Remembering the baseball legends we lost in 2020

St. Louis Cardinals legend Lou Brock (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
St. Louis Cardinals legend Lou Brock (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images) /

The baseball world unfortunately lost a number of influential people in 2020. Let’s remember them, now.

Don Larsen

(St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Kansas City Athletics, Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, Houston Colt .45’s, Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs)

Typically, nobody would think that a journeyman pitcher with a career record of 81-91 and a 3.78 ERA is one of the most well-recognized names in baseball history. However, Larsen etched his name in baseball history forever when he pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.

On Oct. 8, 1956, Larsen shut down the Brooklyn Dodgers’ lineup 27 times in a row in Game 5 of the World Series. The image of Yogi Berra leaping into Larsen’s arms after the final out is one of the most famous images in history.

Three years later Larsen was traded from the Yankees to the A’s for another record-breaking Yankee, Roger Maris. Overall, Larsen would pitch in four World Series with the Yankees and one in 1962 with the Giants where he earned a win in Game 4 of that series in the Bronx against his old team, the Yankees, on the sixth anniversary of his perfect game.

Johny Antonelli

(Boston/Milwaukee Braves, New York/San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians)

Antonelli, a five-time All-Star, started his career with the 1948 National League champion Boston Braves, without ever pitching in the minors. He received a signing bonus of $50,000, the largest in baseball history at the time, which caused resentment amongst his teammates. As a result of his bonus, he pitched a total of four innings in 1948 and was left off the World Series roster while being declined a World Series share by his teammates.

Antonelli was traded to the Giants in 1954 where he would become an ace en route to the Giants’ World Series sweep over the Indians. In that season, the Rochester, New York, native would capture the National League ERA title (2.30), come third in MVP voting and was named The Sports News’ pitcher of the year, as the Cy Young award did not exist until 1957.

Antonelli made four straight All-Star appearances between 1956-1959 but the Giants’ move to Candlestick Park in 1960 — after playing the ‘58 and ‘59 seasons in Seals Stadium after moving from New York — would be the beginning of the end. Antonelli had difficulty adjusting to his new West Coast home, the press jumped on him and the fans booed him. He pitched nine games with the Braves in 1961 and that offseason he was sold to the expansion Mets but retired instead of ever pitching for them.

Tony Fernandez

(Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians)

Fernandez, a five-time All-Star, won four straight Gold Gloves at shortstop with the Toronto Blue Jays from 1986-1989 and is the team’s all-time games played and hits leader. He then was traded to the Padres, where Fernandez spent two seasons, for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.

In 1993, the Padres traded Fernandez to the Mets, then in June, the team traded him back to the Blue Jays. Fernandez batted .333 in the ‘93 World Series, alongside Alomar and Carter, en route to the Jays’ championship.

By 1995 he was with the Yankees where he would eventually be replaced by Derek Jeter. He missed the entire 1996 season due to injury but received a Yankees World Series ring. In 1997 he played 2B with the American League champion Indians. He hit an 11th inning walk-off home run in Game 6 of the ALCS and batted .471 in the Indians’ seven-game World Series loss to the Marlins.

The next season Fernandez signed back with the Blue Jays for his third time with the team, where he made the All-Star team in 1999 with a career-high in BA, OPS, RBIs, and doubles. He spent 2000 in Japan and signed with the Brewers for 2001. He was released in May and the Blue Jays signed him to finish his career for his fourth final stint with the team. Now that’s a true love story.

Al Kaline

(Detriot Tigers)

Mr. Tiger played 22 seasons and was an 18-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner and the youngest player to win a batting title when he hit .340 in 1955 at 20-years-old.  Kaline, who has 3,007 career hits, led the Tigers to a World Series championship in 1968. In that series, he batted .378 with two home runs and eight RBIs. In 1980, the Baltimore native was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in his first year of eligibility.

Mr. Perfection, a nickname Kaline was given by his manager Billy Martin late in his career, was a commentator for the Tigers’ television broadcast until 2005 and he worked in the team’s front office until his death, spending nearly his entire life with the Tigers organization.

Bob Watson

(Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves)

Watson played for 19 years and was a two-time All-Star and received MVP votes three times in his career in which he had a lifetime average of .295. However, the South Central, Los Angeles, native isn’t remembered for his playing days as much as he is for his days in the front office.

In 1994 with the Houston Astros, Watson became the team’s general manager. After the 1995 season, he left the Astros and became the Yankees’ general manager, becoming the first African-American GM to win a World Series as Watson helped the Yankees to their first championship since 1978. After the Yankees lost to the Indians in the 1997 postseason, Watson stepped down as general manager and was replaced by Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ current GM.

Watson suffered from kidney failure and he rejected receiving kidneys from his two kids saying to The New York Daily News, ‘I’ve had a good life and I don’t want to take a kidney from young people who really need them and still have their whole lives ahead of them.’ That would be very selfish on my part.”

Lou Brock

(Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals)

Brock, a six-time All-Star and Hall of Famer (1985), started his career with the Cubs, where he struggled with Wrigley Field’s right-field sun. In 1964 the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals for 20-game-winner, Ernie Broglio. At the time the trade was scrutinized by St. Louis, but Broglio only won a total of seven games for the Cubs.

Brock’s career took off after the trade. In 103 games with the Cardinals in 1964, he hit .348 with 12 home runs, 44 RBIs and 33 steals to help lead the team to a seven-game World Series win against the Yankees. He also led the Cardinals to another championship in 1967 against the Red Sox by batting .414 in that series.  In the 1968 World Series, Brock batted .464 in the Cardinals’ seven-game series loss to Al Kailine’s Tigers.

In 1974 Brock had 118 stolen bases, snatching the single-season record from Maury Wills. Brock was the all-time stolen bases leader until Rickey Henderson surpassed him in 1991. Brock, who had 3,023 career hits, is the only player to steal more than 50 bases in 12 straight seasons.

Tom Seaver

(New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox)

Tom Terrific was truly…well, terrific. The 1967 Rookie of the Year was the first ace in Mets history. Seaver led the 1969 “Miracle Mets” to its first World Series while winning the Cy Young award, the first of three for Seaver, that season with a 25-7 record.

After nine All-Star appearances in 10 seasons with the Mets, he was traded to the Reds in 1977 after New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote how Seaver’s wife was upset Nolan Ryan — a former Met — had a larger salary with the Angels in the new age of free agency. The trade is referred to as “The Midnight Massacre.”

Seaver would return to the Mets for the 1983 season, but in 1984 baseball had a free-agent composition draft and the Mets left the 39-year-old unprotected and the White Sox picked him up. Seaver won his 300th game with the White Sox in Yankee Stadium packed with Mets fans who crossed the Triborough Bridge that day to watch Seaver accomplish history.

In 1988, Seaver was the first Met to have his number retired (No. 41) and in 1992 he was elected to the Hall of Fame holding the highest voting percentage in history (99.84) until Ken Griffey Jr. broke that record in 2016.

Joe Morgan

(Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s)

Joe Morgan, a 10-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, played 22 years, winning back-to-back MVP awards in 1975 and 1976, in which he also won back-to-back World Series with the “Big Red Machine” Reds those two seasons. He is considered one of the greatest second basemen of all time, amassing 100-plus runs and walks eight times in his career.

Morgan, who was inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 1990, started his career with the Houston Colt .45s and was traded to Reds in an eight-player deal in 1971. The following year the Reds won the National League pennant, before losing to Oakland — where Morgan grew up and finished his career with in 1984 — in the World Series. Morgan was also on the 1983 National League champion Phillies team that lost to the eventual champion Orioles.

After his career Morgan became a broadcaster, most notably doing color commentary on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for 20 years.

Bob Gibson

(St. Louis Cardinals)

Gibson’s death came about a month after his star teammate Lou Brock. Gibson, the 1968 NL MVP and two-time Cy Young winner was one of the most dominant pitchers in history. He was the World Series MVP in both 1964 and 1967 and won seven straight World Series games, which ended in Game 7 of the 1968 series loss to the Tigers.

Gibson’s most memorable performance came in Game 1 of the ‘68 series when he shut down the Tigers with 17 strikeouts — a World Series record. The eight-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner had a 1.12 ERA in his 1968 MVP season which is still the lowest ERA in the live-ball era.

However, Gibson’s accolades extend beyond his first-ballot hall of fame career. Before signing with the Cardinals as a minor leaguer in 1957 Gibson was the first Black basketball player at Creighton University in his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, and he was briefly a member of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Whitey Ford

(New York Yankees)

When thinking of Yankee greats, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle come to mind first. Most don’t associate the Yankees’ dynasties with starting pitching. However, there’s no doubt Whitey Ford, who grew up a Yankee fan in Astoria, Queens, was the best ace in Yankees history.

Ford was a six-time World Series champion and was given World Series MVP honors in 1961, a year he also won the Cy Young award, after allowing no earned runs in 14 innings pitched. Ford holds World Series records for most consecutive World Series scoreless innings pitched (33.2) and 94 strikeouts. His career winning percentage (.690) is the best of any pitcher in the 20th century with 200-plus career wins. Ford was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside his friend Mickey Mantle in 1974.

When Casey Stengel was Ford’s manager in the ‘50s, he never pitched him more than 253.2 innings in a season in-part because Stengel wanted to save Ford for games in Yankee Stadium. When Ralph Houk became manager in 1961, he set no restrictions on Ford, and Ford had his best season, followed by three more of his best seasons before father time caught up with Ford.

But what if Stengel hadn’t reserved so much of Ford’s career? Maybe his name would come to mind more often amongst other Yankee greats.

Dick Allen

(Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s)

Allen, the 1964 rookie of the year, won’t live to see if he finally gets into the Hall of Fame. In September, the Phillies retired his No. 15. Allen was a seven-time All-Star who hit 351 career home runs, batted over .300 seven times and received MVP votes seven times, winning the award in 1972 with the White Sox.

Allen’s greatness is often overlooked by the controversy he faced during his career. Playing in the midst of the civil rights movement, Allen was outspoken in an era where that was frowned upon with Black players. After a fight with Phillies teammate Frank Thomas, Allen became a target for white fans in Philadelphia and was forced to wear a helmet in the field as fans pelted and taunted him with racial slurs from the stands.

Sportswriters turned against Allen too and in-turn Allen refused to talk with them, which is likely why he never got more than 19 percent of Hall of Fame votes from baseball writers in 14 years of eligibility on the ballot. After the 1969 season, Allen forced his way out of Philadelphia, playing for five teams in eight years until he retired in 1977.

However, the tides turned in Allen’s second stint with the Phillies in 1975. He was welcomed back with open arms by Phillie fans. It should only be a matter of time before the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee finally enshrines Allen into Cooperstown.

Phil Niekro

(Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays)

Knuckleball legend Phil Niekro, the seventh baseball Hall of Famer to pass away in 2020, was a five-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner and a 20-game winner three times in his career. Niekro won an ERA title in 1967 (1.87) and he finished top-six in CY Young voting five times in his career.

Niekro signed with the Yankees in 1984 and got his 300th win with the team in 1985 on the final day of the season. He retired in 1987 at age 48, amassing 5,000 total innings in his career. Niekro was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, his fifth year on the ballot.

Roger Kahn

Kahn was not a player, but he made his mark on the baseball world when he wrote one of the most famous sports books of all time in 1972, “The Boys of Summer,” in which chronicled the Brooklyn Dodgers of the ’50s. Kahn covered that team for the New York Herald Tribune in his ’20s. “The Boys of Summer” was ranked the second-best sports book of all time by Sports Illustrated in 2002.

Kahn, who grew up in Brooklyn and found a love of baseball through his father, a central theme in “The Boys of Summer,” was called “an icon of our game” by former baseball commissioner Bud Seling in 2006 when Kahn was inducted to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, according to the AP. 

In addition to “The Boys of Summer,” Kahn wrote for Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post, covering the Yankees, the New York Baseball Giants and of course, the Dodgers.

He has written numerous other baseball books such as “Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball,”; “October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and the Yankees’ Miraculous Finish in 1978,”; “The Era, 1947-57: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World” and Kahn worked with Pete Rose for Rose’s autobiography “Pete Rose: My Story,” a project Kahn later said he regretted.

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