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Professional sports: Losses in sports in 2013

Published: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 11:02 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP)
Stan Musial was one of the greatest hitters in baseball during his 2 decades with the St. Louis Cardinals. Musial died on Jan. 10, 2013. He was 92.

The soundtracks could not have been more different.

One was the stinging crack of the bat of yet another double in the gap and the folksy harmonica strains of some song from long ago. The other soundtrack was rough and grating – a snarling, profane, arm-flailing argument that often ended with home plate covered with dirt.

Stan Musial and Earl Weaver, men of disparate times and temperaments, died in 2013. The deaths of the two Hall of Famers, in an odd alignment of baseball's planets, came hours apart on Jan. 19.

Musial – Stan the Man, "baseball's perfect knight," as a statue inscription reads – was 92 when he died at home in suburban St. Louis. Weaver, the Baltimore Orioles' longtime manager, was 82 and on a Caribbean cruise.

They underscored a year of losses in sports: Bill Sharman and Jerry Buss in basketball; Pat Summerall, on the football field and in the booth; Deacon Jones in the NFL; Ken Venturi in golf; and Michael Weiner, on baseball's labor front.

Musial, simply put, was one of the best hitters in baseball history. With his left-handed, corkscrew stance, he played with a proficiency and elegance during a 22-year career – all with St. Louis – that lifted the entire sport.

He won seven batting titles and was the MVP three times before retiring in 1963. He led the Cardinals to three World Series crowns in the 1940s. Even the Hall of Fame was overtaken by his body of work, surrendering to the scope of his achievements by saying on his plaque that he "holds many National League records."

"Stan will be remembered in baseball annals as one of the pillars of the game," Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said. "The mold broke with Stan. There will never be another like him."

Musial played off-Broadway in St. Louis, never enjoying the mythic acclaim of Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. But he never seemed to mind, happy to deliver season after season, all the while busting out tunes on his harmonica or delighting in his magic tricks. The word gentleman followed him wherever he went.

"I never heard anybody say a bad word about him," Willie Mays said. "Ever."

Surely that was not the case with Weaver. Opponents and umpires all had a few select words of their own for this 5-foot-6 pugnacious fighter in the dugout. But in Baltimore, where he managed for 17 seasons, a statue of him stands at Camden Yards.

"His passion for the game and the fire with which he managed will always be remembered by baseball fans everywhere," Orioles great Cal Ripken said.

Weaver understood what made players tick and how to coax the most out of a pitching staff. Let others bunt and move runners along; Weaver waited for the three-run homer. Baltimore went to the World Series four times under him, winning in 1970.

But the casual fan saw less of the managerial shrewdness than his nose- to-nose, hat-turned-backward, foot-stomping confrontations with the men in blue.

This was someone who was once ejected from both games of a doubleheader. Former umpire Don Denkinger recalls the time Weaver came to home plate before a game and said he was quitting.

"I told him that if he ever ran out of money to call the umpires' association and we'd take up a collection for him," Denkinger said. "We'd do anything just to keep him off the field and away from us."

The Celtics-Lakers rivalry that once defined the NBA had a unifying thread in Sharman. He teamed in the backcourt with Bob Cousy in Boston and became one of the game's best foul shooters. He later coached the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich when they won 33 in a row, and as an executive presided over the team's Showtime run.

He made it to the Hall of Fame as a player and coach, and died at 87. Two footnotes: Sharman introduced the pre-game shootaround; as a baseball player, he was called up by the Dodgers in 1951 and was in the dugout when Bobby Thomson hit his mighty home run.

The Laker family also lost its patriarch in Jerry Buss, 80, the owner who gave his franchise a celebrity dazzle in a city where there is no higher calling. His team won 10 championships and became the gold standard, from the Showtime era of Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant.

Football in 2013 lost not its heart but its voice. Summerall, 82, spent 10 years in the NFL, kicking field goals for the Chicago Cardinals and New York Giants. But it was afterward, behind a television microphone, where he became a steady, calming, intelligent presence, in everyone's living room, week after week. Tennis and golf also sounded a lot better with him around.

When Jones died at 74, football lost one of its Fearsome Foursome. He was a pass-rushing terror for the Rams who left his stamp not only on the bodies of countless quarterbacks but on the vocabulary of the game: He coined the term "sack."

Weiner succeeded Donald Fehr as head of the baseball players' union in 2009. He inherited harsh terrain, with labor relations still rough. But in not much time, and with a lighter touch, he managed to smooth the field. He died at 51 of a brain tumor.

Auto racing's Dick Trickle, who embraced an unconventional name and let the good times roll on small tracks around the country, died at 71, a suspected suicide.

Sports in 2013 also mourned a man whose first love was boxing and who understood better than anyone just how much sway, how much force these games can carry. In 1995, when he stood in the middle of a Johannesburg stadium, wearing a green rugby jersey – the game of the apartheid regime now banished – he knew precisely what he was doing.

"Sport has the power to change the world," Nelson Mandela, 95, would say years later. "It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does."

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