Happy 51st birthday, Michael Jordan. You almost didn’t make it to age four.
In 1967 Jordan’s father was tuning up his car in the backyard of his parents house in Wallace, North Carolina. He used a couple of extension cords to stretch a lamp from the kitchen to the under the hood of the car. It had rained earlier, and the ground was still wet. And out toddled three-year-old Mike Jordan.
James Jordan started toward him, but it was too late. The boy walked right up to the juncture of the two extension cords and began playing with the live wires. A sudden surge of current sent him flying backward several feet. He was too shocked to cry, but he survived. And—who knows?—maybe that was the shock that turned him into a flying machine.
Jordan isn’t the only Chicago athletic icon to dodge death. Where would professional football be without George Halas, the longtime Chicago Bears owner and coach who was most responsible for guiding the National Football League from infancy to iconic status? Well, we almost found out. On July 24, 1915, the excursion boat Eastland capsized alongside its dock on the Chicago River. Among the nearly one thousand names listed as missing persons was “Halas, G.S.” However, to his everlasting good fortune, Halas had missed the boat. Five years later, he and a few pals founded the NFL.
But those might not even be the two most iconic sports figures to cheat fate. Here, as first compiled in my book The Sports 100, are nine of the most transcendent figures in athletic history and their near-misses (chronologically), along with the best book ever written about each of them:
1. George Halas: Several days after the Eastland disaster, two men showed up at the Halas home. They were prepared to mourn the loss of their fraternity brother from the University of Illinois—until Halas answered the door.
Best book: Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas by Jeff Davis
2. Babe Ruth: While driving in a car in 1920, Ruth was unable to negotiate a turn, spun off the road, and flipped over. He and his companions limped from the scene, spent the night in a nearby farmhouse, and finally made their way to Philadelphia the next day. There they were met with a newspaper headline: RUTH REPORTED KILLED IN CAR CRASH. The corpse went on to hit 650 more home runs.
Best book: Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert Creamer
3. Red Grange: At about the same time as Ruth’s near miss, an Illinois high school student named Red Grange was run over by a truck loaded with three tons of ice. He survived and went on to become a Hall of Famer who transformed pro football’s popularity.
Best book: The Galloping Ghost by Gary Andrew Poole
4. Jesse Owens: As a child, long before he won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and turned the notion of Aryan supremacy on its head, Owens survived being run over by a cotton drag.
Best book: Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap
5. Richard Petty: NASCAR’s all-time winningest driver (by far) was six years old in 1943 when he barely escaped as his North Carolina house was engulfed in flames.
Best book: Quotable Petty: Words of Wisdom, Success, and Courage, By and About Richard Petty, the King of Stock-Car Racing by Charles Chandler
6. Joe Namath: The future New York Jets star quarterback once had to hold on to a railing to escape from the path of an oncoming train on a bridge.
Best book: I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow… ‘Cause I Get Better-looking Every Day by Joe Namath and Dick Schaap
7. Arnold Palmer: As a senior at Wake Forest University, Palmer refused a friend’s exhortations to come along to the homecoming dance. Driving back from the dance, that friend was killed when his car careened off the road.
Best book: A Golfer’s Life by Arnold Palmer and James Dodson
8. Muhammad Ali: Two days before Ali won the heavyweight boxing title for the first time, he was riding in a speedboat despite the fact that he couldn’t swim. The boat capsized, and Ali was saved by a stranger.
Best book: Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
9. Michael Jordan: Four years after Jordan was nearly electrocuted, he narrowly escaped drowning.
Best book: The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith