By Brian Flinn
One of the key components that draw all of us as fans to sports is the emotional connection to our favorite player or our favorite team. We are ecstatic when there is a win or a championship and devastated when there is a loss.
It is this emotional connection that hits us hard when one of those favorite players or a player from our favorite team is taken too soon. Just like in life, it is something we are not prepared for or able to comprehend. It has occurred many times, for a multitude of reasons, in the major sports to those who were still in their playing prime. Let’s look at the more prominent examples and reflect on those we wish we could have back.
For this article we focus on baseball players who had not yet reached retirement. There are many examples of players who passed for a multitude of reasons very soon after retirement (most recently pitcher Roy Halladay in a plane crash), but the focus here will be those that were still playing. Another note is from a collecting standpoint; there tends to be a spike in a player’s value soon after their death similarly to the achievement of a major milestone such as election to the sport’s Hall of Fame.
Ed Delahanty may not be a household name, but he was a force in the early times of organized baseball during his 15-year career, starting in 1888. A well-rounded player, Delahanty led the National League in home runs twice, runs batted in three times, stolen bases once and won the N.L. batting title twice. He batted over .400 three times and has the fifth highest career batting average in baseball.
Even in an era where the home run had not become the key offensive element of the game, he even hit four home runs in a game in 1896.
His death is one of the most unique on this list. As the story goes, Delahanty was traveling on a train but was kicked off due to being intoxicated. He subsequently died by falling in the Niagara River and ultimately going over Niagara Falls.
Elmer Gedeon/Harry O’Neill
Although these players were not well known for their baseball careers, both are to be honored for their military service and paying the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.
Gedeon was an outfielder for the Washington Senators in 1939 before getting called into service in 1941 for World War II. Gedeon was killed when his bomber came under attack in Europe. Before going overseas, he had said, “I’ll be back in baseball after the war.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
O’Neill also perished during World War II. He played one game for the Philadelphia Athletics and then moved to the military. He was shot by a sniper at Iwo Jima in 1945.
Ray Chapman played eight seasons for the Cleveland Indians from 1912 to 1920. He led the American League in runs scored and walks in 1918. Chapman was a prodigious hitter, batting over .300 three times and held the Indians record for stolen bases until 1980 with 52. What also drove his high batting average was his success with sacrifice hits. He is sixth all-time and still holds the record for a season with 67.
Chapman is the only MLB player to die because of an on-field injury. Facing Carl Mays of the New York Yankees, Chapman was hit by a pitch in the head. The pitch hit so hard that Mays fielded the ball, thinking it hit the bat. Twelve hours later, Chapman was dead. The play led baseball to enact the rule of the umpire changing out the ball once it got dirty. Up until that time, baseballs were stained with everything legal or not and there is speculation that Chapman never saw the pitch in the afternoon sun.
When fans and collectors alike think of players taken too soon during their playing days, Roberto Clemente is usually the first to come to mind. The Puerto Rico-born outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates played 18 seasons including 15 All-Star games. He won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1966. Clemente was the N.L. batting champion four times and batted over .300 for 13 seasons. He finished his illustrious career with exactly 3000 hits. Clemente won a Gold Glove in the outfield for 12 consecutive seasons. He also won two World Series titles with the Pirates and was World Series MVP in 1971.
As committed as he was to his craft on the field, Clemente was even more committed off the field to charity work. It was the unwavering commitment that would lead to his death. After an earthquake in Nicaragua in December 1972, Clemente coordinated aid to be sent to the victims in the damaged areas. He learned that the first three flights had been diverted by corrupt factions of the Nicaraguan government. Clemente decided to accompany the next aid flight in the hopes of using his celebrity status in the Latin American community to help it reach the areas with the most need.
The flight left Puerto Rico on New Year’s Eve 1972 but crashed immediately after takeoff. It was determined the airplane had had previous mechanical problems, a suspect crew and was significantly overloaded. Clemente’s compassion was even evident on this night as Tom Walker (father of current New York Yankee Neil Walker) helped load the plane while he was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. He wanted to join the flight, but Clemente insisted he enjoy New Year’s Eve.
That compassion is what has now led to many awards named for Clemente including the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player for their work in their community. The Congressional Gold Medal was also renamed for Clemente. The Pirates retired Clemente’s number 21, and continue to honor Clemente at PNC Park, as the right field wall is 21 feet high in his honor. Clemente was elected the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1973 in a special election in which the normal waiting period was waived.
This list has many players whose deaths came towards the end of their careers. For Lyman Bostock, his career was just beginning. Bostock had played only four seasons when his life came to a tragic end.
He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1972 and then promoted to the Twins in 1975. By 1976, his first full season in the majors, he finished fourth in the batting race, hitting .323. He followed that up by hitting .336 in 1977, finishing second only to Rod Carew. The hitting proved timely because Bostock became one of the early free agents to sign a big contract with the California Angels.
The 1978 season started slowly for Bostock as he hit only .150 in April and offered to return his salary to the Angels. The Angels insisted he keep the money, so he donated it to charity. He responded by hitting over .400 in June and finished the season at .296, which was in the top 10 in the American League.
In the last week of the season, while in Chicago, Bostock always made a point to visit his uncle in nearby Gary, Indiana. While there, Bostock and his uncle visited a family friend that they had not seen for many years. They offered to give the friend and her sister a ride to a family member’s home. During the ride, the sister’s estranged husband pulled up alongside their car and fired a gun in an attempt to hit the sister. Instead, the bullet struck Bostock in the head. He died two hours later at the age of 27.
Other than Roberto Clemente, the other player synonymous with being lost so early in life is Thurman Munson. The New York Yankees catcher was the captain of the team and considered “the heart and soul” of the Yankees when he perished in a plane crash in 1979.
He was so well thought of within the organization that he became captain in 1976, the first since Lou Gehrig. Munson was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1970 when he batted .302. He won the A.L. MVP award in 1976 and helped the Yankees reach the World Series three consecutive times between 1976 and 1978. He was on the A.L. All-Star team seven times and won three gold gloves.
Munson, an avid pilot, was practicing takeoffs and landings at his home airport in Akron, Ohio. On a practice landing, Munson and his two passengers clipped a tree and crashed. Munson was the only person on the plane not to survive. The Yankees immediately retired Munson’s number 15 following his death.
Tim Crews/Steve Olin
There was a long gap in time without the loss of any baseball player until 1993 when the loss doubled. Tim Crews and Steve Olin, pitchers for the Cleveland Indians, along with Bob Ojeda were traveling in a boat on March 23, 1993 at night after a day of spring training. Crews was driving at a high rate of speed when the boat struck an unlit dock. Crews and Olin were killed instantly, and Ojeda was severely injured.
Crews pitched six seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers and had signed with the Indians but never got to pitch a regular season game. Olin had pitched four seasons for the Indians.
Darryl Kile became the first player since Munson to pass away during the regular season. He pitched 11 seasons for the Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. Kile won 20 games in 2000 and made the All-Star Game for the National League three times. He pitched a no-hitter on Sept. 8, 1993 against the New York Mets.
In June of 2002, the Cardinals were in Chicago to face the Cubs at Wrigley Field. During the team’s normal pre-game warmup routine, Kile’s absence was noticed. He was found by team personnel in his hotel room after he died from a heart attack. The Cardinals, including Albert Pujols, not only wore a patch on their uniforms honoring Kile but also hung his jersey in the dugout during the remaining games of the 2002 season.
A journeyman pitcher for almost 10 seasons, Lidle was a member of seven teams including the New York Mets, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Oakland A’s, Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees. In 2001 with the A’s, he finished 13-6 and helped the team win the A.L. Wild Card. His final game was in the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers.
On Oct. 11, 2006, Lidle and his flying instructor were flying a plane over New York City when it crashed into a high-rise apartment building, killing both.
Not well known for his career stats, Nick Adenhart left a huge impact with his death. A pitcher who was highly touted in high school, he required Tommy John surgery after his final game due to an injury. He moved down in the draft to the Los Angeles Angels. But Adenhart fought back through three seasons in the minor leagues and assumed the role as the top prospect for the Angels in 2009.
After being slated as the team’s number three starter, he took the mound for the first time on April 8. He gave up no runs and struck out five in a no decision. Later that evening, Adenhart and three other passengers were struck by a drunk driver, killing the pitcher and two other passengers.
Another young prospect in the prime of his career, Oscar Taveras was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals at the young age of 16. Known as “El Fenomeno” or “The Phenomenon” in his native Dominican Republic, he batted .321 in six minor league seasons before getting called up in mid-2014.
He played 80 games and helped guide the Cardinals to the playoffs. Taveras hit a home run in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants. After the Cardinals were eliminated, Taveras returned to the Dominican Republic as he regularly did during the offseason. On Oct. 26, 2014, Taveras and his girlfriend were killed in a car accident when their car ran off the road and hit a tree.
Shock comes when we think of those on this list and that was the common reaction on the Sunday morning in 2016 when we learned that All-Star pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident. He was not only the face of the Miami Marlins franchise, but many point to his death being the catalyst to break the team up and send players to other teams.
Fernandez was committed to playing baseball in America. It took three attempts for him to defect from his native Cuba before making it and moving to Tampa to enroll in high school. He was drafted in 2011 and made the Marlins in 2013. That is when the accolades rolled in. He made the All-Star team in 2013, won Rookie of the Year for the National League and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting.
He had to succumb to Tommy John surgery in 2014 but bounced back and made the All-Star team again in 2016. He died along with two other passengers when his boat crashed into a jetty at a high rate of speed on Sept. 25, 2016. Sadly, this would come just three days after he and his girlfriend announced they were expecting their first child.
Another tragedy occurred in the Dominican Republic when Yordano Ventura died in a car crash. Ironically, a few years earlier Ventura had honored fellow Dominican Oscar Taveras after his death in a car crash.
Ventura started his career in 2013 as a power pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. He won 14 games in 2014 and started in the playoffs including the World Series against the San Francisco Giants. He came back in 2015 and earned the role as the opening day starting pitcher. Not only known for his fire with the baseball (he reached 102 MPH on the speed gun) he also had fire in his personality. Ventura was involved in three straight bench-clearing brawls in 2015. In 2016, he found himself in another one after throwing inside to Manny Machado. This led to multiple suspensions.
He died in January 2017 after he was ejected from his vehicle on a mountain road. Ventura was in the Dominican Republic playing for a team during the offseason. u