There’s a very grim new meaning for the term “Magnificent 7” in 2020, at least if you’re a baseball fan. The original “Magnificent 7” was a 1960 Western movie that later migrated to TV. The movie was remade in 2016. The earlier movie had a fairly memorable theme for a few decades. In 2020, “The Magnificent 7” are 7 baseball players, all in the Hall of Fame, all dead during this year of worldwide calamity. The 7 dead matches a grim high for baseball’s holiest of holies, 7 of whom died in 1972.
The first Hall of Famer to fall in 2020 was Al Kaline, the Baltimore native who was a superstar spending his entire career with the Detroit Tigers. He registered just over 3,000 hits before calling it a career. He was lost on April 6 of this year.
As civilians fell by the hundreds and then by the thousands across this cruelly used country, baseball’s second Hall of Famer passed on the last day of July. This one really stung if you discovered baseball by listening to the Mets, as I did. Tom Seaver was_ the Mets before anybody thought of calling a player “The Franchise.” He nearly pitched a perfect game in 1969 and led his team to the most improbable World Series victory up to that time. The Mets overwhelmed the heavily favored Orioles, 4 games to 1, wrapping things up at Shea Stadium. Seaver also pitched in the 1973 World Series in which the Mets barely lost in 7 games to an equally heavily favored Oakland team. Seaver had been ill for years, but the coming of Covid-19 hastened his death at age 75.
The next two brutal blows fell on St. Louis Cardinals fans. Lou Brock was lost on September 6, barely 5 weeks after Tom Seaver. He was going nowhere fast with the Cubs until they shipped him to the Cardinals in 1964 for a fading pitcher, Ernie Broglio. Brock never looked back. Mets’ broadcaster Bob Murphy’s description of Brock’s play was simplicity itself. All he needed to say was “He can fly.” I’ve heard more modern announcers amplify that by saying of a fast man “He can flat out fly.” Murphy left out the superlative and still spoke a thousand words in a simple sentence. He said it of many fast men, but meant it most sincerely about Brock, who at age 35 stole 118 bases in 1974. 5 years later, against his former team, the Cubs, he notched his 3,000th base hit.
As if Brock’s early September death wasn’t painful enough for Cardinal nation, worse news was to hit them before the baseball season ended. Bob Gibson, the Omaha native who was an institution in St. Louis, died of cancer on October 2. He and Don Drysdale were, I believe, the last two pitchers who had no compunctions about decking an opponent with a pitch. You could almost count on it if Gibson gave up a bomb. The next guy would pay the penalty by getting knocked on the back of his lap. The pitch might not actually hit him, but the shave the hapless batter got was a lot closer than the shave I get from my razor. Decades later, you could hear how purposeful Gibson was when he was being interviewed on radio. At 80, he still sounded stern enough to knock somebody down if the need arose.
The next to fall was Whitey Ford, the fifth of 2020’s Magnificent doomed 7. Ford had battled brain cancer for more years than I can document, and fell at age 91 on October 8, only 6 days after Gibson’s death. Ford won by cleverness rather than the straight heat of a Seaver or a Nolan Ryan. He lost 2 years in the Service and was used sparingly by Casey Stengel as compared to other pitchers of his era. Considering he went 236—106, if those handicaps had been taken away, he would have been a certain 300-game winner. Toward the end, he had to go a step beyond cleverness and into perfidy. He somehow carved a notch in his wedding ring, (wonder how his wife Joan liked that,) and scuffed the ball against it. When he was found out, one of his catchers sharpened a buckle on his shin guards and scuffed the ball against that. That bit of treachery lasted longer than the wedding ring, but no trick could make up for a ruined elbow (at least not until Tommy John Surgery which was developed long after Ford’s career ended.)
The next man to fall was not only an elite player but a broadcaster of considerable renown. Joe Morgan, who began as “Little Joey Morgan” with the Houston Astros was the keystone of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. With his playing days done, he and Jon Miller formed an incomparable combination on ESPN’s Sunday night baseball and select ESPN radio and other showcase games. They were a fixture at ESPN from 1990 through 2010.
The 7th and last of 2020’s doomed Magnificent 7 was Phil Niekro, who passed away last Saturday at age 81. He pitched for the Braves from 1964—83, then finished his career with them after a few vagabond years. Thanks to his mastery of the knuckleball, he won 318 games. Given the inconsistency of the knuckleball even when its master throws it, he lost 274 games. He was an All-Star 4 times while with the Braves and once with the Yankees in 1984, when he was 45. Not bad for a 25-year-old rookie.
R I P to all of baseball’s Magnificent 7, and may God grant the world a less catastrophic 2021.0