The list is long and filled with illustrious names of those for whom the bell tolled in 2015 after making their fame or devoting their lives to the culture of sport. Along the way they enriched our times:
It was a splendid irony that claimed both Frank Gifford and Charlie Bednarik within weeks, as they’ll be forever linked for their epic collision on the gridiron. A half- century later that play remains high among the most dramatic illustrations of their game’s relentless grit. Each in his way was a symbol – ‘The Giffer’ of football’s elegant style, and Chuck, the rambling wreck – of equally its glamour and furor. It is how each should be remembered.
True pathfinders were among the departed. The NBA’s first African- American player, Earl Lloyd, handled the unfortunately vital role with huge dignity. Charlie Sifford performed the same great service for professional golf, earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Calvin Peete was its first champion of color. A titan on the links, Louise Suggs essentially founded the LPGA. Billy Casper won 51 PGA titles. Delores Hart won three Wimbledons. The Nats’ Dolph Schayes was an inspiration for the NBA in its shaky adolescence. So was Harry ‘the Horse’ Gallatin of the Knicks.
A learned sophisticate, Dean Smith was the most-honored of college basketball’s dons. Guy Lewis was hailed a patriarch while Jerry Tarkanian was “The Shark.” Track and field’s Mal Whitfield won three Olympic gold medals and fought in two global wars. Henry Carr won two golds at the ’64 Games. Ron Clarke, greatest of his golden era’s long distance runners, was a living legend in Australia. Ordinary as a player, Al Arbour was an extraordinary leader winning four straight Stanley Cups as Coach of the Isles.
The ranks of the Montreal Canadiens’ resident legends were sharply diminished. Departing were Elmer Lach, forever “The Captain,” Dickie Moore the brilliant left-winger, and Bert Olmstead, oft assigned the dirty work for a team that considered itself squeaky clean. Jimmy Roberts excelled on five Cup winners, Dollard St. Laurent on four, while Claude Ruel coached two. They were the glory of their times.
Other NHL stalwarts we lost were J.P Parise, Wally Stanowski, Gus Mortson, Chico Maki, Glen Somner, and Hall of Famer Marcel Pronovost. Todd Evans was a roughneck hockey enforcer left permanently damaged in his after-hockey life. So was Steve Montador, rock-ribbed journeyman defenseman briefly with the Bruins, dead at 36 and victim of acute concussion syndrome.
Tragedy, too much of it needless, stalked the scene. Drugs killed baseball’s Tommy Hanson, only 29. Darryl Hamilton, 36, was murdered. Tyler Sash of the NY Giants was only 27. Flying debris at a Poconos’ race-track killed NACAR’s Justin Wilson. An avalanche in the Austrian Alps swept away Bryce Astle and New Hampshire’s Ronnie Berback, young stars of the US Ski Team.
Gene Fullmer, gamest of ring-brawlers and two-title champ, died of dementia. Boxing’s inexorable damages also got blamed for the premature death of Bob Foster, long stylish light-heavyweight champ. Chronic injury effects were cited in the demise of wrestling’s Dusty Rhodes and “Rowdy Roddie” Piper, only 61. But Verne Gagne, star of wrestling’s long-ago era of TV. prominence, passed on in relative serenity at age 89.
Ann Mara of the NY Giants’ ruling family was regarded as the First Lady of Pro Football. Tony Verna devised instant replay. Ed Sabol, who made NFL Films a promotional colossus for the league, was 98. Walter Byers spent a lifetime seeking to reform the NCAA without coming close. Danny Villanueva, just another placekicker with the Rams, went on to create Univision.
Buddy Baker became NASCAR’s patriarch. Nelson Doubleday owned the Mets. Jim Skeffington owned the PawSox. As long-time president of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh presided happily over their sporting eminence. Bill Kearns taught at Weymouth High School and scouted for the Red Sox. So did Charles “Buzz” Bowers. The estimable Lenny Merullo of Reading, erstwhile Cubbie and long MLB’s chief scout, was 98.
The Raiders’ Ken Stabler was known as “Snake.” The 49ers’ Bob St. Clair was “Gentle Giant.” Maryland’s and the Browns’ Ed Modzelewski was “Big Mo.” The Skins’ Eddie LeBaron was “Mighty Mite.” Allie Sherman coached the Giants when they were the toast of the town. Bill Arnsparger coached the Dolphins. The Colts’ Jim Mutscheller caught a historic pass from Johnny Unitas. The Cowboys’ Jethro Pugh was larger than life. Both iron-tough, John David Crowe won the Heisman and Dick Stanfel made the Hall of Fame. Other football folk departing were Doug Buffone, Charlie Sanders, Mel Farr, Garo Yepremiam, Dick Wood, Art Powell, Lindy Infante, Marv Hubbard, John Rollins, and two fellows who once labored mightily for the Patriots: Sam Adams, the dutiful lineman, and Mini Mack Herron, flashy dervish of a running-back, only 5-foot-7.
Baseball lost impish knuckleballer Stu Miller, famed for getting blown off the mound by a gust of wind at the height of an all-star game. Local lad Billy Monbouquette was gallant and classy for some craven and classless Red Sox teams. Hank Peters was GM of the Indians. Dean Chance should have been great. Bear Bryant and Wendell Kim were Bosox coaches. In fabled 1967, Norm Siebern got a huge pinch hit for the Impossible Dreamers. Others departing were Alex Johnson, Jeff McKnight, Don Johnson, Dave Bergman, and Joaquin Andujar.
Jim Loscutoff, aptly nicknamed “Jungle,” and Lou Tsioropoulos, out of Lynn English High, were staunch, and charter members of Red Auerbach’s original champs, the merry 1957 gang that launched America’s second greatest sports dynasty. “Hot Rod” Hundley was an NBA old-time star. “Hot Rod” Williams was latter day. Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone were as rugged and physical as their game ever featured. Bob Hall was a Harlem Globetrotter, as was, for sure, the incomparable Marques Haynes. Playing for Rio Grande College one night, Bevo Francis scored 113 points. Other basketball folk departing were Mel Daniels, Roy Tarpley, Jerome Kersey, Anthony Mason, Coach Flip Saunders, and Ref Norm Drucker.
We of this sports media dodge bid farewell to Joe Gordon of the Patriots Ledger, ever constant hockey man who never backed down. Bob Wilson, 85, was the booming voice of the Bruins in their glory years. Stan Hochman and Phil Pepe were ink-stained wretches of note. Lon Simmons and Milo Hamilton were comparable from the broadcasting side. Stuart Scott of ESPN fought cancer with notable valor, succumbing at 49.
Tim Horgan! Last of a breed! In a much-changed world, no one in the business will ever again realize the authority and stature lead columnists of the great dailies once properly enjoyed. Timmie Horgan exemplified the role. He mastered it and waged it brilliantly for 40 years. Literate and wise, with a work ethic to match and unimpeachable principles, Tim was high among “our” enduring greats. He was 88.
Lastly, there are these baseball favorites, chaps we grew up with, forging a virtual friendship of the sort hat was routine back when baseball was the only pastime.
Billy Pierce: A little guy with a wonderful curveball, he was heroic for the White Sox back when they were bravely stalking the Yankees to no avail, year after year. Pierce’s presence would distinguish the Hall of Fame.
Al Rosen: The war, a late start, and injury blunted any such aspirations for him, but after notable seasons for the Indians he became a smart and politic baseball executive, wise enough to co-exist even with George Steinbrenner.
Orestes “Minnie” Minoso: Baseball’s first true great Latin star, his burden as a pathfinder was little less arduous than what Jackie Robinson was obliged to bear, and for which Minoso has essentially been accorded no recognition. It is ridiculous. Minnie Minoso should be in the Hall of Fame.
Ernie Banks: He was baseball’s Johnny Appleseed, representing the game as we want to believe it once was and dearly yearn to have again even if, paradoxically, it never was.
Lawrence Peter Berra: Two months after his death, which was celebrated as much for the grace and decency of his life as anything he attained in it, Yogi rightfully received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Such a pity they were late. The grin on that loveable mug would have been priceless.
Here’s to the distinguished class of 2015, old acquaintances n’ere to be forgot.