Roy Campanella said you have to have a little boy in you to play baseball. But even if you do, you still grow old. I’m not sure if there’s ever been a sadder stretch for baseball than the last 18 months. Five Hall of Famers — Robin Roberts, Bob Feller, manager Sparky Anderson, Harmon Killebrew and Duke Snider — have died; six if you include Seattle broadcaster Dave Niehaus, seven if you think ex-Cubs third baseman Ron Santo should be in. Unfortunately, the baseball cards of our childhood are the obits of today. This week’s rankings, in remembrance of those who’ve died in the recent past. Previous ranking in parentheses:
1. Philadelphia (1): Robin Roberts pitched so long and so well that he’s the only pitcher to have beaten the Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves and Atlanta Braves among his 286 career victories. That’s pretty heady stuff for a guy who went to Michigan State to play basketball. Roberts won 20 games six straight times from 1950-55, including a high of 28 in 1952. He topped 300 innings in all six of those seasons; when both streaks ended in 1956, it was because Roberts won 19 and only pitched 297.1 innings. He won 52 games after the Phillies, convinced Roberts was finished in a 1-10 1961, sold him to the Yankees, and the Yankees released him. Roberts was renowned for finishing what he started — he started 609 times and completed 305 of those, just more than half. And he was just as renowned for not backing down; he threw 505 home runs, but he threw strikes. He was 83 when he died last May.
2. St. Louis (2): No one kept fielding stats in the 40s like they do today; there was no range factor or zone rating. Those who saw shortstop Marty Marion say he would be regarded with even more respect if they did; what they describe sounds like Mark Belanger before there was Mark Belanger, only better. Tall (6-2), lanky (170 pounds) and not quite as offensively challenged (.263 career average), Marion was the 1944 NL MVP despite a .686 OPS, the year of the only all-St. Louis World Series. Marion was 94 when he died in March.
3. N.Y. Yankees (4): Ryne Duren threw hard and wore thick glasses, but it was alcoholism which most obscured his vision. Duren had back-to-back great seasons in 1958-59, when he had ERAs of 2.02 and 1.88, 34 of his 57 career saves and 183 strikeouts in 152.1 innings. But his biggest saves were off the field — he became a counselor and helped others with their addiction problems. His autobiography was titled “I Can See Clearly Now.” He was 81 when he died in January.
4. Boston (3): Walt Dropo was big enough — 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds — and good enough to be offered professional contracts in three sports. He starred in baseball, football and basketball at the University of Connecticut but, a native New Englander, he turned down the NFL’s Chicago Bears and pro basketball’s Providence Steamrollers to sign with the Red Sox. He was the AL Rookie of the Year over Whitey Ford in 1950 at age 27 — Dropo’s career was delayed for three years by World War II — when he hit 34 home runs, batted .322 and knocked in 144, but he never again approached those numbers. He hit 29 in 1952 — 23 after the Sox traded him to Detroit — and 152 in his career. He was 87 when he died in December.
5. Cleveland (8): Bob Feller was the fastest pitcher ever, and if you don’t believe it, all you had to do was ask him. He was certainly one of the fastest to 100 wins — he made it by age 23 — and one of the fastest to the recruiting station when World War II started. He spent the war in the Navy; before and after he won 20 games in the five full seasons on either side of it, and four straight of 24 or more. Won 266 in all. He was 92 when he died last December.
6. Florida (9): Venezuela’s Oscar Azocar only spent one summer in South Florida, playing for the Yankees’ farm team in Fort Lauderdale. But it was enough to change his career. Until 1987 Azocar had a been a pitcher first and an outfielder second, but after hitting .359 and slugging .542 in 195 at-bats, he was an outfielder first. Azocar spent only three seasons in the majors, and walked only 12 times in 439 at-bats. He was a perfect 10-for-10 stealing. He was 45 when he died last June.
7. Texas (12): Jim Bibby came from a basketball family — brother Henry was a three-time NCAA champion, and nephew Michael won one, too; the latter is now playing for an NBA title. And at 6-foot-6, Jim Bibby was as big as one. He went to college on a basketball scholarship, but was diverted to baseball and service in Vietnam. He never won 20 games, but he did win 19 twice (he lost 19 too, once in the same year for the 74 Rangers) and 111 in all, and was 12-4 for the Pirates’ 1979 world champions. He was 65 when he died in February of 2010.
8. Atlanta (7): Chuck Tanner began his playing career as an outfielder with the Milwaukee Braves and ended his managing career with the Atlanta Braves. Somewhere in between he was one of the few managers traded for a player, albeit an aging one. The Pirates dealt longtime catcher Manny Sanguillen to Oakland so Tanner could manage the Pirates, and the Pirates got the best of the deal. But they also traded to get Sanguillen back, and both were part of the Pirates’ 1979 We Are Family world champions. The Pirates lost three of the first four Series games that year to the favored Orioles, but Tanner’s mother died on the day of Game 5. From the New York Times obit on Tanner: ” ‘My mother was a great Pirates fan,’ he was reported to have told his team before Game 5. ‘She knows we’re in trouble, so she went upstairs to get some help.’ ” The Pirates won the last three games. Tanner was 82 when he died in February.
9. Milwaukee (18): Bob Rush got to the World Series the way all Cubs pitchers have for 66 years: he was traded. Rush made it with Milwaukee (the Braves) in 1958, but not until he started 292 games over 10 post-World War II seasons for the Cubs. Naturally, he lost a lot of them — double figures for all 10 years, and 20 in 1950. He was good enough to get the ball when it was his turn, and stubborn enough to take it. He was an All-Star twice. He was 85 when he died in March.
10. Tampa Bay (6): Cardell Camper spent parts of three summers in St. Peterbsurg when it was a Florida State League stop on the way to the major leagues. He won 19 games there for the Cardinals’ farm team and had ERAs of 2.64 and 2.56 before he was promoted, then traded to the Indians. He reached the majors with the Indians in September, 1977 and pitched 9.1 innings in three games, starting and winning the last game of the season, 5-4. A year later, the Indians traded Camper to get Joe Charboneau, the 1980 AL Rookie of the Year. Fame was certainly fleeting for Charboneau — he only had 210 more at-bats in the majors — but tell it to Camper, who never returned to the majors and quit before Charboneau’s big year. Camper was 58 when he died last December.
11. Arizona (23): Jay Schlueter’s career lasted three at-bats and seven games, and outside of Phoenix he’s little known. There he was a local player who made good, or almost did — born in Phoenix, a star at Arizona State, a second-round draft pick who played nine seasons and batted 2,807 times in the minor leagues, all for the one hit in three at-bats with the Astros in 1971. He was 60 when he died last May.
12. San Francisco (11): Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run ever — the three-run shot to win the pennant in 1951 for the New York Giants — but it was just one of 181 he hit for them and 264 in all. Thomson was not unfamiliar with home runs — he had eight 20 home run seasons. Ralph Branca, who threw the most famous home run ever, wore No. 13 that day, but it might have been more than bad luck. “The Echoing Green”, Joshua Prager’s book on the 1951 race,” asked if the Giants didn’t win the pennant, as broadcaster Russ Hodges famously exclaimed, but stole the pennant. He detailed an elaborate scheme he said the Giants used to steal signs that fueled their comeback that summer. Did Thomson know what was coming? He unequivocally denied it, and he had a long track record as a home run hitter to back him. Branca, still alive at 85 and who otherwise shared a long friendship with Thomson, said Thomson swung at the pitch “like a tiger pouncing on some wounded antelope,” according to John Thorn’s 2006 New York Times story. Some mysteries are not meant to be solved.
13. Detroit (13): Woodie Fryman was 26 and a tobacco farmer when he reached the majors in 1966 — he raised 141 wins, 58 saves and 27 shutouts in a career that ended with the Expos in 1983. He was never better than after the Tigers claimed him on waivers from the Phillies in August, 1972; Fryman was 10-3 in 14 starts down the stretch, and pitched the division-clincher in the penultimate game. Died at age 70 in Februray.
14. Toronto (14): Mel Queen was 22 years old when he made the majors as an outfielder, but he didn’t stick, hitting just .179; as a pitcher, arm problems limited him to six more wins after a 14-8 1967. But he made it big as a minor league pitching coach with the Jays. Among his prized pupils was Roy Halladay, who was called “stupid” by Queen after a demotion, according to the National Post. Halladay wasn’t, and Queen sure wasn’t either — we know now what results his unusual methods wrought. His father, Mel Queen, was a major-league pitcher, and his brother-in-law, Jim Lonborg, won the 1967 AL Cy Young award. Died in May at 69.
15. Cincinnati (5): George Anderson played one season in the major leagues for the 1959 Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he hit .218. The Hall of Fame must have seemed as unreachable as Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs, for which Anderson needed 714 more after 1959. But George Anderson became “Sparky,” prematurely gray and a major league manager at the age of 35. He went on to manage for 26 seasons and won 2,194 games and three world championships, and like Casey Stengel before him, fractured the language with all the finality of Pete Rose breaking up the double play. According to the New York Times obit, Anderson’s wife urged him to take grammar lessons. His response: “I told her it ain’t gonna help me. Or should I say, ‘It ain’t gonna help me none?’ ” He was 76 when he died in November.
16. Colorado (10): No one, perhaps, was around the game of baseball longer and played less than Ralph Houk, who had 158 at-bats over eight seasons with the Yankees — averaging 19.7 per year from 1947-54. It was in Denver that he began to make his greatest contributions to baseball — as manager of the Yankees’ AAA team. He was there for three years before going to New York, first as Casey Stengel’s coach, then successor as manager, then general manager. He managed the Yankees, Tiger and Red Sox over 20 years, though he never won a title again after winning each of his first three years (1961-63) with the Yankees. He was nicknamed “The Major” because that was the rank he reached during his World War II service in the Army, one reason his playing career was abbreviated. While others were playing, he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Houk was 90 when he died last July.
17. L.A. Angels (16): Ed Kirkpatrick was 17 when he reached the major leagues in 1962 for the second-year Angels, and his career was mostly undistinguished. Nicknamed “Spanky”, he played parts of 16 seasons for four teams, played multiple positions, and hit 85 home runs (a high of 18 for the Royals in 1970). It was what he did after he retired that distinguished Kirkpatrick. An automobile accident left him in a coma for five and a half months and paralyzed for the rest of his life, according to latimes.com. “At parties and other functions, Kirkpatrick never lost his sense of humor and uplifting personality,” former Los Angeles Times baseball writer Ross Newhan wrote on newhanonbaseball.blogspot.com. Kirkpatrick was 66 when he died last November.
18. Oakland (15): Gus Zernial, nicknamed “Ozark Ike” after a comic strip character, hit 191 of his 237 career home runs for the Athletics, then in Kansas City. That was enough to lead all major league players whose last name began with Z, until Todd Zeile hit No. 238. Zenial is still No. 2 among Zs. Died in January at age 87.
19. Chicago White Sox (21): Cal McLish only spent one of his 15 seasons — 1961 — with the White Sox, barely enough time to commit to memory his full name: Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish. Of course, everyone called him Cal. Or Bus. He won 92 games, with a high of 19 for Cleveland in 1959. He was 10-13 for the White Sox in 61, but they traded him to the Phillies, who released him in 1964 after he won 13 at age 37. And about his name? McLish, from newsok.com: “There were eight kids in the family, and I was No. 7, and my dad didn’t get to name one of them before me. So he evidently tried to catch up.”
20. Kansas City (17): Paul Splittorf won 166 regular-season games and two in the postseason, and almost gave the Royals their biggest win of all. He turned over a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning of the deciding game of the 1977 ALCS to the bullpen, which blew it — a painful second straight Game 5 loss to the Yankees. He was 64 when he died in May.
21. Seattle (28): Greg Goosen was the subject of one of Casey Stengels best lines (“He’s 20 . . . in 10 years, he has a chance to be 30”) and Ball Four’s best stories. Goosen and Bouton were minor league opponents in a game, Goosen catching. In a bunt situation, Goosen yelled for his pitcher to take the out at first but the pitcher threw to second and both runners were safe. Exasperated, Goosen returned to the plate as Bouton yelled out, “Goose, he had to consider the source.” Years later, when they became teammates in Seattle, Goosen greeted Bouton with: “Consider the source, huh?” Goosen’s career wasn’t much longer than the Ball Four story — 460 at-bats spread over six seasons. He was 65 when he died in February.
22. N.Y. Mets (22): Joe Frazier’s playing career was forgettable, scattered from 1947-56 between four teams, and his managing tenure with the Mets is largely forgotten — he was the guy between Yogi Berra and Joe Torre in the 70s. Spent a lot of time convincing folks he wasn’t that Joe Frazier, but he could take a punch, which as Mets’ manager, he had to. He was 88 when he died in February.
23. Baltimore (24): Billy Loes was more famous for his time with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he helped the Orioles reach .500 for the first time in Baltimore in 1957 by winning 12 games, three by shutout, and saving four. His best year may have been 1952, when he won 13 for the Dodgers with a 2.69 ERA. It was certainly his most eccentric — before the World Series, the Dodgers’ pitcher picked the Yankees to win in 6 (according to nytimes.com, Loes said writers got the prediction wrong, that he had picked the Yankees in 7. Which was right). In Game 6, Loes lost a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning when opposing hurler Vic Raschi’s grounder caromed off Loes’ leg. Loes later said he lost it in the sun. Loes may have been an earlier generation’s Bill Lee, but like Lee, there was a lot of smarts behind the offbeat. As the Times obit pointed out, Loes negotiated a $21,000 bonus away from Branch Rickey before signing. Loes was 80 when he died last July.
24. Pittsburgh (19): Nellie King’s career as a pitcher with the Pirates was short — 95 games and 12 decisions packed into four seasons in the mid-50s. Like a lot of ex-players, he extended it by becoming a broadcaster, but King did it differently. He worked for several years at smaller area stations before joining the Pirates’ broadcast team. When that association ended, he became a sports information director at Duquesne University and broadcast their basketball games. Then he wrote a book. His 2009 book, Happiness is Like a Cur Dog, was recommended by Keith Olberman at his blog keitholberman.mlbblogs.com: Wrote Olberman: “The remarkable part of King’s story is that the struggle and the finances seem to have made every step, and every misstep, all the more satisfying. Nellie King’s story is a triumph of perseverance and contentment.” King was 82 when he died last August.
25. L.A. Dodgers (25): Duke Snider hit the last home run at Ebbets Field and 407 in all — 40 in a row for five straight seasons from 1953-57. He wasn’t the Hall of Fame player he was at home in southern California as he was in Brooklyn, where he was loved and booed. He was 84 when he died in February.
26. Washington (26): Buddy Lewis was 19 when he reached the majors in 1935, and by his 24th birthday, he had 895 hits — more than anyone not named Ty Cobb. Thanks in part to World War II (where Lewis flew more than 300 missions), he got less than 700 more. He finished his career — all played in Washington for the Senators — with 1,593. He was 94 when he died in February.
27. Chicago Cubs (20): Native Chicagoan Phil Cavaretta played 20 seasons for the Cubs — which means he’s lost more games than most of his peers. In fact, he was fired as player-manager in 1954, according to chicagobreakingsports.com, because he told the owner what they both knew: the Cubs couldn’t win. Cavaretta’s Cubs finished in the second division in 12 of his 20 seasons, including his last seven, but he was also on the last three Cubs’ teams to reach the World Series in 1935, 1938 and 1945. They lost them all. Cavaretta was MVP in 1945, when he hit .355. He finished with a .293 average and 1,977 hits, all for the Cubs but the last 50, which he got for the White Sox after he was fired. He was reported to be the last living player to have played against Babe Ruth. He was 94 when he died in December.
28. San Diego (27): Steve Boros managed the Padres and Athletics and played third base for three teams — once hitting three of his 26 career home runs in a single game — but his biggest contribution might have been one of the little things only scouts notice. According to the Los Angeles Times, Boros and fellow Dodgers scouts Mel Didier and Jerry Stephenson observed that Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley liked to throw back-door sliders on 3-2 counts. They passed that info on to the Dodgers before the 1988 World Series. Jack Buck might not have believed what he saw when Kirk Gibson hit a game-winning home run, off a 3-2 slider; maybe he would have had he seen the scouting reports. Boros was 74 when he died in December.
29. Houston (30): Jose Lima died of a heart attack, which was surprising because of his age, and because he had so much heart. Lima seemed to put as much effort into the histrionics that accompanied his pitching as he did the latter, but he won 21 games for the Astros in 1999 and was 13-5 for the Dodgers in 2004. There were some clunkers, too — 5-16 for the Royals in 2005, a career 5.26 ERA — but he usually managed to keep everyone smiling. He was 37 when he died last May.
30. Minnesota (29): Pat Borzi of the New York Times told the story after Harmon Killebrew’s passing: that he went up to Killebrew, as a writer, and told Killebrew the slugger was one of his favorite players when he was a kid. Killebrew’s response: “You mean I’m not anymore?” followed by laughter. Borzi said he learned later it was a stock answer from Killebrew, who heard the preceding line a lot. Killebrew was 74 when he died in May.
Sources: royalsblog.kansascity.com, nationalpost.com, nytimes.com, baseballalmanac.com, baseballreference.com, wikipedia.org, seattletimes.nwsource.com, latimes.com, chicagobreakingsports.com, baseballinwartime.com, newsok.com, keitholberman.mlbblogs.com