Today, as we wind down the final days of a difficult year, we take a look back at the baseball people we lost in 2021. Names are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Baseball is lessened by their absence.
Hank Aaron (1934). Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, one of the greatest and most important players in baseball history. It’s impossible to sum up the life and career of Aaron in one paragraph. Signed by the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League at the age of 18, he would end up integrating the Sally League — at much personal turmoil — before debuting with the Milwaukee Braves just a couple months past his 20th birthday. He then simply was one of the best five players in baseball for, oh, 22 years after that. He was the all-time leader in home runs for several decades, of course, but he was far from just a slugger: He had a .305 career average and remains the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases. (He also had 240 career stolen bases, just for kicks, apparently.) He was a longtime outspoken leader on civil rights — his book “I Had a Hammer” is a must-read — and was so good, for so long, in the face of such unremitting strife, that it’s nearly impossible not to underappreciate him. One of the last things he did on this earth was to encourage other people to get a life-saving vaccine. There has never been another Hank Aaron. There has never been anyone particularly close.
Joe Altobelli (1932). A Minor League baseball lifer — he played nearly 1,900 Minor League games over 18 seasons — he made his name mostly as a manager, most notably as the manager of the 1983 World Series champion Baltimore Orioles. (He took over for Earl Weaver; Jim Palmer called Altobelli “compassionate and very sensitive,” clearly contrasting him with Weaver.) There is a statue of him outside Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y. He was a player, coach, manager and broadcaster for the Rochester Red Wings.
Mike Bell (1974). A first-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 1993, Bell was of course part of the Bell baseball family: Gus was his grandfather, Buddy was his dad, David was his brother. He worked in the D-backs front office for years and was the bench coach for the Twins in 2020 before falling ill that July. He was diagnosed with cancerous tumors on his kidney in January and died in March, at the age of 46.
Bobby Brown (1924). Known as “the blond phenom” during his playing career with the Yankees, Brown was an all-around renaissance man. He studied to get a medical degree during his eight years with the Yankees (during which he won four World Series) and worked as a cardiologist after his retirement from the game. (He also fought in two wars.) He later worked as an executive for the Texas Rangers and ultimately served the president of the American League for a decade. When he was dating his wife before they were married in 1951, he gave her advice on how to describe him to her parents: “Tell your mother that I’m in medical school, studying to be a cardiologist,” he said. “Tell your dad that I play third base for the Yankees.”
Rhéal Cormier (1967). A member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, Cormier pitched for five teams over 16 big league seasons. As a Phillie, he was the last player to earn a win at Veterans Stadium and the first one to earn a win at the new Citizens Bank Park. He also pitched for the Canadian team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Joe Cunningham (1931). A two-time All-Star — albeit two All-Star games in the same season, 1959 — Cunningham played 12 years in the big leagues, most of which were with the Cardinals. When he retired, he stayed with the Cardinals, as a coach on the 1982 World Series championship team and later as a director of sales and marketing. There’s a section of Busch Stadium called Cunningham’s Corner. That corner is named for him.
Ray Fosse (1947). A two-time Gold Glover, a two-time All-Star and a two-time World Series champion, Fosse was the catcher for Dennis Eckersley’s no-hitter, an A’s broadcaster for nearly 40 years and voted as one of the top 101 Cleveland baseball players of all time. He is so much more than one individual play in one individual All-Star Game.
Bill Freehan (1941). An 11-time All-Star catcher with his hometown Detroit Tigers (he even played college football for the Michigan Wolverines), Freehan finished second in MVP voting in 1968, the year the Tigers won the World Series.
Jim “Mudcat” Grant (1935). Granted one of the greatest nicknames in baseball history — it came from Larry Doby, who said he was “as ugly as a Mississippi mudcat,” and as great as Doby was, we do not think Mudcat Grant was particularly ugly — Grant won two games of the 1965 World Series and hit a three-run homer. (Unfortunately for him, the Dodgers won the World Series over the Twins, thanks to ultimate MVP Sandy Koufax.) He wrote a book called “The Black Aces,” focusing on the 12 Black pitchers, including Grant, who had won 20 games in the Major Leagues. (Three — CC Sabathia, Dontrelle Willis and David Price — have been added since the book was published.)
Roland Hemond (1929). A longtime scouting director and executive, he was general manager of the Chicago White Sox from 1970-85 (he hired Tony La Russa) and the Baltimore Orioles from ’88-95. He was also the person who came up with the idea of the Arizona Fall League.
LaMarr Hoyt (1955). The Yankees traded Hoyt, a fifth-round Draft pick, to the White Sox for Bucky Dent, and Hoyt started out as a reliever. He transformed into a starter, and a terrific one, winning the 1983 Cy Young Award. He also won the All-Star Game MVP Award in 1985 while with the Padres.
Doug Jones (1957). An old-school closer of a different mold, Jones became a member of the 300-save club by throwing slow pitches rather than fireballs. He made five All-Star teams and was the oldest player in baseball when he retired at the age of 43 in 2000.
Tommy Lasorda (1927). One of the most colorful characters in the game of baseball throughout his more than 40 years of involvement with the Dodgers organization, he went from throwing three wild pitches in his only ever start with the Brooklyn Dodgers team to managing the team for 21 years, winning two World Series in the process. His final game as manager was interrupted because he was having a heart attack; he drove himself to the hospital. (The Dodgers won.) He returned to win a gold medal with Team USA in 2000.
Julio Lugo (1975). A journeyman shortstop who played for seven teams and won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2007, Lugo died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 45.
Mike Marshall (1943). The first relief pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award in a season in which he appeared in 106 games. (Including 13 in a row. Both numbers remain big league records.) He played for nine teams in his career, including a stint with the Seattle Pilots in their first-ever season.
Jerry Remy (1952). The Somerset native actually came up in the Angels organization, but of course it’s impossible to imagine him anywhere but with the Red Sox. He made an All-Star Game in 1978, but he’ll forever be known as the voice of the Red Sox, broadcasting games for NESN for more than 30 years. He ended up throwing out the first pitch of the Red Sox’s Wild Card Game this year and died of lung cancer just more than three weeks later.
J.R. Richard (1950). At his peak with Houston in the late ‘70s, Richard was thought to throw the ball harder than anyone on earth. He struck out 313 batters in 1979 — during an era when a lot fewer batters were striking out than right now — and Johnny Bench said he was the toughest pitcher he’d ever faced. He was waylaid by a sudden stroke while warming up before a game and never pitched in the Majors again.
Art Stewart (1927). A longtime scouting director for the Kansas City Royals, Stewart is the man who brought in Carlos Beltrán, Johnny Damon and Bo Jackson. He was born on Babe Ruth’s birthday in 1927.
Don Sutton (1945). A rookie member of a rotation that included Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Sutton was a star for the Dodgers for more than a decade, making four All-Star teams and winning the 1977 All-Star Game MVP. His career lasted more than 20 years; he pitched in the ’74, ’77, ’78 and ’82 World Series, though his team didn’t win any of them. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in ’98, the only player selected, and had a long career as a broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves.
Del Crandall (1930), last living player to have played for the Boston Braves
Paul Foytack (1930), pitcher appeared in 312 games for the Tigers and Angels
Johnny Groth (1926), Tigers phenom once called “the next DiMaggio”
Grant Jackson (1942), 18-year veteran who won Game 7 of the 1979 World Series
Lew Krausse Jr. (1943), started the first game in Milwaukee Brewers history
Juan Pizarro (1937), member of Puerto Rican Sports Hall of Fame, 18-year MLB veteran
Ken Reitz (1951), Gold Glove third baseman for Cardinals
Eddie Robinson (1920), last living player to win a World Series for Cleveland and to have fought in World War II
Rennie Stennett (1949), once had seven hits in a game, won World Series in 1979
Bill Virdon (1931), manager for four teams, winner of 995 lifetime games as manager
Stan Williams (1936), known as “Big Daddy” and “Big Hurt,” made two All-Star teams and won two World Series