Sportscasters often narrate the waning years of a ballplayer’s career with the phrase, “Father Time is undefeated.” It’s a reference to the wear and tear on the body as age slows reflexes and recovery. Unfortunately, the endless march of time opens the door to far more devastating events than retirement.
Professional athletes continually transcend boundaries of what seems physically possible in the realm of sports. Special players cement themselves in the minds of fans. That connection, along with the breathtaking on-field feats, make it all the more shocking when an individual passes away in the midst of a baseball career. It’s never considered a possibility until the unthinkable occurs.
Major League Baseball has spanned three different centuries. The vast history allows for countless legendary games and stories. In the same vein, the passing years deliver crushing tragedies.
The men below met an unexpected end far too soon. There are Hall of Famers among them. Some players were cut down in their prime. Others lost their lives before the baseball diamond could witness their full potential.
The list runs in order from least recent to most recent and involves a plethora of improbable deaths. Here are 15 Baseball Players Who Died During Their Careers:
15 Marty Bergen (1900)
Marty Bergen had a strange, tumultuous career with the Boston Beaneaters. He played four seasons as their catcher. Although his bat left much to be desired (.265 batting average with 176 RBIs over four years), his defense earned admiration across the league. He caught 313 runners stealing during his career. The Beaneaters won the pennant twice with Bergen behind the plate and came in second during his final season with the team.
Despite Bergen’s defensive prowess, his experience in Major League Baseball was plagued with strife. He suffered from fits of depression and irrationality. He would often disappear from the team for weeks at a time and refuse to return. Bergen accused teammates of mistreatment or plotting against him. It led to him sitting sideways in dugouts or during road trips in case the other players attacked him. The mental anguish led to tragedy in 1900. Marty Bergen slaughtered his wife, son and daughter with an ax. He slit his own throat with a razor. The cut was so deep it nearly beheaded him. If Bergen had been born a century later, he may have received the mental help he desperately needed. Instead, a family of four brutally lost their lives.
14 Ed Delahanty (1903)
Ed Delahanty played for three different teams over his 16-year career. A five-tool player, Big Ed’s bat cemented him as one of the game’s first superstars. He hit over .400 in three seasons, amassed 2,597 hits and tallied 1,600 runs. At the same time, gambling and binge drinking drained Delahanty’s financial resources. He routinely attempted to turn his stardom into rich contracts with new clubs. While a member of the Washington Senators in 1903, he hoped to void his contract and join the New York Giants. He boarded a train for New York, drank several whiskies and began acting erratically. The conductor threw him off the train before crossing the International Railway Bridge, which runs over the Niagara River. A night watchman noticed Ed walking across the bridge. He attempted to stop him, but Delahanty pushed him away. The prestigious outfielder then slipped or jumped over the bridge, plunging into the water. Authorities discovered his body at the base of Niagara Falls. Ed was 35 years old. The Hall of Fame inducted him in 1945.
13 Ray Chapman (1920)
Ray Chapman played nine seasons at shortstop for the Cleveland Indians. Chapman established himself as an all around player early on. He led the Indians in runs scored three times and in stolen bases five times during his career. He still ranks sixth all time in baseball history with 334 career sacrifices. Defensively, Chapman led the American League in putouts three different seasons. His 1,053 hits and 364 RBIs may pass under the radar, but Ray Chapman would be a Hall of Famer if his life wasn’t cut short. Chapman batted against the Yankees’ Carl Mays in a mid-August game. Mays’ pitch sailed inside and struck Chapman in the head. Left bleeding from the ear, Chapman tried to walk to the centerfield clubhouse and collapsed near second base. Teammates helped him the rest of the way. He fell into a coma shortly after. Doctors were unable to save him with an operation. Chapman remains the only Major League player ever to die directly from an on-field accident. His death led to two major changes. MLB outlawed spitballs and increased the frequency of issuing pitchers new baseballs following the 1920 season.
12 Len Koenecke (1935)
The death of Len Koenecke compares to Ed Delahanty’s in terms of its bizarre caliber and involvement of whiskey. Koenecke began playing professional baseball in 1927 and made it to the majors by 1932. He struggled as an outfielder in his first year with the New York Giants, but briefly flashed his potential in 1934 and 1935 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Manager Casey Stengel sent Len home before a September series against the Cardinals in favor of giving Minor League players a look. Koenecke boarded a flight in St. Louis with two fellow discards, Les Munns and Bob Barr. He carried a bottle of whiskey with him. During the second leg between Chicago and Detroit, Koenecke argued with passengers, knocked over a flight attendant and challenged another man to a fight. He spent the rest of the trip in constraints. Detroit Air officials prevented him from continuing to New York. His teammates boarded the flight without him. Koenecke negotiated travel on a six-passenger flight to Buffalo. At some point during the fateful trip, Koenecke attempted to commandeer the plane. As he grappled for control with the pilot, the co-pilot bashed Koenecke’s head with a fire extinguisher. The pilot safely landed the plane on a nearby racetrack. Authorities reported to the scene and found Len Koenecke dead from a cerebral hemorrhage.
11 Willard Hershberger (1940)
In 1928, Willard Hershberger’s father committed suicide after failing to gain a promotion and falling into debt. The tragedy changed Willard. He began chain-smoking and suffered from insomnia. He still managed to find a career in baseball, serving as Cincinatti’s backup catcher from 1938 to 1940. He performed well in his small role, even hitting .345 in 1939.
During a road trip in 1940, however, Hershberger saw his performance slip. He started openly blaming himself for losses and felt the Reds would have won certain games using the starter, Ernie Lombardi. He visited Manager Bill McKechnie’s office on August 2nd and broke down. Hershberger admitted to contemplating suicide, even buying a bottle of iodine to ingest. The two talked it out. Hershberger seemingly recovered from his gloom. He mingled with his teammates at the hotel the following day but declined to ride with them to the field. When Hershberger didn’t arrive in time for batting practice, McKechnie asked the team’s traveling secretary, Gabe Paul, to call the ailing catcher. Hershberger answered and feigned illness. Paul urged Hershberger to at least come sit in the stands. Again, he declined. Hershberger went into the bathroom and covered the floor with towels. He cut his throat using a safety razor, leaned over the tub and bled to death. His in-season suicide shocked the team. In his honor, they won the 1940 World Series and sent Hershberger’s full payout to his mother.
10 Elmer Gedeon (1944)
Many legendary baseball players halted their careers to serve their country in World War II. Hall of Famers such as Ted Williams, Warren Spahn and Joe DiMaggio returned to the game after the war. Elmer Gedeon didn’t. He was killed in action in 1944. Gedeon originally hoped to qualify for the 1940 Olympics in Track & Field, but the Tokyo games were cancelled due to war. He played baseball for the Washington Senators instead, going 3-15 in five games. It was his only season. As part of the Army Air Corps in 1942, Gedeon was onboard a bomber that crashed during a training exercise. He freed himself before crawling back into the plane in an attempt to rescue Cpl. John Rarrat. Rarrat perished along with two other passengers. Gedeon spent three months recovering from severe burns and broken ribs. He returned to action with the 394th Bomb Group. On April 20th, 1944, Gedeon took off with 35 other bombers as part of Operation Crossbow. His objective involved attacking V-1 bases near the northern coast of France. After Gedeon dropped his bombs, antiaircraft ripped through the plane. The bomber burst into flames and crashed. Gedeon did not survive.
9 Roberto Clemente (1972)
Roberto Clemente undoubtedly stands as the most decorated baseball player to die during his career. The Puerto Rican phenom played 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His superlatives are endless. He won one MVP, 12 Gold Glove Awards, 4 National League Batting Titles, and two World Series. He reached 12 All Star games. His career ended with exactly 3,000 hits. Clemente’s baseball lore is perhaps surpassed only by his humanitarian efforts. He represented and made efforts to strengthen all of Latin America during his life. Clemente provided free baseball clinics to children, especially one from low-income families. He attempted to give Puerto Rican youth access to facilities, coaching and positive feedback in sports.
On New Year’s Eve, 1972, he boarded a plane from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua. He hoped to provide earthquake relief assistance. The aircraft crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. His body was never recovered. The Hall of Fame called a special election in 1973 to induct Roberto Clemente. He left behind a lasting legacy – on and off the field.
8 Lyman Bostock (1978)
Lyman Bostock was a budding Major League star when he was gunned down at an Indiana intersection. Bostock had 199 hits in his third season with the Minnesota Twins. He entered the now-defunct free agent draft in 1978 and the maximum number of clubs, 13, chose him. Minnesota failed to re-sign him due to poor negotiating tactics. Instead, Bostock joined the Angels for $2.3 million over five years. During his struggles in the early part of the season, Bostock told the team’s owner to withhold his money until he earned it. Gene Autry refused, so Bostock gave the $50,000 to charity. Bostock eventually rebounded, putting up 168 hits and 71 RBIs for his new team by late September.
In-between games against the Chicago White Sox, Bostock visited his uncle in Gary, Indiana. Bostock took a ride in the backseat of his uncle’s car. Two family friends joined them – Joan Hawkins and Barbara Smith. Barbara’s estranged husband, Leonard Smith, had witnessed Barbara join them. He became convinced she was having an affair with Lyman. He pulled up next to the vehicle at a red light and fired a shotgun at his wife. The shot hit Bostock in the head. Doctors worked to save Bostock’s life, but ultimately failed. Leonard Smith was later found innocent by reason of insanity.
7 Thurman Munson (1979)
Thurman Munson was the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig. Despite his rift with the straw that stirs the drink, Reggie Jackson, he helped lead the Yankees to consecutive World Series in 1977 and 1978. The backstop’s passing, which occurred seven years after Clemente’s, is undoubtedly the most famous in-season death. Munson earned his pilot’s license in the offseason between championships. He purchased a twin-engine plane in July of New York’s injury-plagued, disappointing 1979 season. He intended to travel between New York and his family home in Canton during off days. He asked Lou Pinella, Reggie Jackson and Bobby Murcer to join him on a flight in August, but they all declined. As he practiced landings with two other friends, his plane came short of the runway, clipping trees and crashing to the ground. The two friends could not free Munson from the plane. The growing flames forced them to evacuate and he would pass away. The entire organization flew to his funeral in Ohio. Hours after attending the funeral, the team took the field against Baltimore. Murcer, one of Munson’s closest friends, miraculously drove in all five runs for a 5-4 victory.
6 Tim Crews & Steve Olin (1993)
Tragedy struck in twos – almost threes – for Cleveland during their 1993 spring training. Steve Olin and Bob Ojeda, two pitchers on Cleveland’s staff, joined fellow pitcher Tim Crews at his house for an off-day outing. They took the boat out on Little Lake Nellie late at night. Without enough light to guide him, Crews accidentally drove his speedboat into a pier. The boat’s speed thrust it underneath the structure. The impact killed Olin instantly. Crews suffered a fractured skull and died in the hospital that morning. Ojeda somehow survived the incident. Toxicology results revealed Crews operated the boat with a .14 BAC. Ojeda suffered with survivor’s guilt and suicidal thoughts before returning to the team late in the season. Crews had joined the team as a free agent in the offseason, while Olin appeared to be the Indians’ number one bullpen option.
5 Darryl Kile (2002)
Darryl Kile pitched for three teams over the course of his 12-year career. His two best years came with Houston in 1997 (19-7, 2.57 ERA) and with St. Louis in 2000 (20-9, 3.91 ERA). After complaining about shoulder pain and weakness the night before, Kile died in his sleep on June 22nd, 2002. He was 33 years old. An autopsy revealed narrowing in his coronary arteries and an enlarged heart. His untimely demise marked the beginning of a trying period in Cardinals’ history. The franchise lost three players in a span of 13 years. In 2007, pitcher Josh Hancock died in a late night car accident. He had been talking on the phone with a BAC of .157 when his car slammed into the flatbed of a tow truck. The Cardinals banned alcohol in the clubhouse following the death. Oscar Taveras, a rookie outfielder, also died in a car crash during the team’s 2014 postseason.
4 Geremi Gonzalez (2008)
Geremi Gonzalez pitched in the Major Leagues for the Cubs in 1997 and 1998 before a four-year hiatus. He returned to baseball in 2003 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He served as a reliever for three other teams. He actually played an important role in Sammy Sosa’s fall from grace, as Gonzalez was on the mound for the Devil Rays during Sosa’s corked bat game.
Known as Jeremi early in his career, he changed his name after joining the Milwaukee Brewers in a 2006 trade. He was released by the Blue Jays during spring training in 2007. Although he did not have a place on a major league roster at the time of his death, he was playing professional baseball as a member of the Japanese League’s Yomiuri Giants. Gonzalez died after lightning struck him at a beach in his native Venezuela.
3 Nick Adenhart (2009)
The Angels pitcher struggled through three starts during the 2008 season. He posted a 9.00 ERA over 12 innings pitched. Injuries thrust Adenhart into the rotation’s number three spot to begin the 2009 season. He responded with six scoreless innings in his debut. He did not live to see the morning. Adenhart went out with friends to celebrate his recent success. At 12:30 AM, a minivan barrelled through a red light and careened into the car Adenhart was riding in. The collision killed Adenhart, another passenger and the driver. The intoxicated minivan driver, Andrew Thomas Gallo, fled the scene on foot. Gallo’s blood-alcohol content was twice the legal limit and he already had a suspended license for driving under the influence. The court sentenced Adenhart to 51 years – consecutive sentences for three second-hand murder charges.
2 Greg Halman (2011)
Greg Halman played 35 games for the Mariners as a rookie in 2011. His numbers were not impressive (.230 BA, .256 OBP), but it was only a small sample size. The Mariners still considered him a valuable prospect. Halman returned to the Netherlands to train over the winter. His goal was to earn a full-time starting role in Seattle’s outfield. Instead, his brother stabbed him to death on the morning of November 21st, 2011. The brothers shared an apartment while Greg trained in Rotterdam. They were often inseparable. The two had matching tattoos. Both had dreams of a baseball career as children. Greg made it. Jason Halman did not. Even when Greg begged the organization to give his brother a look, they passed on Jason after a brief spring training audition. The stabbing occurred because of an argument over loud music. It sent shockwaves through the baseball community in both Seattle and Netherlands. In 2012, a Dutch court acquitted Jason Halman due to temporary insanity. Psychological assessments determined there was only a remote chance of any reoccurrence.
1 Tommy Hanson (2015)
Tommy Hanson pitched in the majors for five years, splitting time with the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Angels. He had an impressive inaugural season, winning 11 games for the Braves with a 2.89 ERA. He finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Hanson unfortunately regressed every season moving forward. In four seasons with Atlanta, his ERA climbed from 2.89 to 3.33, 3.60 and finally to 4.48. Hanson then started 13 games for the Angels in 2013, finishing with an ERA of 5.42. The poor performances relegated him to the White Sox’s minor league system in 2014, before he spent the second half of the 2015 season with San Francisco’s AAA team. The organization released him from their 40-man roster in early November.
On November 9th, Hanson was taken to hospital in a coma with catastrophic organ failure. He passed away the same night. The autopsy showed that the 29-year-old died from delayed complications of cocaine and alcohol toxicity.