Memorial for the Living

Death might seem an odd topic for a site called THT Live.

After all, the terms “death” and “live” describe states in opposition, each anchoring a diametric side of the dyad that pretty much encapsulates the whole of the human condition. More, THT Live operates as a kind of clearinghouse for the topics that might be described as timely in comparison to the topics on the updated Hardball Times. Indeed, as an event, death is almost never timely. And as a topic, it is as timeless as topics come, centering on a phenomenon that binds all living creatures in a shared fate, regardless of how that fate should meet the conditions of its engagement.

And yet the recent and tragic passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has prompted a new meditation on a very old theme – a theme, dare we say, that is (nearly) as old as life itself. A critic might delay this meditation by asking: What does Hoffman have to do with baseball? Well, in one sense, not a whole lot. The actor did play Art Howe in the movie Moneyball, and without appraising the accuracy of the role itself, I’d say he acquitted himself nicely.

He seemed like a baseball guy, and, given the undying nature of film, will seem so in perpetuity. Beyond that, I don’t know. Perhaps he liked baseball, perhaps he didn’t. Maybe he favored the DH, or maybe he wanted pitchers to hit. I can’t say. But even after we’ve dismissed the facile and apparently false equivalence of a slogan like “Baseball Is Life,” we can still find a connection, can’t we? We can still find a link between the American Pastime and this actor’s passing – and we can find it in that popular slogan, after all.

It’s clear to any rational human, of course, that “Baseball Is Life,” which has adorned T-shirts and bumper stickers for quite some time now, is merely a waggish declaration of passionate fandom, not an existentialist commentary whose koan-like genius is its apparent simplicity, and yet somewhere outside its T-shirt is a truth worth discovering. Baseball is life, and death, because it’s part of our existence. It’s part of the world we’ve created in the midst of all this growth and decay, all this water and carbon, all this sunshine and breathable air. To separate baseball from the condition that gave birth to it is to separate the forest from the baseball bat, or the bovine from the Bondses (Bobby and Barry) who, at points along the genealogy that all life forms share, would really tan its hide.

Likewise, to separate baseball from death is a divide that can’t last long. Approximately 150,000 people die each day, all en route to whatever reward awaits them. Given the numbers, it’s inevitable that a famous person – even a somewhat young famous person like Hoffman – will join their ranks on a distressingly frequent basis. As if born to the role, the celebrity will serve as a good old-fashioned reminder, as stark as stark can be, that mortality is a condition we’re all born into, each person a victim of his or her first breath.

And mortality, both in its physical and conceptual forms, can never be banned from the ballpark. It threads through the Pastime as readily as it threads through time. Hoffmans’ sad passing put me in mind, indeed, of research I did for another story I wrote for THT, an exploration of mortality and immortality as they relate to baseball. (I will try to avoid the same ground here, but admittedly, the ground is vast.) While seeking information on players who had died during their big-league careers, I found a long and depressing list of men who had the misfortune of meeting that criterion.

Men like Roberto Clemente (plane crash), Lyman Bostock (homicide), Tim Crews (boat accident) and Daryl Kile (heart defect) quickly gave way to men I hadn’t heard of, players like Jiggs Parrott (tuberculosis), Willard Hershberger (suicide), Len Koenecke (fight) and Ken Hubbs (plane crash). Men with whom I’d had slight familiarity – Bob Moose (car accident), Charlie Peete (plane crash), Don Wilson (carbon monoxide poisoning) and Danny Thompson (leukemia) – yielded to men I had once recalled and then forgotten and now remembered again, men like Danny Frisella (dune buggy accident), Mike Miley (car accident), Dick Wantz (brain tumor) and Walt Bond (leukemia.) And men I most certainly knew of – Ray Chapman (beanball), Nick Adenhart (car accident), Gus Polidor (homicide) and Greg Hallman (homicide) ushered me to men I should have known of but hadn’t.

Granted, I’m no historian – others here can wear that crown – but I surely should have known of Harry Agganis. A former U.S. Marine and All-America quarterback at Boston University, Agganis was in his second season with the Boston Red Sox when he suddenly took ill. Weeks later, on June 2, 1955 and at the age of 25, he died of a pulmonary embolism.

The death of the young first baseman made permanent both his .313 season average and his unfulfilled potential, in addition to the kind of grief that time never actually heals until it takes the griever, too. Still we ask here, as we pondered in the previous piece: Is a man like Agganis recalled in the sadness of the hole he left behind, or in the happiness of the monuments he put up?

Since his death, the Agganis Foundation has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships, and in 2005, Boston University opened the 7,200-seat Agganis Arena. One might ask: Have I lived so well, or had such promise so horrifically abbreviated, that my death would inspire that sort of memorial?

Likewise, the tombstone of former Washington Senators outfielder Elmer Gedeon is one of more than 300,000 at Arlington National Cemetery, each marking the grave of a veteran but few standing out from the others because all the deaths are equal in the sacrifices that produced them. More singular but equally remarkable is the memorial plaque for former New York Giants infielder Eddie Grant. Lost for 42 years, the plaque was recovered by The Baseball Reliquary in 1999 – a fitting rescue for an Army captain killed while searching for the Lost Battalion in the Battle of the Argonne Forest.

Grant, who’d made his big-league debut as a replacement for future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, died in the final battle before the Armistice. And Gedeon, drafted away from WAR and into war just months prior to spring training in 1941, had played his final big-league game against the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Babe Dahlgren, each immortal, memorable or otherwise memorialized in his own way. But whatever his performance or plaque, would any All-Star leave a mark on history quite like Gedeon and Grant?

Gripped by the despair brought on by black-and-white stills of once-animate men, I pondered these questions while writing the first piece, and still ponder them now. Death has a way of reminding the living that it hasn’t gone away, or even gone far. In freedom from sacrifice we are reminded, too, that for every memorial that research discovers, for every tribute that curiosity turns up, there are many more that only a deeper search might find.

For its part, The Deadball Era.com provides a sobering and almost numbing list of deaths, death certificates, obituaries and burial sites of history’s professional baseball players, many of whom we know – Clemente, Munson, Delahanty – and many more of whom we never have had a chance to know.

Among the hundreds of players listed under “accidents” is Nestor Chavez. A quick search turns up an eternally tragic tale: After debuting as a 19-year-old relief pitcher with the Giants in 1967, the Venezuelan right-hander spent a year in recuperation following shoulder surgery. En route to spring training in March 1969, Chavez died with 83 others when Viasa Flight 742 struck power lines on takeoff. This is life. Black wires block the path of an airplane, and now we have only the wisps of what might have been. Now we have a hole that could have been filled with the kind of career that spawns monuments and with a player who should never have to think about death.

We have to think about it now, I suppose. We have to consider it briefly, at least. Pitchers and catchers are soon to report. Spring training waits in its warmth, and with it the annual stories of rebirth. Meantime, a death has reminded us that we’re lucky to be alive, for whatever duration the fates have decided, and lucky, too, to be associated in any way with baseball.

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