6 Feet Under, 90 Feet to Home: Ballplayers Who Died Ingloriously
Just a reminder, fans, comin’ up is our “Die-hard Night” here at the stadium. Free admission to anyone who was actually alive the last time the Indians won a pennant. ~from “Major League”
Ah, spring. With April and a whole month of Autism Awareness posts behind me, I’ve realized that I haven’t done a post yet about the Great American Pastime. You know…baseball. Beisbol. The great glittering diamond.
What? You mean it isn’t the Great American Pastime anymore?
I realize that the NFL, despite the ongoing lockout, is now the big kid on the block, and even the NBA and Nascar have eclipsed baseball, but it’s still pretty damn all-American. Some will complain that it’s boring and drawn-out. You get 162 games as opposed to the 16 or 17 games the NFL offers. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Like chess instead of Slap Jack. I grew up wanting to be just like my heroes Harry Caray and Jerry Coleman, announcing games on the radio (baseball, for whatever reason, is irresistable to me over the airwaves.) It’s not spring unless I’ve watched games on Opening Day and recited the dialogue along with Major League and Field of Dreams.
Okay, you say, I’m still a skeptic. After the lockouts and labor disputes and the Era of Steroids, you say, I’ve had it with baseball. And for that, I don’t blame you. Hell, I can’t even look at my box of baseball cards from the ’80s and ’90s anymore without wanting to sort them between Steroids and No Steroids, with a category in between for Maybe Steroids. I got jaded along with everybody else. And the sad thing is, with the ongoing Bonds and Clemens investigations, it ain’t over. There’s two wars going on, a gargantuan debt crisis, and Congress is worried whether ballplayers lied about taking ‘roids. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call misplaced priorities.
But just for today, I want to keep baseball positive, and even darkly humorous. Thanks to the wonderful folks over at The Dead Ball Era (thedeadballera.com) and the archives of Major League Baseball, I’ve compiled a list of some of the more obscure men who ever set foot on a diamond. Some of them you might know; others are nowhere near famous. All of them have something in common: they’re famous for something dubious. They’re also already dead and buried, so we won’t have to worry about their Steroid Status. Since I never did get to sit up in the booth and call games, I’ll leave it to the readers to imagine Bob Uecker reading their bios out loud, or perhaps the immortal Yogi Berra. Because, as we all know, it gets late early out there:
Eric Show (1956-1994)
I couldn’t make up a life as insane as Show’s (whose surname rhymes with “now”) if I tried. In case you may not remember, this was the pitcher who surrendered Pete Rose’s record-breaking 4,192nd hit in 1985…and then sat and sulked on the mound like an overgrown 8-year-old. After the game, Show was quoted: “…in the eternal scheme of things, how much does this matter? I don’t like to say this, but I don’t care.” Well, at least he was honest. The righty, who majored in physics (!), was also a member of the ulta-right-wing John Birch Society, not to mention a jazz musician who released several albums. He also had, like many of the ballplayers of his era, a rather absurdly large mustache. His life went downhill once traded from the San Diego Padres to the Oakland A’s: he was arrested following a rant that someone was apparently trying to kill him, and struggled with drug abuse. In 1994, Show ingested a speedball while in a California rehab center (again, I’m not making this up), proving once and for all that a sinker/slider pitcher can in fact die by speedball.
Bo Diaz (1953-1990)
Mr. Diaz is a textbook case of a death that nobody wants. Before I get into that, I can tell you that he was the first catcher of Venezuelan heritage to play in the majors, and came up with my beloved Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, his only at-bat with the Sox was a strikeout, and he’d later spend time with the Indians, Phillies and Reds. His career was only slightly above average, hitting just above the Mendoza Line and being selected as an All-Star alternate twice. Trouble for Mr. Diaz was that one day, while attempting to install a satellite dish at his home in Caracas, slipped and fell, getting decapitated by his own dish. Ouch. I wouldn’t wish that kind of end on anybody, even a Yankees alum.
Edward J. “Big Ed” Delahanty (1867-1903)
I didn’t get to see this guy play…hell, I doubt if my great-great grandfather did…but his death has to be among the most sensational of all. An early power hitter, Delahanty hit over .400 in several campaigns with the Philadelphia Phillies, and to this day remains the only player ever to hit four home runs and four doubles in the same game. He’s also the only player to win batting titles in two leagues. However, all that’s just filler when compared to Big Ed’s mysterious end. In 1903, while on a train, he was, depending on whose account one believes, fell or jumped off a bridge into the roaring waters of Niagara Falls. That’s not a ballplayer, that’s a frickin’ Hitchcock movie. The incident was the subject of a 1992 book, and I’m willing it would make a great popcorn flick. Maybe an angrified Sean Astin could play the lead.
Jimmie Foxx (1907-1967)
Foxx is a great example of a terrific ballplayer whom a lot of people remember, but hardly anyone remembers how he died. He gets a gold star from me simply for playing for the Red Sox. Some of his other accomplishments: Second to reach 500 career home runs (after Babe Ruth). Three career MVP awards. Triple Crown winner in 1933. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1951. There is some anecdotal evidence that Tom Hanks’ crusty manager character in A League Of Their Own was partially based on Foxx, who managed a team in the All-American Girls Pro Baseball League in 1952. And how did this titan of the diamond die, you ask? Choking to death on a steak at the age of 59. Just like T.S. Eliot once wrote: not with a bang, but a whimper.
Hiram “Hi” Bithorn (1916-1951)
Say hi to Hi…Hiram, that is…who, in 1942, became the first native of Puerto Rico to play in the majors. He also later formed one half of the first all-Latin battery in MLB along with Chico Hernandez. Later he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, back when it was the honorable thing for athletes to serve their country. Unfortunately after the war, Bithorn gained weight and never found his groove again. At the age of only 35, while attempting a comeback in the Mexican League, the righty was shot and killed by a police officer who claimed Bithorn had accused him of being a Communist. Those were the days of the Cold War, right, amigos? The cop got an eight-year murder sentence, but, alas, it was too late for Bithorn.
Mike Coolbaugh (1972-2007)
Here’s a baseball death I really remember vividly, and one which had ripple effects on the sport. Coolbaugh, as a player, was one of those guys who spent years in the minors only to get a “cup of coffee” near the end of his career. One of those guys whose card you might have had, but never gave a second thought. After a wrist injury in 2006, he turned to coaching, becoming the first base coach of Tulsa’s AA-team, the Drillers. In 2007, during a game with the Arkansas Travelers, Coolbaugh was struck by a line drive to the neck and killed almost instantaneously. Considering struck baseballs travel with a punch close to that of a low-caliber bullet, this is hardly surprising, although a freak accident. Following his death, MLB ordered base coaches to wear protective helmets…and for good reason.
Naturally, I wish no ill will on these players’ surviving family members or friends, nor do I wish to make light of their deaths. May they rest in peace. Let’s enjoy baseball for what it is: generally a non-contact sport, and still, despite any objections, America’s game. Five more months of baseball, then the World Series. I can’t wait. As for my own death, well, I’ll quote Yogi Berra here:
“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
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