw attention to themselves. At any rate, when I started typing this list I did not expect to have Teemu Selanne’s name on it, because I had somehow forgotten about what he did in his first season. When I actually looked it up, my reaction was “HE DID WHAT?!?!”
How’s about 76 goals and 56 assists?
Selanne blew Mike Bossy’s old rookie record of 52 goals right out of the water, with his 132 total points becoming the high-water mark for rookies in league history.* Since that season, no player, period, has eclipsed the 70-goal mark. I’m not sure why this season isn’t talked about more as one of the great feats in sporting history, but I feel safe blaming Gary Bettman.
*Wayne Gretkzy scored 137 points in his first NHL season, but he had already played a year in the World Hockey Association — considered an equal pro league that had four of its teams merge into the NHL — so he was not considered a rookie.
Gale Sayers, 1965 (NFL) — The Kansas Comet’s rookie season demonstrates how dumb people are for saying that Reggie Bush would be the next Gale Sayers.
Sayers set an NFL record with 22 touchdowns — 14 rushing, six receiving and one apiece on kickoff and punt returns. He finished with 2,272 all-purpose yards, a record that would later be broken by Tim Brown in a 16-game season, as opposed to the 14 Sayers played.
He also orchestrated one of the greatest single-game performances in NFL history, scoring six touchdowns in a single game against the 49ers to tie Ernie Nevers’ record. Despite the addition of Sayers, the Bears finished 9-5 and missed the playoffs in the pre-Wild Card era.
Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 (MLB) — This choice is bound to be controversial since Ichiro played nine years in the Japanese League before coming to America. But let’s face the facts. The baseball isn’t as good over there as it is here. Tuffy Rhodes has the Japanese record for home runs in a season. Hideki Irabu (RIP), Dice-K and Kosuke Fukudome were all supposed to be mega-stars when they crossed the Pacific.
The only true mega-star is Ichiro.
When he burst onto the scene in 2001, it was a sensation that had not been seen since Fernandomania in ’81. He had the game to back it up with 242 hits, the most by any big leaguer since 1930. He finished with a .350 average and 56 steals, becoming the first player to lead the league in both categories since Jackie Robinson in 1949. The Mariners tied the record for most wins in a season with 116 as Ichiro became the only player besides Lynn to be named MVP and Rookie of the Year.
Oscar Robertson, 1960-61 (NBA) — The Big O is arguably the standard by which every NBA great should be measured.
After becoming the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer at Cincinnati and winning the gold medal in Rome, Robertson was picked by the Cincinnati Royals to begin his NBA career. Despite being the one guy on his team that opponents knew they had to shut down, Robertson tore it up with an average of 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game.
Randy Moss, 1998 (NFL) — It wasn’t just about the stats that he put up, though the 17 touchdowns and 1,313 receiving yards were damn good. It’s that whenever the Minnesota Vikings played in 1998, you felt obligated to watch because you were seeing something quite unlike anything you had seen before — this guy with the length of a giraffe and the speed of a gazelle seemingly changing the way the game was played.
The Vikings were a decent team in 1997, going 9-7 to squeeze into the playoffs before beating the Giants in a wild card game. Moss made them a phenomenal team.
Minnesota set a then-league record with 556 points, not just because of the plays that Moss made but because of the threat of the plays he could make. The guy was so good that he fooled people into thinking Brian Billick was an offensive genius. He made Randall Cunningham look 10 years younger.
As noted by the site Football Outsiders, Minnesota had 22 plays of 40 or more yards that year when no other team had more than 16. It may be unfair to say that was all Randy Moss, but he had to have accounted for at least 90 percent of the responsibility.
Only a missed Gary Anderson field goal in the NFC Championship Game kept this team — maybe the greatest to never reach a Super Bowl — from infinite glory.
With no one in the league outside of Bill Russell capable of defending him effectively, Chamberlain rewrote the record books with averages of 37.6 points and 27 rebounds a game for the Philadelphia Warriors.
Let that sink in for a moment.
27 rebounds a game on average! No other rookie has ever exceeded 20. Likewise, his rookie scoring average is well beyond Walt Bellamy’s second-place mark of 31.6. Of course, we suspect Bellamy was nowhere near Wilt’s scoring average off the floor either.
Tony Esposito, 1969-70 (NHL) — Tony O’s rookie season isn’t just one of the greatest by a first-year player — it’s one of the greatest feats of goaltending in hockey history.
After being claimed by the Hawks off of waivers from Montreal, Esposito proceeded to establish a modern-day record with 15 shutouts in his rookie season to go along with a 2.17 goals against average. Esposito won the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year), Vezina Trophy (Top Goalie) and finished second only to Bobby Orr for the Hart Trophy (MVP) as Orr became the first defenseman in history to lead the league in scoring.
Orr, Tony’s brother Phil and the rest of the Bruins swept the Black Hawks in the conference finals to end the historic season.
Jackie Robinson, 1947 (MLB) — Statistically, Jackie Robinson does not belong on this list. But in my mind there are things that matter more than stats, and Robinson’s rookie season belongs atop the baseball list because of the impact it had on the sport and American society as a whole.
Breaking the color barrier in 1947 was no small feat. It was a year before the armed forces were desegregated, seven before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the Supreme Court, and 17 before the Civil Rights Act. There was plenty of ugliness to go around, particularly in places like St. Louis and Cincinnati. (Well, everywhere, really).
If Robinson had caved to the hatred and pulled a Ron Artest, or simply become the prototype for overly hyped but failed prospects along the lines of Gary Scott (and every Cub prospect who followed or preceded Gary Scott), who knows how far things would have been set back.
Instead, he hit .297, led the league with 29 steals and scored 125 runs while carrying himself as a gentleman. Nothing ever can or will compare to this rookie season.