June 02, 2023
If you had to pick the face of Philadelphia sports right now, who would you pick?
We've got the reigning NBA MVP in Joel Embiid, who admittedly fell short when it mattered the most against the Celtics a few weeks ago.
Then there is Bryce Harper, the reigning NLCS MVP who helped lead the Phillies to a shocking World Series run last season.
And of course, there's Jalen Hurts, who is the second highest-paid player in football and probably should have won NFL MVP honors last season as he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
It's not an easy decision, but it's one we decided was worth figuring out. But let's take it further. What about 1980, when Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Julius Erving and Ron Jaworski were all in their primes?
Who was the face of Philadelphia sports every year dating back to 1950?
Bednarik was one of the best Eagles of all time on both sides of the ball and in his prime in the late 50's just before the Eagles won their first title in 1960. His reign as the face of sports in the city of Philly would have continued if not for the emergence of one of the best basketball players, and most famous athletes, of all time.
Chamberlain called Philly home, first with the Warriors from 1959-1963, and then with the Sixers again from 1965 until he went west to the Lakers in 1968. Wilt averaged over 43 points per game during his three full seasons with the Warriors, who moved to San Francisco. When he was traded to the Sixers, he helped lead them to the 1967 NBA title.
During the two seasons that 'The Stilt' was absent from the city, the Phillies' top players filled the void in Callison and then a young Allen. Though the Phillies didn't make the World Series in those seasons, they did have a winning record, which is more than can be said for the lowly Eagles and Sixers by that point. Allen would have continued as the face of the city if he didn't go to the Cardinals in 1970.
The early 1970s are really remembered for the golden age of the Broad Street Bullies, which is why their best player Bobby Clarke is our choice for the face of the city during most of these years. His Flyers made the Stanley Cup three times, won it twice, and established Philly as a hockey town in the process.
We do have to press pause for one season on Clarke because it's hard to tell the history of sports in Philly without acknowledging how ridiculously good Steve Carlton was in '72. He went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA, won the NL Cy Young, and was almost the MVP too.
Dr. J left the ABA for the NBA in 1977 and the Sixers received one of the most influential basketball players in history. Over these three seasons, Erving was an All-Star and led the Sixers to at least one playoff round victory every year as well as the NBA finals in '77. If not for our next athlete, the era of Dr. J. could have lasted quite a while, but a generational baseball superstar came on the scene and took the mantle away...
Over the eight seasons we're anointing Schmidt as the face of Philadelphia sports — all after he turned 30 by the way — Michael Jack Schmidt made seven All-Star teams, won three MVP awards, six Gold Gloves and six Silver Slugger awards. He also led the Phillies to the World Series twice, winning it all in 1980. He is firmly in the Philadelphia sports Mount Rushmore.
Cunningham may not be an all-time great in the city, but with most of the teams hitting the skids during this era, he was surely the most exciting player to watch. He was the NFL MVP runner-up two times over these three seasons.
We stick with the Eagles but flip to the defensive side of the ball for White, the best pass rusher in NFL history, who was doing immense damage in the NFC East these two seasons as Cunningham battled through injuries. Over his eight seasons in Philly, White accumulated 124 sacks with 29 of them coming in 1991 and '92.
The Eagles won't reemerge with a face of the franchise again for over a decade, in part because of the 1993 Phillies run that was so firmly engrained into the fabric of the city. Arguably the best player on that team was Daulton, a gritty catcher who was among the game's best hitters as well.
Back to the Flyers in the mid-1990s, Lindros — perhaps the best Flyer ever? — was in his prime and putting them in contention during a stretch when the other teams in the city were pretty forgettable. He averaged 1.36 points per game during his tenure in Philadelphia and won the Hart Trophy for NHL MVP in 1995.
The Iverson era truly took hold in the early 2000s and AI was clearly the most popular athlete in the city, even with the Eagles winning the division every year and making four straight NFC title games during that same stretch. Few players in the history of the NBA were so important to a city, nor so impactful, and his MVP-caliber scoring kept the Sixers relevant for nearly a decade.
The 2004 Eagles' season, however, deserves recognition as the team did make it to its second-ever Super Bowl. McNabb was the second most popular athlete in the city, playing the most important position in Philly sports, and he nearly brought the city its first Super Bowl.
The Sixers exited stage left while the Phillies took the spotlight in the mid to late aughts, collecting five straight NL East titles and the 2008 World Series. The trio of Howard, Rollins and Utley was a mega-popular triumvirate in the area during these years and they still live on as the more popular Phillies jerseys you'll see at games to this day.
The 2010 and 2011 seasons were masterful by Halladay, and his two no-hitters (one of them in the playoffs) are among the most remembered games in recent city memory.
With no disrespect to the former Flyers captain, 'G' sort of earns this moniker by default during this dry era of Philly sports history. The Sixers were in the meat of The Process while the Phillies hung on to their aging stars too long and entered a period of irrelevancy. The Eagles toiled through Andy Reid's firing and the Chip Kelly years. But Giroux was a reliable star with a Flyers team that at least found a way to stay in the mix every spring.
The Wentz era was short-lived and... very weird. It began with the team trading up for the second overall pick in the 2016 draft and surprisingly naming their new rookie their Opening Day starter at QB. He was solid as a rookie and nearly an MVP during his sophomore campaign, getting injured and clearing the way for Nick Foles to win Super Bowl LVII. Wentz was good in 2018 but injuries derailed him once again. It all came crumbling down in the two years after, leading to his trade demand, his demise as a starting quarterback and Jalen Hurts becoming an MVP candidate in his own right.
A breath of fresh air was needed, badly, in 2019, with the Sixers unable to cross the second-round hump (LOL), the Flyers in purgatory (LOL), and the Phillies lacking any kind of identity (wait, has anything changed at all?). In came Harper, a former MVP with the Nationals and one of the best players in baseball, expressing his deep desire to play in the city. He won a second MVP award with his second team and led the Phillies to a surprise World Series run in 2022. He'd probably remain the face of the city if not for one man out-pacing him.
Hurts burst onto the scene as Wentz deteriorated and only led the Eagles to their third-ever Super Bowl while also nearly winning NFL MVP honors before commanding the highest salary (now the second after Lamar Jackson) in NFL history. The Birds' future is bright, and Hurts is among the best players in the entire sport. The city is his right now.
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