Only a handful of athletes have played in MLB and the NBA
As of mid August, a total of 20,185 people had played Major League Baseball (MLB). A total of 4,374 people had played in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
But only 14 of these athletes — 6 percent — have played in the top echelon of both professional sports. It’s a remarkable feat.
That number does not include the most famous crossover talent of recent years, because Michael Jordan returned to the NBA before reaching The Show. Jordan, in fact, illustrates how hard it is for even elite basketball players to become Major Leaguers.
It typically takes a baseball prospect two to five years grinding in the minors before he is ready for MLB. Basketball players can go to the NBA straight from high school, but the vast majority spend at least one year playing in college and/or the developmental league. Either way, an athlete would usually be in his mid- twenties by the time he established himself as a professional in one sport then switched to the other.
Jordan was 30. The consensus among baseball people was that he would have made the Majors in a year or two had he kept at it — a rookie at 32! Unparalleled.
Except he didn’t.
No one has switched from the NBA to MLB since Mark Hendrickson, a left-handed pitcher who had a 10-year baseball career from 2002–2011 after a four-year stint as a power forward with four different NBA teams.
The 6-foot 9-inch Hendrickson, ironically, was the second player from the state of Washington to reach the pinnacle of both professions.
In 1957 Gene Conley, a 6' 8" pitcher, helped the Milwaukee Braves win the World Series. From 1959–61 he was a backup forward on a Boston Celtics team that won three straight NBA titles.
Conley is the only player to win championships in both pro baseball and basketball, and one of few who played the sports simultaneously. (Fun fact: Conley and Hendrickson team with Randy Johnson, the 6' 10" former Mariners hurler, to give Washington stake to the tallest trio of pitchers in MLB history.)
Besides Jordan, the best-known baseketballer of recent vintage is Danny Ainge, who played six different positions for the Toronto Blue Jays between 1989–91 before swapping his spikes for sneakers and winning two championships with the Boston Celtics. But older readers will recognize Chuck Connors, best known as The Rifleman in the 1960s TV series, and Dave DeBusschere, who became an NBA Hall-Of-Famer after a two-year stint as a White Sox pitcher.
All of these men were extraordinary athletes. We marvel at Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders for simultaneously starring in both the MLB and National Football League — as we should — yet these 15 are deserving of no little admiration.
Most only dabbled in one of the two sports.
Johnny Gee and Irv Noren, for instance, each played only three games of professional basketball. Hank Biasatti played only six.
Cotton Nash played in just 13 MLB games. DeBusschere gave up baseball after two seasons.
At 6' 9", Gee was the tallest pitcher in baseball until Randy Johnson came along in 1988. The left-hander pitched from 1939–1946 for the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Giants. He finished his career with a 7–12 record, 4.41 ERA and -1.9 WAR.
In 1946–47 Gee, who played college hoops at the University of Michigan, appeared in three games for the National Basketball League’s Syracuse Nationals, which later became the Philadelphia 76ers. He reportedly played professional basketball the following season for an independent team in Oneida, New York.
The 6-ft., 180-lb. Noren starred in baseball and basketball at Pasadena City College. He then went on to an 11-year MLB career as an all-star first baseman/outfielder that included World Series championships with the Yankees in 1952, ’53, and ’56. He later added three Series titles as a coach with the Oakland Athletics from 1972-’74.
Noren dipped his toe into pro basketball in 1946, playing for the independent Los Angeles Red Devils. One of his teammates was Jackie Robinson.
In 1947, Noren and two teammates signed to play late in the season for the Chicago Gears of the National Basketball League (NBL), forerunner to the NBA. Noren appeared in three games and scored one point.
Baumholtz was a solid outfielder from 1947–57 with the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. He finished with a .290 average, .730 OPS and 8.1 WAR.
Prior to baseball, Baumholtz played two seasons of pro basketball.
The former All-American point guard at Ohio University played for the Youngstown Bears of the National Basketball League in 1945–46. The following season he averaged 14 points a game for the Cleveland Rebels of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which merged with the NBL in 1949 to form the NBA.
Reds’ general manager Warren Giles, who served as National League president from 1951–69, lured Baumholtz to baseball with a huge bonus check and larger salary. Bauhholtz had been drafted by the Reds but opted for hoops after four years in WWII.
Biasatti, the only Canadian in the group, had an enigmatic career.
In 1946–47, the 5' 11" guard played in six games for the Toronto Huskies of the BAA.
He resurfaced in 1949 to appear in 21 games as a backup first baseman and pinch hitter for the Philadelphia Athletics, batting .083.
Biasatti was posthumously enshrined in the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. He died in 1996 at age 74.
Other crossover players had more substantial impact in one (or both) sports.
Howie Schultz, a 6' 6" first baseman, played an undistinguished six seasons in the MLB before helping Hall-Of-Famer George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers win an NBA championship in 1952.
DeBusschere posted a 3–4 record and 2.90 ERA in two seasons as a White Sox pitcher. After turning to basketball, he was a starting forward on two New York Knicks’ championship squads.
Ainge lasted three seasons in MLB, perhaps persuaded to switch to basketball (at which he also starred in college) by his lifetime .220 batting average and .533 OPS.
Catcher Dick Groat tried to play both sports simultaneously but could endure just one season in the NBA. He then won two World Series Championships, with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960 and the St. Louis Cardinals in ‘64.
A quartet of pitchers — Hendrickson, Steve Hamilton, Ron Reed, and Dick Ricketts — round out the list of baseketballers.
Each has a unique story, and each reminds us that modern players don’t hold patents on grit or athleticism.
Are there players today with the talent to play in both MLB and the NBA? Of course. Will more athletes play both MLB and NBA in the future? Probably.
Across the six-plus decades the NBA and MLB have coexisted, however, just 15 have walked the talk, no matter how briefly.
I hope there’s a special small display for these athletes somewhere inside the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a noteworthy achievement that deserves to be celebrated.