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Losses in sports in 2013: Musial, Weaver, Griffith

Thu., Dec. 26, 2013

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.

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.”

Opponents and umpires all had a few select words of their own for Weaver, a 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.

Like Musial, boxer Emile Griffith brought elegance to his craft. He died at 75 of pugilistic dementia.

Griffith was quick and savvy in the ring, flicking jabs and punishing opponents. One night of punishing work in 1962 would haunt Griffith for the rest of his life.

He battered Benny “The Kid” Paret on national TV to recapture his welterweight title. A comatose Paret died 10 days later. The fight shadowed boxing for many years. Griffith, suddenly cast in the role of villainous killer, was never the same. At times, he was afraid to leave his hotel.

Boxing was hit hard this year, losing two other champions, both heavyweights: Ken Norton, who in 1973 defeated Muhammad Ali and broke his jaw, was 70; Tommy Morrison, 44, who beat George Forman and later tested positive for HIV, but denied until his chaotic end that he had the AIDS virus. Carl “The Truth” Williams, who lost title fights to Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes, died of cancer at 53.

Football in 2013 lost not its heart but its voice. Pat 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 Deacon 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.”

Also gone was another fierce defensive end – L.C. Greenwood, 67, a key part of Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” of the 1970s. The New York Jets are now without two players from their only championship team – receiver George Sauer and safety Jim Hudson. Art Donovan, the Baltimore Colts’ star lineman, was 89 and kept the rollicking stories coming. He said the only weight he ever lifted was a beer can.

Football’s coaching ranks thinned: Bum Phillips (Oilers, Saints), Jack Pardee (Bears, Redskins), Chuck Fairbanks (Oklahoma, Patriots), Don James (Washington), Paul Dietzel (LSU).

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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