Ever wonder what it’s like writing baseball-related obituaries in 2020? In a word, it’s been exhausting. Let’s use this week as an example.
I wrote and published stories on Tommy Sandt and Bill Spanswick on December 5 and 7, respectively. While I was working on those, reports came out that that Lorenzo “Chico” Fernandez died, so I started working on his story. Within the next 24 hours, news broke that Dick Allen, Roger Moret and Denis Menke all had passed away as well. Dick Allen’s obit, given the length of his career and the complexity of his story, took a couple days to write, but it was posted on December 10. I spent the afternoon of the 10th off my phone — ironically, I was at a cemetery for my mother-in-law’s memorial service. By the time I got back in the car and started catching up on emails, I received notices that Phil Linz and Billy DeMars had both passed away. That makes for 7 deaths within the first 10 days of December alone. That’s 2020 in a nutshell: just an relenting string of bad news.
If you’ve followed this blog or paid attention to baseball news in general, you may get the sense that 2020 has been especially hard on the baseball community. The deaths of six Hall of Famers, including four within a five-week span, is a tremendous loss by itself. It’s more than that, though. Through December 10, 2020, there have been a confirmed total of 107 major-league ballplayers who have passed away, as well as three managers who had no MLB experience (Bobby WInkles, Jim Frey and John McNamara). That’s one of the highest death counts in the last 50 years — and we have 21 more days to go to the end of the year. This does not take into account Negro Leagues, AAGPL or minor league players, and there were considerable losses in those categories this year as well.
Since baseball fans are by nature stat geeks, let’s take a look at 50 years worth of numbers, thanks to Baseball Reference:
|Year||Number of MLB player deaths||Number of Hall of Fame deaths|
|2020||107 (through 12-10)||6|
As you can see, for most of the last 50 years, we can expect anywhere from 80 to 100 former ballplayers to pass away in a year. As of this writing, 2020 was the fourth-worst year of the last half-century, and it may become the second-worst before the end of the year. The only other time we’ve lost so many Hall of Famers in a single season in the last half-century was 1972, when Dave Bancroft, Roberto Clemente, Gabby Hartnett, Jackie Robinson, Pie Traynor and Zack Wheat all died. Clemente wasn’t in the Hall at the time of his death, as he was still an active player.
(The decade of the 1960s, incidentally, was a pretty rough one, as that was the decade in which the Deadball Era ballplayers, well, died. There were 142 deaths in 1969, and every year had at least 100.)
So what’s going on in 2020? From 2000 to 2019, there was an average of 94 deaths per year. We’re up 13 percent over that number in 2020, and the percentage is only going to increase. Is it a fluke? Is it natural attrition that comes from having players from the 1950s and ’60s reaching their 80s and 90s? Is it the pandemic?
The natural inclination is to assume that COVID-19 has caused the spike in deaths, since it’s killed more than a quarter of a million Americans to date. But so far, there have been only four instances where it was named as a cause or contributor of death: Tom Seaver, Jay Johnstone, Rick Baldwin and Lindy McDaniel. Of those, Seaver and Johnstone had been living in long-term care facilities due to dementia, and those facilities have been particularly susceptible to the virus. In addition, there have been several baseball executives, scouts and minor-leaguers like Steve Dalkowski who died from COVID-19, so this virus has hurt the baseball community — we just may never know the full extent.
We don’t know the cause of death for the majority of the 2020 ballplayer deaths. Most of the time, it’s not listed in the family-provided obituary or the news reports. Families aren’t obligated to release that information if they don’t want to, and by the time the 2020 death certificates will be publicly available, anyone reading this will be way beyond caring. It’s hard to tell if 2020 is a one-time spike or a sign of things to come, but it’s not just your imagination: when it comes to saying goodbye, this has been a lousy year for baseball.
Stay tuned for more stories, and hopefully I will have a chance to write a year-end retrospective or two.