New York Daily News

MLB tries to come to grips with staggering loss of Hall of Famers

- DEESHA THOSAR

There should be a cornfield being cleared away by now, as 10 baseball legends suit up to take to the field of dreams. Within the past nine months, 10 Hall of Famers have passed away and left the baseball community in mourning — the sadness punctuated by icon Henry “Hank” Aaron’s death on Friday. While some struggle to come to terms with their departures, others are trying not to think about how many more days they have left. It’s a heartbreak­ing time in the Hall’s history.

Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda, Don Sutton and Aaron make up the 10 Hall of Famers who’ve died since April 2020. It’s the loss of a staggering 12.2% of the living members of the shrine in less than a year.

When seven players — Kaline, Seaver, Brock, Gibson, Ford, Morgan and Niekro — passed away in 2020, the Hall of Fame’s most tragic year since 1972, we hoped this year would be better. But just this month alone, Lasorda, Sutton and Aaron got the call.

“Unfortunat­ely it’s been a tough year for baseball,” former Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool told the The News. “They’re going to have some team up there in heaven.

“I’m kind of glad I wasn’t a Hall of Famer because I don’t want to be on that team.”

It’s bizarre to joke like that, Kranepool admitted. But what else can one do? The 76-year-old All-Star lamented the loss of baseball’s greatest players, but none hit him harder than Seaver’s death last August. Kranepool remained good friends with the three-time Cy Young award winner from their 1969 Mets championsh­ip run to the very end, when Seaver died in his California home in August, following complicati­ons from dementia and COVID-19.

Though Seaver had stopped going to the Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony for the past couple of years, surviving Hall of Famers routinely sit on stage and pay tribute to the inductees being honored after them. Longtime Daily News columnist Bill Madden recognized that this year’s Hall of Fame weekend at Cooperstow­n, scheduled for July 23-26, pandemic willing, won’t be the same without the 10 Hall of Famers who died in the past nine months.

“A lot of these guys were my friends,” Madden said. “Niekro, Seaver and Sutton. I knew Morgan really well. They were good, good friends.

“It’s going to be a very strange induction weekend come July. It’s going to be a very empty place up there. It’s just been such an awful year.

“Nothing or no one has been hurt worse by this than the Hall of Fame. It’s unfathomab­le.”

Not long ago, Madden had the opportunit­y to interview Aaron for his book, “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever.” Madden noted that the book was as much about Aaron as it was about Mays (Aaron was a rookie in 1954) and he reflected on the prejudices the slugger endured as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s long standing home run record of 714. Aaron ended his career with 755 homers, and in his memoir he said many of them were spurred by the vicious death threats he received while playing.

Much like Kranepool, Seaver’s death hit Madden hardest. That ache went deeper when a friend offered Madden some foreboding perspectiv­e.

“I remember when Seaver died, I called Lou Pinella who’s one of my best friends,” Madden said. “I called him to talk about Seaver and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘Billy, unfortunat­ely, at our age this is going to be happening more and more.’ Sure enough, eight more guys went after Seaver.”

Kranepool reflected on how challengin­g it’s been to lose his friends, players he used to grow up watching and idolizing, teammates he considered family, players he used to play against, players who were around his age, diminishin­g before his eyes. Baseball creates friendship­s between opponents, rivals, fans, reporters, managers, executives, security guards, you name it. With friendship came respect. Now, with death, there’s grief and reflection.

The baseball community has been rocked by the passing of their favorite players and friends. An image of the 10 Hall of Famers emerging out of the cornfields and warming up with a game of catch may seem sentimenta­l, but it also provides comfort when, most of all, we’re just trying not to think about what happens next.

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