Six Degrees of Separation for pro athletes

Kevin Bacon in The Air Up There

Kevin Bacon in The Air Up There


Familiar with the game Six Degrees of Separation, or its popular variant Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Ben Blatt of Slate spent a week working on an amazing tool that connects professional athletes from the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Here’s how he describes his project:

…I built a tool to find the shortest possible connections between 50,000-plus professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey players. (Special thanks to the amazing Sports-Reference family of sites for the thorough databases for each sport.) Two athletes are considered “connected” if they played for the same team during the same season, although due to trades and injuries it’s possible that certain “connected” athletes never shared a field of play. You can play around with the widget at the top of the page to figure out the shortest path between (almost) every pair of North American pro athletes. These athletes include: more than 4,000 basketball players, including those who played on all NBA, BAA, and ABA teams, dating back to the 1940s; more than 23,000 football players dating back to classic NFL teams of the 1920s, such as the Frankford Yellow Jackets; just under 18,000 baseball players, from the 1870s to the present day; and more than 7,000 hockey players, from the WHA and NHL, dating back to the late 1910s.

Even though the range of time involved in these four sports varies from 67 years for basketball to 137 years for baseball, the number of connections needed to connect athletes within each sport is mostly the same. It only takes (at most) three steps to connect current players to any other current player playing in the same league. And if we include players dating back to the start of each league, the numbers are the following:

  • Hockey: 8 steps
  • Basketball: 9 steps
  • Baseball: 9 steps
  • Football: 10 steps

But to me, the coolest aspect of the app is the ability to connect players who played different sports. This is made possible by the handful of athletes who have had professional careers in more than one sport. For example, I’ve used the app to see how many steps separate Adrian Peterson (who’s played in the NFL since 2007) and George Mikan (who played in the BAA and NBA from 1948 to 1956). Shockingly, the answer is only six! Similarly, only eight steps separate Babe Ruth from Anthony Davis. You can connect any pro baseball, basketball, or football player with any other athlete from one of those three sports. Even crazier, the most steps required to do so is only 12! It’s fun to try to find one of these 12-step pairings.

Unfortunately for fans of Canada’s national pastime, since no hockey player has made it onto a top-level baseball, basketball, or football roster, it’s not possible to link hockey players with athletes from other sports. So for now, there is no way to connect Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan using this tool.

Sorry for ruining your productivity for the day. If you come across any interesting pairings while playing with the app, pass them along in the comments!

– Devin

PS: If you enjoy playing SDoS with actors, this website may be of interest to you.