With more than 18,000 players in its history, baseball has seen its fair share of tragedies. From Addie Joss and Ray Chapman to Harry Agganis and Darryl Kile, the list is, unfortunately, a pretty long one. Oscar Taveras may be most fresh in our minds but sad endings have been part of the game since the 19th century.
1. Ed Delahanty, 1889 Old Judge: Ed Delahanty’s ranks as one of the stranger deaths in baseball history. The Joe DiMaggio of the 1890s disappeared after being drunkenly put off a train near Niagara Falls on July 2, 1903. Some say he plummeted into the falls while attempting to walk across the rail bridge after a confrontation with a security guard. Others say Delahanty jumped. The Hall of Famer’s body was found about a week later by the operator of a tour boat.
2. Eddie Grant, 1910 American Caramel: The card of one of baseball’s earliest sentimental heroes can be had in lower grade for $150 or less. He’s probably not known by too many fans today, though as Bill James has written, in the early days of the Hall of Fame when its mission was still being decided, Grant was lobbied for as a candidate by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Grant was a third baseman and captain of the New York Giants, though he’s most known for being one of three major leaguers to die while serving in World War I. A statue of him stood for many years in the Giants’ home ballpark in New York, the Polo Grounds.
3. Addie Joss, 1911 T3 Turkey Red: The sun appears to be setting in this beautiful card, which is oddly appropriate for the person it depicts. Joss went to spring training in 1911 before viral meningitis ended his career and, on April 14 of that year, his life. One of baseball’s earliest tragedies, his death inspired a subsequent All Star benefit game that raised more than $11,000 for his widow.
One of the aces of the Deadball Era with a 160-97 record, 1.89 lifetime ERA, and 45.9 WAR in just nine seasons, Joss was a Veterans Committee selection for the Hall of Fame in 1978.
4. Ray Chapman, 1917 Boston Store: Chapman is best known as the only player in MLB history killed in the course of a game, after he took a Carl Mays pitch to the head on August 17, 1920. He did more as a baseball player, though, than just die tragically. This card comes from Chapman’s best season when the Cleveland shortstop hit .302 with career bests of 170 hits, 52 steals, and 7.8 WAR.
Had he not died at 29, just nine seasons into his career, it’s conceivable Chapman may have built Hall of Fame credentials.
5. Lou Gehrig, 1932 U.S. Caramel: Gehrig became the first 20th century player to hit four home runs in a game during the ’32 season. It’s weird to think that less than ten years after this card appeared, Gehrig would be dead of ALS at age 37. In this card, as he was in life, Gehrig is eternally boyish.
A quick note here about card values: A near-mint 1932 card of the Iron Horse sells for over $8,225 online. Incidentally, this is just shy of 1/3 of Lou Gehrig’s $25,000 salary from that season [albeit with inflation, Gehrig earned over $430,000 in 2014 dollars.]
6. Len Koenecke, 1932 New York Giants schedule postcard: Len Koenecke didn’t make the majors until he was 28, didn’t even start playing minor league baseball until he was 24, and he died before he could make up for the lost time.
His death, which came just 265 games into his big league career, may rank as most bizarre in baseball history. Two days after being released by the Brooklyn Dodgers in September 1935, Koenecke got into an altercation with a pilot during a flight. The pilot hit Koenecke in the head with a fire extinguisher, killing him instantly. He was 31.
A prep and collegiate star in the Boston area, Agganis hit .281 with 23 homers and 108 RBI with Triple-A Louisville in 1953. He hit just .251 with the Red Sox the following year and was good for -1.5 Wins Above Average lifetime. But it sometimes takes rookies awhile to adjust, and Agganis had his hometown fans on his side. With his death, as Lawrence Ritter later wrote, “all of New England mourned his passing.”
8. Ken Hubbs, 1964 Topps: Like a number of players here, Hubbs may be an obscure name for fans today. The Chicago Cubs second baseman and 1962 National League Rookie of the Year died in a plane crash in Provo, Utah in February 1964. He was just 22.
Topps produced an “In Memoriam” card for him in time for inclusion into the final series of its 1964 set.
9. Roberto Clemente, 1969 Topps: It’s amazing how many cards can be found listing Roberto Clemente as Bob, even late in his career. There often isn’t uniform use of names on the cards of famous players, whether it’s Hank Aaron often being referred to as Henry on his cards or Jim Wynn being called Jimmy almost interchangeably. It would appear Topps and other card companies weren’t historically beholden to any hard and fast rules regarding use of names.
10. Thurman Munson, 1970 Topps: It’s fun to see a clean-shaven shot of Munson, who quickly grew a mustache and glorious sideburns. It seems a little ironic, though, that the closest the Yankee stalwart came to looking like a traditional member of the team was before he made much of a mark on it. Most every player now from Jason Giambi to Johnny Damon removes their excess facial hair when they join the Bronx Bombers, not the other way around.
Whatever the case, it’s nice to have a lighthearted way to remember Munson, who died in a fiery crash of his personal plane on August 2, 1979.
11. Tony Conigliaro, 1971 Topps: Short of featuring the black eye he got from taking a Jack Hamilton fastball to the face, this card says everything about what went wrong in Tony Conigliaro’s career. There’s the determined but almost sad look on his face, which mirrors the tentative manner he took at the plate after his 1967 injury. Then there’s the airbrush job that took the Red Sox trademarks off the uniform of the Boston-area native.
And while he was just 26 in 1971, this card marks the last year of extensive big league action, his career over save for a 21-game footnote with the Red Sox in 1975. He suffered a heart attack in 1982, lapsed into a coma where he remained until his death in 1990 at age 45.
12. Lyman Bostock, 1976 Topps: If only Lyman Bostock could have known what was waiting for him when he took the picture for this card. First would come good, consecutive seasons where he was among the league leaders in batting average for the Minnesota Twins, followed by a lucrative free agent contract with the California Angels. Bostock’s career numbers suggest he might never have risen to the heights of teammate Rod Carew, perhaps just another Al Oliver or Bill Madlock, a good contact hitter and little else. We’ll never know.
On September 24, 1978, Bostock was shot to death while riding in a car in Gary, Indiana. He was shot by the estranged husband of a woman he was riding with and had met 20 minutes before.
13. Donnie Moore, 1987 Donruss: So often in life, people don’t let on about their demons until it’s too late. Maybe Donnie Moore was still happy when he flashed a bright smile for this card, mere months after the Angels closer surrendered a pivotal home run to Dave Henderson in the 1986 American League Championship Series. Moore pitched just 59.2 more innings in the majors over the next two seasons before the Angels cut him in August 1988.
The popular narrative says that Moore couldn’t forgive himself and was never the same pitcher, though that could be trivializing subsequent actions which suggest deeper problems. Out of the majors in July 1989, Moore shot and wounded his estranged wife before turning the gun on himself, fatally. He was 35.
14. Darryl Kile, 1990 Bowman: Rated as the 11th-best prospect by Baseball America entering the 1990 season, Kile’s bright smile doesn’t foretell his fate. First, he would spend 1990 with Triple-A Tucson, going 5-10 with a 6.64 ERA and nearly as many walks as strikeouts. Somehow, he debuted with the Astros in 1991, though he’s far from the first player to be promoted after an abysmal minor league campaign.
Kile forged a 12-season MLB career, winning at least 19 games twice. After a disastrous free agent contract with the Colorado Rockies in 1997, Kile was in the midst of a career resurgence with the St. Louis Cardinals when he died of a heart attack on June 22, 2002.
15. Oscar Taveras, 2014 Topps Update Rookie Debut: This one is probably still fresh for many Cardinals fans, so we’ll save a long rehashing of Taveras’s death in a drunk driving accident in the Dominican Republic on October 26. Rated by various sources as the third-best prospect in baseball entering the 2014 season, the St. Louis right fielder had the makings of a future star.
The standing ovation he got from Cardinals fans in this card, after homering in big league debut on May 31, says it all.