Who's been famousest for the longest?

Jim McIsaac

A couple of months ago in a New Yorker article about Paul McCartney's new record, I saw this: "McCartney has been famous at an unimaginable level longer for than nearly anyone else alive."

We're all going to define "famous at an unimaginable level" differently, but I did get to wondering if anyone's been unimaginably famous longer than Paul McCartney. Honestly, now that Marshal Tito and Frank Sinatra are gone, I can't think of anybody. Who's been famous for longer than McCartney. Sure, Olivia DeHavilland and Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Dyke and John Glenn have all been enormously famous, at least in these United States. But your average college student couldn't pick any of them out of a lineup. Same for Billy Graham.

Anyway, of course my thoughts quickly turned to baseball. Alas, I don't know that it's possible for a baseball player to remain "famous at an unimaginable level" after his playing career. Not unless you're a New York Yankees outfielder, anyway. And all those guys are dead. But I have identified five baseball players who have remained at least somewhat famous, even outside baseball circles, for a long, long time.

At least according to my semi-scientific survey: I asked my girlfriend, who was born in the 1970s and has exactly zero interest in baseball, if she'd ever heard of various candidates. Neatly for my purposes, she's heard of five players in toto who played before 1970. Here are those five players, ranked by their first year of big-time fame (as judged by me, subjectively):

1. Willie Mays (crazy-famous for 62 years)
2. Hank Aaron (56 years)
3. Sandy Koufax (50 years)
4. Pete Rose (48 years)
5. Reggie Jackson (44 years)

Paul McCartney's been unimaginably famous just about every day for the last 50 years, with the advantage of being world famous, unlike The Say Hey Kid and Hammering Hank. But have any living Americans been famous for longer than Willie Mays? Well, Billy Graham, who turned 95 last month, became nationally famous in 1949, a couple of years before Mays. Meanwhile, Mickey Rooney achieved fame in 1937 and '38, with key roles in the first Andy Hardy movie and opposite Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. Is he still famous famous? Nah, probably not. Then again, my girlfriend knows who he is. So Mickey's in. Muhammad Ali, too; he's been famous around the world for at least 50 years.

Oh, and Fidel Castro! He's a big baseball fan and he's been famous since before Sandy Koufax, even.

Addendum: I'm an idiot. Yogi Berra got famous in 1950 or '51 and -- thanks to the ubiquity of Yogiisms and Yogi Bear -- has been famous ever since.

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