In a few days, 2016 will come to a close. It was a memorable year – especially for the Chicago Cubs and their fans – filled with great plays, outstanding performances, and things we will never forget. As we begin to look forward to 2017, David R. McCullough takes a look back at at a few of the players and broadcasters baseball lost in 2016.
Many beloved artists – Prince, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher – passed on in 2016, and baseball contributed to the death toll, and the sadness. The loss of Jose Fernandez in September in a boating accident will be felt for seasons to come, as the young fireballer was poised to be among the best pitchers in the National League. But Fernandez was far from the only loss for baseball in 2016.
Monte Irvin might have been a Hall of Famer but baseball’s so-called “color line” kept him in the Negro Leagues until the age of 30. When he finally did get to compete on a major league field, he won two MVP awards (1951 & 1953) and earned consideration in one other season, hitting .293/.383/.475 over 2499 career at-bats as a left fielder and first baseman. He passed away on January 11, 2016 at the age of 96 – one of the few remaining men to have toiled under baseball’s segregated, shameful history. Now, no one would consider keeping Andrew McCutchen off the field because of his skin color.
But Irvin was kept off a major league field – like all others before Jackie Robinson – and “lost” his best years as a ballplayer. Like almost every man of his generation, Irvin served in the Army (for three years) in an engineering battalion. He turned down an offer from Branch Rickey to break the color barrier (before Rickey signed Robinson) because he felt he was out of baseball shape after the war, and was one of the first players signed after Robinson’s successful debut – by the rival New York Giants.
Irvin’s 1951 season (age 32) shows a glimpse of what might have been: a league-leading 121 runs batted in, 89 walks, 24 homers, 19 doubles, and 11 triples – a .312/.415/.514 line and 94 runs scored. Like others of his generation, he would have missed three prime seasons to WW2, but he also would have been a major league force in the years prior to the war and had three prime seasons afterward in which to display his talents. Instead, he had a small place in baseball’s integration-era history and then survived into his late 90s, a living reminder that baseball’s history can be complicated, and somewhat shameful.
Another legendary New York baseball figure to pass on in 2016 was Ralph Branca, who had a 12-year major league career and a large place in baseball history for his role in “The Shot Heard Round The World.” Branca was a three-time All-Star and a stalwart for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1944-1953 after breaking in as an 18-year-old in 1944 – another example of how WW2 disrupted and altered careers. A precocious youngster of 18 could grab a major league roster spot with most of the veterans (read: men older than 18 in 1943) in the service. Where Irvin (and others) missed seasons, Branca gained a few because he was available and good enough in 1944. Branca passed away on November 23, 2016 at the age of 90.
Others passing on in 2016 who had a decade-plus as major leaguer players were Putsy Caballero, Jim Davenport, Joe DeMaestri, Phil Gagliano, Jimmy Ray Hart, Jim Hickman, Turk Lown, Russ Nixon, Milt Pappas, Tony Phillips, and Walt Williams. In all, 81 former major leaguers retired for the final time in 2016: men such as Doug Griffin, Dave Ferriss, and Dick McAuliffe all spent a season or two with the Boston Red Sox, and thus exist in my childhood memory of baseball cards and scratchy radio broadcasts. Rest in peace to all.
Finally, Joe Garagiola also left us in 2016. He was the analyst for baseball’s national broadcasts for almost 30 years, the host of This Week in Baseball for a good long time, and Yogi Berra’s childhood friend. For many of my generation, Garagiola was one of the legends of the game – for many years he sat alongside the greatest baseball broadcaster ever, Vin Scully, and provided the anecdotes about baseball’s history that hooked us as fans. He also had a 12-year career in the big leagues, mostly with his hometown St. Louis Cardinals as a backup catcher.
For anyone who loves baseball, the life and times of Garagiola are at the pinnacle of the game. He grew up best friends with one of the best players to ever grace the diamond; he spent more than a decade playing in the big leagues; won a World Series; became a fixture on Saturday afternoons broadcasting baseball for more than 30 years; saw his son (Joe Garagiola Jr.) become a general manager (Arizona Diamondbacks); and lived a rich, full life in and around the greatest game. That is worth celebrating. Here’s to you, Joe – and to Jose, Monte, Ralph, and all the others who passed in 2016. Thank you for the memories, the inspiration, and the baseball. May you rest in peace.
There are 45 days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training and the cycle begins anew. Happy New Year, everyone.
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Featured image courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.