Much like the annual Grammy Awards take a few minutes before the end of the show to pay tribute to those in the music industry who passed away in the preceding year, it's now time to take a few minutes to remember those who've passed on from in the realm of Windy City sports.
In this blog post, I want to take some time and write a quick blurb about those who appear in my cardboard collections and who played for my favorite teams but did not survive the year 2018. While I may have already honored a few of these Chicago athletes who spent time with the Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks, or Bulls at the time of their deaths, I know that I missed several during my blogging hiatuses. Thus, before the year is out, I want to properly shine the spotlight on these men who took to the diamond, gridiron, ice rink or hardwood throughout the years.
I've made these sorts of entries before, for both 2016 and 2015 - although, I did not complete one for 2017. I must admit, it was The Angels, in Order and Billy from Cardboard History who inspired me to get back to it and to expand my horizons from just Cubs players to all of those in my collections. Hopefully, I do them justice.
Without any further ado, please allow me to honor those who have recently gone on to play in that great stadium in the sky:
A member of the 1954 Little League World Series winning squad, Billy Connors had an 11-game cameo with the Cubs in 1966 and pitched briefly for the Mets over the next two seasons. That said, it was as a pitching coach that Connors built a legacy in the 80's and 90's. Billy held that position with the Cubs from 1982-86, including the beloved '84 squad, as well as the Royals, Mariners, and Yankees into the new millennium.
Ray had a lengthy 11-year career as a backup goalie across the NHL. Both of the 2011-12 and the 2012-13 seasons were spent between the pipes with the Chicago Blackhawks, Valued for his steady leadership, veteran presence, and ability to step in without missing a beat should Corey Crawford be unable to go, Emery quickly became a fan favorite in Chicago.
In his second (and final) season with the club, Emery and Crow split the William M. Jennings trophy - given to the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against them. Furthermore Ray earned himself a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup, as the Blackhawks went on to win their second of three NHL titles during their dynastic period.
Tragically, Ray drowned after going for a swim in Lake Ontario this summer. He was only 35.
Ernaga was one in a long line of Cubs wunderkinds who ultimately fizzled out during the doldrum between World War II and the near miracle of 1969.
In May of 1957, Ernaga made an immediate impact by smacking a home run in very first at-bat, off Warren Spahn, no less. As if that wasn't enough, he followed that memorable introduction with a triple off the Hall of Famer in his next trip to the plate. Over the course of the next week, Frankie continued to scorch the ball, going 6-for-10 before his batting average plummeted back to earth. Relegated back to the AAA-MLB shuttle, the young rookie's Major League tenure was over by the end of 1958.
I actually remember exactly where I was when I heard that Gamble had passed away, a victim of ameloblastic carcinoma at just 68 . I was on an airstrip in Dallas, TX, on my way to a business conference and it felt like my heart had sunk faster than the just-landed aircraft. Mr. Gamble was the embodiment of all that was fun in baseball, from his witty and humorous personality to his barely-contained, iconic Afro. The card you see above might be one of the most iconic pasteboards of all-time!
I wrote a more in-depth piece shortly after Oscar's untimely passing; so feel free to check that out. I just want to take this opportunity to remind everyone reading that the fan-favorite got his MLB start with the Cubbies during the ill-fated 1969 campaign. He might have made his name elsewhere, but he'll always be a Cub to me.
As a Syracuse senior, Gedney was a consensus first-team All-American in 1992, leading to his third-round selection by the Bears in the following year's NFL draft. The tight end would go on to play three seasons for the Monsters of the Midway, though he was plagued by injury. A broken collarbone, heel problems, a broken leg, and a stress fracture in his foot limited his time on the turf at Soldier Field before he took his talents to the Arizona Cardinals for three more campaigns.
After hanging up his cleats, Gedney switched to the other side of the microphone, working color commentary for his beloved alma mater. Tragically, Gedney committed suicide this spring, after battling depression and other behavior issues. It seems as though Gedney suffered complications from CTE, like many a former football player.
Is there a way to make this sport safe?
10/6/60 - 1/20/18Bill Johnson might not be well-remembered today, but he played a bit part on one of the most beloved Cubs teams in the history of Chicago baseball. Johnson pitched in four games for the eventual NL East Division Champions, breaking a 39 postseason drought in the process. During his 5.1 innings of bullpen duty, Johnson posted a sterling 1.69 ERA as a September call-up. Additionally, Bill made ten appearances in the year previous; although, that was the extent of his Major League career.
Once his career came to a close, the noted leader and family man turned to coaching American Legion Baseball, high school and college programs from his home in Wilmington, DE, the same hometown as my lovely wife. Records show that he died early this year at only 57 years of age; but, those same records make no indication of the cause.
Dick LeMay came up through the Giants chain, and pitched for the San Franciscans from 1961-62, before blowing into the Windy City, via trade, for 1963. The lefty only made it into nine games for the lackluster club, going 0-1 with a 5.28 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched, mostly out of the bullpen (one start). Once that season had concluded, LeMay would never be rostered on an MLB roll call again, though he would return to the minors and became a consistent winner for the AAA affiliates of the St. Louis Cardinals, through 1970.
Upon the completion of his playing career, Dick took up coaching... though not in the sport you might expect. In the mid-1980s, he was the head boys basketball coach at Cascia Hall High School - apparently, Mr. LeMay was quite the versatile athlete! At that same time, the multi-tasker was getting his American pastime fix as scout for les Expos.
In the land of Chicago, Stan Mikita is a man who needs no introduction. On the Mount Rushmore of Second City sports, Stan the Man might just represent the Chicago Blackhawks, the team with which he spent the entirety of his lengthy, Hall of Fame hockey career (1958-80). Without a doubt, Mikita is regarded as one of the best, if not the absolute best centres of the 1960's. After all, he earned four scoring titles during that decade and was eight times an All-Star! Honestly, I don't know what else can be said for the superlative superstar.
Besides his propensity for finding the back of the net, Mikita is also known for his innovative usage of stick curvature to find a competitive advantage and for being one of the first NHL skaters to wear a helmet. And that's not even to mention his "famous donuts."
Chicago BearsBookended by stints with the Miami Dolphins, David Elmer Rather- better known as "Bo" - played for the Bears as a wide receiver from 1974 to 1978. During this time, Rather appeared in 55 games and caught 91 passes for 1,428 yards and seven touchdowns in blue and orange. Before making his way to Chicago via trade, Rather earned himself a big, shiny ring as a member of the Super Bowl VIII Champion Dolphins. He played his college ball at the University of Michigan, where he set the Wolverine all-time record with 3,977 net rushing yards.
As a wide receiver, we know he was good with his hands. What you might not know is that, after retirement, he developed a passion for gardening and writing poetry. In fact, his flower gardens were recognized by the Battle Creek Garden Tour. Additionally, Rather also specialized in audio recordings for various ministry programs. What a well-rounded and artsy fellow!
Signed by the Giants out of Bingham Canyon HS (where he was part of multiple Utah state championship teams) in 1954, Daryl Robertson only spent one year in the Majors and it came with the Cubbies in 1962. In nine games for the club, "Sonny" went 2-for-19 at the plate and spent time in the field at both shortstop and third base. Unfortunately, this was not enough to impress the Cubs' brass and Robertson was sent back to the minors. He would retire from professional baseball at the conclusion of the AAA season.
This truly tragic story is still fresh on our minds as I type. Earlier this month, the slugging infielder was killed in an automobile crash, along with teammate and fellow former MLB'er Jose Castillo, on his way to a Venezuelan Winter League contest. It was revealed that the wreck was no accident, as it had been set up by roadside robbers, who were later caught with items from the car in their possession. All in all, it was a harrowing and sobering occurrence and highlights just how fleeting life can be.
In the wake of the event, I dedicated a full post to Luis, who was one of the few bright spots on some dismal, rebuilding Cubs teams in the first half of this decade. He will forever be remembered for his enthusiasm on the field, his unapologetic sense of self, and the legendarily prodigious bat flips he would unleash for home runs and walks alike.
In addition to those you see above, there were also several Chicago athletes who passed away in 2018, but do not yet appear in any of my roster collection tomes. Sans cards, I would like to take a minute to list their names below:
9/27/50 - 5/23/18
1/4/33 - 4/27/18
6/29/38 - 11/4/18
5/23/79 - 1/31/18
1/31/41 - 7/12/18
John "Kayo" Dottley
8/25/28 - 11/17/28
11/16/28 - 3/22/18
12/12/37 - 6/9/18
5/5/55 - 4/12/18
9/5/31 - 8/17/18
4/23/66 - 2/16/18
2/18/46 - 1/2/18