Minnesota athletes and Joe Mauer

Published 9:00 am Thursday, July 23, 2009

 Joseph Patrick Mauer may become Minnesota’s most celebrated sports figure. That’s not easy for in the past 100 years a lot of big names have come down the pike. Football star Bronko Nagurski first comes to mind. We are not too far from being 100 years away from Naguski’s glory years. He was an All-American at two different positions; running back and defensive tackle. He was the best player on the best team in the best conference — the Big Ten. Back in the days when only baseball and heavyweight championships fights rivaled college football. When sportswriters Grantland Rice, Red Smith and Ring Lardner served up their most purple of prose for college football. His only rival for national football attention was Red Grange, “The Galloping Ghost.”

Another famous college football Minnesotan comes to mind, Coach Bernie Bierman, born in Springfield. Bierman drove the football Gophers to the top and kept them there year after year. Bierman won five national championships and you could order his football book if you had a Wheaties boxtop. A lot of kids wanted that coveted book.

Sticking with college football we can’t forget Paul Geil. Born in Winona, Giel was an All-American football player two years running. He won many honors and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting in spite of playing for a mediocre team. They would have been much worse without him. He later served as the University of Minnesota athletic director.

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Moving to baseball, Chief Bender is Minnesota’s foremost pitcher. Bender was born in Crow Wing County, a member of the Ojibwa Tribe. He pitched in the American League the first two decades of the 20th century, mostly for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Mack said that in a must-win ballgame he would give the ball to Chief Bender. He was discriminated against because of his race and faced racial taunts. Bender was an intelligent man and Mack used him as third base coach when he wasn’t pitching. Ty Cobb called him the smartest pitcher he knew.

Another Hall of Famer is from Minnesota and in fact from Joe Mauers’ high school, Paul Molitor.

Perhaps Minnesota’s most famous basketball player, Kevin McHale came from Hibbing. He was all conference for the U of M and was drafted by the Boston Celtics. McHale played in what many consider the best front line in pro basketball with Larry Bird and Robert Parish. McHale was an all-star seven times and voted one of the 50 best basketball players of all time. McHale was not a great general manager, but he was a very fine player.

So you see Mauer has some stiff competition for Minnesota’s most famous sports figure title. He certainly ranks very, very high as the state’s best high school athlete. He garnered all sorts of honors for his baseball ability. He hit over .600 his senior year and only struck out once during his four-year career. But as great as his high school career was, football was even better. He was named national player of the year by USA Today, Parade Magazine and Gatorade.

Mauer has gotten off to an extremely accomplished pro baseball career. Already at age 26 he’s been named to baseball’s all-star team three times and has won the batting title twice. He has a leg up on becoming Minnesota’s most famous sports figure. But the title depends on the years to come as most things do. One never knows when an accident or small germ may interfere, but Mauer, in addition to being a nice guy, appears to have a brilliant future in front of him.

The Twins better sign him to a new contract or sit in an empty stadium in 2011.