10/13/2006 5:48 PM ET
Lidle's not alone
Historian Frank Russo discusses tragic MLB deaths
By Joey Wahler / SNY.tv
Daryl Kile was the most recent untimely Major League Baseball death before the tragic Cory Lidle accident. (AP)

Like so many, Yankees fan and New Jerseyan Frank Russo was shaken upon learning that Cory Lidle was killed Tuesday in an airplane crash.

Russo is also a historian on the causes of death of Major League Baseball players, and he's the author of a new book, Bury My Heart at Cooperstown: Salacious, Sad and Surreal Deaths in the History of Baseball. Russo's website, TheDeadballEra.com, has a tribute to Lidle.

The circumstances of Lidle's death put it among Baseball's most newsworthy and tragic, Russo says.

"Of all the players who have died, I think that his death ranks right up there," Russo said. "It was so shocking."

Aside from Thurman Munson's fatal plane crash on August 2, 1979, legendary former Yankee manager and player Billy Martin was killed in a car accident on Christmas Day 1989 in upstate New York.

The oddest accidental death of a Yankee was that of George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss, killed six years after his baseball retirement, on September 15, 1958. A two-time Yankee All-Star catcher (1945-46), Stirnweiss was a Bomber from 1943-50.

"Sternweiss was traveling aboard a Jersey Central train," Russo said. "And the train was about to cross over a lift bridge between Port Elizabeth and Bayonne, New Jersey. The conductor of the train had a heart attack and the bridge was knocked down.

"And unfortunately the train went through several signals and plunged into Raritan Bay. And Snuffy Stirnweiss actually wound up drowning on a train with a half a dozen other people. He was only 40 years old, and he left six children."

Among those who've played for the Mets, Danny Frisella's cause of death is most unusual. A righty Mets reliever in the early 1970's, Frisella was teammates with relief ace Tug McGraw. Frisella relied on his curveball, while McGraw, a big jokester, had his famed screwball.

"They would both get up to start warming up," Russo said. "And Tug would say, 'You curve 'em and I'll screw 'em.'"

Friscella was traded to Atlanta after the 1972 season in one of the best Mets deals ever. Frisella and pitcher Gary Gentry were swapped for second baseman Felix Millan and pitcher George Stone. Gentry suffered arm trouble, while Millan and Stone helped the Mets win the 1973 National League Championship.

On New Year's Day of 1977, Friscella was killed in a dune buggy accident in Phoenix at age 30.

"The dune buggy rolled over and he broke his neck," Russo said. "It was terrible."

After managing the Miracle Mets to the 1969 World Championship, Gil Hodges was preparing for his fourth season at the helm during spring training in 1972. A massive heart attack took the former Brooklyn Dodger on April 2, two days shy of his 47th birthday.

"He had just gotten done playing golf," Russo said. "Here's a guy who was in his forties. Here's a guy who was as strong as an ox, a former United States Marine and everything. And he suddenly just dies.

"Nobody expects somebody who's that big and strong, and young and healthy to pass away like that."

Righty pitcher Rick Anderson was the Yankees' first-round draft pick in 1972, chosen fifth in the country. He pitched just one game for the Yanks in 1979, and just six total big league games. He's not the same Rick Anderson who pitched for the Mets during the 1980's and is now the Minnesota Twins pitching coach.

On June 23, 1989, Anderson died of a heart attack in Wilmington, Calif. Neither his career nor cause of death is noteworthy, but at least one fan considered him special, based on something found on him when he died.

"He had gained a lot of weight over the years," Russo said. "And they found him in his trailer home slumped over. But he was holding a letter asking him for an autograph."

Of course, other teams have been hit hard by premature deaths. In recent years they include St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, found dead in his Chicago hotel room on June 22, 2002, from a narrowing of the arteries supplying his heart muscle.

About a year after retiring from his two-time All-Star catching career, mainly with the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds, Bo Diaz was killed on November 23, 1990 at age 37.

"He was putting up a satellite dish down in Venezuela and it fell on him, and crushed his head and crushed his skull," Russo said. This was pre-DirectTV, "And it was one of those massive, gigantic, solid steel satellite dishes."

Major League Baseball's only in-season suicide was by Reds catcher Willard Hershberger, a backup to Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi. In 1940, Hershberger blamed himself for a loss to the Boston Braves in Beantown.

On August 3, the 30 year old had locked himself in his apartment, Russo says, "And they find that Hershberger's slumped over a bathtub. He had slit his own throat, and he was very meticulous about it.

"He didn't want to get any mess all over the floor. He had laid newspapers out and everything. And he killed himself because he couldn't take the pressure of Major League Baseball."

By far, Russo says, the former player whose gravesite is visited most is Babe Ruth, who's buried in Hawthorne, Westchester County.

"Everybody goes there," Russo said. "People leave all kinds of artifacts and everything. Basically have left cases of beer there, food. And women leave their undergarments, which is kind of funny."

On a serious note, Russo says fans should learn a valuable lesson from Lidle's death.

"Baseball players are humans, and they're not these cardboard cutouts or robots that we make them out to be," Russo said. "Fans don't look at ballplayers as human beings.

"And unfortunately, it takes something like this to come to light and get it in people's heads, 'Hey, you know what? These are ballplayers, but they're also human beings.'"

Joey Wahler is a contributor to SNY.tv.
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