Thursday, February 3, 2011

Top 10 Most Consequential Sports Deaths

February 3, 1959: A small airplane, a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza 35, crashed near Mason City, Iowa. Killed are all four people on board:

* Roger Peterson, of Alton, Iowa, the pilot, age 22.

* Charles Hardin Holley, a.k.a. Buddy Holly, of Lubbock, Texas, age 22, one of the leading figures in the early years of rock and roll music, who, with his band the Crickets, had recorded the enormous hits "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue," and a number of other songs which, with their lyrics, harmonies and arrangements, would inspire many later performers, including the Beatles.

* Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes, a.k.a. Richard Valenzuela, a.k.a. Ritchie Valens, of Pacoima, California, age just 17, a Mexican-American guitar whiz who was only beginning to show what he could do, led by his one true hit record, a double-sided hit containing the slow love song "Donna" and a raved-up version of the Mexican folk song "La Bamba."

* Jiles Perry Richardson Jr., a.k.a. J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. Jape Richardson, a.k.a. The Big Bopper, of Beaumont, Texas, age 28, a disc jockey who, like so many deejays before him (such as Jim Lowe, "The Green Door") and after him (such as Rick Dees, "Disco Duck"), had so much fun playing the music that he decided to record some of it himself, including the 1958 hit "Chantilly Lace."

In 1971, folksinger Don McLean wrote "American Pie," in which he called the event "The Day the Music Died."

I disagree with this assessment: The reaction showed, rather, that this was the day the music grew up, that those who opposed it saw that rock and roll could generate the same kind of devotion from its fans that previous forms had, that it was not going to go away.

In the next few years, the music would mature. Elvis Presley would return from the Army with "grownup" hits like "It's Now Or Never" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight," and proving that, given a break, he would have been a music star even if rock and roll had never happened.

Roy Orbison, already 24 when he had his 1st national hit, would be a rocker that even grownups could love. (My grandmother, who was 36 when "Only the Lonely" hit in 1960, was crazy about him.) The folk music movement had already kicked into gear by the time the Beechcraft went down, and would grow to the point where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez would make it a huge phenomenon. Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller with the Drifters, Berry Gordy with his Motown acts, and Phil Spector with lots of groups backed by his "Wall of Sound," were creating recordings far more sophisticated that some of the early rock records which sounded like they were recorded in closets and stairwells (and some literally were).

And, as I said, Holly inspired the Beatles, and much of Holly's work also filtered into that of the Beach Boys. Think of how many acts those two groups inspired.

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But this blog is about sports. How many people in sports died too soon, with results we can easily imagine?

Let me deal with one myth right off the bat, if you don't mind me mixing my sports metaphors. Vince Lombardi turned the Green Bay Packers around quickly, taking them from 1-10-1 to 7-5 in his first season as their head coach, getting them to the NFL Championship Game in his second, and winning it in his third, ultimately winning 5 World Championships, including the first 2 Super Bowls.

He left the Packers, and then in 1969 became the head coach and general manager of the Washington Redskins. At first, the pattern held: In his 1st season, he took the 'Skins from 5-9 to 7-5-2. But then he developed colon cancer -- among the most easily treatable of cancers today, but not 40 years ago. (In 1956, it killed possibly the greatest of all female athletes, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias.) Lombardi died on the eve of the 1970 season. He was only 57 years old. If he could have been cured, he could have coached another 10 to 15 years -- into the 1980s.

After an interim season under Bill Austin, in 1971 the 'Skins hired Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen. In 1972, the 'Skins won the NFC Championship. Under the coaching of Allen and the ownership of Edward Bennett Williams, and later under the ownership of Jack Kent Cooke and the coaching of Joe Gibbs, the Redskins became one of the NFL's most successful teams, both on the field and in the public imagination.

Would a living Vince Lombardi have done better than George Allen? I doubt it: From 1969 to 1978, either the Minnesota Vikings or the Dallas Cowboys won the NFC every season except the 'Skins in 1972. And they were tougher, deeper teams than the ones Lombardi battled for NFL supremacy in the Sixties, the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears, the Baltimore Colts, and an earlier version of the Cowboys.

And even if he'd gotten into 5 Super Bowls with Washington, he would have smacked into Don Shula's Miami Dolphins, Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers, and John Madden's (later Tom Flores') Oakland Raiders. Between them, those teams won every AFC Championship between 1971 and 1980. Even Vince Lombardi would have found it tough to win against that buzzsaw.

Besides, the Redskins did rise to prominence. Lombardi's death probably delayed that, but it didn't stop it.

These deaths were considerably more consequential. They are listed in chronological order.

1. Adrian "Addie" Joss, born April 12, 1880, died April 14, 1911, age 31. He was a sensational pitcher for the Cleveland team that would later be called the Indians, pitching a perfect game in 1908 and another no-hitter in 1910, both against the Chicago White Sox. (He is the only pitcher ever to no-hit the same team more than once.)

He had the lowest WHIP (walks and hits, divided by innings pitched) in baseball history, 0.968, and the second-lowest ERA, 1.89. Granted, this was the Dead Ball Era, but his ERA+ (earned-run average in comparison to the rest of the league) was 142, meaning it was 42 percent lower than the league ERA in his time. His career record was 160-97, a winning percentage of .623.

Just after his 31st birthday, on the eve of a new season -- and almost exactly 100 years ago -- he died of meningitis. On July 24, 1911, the Indians hosted a benefit game at Cleveland's League Park, playing a team of American League all-stars, including Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Walter Johnson. Playing for the Indians were Nap Lajoie, Shoeless Joe Jackson and, soon to retire, Cy Young. The All-Stars won, 5-3, and nearly $13,000 (about $300,000 in 2011 money) was raised for the Joss family.

Major League Baseball does not recognize this as "the first All-Star Game." Nor does the National Hockey League recognize the benefit games for Ace Bailey (career-ending injury, 1934), Howie Morenz (died in a hospital, though perhaps not due to his career-ending injury, 1937) and Babe Siebert (drowned while still an active player, 1939) as official All-Star Games.

While the deaths of Morenz and Siebert, and the early end to Bailey's career, may not have affected their teams' performances much, Joss was just 31, still at his peak, and could have made the Indians a winning team much sooner than 1920 when they finally won a Pennant and a World Series.

In 1978, the Baseball Hall of Fame righted an old wrong, recognizing that it wasn't Joss' fault that he died just before the start of his 10th major league season, which, had he thrown but one official pitch in it, would have qualified him for the Hall. An exception was made for him, he was put on the Veterans' Committee ballot, and he was easily elected.

2. John "Jock" Sutherland, born March 11, 1889, died April 11, 1948, age 59. A native of Scotland (hence the nickname), Sutherland decided, unlike Casey Stengel, that he would be both a dentist and an athlete, hence he was usually called "Doctor Jock Sutherland." Along with Wild West gunfighter John Henry "Doc" Holliday (but not Stengel, who never actually qualified for the profession), he might be the most famous dentist in American history.

He played on the undefeated 1917 team at the University of Pittsburgh, played briefly with the professional Massillon Tigers, coached at Lehigh University, and went back to Pitt, leading them to National Championships in 1929, 1931, 1934, 1936 and 1937 -- going undefeated in the last of these seasons, led by two-way back Marshall "Biggie" Goldberg, later to star with the NFL's Chicago Cardinals.

Sutherland moved on to the pros, leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to a 2nd-place finish in the NFL's Eastern Division in 1941. Like the baseball team for which they were named, the football Dodgers played at Ebbets Field, and their players and fans took great joy in beating their sport's New York Giants. Although the Giants won the NFL East in 1941, the Dodgers won both games between them that season -- including the one played at the Polo Grounds on December 7, 1941, which was interrupted by several announcements in the second half of military personnel being told by the public-address announcer to report to their bases, where they would soon find out that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Sutherland did not serve in World War I, even though he was draft-eligible. But he volunteered for World War II, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. When the war ended, he returned to Pittsburgh as head coach of the Steelers. In 1947, he led them to a tie for the title of the NFL East, and thus the franchise's 1st Playoff berth (though the NFL does not officially recognize the game that followed as a "playoff game").

The Steelers lost to the cross-State Philadelphia Eagles, and would not play in the postseason again until 1972. A major reason why is that this was the last football game that Dr. Jock Sutherland ever saw. He died of a brain tumor 4 months later.

We'll never know if Sutherland would have turned the Steelers into an NFL power, but over the next 10 years, they would have the following quarterbacks in their training camps: Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson and Jack Kemp. I find it hard to believe that Sutherland, assuming he lived and Art Rooney kept him (I don't see why not, Art was a man renowned for his loyalty), wouldn't have kept at least one of those future legends, changing the history of football in untold ways.

3. Bill Barilko, born March 25, 1927, died August 26, 1951, age 24. Barilko was a defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and helped them win the Stanley Cup in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951. In the 1951 Finals against the Montreal Canadiens, he was tripped, but still managed to shovel a goal past Montreal goalie Gerry McNeil, to win Game 5 in overtime and clinch the Cup. It was, in a way, a foreshadowing of Bobby Thomson's heroics in baseball a few months later.

But a few months later, he went on a fishing trip by plane, and the plane disappeared. It's hard to see how the loss of Barilko, a "defensive defenseman" whose Cup-winner was only the 31st goal of his career, regular-season and Playoffs combined, could affect the Leafs so deeply. But, somehow, it did. From 1942 to 1951, the Leafs won 6 Cups in 10 years. They didn't win another until 1962.

A few months after they did, the plane was finally found. Along with the aforementioned Ace Bailey, Barilko is the only Leaf to have his number retired. Along with Barilko's 5 and Bailey's 6, the Leafs also have "Honoured Numbers," which they hang on banners from the rafters of the Air Canada Centre, but the numbers remain in circulation.

4. Munich Air Disaster, February 6, 1958. It may be hard to imagine a time when the English soccer team Manchester United was worthy of sympathy, rather than disgust and loathing. Manager Matt Busby had built a team that had won the English Football League in 1956 and 1957, despite an average age of 21 and 22, hence the nickname "the Busby Babes." By the standards of the time, they were producing not only great results, but "beautiful football."

They were returning from a European Cup Quarterfinal match against Red Star Belgrade, a team from the capital of Yugoslavia, and were refueling in Munich, in what was then called West Germany. The plane tried to take off in a snowstorm, and crashed.

There were 23 people killed, but, amazingly, 21 survived. Among the dead were Man United players Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam "Billy" Whelan, all killed instantly. An 8th player, Duncan Edwards, already the most-lauded of the Busby Babes, died in a hospital 15 days later. Two other players, Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry, survived, but were hurt so badly that they never played again. Busby himself was badly injured. Goalkeeper Harry Gregg, despite his own injuries, managed to rescue some passengers before the plane exploded.

An American newsreel covered the crash, suggesting that it was, for England, as if the Milwaukee Braves, who had won the World Series 4 months earlier, had crashed.

In spite of the crash, United managed to advance to the 1958 FA Cup Final, losing to Bolton Wanderers. Busby returned to managing duties for the 1958-59 season, and built a new group of Babes, which won the 1963 FA Cup and the League Championship of 1965 and 1967.

The only United players to survive the crash and to play for the '65 and '67 champions were Bill Foulkes, and the far better-remembered Bobby Charlton, who also went on to be a key member, and also (along with his brother Jack, who played for Leeds United) of England's World Cup win in 1966. Along with Sir Bobby and Foulkes, that United team is remembered for the Scottish star Denis Law and the Northern Ireland superstar George Best. Charlton, Law and Best are remembered as "United's Holy Trinity," and a statue of them stands outside their stadium, Old Trafford.

Still, with several good players killed, the course of English football was changed: Without it, the subsequent return to glory of Wolverhampton Wanderers, a.k.a. Wolves, the team United dethroned as the defining team in England, might not have happened. Nor might the rise of Tottenham Hotspur (captained by Jackie's brother Danny Blanchflower), and the 2 Liverpool-based teams, Liverpool and Everton. And it might not have taken until United's win in 1968 for an English team to win the European Cup. (Glasgow, Scotland-based Celtic became the 1st British team to win it, in 1967.)

Today, there are United fans, and English people in general, who are convinced that, had the crash not happened, and those United players (Whelan was from Ireland, and Blanchflower and Gregg, from Northern Ireland, but the rest were English) had been available to play for England, England would have won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. No, they wouldn't have. They still wouldn't have been better than the Brazil of Garrincha and the young Pele.

The Munich Air Disaster is commemorated at Old Trafford, with the Munich Tunnel, which the players walk through to get to the field; and the Munich Clock, with the date of the crash inscribed on it and the time permanently set to the time of the crash, 3:04 PM.

United fans, naturally, get sensitive when opposing fans talk or sing about airplanes, or call the team "the Munichs." But that's no excuse for United's fans, not exactly known for having class, to call Liverpool fans "murderers" because of the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters of the 1980s, neither of which were murders or the fault of Liverpool fans.

Other plane crashes to wipe out nearly entire soccer teams include the Superga crash of 1949, which ended a decade of dominance of Italy's Torino FC (among those killed was Valentino Mazzola, a big star of the time, whose son Sandro Mazzola would be a legend with Internazionale Milan in the 1960s); a 1987 crash that killed the entire roster of Alianza Lima of Peru; a 1989 crash that killed 11 players from Suriname; and a 1993 crash in Gabon that killed several members of the national team of Zambia.

Crashes also wiped out, or nearly wiped out, the California Polytechnic State University football team in 1960, the football teams of both Wichita State and Marshall University in 1970 (the latter crash inspiring the recent film We Are Marshall), the 1977 crash that killed the University of Evansville basketball team; and, 50 years ago this month, on February 15, 1961, a crash in Belgium that killed 73, including the entire U.S. figure skating team, men and women alike. U.S. figure skating would not even begin to recover from that until 1968, when Peggy Fleming won her Olympic Gold Medal.

5. Willie Galimore, born March 30, 1935, died July 27, 1964, age 29. He came out of Florida A&M University, where he was coached by Jake Gaither, a man who said of football players, "I like 'em ag-ile, mob-ile and host-ile." A&M is in Tallahassee, not far from Florida State. A lot of the "historically black colleges" that produced great football players were in the same cities as schools that wouldn't let black students, let alone athletes, in: Grambling is near Louisiana Tech, Southern is near Louisiana State, and so on. After he retired, well after integration, Gaither would admit that, in that time, if a player was agile, mobile and hostile, he wouldn't have a chance to recruit him, because Bobby Bowden would have snapped him up for Florida State.

Galimore played 7 seasons with the Chicago Bears, his last being 1963, when he helped them win the NFL Championship. He returned to his hometown of St. Augustine, Florida, and participated in civil rights demonstrations. But the next summer, during Bears' training camp in Rensselaer, Indiana, he and teammate Bo Farrington were killed in a car accident.

At the time of his death, Galimore was the Bears' all-time leading rusher. His Number 28 was retired. Because he wasn't there, in 1965, the Bears drafted Gale Sayers. Sadly, despite drafting both Sayers and Dick Butkus (those two alone made it one hell of a draft), the Bears went downhill, and didn't reach the Playoffs again until 1977, when the next great Bear running back, Walter Payton, came into his own.

If Galimore had lived, maybe the Bears wouldn't have gone downhill, and maybe they would have challenged for another title. Or, perhaps, Sayers would have been drafted by someone else, and become the final piece of their puzzle.

And we'll never know how far Galimore would have taken his civil rights activism. Maybe he would have become the 1st black Governor of Florida. (There still hasn't been one. Then again, there hasn't been one in most States, including my own, New Jersey.) In 2000, he would have been 65 years old -- and if he, rather than Jeb Bush, had been Governor... Who knows, maybe, President William Galimore would have Attorney General Barack Obama in his Cabinet.

I'm not including Brian Piccolo, the Bear running back who died of cancer in 1970, because the Bears were nowhere near contention at the time, and even if he'd become as great as Sayers (he was good, but few running backs ever were that good), it wouldn't have helped much. Nor am I including Bob Kalsu, the Buffalo Bills lineman who was killed in combat in Vietnam.

6. Chuck Hughes, born March 2, 1943, died October 24, 1971, age 28. He was a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, and was a member of their 1970 NFC Central Division Champions.

In the middle of the next season, he suffered a fatal heart attack during the final minutes of a game versus the Bears at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Some thought he was faking an injury to stop the clock, but Butkus, playing for the Bears, saw that something was very wrong, and gestured toward the sideline to get medical help. Unknown to the public, and even to his teammates, Hughes suffered from hardening of the arteries, and his family had a history of heart problems.

The Lions retired Hughes' Number 85, and annually make an award to the most improved player in his name. It's hard to say that this death changed football history. On the other hand, for the preceding 20 years, the Lions had usually been contenders, and were the defending champions of their division. In the 40 years since, they've made the Playoffs 8 times. After Hughes' death in 1971, they didn't make it again until 1982 (strike year, but made it again the next year). Hughes remains the last of the 5 NFL or AFL players to die as a result of game action, and the only one to die during a game.

It's also worth noting that, shortly before the 1974 season, Lions coach Don McCafferty, who had led the Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl V, died of a heart attack while mowing his lawn. He was only 53. Maybe if he'd survived, he could have halted the Lions' decline.

7. Roberto Clemente, born August 18, 1934, died December 31, 1972, age 38. The story is well-known: On Christmas Eve, Nicaragua was struck by an earthquake, devastating the capital city of Managua. On New Year's Eve, Clemente loaded up a plane with relief supplies. It took off from San Juan, Puerto Rico, contact was lost, and the plane, its supplies, and its passengers, were never found. Roberto Clemente lies somewhere at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.

In 1972, Roberto was 38, and, though he missed a good chunk of the season due to injury, still batted .312, had an OPS+ of 137, hit 10 homers and had 60 RBIs. He was named to the National League All-Star team, and it was no gift: The man could still bring it. There is little evidence that Clemente was already in decline, and there's no reason to believe that, like his contemporaries Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, he could not still have been All-Star material at age 40, and still playing at 42.

In 1973, the Pirates finished just 2 1/2 games behind the Mets for the NL Eastern Division title. (They would move to the newly-created NL Central in 1994.) Show of hands: Presuming that Clemente, at 39, would have been nearly as good as he was at 38, does anybody think the Pirates wouldn't have taken the Division? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller? Didn't think so. Could they have beaten Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and the rest of the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Championship Series? Why not: The Mets did. Could they have beaten Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers and the rest of the Oakland Athletics in the World Series? Maybe: The Mets pushed the A's to 7 games, and the Bucs did have the experience of winning the Series just 2 years earlier against a very tough Baltimore Oriole team led by Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer.

In 1974, the Pirates won the NL East. If Clemente were still a solid player at 40, could they, as they did not in real life, have beaten the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS? Maybe. Could they have beaten the A's in the World Series? Maybe, especially if they already had in '73.

In '75, the Pirates lost the NLCS to the Reds, and at 41, this may now have been the point at which Clemente would no longer be a major contributor; they were in transition from the team of Clemente and Bill Mazeroski (who retired after '72) to the "Family" of Willie Stargell and Dave Parker. (Stargell had been there since '62, and was very much a star when they won it all in '71, but Clemente was still the leader of the team.)

Would an additional World Championship have helped Clemente's reputation? Hard to say, since he was already a tremendous star, especially among Hispanic Americans. Although, Clemente's last career hit was Number 3,000. If he had played 4 more years, he could have had over 3,500. If he had gotten to 3,516, one more than the aforementioned Tris Speaker, he would have been 4th (now 5th) on the all-time list.

But, if he were alive today, he'd be 76, and could still be involved in baseball in some way. Maybe he would have been in the Pirates' front office in 1992, and convinced them to re-sign Barry Bonds. Maybe the Pirates wouldn't have fallen apart. Maybe Bonds would have become a Pittsburgh hero, approaching the levels of Clemente, Stargell, and the long-ago Honus Wagner. And maybe he wouldn't have been driven to take steroids. Maybe now, the Pirates would be a team of "pride and tradition" on the level of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There's another 1972 death worth mentioning, this one at the beginning of the season: Met manager, and former Brooklyn Dodger All-Star first baseman, Gil Hodges. His heart attack at the end of spring training killed him just short of his 48th birthday.

True, Yogi Berra was then named manager, and led the Mets to the 1973 Pennant. Would Hodges have done any better? Maybe. But let's not buy into the idea that Hodges would have prevented the breakup of the 1969-73 Mets, because, with team owner Joan Payson dying, team president M. Donald Grant had pretty much a free reign, and he likely would have fired Hodges if Hodges had spoken up and said to stop that. So, as sad as Hodges' death was, I can't include it on this list.

8. Lyman Bostock, born November 22, 1950, died September 23, 1978, age 27. The son of a Negro Leaguer (also named Lyman Bostock), he was a sensational hitter for the Minnesota Twins, finishing 2nd in the 1977 American League batting race to his teammate, Rod Carew. Carew batted .388 (the highest in baseball in 19 years), while Bostock batted .336. Unfortunately, the Twins' owner, Calvin Griffith, engaged in 2 of his favorite pastimes, racism and cheapness, and refused to re-sign the free-agent Bostock. A year later, he would let Carew go as well.

Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy who owned the Angels, didn't have a bigoted bone in his body, and didn't mind paying big bucks so long as it got results. He signed Bostock for the 1978 season (and Carew for '79), and Bostock donated $10,000 to a church in his native Birmingham, Alabama.

He got off to a slow start in 1978, and offered to donate all the money he'd made in April, saying he hadn't earned it. After dozens of requests, he found a charity he thought worthy of being sent the money. His hitting stroke returned. At the time of his death, he had a "lifetime" batting average of .311. He was shot and killed in Gary, Indiana, visiting relatives during an Angels' roadtrip to play the White Sox.

The Angels won the American League Western Division in 1979, 1982 and 1986, but lost the AL Championship Series every time. Bostock would have been just short of 36 in 1986, and could very well have still been a star. The Angels also had a couple of close 2nd-place finishes in that stretch. Chances are, Bostock's death cost the Angels at least 1 Pennant, possibly more, and in spite of having such legends as Carew, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson and Bert Blyleven, the Angels did not win a Pennant until 2002.

9. Dick Howser, born May 14, 1936, died June 17, 1987, age 51. Another "good-field-no-hit middle infielder," he made his mark as a coach, with the Yankees' 1976-78 Pennant winners. In 1980, he managed the Yanks to the AL East title, winning 103 games, before they were defeated by the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS. George Steinbrenner blamed the loss on a mistake by third base coach Mike Ferraro, and told Howser to fire him. Howser refused, and George fired him.

In 1981, Howser was hired to manage the Royals. He was popular in Kansas City, having played there with the Athletics before their 1968 move to Oakland. He got the Royals to an AL West title in 1984 and (so far) their only World Championship in 1985. In 1986, he managed the AL to victory in the All-Star Game in Houston.

But that was his last game: He soon checked into a hospital, and was discovered to have a brain tumor. Within a year, he was dead. The Royals have never reached the postseason again, after having done so 7 times in 10 seasons from 1976 to 1985. Could he have kept it going if he'd lived? The A's didn't start their mini-dynasty until 1988, the Angels weren't exactly world-beaters in 1986, and in 1987, the Twins won the West, and eventually the World Series, despite winning just 85 regular-season games.

I mentioned the '86 Angels. What about Donnie Moore? He had already been traded to the Royals after the 1988 season, and had been released by them shortly before he committed suicide. So its effect on the Angels was nil, and, with the Royals already in decline and having cut him anyway, it didn't affect them, either.

What about Thurman Munson, whose plane crash death on August 2, 1979 was one of the most devastating moments of my childhood, and my life as a Yankee Fan? Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees had a better record that season after Thurman's death than before. And they did win the Division in 1980 and the Pennant in 1981.

If this were a Top 20, I'd include him. But a Top 10? I can't. Still, who would you rather have had behind the plate in 1980 and '81: A Thurman Munson who, at age 33 and 34, would have only been able to catch maybe half the time, DHing and playing first base more often until Don Mattingly came in and all but forced his retirement; or... Rick Cerone?

10. Steve Olin, born October 4, 1965, died March 22, 1993, age 27. The Cleveland Indians reliever was killed in a spring training boat crash on Little Lake Nellie in Clermont, Florida. The crash also killed reliever Tim Crews and badly injured starter Bob Ojeda, a former Met hero.

I began this list with a Cleveland pitcher, and I'm ending it with one. The Indians won the Pennant in 1995, their 1st in 41 years. Would Olin, a submarining righthander with a 169 career ERA+, and 29 saves for a 76-win team in his final season, have made the difference in the '95 World Series against the Atlanta Braves? Maybe not.

But he could have made a huge difference in the 1997 Series against the Florida Marlins. Who would you rather have had on the mound in the bottom of the 9th: A more mature (he would have been 32) version of the Steve Olin you saw in 1992, or the man who was actually on the mound for the Indians in that fateful inning, Jose Mesa? Olin could have made the difference between the Indians still not having won the World Series since 1948, and having a 1997 banner flying over Jacobs (Progressive) Field.

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You may ask, what about Ray Chapman? Or George Gipp? Or Ernie Davis? Or Sal Aunese? Or Jerome Brown? Those players' teams managed to win, or to continue to win, without them.

What about Ed Delahanty? Harry Agganis? Joe Delaney? Reggie Lewis? It's hard to say that these deaths, while tragic, would, if reversed, have helped the players' teams much.

The same can be said for that of Ken Hubbs. The Chicago Cub 2nd baseman was National League Rookie of the Year and a Gold Glove winner in 1962, just 20 years old. But a plane crash killed him on the eve of his 3rd full big-league season, 1964.

In 1993, Sports Illustrated did a "what-if" article, imagining several baseball scenarios (if Fidel Castro had stuck with baseball instead of politics, if "the original Cleveland Indian" Louis Sockalexis hadn't gotten hurt, if the aforementioned Casey Stengel had stayed in dental school), and asked what would have happened if Hubbs had lived. They suggested that the Cubs might not have traded Lou Brock, and would not have had their "September Swoon" in 1969, and might have become, rather than the Cincinnati Reds, the 1970s' "Big Blue Machine."

I find that hard to believe: Hubbs may have been an excellent fielder, but his "lifetime" batting average was .247, and his OPS+ was 70. He was the very model of the "good-field-no-hit" middle infielder. Besides, Brock was a left fielder, couldn't play any other position, and the Cubs already had Billy Williams. And the Cubs' 2nd baseman in that era, Glenn Beckert, was also a very good fielder, and, at least for average, a better hitter than Hubbs. Still, considering how bad the Cubs have been in the last 65 years, it's a nice idea.

What about Len Bias? The Boston Celtics drafted him right after winning their 16th NBA Championship, and they didn't win a 17th for another 22 years. True, but they did return to the NBA Finals in 1987, and remained a serious contender for the rest of Larry Bird's career, ending in 1992. (Lewis was still there, for another year, until his own death.)

But Bias was a forward. Would he have started ahead of Bird? Ahead of Kevin McHale? He was 6-foot-8, and while Bill Russell was a legendary Celtic center at 6-foot-9, times had changed, and Bias would not have been moved to center in place of Robert Parish. And it's hard to imagine him as a guard.

Face it: Unless Celtic president Red Auerbach was planning to use Bias as trade bait, or to take the place of McHale (hard to imagine Red trading McHale), I don't see how Bias would have been a starter until 1992, when he would have been 28. Even if he'd lived, he might've been a bad pick -- for the Celtics, that is. If he'd lived, he would've been much better suited to another team.

What about Drazen Petrovic, the great Croatian basketball star killed in a car crash in Germany in 1993? Remember, he played for the New Jersey Nets. They would have found a way to screw it all up anyway. Besides, they did make the Playoffs again in 1994.

1 comment:

nutballgazette said...

Regarding Howser, I rooted for the Hated George Brett and Royals in 1985 because of Howser. That was during the bad George decade.