2020 has been a difficult year of loss in every corner of the world. It’s also been keenly cruel to the collective memory of Major League Baseball — and its best players. To be sure, we lose icons in the sport every year. But the sheer number and depth of the talent among those who died in 2020 is overwhelming.
In the span of just a few weeks, not just one but two iconic St. Louis Cardinals died: Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. These were defining members of many Cardinals championship teams as players who stayed within the St. Louis family for decades after their careers ended. They were routinely included in opening day festivities at Busch Stadium, wearing their red jackets.
We lost Tom Seaver, the defining Met. Joe Morgan, perhaps the best second baseman to ever play the game, with the Cincinnati Reds and numerous other teams. Whitey Ford, big game pitcher par excellence for the New York Yankees. Al Kaline: Mr. Tiger. And just Saturday, we lost Phil Neikro, the master of the knuckleball.
That’s seven Hall of Fame players. To put it in perspective, we lost seven Hall of Famers combined from 2016 to 2019: Frank Robinson in 2019; Willie McCovey and Red Schoendienst in 2018; Roy Halladay, Jim Bunning and Bobby Doerr in 2017; and Monte Irvin in 2016.
The last time as many as four Hall of Famers died was 2010, when Ron Santo, Robin Roberts, Bob Feller and Sparky Anderson all passed — though Anderson had earned induction as a manager, not a player. Most years since the turn of the century, it’s one or two Hall of Famers; in 2004 and 2008, it was none.
What also separates 2020, though, is the sheer depth of talent we lost. And that’s been what continues to hit home for me: the list includes longtime stars, All-Stars and postseason heroes beyond those who were inducted into Cooperstown. To make sense of it all, I wanted to think of it in baseball terms, to appreciate just how much player production came from players who have died in 2020.
This year has seen the deaths of 15 hitters and nine pitchers with at least 10 career wins above replacement,1 including 10 above 40 WAR. Compare that to 2019: eight hitters, six pitchers above 10 WAR, just three players above 40. Or 2018: eight hitters, seven pitchers at or above 10 WAR, with McCovey, Schoendienst and Rusty Staub the only three above 40.
This is no mere calculation. Every hit, every strikeout, every diving catch is remembered by thousands of people, those who watched or listened to it, those who witnessed it in person. So to truly comprehend the number and ability of the baseball players we lost in 2020, I’ve compiled a 26-man roster of those who died this year. Say what you will about the Dodgers: This is a team that I think could beat anyone.
C Hal Smith, 4.2 career WAR, 1955-64: Smith enjoyed a distinguished decade-long career catching for the Orioles, Kansas City Athletics, Pirates, Houston Colt .45s and Reds. He played a key role for the 1960 World Champion Pirates, slashing .295/.351/.508 for the eventual winners, and served as Houston’s catcher in the team’s very first game in 1962. He homered, too, as the Colt .45s won 11-2. Smith finished his career with three double-digit home run seasons, a slash line of .267/.317/.394, and yet somehow, on this team, he’s probably the No. 8 hitter.
1B Bob Watson, 28.3 WAR, 1966-84: Among the many distinguished, if not quite Hall of Fame worthy, players on this team, Watson made a pair of All-Star teams and earned MVP votes in three different seasons. The longtime Astro — who also saw time with the Red Sox, Yankees and Braves — drove in 100 runs twice. 1975 is an example of his typical consistency: a .324/.375/.495 slash line, with 18 home runs and an OPS+ of 149.
2B Joe Morgan, 100.5 WAR, 1963-84: The most valuable everyday player and owner of the second-best WAR on the roster, Morgan defined the position of second base for more than two decades. He made 10 All-Star teams, captured two MLB MVPs as the best player on the Cincinnati Reds dynasty of the mid-1970s, and did essentially everything well on a baseball field. His career slash line of .271/.392/.427 understates his offensive greatness, with much of that raw production coming during the offensively challenged 1960s. His OPS+ of 132 is impressive for any position, but it’s fourth all-time among the 177 primary second basemen with at least 1,000 games played in MLB history.
3B Dick Allen, 58.8 WAR, 1963-77: From a legacy perspective, this hurts most of all. Allen is, by all rights, a Hall of Famer, but his reputation of being difficult — something our 2020 eyes must see through the lens of being an outspoken Black man in Philadelphia in the 1960s — kept him from enshrinement. He looked set to get enough votes from this year’s Golden Era Veterans’ Committee, but COVID-19 pushed back by a year that meeting, which is held in person. Now, if and when the call is made to honor a career featuring a remarkable 156 career OPS+, the NL Rookie of the Year award, seven All-Star seasons and an AL MVP award, it will be up to the rest of us to stress how long overdue it was.
SS Tony Fernández, 45.3 WAR, 1983-2001: Fernández falls just shy of Hall of Fame enshrinement, according to Jay Jaffe, the dean of such evaluations, but had a tremendous career all the same. He made five All-Star teams and won four Gold Gloves at the most important defensive position, with a .288/.347/.399 career slash line. He stole 20 bases or more in seven seasons and played on five different postseason teams — with .327/.367/.420 career production in the playoffs.
LF Lou Brock, 45.4 WAR, 1961-79: The prototype for the speedy leadoff hitter, Brock stole 938 bases, made six All-Star teams and served as a fixture for three NL pennant-winning teams in St. Louis, including the World Series winners in 1964 and 1967. Brock’s raw slash line of .293/.343/.410 is also underrated because of the era — he led the NL in doubles and triples in 1968, and his ability to collect hits never disappeared. He finished with a .298 average over the final decade of his career, and in his final season at age 40, he hit .304.
CF Jim Wynn, 55.8 WAR, 1963-77: To get a sense of how great Jimmy Wynn was, consider that there are three Hall of Fame hitters on this roster, and yet Wynn’s WAR ranks third among them in the group, ahead of Brock. Wynn would have been adored by the sabermetric crowd — he produced a park-adjusted OPS+ of 129 — but a low batting average compounded by the era in which he played for much of his time made for a career slash line of just .250/.366/.436. (For context: Carlos Beltran, playing in a much more hitting-friendly period, finished with a raw slash line of .279/.350/.486, but his OPS+ was just 119.) Even so, Wynn cleared 30 home runs in three seasons, made three All-Star teams and would probably hit cleanup in this stacked lineup.
RF Al Kaline, 92.8 WAR, 1953-74: Mr. Tiger, one of the greatest to ever play the game, was an 18-time All-Star with 10 Gold Gloves. By WAR, he’s the fourth-best right fielder in the history of the game, trailing only Hank Aaron, Mel Ott and Roberto Clemente. His greatness started early — a batting title at age 20 — and didn’t wane for decades, with Kaline hitting .379/.400/.655 in the 1968 World Series for the Tigers in a win over the Cardinals. Kaline would be the three hitter in this lineup and a formidable figure on any team.
3B Tony Taylor, 23.2 WAR, 1958-76: Taylor made both All-Star teams in 1960 (they played twice back then!), served as a key member of some good and many not-so-good Phillies teams and eventually enjoyed three — yes, three — Tony Taylor Days in Philadelphia. Don’t let them fool you about Philly fans.
OF Claudell Washington, 19.6 WAR, 1974-90: A two-time All-Star and perfect fourth outfielder who played all three positions.
2B Frank Bolling, 16.9 WAR, 1954-66: Bolling was an elite fielder at second base with some power and was an All-Star in 1961 and 1962.
OF/1B Jay Johnstone, 16.5 WAR, 1966-85: A lefty bat off the bench who could play all three outfield positions along with first base.
IF Horace Clarke, 15.7 WAR, 1965-74: Clarke was a defining Yankee, to fans of a certain age, who could play second, third and short.
C Ed FitzGerald, 1.4 WAR, 1948-59: FitzGerald was a defense-first backup catcher.
2B Glenn Beckert, 15.6 WAR, 1965-75: A four-time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner at second base who could fill in around the infield or outfield.
Honorable mention: 1965 World Series hero OF Sweet Lou Johnson, 2B Damaso Garcia and 3B/SS Kim Batiste, who did this in the first playoff game I ever attended.
SP Tom Seaver, 106 WAR, 1967-86: The Franchise was easily the best player in New York Mets history, and there’s an argument for him as the best pitcher in MLB history, too. Seaver made 12 All-Star teams and won three Cy Young Awards, along with five other top-five finishes in the Cy Young voting. His WAR ranks seventh all-time for pitchers, and five of the six ahead of him pitched decades before, during a pre-integrated MLB period, while Roger Clemens is the other — with his own complicated legacy. This is a deep, talented staff, but Tom Seaver gets the ball in Game 1 of any series it would play.
SP Bob Gibson, 81.7 WAR, 1959-75: A No. 2 starter only on this team, really, Gibson is 25th in WAR among all pitchers, meaning two of the top 25 in the history of the game died this year. Gibson might be ahead of Seaver if we’re purely talking 1968, when Gibson set the record in the live-ball era for single-season ERA at just 1.12. He was a nine-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young Award winner, and he won nine Gold Gloves. He also may have pitched the single most dominant World Series game ever.
SP Phil Niekro, 97 WAR, 1964-87: It is easy to get lost in the sheer magnitude of Niekro’s productivity — fourth all-time in innings pitched, with only Cy Young, Pud Galvin and Walter Johnson ahead of him — or the novelty of his pitch, the knuckleball, and miss just how great Niekro was at his best. He had five top-six Cy Young Award vote finishes, spreading them out over three different decades. He fielded his position extraordinarily well over his entire career — he won five Gold Gloves, the last coming in 1983, when he was 44 years old. He led the league in ERA and in winning percentage, but not in the same year — those two things happened 15 years apart! Niekro’s pitch, and his mastery of it, helped propel his singular career. And sadly, not only is he gone, but the knuckleball is, for now, extinct from MLB as well.
SP Whitey Ford, 53.6 WAR, 1950-67: The best big-game starting pitcher in New York Yankees history (a 2.71 ERA over 22 World Series starts) and author of a 25-4, 3.21 ERA season in the 1961 Maris-Mantle campaign, Ford was a critical part of 11 American League pennant winners and six World Series champions. He made 10 All-Star teams (two years he made two of them) and won a pair of ERA titles, rolling out stellar year after year playing in front of one of the greatest teams ever.
SP Johnny Antonelli, 31.2 WAR, 1948-61: Just a few minutes away from Ford, another big-game pitcher plied his trade for the New York Giants. Antonelli’s 21-7, 2.30 ERA season in 1954 won him the ERA title and a third-place MVP finish, before his 0.84 ERA in the World Series, including a complete game, helped New York upset the favored Cleveland Indians. Antonelli went west with the Giants and made both All-Star teams in 1959, among his six overall appearances as an All-Star. A stellar career.
RP Don Larsen, 12.5 WAR, 1953-67: Larsen belongs on this team not just because he did something in 1956 that nobody else has done: pitch a perfect game in the World Series. People like to boil his career down to that one game, but consider how well Larsen pitched for New York from 1955 to 1958: a 39-17 record, a 3.31 ERA. Larsen was a quality pitcher, and he certainly rose to the moment.
RP Ron Perranoski, 18.9 WAR, 1961-73: A shutdown closer, in the fireman variety as opposed to the typical one-inning guy, who dominated for the mid-1960s Dodgers and late-1960s Twins. He won MVP votes three times as a reliever.
RP Lindy McDaniel, 29.0 WAR, 1955-75: McDaniel was reliable in any role. His 1960 campaign for the Cardinals was exemplary but far from atypical: 12 wins, 27 saves, a 2.09 ERA and third in the Cy Young Award voting.
RP Dick Hyde, 6.1 WAR, 1955-61: A terribly underrated reliever who in 1958 posted a 1.75 ERA and led the American League in saves with the Washington Senators.
RP Mike McCormick, 17.4 WAR, 1956-71: An absolute stud of a pitcher who succeeded as both a starter (1967 NL Cy Young with the San Francisco Giants with league-leading 22 wins) and a reliever, so we’re using him here as the primary lefty out of the pen who could go multiple innings.
RP Bob Lee, 8.7 WAR, 1964-68: Posted consecutive seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA to begin his career with the Angels in 1964-65.