Saturday, February 4, 2012

Baseball Losses In 2011

One of the many special things about the game of baseball is its reverence for the past.  This is no more true than when a legendary player dies, and we are treated to highlights, reminiscences, and spirited debates about their place in baseball history.  I previously celebrated two extraordinary players who died in 2011:  Harmon Killebrew and Duke Snider.  By focusing, however, on the All Time Greats, sometimes the lesser known players who made their mark on the Game can slip by unnoticed.

So, here, I want to pay tribute to an impressive, often fascinating list of ballplayers who left us this past year. In the interest of time and space I've somewhat arbitrarily limited my list to those who played in the Big Leagues at least ten years.  (Apologies to those who didn't make the list, including Greg Goosen (of whom Casey Stengel said:  "We got a kid here named Greg Goossen, twenty years old, and in ten years he's got a chance to be thirty."), Hideki Irabu, Mitchell Page, Mel Queen, Ernie Johnson, Charlie Lea, and too many others.  The full list can be found at Baseball Almanac, from which I've obtained much of the following information.

Ryne Duren (b. 1925) was a hard-throwing relief pitcher with bad eyesight, who intimidated hitters by squinting through bottle-thick glasses and intentionally throwing his first warm-up pitch back to the screen.  He was a three-time All Star and led the American League in saves in 1958.

Gus Zernial (b. 1923) was a feared slugger for the the White Sox, A's and Tigers in the 1950s.  He led the American League in home runs in 1951.  His 237 home runs are the second most by a player whose last name starts with the letter "Z."  (Todd Zeile is first.)

Woodie Fryman (b. 1940) was a reliable pitcher as a starter and then a reliever for several teams in a long career that spanned from the 1960s to 1980s.  He was a two-time All Star (1968 and 1976) and is a member of the Montreal Expos Hall of Fame.

Gino Cimoli (b. 1929) was a star high school player in San Francisco (Galileo H.S.).  He was the first batter in the first Major League Game played on the west coast when, playing for the Dodgers, he led off the inaugural game against the Giants at Seals Stadium.  (Ruben Gomez struck him out.)  In 1960, as a Pirate, he contributed to their World Series win over the Yankees.

Buddy Lewis (b. 1916) was a two-time All-Star who played for the Washington Senators his entire career.  Only Ty Cobb had more hits before the age of 24 than Lewis, who had played six seasons up to that point.  He then left baseball for three seasons in the prime of his career to serve in the Air Force during World War II.

Marty Marion (b. 1916) was the great Cardinals shortstop (until Ozzie Smith came along).  He was an 8-time All Star and won the National League MVP in 1944.

Bob Rush (b. 1925), a two-time All Star, pitched for the Cubs and Braves (and briefly for the White Sox) over a 13-year career.  He started Game #3 of the 1958 World Series for the Braves (which he lost to Don Larsen and the Yankees, with the aforementioned Ryne Duren picking up the save).

Eddie Joost (b. 1916) was a slick-fielding shortstop for 17 years with the Reds, Braves, A's, and Red Sox. He was an All Star twice, and was part of an A's infield that recorded 200 double plays in three consecutive seasons, a record that is still unmatched.

Reno Bertoia (b. 1935), born in Italy and raised in Canada, was an infielder who played ten years for the Tigers, Senators/Twins and A's.  He was apparently a great friend and roommate of Tiger great Al Kaline.

Paul Splittorff (b. 1946) was a lefty who pitched 15 years, all with the Kansas City Royals.  He won 20 games in 1973, and has more wins, 166, than any other Royals pitcher.  He was a broadcaster  for the club after his playing days were over, and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame.

Jose Pagan (b. 1935) was a shortstop-third baseman for the Giants and Pirates.  In the decisive Game  #7 of the 1971 World Series, his eighth inning double knocked in Willie Stargell for the game-winning/series-winning run.

Jim Northrup (b. 1939) was a solid outfielder who played most of his career with the Detroit Tigers, and was a key player for their 1968 World Championship team.  That year he hit five grand slams, including three in one week.  Northrup was known as the "Silver Fox" because of his prematurely gray hair.

Wes Covington (b. 1932) was a good hitting outfielder, most notably the Braves and Phillies.  Not known for his fielding, he made two great catches in the 1957 World Series to help the Braves beat the Yankees.  He had a unique batting stance, in which he "crouched over with bat held parallel to the ground."  He clashed with manager Gene Mauch, who said he was prone to "pop off and pop up."

Dick Williams (b. 1929) was an unremarkable player for 13 seasons, but then went on to a Hall of Fame career as a manager.  His Boston Red Sox captured the American League pennant in 1967, and he won another pennant in the National League with the Padres. In between were his two World Championships with Oakland A's in 1972 and 1973.

Mike Flanagan (b. 1951) pitched for 18 seasons, primarily with the Orioles.  A lefty with a big slow curve ball, he won 167 games in his career and received the Cy Young Award in 1979.  In college he played freshman basketball at the U Mass when Julius Erving was there.  After seeing Dr. J play, Flanagan said, "I better work on my slider."

Danny Litwhiler (b. 1916) played for the Phillies, Cardinals, Braves and Reds in an 11-year career.  In 1942, as a Phillie, he made the All Star team.  That year he became the first player to go the entire season without making an error. He later became a legendary collegiate baseball coach at Florida State and Michigan State, and coached such future stars as Steve Garvey and Kirk Gibson.

Johnny Schmitz (b. 1920), nicknamed "Bear Tracks" because of how he shuffled to the mound in his size 14 feet, was a left-handed pitcher who played for 13 years for 7 teams.  After missing three years due to his service in World War II, he returned in 1946, and made the first of two All Star teams and led the league in strikeouts.  Dodger pitcher Rex Barney said of Schmitz's curve ball, "he could drop it in a coffee cup."  

Roy Smalley (b. 1926) was a shortstop for the Cubs, Braves and Phillies, whose son, Roy Smalley III, also played shortstop in the Big Leagues.  Smalley married Gene Mauch's sister, and his son later played for the Twins when Mauch was the manager.  In 1953, Smalley was the shortstop for the Cubs until Ernie Banks was called up.  Banks, later known as Mr. Cub, became the starting shortstop and Smalley was traded the next year to the Braves. 
Matty Alou (b. 1938) and his two brothers, Felipe and Jesus, once played in the same outfield for the Giants in 1963.  (Matty and his brothers have more hits than any other three-brother combination, in history, including the DiMaggios.)  His career blossomed when he was traded to the Pirates.  Alou was a career .300 hitter, won the batting title in 1966 (Felipe came in second), and was an All Star in 1968 and 1969.

Bob Forsch (b. 1950) spent most of his 16-year career pitching for the Cardinals before finishing up in Houston with the Astros.  He won 20 games in 1977 and his 163 win total is third all time for a Cardinal pitcher (after Bob Gibson and Jesse "Pop" Haines ).  He pitched two no hitters (the only Cardinal to do so) and he and his brother Ken are the only brothers to have each pitched one.

Andy Carey (b. 1931) was a third baseman who played most of his career with the Yankees.  He led the American League in triples in 1955, and made two great plays in the 1956 World Series to help preserve Don Larsen's perfect game.  Carey was the starting third baseman for four pennant winning Yankee teams, two of which won the World Series.

Don Mueller (b. 1927) was an outfielder who spent 10 of his 12 seasons with the Giants.  In 1951, he had a key hit in the 9th inning of the iconic playoff game against the Dodgers, but broke his ankle sliding into third on Whitey Lockman's double and had to be carried off the field.  As a result, pinch runner Clint Hartung (not Mueller) and Lockman scored on Bobby Thompson's famous home run.  Mueller hit over .300 three years in a row (1953–55).  In 1954 he led the National League in hits, was second in batting average (to Willie Mays), and hit .389 in the World Series to help the Giants sweep the Indians for the title.


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