1. Lou Gehrig: Gehrig’s consecutive games streak ended in May 1939 after he was diagnosed with a terminal disease later named after him. Gehrig was dead in two years, though not before the Yankees honored him with Lou Gehrig Day on July 4, 1939. The image of Gehrig standing before microphones, teammates, and more than 70,000 fans is one of the most moving in baseball history. His words: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
2. Roberto Clemente: The not-too-distant runner up here to Gehrig, Clemente’s death might be most heroic. Months after getting his 3,000th and final hit, Clemente was killed in a New Years Eve 1972 crash of a plane overloaded with relief supplies for earthquake victims. As it did with Gehrig, the Hall of Fame waived its five-year waiting period to immediately induct Clemente.
3. Christy Matthewson: The Hall of Fame pitcher and New York Giants legend died of tuberculosis at 45 in 1925, seven years after his lungs were seared with poison gas in a drill during World War I. Flags flew at half-staff at ballparks around the country after Matthewson’s death, and in 1936, he was the only deceased person among the first five players voted into Cooperstown.
4. Josh Gibson: Considered the black Babe Ruth, Gibson longed to be the first black player in the majors. But as the years passed, Gibson’s drinking worsened, and his physical and mental health deteriorated. He died of a stroke at 35 in January 1947, months after Branch Rickey signed black prospects Jackie Robinson and John Wright for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
5. Ray Chapman: The Cleveland Indians shortstop took a Carl Mays submarine fastball to his temple in August 1920, collapsed after two steps toward first base, and never regained consciousness. He remains the only Major League ballplayer to die in the line of duty.
6. Addie Joss: Joss was an ace Deadball Era pitcher for the Cleveland Indians who died in 1911 at 31 of meningitis. After Joss’s death, ballplayers arranged an All Star game for his widow’s benefit and raised $11,000, an early effort at organizing. Decades later, the Veterans Committee enshrined Joss.
7-8. Thurman Munson, Darryl Kile: Yankee captain Munson died in a plane crash in August 1979 at 32. Kile died in his sleep at the Cardinals team hotel in June 2002, hours before he was to pitch. After each player’s death, the Hall of Fame waived its five-year waiting period, though neither man came close to being enshrined.
9. Lyman Bostock: A promising 27-year-old outfielder for the California Angels and a finalist in the 1977 American League batting race, Bostock was shot to death in September 1978, as he rode in the back seat of a car in Gary, Indiana. Seemingly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Bostock was shot by the estranged husband of a woman he was sitting next to who he’d met 20 minutes before, hours after a game against the White Sox.
10. Kirby Puckett: During his career, press and fans viewed Puckett as a lovable figure, “the closest thing to a smurf,” as Sports Illustrated noted. That image imploded after Puckett was accused of sexual assault, and while he was later vindicated, the damage was permanent. He ballooned to 300 pounds, developed hypertension, and died of a stroke at 45 in 2006.
(Editor’s note: Links to each player’s obituary on TheDeadBallEra.com are provided, as available.)