We’re losing our connections to baseball’s storied past

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When Whitey Ford made his first major league start his manager was a man who had played against Babe Ruth.

It’s been nearly a century since that manager, Casey Stengel, met Ruth in the World Series. It’s been more than half a century since Ford tossed his last pitch as a Yankee. Six years later, Whitey was elected to the Hall of Fame. All these years later, the 91-year old Ford is the oldest-living Hall of Fame player. [NOTE: On October 9, 2020, Ford passed away.]

In the last few days, two beloved Hall of Famers have passed away: Tom Seaver and Lou Brock. Their loss, a gut punch to the baseball community, underscores the sad fact that time marches on. Baseball is (too rapidly) losing stars from one of their greatest generations. The players born after World War I and before World War II are leaving us.

[UPDATE: On October 2, 2020, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson passed away, and on October 11 we lost Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan.]

In April, we lost Al Kaline, who seemed as if he would put on a uniform every spring until the end of time. “Mr. Tiger” started his pro career in 1953, days after his high school prom. He spent the next six-plus decades personifying Detroit baseball, and served as one of the game’s most admirable representatives.

Baseball doesn’t produce pillars like Kaline, Seaver, and Brock anymore. Three franchises, the Tigers, Mets, and Cardinals, were blessed with those icons for decades as part of their heritage. Even St. Louis fans born in the 1990s knew the class and dignity of Mr. Brock, who exemplified competitive fire and sportsmanship. But where are baseball’s Brock’s and Tom Terrific’s now?

Since 2015, when we lost legends from the sport’s two most important cities (Ernie Banks and Yogi Berra), baseball has suffered a succession of losses, stripping the game of an important senior class. Here’s a list of the Hall of Famers who died since 2015 (not all were born between 1918 and 1941):

Al Kaline
Tom Seaver
Lou Brock
Bob Gibson
Whitey Ford
Joe Morgan

Frank Robinson

Willie McCovey
Red Schoendienst

Jim Bunning
Bobby Doerr

Monte Irvin

Ernie Banks
Yogi Berra

Banks was “Mr. Cub,” Berra was Yankee superstar emeritus and lucky charm, a link to when the team was winning World Series nearly every autumn. Bobby Doerr, born in the shadows of the First World War, was the last living member of the Hall who had played in the 1930s. Frank Robinson was a giant, shoulders broad enough to carry the history of multiple franchises, namely the Reds and Orioles.

Now, with the deaths of six Hall of Famers in seven months, it’s a reminder that an era of baseball is coming to a close.

In Baltimore they have Brooks Robinson, in Boston is Carl Yastrzemski, Chicago still has Billy Williams, and Atlanta and San Francisco have twin icons: Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, all legends born between 1931 and 1939.

We must be sure to cherish these legends as long as we can, lest we run the risk of forgetting an era when baseball faced several changes, including desegregation of the major leagues, expansion, and the rise of the player union.

Sandy Koufax has been a Hall of Famer longer than any other man, elected in 1972 when he was 36 years old. Now 84, Koufax looks like a man thirty years younger, still trim and handsome. Born in 1935, he represents the generation of great players who navigated the post-WWII era. Folks called it baseball’s “golden era” with Willie, Mickey & The Duke, as well as Robin (Roberts), (Warren) Spahn, and Koufax. Once a young legend, Sandy is now a senior statesman.

Baseball changes, time marches on. That’s inevitable, but it’s not easy to see baseball lose great men like Kaline, Seaver, Brock, Gibson, Ford, and Morgan. Let’s hope 2020 is done delivering sad news.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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pete lewis
pete lewis
3 years ago

I forwarded your excellent piece to a bunch of friends with the subject line “The Baseball Cards from my Childhood are Dying Off”.

It is reality that time marches on. Doesn’t make it any easier.

I hope kids of today feel as deeply about today’s stars as we did about those from when we were kids.

3 years ago

Did you Forget the oldest living HOFamer in Whitey Ford? he should have been at least mentioned in the article, as I believe he is 92