Last men standingby Chris Jaffe
April 29, 2013
A few weeks ago, longtime Tigers pitcher Virgil Trucks died at age 95. Among other things, he was one of the final survivors of the 1945 World Series. In fact, with his passing, there is only one person left who ever played against the Cubs in a World Series game, Trucks’ 1945 Tiger teammate Ed Mierkowicz.
This got me wondering, who are the last survivors of various pennant-winning teams? Who was the last man left who could say he personally played in the Fall Classic? So I did the digging and looked it up.
For the record, in looking at the last survivors for the pennant winners, let’s only look at guys who actually played in the World Series. That just seems more appropriate. When you think of the last guy from a team, you want to know about a major contributor, not some cup-of-coffee September call-up whom no one remembers. So I looked only at guys who played in the World Series games themselves.
I went as far forward as 1949, because by then it was clear that there are multiple survivors for all the teams. In fact, there are still 10 men who played in the 1949 World Series still alive, most notably Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.
Based on that, let’s see what the info tells us.
The longest-lasting current survivors
First the bad news. Alas, every single person who played in the World Series prior to 1945 is now dead. At the beginning of the year, we still had Stan Musial, a veteran of the 1942-44 Fall Classics, but he passed away on January 19.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that no one is left from the 1930s. After all, there are just four players total left alive from that decade: Ace Parker, Art Kenney, Mike Palagyi, and Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr.
The two best teams from the first half of the 1940s were the Cardinals and Yankees, and even if you include scrubs and cup-of-coffee-call-ups, all of their pre-1945 players are now dead. In fact, the only still-living man to play at all for any pre-1945 pennant winner was Babe Martin. At age 24, he appeared in exactly two games for the 1944 Browns in the last week of the season. Not surprisingly, they didn’t use him in the postseason.
However, from 1945 onward, every World Series team has at least one survivor. The 1945 Tigers have the slenderest connection. Ed Mierkowicz is the only man left alive to play for them in the World Series, and he barely played. He appeared in one game for one-half of an inning as a defensive sub. That was it. Now 89 years old, when he passes, the team will be gone.
The 1947 Dodgers are also down to their last man, reliever Ralph Branca. Famous as the man who surrendered Bobby Thomson’s homer to give the Giants the 1951 pennant, Branca had one start and two relief appearances against the Yankees in the 1947 World Series.
Every other team from 1945 through '48 has exactly two guys left alive who played for them in October. They range from Hall of Famers like Berra, Doerr and Red Schoendienst, to star players like Al Rosen and Alvin Dark, to a man more remembered for his post-playing career, Joe Garagiola, to some totally forgotten figures, such as Clint Conatser, and Bobby Brown.
In 1949, you get a deluge. Four Yankees and six Dodgers from that World Series are still alive. If you go to 1950, every single team from that season has someone still alive. In all, nearly 100 athletes from 1950 are still left.
The last men no longer standing
Okay, let’s go back to the beginning here. The first World Series in 1903 pitted the Boston Red Sox against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The star third baseman for the Pirates, Tommy Leach, would be the last man on that squad to die when he passed on Sept. 29, 1969. However, he wasn’t the last man from the entire World Series. No, that honor falls to Red Sox shortstop Freddy Parent. He passed away on Nov. 2, 1972 at the age of 96.
The 1903 Series’ last survivors lived an exceptionally long time, especially for the standards of the day. Both teams had at least one man make it 66 years. That wouldn’t happen again until the 1911 World Series, with Philadelphia A’s player Amos Strunk passing away in 1979 and Giants pitcher Rube Marquard making it until 1980.
Going over every single team’s last man standing would be boring and pointless. Let’s look at the most extreme cases ever. Here’s the big one: who holds the record for longest lifespan after appearing in a World Series?
Answer: Phil Cavarretta. That makes a lot of sense. The first baseman was just 19 years old when he started all six games of the 1935 World Series for the Cubs. Then he lived another 75 years, dying in December of 2010 at the ripe old age of 94. That’s damn near an entire cycle of Halley’s Comet after playing in the World Series. Tigers outfielder Avisail Garcia, the youngest man from the 2012 World Series, would have to live until 2087 to match that.
Okay, but Cavarretta’s team lost the World Series. Who has lasted the longest time as a world champion? It’s Smokey Joe Wood. He went 34-5 for the 1912 world champion Red Sox and died on July 27, 1985, 73 years later. (It’s a tad ironic that Wood would be the longest-lived champion, as there was some muttering that Wood threw a game in the 1912 World Series, as he didn’t even get out of the first after allowing six runs in the next-to-last game of the Series).
In all, eight men have lived 70 years beyond their World Series:
Series Death Player 1912 1986 Smokey Joe Wood 1916 1989 Ollie O'Mara 1920 1990 Joe Sewell 1932 2002 Frankie Crosetti 1935 2006 Eldon Auker 1938 2010 Phil Cavaretta 1940 2011 Eddie Joost 1943 2013 Stan MusialReally, Sewell, Crosetti, and Musial don’t quite belong because they each died before October, and hence before the 70th anniversary of their Series, but close enough. In the 1935 Series, Cavaretta faced Auker three times and lined out, flew out, and grounded out.
Let’s flip it around. What’s the first World Series team to die off completely? Not surprisingly, it was one of the first teams, back when average lifespans were a lot shorter. The last living member of the 1905 Giants was Bill Dahlen, who died on Dec. 5, 1950.
That’s just 45 years. You’d expect some to pass on by that time, sure, but all of them? That would be like everyone on the 1968 Tigers being dead. The 1905 Giants easily “win” this one. The runner-up is the 1910 Cubs, whose last man died 51 years later (Ed Reulbach in 1961).
The other 1905 pennant winner, the A’s, had their last man depart in 1964: Bris Lord on Nov. 13, 1964. That makes the 1904 Series the quickest to have all participants die, 59 years later. It just edges the 1925 World Series. The last man from that Fall Classic was Washington Senator Ossie Bluege, who died on Oct. 14, 1985, 60 years afterwards.
First men falling
As long as we’re on this ghoulish topic, let’s flip it around: who was the first man to die after a World Series? Now, I’ve only checked through 1949, and while that means I have all the last men standing, I’m clearly missing quite a few first departures. Nevertheless, we can find out some things from this era.
Through 1949, only twice did a player die less than a year after appearing in the World Series. Hal Carlson helped pitch the Cubs to the pennant in 1929 but died of an internal hemorrhage on May 28, 1930. Barely seven months following the Series, that’s the shortest life after a Fall Classic appearance.
Reds catcher Willard Hershberger died on Aug. 3, 1940, a year after the team’s 1939 pennant. Hershberger’s death was an especially traumatic one. He is baseball’s only in-season suicide, as he slit his own throat with a razor.
Almost exactly 39 years after Hersberger’s death, another man died less than a year after a World Series appearance: New York Yankees captain and catcher Thurman Munson. Unlike Carlson and Hersberger teams, Munson was a defending world champion when he died in his plane crash. There might be another player or few who died within a year of the World Series, but they’d have to be beyond 1949.
Josh Hancock played for the 2006 world champion Cardinals and died in April of 2007, but he didn’t play in the 2006 World Series itself.
On a cheerier note, what team lasted the longest time without any fatalities? Through the 1949 pennant winners, it’s a surprisingly old team that wins: the 1915 Red Sox. Everyone who played in their World Series was still alive in 1946, when Hick Cady died. The runner-up is the 1916 Red Sox, 30 years until Cady’s death.
Odds are extremely good that a more recent team has topped this mark, but it’s remarkable that everyone from a team such a long time ago would last so long. There are several players from the 1980s World Series who are now dead. Bob Forsch pitched for the 1982, 1985, and 1987 Cardinals, and he just passed away last year. Forsch’s 1985 Cardinals lost to the Royals, whose star closer Dan Quisenberry died a long time ago. The 1987 Cards lost to the surprising Minnesota Twins, whose big star, Kirby Puckett, passed away years ago.
Even now it’s hard for everyone on a team to survive 30 years. If you were to adjust for era by average life expectancy, those 1915-16 Red Sox should be the most impressive of all.
What team has the biggest gap between first and last death?
Well, it’s the 1938 Yankees. They, of course, had Lou Gehrig manning first base. He was suffering for ALS, which would end his career in 1939 and his life on June 2, 1941. However, his young teammate Tommy Henrich had a long future in front of him. He lasted until Dec. 1, 2009, 68 years and six months longer than Gehrig.
The runner-up would be the 1929 Cubs. As noted already, Hal Carlson died suddenly in 1930. Shortstop Woody English made it all the way until September of 1997, though.
Of the 1903-49 teams, the shortest gap is a three-way tie, at 34 years, between the 1915 and 1916 Red Sox and the 1925 Pirates. Using months as a tiebreaker, the Pirates come out ahead. Kiki Cuyler was the first man on the team to die, on Feb. 11, 1950, and shortstop Glenn Wright was the last one, on April 6, 1984. That’s 34 years and two months. The 1916 Red Sox had 34 years and six months between Cady and their last man standing, Ernie Shore.
Hopefully no one will again approach the record for shortest time to enjoy being a World Series record, and many will join the 70-years club.
References and Resources
I used Baseball-Reference.com for the info.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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