Tragedies and Shortened Careers, Part 3
Repeating my intro to Part 1: My dear departed friend Joe Overfield wrote this wonderful essay for the first edition of Total Baseball, published in 1989. Of course we have had tragedies since–early deaths, shattered dreams–but I will not step in to update for Cory Lidle, Nick Adenhart, or Oscar Taveras. (A complete list of players who died mid-career may be viewed here: https://goo.gl/uFLbRC.) The article is learned, with a light hand, and comprehensive, though today’s reader might make some allowance for its vintage–no talk of PEDs here, no rehash of those sitting in limbo waiting for the call from the Hall of Fame that may never come. These are baseball’s tearful tales, may of such ancient vintage as to have been forgotten; bring on the weeps.
Planes, Cars, Trucks, and a Dune Buggy
When superstars Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson lost their lives in air crashes, it was front-page news all over the country. In Clemente’s case, the coverage was international in scope because of the mercy mission in which he was involved.
Clemente and Munson were not the first active major leaguers to perish in airplane accidents. There were at least six prior air fatalities–seven if Koenecke is included. Marvin Goodwin, a righthanded spitball pitcher who saw action with the Senators, Cardinals, and Reds from 1916 through 1925, was the first. In 1925, nearing the end of his career, he was pitcher-manager of Houston of the Texas League, on assignment from the Cardinals. He did so well at Houston (21-9) that Cincinnati purchased him conditionally late in the season, with the understanding that final payment on the deal would be made only if he lasted thirty days into the 1926 season. He made four September appearances for the Reds with no wins and no losses.
Goodwin had been a flying instructor in World War One and was still a lieutenant in the reserve. On October 18, 1925, he took off on a practice flight from Ellington Field, near Houston, with a mechanic on board. The engine failed at 200 feet, and the plane crashed. The mechanic miraculously survived, but Goodwin, who suffered two broken legs and internal injuries, died four days later. The fatality had a ghoulish aftermath. The following year, the Cardinals demanded full payment for Goodwin’s contract. The Reds refused on the grounds that he was not on their roster thirty days into the 1926 season. The case was referred to the commissioner’s office. Judge Landis, citing the terms of the contract, ruled in favor of the Reds.
Elmer Joseph Gedeon played in the outfield for the Washington Senators in 1939. He had been a track star at the University of Michigan and had given up a chance to run in the Olympic Games to go into baseball. But then World War Two came along, and Gedeon gave up baseball to become an early volunteer in the Air Corps. He died April 15, 1944, when his plane was shot down over France. (Two others who played in the majors in 1939 also died in battle. Bob Neighbors, a shortstop for seven games with the St. Louis Browns, died in North Korea in 1952, and Harry O’Neill, who caught one game for the Philadelphia Athletics, perished in the assault on Iwo Jima in 1945.)
After his graduation from Boston University in 1955, catcher Tom Gastall pocketed a $40,000 bonus from the Baltimore Orioles. He was used sparingly, playing 20 games in 1955 and 32 in 1956. On September 20, 1956, he took off in a light plane from Harbor Field, near Baltimore. He landed at Easton, from where he later took off for the return flight over the Chesapeake Bay. Five days later, his body and the wreckage of the plane were found in the water off Riviera Beach. Gastall was just twenty-four.
A little over two months later, on November 27, 1956, outfielder Charley Peete, who had played 23 games for the St. Louis Cardinals that summer, died in a plane crash in the mountains of Venezuela, near Caracas, while en route to play winter ball. His wife and three children also perished in the crash.
Another victim of a Venezuelan air disaster was twenty-one-year-old Nestor Chavez, a San Francisco Giant farmhand who played in two games for the Giants in 1967. On March 16, 1969, the young pitcher was on his way to join the Giants’ Phoenix farm club when his plane crashed, killing 155 passengers. It was one of the worst accidents in aviation history.
Ken Hubbs, playing 160 games for the Chicago Cubs in 1962, handled 148 consecutive chances without an error and was Rookie of the Year. He tailed off in 1963 but was still rated one of the game’s rising young stars. At the end of the 1963 season, he began to take flying lessons. In early February 1964, shortly after he had received his license, Hubbs, who lived in Colton, California, flew to Provo, Utah, with a friend, Dennis Doyle, to visit Doyle’s in-laws. On February 15, Hubbs and Doyle took off in a snowstorm for their return trip to California. Only five miles from Provo, the plane crashed into Utah Lake, killing Hubbs and Doyle.
After investigation, the Civil Aeronautics Board reported the probable cause as “Hubbs’s attempt to continue visual flight into an area of adverse weather.” The twenty-two-year-old Hubbs, who was not licensed for instrument flying, left a log book which showed he had flown just 71 hours, 16 minutes.
On September 30, 1972, Roberto Clemente, who had batted .317 in eighteen seasons with Pittsburgh, touched Jon Matlack of the Mets for a base hit. It was Clemente’s 3,000th and last hit. On December 31, 1972, Clemente and four others were killed when a plane carrying food, clothing, and medical supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua crashed moments after takeoff from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Clemente’s career had all the elements of a Horatio Alger tale. Born August 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the son of a sugar plantation foreman, he was signed by Al Campanis of the Dodgers as a teenager. The Dodgers tried to cover him up on the Montreal (International League) roster, but Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey, who knew all about him from his days with the Dodgers, drafted him for a piddling $4,000. It was one of the greatest bargains in baseball history. Clemente immediately became a regular and won all manner of plaudits for his hitting, fielding, and magnificent throwing arm. He was Most Valuable Player in 1966, batted .310 and .414 in two World Series (1960, 1971), and was The Sporting News‘s Gold Glove outfielder twelve times. Twice he hit three home runs in one game, and five times he led National League outfielders in assists.
Clemente was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 in a special election, with the usual five-year waiting period waived by a change of the voting rules.
Thurman Munson was the only New York Yankee to win both Rookie of the Year (1970) and Most Valuable Player (1976) awards. He was the regular Yankee catcher from 1970, averaging more than 140 games a year, despite aching knees, a beaning, and a foul ball in the throat. He was one of the league’s top clutch hitters, with 701 RBIs and a .292 average over eleven seasons. His clashes with Reggie Jackson over which of them was the straw that stirred the Yankee drink drew national attention.
On August 2, 1979, an off-day, Munson flew his new Cessna Citation jet from New York to Canton, Ohio, to visit his family. Late in the afternoon, he was practicing takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton Airport when the plane crashed a thousand feet short of the runway. Munson’s flying companions, David Hall and Jerry Anderson, survived and at great danger to themselves, attempted to pull Munson from the flaming wreckage. But there was no chance. Munson, who was thirty-two, left his wife, Diane, and three children, not to mention millions of mourning baseball fans. On August 6 of that year, 51,000 fans at Yankee Stadium participated in an impressive nine-minute salute to the Yankee captain, who, with a few more years under his belt, could well have been a good bet for the Hall of Fame.
As far as is known, the first active major leaguer to die in a vehicular accident was Norman Boeckel, a .298 hitter for the 1923 Boston Braves. The thirty-one-year-old third baseman died February 16, 1924, in a San Diego hospital, from pelvic injuries sustained the day before, when he was standing alongside his car after it had been involved in a collision with a truck and he was struck by a passing motorist. Earlier, Boeckel had played a fringe role in another piece of baseball history. He had submitted an affidavit to National League President John Heydler, attesting that he had heard pitcher Rube Benton boast of winning $3,200 on the 1919 World Series on a tip from Hal Chase. Benton was thrown out of baseball, but was later reinstated by Judge Landis.
The year 1929 saw the deaths of two major leaguers in vehicular accidents. Denny Williams, a twenty-nine-year-old outfielder, who had played with the Reds in 1921 and the Red Sox in 1924, 1925 and 1928, was killed in Los Angeles, March 21. Seven months later, on October 22, Walter “Peck” Lerian, regular catcher for the Phillies in 1928 and 1929, died in a Baltimore hospital, after being hit by a truck that vaulted over a curb and pinned him against the wall of a building.
Catcher Al Montgomery was only twenty years old when he appeared in 42 games for the Boston Braves in 1941. While returning from spring training on April 26, 1942, having been assigned to Hartford of the Eastern League, he was involved in a car accident near Waverly, Virginia, and killed.
While Paul Edmondson, a twenty-seven-year-old pitcher who had been 1-6 with the 1969 White Sox, was en route to spring training, he was involved in a fatal auto accident February 13, 1970, near Santa Barbara, California. Another victim of a California crash was Chico Ruiz, who had been in the majors for eight years, first with Cincinnati and most recently with California. He was killed in San Diego February 9, 1972.
The pitching career of Bob Moose was a series of highs and lows. In ten years with the Pirates, he won 76 games and lost 71. One of his wins was a no-hitter against the New York Mets on September 20, 1969. On the other side of the coin is the wild pitch he uncorked in the final game of the 1972 league championship series that permitted Cincinnati to defeat Pittsburgh. He also made three appearances in the 1971 World Series, but had no decisions. On October 9, 1976, at Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, he suffered fatal injuries in an automobile accident. It was his twenty-ninth birthday.
Righthanded pitcher Danny Frisella, who in ten years in the majors saw action with the Mets, Braves, Padres, Cardinals, and Brewers (34-40), took a dune buggy out in the desert near Phoenix on New Year’s Day, 1977. When the buggy overturned, he was killed instantly.
Just six days later, on January 6, Mike Miley, a twenty-three-year-old shortstop with California in 1975 and 1976, was killed in a car crash at Baton Rouge.
On Friday night, December 19, 1986, Honolulu native Joe DeSa hit four doubles to help his Ponce Lions defeat the Mayaguez Indians, 11-8, in a Puerto Rico winter league game. At four A.M. on December 20, DeSa was killed in a head-on crash on the Las Americas Expressway. DeSa, who had played for Buffalo (American Association) in 1985 and 1986 and was the team’s most valuable player in the latter year, had signed with Kansas City and was due to report in the spring for his third hitch in the majors.
The two known deaths of active players by drowning are separated by almost one hundred years. The first was England-born Al Thake, second baseman for the Brooklyn Atlantics. He drowned off Fort Hamilton, New York, while fishing, September 1, 1872. Almost a century later, on December 14, 1970, Herman Hill, twenty-five-year-old outfielder with Minnesota in 1969 and 1970, was in Venezuela to play winter ball when he drowned off Valencia.
On March 22, 1993, after a day of fishing on Little Lake Nellie, 27 miles north of Winter Haven, Florida, Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews, Steve Olin, and Bob Ojeda were returning to shore in an open, eighteen-foot-base boat. In the darkness, Crews, who was returning the boat, did not see a dock that extended some 250 feet into the lake. He rammed it while traveling at an estimated 39 miles per hour. Olin was killed instantly and Crews died a few hours later. Ojeda came within an inch of having the top of his head sheared off, but though grievously injured did recover and returned to the mound late in the 1993 season. Evidence in the boat and through blood tests indicated that alcohol was involved. Crews and Olin each left a wife and three small children. It was the only instance in major league history in which two players were killed in one accident.
Cleveland’s cup of sorrow overflowed in the 1993 offseason as another member of its pitching staff lost his life in an accident. Reliever Cliff Young, a twenty-nine year-old veteran of three major league campaigns, was fatally injured in a November car crash.
Every time a batter steps to the plate, it is an act of courage. With pitches hurtling toward him at 90 miles per hour, he has but a fraction of a second to decide if he should swing, take, or bail out. Modern helmets with ear flaps have removed much of the peril, but not all. Prior to the 1950s, batters had no head protection at all; and before 1893 the risk was even greater, since the pitching distance was only 50 feet.
Considering the danger involved, it is somewhat of a miracle that only one batter has been killed by a pitched ball in the long history of major league baseball. No definitive statistics are available, but it is known that many have been killed at the amateur level and at least seven in minor league play.
Major league baseball’s only bean ball fatality, and its only diamond fatality for any reason, occurred on August 16, 1920, at the Polo Grounds, New York, in a game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians. It was the first half of the fifth inning, and shortstop Ray Chapman of the Indians was at bat, faced by Yankee submarine-baller Carl Mays. Chapman liked to crowd the plate and crouch over it. Mays, who had a mean streak, was not averse to throwing at any batter who encroached on his territory. Mays’s first pitch was a strike, his second a ball, as Chapman seemed to edge even closer to the plate. Predictably the third pitch was high and inside. There was an ominous crack that was heard all over the Polo Grounds. Mays, thinking his pitch had hit Chapman’s bat, fielded the ball and started to throw to Wally Pipp at first base, but then he saw Chapman slumped in the arms of catcher Muddy Ruel and he knew the batter had been hit. A doctor was summoned from the stands and Chapman was temporarily revived. Assisted by two of his teammates, he began the long walk to the clubhouse in center field, but he soon collapsed and was carried the rest of the way.
When a preliminary examination in the clubhouse showed the injury was extremely serious, he was taken to nearby St. Lawrence Hospital, where an operation was performed. He was still under ether when he died at five A.M. the following day, August 17.
The repercussions were immediate and furious. Mays, a surly sort and never popular among his peers, was strongly criticized. Detroit and Boston players demanded that he be barred for life, while those on the Washington and St. Louis clubs threatened to strike if Mays was allowed to pitch again. But Mays did have his defenders. Cleveland pitcher Ray Caldwell, a former Yankee, said it seemed to him that Chapman had turned his head right into the ball. Connie Mack, venerable skipper of the Philadelphia Athletics, while deploring the fatal accident, pleaded for sympathy for Mays. Catcher Muddy Ruel, who caught Chapman when he fell, said in later years that the pitch could have been a strike.
Mays appeared before the district attorney and, after a deposition, was cleared of any criminal charges. He said he was not trying to hit Chapman, only to pitch him tight. That spring, Mays pointed out, he had seen Yankee infielder Chick Fewster nearly killed by a pitch delivered by Jeff Pfeffer of the Dodgers, and from that time on he had been reluctant even to throw inside pitches, let alone throw at batters. He then suggested the fatality might have been averted had plate umpire Tom Connolly not refused to remove from play the scuffed ball that hit Chapman. This drew a sharp rejoinder from American League umpires Billy Evans and Bill Dinneen, who charged that Mays was one of the league’s most notorious scuffers. They said further that club owners had complained to Ban Johnson, league president, that too many balls were being thrown out, and that Johnson had responded by sending out a directive, instructing umpires to keep balls in play, “except those which are dangerous.”
In the New York Times of August 19, there was an impassioned plea for the development and use of batting helmets, but it was to be more than thirty years before this advice would be heeded.
At least seven minor leaguers have been killed by pitched balls. On August 9, 1906, Joe Yeager of Fall River of the New England League hit Tom Burke of Lynn in the head with a pitch. Two days later, Burke was dead. Two days after attending Burke’s funeral, Yeager took his turn on the mound, only to be arrested by Lynn police on a manslaughter charge. Shortly thereafter, the charges were dropped. Yeager, who had pitched for six years in the majors with Brooklyn and Detroit, completed the season with a 15-19 record. [Subsequent research has revealed that Yeager, the name of a major league pitcher, was used in most press reports but the Fall River pitcher was in fact a career minor leaguer named Joe Jerger: http://goo.gl/m2GxpK–jt]
In the second game of a Central League doubleheader, played in gathering darkness at Dayton, September 14, 1909, Charles “Cupid” Pinkney, twenty-year-old Dayton second baseman, was beaned by Casey Hageman of Grand Rapids. At first, it was thought he would recover, but his condition deteriorated, and he died following an operation. Pinkney’s father, who had traveled from Cleveland to watch his son play, was at his side when he died.
On June 18, 1916, Johnny Dodge, infielder for Mobile of the Southern Association, was hit on the head by Tom “Shotgun” Rogers of Nashville and died the next day of a fractured skull. It is believed that Dodge was thrown at in retaliation for the beaning of a Nashville player the previous day. By the strangest of coincidences, Rogers and Carl Mays were to be teammates briefly on the 1921 Yankees.
On July 4, 1933, at Omaha, Jesse Batterton, nineteen-year-old third baseman for Springfield of the Western League, suffered a fractured skull when hit by a pitch thrown by Omaha’s Floyd “Swede” Carlson. He was able to get to his feet and walk to the clubhouse, but then collapsed and was taken to a hospital. He died there following an operation, with pitcher Carlson at his bedside.
On July 21, 1938, Linus “Skeeter” Ebnet, twenty-three-year-old shortstop for Winnipeg of the Northern League, died in a Winnipeg hospital, five days after being hit by a pitched ball in a game against Grand Forks.
Twenty-year-old James (Stormy) Davis was off to a great start for Ballinger (Texas) of the Longhorn League. In 48 games he had hit 19 home runs and had 59 RBIs. On July 3, 1947 he was beaned by Stan (Midnight) Wilson of Sweetwater. The young outfielder died a week later.
A seventh fatality occurred in the Alabama-Florida League on June 2, 1951. Lefty Jack Clifton of Headland hit Ottis Johnson of the Dothan Browns on the head and killed him. In his next start, Clifton, who had already hit twelve batters that season, pitched a no-hit, no-run game against Panama City. According to Ken Brooks in his book The Last Rebel Yell, every Panama City batter had one foot in the dugout.
In major league history there have been countless beanings. In most cases, the batters came back, but often were not the same hitters as before. Lowell Reidenbaugh, in his book Cooperstown, writes that Hughie Jennings survived three skull fractures. His most serious injury was from a pitch delivered by Amos Rusie of New York, said to have been the swiftest pitcher of his day. The blow left Jennings near death and unconscious for four days. Some historians say it was Rusie’s speed and the fear that he might kill someone that brought about the lengthening of the pitching distance in 1893 to the present 60 feet, 6 inches.
At Ebbets Field on September 3, 1932, Giants shortstop Ed Marshall was beaned by a Van Lingle Mungo fastball. He survived despite lapsing into “unsafe condition.” The incident ended his major league career although Marshall did play thereafter in the minors.
On May 25, 1937, future Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, player-manager of the Detroit Tigers, lost sight of a pitch by Bump Hadley of the Yankees. It hit him in the right temple and fractured his skull. He lay unconscious for ten days but eventually recovered, although he never played again. He did, however, resume his managerial duties and also served with distinction in the Navy in World War Two.
Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox, who hit 166 home runs in six full seasons and parts of two others (all with the Red Sox, except for 74 games and 4 home runs for California in 1971), surely would have racked up more impressive numbers had he not been hit in the face and nearly killed by a Jack Hamilton (of California) pitch on August 18, 1967. He was out of the game for a year and a half, but then came back to hit 20 home runs in 1969 and 36 in 1970. On October 11, 1970, in a most controversial deal, he was traded to California, where he was to see only limited duty. He returned to Boston for 21 games in 1975 and then was out of baseball. He died February 24, 1990.
Dickie Thon was the All-Star National League shortstop for Houston in 1983 and also led the league in game-winning hits. In the fifth game of the 1984 season, he was hit in the eye by a Mike Torrez (Mets) fastball. Despite permament damage to his eye, he was able to return to action and played more or less regularly for the Texas Rangers in 1992 and then briefly for Milwaukee in 1993.
Don Zimmer, 1988 manager of the Chicago Cubs, suffered two serious beanings and still carries a metal plate in his head from the injuries. Paul Blair, center field magician of the Baltimore Orioles, Minnie Minoso of the White Sox, and Wayne Terwilliger, utility player for several clubs, were others whose careers were interrupted or affected by bean balls.
Part 4 tomorrow.