As noted last week, more than 30,000 Americans die each year in automobile accidents. Though the number has declined since 2008 (when a recession coupled with high gas prices caused Americans to cut back on driving for the first time since the 1950s), we still view this annual sacrifice as acceptable. Plane crashes and train derailments prompt investigations; car wrecks are widely seen as the price we pay for the so-called freedom of the road.
But every death by car is a personal tragedy. No segment of society goes unaffected. Why should baseball — our other national pastime – be any different? In observance of Opening Day, Slower Traffic presents The All Car Accident Baseball Team.
The batting order:
Heine Reitz, 1867-1914, 2B. The first major league player killed in a car accident, in Sacramento, ten years after he retired from baseball. A 5’7” second baseman in the mold of Dustin Pedroia, Reitz led the National League in triples in 1894.
Tony Boeckel, 1892-1924, 3B. While driving in Torrey Pines, California, north of San Diego, Boeckel was involved in a collision with a truck. He got out, a passing car struck him, and he died the next day, becoming the first major leaguer killed by a car in the midst of his playing career.
Roy Campanella, 1921-1993, C. Though he survived his accident, Campanella was confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life after his car skidded on ice on Long Island in January 1958, hit a telephone pole, and overturned. The accident came just months after the Dodgers played their final game in Brooklyn. A veteran of the Negro Leagues who joined the Dodgers a year after Jackie Robinson, Campanella won three MVP awards and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969.
Mel Ott, 1909-1958, RF. The second Hall of Famer on this list, Ott slugged 511 home runs and compiled a .304 average in 20-plus seasons with the New York Giants. He later took a job as a broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers. Driving near his home on a Matarie, Louisiana, Ott was hit head-on by another vehicle. He died a week later in a New Orleans hospital.
Joe DeSa, 1959-1986, 1B. Born on one island, killed on another, DeSa played seven games with the Cardinals in 1980 and 24 games with the White Sox in 1985. The Hawaii native was playing for Ponce in the Puerto Rican League in December 1986 after signing a minor-league deal with the Kansas City Royals. DeSa had just left a party at a teammate’s house and was driving alone on the cross-island expressway when he and another driver collided head-on. Both died instantly.
Mike Darr, 1976-2002, CF. A promising outfielder for the San Diego Padres, Darr was killed in a single-vehicle crash in Phoenix. He and his passenger both died when Darr lost control, overcompensated, and crashed into the highway median, ejecting them from the vehicle.
Mike Sharperson, 1961-1996, DH, utility infielder. An infielder who spent most of eight seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sharperson had just signed a deal with the Padres and was on his way to join the team when he was killed in a two-car collision in Las Vegas.
Denny Williams, 1899-1929, LF. A marginal player whose career consisted of 120 games, Williams died in an accident in San Clemente, California, later famous as the post-Watergate retreat of baseball-loving President Richard Nixon.
Chico Ruiz, 1938-1972, SS. The only player to pinch-hit for both Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, Ruiz played every position except pitcher during an eight-year career with the Cincinnati Reds. He died in a crash in San Diego.
Carl Hubbell, 1903-1988. The third Hall of Famer on this team, Hubbell won 24 consecutive games over two seasons, and struck out five Hall of Famers in a row in the 1934 All-Star Game. While driving near his Mesa, Arizona home, the 85-year old former pitcher lost control of his car and hit a metal pole. He died two days later from head and chest injuries.
Bob Moose, 1947-1976. A starter and reliever during a ten-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Moose pitched a no-hitter in 1969 and started game six of the 1971 World Series. On his 29th birthday, he was driving in light rain to a party at a golf course near Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. His car crossed the center line and struck an oncoming vehicle. He was killed instantly.
Bullpen: Steve Howe, 1958-2006; Josh Hancock, 1978-2007; Nick Adenhart, 1987-2009.
Manager: Billy Martin, 1928-1989. Pugnacious as a player, Martin was even more disagreeable as a manager, picking fights with players, umpires, fans, traveling secretaries, and the owners who hired him. Martin died on Christmas, near his upstate New York farm, after a night of drinking with a buddy, who drove the pickup truck in which Martin was a passenger. The driver survived.
Baseball is a game of statistics, so I’ll close with this one: Since 1876, a total of 18,082 players have appeared in a major league game – roughly the same number of lives lost on America’s roads during every baseball season. Play ball.