In his memory, Tim Mead travels back to early October 1968. He’s 10 years old. It’s the World Series, Cardinals versus Tigers, and a teacher is wheeling a black-and-white television into the classroom at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, Va., so the fourth-graders could watch.
Pixelated legends bloom on the screen in an afternoon game: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline.
“It was so exciting,” Mead recalls. “These were larger-than-life performers.”
For Mead, now the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, going back to baseball memories like that was a reflex of sorts in a pandemic year where loss was ever-present, including in Cooperstown.
Six iconic Hall of Famers died in 2020, making it one of the worst years in Hall history. The Hall had not lost as many as six members since 1972, when seven died, Mead says. That, Mead says, was the most in a single year.
This year, Kaline, known as “Mr. Tiger,” died in April. Beloved Mets ace Tom Seaver died on Aug. 31 and, barely a week later, Brock passed away. Then, in a nine-day span from Oct. 2 to Oct. 11, Gibson, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan died, leaving the Hall with 76 living members.
“When you are a baseball fan, any time you lose one of these gentlemen, you remember your youth,” Mead says.
And theirs. Even now, it’s hard not to think of this group, including the two towering figures of New York baseball, Seaver and Ford, as young, strong men in spikes, delivering devastating pitches or whirling around the bases.
You can see the six in all their Technicolor splendor in a new MLB Network documentary, “Icons Lost,” which celebrates their careers and impact. It premieres Saturday, Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. There’s plenty of grainy, goosebump footage from their careers, as well as fresh interviews with fellow Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Joe Torre and other contemporaries.
Bruce Cornblatt, the senior coordinating producer for the documentary, says, “I wanted it to be a wake, not a funeral.” With that in mind, the program is chock full of stories illuminating the Hall of Famers on and off the field.
Here’s one: Bob Costas recounts how he once got a hit against Gibson in a fantasy camp game. Gibson fulfilled his rep for being ornery on the mound by later threatening to bean the broadcaster for it.
Bench details the deep friendship he formed with Seaver, saying, “We laughed and laughed.” At one point, Bench asked to buy a case of wine from Seaver, a vintner in retirement. What is my price? Bench asked, thinking a cherished former Reds teammate merited a healthy discount on Seaver’s premium stuff.
“No, no, no,” Seaver replied. Bench shot back, “If I don’t put down the signs for you, you’re nothing.”
Costas talks about Ford’s “wry smile” and Bobby Richardson, Ford’s teammate, marvels at how “Slick” was at his best in the World Series. Ford, who was on six championship teams, still holds records for wins, strikeouts and innings in the Fall Classic.
The show is also a leaping-off point for dreaming of Brock’s daring on the bases or Morgan’s elbow flap, the timing mechanism that every kid of a certain age spent summer afternoons perfecting. Footage of a young Kaline, who won a batting title at 20, brings echoes of a lost era.
Mead hopes today’s players look at the six gone Hall of Famers and “reflect on the totality of who they were.” He noted that each gave back to the game, whether it was Morgan’s passion for his work on the Hall’s Board of Directors or Seaver pledging to donate his personal baseball collection to Cooperstown.
“They were baseball people, beyond being Hall of Famers,” Mead says.
This July, pandemic willing, Hall of Fame Weekend is scheduled for July 23-26. Folks in Cooperstown hope the inductions will be a sweet chance to bask in the baseball greatness of two classes (the ceremonies for 2020 were postponed) in the sun.
But there will be a certain ache, too.
“Every one of them talked about how much it’ll be different now not seeing these guys at the Hall of Fame,” Cornblatt said. “I don’t think I really understood what it’s like to have Kaline run into Johnny Bench there. There’s something about the Otesaga Hotel, the Hall, Cooperstown.
“That kind of exclusive club met once a year and now six of them are gone.”
Those tinges of sadness reverberate beyond Cooperstown. Darryl Strawberry, the former Mets’ star who first met Seaver in spring training in 1983 when Seaver had returned to New York, recalls his former teammate as “a joy.
“Tom was really, really nice to me and I really appreciate that,” Strawberry says in a telephone interview. “He’d tell me, ‘Keep working hard, kid, you’re going to be great.’”
After they were both retired, they would see each other at Mets events. “Then you realize he hadn’t been around for awhile,” Strawberry said. “Then you started to hear the rumors that he was sick. You start to hear about people you know and you were close to and you start thinking that day will come for you.