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Thomas McKenna

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Ranking the Most Iconic Photographs in Sports History

Posted: 10/15/2013 5:00 pm

By now you've seen it. We all have. Thus far it has been the iconic image of the 2013 MLB Postseason. It's the still photograph showcasing the aftermath of David Ortiz's ridiculously magical, game-tying grand slam in game 2 of the ALCS. It features the monolithic legs of Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, sprawled across Fenway's right-center porch, as a single bullpen police officer and a raucous rabble of Sox fans celebrate behind him.

As a single moment in time captured happenstantially, the photo's immediate, impressive, visceral effect has not gone unnoticed or under-praised. Like any exceptional image, the photograph is so instantly iconic because it works on multiple levels at once. First of all, there's the excellent context provided within it -- that it occurs in Fenway, Park, one of the last baseball stadiums to still carry the aura and ghosts of Octobers past... that it came off the bat of Ortiz of all hitters, given Papi's presence as the most beloved 21st century Red Sox and his past history of derring-do (2004 ALCS, anyone?)... that it features a police officer in the shot, just months after that city's finest similarly broke through the membrane the separates sports and real life (that time was in the face of horror, this time just raw ebullience)... and that it happened against Torii Hunter, heretofore one of the most prolific home-run-robbers in all of baseball.

But there's also a more intangible tint of greatness to the photograph besides its narrative context or visual panache. It's a sense of fundamental greatness that transcends the play itself or the players therein, regardless of how impeccably Hunter's legs complement the cop's arms geometrically, or how clutch the home run itself actually was. This is the type of photo that captures the very essence of Sports -- its sublimity, its mythology, its allure in our culture. It takes the hoary, hackneyed cliches like "thrill of victory" and "agony of defeat," "110% percent" and "more than a game" and re-presents them anew, almost elementally.

ESPN's newly-signed sportswriter Jason Whitlock seemed to sense the preternatural tenor of the photograph, opening up a dialogue on Twitter about its place (or if a place is even warranted) amongst the all time, iconic sports pictures.

As much as I see artistry in this image, I'm not sure it belongs towards the top of that list. Time will be the ultimate decider of that. For instance, Boston winning this ALCS and then the World Series would do a lot to cement its legacy, but an extremely talented Detroit team responding with 3 victories of their own would do just as much to neutralize it. What I do know is that the photo itself and Jason's intelligent question got me thinking about what actually are the greatest, most dazzling photographs in sports history. And this is the list I've come up with...

#20: Dyson's Super Bowl Lunge Falls Short
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Thomas McKenna is a writer and editor. Previously he was an editorial fellow for the Huffington Post sports vertical. Follow him on twitter @tmckenna1