Al Kaline, central figures in 1968 World Series among 2020’s notable sports deaths

Detroit News

Tony Paul
| The Detroit News

Every July in a tiny village in upstate New York, the living history of baseball is on full display. It’s long been tradition for living members of the Baseball Hall of Fame to return to Cooperstown for the annual induction weekend, and, health permitting, almost all of them do. They reminisce at cocktail parties and steak dinners, make a few bucks at autograph signings, participate in a parade of legends, and attend official ceremonies.

The 2021 induction weekend — which will honor both the 2020 and 2021 classes after COVID-19 canceled this year’s soiree — is going to be as much about who’s missing.

Seven members of the Baseball Hall of Fame died in 2020, the most in a single year. The first was Mr. Tiger Al Kaline, who died April 6 at the age of 85. He played 22 seasons with the Tigers, batting .297 with 3,007 hits and 399 home runs. In all, he spent more than 50 years with the organization, moving from the field to the broadcast booth to, eventually, the front office.

“He will always be Mr. Tiger,” said Alan Trammell, another Tigers Hall of Famer. 

“Al Kaline brought such dignity and grace to our game, and to the Hall of Fame,” said Jane Forbes Clark, chair of the Hall of Fame. “Every new generation of Hall of Fame members were in awe of Al, not only as the player he was, but also as the true gentleman that he was.

“He will be missed throughout the game — and honored forever at the Hall of Fame.”

Because Kaline died early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no public funeral and, while there was a ceremony early in the Tigers’ shortened season, fans weren’t allowed to be in attendance. Given Kaline’s shy nature, he probably would’ve preferred it that way. The Tigers plan to pay tribute to No. 6 when fans are allowed at games in 2021.

Of the seven Hall of Famers who died in 2020, three were tied to the 1968 World Series, including Kaline, and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals. Gibson (Oct. 2, age 84) won two of his three starts in the series, and struck out a record 17 Tigers in Game 1, and Brock (Sept. 6, 81) had 13 hits in the series but is perhaps most remembered for being thrown out at the plate by Tigers left fielder Willie Horton in Game 5. It was considered the turning point in the series, which the Tigers won in seven games, despite trailing three games to one.

The other Baseball Hall of Famers who died in 2020 were: New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver (Aug. 31, 75), New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford (Oct. 8, 91), Cincinnati Reds second baseman and longtime ESPN broadcaster Joe Morgan (Oct. 11, 77) and Atlanta Braves knuckleballer Phil Niekro (Dec. 26, 81).

Other baseball dignitaries to die in 2020 include Yankees pitcher Don Larsen (Jan. 1, 90), Tigers public-address announcer Jay Allen (Jan. 24, 60), Chicago White Sox broadcaster and former Tigers pitcher Ed Farmer (April 1, 70), Yankees general partner Hank Steinbrenner (April 14, 63), Philadelphia Phillies slugger and should-be Hall of Famer Dick Allen (Dec. 7, 78), and umpire and Detroit native Rick Reed (July 16, 70).

The year 2020 forever will be remembered for pain and loss, and the sports world was certainly no exception. Here’s a look back at the year’s notable deaths.

Fallen icon

Few deaths shake a nation to its core like Kobe Bryant’s did.

The Los Angeles Lakers legend, at 41, was killed in a helicopter crash in California while traveling to a youth tournament with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who also died. Nine people were killed in the accident, including college baseball coach John Altobelli.

Countless tributes poured in as the nation mourned for weeks.

“Kobe was known as a fierce competitor on the basketball court,” Vanessa Bryant said at the funeral at Staples Center on Feb. 24, nearly a month after the Jan. 26 crash. 

“The greatest of all time. A writer. An Oscar winner. And the Black Mamba.”

The basketball world also lost former NBA commissioner David Stern (Jan. 1, 77), legendary Harlem Globetrotter Fred “Curly” Neal (March 26, 77) and acclaimed coaches Jerry Sloan (May 22, 78), Eddie Sutton (May 23, 84), Lou Henson (July 25, 88), Lute Olson (Aug. 27, 85) and John Thompson (Aug. 30, 78).

Gridiron greats

Nobody won more NFL games than legendary coach Don Shula (328-156), who led what today remains the only undefeated team in NFL history, the 1972 Miami Dolphins — who, to this day, still pop champagne when the final remaining unbeaten team loses. Shula actually got his professional start as an assistant coach with the Lions, before becoming head coach of the Baltimore Colts, and most notably, the Dolphins.

Shula died May 4, at age 90, one of several Pro Football Hall of Famers we lost in 2020, including Green Bay Packers legend Paul Hornung (Nov. 13, 84), who rushed, received, played quarterback and even kicked. He won four titles, including the first Super Bowl.

Other Hall of Famers include Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers (Sept. 23, 77), Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chris Doleman (Jan. 28, 58), Packers safety Willie Wood (Feb. 3, 83), Cleveland Browns and Washington halfback Bobby Mitchell (April 5, 84), Packers defensive end Willie Davis (April 15, 85) and Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene (Dec. 21, 58), plus New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey (April 4, 73), best known for making the longest field goal in history, 63 yards, to beat the Lions as time expired in 1970.

Hockey heroes

Nobody won more Stanley Cups as a player than Montreal Canadiens center Henri Richard, the “Pocket Rocket” and Hockey Hall of Famer who, around these parts, was best remembered for scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6 against the Red Wings in 1966. At 2:20 of overtime, a pass bounced off Richard’s hand and past Detroit goalie Roger Crozier. Richard died March 6, at 84.

A month earlier, Feb. 19, Pete Babando died at 94. He played only six NHL seasons, but had a memorable one with the Wings, for whom he scored the winning goal for Detroit in the second overtime of Game 7 of the 1950 Stanley Cup Finals.

The hockey world also lost Real Turcotte, a former Michigan State forward whose hockey schools helped develop generations of future NHL stars. He died June 15 at 79. Others include: Toronto Maple Leafs and Michigan State defenseman Brian Glennie (Feb. 7, 73); Tom Webster, who coached the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers and played for the Red Wings (April 10, 71); Eddie Shack, four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Maple Leafs who famously refused a trade to the Red Wings (July 26, 83); Winnipeg Jets Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk (Aug. 18, 57); and Al Langlois, three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Canadiens who also played for Detroit (Sept. 19, 85).

Local losses

For parts of seven decades, George Perles called Michigan State home — he started out as a player under Duffy Daugherty, later returned as head coach, became the school’s athletic director, and finally sat on the Board of Trustees.

As football coach, he won two Big Ten titles and the 1988 Rose Bowl. Perles died Jan. 7 at the age of 85.

“I loved that man,” former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said of Perles.

Perles’ death early in 2020 set the tone for a year of significant loss throughout the Michigan sports scene. 

Few local deaths were mourned more than Jamie Samuelsen, the beloved Metro Detroit sports broadcaster who announced on air July 27 he had been battling colon cancer, and died Aug. 1 at age 48. The 97.1 The Ticket studio he shared with Mike Stone has been renamed after Samuelsen. The media world also lost retired Detroit News golf and Red Wings writer Vartan Kupelian (Aug. 20, 73), while Detroit Mercy was hit particularly hard, with the deaths of basketball coach David “Smokey” Gaines (Sept. 5, 80), legendary basketball player Terry Duerod (Nov. 13, 64) and longtime baseball coach and Phillies Whiz Kids member Bob Miller (Nov. 27, 94).

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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