Honoring legends who passed during 2010
From Feller to Steinbrenner, baseball lost far too many greats
No one will take issue with this: Too many people have died this year. In baseball and everywhere else, too many. When deaths come in dozens, no one gets his due in the public forum, even in the infinity of cyberspace. So what follows is not a series of thorough life and death stories, but rather an attempt to provide snapshots of the many people who passed this year. It's presented as a celebration as much as a review.
A year that has prompted too many days of sadness in our game is about to finish its business and go away. Good riddance to 2010. It hurt us. It will hurt us into 2011. It robbed us of iconic genius, depleted our supply of Kleenex and diminished our quality of life. Seldom has baseball been hit so hard by death in one pass through the calendar. A "Sadder Day In The Park" was far too prevalent in '10.
"Turn the page" is what the players say after losses. And we try to follow that advice now, though not comfortably. Some of the turned pages have been properly dog-earred, of course, so we may return to them and appreciate again those who have passed. Still, a strong sense of loss lingers throughout the game.
Familiar and popular voices went silent in Seattle, Detroit and the Bronx. Hall of Famers were felled, as were the hero of the "Miracle at Coogan's Bluff" and players of more modest accomplishment. We lost famous folks and those who worked in relative anonymity in the ballpark offices. And we can't know how many long-occupied ballpark seats will be empty next summer.
Cleveland -- no, the nation -- lost Bob Feller: patriot first, power pitcher par excellence second. The Indians' tom-tom should observe a moment of silence. "Rapid Robert" had been a Hall of Famer for more than half his life. And we shouldn't overlook a one-time shortstop from Purdue who cherished the game, came to admire Joe Torre's manner and success, and coached UCLA to NCAA basketball championships, John Wooden.
Philadelphia lost a Wooden-like gentleman, and a pitcher who won a lot and routinely finished what he started. Robin Roberts.
The Mariners lost the radio voice and remarkable energy of Dave Niehaus. "My oh my," how odd it will be if a different voice orders up some "rye bread and mustard" come summer. His was a voice in the Northwest since Day 1 of the franchise. To hear another call a Mariners game will be as foreign as some other band singing "Hey Jude."
The Yankees lost prominent components of their brand: their Boss, the voice of their former ballpark and popular pieces of the pennant-rich past.
THOSE WE LOST IN 2010
|Maury Allen||New York Post||Writer|
|Steve Boros||Tigers||Third baseman|
|Phil Cavarretta||Cubs||First baseman|
|Mike Celizic||Bergen Record||Writer|
|Walt Dropo||Red Sox||First baseman|
|Ron Santo||Cubs||Third baseman|
|Bill Shannon||Yankees||Official Scorer|
|Bob Sheppard||Yankees||PA Announcer|
|Tom Vandergriff||Rangers||Mayor of Arlington|
|Vic Ziegel||New York Post||Writer|
Chicago's losses included the man who led the Cubs to their most recent World Series appearance in 1945, Phil Cavarretta, and a man who clicked his heels and played third base on both sides of town, hit home runs, inspired colleagues and made people around him smile, gallant Ron Santo. Cavarretta was the National League MVP and batting champion in '45. He later served as the Mets' hitting coach. Santo endured the run of the Miracle Mets in '69.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area was hit hard by the passing on Thursday of Tom Vandergriff, who persuaded Washington Senators owner Bob Short to move his franchise to Arlington after the 1971 season. Tom's son, Victor Vandergriff, said his father had been in attendance in October when the Rangers won the ALCS.
Los Angeles suffered the loss of Willie Davis, a man who could run, hit, chase down a fly ball, long jump and act.
The deaths of Ernie Harwell, a man who could talk, and Sparky Anderson, a man who could talk and manage, left Motown sad and sighing. The passing of Bill Lajoie this week touched many stations in Major League Baseball -- he had worked for seven clubs in the last 46 years. But Lajoie was most readily associated with the Tigers, having engineered the trades that made Willie Hernandez and Darrell Evans parts of the 1984 World Series championship team. One-time Tigers third baseman Steve Boros also died this week. A former big league manager for two clubs, Boros had spent the last nine years working with the Tigers.
Baltimore bid farewell to Mike Cuellar, the screwballer and one of four Orioles starters to win at least 20 games in 1971. The Rangers felt the passing of Jim Bibby, who pitched their first no-hitter in '73. And the death of Lubie Veal touched many markets -- Chicago, Boston and Cincinnati, especially. The grass was always greener where he worked on the lawn.
The Braves and Blue Jays, in particular, mourned the summer passing of Al LaMacchia, a trusted scout and bona fide gentleman who endured a split allegiance when the Braves and Jays met in the 1992 World Series.
Walt Dropo of the Red Sox was the American League Rookie of the Year in '50, when he led the league with 144 RBIs and hit 34 home runs. He played in 12 subsequent seasons with the Red Sox, Tigers, White Sox, Reds and Orioles, though he never again approached those figures. Dropo left the University of Connecticut as its leading scorer in basketball and was drafted to play football by the Chicago Bears. He once had hits in 12 consecutive plate appearances.
Some 2010 deaths prompted hidden and warm smiles because the mere mention of distinctive surnames -- Al Pilarcik and Valmy Thomas -- brought thoughts of innocent days when we traded, flipped or just collected their cards. There was a uniqueness to Valmy, who caught for the Giants, Phillies and Orioles. Valmy?
If you knew of brash Bobby Bragan in his time in uniform, the memories prompted by his death may have brought a smile to your face, too. He was an entertaining character. You may recall, too, that Life Magazine photograph of him lying on the ground while debating an umpire.
Bragan was a baseball lifer and scholar, respected by Branch Rickey and respectful of baseball's premier architect. Bobby Valentine pridefully acknowledges he owes part of his baseball education to Bragan. And the game in general acknowledged Bragan's contributions as a player (Phillies and Dodgers), coach (Dodgers and Colt 45's), manager (Braves, Pirates and Indians), president of the Minor Leagues and personal tutor for Maury Wills.
The death of pitcher Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish must have prompted some longtime Indians fan to wonder whether all 41 characters would fit on his gravestone. No such concern developed when journeyman outfielder Joe Lis died. Ed Ott's name is shorter.
Those familiar with former Phillies pitcher Wayne Twitchell might have wondered how 13 victories and five shutouts in 1973 were followed by eight undistinguished seasons with three other clubs. The premature passing of pitchers Tom Underwood, Jose Lima, and Jeriome Robertson and Rockies president Keli McGregor just made us wonder, period. They were such young men. Underwood, 56, was a victim of cancer, Lima died at 37 of a heart attack, and McGregor, 48, fell to a rare viral infection. Robertson, 33, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Lima, so flamboyant and full of fun, was a one-source din. "Lima Time" was all about decibels and keeping his colleagues loose.
It was a losing year everywhere, it seemed, though nowhere more than in the Bronx. The Yankees were reluctant leaders in funerals attended. In greater New York, it seemed death was guilty of piling on.
The nation noted the death of George M. Steinbrenner in July, mere weeks after Bob Sheppard, the 99-year-old public-address announcer at the old Stadium, passed. Neither man could be as big in death as he had been in life. The memorial plaque for Steinbrenner, set in center field in the House the Boss Built, is enormous and, at the same time, befitting the man who demanded unqualified success, quietly assisted folks who lacked resources, fostered untold ambivalence and -- perhaps most notably -- changed the landscape of the game and the profile of owners in professional sports.
Sheppard, the ultimate gentleman whose delivery was deliberate and dignified, will be recalled in a less grandiose way each time "De-rek Jee-tah" is introduced distinctively via a recording of his pleasant voice at Yankee Stadium. Rank has its privileges, and the Captain wanted to extend Sheppard's legacy.
Those with good Yankees memory will recall cup-of-coffee outfielder Oscar Azocar and how beautifully Sheppard pronounced his and other Latin names. The more syllables in a name, the better Shep made it sound. Jose Valdivielso and Salome Barojas were among his favorite names to say. The long names of Jim Pagliaroni and Rogelio Martinez are included in the already-too-long 2010 necrology.
The Yankees also lost a major and a King. Ralph Houk -- "The Major" to Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra -- played (though rarely) for the Yankees before he managed and general managed them, later moving on to the dugouts in Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park. Clyde King pitched for the Dodgers, managed the Giants -- albeit in San Francisco -- and managed the Yankees 20 years after Houk's unit won a second consecutive World Series. King swore that, in 1951, he struck out Willie Mays with a pitch that broke oddly because of the bubble gum he had stuck on the ball. He called it "my Bazooka-ball." There is no record of Mays striking out against him. Maybe it was in Spring Training.
Gil McDougald, a special Yankee, was a contradiction -- a low-profile player with great impact, the kind of versatile and reliable player every championship team needs. A favorite of Casey Stengel's, the AL Rookie of the Year in '51 earned MVP votes for five of his 10 seasons. A two-position All-Star, McDougald played in eight World Series and won five rings from 1951-60.
The late Frank Verdi was a sip-of-coffee Yankees shortstop -- one inning, no chances at Fenway Park in a Yankees' victory in '53. Verdi was removed for a pinch-hitter the following half-inning. He played in 1,916 Minor League games and managed in the Minors for the Yankees, Mets, Orioles, Twins, Senators and Astros organizations for close to 30 years, winning four Triple-A championships with the Yankees' affiliates. He also gained a measure of celebrity by surviving a random, in-game gunshot in Cuba in '59. The plastic lining of his helmet deflected a bullet.
Earlier in the year, New Yorkers with long memories joined Tigers fans in mourning the death of Harwell, whose first big league radio gig was in Brooklyn in 1948 after the Dodgers had traded -- yes, traded -- for him.
The press box took a hit in New York, as well. Two of its highest profile members -- Maury Allen and Vic Ziegel -- died. Bill Shannon, who fed the wire services and was a dedicated official scorer, was killed in a fire. And there was Mike Celizic, who authored a book about Wills and columns for The Record of North Jersey and msnbc.com before he was forced to write, "I'm dying. Damn!" He had a baseball writer's card and a conscience.
Such a mournful summer it was in the New York market. Citi Field and Yankee Stadium should have been outfitted with black arm bands.
Less recognized by the masses -- but prompting a profound sense of loss in Queens -- was the death of Bob Mandt, a kind and brilliant Mensa man who sold tickets to Mets games in a midtown hotel long before the Mets had a roster, or even a Casey, and ran Shea Stadium into the 2000s. Crossword puzzles seldom puzzled him. His office at Shea was the unofficial Hall of Fame for the club. Mandt counseled Tom Seaver, Gil Hodges and Berra, dominated press room "Jeopardy!" competition and kept an original Beatles poster and a New York Titans bobblehead doll near his desk.
Mandt knew Bob Shaw, the handsome pitcher who won 108 games in his career, including 11 in a 3 1/2-month tour with the 66-95 Mets in 1966, before Shaw's death this year.
The long-lamented New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers were not immune to the sorrows that engulfed the market's baseball community. Bobby Thomson, who hit the home run that echoed across all time zones in '51, and Gene Hermanski, the last living link to the first Brooklyn lineup that included Jackie Robinson, died; so too did Billy Loes, who once lost a ground ball in the sun in Brooklyn.
How do we replace a man who cautioned against achieving too much? "Never win 20 [games]," Loes said, "'cause they'll expect you to do it again." He wisely topped off at 14 victories in '53.
The late Clint Hartung became recognized for both his promise and promise unfulfilled in six seasons with the Giants. His cruel big league nickname was "Floppy." He never played regularly in the outfield and produced a 29-29 record as a starter and reliever. But as a pinch-runner inserted as Ralph Branca was summoned from the Dodgers' bullpen, Hartung scored the first of the three runs produced by Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World."
Other baseball nicknames were equally insulting. Pitcher Bill Hoeft -- yes, he too died in 2010 -- was called "Wilson" by his Tigers teammates in the 1950s because his pock-marked complexion reminded them of the surface of a golf ball. Ouch.
Steinbrenner was known by several other names -- The Boss, of course, and, as one New York writer suggested, the "Prod of the Yankees." His passing was felt in Tampa, his adopted hometown, in Cleveland, where he left his first marks on the public consciousness and, of course, in New York, the city that became spoiled by the byproducts of his ego, treasury and business sense working in concert.
Others taken from us had dual baseball citizenship -- Harwell and Anderson. Harwell came from the South, made a pit stop at Ebbets Field when the great Red Barber became ill in '48 and moved on to Motown. A statue of everybody's favorite Uncle Ernie stands inside Comerica Park.
Rickey wanted Harwell for the Dodgers' radio booth, so he dealt a Minor League catcher, Cliff Dapper, to the Atlanta Crackers for the folksy southern tones of a man who later gained iconic status in Detroit.
Lajoie's remarkable prescience in dealing for Willie Hernandez during Spring Training of '84 provided the Tigers with the pitcher who saved 32 games and became the AL MVP. "Yeah, we pretty much figured we'd brought in the MVP," was the tongue-in-cheek assessment of the trade Lajoie offered when Hernandez won the award.
Boros, who played parts of four seasons with the Tigers, became one of the game's forward thinkers in the 1980's when he coached with the Expos and Royals and managed the A's and Padres.
George Anderson, as only his wife and mother called him, was of Cincinnati and Detroit. Teams he managed in each city won a World Series; his Reds won two. No other manager executed that double play before he did. Sparky made outrageous assessments of his players' talents, hooked his pitchers quickly, mangled the English language and repeatedly filled notebooks for reporters. He remained a humble man, never forgetting that he batted .218 in his lone big league season and that, in an offseason job, he set a record for dinette tables assembled in one day.
Nor did Houk forget his modest past. The first of Steinbrenner's managers, he had been on the Yankees' roster for eight years and played in all of 91 games. As a manager with the Yankees, Tigers and Red Sox, he paid more attention to those who weren't playing, he said. Many of those who were playing became Hall of Famers -- Mantle, Ford, Berra, Al Kaline, Wade Boggs, Dennis Eckersley, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Perez, Jim Rice. The stars, regulars and understudies identified Houk as a "player's manager."
"The Major" won bronze and silver stars in the Battle of the Bulge. He didn't appreciate General Patton because "he had no regard for his men." He learned what kind of a leader to be from others -- Stengel included.
Houk had a thing about shoes. He was one of the first to kick dirt on the feet of umpires who had displeased him, and he often spit tobacco juice on the shoes of reporters. He justified the habit, saying his saliva on footwear indicated he liked the man wearing it. He was remarkably accurate.
Ziegel also knew from shoes. He was around the dreadful Mets teams of the 1960s, writing for the New York Post. When the Mets uncharacteristically scored in double figures one day, Stengel said "We had our hittin' shoes on today." Ziegel immediately canvassed the clubhouse to determine what shoes each man had worn to the park that day. Years later, he recalled Thom McCann had beaten out Allen Edmunds. Regrettably, that sort of enterprising story isn't cherished anymore.
Allen wrote for the Post, too. He asked impertinent questions and wrote game stories as if he were double parked. Bill Mazeroski's hands weren't nearly so quick. The press box imagined at least two or three of Maury's 38 books had been begun and finished in a single rain delay. "A billion Chinese don't care," he would say, if asked whether speed had compromised his finished product. That was before the Internet and the game's hope for globalization.
Allen presented himself as a historian and became a frequent contributor to video histories of the game. "The world must have been a lot smaller when Thomson beat Ralph [Branca] if it was heard all over the world," he once suggested. Yet he had railed against the notion that Kirk Gibson's home run off Eckersley had greater and wider impact than Thomson's pennant-deciding shot at the Polo Grounds. "New York was baseball's heart in the '50s. ... Still is," Maury said.
Ziegel, Allen and their contemporaries had high regard for Roberts and Santo; so did the contemporaries of Roberts and Santo. Few men who reached the levels Roberts attained have been so widely hailed for their pleasant nature and general goodness. He was a brilliant pitcher and the man who brought Marvin Miller and the players together. Steinbrenner once asked Roberts, "What would guys like you and Feller cost me now?" Roberts was willing to take less than "Rapid Robert."
Roberts had Superman stamina. He made relief pitchers obsolete, once pitching complete games in 28 consecutive starts over two seasons. "He was like a diesel engine," said his fellow Phillies starter Curt Simmons. "The more you used him, the better he ran."
Santo was to the Cubs what Phil Rizzuto had been to the Yankees -- an immensely popular player who left the infield to root from the booth. Rizzuto reached the Hall after a long wait; Chicago still stews about Santo's exclusion. Santo was the soul of the Cubs. He had no pretenses and few enemies. He shot insulin into his stomach each day of his career, and only his roommate knew.
Davis' place in the long history of the Dodgers franchise is not so celebrated as Roberts' and Santo's with their respective clubs, but only Zack Wheat and Pee Wee Reese produced more Dodgers hits than the one-time track and field star who replaced Duke Snider in center field. And Davis ranks in the franchise's top 10 in runs, doubles, triples, RBIs and stolen bases.
Years earlier, the Dodgers' outfield included Hermanski, a useful player whose sense of humor made for some head-scratching and double takes. When Robinson received a letter warning him he would be shot if he took the field, it was Hermanski who suggested Dodgers players could confuse the would-be sniper by all wearing Robinson's No. 42.
"Useful" characterized Ed Kirkpatrick, who played first, third and all three outfield positions -- and caught -- for the Angels, Royals, Pirates, Rangers and Brewers in his 17-year career. Kirkpatrick, a throwback, never had 500 at-bats or 70 RBIs in a season, but managers valued him. He required a wheelchair for the final 19 years of his life after suffering partial paralysis in an automobile accident in 1981.
And so it goes. Some of those taken from us in this cold, baseball-lethal year had become part of the fabric of the game. Niehaus, Harwell and Sheppard spoke to generations.
Feller resonated with all ages. The greatest player in the history of the Indians believed in sweat, firm handshakes and unfiltered speech. When he spoke, his voice filled the room. He seemed to emphasize every word. He apologized as often as he backed off.
"No need to if you've got it right," he said in Cooperstown in July. He preferred "steadfast" to "stubborn" as an adjective applied to him, but he hardly shrunk away from the latter. "I am proud of who I am and what I stand for," he said that day. "I'm pretty sure about what this country is and was and what it should be. I don't think I have the wrong idea. I'm behind it, always have been, because it's the best way to live."
The wonderful malaprop of one-time Mets manager Wes Westrum certainly applies to Feller: "When they made him, they threw away the molding."
Sheppard taught New York to pronounce Di-MAH-ge-o properly. Santo played before one generation and spoke to later ones. Steinbrenner bullied the game for nearly 40 years and convinced fans of the game's flagship franchise that baseball in October was guaranteed. Sparky managed for 26 years, Houk for 20. Roberts always will make the Hall of Fame a better place. And Thomson's home run gave baseball one of those, "Everyone knows where they were when it happened" moments.
Shannon scored games for more than 30 years and attended games for 60, going to a Yankees game -- home or away -- on his birthdays for decades. He embraced the arcane fact. Allen and Ziegel provided accounts of what we hadn't witnessed. Ziegel was funnier in print than Loes was in person.
And, "My oh my," could Willie Davis run.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.