MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Remembering players, pioneers we lost in '16

Remembering players, pioneers we lost in '16

Today, we pause to remember those we said goodbye to in 2016 -- to the players and pioneers who will live in our hearts and minds forever, to those who thrilled us and to those who made us laugh or think.

Baseball was better because of men like Monte Irvin and Joe Garagiola Sr. and Ralph Branca. All of them lived long, rich lives with grace, warmth and dignity, and all of them will be missed.

Their lives stand in contrast to Jose Fernandez. He left us at 24, but his laughter and smile flashed through the Marlins' clubhouse from the moment he arrived as a 20-year-old in 2013 and began lighting up radar guns. He died in a boating accident in September, leaving a hole in the hearts of those who knew him best.

We also remember those in baseball who spent decades behind the scenes and did their part to make the game what it is today.

They would all understand that baseball has the power to get into your being. Some of it is the timeless beauty. Some of it is the memories of the people with whom you shared those hours at the ballpark.

No one ever understood this better than Garagiola, who was 90 when he died in March. He played nine seasons, but his real fame came afterwards when he rose to the highest levels of broadcasting in America.

In Memoriam: Joe Garagiola

Garagiola worked hundreds of baseball games, but he did other things, too, like anchoring both the Today Show and Tonight Show. He did it by being himself. He could talk to baseball players or actors or presidents and made all of them feel as if the time he spent with them was the best time of his day.

Garagiola used that fame to make the world a better place. His most passionate cause was warning players of the dangers of smokeless tobacco and helping them kick the addiction.

In retirement in Arizona, Garagiola continued to follow the game he loved. Until his last days, he would stop in at Chase Field or sit in front of a television to watch, cheer and second-guess umpires, managers, etc.

Irvin had some of that same passion. He, too, loved people. He lived until 96 and never seemed to have a bad day. When word got out that Branch Rickey was ready to find a player to break baseball's color line, several Negro League owners recommended Irvin as the guy with the temperament and talent to do it.

Rickey settled on Jackie Robinson, but Irvin joined the New York Giants two years later, in 1949, playing his first game at age 30. He was part of history when Giants manger Leo Durocher started baseball's first all-black outfield: Irvin, Willie Mays and Hank Thompson.

In Memoriam: Monte Irvin

On Oct. 3, 1951, Irvin had a front-row seat for one of the most famous moments in baseball history. It was the third and deciding game of a Giants-Dodgers playoff for the National League pennant.

The Dodgers had a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning when the first two Giants got hits. Irvin then fouled out to first base for what would be the only out of the inning.

Irvin was back in the dugout two batters later when Bobby Thomson's three-run home run won the game -- and the NL pennant -- 5-4.

Branca had thrown the pitch Thomson hit. That would be the defining moment of a 12-season career in which he made three NL All-Star teams (1947-49).

Branca came to suspect that the Giants were guilty of stealing signs and that Thomson had known what pitch Branca would throw (Thomson denied it). And yet, Branca simply was not obsessed with bitterness or anger. He had competed at the highest level, and he had had good moments and some not-so-good moments.

In Memoriam: Ralph Branca

Branca spent 11 of his 12 Major League seasons with the Dodgers, and rather than dwell on the moment others remembered him for, he was forever proud of his association with Robinson and the other Boys of Summer. He understood that he'd been blessed to be part of a special franchise and a special time in baseball history.

One thing those three men -- Garagiola, Irvin and Branca -- had in common was a passion for living. All were amazing storytellers. All of them saw each day as the next great adventure in their remarkable lives.

You could walk Garagiola down any road, and he'd take it from there with stories of people ranging from his buddy Yogi Berra to Johnny Carson. Branca and Irvin were like that, too, with stories of dugouts and clubhouses and laughter.

That brings us back to Fernandez. We will forever be left to wonder what his life might have been. To die at 24 seems so unfair, so incomprehensible.

This we know: In his four seasons and 76 starts, Fernandez defined greatness. He had a blazing fastball and a raging competitive fire.

In Memoriam: Jose Fernandez

People liked Fernandez. He stepped into the Marlins' clubhouse, and the laughter filled the room.

Fernandez's emotions were right there for the world to see, and sometimes opponents took offense. His teammates and managers loved him. They loved that he mostly seemed like a happy kid who was soaking up the good life in a free world.

That no one on the Marlins will again wear Fernandez's No. 16 seems appropriate. He's a cautionary tale on so many levels. In the end, though, he was a bright and shining light extinguished too soon.

Of course, Branca, Irvin, Fernandez and Garagiola were not the only important folks we lost in 2016. We also remember:

Luis Arroyo (died age 88)
Two-time All-Star relief ace who saved 13 of Whitey Ford's 25 wins in 1961 on the way to a World Series title with the Yankees.

Eddie Carnett (100)
Versatile outfielder, infielder and pitcher during the 1940s who was the oldest living former Major Leaguer before his passing.

Choo-Choo Coleman (80)
Catcher for the lovable 1962 expansion New York Mets.

Jim Davenport (82)
Infielder on inaugural San Francisco Giants club in 1958 who became a beloved figure after more than 50 years as a player, coach and manager in the organization.

Sammy Ellis (75)
All-Star pitcher for the Reds who later became revered pitching coach for five Major League clubs.

Dave Ferriss (94)
All-Star ace who led Red Sox to 1946 World Series before later capturing 639 wins as the baseball coach at Delta State University.

Shannon Forde (44)
Senior director of media relations for the Mets and pioneer for women in the field. She passed away in March after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Russ Gabay (59)
MLB's vice president and executive producer of international broadcasting for the last 20 years. He died of a heart attack in November.

Doug Griffin (69)
Gold Glove Award-winning second baseman for Red Sox whose career ended prematurely after being struck in the head by a pitch from Nolan Ryan.

Jim Ray Hart (74)
Third baseman of the Giants for a decade and one of only 21 players to record at least six RBIs in one inning.

Jim Hickman (79)
First Mets player to hit for the cycle and last to homer at the Polo Grounds in 1963; later earned an All-Star nod as slugger for the Cubs.

Susanne Hilgefort (48)
One of MLB's longest-tenured employees, she died in plane crash this past July. She was a person of energy and ideas who played a key role in making baseball on television the art form it is today.

W. P. Kinsella (81)
Author of "Shoeless Joe," the novel that later became the inspiration for the popular film "Field of Dreams."

Turk Lown (92)
Celebrated right-handed reliever for the 1959 American League-champion "Go Go" White Sox and Purple Heart recipient for his heroics in World War II's Battle of the Bulge.

Dick McAuliffe (76)
Longtime big league infielder known for his unconventional batting stance. He paced the AL with 95 runs while helping the Tigers to World Series crown in 1968.

Tom Mee (88)
First hired employee of the Minnesota Twins in 1960 who went on to lead organization's public relations department for 30 years.

Carl Miles (98)
Pitcher for the Philadelphia A's in 1940 who was the second-oldest living former Major Leaguer before his passing.

Russ Nixon (81)
Former Major League catcher who went on to manage the Reds and Braves as part of 55-year career in professional baseball.

Milt Pappas (76)
Starter who won 209 big league games while also falling just one strike shy of a perfect game in an eventual no-hitter for the Cubs in 1972.

Tony Phillips (56)
Versatile leadoff man who played 18 Major League seasons and helped Oakland A's capture 1989 World Series title.

Lucille Richards (90)
Shortstop for the Racine Belles and South Bend Blue Sox of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Craig Sager (65)
Colorful television reporter and later inspirational figure for his impassioned fight against leukemia. He was among the first to interview Hank Aaron when he broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.

John Saunders (61)
Longtime reporter and studio host for ESPN, including Baseball Tonight in the 1990s.

Tom Singer (67)
Longtime beat writer for Angels, Pirates and national columnist for MLB.com whose celebrated career lasted more than four decades. He was one of the first journalists hired by MLB.com and someone known at every level of the game for his knowledge and sense of humor.

Mark Smith (41)
A's Minor League video coordinator who was instrumental in creation of the department in 2009.

George Spelius (83)
Co-founder of the Beloit Snappers Minor League club and former president of the Midwest League for nearly 30 years.

Frank Sullivan (85)
Two-time All-Star pitcher (1955-56) and member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Walt "No Neck" Williams (72)
Hard-charging, free-swinging outfielder who became favorite among White Sox fans.

John Young (67)
Founded Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a youth baseball program designed to bring African-American kids back to the sport. First-round Draft choice of Tigers in 1969. RBI alums include CC Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins, Coco Crisp, Carl Crawford, Justin Upton, Yovani Gallardo and Melvin Upton Jr.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.