There must be baseball in heaven, for God has recently seen fit to call home five personalities to staff the League of the Great Beyond: a Major League broadcaster, an active player, two old-timers and a Japanese character who parleyed a boyhood fascination with American baseball into a career as an international promoter of the game.
First there was long-time St. Louis Cardinals play-by-play announcer Jack Buck who died June 18 at the age of 77. Buck was also the NFL Monday Night Football radio announcer for a number of years, teaming with Hank Stram on CBS.
Jack will be missed, but his son, Joe Buck, carries on as one of the top telecasters in the majors, doing Big League games on the Fox Network nationally and as a regular on games involving the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix.
Then on June 22, suddenly went Darryl Kyle, 33-year-old Cardinals pitcher in his prime, leaving a wife and two small kids. Hiroshima Carp lefthander Rigo Beltran, hearing the news of Kyle’s death while in Sapporo for a series against the Tokyo Giants, recalled his ex-teammate and friend.
“We were together with the Colorado Rockies, and he showed me his curve ball,” said Beltran. “It’s really sad.” Kyle was said to have arguably the best breaking ball in the Majors.
July 5 saw the passing of Ted Williams, the last .400 hitter, at the age of 83. The statistics of Williams’ phenomenal playing career have been well-documented, and a footnote to his biography would include the fact he was the last Washington Senators manager in 1971 and the first Texas Rangers field boss in 1972. But he could not win with the franchise in D.C. or the Lone Star State.
Sadly, his family is arguing over whether or not the body of the “Splendid Splinter” should be frozen.
On June 30, the death of Pete Gray was reported in Nanticoke, Pa., his hometown. Gray, son of a coal miner, died at 87 and will always be remembered as the one-armed outfielder who played in the American League with the St. Louis Browns in 1945 when there was a shortage of major league players during World War II.
A 1986 made-for-TV movie about his life, “The Pete Gray Story, A Winner Never Quits,” is inspirational and stars Keith Carradine as Pete, Dennis Weaver as Gray’s father and Mare Winning-ham as Pete’s girl. Great family entertainment.
Finally, at least for a while we hope, the No. 1 Japanese expert on Major League Baseball, Kazuo “Pancho” Ito, died in Tokyo on July 4 after a long illness. He was 68. A former public relations director for Japan’s Pacific League and later a media personality on radio, TV and in Japan’s sports newspapers, Pancho enjoyed a career that spanned more than 40 years.
A friend to all in the baseball world, Pancho knew the players, owners, general managers, umpires, managers and coaches of all the major league clubs. He recognized the attraction of North American Big League ball long before the likes of Hideo Nomo and Ichiro (Suzuki) made the National and American Leagues popular in this country.
Though he stood only about 4 feet, 10 inches tall, Pancho was a giant in international baseball circles. He grew up here following the Majors (and learning English) while listening to games via the American Forces’ Far East Network radio station, often in bed in the middle of the night.
Ito’s death made the front pages of two of Japan’s national sports newspapers, and baseball greats, including former Yomiuri Giants superstar player and manager Shigeo Nagashima, gathered to pay their respects at Pancho’s wake and funeral in Tokyo on July 8-9.
On display at the Zojo-ji Temple in Shiba were selections from Pancho’s collection of Major League team jackets, and some from the World Series, MLB All-Star Games and other international events. The background music, most unusual for a Japanese memorial service, included soft renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.”
Heaven’s baseball wing has been expanded to include this quintet of men who loved the game and made major contributions to it.
All will be missed.