Sports Nut

The Million-Mile Club

Which athlete traveled the most miles in his career? Which team holds the single-season frequent-flyer record?

Mark Messier
Mark Messier celebrates his coronation as the most traveled man in sports.

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

In 1962, the Jerry West-led Los Angeles Lakers went the distance in the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics before losing Game 7 in overtime. While the Celtics walked away with their fourth consecutive championship, the Lakers did secure a sports record of their own: the most miles traveled in a single season by a team in the top four North American sports leagues.

With a total of 91,128 miles accrued, the 1961–62 Lakers could have circumnavigated the globe more than three and a half times. The Lakers had no easy road trips—at the time, the St. Louis Hawks (1,588 miles away) were the closest geographically of the eight other NBA teams. The Lakers’ 1962 season also culminated in playoff series against Detroit and Boston that added roughly 16,000 miles to their already hefty travel total. All mileage was determined by the distance between arenas, even though it’s likely that teams don’t take the shortest route between any two games. It’s possible, then, that those Lakers traveled more than 100,000 miles. Somebody raise a banner in Staples Center!

In recent years, the 2010–11 Vancouver Canucks—who are located in the far northwest, and played four playoff series—came the closest to challenging the Lakers’ record, racking up 78,433 miles. In the NBA, the 2004–05 Miami Heat are the most traveled team of recent decades, jaunting just more than 70,000 miles. In 2013–14, the average NBA team traveled approximately 46,800 miles. This is comparable to baseball and hockey, whose teams traveled an average of 38,180 and 44,100 miles. In the NFL, which has just 16 regular season games, the league average was a minuscule 12,800 miles.

Despite the Lakers’ long-ago record total, many teams—especially those in Major League Baseball—have seen their mileage increase over the decades. For one, more games means more traveling. (Teams play 162 games in the regular season, compared with 154 as recently as the early 1960s. The MLB playoffs have also expanded over time.) The game’s westward expansion has also made for longer hauls. The chart below plotting the distances traveled throughout Red Sox history spikes in 1961, when the distant Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins came into existence. The team’s most travel-heavy seasons are 2004 (when they won the World Series) and 2008 (when they started the season in Japan).

In contrast, the Lakers’ travel has decreased as the NBA has added teams out west. Still, the Lakers franchise has traveled more miles (3,561,568) than any other. This includes the team’s stint, from 1947 to 1960, as the Minneapolis Lakers, marked in red in the chart below. Though the Lakers are barely half as old as some baseball franchises, such as the Braves or Cubs, their consistent 50,000–to–60,000-mile seasons place them at the top of the frequent-flyer heap.

In hockey, the Detroit Red Wings (including their time as the Detroit Cougars and Detroit Falcons) top their competitors with 2,716,297 miles. The San Francisco/New York Giants have traveled more than any other baseball team, with a total of 3,338,930 miles, and the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers of the AFL and NFL beat out the rest of pro football (even when including pre–Super Bowl-era teams as listed here) with 910,874 miles traveled.

Which single player has traveled the most? I wish I could tell you with certainty. Information on games where players did not make appearances due to injury or other reasons is spotty at best when going back more than a few decades.

We can, however, use team travel as a proxy for individual player travel to at least get a ceiling on how much each person could have journeyed. I’ve isolated every player who could have traveled more than 1 million miles in his career, had he played in every game. Once I isolated that select group, I excluded the games where I could be sure those players didn’t travel on account of trades. However, due to the spotty nature of daily rosters, players were credited for all miles traveled by a particular team while they were members of that team.

After all that, a total of 20 athletes are left standing in the Million-Mile Club. The (maybe) all-time champ: the NHL’s Mark Messier.

Of those who have traveled more than 1 million miles, 10 are hockey players, while five each played baseball and basketball. The most traveled men in baseball and basketball: Jamie Moyer and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, respectively. The key to amassing so many miles isn’t all that surprising: Play for a very long time. Messier, Moyer, and Abdul-Jabbar all suited up into their 40s. The player on this list with the shortest career: Jerry West, who played just 14 seasons, all for the peripatetic Los Angeles Lakers.