Biggest Tragedies in MLB History
Major League Baseball has seen its share of suffering — on and off the field. Unexpected, tragic events have shocked and saddened the baseball world.
A number of players died before their time. The causes of death were a sudden illness, on-field injury, freak accident or even murder.
These are the biggest tragedies in major league history, and they are a reminder that the game is just a game.
1903: Senators Sluggers Gets Swept Over Niagara Falls
Ed Delahanty was one of baseball's premier early hitters, with a .346 career average, 456 stolen bases and 101 home runs while playing for the Philadelphia Quakers, Cleveland Infants, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators. "Big Ed" hit over .400 three times, leading the major leagues with a .410 average on the Phillies in 1899.
During a series against the Detroit Tigers in July 1903, Delahanty abandoned the Senators and boarded a train from Detroit to New York. He was kicked off the train for intoxication in Ontario, across the Niagara River from Buffalo.
He tried to cross the rail bridge but somehow didn't make it, and the body of one of baseball's most famous players was found below Niagara Falls a week later.
1909: Doc Powers Dies After Surgery for Foul-Pop Collision
Michael "Doc" Powers was a light-hitting catcher who played with the Louisville Colonels, Washington Senators, New York Highlanders and Philadelphia Athletics from 1898 to 1909.
He got his nickname honestly — with a medical degree. In fact, when he caught Jim "Doc" Newton with the Highlanders in 1905, they became the only medically licensed pitcher/catcher combo in major league history.
Powers may be the first MLB player to die due to a game-related injury. During the 1909 opening game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, he chased a foul pop and crashed into a wall, sustaining severe internal injuries.
Powers died a few weeks later after infection from intestinal surgeries.
1911: Meningitis Takes One of Baseball's Best Pitchers
Adrian "Addie" Joss was a dominant early pitcher, throwing the fourth perfect game in baseball history on just 74 pitches and posting a stellar career 1.89 ERA over nine seasons with the Cleveland Bronchos and Naps.
While authoring four straight 20-win seasons, he also served as the Sunday sports editor of the Toledo News-Bee, and he helped develop the electric scoreboard.
Joss started spring training with Cleveland in 1911, but collapsed on the field in Tennessee on April 3.
He traveled back to Toledo, where he was diagnosed with tuberculous meningitis and died on April 14.
1920: Beanball Kills Indians Shortstop
Ray Chapman was a nine-year veteran shortstop with a smooth glove, quick feet and a delicate bat. He set a Cleveland Indians team record with 52 stolen bases in 1917 that held for more than 60 years, and that same year established the MLB standard for sacrifice hits with 67.
Chapman died in 1920, just 12 hours after he was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Yankees hurler Carl Mays.
After Chapman's death, baseball established rules requiring that dirty baseballs be replaced for visibility and banning the spitball.
While individual teams experimented with different types of head protection, batting helmets were not required until the 1950s, and those rules weren’t strictly enforced until the 1970s.
1925: Pilot Pitcher Lost in Fatal Tailspin, Plane Crash
Marv Goodwin was a spitball specialist who pitched for the Washington Senators, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds from 1916 to 1925. He also served as a state-side Army pilot and aviation instructor after enlisting during World War I.
Two weeks after finishing the 1925 season with a complete-game effort for the Reds, while on training exercises with the Army Air Service, Goodwin lost control of the plane he was flying. It went into a tailspin and crashed at Ellington Field in Texas.
Goodwin died from his injuries three days later. He is believed to be the first professional athlete to die in a plane crash.
1932: Fish Fry Ends in Red Sox Pitcher Stab Slay
After a brief stint with the Chicago Cubs, "Big" Ed Morris put up 42 wins against 45 losses pitching with the Boston Red Sox from 1928 to 1931.
At his own going-away fish fry before spring training in 1932, Morris reportedly urinated into a pot full of boiled peanuts, and one of his friends, Joe Nolan, took offense.
A man named Joe White played peacemaker, but the 6-foot-2 Morris couldn't let it go and later started pummeling White, who pulled a knife from his belt and stabbed Morris in the chest.
Morris drove himself to the hospital but died of his wounds. White was convicted of manslaughter but appealed and never spent any time in jail.
1935: Drunken Flight Leads to Death by Fire Extinguisher
Len Koenecke was a three-year major leaguer who didn’t live up to the promise of his stellar minor league power-hitting career.
He spent a season with John McGraw’s New York Giants in 1932, then, after a year in the minors, joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1934, where he posted a .320 average, 73 RBI and a stellar fielding percentage of .994 — just two errors over 318 chances.
But due to a drinking problem and poor performance, manager Casey Stengel cut Koenecke during a road trip to Chicago in 1935. Koenecke got drunk on whiskey during a commercial flight headed back to New York and was shackled and removed from the plane unconscious in Detroit, where he chartered a flight to Toronto and hoped to catch up to the minor league Buffalo Bisons.
During that flight, he got in a fight with the pilot and a passenger, who both hit him over the head with a fire extinguisher to keep him out of the cockpit. Koenecke died on the plane, and while the two men were charged with manslaughter, they were found not liable for his death at trial.
1941: 'The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth' Succumbs to ALS
One of the great players of all time, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig hit for a career average of .340, belted 493 home runs and drove in more than 100 runs in 13 straight seasons.
The Hall of Famer, dubbed "The Iron Horse" through his then-record 2,130 consecutive games played, was forced to retire after he could no longer play through the pain of the rare neuromuscular disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is now often simply referred to as "Lou Gehrig's disease."
At his dramatic farewell address at Yankee Stadium in 1939, the Yankees captain called himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth." It was one of baseball's most emotional moments.
Gehrig succumbed to the disease two years later, in the Bronx in 1941, at the age of 37.
1952: Hall of Fame Shortstop Drowns in Fishing Accident
Joseph "Arky" Vaughan was a Hall of Fame shortstop with a career .318 batting average and 2,103 hits in 1,817 games, playing 10 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates before he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers after the 1941 season.
Vaughan played third in Brooklyn, only moving back to short after Pee Wee Reese was drafted. Disagreements with combustible Dodgers manager Leo Durocher led Vaughan to walk away from the game for three years before coming back to play in 1947 and 1948.
Vaughan was killed four summers later, in 1952, when his fishing boat capsized in Lost Lake, California. He was 40 years old. Troubled Pirates fans often remembered the "Ghost of Arky."
1956: Orioles Catcher Crashes Plane in Chesapeake Bay
Tom Gastall was a Baltimore Orioles catcher who appeared in 52 games with the Birds across two seasons in 1955 and 1956.
A three-sport standout and athlete of the year at Boston University, the Detroit Lions drafted him as a quarterback but he chose baseball instead.
Gastall died in September 1956 while piloting a small plane that crashed in the Chesapeake Bay.
1956: Barrier-Breaking Outfielder Killed in Winter Ball Plane Wreck
Charlie "Mule" Peete was a stocky center fielder who broke the color barrier in the Class B Piedmont League in 1953 and was a Triple-A batting champion in 1956, hitting .350 for the Omaha Cardinals.
He made a month-long appearance with the big club in St. Louis that season and was the Cards’ projected starting center fielder for 1957.
He died with his family in a November 1956 commercial plane crash while flying through a rainstorm to report to the Valencia club in the Venezuelan winter league.
1964: Gold Glove Winner Dies in Snowy Utah Lake Plane Crash
Ken Hubbs was a slick-fielding second baseman for the Chicago Cubs, winning rookie of the year honors and a Gold Glove in 1962 after a quick 10-game call-up to end the 1961 season. He once went an MLB-record 418 chances without an error.
A month after getting his pilot's license in January 1964, Hubbs flew to Utah with a friend. Trying to beat a snowstorm out of Utah, Hubbs and his pal left Provo Airport on the edge of Utah Lake early Feb. 13 on the return flight.
The wreckage of Hubbs' red and white Cessna was found in the lake, just south of nearby Bird Island.
The best defensive second baseman in the game was dead at just 22.
1969: Giants Pitching Prospect Dead After Jet Hits Power Lines
Nicknamed "Latigo" (or "Whip") in Venezuela, Nestor Chavez was a 19-year-old San Francisco Giants prospect who went 1-0 with three strikeouts in 1967.
He was shut down for shoulder surgery and, a year later, was ready to start his rehab when he died in a terrible plane crash in Venezuela.
Flight 742 hit power lines during takeoff in Maracaibo, killing 84 people on the plane and another 71 people on the ground.
Chavez was just 21.
1970: Bathroom Backup Leads to Murder Outside Puerto Rico Bar
Born in the barrio of Loiza Aldea, Puerto Rico, right-handed pitcher Miguel Fuentes made his major league debut with the Seattle Pilots in September 1969 after tearing up the Class A league with a 1.46 ERA in 26 appearances.
In his first start, Aldea beat the Chicago White Sox 5-1, giving up seven hits over a complete game to take the second half of a doubleheader. He ended the year throwing the last-ever Pilots pitches, as the team was slated to move to Milwaukee, where they would become the Brewers in 1970.
During the offseason, Fuentes played winter ball with the Caguas Criollos back home in Puerto Rico. In late January, shortly after the playoffs, Fuentes was relieving himself outside a bar in Loiza Aldea (there were plumbing problems inside) when he was shot by another patron who had parked nearby.
Aldea died in a local hospital. He was 23.
1970: Twins Speedster Drowns Off Coast of Venezuela
Herman Hill was a speedy outfield prospect from New Jersey who first broke into the big leagues as a pinch runner for Billy Martin's Twins in 1969.
Hill split time with the Triple-A Evansville Triplets and the Twins in 1970, collecting just two singles against the Royals on June 29. He only registered 24 at-bats with the Twins, and those were the only hits of his major league career.
In December 1970, Hill drowned while swimming off the coast of Venezuela, where he was playing winter ball.
1972: Roberto Clemente Dies in Charity Mission Plane Crash
Roberto Clemente was a trailblazing 12-time All-Star outfielder who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 years. A four-time NL batting champ and the 1966 NL MVP, Clemente was the first Latin American to win the World Series MVP Award, hitting .414 as the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 Fall Classic.
A native of Puerto Rico, Clemente was heavily involved in charity work, and after a massive earthquake hit Managua, Nicaragua, just two days before Christmas in 1972, Clemente chartered a plane to fly in relief supplies. The New Year’s Eve flight was severely overloaded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean after takeoff off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Clemente died at the age of 38, and his career ended with a .317 batting average and exactly 3,000 hits. In 1973, he became the first Latin American enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
1976: Fatal Accident Kills Bob Moose En Route to Birthday Golf Outing
Bob Moose was a 10-year veteran pitcher who spent his whole career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
His best season came in 1969, when he ran his record to 14-3 on a 2.91 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 170 innings, even tossing a Sept. 20 no-hitter against the eventual World Champion "Miracle" Mets.
Moose was killed in an offseason car accident on his 29th birthday in October 1976, while heading to play golf at former teammate Bill Mazeroski's course in Ohio.
1977: Dune Buggy Flips, Killing Brewers Pitcher
Danny Frisella was a forkballing relief pitcher who debuted with the New York Mets in 1967. His best season came in 1971 when he split closing duties with Tug McGraw, pitching to a 1.99 ERA with 12 saves across 53 appearances.
Frisella was traded to the Atlanta Braves and later pitched for the San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, where he led the team with nine saves over half a season in 1976.
Frisella was killed in a dune buggy accident on New Year's Day 1977, just 50 yards from his home in Arizona, when a friend lost control and the buggy flipped.
His son was born that March, on what would have been Frisella's 31st birthday.
1978: Budding Star Gunned Down at Red Light
Lyman Bostock was a promising young outfielder who played for the Minnesota Twins and California Angels, putting up a .311 batting average over four seasons. In 1977, he finished second only to Rod Carew’s .388 average in the AL batting race.
After playing a game in Chicago with a week to go in the 1978 season, he visited friends and relatives in nearby Indiana, and was in the back seat of his uncle’s car sitting next to a woman. While his uncle was driving home, the woman’s estranged husband pulled up next to them at a stoplight and opened fire, killing Bostock.
The woman, Barbara Smith, survived with minor pellet wounds. Gunman Leonard Smith was twice tried for murder, arguing both times that his wife had been unfaithful and that had driven him insane.
After the first trial resulted in a hung jury, Smith was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was released less than a year later after psychiatrists found that he was no longer mentally ill, and outrage over the case led to changes in Indiana’s insanity laws.
1979: Plane Crash Kills Yankee Captain in Ohio
Over 11 seasons with the New York Yankees, catcher Thurman Munson was a slick-fielding seven-time All-Star who hit over .300 five times.
The former rookie of the year — named team captain and AL MVP in 1976 — was behind the dish for the Yanks as they won the 1977 "Bronx is burning" World Series and squeezed a Ron Cey foul pop behind home plate for the final out as the Bronx Bombers beat the Dodgers again in the 1978 Fall Classic.
On an off-day during the 1979 season, Munson was practicing landings in his private Cessna at an Ohio airstrip when he clipped a tree and crashed short of the runway. He broke his neck and died of asphyxiation at the age of 32.
The day after his death, the Yankee Stadium faithful paid tribute with an eight-minute standing ovation for the fallen superstar, and the Yankees immediately retired his number 15.
1979: Luke Easter Slain by Shotgun-Toting Robbers
In August 1949 at age 34, Luscious "Luke" Easter became the 11th African-American to play modern Major League Baseball, and the fourth to join the Cleveland Indians, following Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Minnie Minoso.
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Easter was a power-hitting first baseman whose tape-measure "Easter Eggs" were legendary. While with the Homestead Grays of the Negro leagues, he hit the first home run into the center-field bleachers 475 feet from home plate at New York's Polo Grounds in 1948.
Easter played with the Indians until 1954, and, after leg injuries slowed him, toiled in the minor leagues until he was 48.
After baseball, Easter worked in the Cleveland area as a union steward. He was murdered in 1979 while transporting payroll checks — shot at close range by two shotgun-wielding robbers.
1993: Indians Teammates Die as Boat Slams Dock on Private Lake
Cleveland Indians teammates Tim Crews, Steve Olin and Bobby Ojeda had one day off from spring training in March 1993, and the three pitchers spent it with barbecue and horseback riding.
Olin was a submarine-style closer coming off his best season in 1992. Crews had just joined the Indians after six seasons as a Dodger. Ojeda was a World Series champ with the 1986 Mets looking to regain past magic with Cleveland.
That night, they went boating, looking for alligators on a private Florida lake along with a strength coach and one of Crews' neighbors when the unthinkable happened. Their bass boat plowed into a 185-foot long unlighted wooden dock.
Olin was killed instantly. Crews suffered a massive head injury and died the next morning. Ojeda, who said he had been slumped down in his seat, survived with a concussion and a severe laceration that cost him four pints of blood.
Ojeda returned to the Indians to start seven games later that season, but he was never the same. He pitched three innings with the Yankees in 1994 before retiring.
2002: Road Trip Heart Attack Kills Pitcher in Hotel Room
Darryl Kile was a power pitcher who recorded 133 wins across parts of 11 seasons with the Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. He was a three-time All-Star who tossed a no-hitter against the New York Mets in September 1993 and won 20 games in 2000.
On June 18, 2002, he went more than seven innings, scattering six hits in a win over the Anaheim Angels that put the Cardinals in first place in the NL Central. It was his last start.
Four days later, when Kile didn't show up for warmups at Wrigley Field, he was found dead in bed in his Chicago hotel room. He had suffered a heart attack, and died at age 33.
2003: Prospect Dies of Spring Training Heat Stroke
Steve Bechler was a right-handed pitcher who had a cup of coffee with the Baltimore Orioles in 2002, recording three strikeouts. He collapsed on the field and died of heat stroke at the age of 23 during training camp the next spring.
Bechler, who weighed roughly 230 pounds, was taking the dietary supplement ephedra in an effort to lose weight. He collapsed in February 2003 during Orioles conditioning drills, his body temperature reportedly rising as high as 108 degrees.
MLB and the FDA both banned ephedra later that year, and Nutraquest, the company that manufactured it, filed for bankruptcy.
Bechler’s daughter was born two months after his death.
2003: Reds Prospect Murdered During Fall League
Dernell Stenson, the son of a Georgia lumberjack, was a third-round pick in the 1996 draft of the Boston Red Sox.
The left-handed outfielder got called up to play pro ball with the Cincinnati Reds in 2003, putting up three home runs in 81 at-bats in late-summer and early fall action before heading to the Arizona Fall League and the Scottsdale Scorpions.
That November, in Chandler, Arizona, Stenson was tied up, shot in the chest and head, and run over with his own car. He was 25.
Four men were arrested in the murder/robbery. David Griffith was sentenced to life in prison, Reginald Riddle was sentenced to 25 years to life, and Kevin Riddle got almost nine years. But charges against Robert Maye were dropped because he was a protected federal witness in a Chicago gang-based case.
2006: Yankees Pitcher Killed as Plane Slams Into New York City Apartment Building
Cory Lidle was a control specialist who featured a sinking fastball and a big, slow breaking ball. He played with seven teams in a nine-year career, last pitching for the New York Yankees in a playoff loss to the Detroit Tigers on Oct. 7, 2006.
Four days later, while flying his own small Cessna over New York City’s East River, Lidle and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, were killed when their small plane crashed into the 40th and 41st floors of the Belaire apartment complex on E. 72d Street while attempting a 180-degree turn in windy conditions.
Lidle was 34.
2007: Cardinals Pitcher Dead in Texting/DUI Crash
Josh Hancock was a right-handed pitcher who threw for four teams over parts of six major league seasons, winning a World Series after throwing 77 innings over 62 relief appearances with the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals.
A few weeks after seeing the championship banner raised in St. Louis, Hancock died in a car crash just past midnight on April 29, 2007. He was 29.
Police reports indicated that Hancock was texting while driving drunk when his Explorer hit a parked tow truck.
After the accident, a number of MLB teams banned alcohol in the clubhouse.
2009: Drunk Driver Kills Angels Hopeful in Hit and Run
Nick Adenhart was an up-and-coming pitcher with the California Angels who recorded a single win in early 2008 before heading back to the minors. But the 22-year-old right-hander made the starting rotation out of camp in 2009 and threw six innings of shutout baseball in a no-decision on April 8. Hours later, he was dead.
Adenhart was a passenger in a gray Mitsubishi Eclipse that was smashed by a drunk driver in a red minivan just after midnight on April 9 in Fullerton, California. The Eclipse crashed into a telephone pole, and Adenhart and his friends, driver Henry Pearson and cheerleader Courtney Stewart, died at the scene.
Andrew Gallo, the drunk driver, fled but was caught and convicted of three counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 51 years to life in prison.
2011: Insanity Plea Lets Killer of Player (Who Was His Brother) Go Free
In 2003, Greg Halman made the pros at the tender age of 16 — with the Dutch major league baseball team Corendon Kinheim.
He signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners a year later and worked his way through the farm system (once earning player of the year honors) to earn a quick call-up at the end of the 2010 season.
The dual-threat outfielder made it back to the big team the next June and hit his first major league home run. But after reaching that lifelong dream, Halman was stabbed to death in Rotterdam at the age of 24 that November.
The killer? His brother. Jason Halman, it was later ruled, killed Greg in a marijuana-induced psychosis. A Dutch court acquitted him on the basis of temporary insanity and allowed him to go free.
2014: Cardinals Phenom, Girlfriend Die in Dominican Crash
Oscar Taveras was a minor league star. He won two batting titles and was named player of the year in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2012.
Dubbed "El Fenomeno," Taveras belted a home run against the San Francisco Giants in his big-league debut in May 2014 and played 80 games with the Cardinals that year. The budding young star's last hit came in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, a home run against the San Francisco Giants.
Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, died in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic later that month. He was 22.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura paid tribute to Taveras, inking "RIP O.T. #18" on his cap during Game 6 of the 2014 World Series.
2016: Marlins Star Jose Fernandez Dead as Boat Flips Off Miami Beach
As a child, Jose Fernandez and his family tried to defect from Cuba three times, and three times, he was jailed.
In 2008, after a dramatic voyage where the teen rescued his mother when she fell overboard, the family finally made it to the United States.
Eight years later, in 20016, the new American citizen was Major League Baseball’s brightest young star, just 24 years old and nearing the end of the second All-Star season of his four-year career with the Miami Marlins when he was killed along with two friends as their boat flipped off Miami Beach.
The accident occurred early on a September Sunday morning — Fernandez, who had already recorded a Marlins’ season-record 253 strikeouts, was slated to pitch against the Mets the next day.
Fernandez won 38 of his 76 major league starts, pitching to a 2.58 ERA and recording 589 strikeouts in just 471 innings. He was most at home in Miami, where he owned an astounding 29-2 record.
2017: Winter Ball Teammates Killed in Separate Car Wrecks on Same Day
Yordano Ventura was a flame-throwing starting pitcher with the Kansas City Royals whose fastball was clocked as high as 102 mph. He was the Royals' 2015 Opening Day starter and won the World Series with them that year, going 13-8 with 156 strikeouts.
Ventura was home in the Dominican Republic, where he played winter ball with Aguilas Cibaenas, during the offseason in January 2017 when he flipped his Jeep on a curvy road. He was thrown from the vehicle and died before help could arrive. He was 25.
Former Major League third baseman Andy Marte, who had MLB stints with the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and Arizona Diamondbacks, was Ventura's teammate in the Dominican. In a bizarre twist, Marte died in a separate car crash the same day, plowing into a house. He was 33.
2018: Bandits Loot Overturned Car as Teammates Die in Crash
Jose Castillo spent parts of five seasons as an infielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros. Luis Valbuena played 11 seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs, Astros and Los Angeles Angels.
In December 2018, both men were playing for the Lara Cardinals of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, driving back from Caracas after a win, when they were killed in a car accident in Yaracuy, Venezuela.
Their car overturned when the driver tried to avoid something in the road, and the car was looted after the accident. Castillo was 37. Valbuena was 33.
2019: Opioid Painkiller Epidemic Takes
Tyler Skaggs pitched seven seasons in the majors and was one of the most popular players on the Los Angeles Angeles when he was found dead in his hotel room in Southlake, Texas, on July 1, 2019, during a road trip.
The 27-year-old left-hander from Santa Monica, California, went 28-38 with a 4.41 ERA in 96 career starts and was just coming into his own on the mound. An autopsy found that he choked to death on his own vomit while under the influence of fentanyl, oxycodone and alcohol.
An Angels employee, Eric Kay, the team's director of communication, admitted to providing Skaggs with oxycodone for years and also claimed that five other Angel players abused opioids. Criminal charges and civil litigation may follow, and MLB will have to deal with a possible opioid addiction problem.