Eras ended and doors closed on history. It was a year of tumultuous transition. The class of 2016 is long on numbers and even higher in distinction.
Oft infuriatingly complex and willfully enigmatic, Muhammad Ali nonetheless transcended Sport. It may be that when he departed he took boxing with him.
Equally definitive, Arnold Palmer freed his game from the oppressively elitist grasp of The Country Club and gave it to the people. He wasn’t Golf’s greatest, but he was easily the most charismatic.
Gordie Howe embodied the most treasured properties of hockey’s vaunted tribal ethos. There may have been more skilled, but none who has played this relentless game has been stronger, tougher, more durable, more feared all in one and same package.
In a three-decade run, Pat Summitt won 1,098 games and 8 national titles, setting the gold standard for women’s sports. It took dementia to bring her down, at only 64.
Increasingly, tragedy – too much of it seemingly needless – stalks the games. Miami’s superb 24 year-old pitcher, Jose Fernandez ,was killed in a late-night boating accident abetted by liquor. Two NFL alums, Will Smith of the Saints and Joe McKnight of the Jets, were victims of road rage. Only 23, the Ravens’ Tracy Walker died in a dirt bike mishap. Paralyzed in an NFL game, ex-Jet Dennis Byrd died in a car crash. It was a taste for extreme violence that seemingly motivated mixed-martial arts champ Kimbo Slice, dead at only 42.
Hockey’s Todd Ewan, plagued by concussion-issues from his NHL enforcer days, committed suicide. As did Rashaan Salaan, for whom the 1994 Heisman Trophy seems to have been more a curse. Once an All-American, Lawrence Phillipe died miserably in a jail cell. Wrestler Joanie Laurer overdosed. Only 46, Kevin Turner had long suffered from ALS believed caused by his head-smashing days as an NFL fullback.
Dementia killed Ex-featherweight champ Bobby Chacon. Ex-welterweight champ Aaron Pryor was only 60. In a plane crash still not entirely explained, 19 Brazilian soccer players died en route to a tourney.
Football was notably hard hit. Among the departed were such ancient worthies from the ‘50s as Teddie Marchibroda and Al Wistert, Gail Cogdill and Bob Gain, Notre Dame alums Bobby Williams and 1953 Heisman winner Johnny Lattner. Burly Lou Michaels starred for the Colts. Rudy Bukich quarterbacked the Bears. So did Billy Wade, leading them to the NFL crown in 1963.
After serving the Patriots admirably the estimable Dr. Bill Lenkaitis, a class act, distinguished himself even more in dentistry. Staunch but always agreeable, Julius Adams spanned the formative years of the Patriots. Ron Brace, of both BC and the Pats, was only 29. On the Jets, Winston Hill was Joe Namath’s veritable bodyguard. Also, there were Willie Richardson, Gary Jeter, Quincy Monk, Carey Blanchard and Bill Stanfill. Dennis Green was the NFL’s second black head coach. Buddy Ryan was a celebrity skipper who sired two more of them, sons Rex and Rob. Marion Campbell starred for the Eagles and later coached them.
Hockey lost a pair of gilded characters from the NHL’s fabled Original Six era: Andy Bathgate, superb winger of the Rangers and Leafs, and Bill Gadsby, superb defensemen of the Rangers and Blackhawks.
Though rarely having had the pleasure of playing for winners, both were eminent. “Leapin Louie” Fontinato was one of the zanier hotheads. Bill Dineen, Howe’s cool linemate, became a respected coach.
Rick MacLeish was a civilized star of the Flyers when they were the “Broad Street Bullies.” Ed Snider was the only owner those Flyers ever had.
Basketball lost Bobby Wanzer, Jim McMillian, Kenny Sailors – who’s largely credited with “inventing” the jump shot – and Dwayne “The Pearl” Washington, a playground legend never quite able to reprise his magic as an adult. The erudite Nate Thurmond was a Hall of Famer. So was massive Clyde Lovellette, who though past his prime, reveled in winning two championships with those magnificent early ‘60s Celtics.
Ex-Olympic champs included boxer Howard Davis and legendary Norwegian ski jumper Stein Eriksen. Bill Johnson, America’s first Alpine gold-medalist, was as brash and cocky a chap as ever strapped on the boards. He was only 55. Sammy Lee was the first Asian-American medalist, in platform diving, and even more esteemed as a swimming coach. He was 96.
Jack Riley coached hockey at West Point for 35 years and directed the 1960 US Olympic team that stunningly triumphed at Squaw Valley. These were the original “miracle workers,” a squad composed of New England schoolboys and captained by Brookline firefighter and veteran hockey nomad Jack Kirrane, who, after winning the Gold, dutifully returned to Brookline to resume fighting fires. It was a wonderful story and in its last poignant irony, Jack died just weeks after his old coach. He was 88.
The Netherlands’ Johan Cruyff was loftily proclaimed “the peerless embodiment of total football.” Near as esteemed in soccer annals was Carlos Alberto, the Brazilian star defender and sidekick of Pele. Scottie Whitelaw soldiered many years for the ECAC. Gardnar Mulloy was a patriarch of American tennis. He played into his 90’s and died at 102. Christie O’Connor Sr. was a legend of Irish golf.
A respected orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Arthur Pappas was controversial as a Red Sox minority owner but a gentleman throughout. Chuck Waseleski was known as the “maniacal baseball stat-man from Miller’s Falls,” a pioneer of the game’s statistical analytics. Dottie Morgan was the beloved wife and comrade of Joe Morgan, as delightful a manager as the Red Sox may ever have.
Other old baseball friends to whom we bid adieu were Milt Pappas, Jim O’Toole, Jim Davenport, Tony Philips, Luis Arroyo, Walt “No Neck” Williams, Sammy Ellis, Dick McAuliffe, Jim Hickman, “Choo Choo” Coleman, Chris Cannizzaro, Russ Nixon, Johnny Orsino, and Phil Gagliano.
At 100, Mike Sandlock had been baseball’s oldest survivor. Dave “Boo” Ferriss was briefly phenomenal for the Red Sox before arm woes finished him at age 26. Monte Irvin’s best years were before the infamous color line got smashed yet he was still good enough to make the Hall of Fame. Lanky and laughable, Frank Sullivan was the court jester of the wayward Higgins-era Red Sox, but too likeable to get mad at. For over a half century, Ralph Branca did contrition for serving up too fat a fastball to Bobby Thomson and yet respect for his dignity kept growing and growing as people recognized this was a very good man.
Lastly there were those of the sporting media who signed off. They also serve who mainly roam the sidelines, you know.
Eddie Einhorn and Jim Simpson were sports-broadcasting pioneers, Simpson being a founding father of ESPN. John Saunders was one of their finest foot soldiers. For 30 years the colorfully attired Craig Sager charmed the basketball world, then moved it deeply in his valiant struggle with cancer. John Carlson did Patriots play-by-play early on as sidekick of the immortal Bob Starr. Wally Carew served both the Patriots and his beloved BC. Joe Garagiola once played baseball but became much more famed for bantering and making light of it.
Which brings us to two gentlemen who’ll always have a special place in one’s memory and the sporting lore of our town:
Arthur ‘Bud’ Collins was an exemplar. You yearned to be able to write like Bud, and for it to be as easy as it was for him. But mostly it was his wit and wisdom you most admired. Bud understood stuff and in his gentle way gave it marvelous perspective. Everything about him was stylish, especially his warmth and smile and decency.
Eddie Kleven was an agent, first of show business types, then of ballplayers, and, finally, for media wretches of all persuasions from all over the map. Few understood the games better. Most remarkable, though, was that in a business properly known for the looseness of its ethics, Eddie’s were impeccable.
He was a man of his word and his word was unshakeable. His friends stretch the length of the dodge.
And there you have it, Ladies and Gentlemen: the distinguished Class of 2016.