In Memoriam: The Hall of Famers we lost in 2020
This was a sad year for baseball in many ways, one of which was the death of seven Hall of Famers We honor them here in this excerpt from The 2021 Bill James Handbook.
In Memoriam – Tom Seaver
Tom Seaver’s arrival turned the Mets from lovable laughingstocks into eventual World Series champions in 1969, earning him the nicknames “Tom Terrific” and “The Franchise.”
Seaver was a 12-time All-Star who won 311 games and three Cy Young Awards. His nine straight seasons of 200 or more strikeouts and 10 consecutive strikeouts within one game are both MLB records. It’s important to note that Seaver pitched in an era in which strikeouts were harder to come by then they are now. He led the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings six times in seven seasons, but only once struck out more than a batter per inning in that stretch.
Seaver received 98.8% of the vote from the BBWAA for election to the Hall of Fame in 1992. That was the highest mark of any player up to that point. It was well-deserved. Just about any sabermetric stats rate Seaver as one of the best pitchers of the Live-Ball Era, including Pitching Win Shares, in which he ranks fifth.
Seaver died on August 31 at age 75.
In Memoriam – Lou Brock
This is one of my favorite baseball memories of all time. It’s not about 938 stolen bases or about one of the best or worst trades in baseball history (depending on your perspective). It’s a small glimpse of the type of man that Lou Brock was.
This is a very short story about the 60-year-old Lou Brock and my 8-year-old son Jason. My wife, Sue, and I were invited to attend the Players Choice Awards in 1999. We traveled from Chicago to Las Vegas to attend the event and our kids came along.
It was a black-tie affair that was aired on ESPN. I rented a tuxedo and Sue looked terrific in a beautiful evening gown. The hotel had a very nice childcare center on the first floor that could take care of Jason and our 6-year-old daughter Erica during the event.
Our room was on an upper floor and the four of us were waiting for the elevator on our way to dropping off the kids and then going straight to the event. And here comes a very distinguished older man to the elevator. I immediately knew it was Lou Brock. I turned to Jason and said,
“Jason, this is Lou Brock. He is one of the greatest base-stealers of all time!”
Jason looks at Lou and asks, “How many home runs did you hit?”
Lou smiles widely and says, “Oh, I hit a few.”
In a loud voice Jason says, “Not as many as Babe Ruth!”
We all broke out laughing, especially Lou. During the entire elevator ride Lou engaged our son, smiling and laughing. It was an absolutely joyful experience.
And then I noticed the tie that Lou was wearing. It was covered with the handprints of children. That tie and his interaction with my son showed just how much Lou loved children.
It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about this short three-minute interaction between Lou Brock and Jason Dewan.
Brock died on September 6 at age 81.
In Memoriam – Al Kaline
Lifelong Tigers outfielder Al Kaline was known as “Mr. Tiger” for a 22-year career in which he recorded 3,007 hits, 399 home runs, 18 All-Star Game selections and 10 Gold Gloves.
Kaline won a batting title in his second full season, as he hit .340 with 27 home runs at age 20 in 1955. Thus began an impressive run.
Kaline’s stats didn’t necessarily dazzle. He never hit more than 30 home runs in a season, but he was consistent and he had a very good batting eye, as he walked 257 more times than he struck out for his career. In the decade of the 1960s, his slashline was .296/.381/.494. His OPS for that decade, adjusted for ballpark, was 41% better than league average. He ranks in the top-35 all-time in Runs Created. Kaline was also highly capable in the field, highly regarded for his glove and arm.
Kaline was a huge part of the 1968 World Series championship team. He hit .379 with 11 hits and eight RBIs in a seven-game win over the Cardinals. His go-ahead single in the seventh inning of Game 5 set in motion the Tigers comeback from a 3-games-to-1 deficit.
Kaline died on April 6 at age 85.
In Memoriam – Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson produced a greater level of collective fear among major league hitters than just about any pitcher during a career that spanned from 1959 to 1975. This came from Gibson’s willingness to pitch inside and knock down any hitter at any time. That was a big part of what made Gibson a great pitcher for the only team he played for, the Cardinals.
Gibson’s signature season is one of the most memorable pitching seasons of all time. He went 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA in 304 2/3 innings pitched in 1968. That is the lowest ERA for any pitcher in the Live Ball Era (since 1920). It’s one of five seasons in which he won 20 games and nine seasons in which he had at least 200 strikeouts. It concluded with him winning the NL MVP and the first of his two Cy Young Awards.
Gibson wasn’t a World Series winner that year, as the Cardinals lost in seven games to the Tigers. But he won titles with St. Louis in both 1964 and 1967, winning Game 7 in both of those and was named the MVP of each series. Gibson completed eight of his nine World Series starts, went eight innings in the other, and posted a 1.89 World Series ERA. His 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series are an MLB record.
Gibson was a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 1981. Four decades later he is still the standard setter for pitchers when it comes to intimidation factor and big-game performance.
Bob Gibson died on October 2 at age 84.
In Memoriam – Whitey Ford
Whitey Ford’s many pitching accomplishments have stood the test of time more than 50 years after he retired.
In a 16-year career with the Yankees spanning 1950 to 1967, Ford went 236–106. The .690 winning percentage ranks second among retired pitchers whose career began in the modern era (since 1900).
Ford’s combination of longevity and effectiveness in the postseason hold up against the best big-game pitchers in MLB history. His 10 World Series wins and 33-inning World Series scoreless streak are both all-time marks. He won one Cy Young Award and was named AL Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News in two other seasons. He was inducted into the Baseball of Fame in 1974.
On the more serious side, he took two years off near the beginning of his career to serve in the military during the Korean War. He played baseball and basketball in the army, allowing him to stay in good pitching form.
When he returned to the game, he established himself as one of baseball’s top left-handed pitchers. The New York Times once wrote “Possessed of an instinctive sense of gamesmanship, evidenced from his first appearance in Yankees pinstripes, Whitey is a cool and calculating operation…He revels in such challenges [of being the ace or the losing-streak stopper] because to his way of thinking, they are what make pitching fun.”
Ford’s fun came in the form of six World Series titles and 11 AL pennants, and a lifelong friendship with baseball legend and teammate, Mickey Mantle.
In describing Ford, Mantle used the phrase “Nerves of steel.” That’s the kind of approach needed to become an all-time baseball great.
Whitey Ford died on October 8 at age 91.
In Memoriam – Joe Morgan
Five-foot-seven, 160-pound Joe Morgan was the little guy who could do just about everything on a baseball field. He was one of the leaders of the Big Red Machine, the Reds team that won World Series titles in 1975 and 1976 and played the game in a dynamic, exciting way that would have been a good fit in any era. He did it at a position, second base, that was not known for the offensive production of other spots.
Morgan finished his career with 2,517 hits, 689 stolen bases, and 268 home runs. He had an incredible batting eye, drawing 1,865 walks, which ranks fifth all-time. That helped him record an on-base percentage over .400 in six straight seasons from 1972 to 1977 (he led the NL four times in that span). He was also a standout fielder, winning five Gold Glove Awards.
Morgan was the MVP of both of those Reds championship teams and was a 10-time All-Star. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990. After his playing career ended, Morgan joined Jon Miller as the inaugural voices of Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. They worked together as a broadcast team from 1990 to 2010. He also worked as the lead analyst for NBC.
It’s reasonable to argue that he is one of the greatest second basemen in MLB history. In fact, The Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract ranked him No. 1 at the position when it was published in 2001.
Morgan died in October 2020 at age 77.
In Memoriam – Phil Niekro
Phil Niekro’s presence in the game will be everlasting, as he both excelled with the knuckleball and passed on his wisdom to future MLB pitchers.
Niekro had the wisdom of 5,404 innings over 24 seasons from 1964 to 1987. He ranks fourth all-time in innings pitched and first among those whose careers began in the last 100 years. Niekro won 318 games, all but 50 of those with the Braves. He has to his credit five All-Star appearances, five Gold Glove Awards, and a no-hitter. Niekro ranks sixth among pitchers in Win Shares over the last 100 years, one spot behind Tom Seaver (the top four are Roger Clemens, Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, and Lefty Grove) He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997. Niekro and his brother Joe have the most wins by a brother combo in MLB history (539).
Niekro pitched at a time in which it was more typical for a starting pitcher to go deep into a game or pitch on short rest, but Niekro took it to another level. He pitched at least 300 innings four times and at least 250 innings 11 times. His 300th win came in 1985 and was a complete game that capped a 220-inning season … at age 46. Niekro won that game for the Yankees against the Blue Jays on the season’s final day and famously acknowledged that he didn’t throw a knuckleball until the last batter of the game.
Niekro also has a legacy of giving. He won both the Lou Gehrig Award (given to the player who exemplifies Gehrig’s spirit) and the Roberto Clemente Award (given for on-field excellence and off-field humanitarian work). Additionally, Niekro served as a mentor to future knuckleball pitchers like Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey.
Niekro died on December 26 at age 81.
Other notable baseball people who passed away in 2020 include longtime star Dick Allen, who hit 351 home runs in a 15-year career spent primarily with the Phillies and won the MVP with the White Sox in 1972; Don Larsen, who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history for the Yankees against the Dodgers in 1956; shortstop Tony Fernandez, who totaled 2,276 hits in a 17-year career that began in 1983; Jimmy Wynn, who was known as “The Toy Cannon” and overcame both small stature and a tough home ballpark in the Astrodome to slug 291 home runs; Bob Watson, who played 19 years in the major leagues, then became the first African-American general manager to win a World Series, which he did with the Yankees; Jay Johnstone, who played 20 seasons with eight teams and was known as one of the game’s great pranksters; Ron Perranoski, a top closer with the Dodgers and Twins, who led the majors in saves in 1969, the first year the save rule was official; Ed Farmer, who pitched 11 seasons in the majors and then spent 29 years as a broadcaster with the White Sox; super-scout Gary Hughes, who won five World Series titles in his more than 50 years in pro baseball; Houston Chronicle baseball writer Harry Shattuck, who covered more than 3,000 MLB games; and longtime MLB executive Jimmie Lee Solomon, who was most recently the league’s executive vice president for baseball development.