By CHARLIE VASCELLARO • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Each year the Hall of Fame Induction ceremony begins with a roll call of members of the baseball community who have passed during the previous calendar year projected on a jumbotron video screen adjacent to the stage where the returning members of the Hall are seated.
This year’s “In Memoriam” recognition stings with a particular poignancy in a continued season of mourning both across the country and within the baseball community devastated by an unparalleled loss of 10 members of the Hall of Fame since the last Induction Ceremony in 2019.
The most recent and perhaps far-reaching and impactful passing of this iconic group occurred when Henry Aaron, 86, died Jan. 22. Baseball lost its most significant elder statesman, diplomat, social activist and humanitarian. Aaron’s scope and realm extended far beyond baseball’s foul lines. He is recognized as much for his contributions to the Civil Rights movement as for anything he accomplished in baseball and used his platform as a star player to advance societal causes.
Aaron’s passing marked the 10th Hall of Famer to die in a nine-month period from April 2020 through February. The other legends to pass this season were:
• “Mr. Tiger” Al Kaline, 85 on April 6, 2020. Kaline was signed directly out of Southern High School in Baltimore and made his major league debut at the age of 18 on June 25, 1953, and spent the entirety of his 22-year career with the Detroit Tigers.
• “The Franchise,” and real “Mr. Met” Tom Seaver, 75, was the first member of the team to be inducted to the Hall of Fame and with his passing on Aug. 31, the collective youth of the first generation of Mets fans faded further back into the rear-view mirror.
• Lou Brock, 81, died just one week later, on Sept. 6. Brock was also recognized as a franchise player for the St. Louis Cardinals, acquired in one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history, when the Cards snatched the future single-season and career stolen bases leader from the Chicago Cubs in 1964 for Ernie Broglio, Doug Clemens, Bobby Shantz and a bag of peanuts. Brock spent 16 of his 19 big-league seasons in St. Louis. His stolen-base records were later surpassed by Rickey Henderson.
• Cardinals fans were still reeling from Brock’s passing when 17-year staff ace and all-time career leader in every pitching category Bob Gibson, 84, passed less than a month later, on Oct. 2. Leading the 1960s Cardinals to three NL pennants and two World Series championships, as big and strong and tough as Gibson was in his playing days, his death seemed unfathomable.
• “The Chairman of the Board,” Whitey Ford, 91, the affable and beloved New York Yankees hurler who, together with teammates Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, formed baseball’s version of the rat pack, died just six days after Gibson on Oct. 8.
• It began to feel beyond surreal when “Little Joe” Morgan, 77, perhaps the biggest cog in Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine became the third Hall of Famer to die in October (11) 2020 and the sixth in the same year. A baseball lifer, who was in his second career as a broadcaster, Morgan was an outspoken conscience of the game. He served on the board of the Baseball Assistance Team, providing financial help for former major and minor leaguers, Negro league players and others affiliated with professional
baseball. He also served on the Hall of Fame’s board of directors for 27 years.
Phil “Knucksie” Niekro, 81, a master practitioner of baseball’s mysterious knuckle ball pitch, was a regular fixture in Cooperstown in the years following his Hall of Fame induction in 1997. Niekro had a sincere appreciation for Cooperstown and could be frequently spotted at the Hawkeye Grill or Cooley’s Stone House Tavern. He had many friends in Cooperstown and he was one of the Hall of Famer’s selected — Cal Rpiken Jr. was the other one — to cut the cake at the Hall’s 75th Anniversary party in 2014. He was also a long-time member of the Hall’s Board of Directors.
Niekro’s passing Dec. 26, brought the number of Hall of Fame members to die in a calendar year to a record number of seven.
• It may have been a new year but the hits to the Hall kept coming with the passing of long-time Los Angeles Dodgers manager blue-blooded Tommy Lasorda on Jan. 7, 2021. Throughout his managerial career and afterwards, Lasorda was also known as a candid and outspoken television personality and commentator on all things baseball.
Lasorda was inducted to the Hall of Fame with Niekro in 1997, tying them together in another way.
• Like the Cardinals Brock and Simmons, Lasorda, and 16-year Dodgers’ hurler Don Sutton, 75, became back-to-back Hall of Fame teammates to pass within less than a month of each other when Sutton died on January 19, 2021.
While no other member of the Hall of Fame has passed since Sutton, it’s been a long and painful couple of years since the baseball community last convened in Cooperstown. Here’s hoping we make it through the year with the Hall of Fame’s roster unscathed.