Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra once participated in a New York Yankees Old-Timers Game, a tradition that featured retired players playing in front of the home crowd, fans who didn’t mind seeing yesterday’s stars past their prime.
Berra, legend has it, on a hot summer Sunday, looked up at the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium, which listed some Yankee greats who passed away in the past year and said, “Boy, I hope I never see my name up there.”
It’s sad when the sports heroes we grew up loving and rooting for pass away. Suddenly, they are gone, and we realize we are nothing but mere mortals.
While 2020 will be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic, the baseball world will also remember that some of the biggest players of the 1970s passed away. And while I fell in love with baseball in 1969 thanks to the “Amazin’ Mets,” the 1970s put me on a path that not only allowed me to see the best team money didn’t buy, the Cincinnati Reds, it also led to my vocation, or should I say avocation, sports writing.
It should have been an ominous sign when Yankee great Don Larson passed away on Jan. 1, 2020. Larson, of course, pitched the only perfect game in the 116-year year history of the World Series.
Plenty of the players from the 1970s, the super-duper stars of baseball, have passed away in the last year or so: Hank Aaron, Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro and Richie Allen.
Throw in Tommy Lasorda, the affable manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and former American League president Gene Budig, who has a Charleston connection (part-owner of the Charleston RiverDogs), and that’s an incredible list of baseball legends.
If I had to pick my top three players who made their mark in the 1970s and passed away in recent months, they would include Aaron, Morgan and Seaver.
Aaron passed away earlier this month and in my opinion is still the all-time Home Run King. What he accomplished on the field and what he had to endure off of it because of the color of his skin should serve as a testimonial that no obstacle should stop a person from chasing their dreams.
My biggest memory as a sports fan came on Opening Day in 1974, one of the scores of times I showed up to watch the Reds. But this day wasn’t about the Reds. Aaron crushed a pitch over the fence at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati for his 714th career home run, which tied Babe Ruth for the all-time lead. He finished his career with 755 homers.
Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, is the perfect model for the way baseball should be played. Today’s game seems to involve nothing but home runs or strikeouts. Morgan, who was the NL MVP in 1975 and ’76, would keep you on the edge of your seat rather than falling asleep. He could hit, hit with power, play defense and steal a base. He might have been the best player on the best team ever before free-agency distorted the sport.
Finally, there was Seaver, who was so good he had two nicknames: “Tom Terrific” and “The Franchise.”
I got a sample of baseball in 1969 when Seaver led the Mets to one of the most memorable seasons in history. As a novice fan, I knew he was special when he pitched one of the most memorable games ever in 1970. In an April game against the San Diego Padres, Seaver struck out the final 10 batters of the game to finish the day with 19 Ks, which tied the record (at the time).
He was a model of consistency during his career. Seaver and Walter Johnson are the only Major League pitches with 300 victories, 3,000 strikeouts, and an ERA under 3.00.