Tragedy to Triumph

Written by: Bill Madden

We will never know if Ray Chapman or Thurman Munson would have one day seen their names embossed on a plaque at Cooperstown had they not been cut down in the prime of their careers - other than the fact that both of them were recognized by their peers as superior players at their respective positions.

More recently, Darryl Kile was an established top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher when he died suddenly in 2002, while fellow right-hander Nick Adenhart was seemingly just coming into his own when he, too, was prematurely taken from the game.

There is a common thread among Chapman, Munson, Kile and Adenhart, above and beyond the fact that their lives were all cut short while in the midst or on the cusp of baseball stardom. In their own different ways, they were inspirational figures to their teammates, which may explain why, in the aftermath of their tragedies, emerged the triumph of the spirit.

As part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Character and Courage exhibit, the teams that soldiered on in the wake of tragedy are remembered for their heroic character.

An Unthinkable Tragedy

By 1920, Ray Chapman had logged nearly nine seasons in the big leagues as shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, compiling a .278 average, one point lower than Davey Bancroft and 20 points higher than Rabbit Maranville, the only two shortstops in the majors that year who went on to be elected to the Hall of Fame. “Chappy”, who led the AL in runs scored in 1918, possessed a strong arm and superior range at shortstop and was also regarded as one of the best bunters the game has ever known.

He was batting .313 when he came to the plate that overcast Aug. 16 afternoon at the Polo Grounds in New York, against Carl Mays, the Yankees’ right-hander whose signature submarine delivery had enabled him to compile 99 wins in the big leagues in a little more than 4 ½ seasons. It was a pivotal game in the season in the sense that the Indians were holding a scant one-half game lead over the second-place Yankees. On the bus from the hotel to the ballpark, Chapman had reportedly led the Indians in song as a way of helping relieve the tension for his mates.

The score was 3-0 Indians when Chapman led off the fifth inning against Mays. Indians manager Tris Speaker was on deck and as Mays went into his delivery, Chapman began to square away for a bunt. In an instant, Mays’ underhand delivery – a fastball to the upper inside of the strike zone – struck the Indian shortstop squarely on the left temple with a sharp crack so profound it could be heard throughout the ballpark. Chapman slumped to the ground and lay motionless as Speaker rushed to his aid and home plate umpire Tommy Connolly shouted to the dugout for a doctor.

After a few minutes, Chapman was able to rise to his feet, to the applause of the Polo Grounds crowd, and began walking on his own to the clubhouse in center field before he suddenly collapsed again. That night, doctors operated on Chapman’s brain, but at 4:40 the next morning he died – the first such casualty of a beaning in the major leagues.

Not just the Indians, but all of baseball was devastated.

“Chappy was the best friend I ever had,” said the distraught Speaker. And even though the 4-3 win had enabled them to increase their lead over the Yankees, the loss of their spiritual leader cast a pall over their clubhouse, and a 3-8 spell from Aug. 18-26, dropped them into second place. They would not regain the league lead until Sept. 1, by which time Joe Sewell, who himself would years later go on to earn election to the Hall of Fame, began establishing himself as more than-able-replacement for Chapman at short with a .329 average and a .429 on-base pct. over the last 22 games.

Meanwhile, Walter “Duster” Mails, a talented but unproven left-hander who’d had two previous failed trials with the Brooklyn Dodgers, bolstered the starting pitching after being purchased from Portland of the Pacific Coast League. More than anyone it was Mails – whom Speaker often had to cajole into taking the mound for his starts - who was responsible for the Indians rallying to the pennant, by going 7-0 in eight September starts. The Indians’ emotional 1920 season was then capped by their vanquishing of the Dodgers, five games-to-two, in the World Series as Mails won one game and relieved in another, hurling 15 2/3 scoreless innings.

The Death of the Captain

The bitter irony for Bobby Murcer, when he was re-acquired, June 26, 1979, by the Yankees – who had initially signed him and nurtured him through his most productive major league seasons – was that they now bore a distinct resemblance to the perennial non-contending team he’d left rather than the ones that had won three straight American League pennants and two world championships during his exile to the San Francisco Giants and then the Chicago Cubs.

The ’79 Yankees were doomed almost from the get-go after future Hall of Famer Goose Gossage, their premier closer who had led the American League with 27 saves the year before, suffered a sprained thumb in a shower room scuffle with teammate Cliff Johnson. Gossage missed six weeks of the season and, even after a three-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox July 30-Aug. 1, the Yankees were mired in fourth place, 14 games back.

Still there was the memory of just a year earlier when the Yankees were in a similar situation, 14½ games behind the first-place Red Sox in August, only to rally to one of the greatest comebacks-to-a-pennant ever. It was perhaps that lesson of hope that prompted Murcer and Thurman Munson, the Yankees’ gritty seven-time All-Star catcher and team captain, to make a mutual vow to turn their seasons and the Yankees’ around. They were the best of friends, having broken in together with the Yankees, and they were on their way in a car to small airport in Chicago where Munson had his private jet waiting on the runway. Murcer looked at Munson and said: “Look ‘Tugboat’, if I get my stuff together, will you?” Munson didn’t hesitate. “You better believe it. We can do this.”

A detail from a photograph of Thurman Munson swinging a bat. BL-5364.72 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

And that was the last conversation they ever had. The next day, Munson crashed his plane while practicing takeoffs and landings at the Canton, Ohio, airport near his home and perished. The initial shock for the Yankee players quickly gave way to unimaginable grief. Four days later, at the funeral at the Canton Civic Center in which the entire Yankee team attended, Murcer delivered the eulogy to his fallen friend, saying of Munson: “He lived…he led…he loved. Whatever he was to each one of us…catcher…captain…competitor…husband…father…friend…he should be remembered as a man who valued and followed the basic principals of life.”

As soon as the funeral and burial were over, the Yankees flew back to New York for a night game against the Baltimore Orioles – a game of which owner George Steinbrenner had said: “We’ll forfeit if we don’t get back in time. These kids won’t recover.”

He was right about the Yankees being exhausted, but Murcer implored Yankee manager Billy Martin to let him play. “I had thought about not playing but then I knew Thurman would have said: ‘What are you crazy? Of course you’re gonna play!’” Murcer later recounted.

And play he did, driving in all five runs in the Yankees’ emotional 5-4 victory, with a three-run homer off Dennis Martinez in the seventh inning and a two-run single off lefty reliever Tippy Martinez that won it in the ninth. The homer was Murcer’s first as a Yankee since he’d left in 1973, and after he circled the bases, the Yankee Stadium crowd of 36,314 stood applauding for a good two minutes. By fulfilling his end of their vow that last night they were together, Murcer had honored Munson with one glorious night of triumph.

“I never used that bat again,” said Murcer, adding that he later gave it to Munson’s widow, Diana.

Cardinal Family Loss

On June 18, 2002, Darryl Kile, a strapping 6-foot-5, 33-year old right-hander, held the Anaheim Angels to one run over 7 2/3 innings for a 5-4 victory that vaulted the St. Louis Cardinals into sole possession of first place in the National League Central Division. They would remain there for the rest of the season, winning the division by 13 games. For Kile, however, it was the last game he ever pitched. Four days later, he was dead, discovered by security officials in his bed in his hotel room in Chicago, where the Cardinals were staying for their three-game series against the Cubs, the victim of what doctors later termed coronary arteriosclerosis, in which two arteries to his heart were 80-90 percent blocked.

No one, not the Cardinals team doctors (for whom Kile had passed the team physical in spring training), not Kile’s wife, Flynn (with whom he had just bought a second home in San Diego where they were planning to move with their three children) had an inkling of his condition. The only hint – and a very subtle one at that – was Kile’s complaining to his brother, Dan, at dinner that night of feeling some pain and general weakness in his right shoulder.

“It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen. So many strong, young men, and you see them breaking down.”

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa

When he had not shown up by 12 noon at Wrigley Field for the 1:20 game against the Cubs, Cardinals officials began to worry, especially after repeated calls to his room and cell phone had gone unanswered. The news that he had been found dead was too unbelievable. The Cardinals referred to Kile as “John Wayne” for his toughness and leadership qualities as the titular ace of their staff, a “horse” who had logged over 215 innings in five of his previous six seasons and won 20 and 16 games respectively the previous two. This was a double whammy for them as, four days before, on the day Kile had pitched them into undisputed first place, Jack Buck, their beloved, legendary broadcaster for nearly a half-century, had died at age 77 after a long illness.

The game that day was cancelled, with Cubs catcher Joe Girardi tearfully announcing to the Wrigley Field crowd: “We regret to inform you that because of a tragedy in the Cardinal family, the Commissioner has cancelled this game. You will find out eventually what has happened and I ask you to say a prayer for the Cardinal family.”

“It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen,” said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. “So many strong, young men, and you see them breaking down.”

In the days immediately following Kile’s death, the Cardinals began to flounder, losing seven of nine and nearly falling out of first place. Finally, La Russa, in an effort to revive his players’ spirits and get them re-focused on the business at hand of winning the division, called a clubhouse meeting in which he pulled out a newspaper clipping of a column by Bernie Miklasz in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in which Kile was quoted about the sudden death of his own father, at age 44, of a stroke. As he began to read the clipping, La Russa told his players, “This is what helps me”. In the interview with Miklasz, Kile said: “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. My father was my best friend. But in order to be a man you’ve got to separate your personal life from your work life. It may sound cold, but I’ve got work to do. I’ll never forget my father, but I’m sure he’d want me to keep on working and try to do the best I can.”

They were words for the living to keep on living by. The 2002 Cardinals overcame their grief of losing their best pitcher – and best friend to many of them – by replacing tragedy with the triumph of winning the NL Central and then sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL Division Series before finally succumbing to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS.

An Angel in Los Angeles

Seven years later, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia faced an equally unfathomable tragedy with his team and, like LaRussa, had to find the right words to re-channel his players’ emotions from grief to determination.

Nick Adenhart was a 22-year old former high school phenom who’d battled back from re-constructive elbow surgery and worked his way to the big leagues when, in his fourth major league start, he threw six scoreless innings against the Oakland A’s on April 8, 2009, in Anaheim. Barely a couple of hours later, he was dead, the victim of car crash. Two others were also killed in the crash by a 22-year old man who was driving drunk, with a suspended license, and ran a red light, plowing into the car in which Adenhart was a passenger.

“He wasn’t some extreme talent who was blessed,” Scioscia said of Adenhart. “He fought to be here.”

As Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had done with Thurman Munson’s locker, the Angels kept Adenhart’s locker intact and reserved a locker for him on the road for the rest of the season, someone carefully hanging his uniform in it every day, then taking it to the dugout for every game. In the days after his death, however, the Angels lost nine of 13 games to fall to 6-11, prompting Scioscia to hold a clubhouse meeting in which he told his players “to move on in your own time and your own way,” while adding: “We will move on.”

Part of the memorial to Nick Adenhart in front of the Angel Stadium in Anaheim. BL-536.2009.3 (Caroyln Siera / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

And move on they did, winning 13 out of 16 in June to take over first place in the American League West, where they remained, with the exception of two days, for the rest of the season. They then went on sweep the Boston Red Sox – who had previously beaten them four times in the playoffs, 1986, 2004, ’07 and ’08 - in the AL Division Series before losing to the eventual world champion Yankees in a six-game ALCS. After the victorious Red Sox series, the Angels allowed themselves to feel joy, gathering in front of the Anaheim Stadium outfield wall memorial to Adenhart before bringing his jersey back to the clubhouse as part of their celebration.

As Torii Hunter had said shortly before they clinched the AL West: “I think we realized (in June, right before the 13-3 run) that Nick was looking down on us and saying: ‘C’mon fellas. Let’s get it together. I want to win!”

Bill Madden is the 2010 winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award