Forget even winning a title; this list is comprised of bona fide legends who were unable to make it to the highest club championship game or series in their respective sports. Some of these guys will be familiar to you; some of these names will probably grace your eyes for the first time.
The average sports fan brings up Dan Marino, Ted Williams, or Patrick Ewing as examples of Hall of Famers who never won the Big One, but if you compare them to the guys on the list, at least each of the aforementioned names had reached the championship game or series, only to come up short.
For example, John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Charles Barkley may proudly display Olympic gold medals in their trophy cases, but the three of them share the dubious distinction of reaching the NBA Finals only for their dreams to be shattered by Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Baseball’s all-time homerun leader, Barry Bonds, is sitting in de facto retirement with a naked ring finger, but his Giants were seven outs away from a World Series title against Anaheim in 2002.
LeBron might never get the opportunity to replicate his suffering a sweep at the hands of the Spurs in 2007, but don’t shed a tear for him before you do the same for these guys; the ill-fated souls on this list never even got the chance to show what they could do at the top. With that out of the way, here’s a list (complete with video clips) spanning five sports and over a century of pain.
* * *
CAREER LENGTH: 1965-73 (Butkus); 1965-71 (Sayers)
NEVER APPEARED IN: NFL Championship Game/Super Bowl
Long before their verbal sparring sessions with Brian Urlacher, these “Monsters of the Midway” were enshrined in Canton as members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and with good cause. Butkus and Sayers arrived in Chicago as members of the same draft class in 1965, and had their jersey numbers retired on the same day 29 years later. Both men sit atop the NFL record book. In addition to touching the end zone 22 times his rookie year (about one score every 10 touches!), “The Kansas Comet” scored six touchdowns in one game; Butkus retired with 27 fumbles recovered and the reputation as the most feared tackler who ever lived.
The pair also share something else in common. While the best halfback and inside linebacker in the league during the late sixties roamed Soldier Field, the Bears didn’t have much of anything else on the roster to help them. Although the human essence of Sayers was captured in Brian’s Song, and Butkus was similarly revered for shoving a broken finger back into place in the middle of a game, their larger-than-life stories never transpired on pro football’s biggest theater. Not once did Chicago earn a playoff berth during the period these two were together, nor did Butkus get a taste of the postseason in his two-year swan song sans Sayers.
CAREER LENGTH: 1936-50
NEVER APPEARED IN: Welterweight, Middleweight, or Light Heavyweight world title bout
How’s this for an endorsement? Eddie Futch, trainer of 22 world champions including four of the five men who defeated Muhammad Ali, once called Burley “the finest all-around fighter I ever saw.” The man was an absolute technical genius. Sadly, the Pittsburgh pugilist never received the opportunity to prove it in the ring. A parade of legends found a way to march around the Steel City on their way to Canastota. Light heavyweight champ Billy Conn moved up to heavyweight to get pummeled by Joe Louis rather than fight Burley. In fact, Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta and even Sugar Ray Robinson himself ducked him.
Maybe Burley’s points win over future welterweight champ Fritzie Zivic, his masterful decision over future 175-pound titlist Archie Moore, or his 7th round stoppage of J.D. Turner (a man who outweighed him by 70 pounds!) had something to do with it. Toiling in anonymity for decades, he finally received his just due when he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992 and voted by The Ring as the #39 greatest fighter of all-time despite never having worn a world championship belt around his waist.
CAREER LENGTH: 1971-89
NEVER APPEARED IN: Stanley Cup Finals
Before the “Great One” patrolled Hollywood, the “Little Beaver” was the face of the Los Angeles Kings franchise. Forever linked with fellow Québécois legend Guy LaFleur, the former Canadian junior hockey rivals went one and two in the 1971 NHL Entry Draft. While top pick LaFleur went to hallowed Montreal and raised the Stanley Cup aloft five times, poor Dionne was doomed to almost two decades’ worth of mediocre to awful teams.
In his first stop of Detroit, he saw no playoff hockey in four seasons. A trade to L.A. in 1975 accompanied by a $300,000 salary, the richest deal in hockey history at the time, led to a stint of eleven and a half seasons in imperial purple and gold. While he enjoyed statistical success on the “Triple Crown Line” with Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer at the wings, the Kings advanced no further than the second round. His final two and a half seasons were spent at Madison Square Garden with the Rangers, who were eliminated in the first round in his initial half-year there and failed to make it back soon after. Ironically, he spent the last one as a teammate of LaFleur’s in 1988-89. Regardless of his teams’ deficiencies over the years, Dionne would not be denied entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992, with eight 100+ point seasons, 731 goals, and beating out Wayne Gretzky for the 1979 Art Ross Trophy as his ultimate legacy.
CAREER LENGTH: 1953-71
NEVER APPEARED IN: World Series
Banks was the first black player in Chicago franchise history. “Mr. Cub” finished first in the Senior Circuit’s MVP voting twice in 1958 and 1959, becoming the first shortstop to accomplish the feat in back-to-back seasons. At the time of his retirement, the fan favorite associated with the catch phrase “Let’s play two!” placed first all-time with 277 homeruns as a shortstop (he had 512 in all). The Dallas native was also number one in club history in extra basehits (1,009), at-bats (9,421), games played (2,528), and total bases (4,708).
Regrettably, the one department in which the 11-time All-Star did not finish first was in the National League East standings. In nineteen seasons, the Cubbies could do no better than second place; there was no wild card berth awarded to the best division runner-up back then. But none of those shortcomings on a team level can diminish Banks’s accomplishments, as his statue was unveiled in front of Wrigley Field in 2008, and his Hall of Fame plaque has been prominently displayed in Cooperstown since 1977.
6. Steve Nash
CAREER LENGTH: 1996-present
NEVER APPEARED IN: NBA Finals
Sitting on the bench behind Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell, and Jason Kidd during his first stint in Phoenix at a time where he would have trouble seeing the sun, much less seeing the floor as a Sun (not to mention being unceremoniously shipped to Dallas in exchange for Martin Muursepp, Bubba Wells, Pat Garrity, and a first round pick), Nash emerged as the best point guard of the past decade. His credentials are impeccable, with his reputation cemented when he became the first non-American citizen to win the NBA’s MVP award in consecutive years (2005 and 2006). During this period, the 7-time All-Star has also led the league in assists four times and free throw percentage twice.
Unfortunately, the Canadian star has been a victim of playing in the same conference as the Lakers and Spurs, who share a combined seven Larry O’Brien trophies over his last 11 seasons as a full-time starter. Better make that 8 out of 12 if the basketball gods want to turn Nash into a modern version of Sisyphus, since this year’s long-awaited playoff vengeance against San Antonio was quickly tempered by two quick losses and another possible decimation at the hands of Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals. While Nash’s place in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield is assured, and his career is far from over, one can only wonder if his spot on this list will be a permanent one.
CAREER LENGTH: 1902-26
NEVER APPEARED IN: Heavyweight world title bout
Unlike Josh Gibson, Langford was technically eligible to receive a world title shot but never received one. After going life-and-death with Langford for 15 rounds at a time when both men were avoided by elite white fighters, even Jack Johnson conveniently forgot about him when he made history as the first black heavyweight champion. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the 5'6'' Langford weighed only 156 for that fight and had Johnson, 185, on the ropes in the fifth only to be saved by the bell. Back in the days of 45-round fights (yes, 45-rounders!), training and fighting against heavier fighters became the story of his career.
“The Boston Tar Baby”, nicknamed as such since he moved to Massachusetts from Nova Scotia, Canada, was ahead of his time. It could be argued that he, not Sugar Ray Robinson, was the first to personify the term pound-for-pound with wins over lightweight champion Joe Gans (in a non-title bout) and former light heavyweight king Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, as well as a draw against welterweight titlist Barbados Joe Walcott, all Hall of Famers.
But the closest he would get to any championship hardware in was the Mexican heavyweight belt. (Jack Dempsey explicitly avoided Langford, although it must be said that Langford equally wanted no part of Jim Jeffries during his title reign, either.) In all, Langford crossed the finish line with a 181-33-38 record, with 127 of those wins ending by knockout. Without fortune or fame to his name, he was doomed to a post-career life of blindness and poverty, dying in a Cambridge nursing home in 1956 only ten weeks after his enshrinement to the Hall of Fame.
CAREER LENGTH: 1993-present
NEVER APPEARED IN: European Cup/UEFA Champions League Final
The Ballon d’Or is given annually to the top player in all of European club soccer, which by virtue of its money, tradition, and uh, money, features the highest quality of play in the world. Ronaldo was the youngest player to ever win the award at age 20 after the striker scored 47 goals in 49 matches for FC Barcelona in 1996-97; he is also only one of eight players all-time to win it more than once (2002). That same year, he put any doubts to pasture regarding his ability to perform on the big stage after leading all players with 8 goals in the 2002 World Cup en route to his second World Cup victory with Brazil. His presence on the FIFA 100 Greatest Players has only added to his legacy.
However, his meteoric rise to the top of the soccer world was matched only by his mercurial demeanor. Whether it was his convulsive fit 72 hours before the 1998 World Cup Final, his role in a prostitution scandal that took place in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro, or his well-publicized bouts with fitness, we will never know if Ronaldo ever reached his full potential.
Despite notching a staggering 218 goals in 14 European seasons, not one yielded a single European Cup or UEFA Champions League final berth. In what can only be described as cruel irony, he arrived at the Bernabeu from Internazionale in 2002, when Real Madrid was coming off the third of three Champions League titles in six years; they have not acquired another since. Moreover, he was a member of AC Milan when they won it all in 2006-07, but was ineligible to play because he failed to leave Madrid before the transfer deadline.
Today, you can find a fading Ronaldo playing out his club career in Brazil for Corinthians, weighing a kilo or ten above his prime form. But while he’s a shade of his former self now, a man once called “Súperman” and “Il Fenomeno” for his individual European exploits will never be forgotten, imperfect as they may seem.
CAREER LENGTH: 1989-present
NEVER APPEARED IN: World Series
If there were ever such a term as “hard luck superstar”, Griffey would be the prototype to personify it. From his auspicious beginnings as a 19-year-old in Seattle playing alongside his father to becoming the face of baseball in 1998 after a three-year stretch when he averaged over 53 homeruns and 142 runs batted in, the kid with the backwards hat from Cincinnati’s Moeller High sat on top of the sporting world.
After a 1995 season where the team adopted the slogan “Refuse to Lose” and saved baseball in Seattle with an improbable playoff run to the American League Championship Series, the Mariners returned to the postseason two years later but could not advance past the first round. Nonetheless, with talent like Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, and Alex Rodriguez on the M’s, it seemed that a World Series ring was as much a formality as a place in Cooperstown for Junior.
Then disaster struck when he left the Mariners via free agency for a discount deal with the hometown Reds in 2000. Almost inexplicably, the injury bug didn’t just bite Griffey—it made like a parasite and sucked the life out of his career. Torn left hamstring. Torn right hamstring. Ankle surgery. Torn knee tendon. Dislocated shoulder. Arthroscopic knee surgery. Pleuritis. Broken hand. Dislocated toe. In his next nine years in the Queen City, he played 83 games or less thrice and never played more than 145 in a season. After his first year as a Red where he cleared the fence 40 times and knocked in 118 runs, he was unable to reach more than 35 homers or reached triple digits in the RBI department ever again.
Whether the series of misfortunate events can also be attributed to switching leagues, the burden of carrying a team with a weaker supporting cast, or the added pressure of playing in front of childhood friends and family on a regular basis is something we’ll never know. But it was evident that the Ken Griffey, Jr. that fans had grown accustomed to in the American League was the same one patrolling center field. After a 41-game pit stop with the White Sox in 2008, Griffey returned to Seattle amid less fanfare and his reputation gone as one of the game’s most feared hitters. However, the body of his work cannot be ignored: 630 homers, 1,836 RBIs, 13 All-Star selections, 10 Gold Gloves, 7 Silver Slugger Awards, 3 Home Run Derbies, an All-Star Game MVP (1992), an AL MVP award (1997), a spot on the All-Century Team, and his own video game.
Alas, at age 40, the the Prodigal Son’s window is closing fast. Recently, the now elder statesman was allegedly caught snoozing in the clubhouse during a game; one could argue he was dreaming about how things would have been different had he never left the Pacific Northwest.
CAREER LENGTH: 1989-98
NEVER APPEARED IN: Super Bowl
As the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in 1989, Sanders’s first stroke of bad luck was being selected with the third pick in the NFL Draft by the Lions, a once-proud Motor City team whose tailspin as a franchise began at the same time of the introduction of the Ford Edsel in 1958. In fact, before the halfback walked through the doors of the Pontiac SilverDome, the Lions had made it to the playoffs only three times in 31 years; during the his decade-long tenure on the team, Detroit played playoff football five times. But out of those five postseason trips, the closest the Lion King would ever come to the Super Bowl was in 1991, when Washington eliminated Detroit in the NFC Championship Game, 41-10.
Don’t blame the native of Wichita, Kansas, for the team’s inability to get over the hump. While conference rivals like the 49ers and the Cowboys had Hall of Famers at almost every skill position, Sanders's supporting cast was less than comparable. Not once did Detroit field a top ten defense. In addition, Lion signal-callers like Erik Kramer, Rodney Peete, Scott Mitchell, and Charlie Batch were adequate, but were simply unable to take advantage of the mismatches downfield as a result of opposing defenses loading the box to stop Sanders.
And yet, remarkably enough, no one strategy was enough to completely contain the most elusive back of all-time. During his record-breaking 1997 season, the diminutive Sanders racked up 14 straight 100-yard games on his way to 2,053 rushing yards, an amazing 6.1 yards per carry average, and a co-MVP award. He also became the first ever running back to exceed 1,000 yards on the ground for ten consecutive seasons. He eventually led the NFL in rushing four times (1990, 1994, 1996, 1997), was named All-Pro ten times, and made it to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl for all ten years--back when it meant something. As dubious as this sounds, he also holds the record for most negative rushing yardage.
Sadly, continuing to battle the ghosts of franchise failures became tiresome for Sanders, often had to do it almost alone. Staying loyal to the fans of Detroit, he chose an early retirement in 1999 at age 31 rather than pursue his Super Bowl dreams with another franchise. Sanders reportedly cried for three months after the final game of his career, which was fittingly a loss. Such bittersweet moments were emblematic of his football existence. Sanders concluded his career one rushing touchdown short of 100. Rather than rewarding his distinguished service, albeit with an abrupt end, Lions ownership successfully sued him in court for $7.3 million of a signing bonus he received two years before his sudden retirement. In 2004, Sanders was enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but by all estimates, it was premature in light of the belief that he had so much more football left to play.
The Ford family’s efforts have been futile in attaining the same heights Sanders achieved in a Lion uniform. The team is currently mired in a rut of nine straight losing seasons. Perhaps the money received from the Sanders settlement is a curse of Billy Goat proportions.
1. Diego Maradona
CAREER LENGTH: 1976-97
NEVER APPEARED IN: European Cup Final
The “Hand of God” and “The Goal of the Century” in the 1986 World Cup will forever immortalize Maradona as one of the best international players to ever don a pair of cleats, but sadly, the same cannot be said about his European success on the club level. After stops at Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors in his native Argentina where he scored an astounding 143 goals in 207 matches, “El Pibe de Oro” made the transatlantic move to FC Barcelona in 1982 for a then-record $9 million. However, his time with L’equip blaugrana was spotty; his success was limited to the Spanish Copa Del Rey and the domestic Super Cup over their most competitive rivals of the time, Athletic Club Bilbao. It was later against the Basque side when Maradona’s ankle ligaments met a debilitating sliding tackle from Andoni Goikoetxea, erstwhile known as the “Butcher of Bilbao”.
With his reputation at stake and his trophy case missing a European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League Trophy), the unhappy Maradona made the move to Serie A, transferring to SSC Napoli for another record fee of $12 million in 1984. The southern Italian club, a relative lightweight among its more established competitors, enjoyed an unprecedented ascent to the top of the league. In seven seasons at Napoli, Maradona carried the club to two Scudettos (league titles), a Coppa Italia, the 1989 UEFA (now Europa) Cup, and the Italian Supercup one year later. Maradona held the international sports world in the palm of his hand. If you thought the Joe Greene Coca-Cola commercial was big in America, imagine the global airtime its soccer counterpart received when Maradona endorsed the soft drink. But despite the universal adulation and acknowledgment of his greatness, he never did he come close to winning the European Cup.
Along with the glory came personal problems. Maradona’s drug abuse spiked at a level that forced him to incur fines upwards of $70,000 after missing numerous games and practices due to “stress”. There were rumors of extramarital affairs and his affiliations with organized crime. After the 1990 World Cup in which he captained his Argentine side to a loss in the final to West Germany, his career finally reached its boiling point. He tested positive for cocaine in 1991 and was released from his contract with Napoli a year after. He could never regain his form, with a brief spell in Sevilla in 1992-93 ending his European adventure the same as it began—without a European Cup in tow. Between stints at Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors for the second time, Maradona’s return home to Argentina from 1993 until his retirement in 1998 displayed the deterioration of his skills. He was expelled after playing two games in the 1994 World Cup for failing yet another doping test, and in his last four sporadic seasons at club level, found the back of the net just seven times.
In all, however, his final tally of accomplishments is as indicative of his dominance as anyone who has ever participated in a professional sport: 311 goals, five domestic cups, three league titles, a UEFA Cup, a World Cup, and a co-FIFA Player of the Century award. But I bet he would trade it all for the fleeting glory of clutching the European Cup just once in his storied career. (Well, except maybe that World Cup, of course.)
HONORABLE MENTION/GRAY AREA
SPORT: Football, Baseball
CAREER LENGTH: 1987-90 (Football); 1986-94 (Baseball)
NEVER APPEARED IN: Super Bowl, World Series
WHY HE DOESN’T MAKE THE LIST: As a multi-sport star reminiscent of Jim Thorpe, Jackson was robbed of his prime by a hip injury sustained as a halfback for the Los Angeles Raiders in a 1991 playoff game against Cincinnati. (Deion Sanders wasn't nearly as great a player on the diamond as he was on the gridiron. Jackson was the 1989 MLB All-Star MVP.) While the hip was eventually replaced, he was never the same again. It must still be said that Bo’s skills during his brief time as an elite athlete bordered on extraterrestrial. Whether it was scaling a wall like Spider-Man as a Kansas City Royals outfielder to rob a Baltimore Oriole of a sure homerun, or bulldozing linebacker Brian Bosworth on his way to the end zone, Jackson could do it all. Unfortunately, that fateful moment at the L.A. Coliseum deprived Bo from reaching his full potential. At least his memory lives on in American pop culture, as his “Bo Knows” Nike commercials and unstoppable Tecmo Bowl alterego have been immortalized by YouTube and ESPN’s Bill Simmons.
CAREER LENGTH: 1968-84
NEVER APPEARED IN: Stanley Cup Final
WHY HE DOESN’T MAKE THE LIST: Communism. Widely considered the greatest goaltender of all-time, Tretiak eschewed a myriad of offers to defect to North America out of loyalty to the Soviet Union. With three Olympic gold medals, 10 golds in the World Championships, and 19 international medals in all, “The Man With 1000 Hands” did not lack in the achievements department. While most Americans remember him for being pulled after the first period against the “Miracle on Ice” team in the 1980 Olympics, hardcore hockey fans will be quick to remind them of the Super Series. In 1975, Tretiak’s hometown CSKA Moscow team was given one opportunity to play against the NHL’s best. In a game against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens, Tretiak willed the Red Army to a 3-3 tie despite being outshot 38-13. He was the first player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame without having played in the NHL.
CAREER LENGTH: 1961-86
NEVER APPEARED IN: Heavyweight world title bout
WHY HE DOESN’T MAKE THE LIST: Much like Tretiak, the Cold War effectively put the clamps on Stevenson’s pro career. Only one of three boxers to win three Olympic gold medals, the native of Camagüey, Cuba, dominated the international scene during a time when amateur boxing was scored more similar to the pro style. With that said, Stevenson didn't cruise to easy decisions; he often went for the knockout and succeeded. After going undefeated at the 1972, 1976, and 1980 Olympics, he was primed for his record-breaking fourth gold medal but was prevented from participating in Los Angeles due to the Communist nations’ boycott of 1984. As a measure of his stature as a fighter, American fight promoters were willing to allow Stevenson, if he defected, to make his professional debut against then-champion Muhammad Ali for $5 million. The amateur legend champ replied, “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
CAREER LENGTH: 1956-1977
NEVER APPEARED IN: European Cup Final
WHY HE DOESN’T MAKE THE LIST: Over the course of his career, Pelé had numerous offers from the giants of Europe to leave Santos FC, but he played in an age before TV contracts and multimillion endorsement deals, so it made circumstances easier for the São Paolo club to keep him. But while he never had a shot at any European hardware, that’s not to say he never excelled on the club stage. In fact, Santos reached their peak as a club with the superstar striker, winning the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the European Cup, in 1962 and 1963. In all, he scored 474 goals in 438 appearances (over a goal a game!) in the Brazilian league. And as far as his international exploits, they are unparalleled. To this day, he remains the only soccer player ever to be a part of three World Cup winners (1958, 1962, and 1970). As an example of how Pelé transcended the sport, in 1967, the rival sides in the Nigerian Civil War agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire just so they could watch him play in an exhibition match in Lagos. After riding off into the sunset with the New York Cosmos from 1975-77, his name would eternally be synonymous with soccer, despite never having played in a European Cup tournament game. In 2000, he shared the FIFA Player of the Century award with Diego Maradona, but don’t ask the Argentinian to acknowledge it.
CAREER LENGTH: 1930-46
NEVER APPEARED IN: World Series
WHY HE DOESN’T MAKE THE LIST: With a career batting average of .359 and almost 800 homeruns according to the Hall of Fame, Josh Gibson may have been the greatest player to never participate in a World Series, but he’s not eligible for this list because he never played in the Major Leagues. As a result of the color barrier, the highest level of play Gibson could reach was the Negro League World Series, and he won it twice in 1943 and 1944 with the Homestead Grays. However, the argument that the 10-time All-Star’s prowess would have tailed off had he been given the shot afforded Jackie Robinson wouldn't do him justice. (Incidentally enough, Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers occurred just one year after Gibson’s retirement and subsequent death from a brain tumor). In 56 at-bats accrued from exhibition games against white major-league pitchers, the lifelong catcher amassed 21 basehits (.375) and hit two of them out of the park. Today, you can find his plaque in Cooperstown standing alongside the same players that were barred from competing against him due to institutional racism.