I will not be the first one to point out that 2020 has been a unique year, and not in a good way. While there have been good things to happen — especially for a Dodger fan like me — both the real world and the world of sports have been hit pretty hard this year.
When it comes to baseball, one of the most notable negatives has been the number of Hall of Famers who have passed away this year. Perhaps you, like me, have found yourself wondering, “Have there really been more Hall of Famers dying this year, or is my brain just more attuned to it because of the overall bummer of a year?”
I did the work, and sadly, it’s not our imagination. With four weeks left in the year, the six Hall of Famers we’ve lost this year — Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, and Tom Seaver — represent the second-highest number we’ve ever seen for a single year. (Fingers crossed that this number stays at six; former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda has been hospitalized for a couple weeks and is the oldest living Hall of Famer, and several others are in their late 80s.)
[Update: On December 7, Dick Allen died at age 78. Allen isn’t currently a Hall of Famer, but he should be and he probably will be. When Allen is eventually elected, that will put 2020’s number at seven.]
[Update 2: On December 27, knuckleballer Phil Niekro passed away at the age of 81. Niekro, elected in 1997 by the BBWAA, is the seventh Hall of Famer to die in 2020.]
[Final Update: Niekro was the final Hall of Fame baseball death of 2020, leaving the number at seven until and unless Allen or Jim Wynn is eventually elected. Sadly, Lasorda died on January 7, 2021, the first Hall of Fame death of the new year.]
Including this year, there have been 12 years in which at least five Hall of Famers passed away, with the record being seven in 1972, although only six of the seven had already been enshrined. There have been ten years in which five members of the Hall of Fame died. We’ll take a look at those 11 other years.
One thing you’ll notice is that, while all Hall of Famers count the same, no year before 2020 has ever seen the deaths of even four players who were elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). As you’ll see, all of the other years had some combination of umpires, executives, and Veterans Committee elections. (Some Vets picks were long overdue, including several Negro Leagues players, while you’ll see a couple others who were … let’s just say, less deserving.) This is not to diminish the deaths of any of those players — as John Donne said, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” — but to point out why the deaths of so many legends this year have hit us so hard. We’ve really never seen anything like this.
1972 – 7 (Robinson, Traynor, Hartnett, Wheat, Bancroft, Weiss, Clemente)
In 1972, six elected members of the Hall of Fame passed away, including Jackie Robinson, Pie Traynor, and Gabby Hartnett, who had all been elected by the BBWAA. There were also Zack Wheat and Dave Bancroft, who had been elected as players by the Veterans Committee, and George Weiss, elected by the Vets as a Pioneer/Executive. And then, on the last day of 1972, Roberto Clemente tragically died in a plane crash on a humanitarian trip. When Clemente was enshrined in Cooperstown in a special election the next year, he became the seventh Hall of Famer to have passed away in 1972.
1993 – 5 (Campanella, Dickey, Drysdale, Gehringer, Mize)
In 1993, five Hall of Famers died, all of whom were already in the Hall at the time of their passing: Roy Campanella, Bill Dickey, Don Drysdale, Charlie Gehringer, and Johnny Mize. Dickey, Gehringer, and Mize all lived into their 80s, and Campanella lived for 35 years after the car accident that ended his career and left him confined to a wheelchair. Drysdale’s death was much more shocking, as he was only 56 years old and had a thriving post-playing career as a broadcaster. He died of a heart attack in a Montreal hotel room after calling a Dodgers/Expos game for the Dodgers’ network.
1989 – 5 (Conlan, Johnson, Wells, Gomez, Terry)
Five Hall of Famers died in 1989: umpire Jocko Conlan, Negro Leagues stars Judy Johnson and Willie Wells, and major leaguers Lefty Gomez and Bill Terry. Of the five, four had already been enshrined at the time of their deaths; only Wells, who was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1997, had not yet joined Cooperstown. Gomez was the youngest of the five, dying about three months after his 80th birthday.
1984 – 5 (Alston, Coveleski, Cronin, Hoyt, Kelly)
The five Hall of Fame deaths in 1984 were Walter Alston, Stan Coveleski, Joe Cronin, Waite Hoyt, and High Pockets Kelly. Cronin was a month shy of his 78th birthday, and Alston was two months from his 73rd. All five had already been elected prior to their deaths — Alston the year before, Cronin by the writers in 1956, and Coveleski (1969), Hoyt (1969), and Kelly (1973) all Veterans Committee selections.
1978 – 5 (Frick, McCarthy, Haines, Foster, Gordon)
Three people who had already been enshrined in Cooperstown died in 1978: former commissioner Ford Frick, manager Joe McCarthy, and controversial Veterans Committee selection Jesse Haines. Haines was a longtime teammate of Frankie Frisch, who headed up the Veterans Committee at the time and helped elect seven of his teammates, including Haines, Kelly, and Bancroft. Haines is often cited as one of the least-deserving Hall of Famers. There were also two deaths of players who would later be elected by the Vets: Bill Foster and Joe Gordon. Gordon’s death of a heart attack came at age 63; the other four lived reasonably long lives.
1975 – 5 (Medwick, Grove, Stengel, MacPhail, Fox)
Players Joe Medwick and Lefty Grove and manager Casey Stengel had already been enshrined in Cooperstown before they died in 1975. Former executive Larry MacPhail and second baseman Nellie Fox also died that year, although they wouldn’t be elected until 1978 and 1997, respectively. Medwick died of a heart attack at age 63, and Fox died of lymphatic cancer at age 47. Grove was 75, and MacPhail and Stengel were both 85.
1971 – 5 (Flick, Manush, Goslin, Harridge, Dihigo)
There were five Hall of Fame deaths in 1971, including three who were already enshrined. Elmer Flick, Heinie Manush, and Goose Goslin were elected in 1963, 1964, and 1968, respectively. Manush died at age 69 of throat cancer, while Goslin was 70 and died of natural causes. Flick died two days before his 95th birthday, and in his later years was known to put the date and his age below his signature any time he was asked for his autograph. In addition to the three already in the Hall, 1971 saw the deaths of former American League president Will Harridge, who would be elected in 1972 and was most famous for voiding the contract of Eddie Gaedel after Bill Veeck’s publicity stunt in 1951, and Negro Leagues star Martin Dihigo, who was elected in 1977 and is one of only two players (along with Wells) to be enshrined in the baseball halls of fame in the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.
1965 – 5 (McKechnie, Waner, Rickey, Brown, Mackey)
In 1965, former manager Bill McKechnie and Pirates star Paul Waner were the only existing Hall of Famers to pass away, McKechnie of natural causes at age 79 and Waner of emphysema at age 62. That year also saw the deaths of three future Hall of Famers: Branch Rickey, the executive who changed the game of baseball with his invention of the minor league farm system and by signing Jackie Robinson and was elected in 1967, and Negro Leagues stars Ray Brown and Biz Mackey, who were both elected in 2006. Brown and Mackey were 56 and 68 when they died, respectively, while Rickey was 84 and died after collapsing in the middle of a speech as he was being inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
1954 – 5 (Duffy, Bender, Maranville, Charleston, McGowan)
Hugh Duffy was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946. Chief Bender was elected in 1953. Both of them died in 1954, Bender of prostate cancer at age 70 and Duffy of heart problems at 67. On January 6, 1954, Rabbit Maranville died of a heart attack just two weeks before it was announced that he had been elected to the Hall. That year also saw the deaths of Negro Leagues star Oscar Charleston, who died of either a heart attack or a stroke at age 57 and would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976, and umpire Bill McGowan, who died after a series of heart attacks at age 58 and was enshrined in 1992.
1951 – 5 (Collins, Heilmann, Klem, Williams, Hill)
Five Hall of Famers died in 1951, but only Eddie Collins, who was elected in 1939 and died of heart problems at age 63, had already been enshrined. Harry Heilmann, who spent 15 years as a player with the Tigers and another 17 as a Tigers broadcaster, died of lung cancer at age 56 and was elected to the Hall of Fame the next year. Former umpire Bill Klem died of heart problems at age 77 and was elected to the Hall two years later. Two former Negro Leagues stars who died in 1951 didn’t get their Cooperstown recognition for a while longer. Smokey Joe Williams died at age 64 and was elected in 1999; Pete Hill died at 69 and was elected in 2006, although his name wasn’t correct on his plaque until 2010.
1948 – 5 (Ruth, Tinker, Pennock, Brown, Wilson)
Our first year with five Hall of Fame deaths was 1948. Babe Ruth died of cancer at the age of 53, and this is a good time to point out that in the very first Hall of Fame election in 1936, Ruth sailed in with 95.1 percent of the vote but that means there were 11 voters who somehow didn’t vote for Babe Freaking Ruth. Joe Tinker, who had been elected along with his poem-mates Johnny Evers and Frank Chance in 1946, died on his 68th birthday of complications from diabetes. On January 30, 1948, Ruth’s former Yankees teammate Herb Pennock collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage four days before his 54th birthday and four weeks before being elected to the Hall of Fame. Mordecai Brown died at age 71 of complications from diabetes and was elected to the Hall the next year. Hack Wilson died at age 48 after a fall at home led to other complications, and he was elected to Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee in 1979.