Picking a Mount Rushmore for any city is a difficult task, but it’s especially difficult when doing it for the city of Boston.
Boston has as rich a sports history as any city in the world. Teams from the city have won 17 NBA championships, nine World Series, six Super Bowls and six Stanley Cups and have produced some of sports’ most iconic athletes.
Ultimately, The Sporting News settled on four of those all-time greats to represent the city on our hypothetical Mount Rushmore. They were Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr, Celtics center Bill Russell and Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams.
MORE: Brady, Russell, Williams, Orr make up Boston’s Mount Rushmore
Few will find issues with any of these picks. This quartet represents some of the greatest athletes of all time in their respective sports, and each has created at least one iconic moment with their franchise, with Bobby Orr’s Stanley Cup-winning goal and celebration parallel to the ice standing out.
That said, choosing just four Boston athletes for this project was excruciating and numerous quality candidates were left on the list as a result. There is a case for many others to be on Boston’s Mount Rushmore, but two omissions stand out above all else: David Ortiz and Larry Bird.
Here’s why Big Papi and Bird didn’t quite make Mount Rushmore and just how close they were to doing so.
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The ‘most important’ player in Red Sox history
When David Ortiz came to the Red Sox in 2002, he didn’t come as a massive piece that was going to single-handedly break the then-84-year-old World Series curse. He was just a shrewd pickup by rookie general manager Theo Epstein after the Twins released Ortiz to save $1.5 million and move Matthew LeCroy to designated hitter.
But Ortiz became exactly what the Red Sox needed. He had power; he was clutch; he was — and still is — a lovable personality.
He made Boston a champion and himself a Hall of Famer. He united generations of Red Sox fans in doing so, as many witnessed the first World Series win of their lifetimes in 2004 thanks, in part, to his heroics in the historic 3-0 ALCS comeback against the Yankees.
“I have personally made the case that David Ortiz could be the most important player to have ever played for the Red Sox,” Red Sox historian Gordon Edes said in an interview with The Sporting News. “He broke the curse. The day of Game 4 and 5 of the ALCS in 2004 against the Yankees may have been the greatest single-day performance of any player in Red Sox history.
“Ortiz had two walk-off hits in the same calendar day because Game 4 ended around 1:22 am and Game 5 ended around 11 pm that night. That day forever altered the landscape of Red Sox history.”
MORE: Ortiz keeps it real during Hall induction speech
Indeed, it’s hard to argue against Ortiz as the most important player in Red Sox history. So, why isn’t he on Boston’s Mount Rushmore?
“When it comes to the greatest ballplayer in Red Sox history, Teddy Ballgame stands alone,” Edes said.
Ted Williams received the nod to The Sporting News’ Boston Mount Rushmore. The decision was a hotly debated one, but the point ultimately kept falling back to one thing.
“David Ortiz is the best clutch player in Red Sox history,” Former Boston Globe and ESPN writer Jackie MacMullan said in an interview with The Sporting News. “Ted Williams is the greatest hitter in Red Sox history and the greatest overall player in Red Sox history.”
Williams is widely considered to be the best hitter in baseball history. His .344 batting average is tied for the sixth-best in MLB history while his sterling .482 on-base percentage remains the greatest of all time. Williams didn’t quite reach 3,000 hits, but he certainly would have if he didn’t miss four-and-a-half seasons in the prime of his career due to military service as part of World War II and the Korean War.
Williams was a two-time MVP, a two-time triple crown winner and a six-time batting champion. Essentially, the only thing missing from his résumé is a World Series title and some clutch moments.
You can certainly make the case that Ortiz’s clutch moments and three World Series titles put him on the same pedestal as Williams. However, there’s one small concern that bumps him down ever so slightly in the legacy conversation.
“He will always have the little smudge or stain of steroid controversy,” MacMullan explained. “You can’t ignore that.”
Even taking that into account, the case for Ortiz is still strong. He meant so much to Red Sox fans and the city of Boston off the field.
Never was that more apparent than in 2013, when he addressed a crowd of scared, vulnerable Bostonians at Fenway Park before the Red Sox first home game after the Boston Marathon Bombings.
This is our f—ing city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.
Those words — and the rest of Ortiz’s improvised, 54-word speech — will go down as MLB’s version of the Gettysburg Address.
Ortiz followed up his words of comfort with a heroic season that helped the city heal. He led a rag-tag bunch of Red Sox misfits to a stunning, “Boston Strong” World Series title, hitting an almost inconceivable .688 with two home runs in the six-game series against the Cardinals.
The pinnacle of that season came when Ortiz stepped to bat against Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit with the bases loaded and the Red Sox down 5-1 in Game 2 of the ALCS. Boston needed a rally to avoid falling into an 0-2 deficit before hitting the road.
Before Ortiz even stepped to bat knew the whole stadium just he was going to hit it out. And he did on the first pitch he saw.
One could hardly blame you if you watch that video and think to yourself, “Well damn, Ortiz has to be on the Boston Mount Rushmore.” You’re not categorically wrong. The case exists.
Bird second to one among Celtics legends
In the same vein as Ortiz’s omission is that of Larry Bird. “The Hick from French Lick” is one of the most recognizable Celtics in Boston and across the NBA.
Bird has a special place in Celtic’s lore. He was part of one of the most iconic player rivalries in the league’s history, Magic vs. Bird, which helped rekindle the long-time Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry in the 1980s. He delivered three championships to Boston and became one of the first, true stretch forwards in NBA history.
“One of the most clutch shooters I’ve ever seen in my life,” MacMullan said of Bird. “Ten seconds left, tie game, I’m giving Larry Bird the ball every time.”
Bird posted prolific shooting numbers during his career. He was the first player in NBA history to record a 50-40-90 season, achieving it both during the 1986-87 season and 1987-88 season. Only eight other NBA players have reached that milestone; Steve Nash is the only one besides Bird to do it multiple times (four for Nash).
Yes, Bird is probably the best offensive player in Celtics history. But he couldn’t quite make it onto Mount Rushmore because of the greatest defensive player in Celtics history.
That would be Bill Russell. The 7-foot center was a superstar during his 13-year NBA career and was an elite rebounder during his career. He averaged 22.5 rebounds per game, good for the second-most in NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain.
And while Bird was a better scorer than Russell, the elder statesman was as prolific a winner as American sports has ever seen.
To this day, Russell has more championship rings than any athlete among the four major American sports. New Englanders love to brag about Tom Brady’s six Super Bowl wins with the Patriots and seven career Super Bowl victories.
Russell had a whopping 11 championship wins.
That’s pure insanity.
By comparison, Bird guided the Celtics to three titles during his 13 years with the team. That’s more than respectable, but even still, it doesn’t come close to matching Russell’s incredible championship streak.
Yes, the NBA had a lot fewer teams when Russell played than it did when Bird was in action. Still, that doesn’t take away from Russell’s accolades. After all, the Celtics were still able to win a title in 84.6 percent of his seasons thanks, in part, to his next-level consistency as a key force in the paint.
It also can’t be ignored that Russell had to deal with a lot more off the court than Bird did during the turbulent 1960s.
Russell has outlined in recent years the racist abuse he took at the hands of some Celtics fans during his time in Boston. He was called racist slurs on the court, but it wasn’t limited to that. Russell was threatened because he didn’t want to sign autographs for children; his Reading, Mass., home was vandalized by burglars, who paints racist slurs on the wall, destroyed a pool table, and defecated in his bed.
Despite all of that, Russell persevered and became one of the greatest players in NBA history.
So, while Bird deserves a lot of respect and one could make a case that he belongs among the pantheon of great, immortal Boston athletes, he can’t beat out Russell.
And with a Patriot, Bruin and Red Sox occupying the other three spots on The Sporting News’ Mount Rushmore, he’ll have to settle for being one of our publication’s most notable omissions.