THEY SAY athletes die twice, and it's true that retirement and death can be hard to tell apart. Both elicit tears and testimonials. They involve abrupt transitions to a new state (Florida, eternity) without income tax. The newly expired, like the newly retired, see a sudden uptick in leisure time. But the two are not exactly the same, and it's the second death—actually dying—that's the doozy.
This is an article from the Oct. 19, 2015 issue
Death is all around us in October, and not just in the falling leaves and the glow-in-the-dark skeletons and the eight-year-old zombies intent on eating our KitKats. This postseason, baseball players are wearing death on their sleeves. The Cubs' 14 patch commemorating Ernie Banks, the Cardinals' ot patch for Oscar Taveras, the Astros' mh patch for broadcaster Milo Hamilton and the Yankees' 8 patch for Yogi Berra all serve as reminders that baseball may not have a clock but the rest of us do, so perhaps you could stop fiddling with your batting gloves and get on with it already.
If anyone knows that, it's the Oldest Living Major League Baseball Player, Mike Sandlock, who turns 100 on Oct. 17. Sandlock briefly played catcher for the 1942 Boston Braves, and his name, befitting a player of that era, is a pleasing echo of sandlot. Eddie Carnett, who had a cup of coffee with the '41 Braves and turns 99 on Oct. 21, is the Second-Oldest Living Major Leaguer—he's in the on-deck circle, as it were—and the advanced ages of both near-teammates have given them a prominence unforeseeable when they retired six decades ago.
These lives deep into extra innings, and those just summoned to the celestial postseason, call to me. Harry Gallatin, a basketball Hall of Famer who played for the Knicks in the 1950s, died on Oct. 7 at 88. You may not know his name—AutoCorrect didn't, just now, and suggested Harry Gallstones instead—but death often reacquaints us with an athlete, or introduces him to younger readers.
Harry (the Horse) Gallatin was so thoroughly equine (the surname even sounds like gallopin') that he was photographed in street clothes in his playing days giving a horsey-back ride to his sons. Viewed from the remove of 60 years, this scene of Eisenhower-era domestic bliss conjures a warm feeling for the man and is my sole memory of him.
Last week the Suns announced the death of former forward Neal Walk, the second pick in the 1969 draft, after Lew Alcindor. As with Gallatin, there was a certain felicity to Walk's name, which I always heard as Kneel, Walk, the two stages of a baby's development after Crawl. Only upon his death did I read that Walk used a wheelchair for his last three decades, though the beauty of an athlete's obituary is that it is always accompanied by a photograph of the man in his physical prime, all hair and muscle and sideburns.
In this way death is not just a great leveler but also a great elevator, returning some men to fame and bringing glory to others for the very first time. Nietzsche wrote, "Some men are born posthumously," and as with Nietzsche, so with Nitschke. When former Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke died in 1998, his New York Times obituary cited death as his footballing motivator. "My father died when I was three, my mother when I was 14," said Nitschke, "so I took it out on all the kids in the neighborhood." Nearly 20 years on, that's my main Nitschke memory.
Not every athlete dies twice. Thurman Munson's death at 32, in a plane crash in the prime of his career, was the first time someone I knew, or felt I knew, died. As a 12-year-old on vacation hearing the news in a Holiday Inn in Arlington, Va., I feared flying home to Minnesota and experienced the first hint of my own mortality.
Another Yankees legend died recently: Not Yogi, but 85-year-old Helen Fowler, whose obituary in the Newark Star-Ledger described her thusly: "Mrs. Fowler was a lifelong member of the Cranford First Aid Squad and a lifelong Yankees fan, with the exception of Alex Rodriguez." And so Mrs. Fowler is heckling from the great beyond, trolling from an astral plane, making even death appear strangely life-affirming.
Death is not just a great leveler but also a great elevator, returning some men to fame and bringing glory to others for the very first time.
What's the best obituary you read this year? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin