Recently crowned Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson joined the Texas Rangers for spring training this week, raising questions about whether he might someday play professional baseball in addition to football. (The Seattle Seahawks quarterback played college baseball and was drafted by the Rangers last June.)
Wilson was diplomatic about his chances of two-sport stardom, emphasizing his commitment to football but refusing to rule out a future in baseball. But if he ever puts on both hats (or one hat and one helmet), Wilson would instantly be one of history’s most successful athletes of the baseball/football variety. He’s already joined a rarified club.
Playing at the highest level in two sports is extraordinarily uncommon. Out of a pool of athletes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, only 129 — including Wilson but excluding Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State, who hasn’t played professional baseball yet — have been assigned both a baseball ID (as a major or minor leaguer) and a football ID (as a college or professional player) in Sports-Reference.com’s database.
Of those, just 61 played in both the NFL and MLB. The majority was unsuccessful: 43 of those 61 players produced zero or fewer career wins above replacement (WAR) in baseball and zero points of Approximate Value (AV) in football. (Both metrics are overall measures of value in their respective sports.)
Wilson is special. He’s never created any WAR on a major-league diamond, but he has 32 lifetime AV in two NFL seasons. Only two players who also played in baseball’s big leagues ever generated more career NFL value: Deion Sanders (148 AV) and 1960s-era Green Bay Packers safety Tom Brown (34 AV). (If you’re wondering, Bo Jackson only generated 24 AV before injuries cut his career short.)
Wilson hasn’t made it to the big leagues yet. In fact, as a minor leaguer in the Colorado Rockies’ system, he never advanced past the Single A level. Focusing on his preparation for the NFL draft, Wilson declined the Rockies’ invitation to spring training in 2012, and that was probably a wise decision after an unimpressive 2011 campaign. He finished last in OPS (on-base plus slugging) among qualified hitters in the South Atlantic League.
Most likely, Wilson will join the likes of John Elway, Ken Stabler, Ricky Williams and other great NFL players in Sports-Reference’s database who were gifted enough athletically to play professional baseball, albeit only in the minor leagues. That accomplishment might not be the pinnacle of achievement in both sports, but it’s exceedingly rare in its own right.