Babe Ruth is credited with turning baseball into the national pastime, but he couldn't come into your home 12 times a day to sell you sneakers and soft drinks.
Michael Jordan is another story.
"I used to say that Michael was the Babe Ruth of basketball," Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said yesterday, "but I now believe that Babe Ruth was the Michael Jordan of baseball."
Jordan became bigger than basketball. Bigger than professional sports. Bigger than life. Through the miracle of television's global village, he has become a local hero to the world.
Perhaps that, more than anything else, is why he decided to end his nine-year career with the Bulls and pursue a more private life, but Jordan cited a variety of reasons during a lengthy news conference in Deerfield, Ill., yesterday.
"I have reached the pinnacle of my career," he said. "I have achieved a lot in my short career. I just feel I don't have anything else to prove."
His career included three straight NBA titles, three MVP awards and seven consecutive league scoring championships.
His endorsements, from Nike sneakers to Hanes underwear to McDonald's hamburgers, stretched the Michael Jordan season far beyond the basketball season and helped bring his yearly off-court income to $50 million.
"He showed that an athlete had the ability to cross over to products that weren't male-oriented. He broke through that barrier," said Noreen Jenney, president of Celebrity Endorsements Network of Woodland Hills, Calif.
That's not the only barrier he broke.
"There was a myth that black athletes cannot sell products, and he proved the magnitude of the star sold the product," said Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
However, Jordan also faced a gambling scandal and the suspicion, though quickly dispelled, that his alleged association with gambling figures somehow was connected with the murder of his father in July.
"This is probably the first time I've seen this many [media] people without a scandal," Jordan said. It was meant as a joke, but it was apparent throughout the question-and-answer session that he harbored resentment toward the media.
"When I stepped onto the basketball court, there wasn't anything left for me to prove," he said. "That's one of the reasons you guys stepped into my private life."
But Jordan didn't say the media pushed him out of basketball.
"I never wanted to leave when my skills started to diminish, because that's when I'd feel the foot in my back, pushing me out the door," he said. "My skills are still good. I am not on the downside of my career. This is the perfect time for me to walk away."
Not 10 minutes into his news conference, however, he was conceding the possibility of a comeback.
"I never say never," said Jordan, 30. "Five years from now, if the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me and [commissioner] David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back. But that's a decision I don't have to make at this moment."
He is the third NBA megastar to retire in the past three years. The Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson left after the 1990-91 season, and the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird gave in to back problems in 1992.
The mantel will be passed to the likes of Larry Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal, but it seems unlikely that either will wear it quite the way Jordan did. It will be some time before kids stop wanting to "Be Like Mike."
"He should keep going," said Nikkia Coates, 18, a student at Westminster High. "What about all the fans and people who looked up to him as a role model?"
Jordan made a graceful exit, but he still could not be expected to go out the way he came in. The legend was born when Jordan scored the winning basket in the 1982 NCAA championship game as a freshman at the University of North Carolina. He would go on to win two Olympic gold medals and become the world's most recognizable athlete since Muhammad Ali.
"There will never be another player like him," said Lori Hunter, 29, of West Baltimore, a sales clerk at Shoe City Sports. "He was just one of those athletes that God gave special gifts."
He was the athlete who finally proved that a man could fly, but he had to come down to earth sooner or later. He chose sooner.
He is seeking a more normal life, but it will be difficult to escape the public consciousness as long as his face continues to show up on billboards all over the world. Jordan said he hopes that the attention eventually will fade as new sports stars emerge to satisfy a hungry public. In the meantime, he intends to take a lower profile.
"I'm going to watch the grass grow," he said, "and I'm going to have to cut it."