Today we bid a final good riddance to 2020 and pay a few respects to some friends in sports whom we lost last year.
A few we had a chance to bid adieu in this column, such as Roger Kahn, who romanticized the ‘50s Dodgers in his classic book, “The Boys of Summer.” Kent Lawrence, Georgia runner and Athens judge, and Bill Bartholomay, who brought the Braves to Atlanta, were remembered.
So was colorful golfer Doug Sanders, tough linebacker Mike Curtis, coach Pepper Rodgers, sprinter Bobby Morrow, former Braves Claudell Washington and Adrian Devine. We also said goodbye to Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan. And we noted the passing of Jimmy Orr and Rafer Johnson.
We didn’t get to say goodbye to Carroll Hardy, 87. He compiled an undistinguished baseball career, appearing in only 433 games over eight years, with 17 homers and a career .225 batting average.
But late in the 1960 season, Ted Williams fouled a pitch off his right foot. Manager Mike Higgins sent Hardy to the plate. That made Hardy the only player ever to pinch hit for Ted Williams.
Eight days later, Williams famously homered in his final at-bat. Higgins let Williams go out to left field, and then replaced him with Hardy. This gave Williams one final opportunity to tip his cap to the Boston fans, which he declined.
“They booed me all the way out,” Hardy told the Los Angeles Times in 2009, “and cheered him all the way in.”
Baseball also lost Dick Allen, 78, perhaps the best player not in the Hall of Fame. From ’64 through ’74, Allen’s on-base plus slugging plus (OPS+) ranked ahead of Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Harmon Killebrew, and Willie Mays — Hall of Famers all.
When the Phillies traded Allen after the ’69 season, the trade brought back Curt Flood, and baseball history took a dramatic turn.
Baseball also lost one of its greatest competitors, Bob Gibson, 84. His ’68 season remains legendary; he allowed one earned run for every eight innings he pitched.
Even more amazing, in ’67, a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clements broke his fibula. Gibson pitched to three more batters! Bouncing back in time for the World Series, Gibson won all three starts, allowed three earned runs, and each was a complete game.
Mr. Tiger, Al Kaline, passed away at 85. Kaline played all 22 seasons for Detroit and was the first Tiger to have his number retired. In 1955, he became the youngest player to win the batting title. In ’68, he finally played in a World Series. He hit .379 with two homers and eight runs batted in as the Tigers beat the Cardinals in seven games.
The Boston Celtics lost a pair of legends. KC Jones, 88, played nine seasons, and won championships in eight of them. He also coached the Celtics to two titles in the ‘80s.
Tommy Heinsohn, 86, spent more than 60 years with the team as a player, coach and announcer. He was part of all 17 Celtics titles. His longtime play-by-play partner, Mike Gorman, told the Boston Globe in 2005, “Tommy doesn’t really do color. In his heart, he’s still coaching the Celtics, and always will be. If it was possible to still be playing for this team, he would be.”
We lost Bobby Mitchell, 84, a member of the pro football Hall of Fame. Mitchell first teamed with Jim Brown to give the Browns an unstoppable backfield. In 1960, both made the Pro Bowl.
Mitchell came up with a timeless quote to describe Brown: “It’s like the good Lord said, ‘I’m only going to do this once.’”
In 1962, Mitchell was traded to Washington, where he broke the color barrier and became an all-pro flanker. In exchange, the Browns received Heisman winner Ernie Davis, who died of leukemia before ever playing a game in the NFL. When Mitchell retired after the ’68 season, his 14,078 all-purpose yards ranked second in NFL history.
Another member of the NFL Hall of Fame, Larry Wilson, 82, was remembered for popularizing the safety blitz.
Wilson, who played at 6-feet, 190 pounds, roamed behind his Cardinal mates in his unique No. 8 jersey, shouting commands through toothless gums. He once played a game with casts on both hands protecting broken fingers. He intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown.
As tough as any player who ever took the field, Wilson declared, “In a football game, you’ve only got 60 minutes to prove what kind of player you are. Forty-nine minutes are not enough. You’ve got to give 100% on every play.”
Football also lost its “Golden Boy,” Paul Hornung, 84. Vince Lombardi called him “the greatest player I ever coached.” No one had a nose for the goal line like Hornung.
He also had a nose for fun. “My life was all about games, girls, gambling and gin joints,” Hornung wrote in his book, “Golden Boy.”
Lombardi once caught Hornung and his running mate, Max McGee, sneaking out of training camp at night. Lombardi levied a fine, told them the next time it would be double, and the time after that, it would be $1,000.
Then Lombardi added, “If you can find anything that’s worth a thousand dollars to sneak out for, come get me and I’ll go with you!”