Henry Aaron made history with one bat. A year later and across Georgia, Lee Elder made history with a single blow from his driver.
They have both overcome racist threats to reach milestones that will always be part of sporting tradition. “Hammerin ‘Hank” supplanted Babe Ruth at the top of baseball’s home run list and Elder became the first black golfer to play in the Masters.
Their deaths in 2021 were mourned beyond the world of sport and served as a reminder of the hatred, hardships and obstacles they endured with dignity on their way to breaking records and barriers.
The sports world has also lost quadruple Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, top-flight NBA superstar Elgin Baylor, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, popular college football coach Bobby Bowden and the controversial Kentucky Derby Medina Spirit winner.
John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach turned host whose exuberant calls combined with straightforward explanations provided a weekly soundtrack to NFL games for three decades, has died three days after Christmas. He coached the Raiders for the Super Bowl title after the 1976 season.
Aaron will always be remembered for hitting his 715th home run on April 8, 1974 at Atlanta Stadium to break Ruth’s record of 714. Aaron ended his Hall of Fame career with 755 home runs, a record that was eclipsed by Barry Bonds in 2007. Some baseball fans consider Aaron to be the true king of the home run due to allegations that Bonds used performance enhancing substances.
Aaron received numerous hate mail as he got closer to Ruth’s cherished record, largely because he was black. Although he treated the threats with stoic dignity, Aaron kept the hate letters and never forgot the abuse he faced.
“If I were white all of America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am black.”
Aaron passed away in January and the Braves have honored him all season long, including painting his No.44 on center-field grass at Truist Stadium for the World Series, which they won in six games against the Astros. Houston.
A year after Aaron’s historic Atlanta swing, Elder took a historic swing with his driver at Augusta National when he became the first black golfer to play in the Masters, helping to open doors for Tiger Woods and others.
The Masters was an entirely white tournament until Elder received an invitation in 1975 after winning the Monsanto Open the year before. He missed the cut in his first Masters, but became a revolutionary figure in a sport never known for racial tolerance. Twenty-two years later, Woods became the first black golfer to don a green jacket.
Elder developed his game during times of apartheid while carting and rushing for tricks in his native Texas. He was said to have received death threats at the 1975 Masters that shocked him so much that he rented two houses in Augusta so no one really knew where he was going to spend the week.
At this year’s Masters, Elder was invited to strike an opening ceremonial tee shot alongside greats Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Elder wasn’t well enough to take a swing, but he briefly stood up and lifted his driver up while acknowledging the cheers from the gallery.
The football world has recalled how Sam “Bam” Cunningham, an All-America full-back in Southern California, helped open doors for black athletes in the South. A member of the all-black USC backfield, Cunningham was so dominant during his college debut during the Trojans rout in Alabama in 1970 that he influenced Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant to recruit more black players and accelerate the integration of sport in the South. . Cunningham pursued a successful NFL career with the New England Patriots.
Al Unser was the third member of one of America’s most accomplished racing families to die in 2021, after his older brother Bobby, three-time Indy champion, and Bobby Unser Jr. Known as “Big Al “After his son also became a racing star, Unser was one of four drivers who won the Indy 500 four times, with victories in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987. Unser was the only one. pilot of the story to have a brother and a son who also won at Indy. Bobby Unser won at Indy in 1968, 1975, and 1981.
Lasorda was the fiery Hall of Fame manager who spent a total of 71 seasons with the Dodgers, Brooklyn and Los Angeles, as a player, coach and manager for 21 years. He led Los Angeles to World Series titles in 1981 and 1988, and loved to say, “I’m bleeding Blue Dodger.” At 93, he had been the longest-serving member of the Hall of Fame alive.
Baseball has lost three notable former players, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, Ray Fosse and JR Richard. Sutton won 324 games with five teams. Fosse was the strong-arm catcher whose career was turned upside down when he was knocked down by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game and later was a beloved broadcaster with the Oakland Athletics. Richard was an intimidating right-hander for the Houston Astros in the late 1970s before suffering a stroke in the 1980 season that ended his big-league career.
At 100, Eddie Robinson was the oldest surviving major league player. He has spent more than six decades in professional baseball, most notably as general manager of Atlanta and Texas. Baltimore fans mourned the loss of Joe Altobelli, who led the Orioles to the 1983 World Series title.
Baylor is remembered for bringing an innovative aerial style to the NBA and was the Lakers’ first superstar in Los Angeles. Although he never won a championship, his silky sweater and flowing athleticism took him to 11 All-Star and Hall of Fame games and helped revolutionize the game with a style that set the tone for modern players. He teamed up with Jerry West in one of the most powerful tandems in hoop history.
West once called Baylor “one of the most spectacular shooters the world has ever seen”. The Lakers honored him with a statue outside Staples Center in 2018. He also spent 22 and a half years as general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The NBA also remembered Paul Westphal, a Hall of Fame player who won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 1974 and later coached in the league and in college, and Mark Eaton, who used his 7ft 4in frame to block shots and win. two defensive player of the year awards. Bob “Slick” Leonard is remembered for his exceptional playing career in college and with the pros, as well as for his accomplishments as a coach. Hall of Fame member Sam Jones, the “Mr. Clutch” of the Boston Celtics, whose sharp shooting fueled the league’s longest dynasty and won him 10 NBA titles, just behind teammate Bill Russell, also faded away.
Bowden was the beloved Hall of Fame folk coach who took the state of Florida from an afterthought to one of the most prolific college football programs in history. Bowden scored 377 victories in the 1940s as a major college coach, and his teams won a dozen Atlantic Coast Conference titles and national championships in 1993 and 1999. The Seminoles finished the season in the top five in the Associated Press’s college football poll, an all-time high for 14 consecutive seasons (1987-2000).
Alabama coach Nick Saban called Bowden “possibly the greatest ambassador of all time … He wasn’t always content with himself, he always wanted to help others.”
Outspoken former Temple basketball coach John Chaney left a legacy of 741 career wins and fighting NCAA policies he said discriminated against black athletes .
The boxing world mourned the deaths of former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, one of the greatest middleweights in history. Spinks, who had an easy-going personality and a big smile that often showed his missing front teeth, won an Olympic gold medal and then shocked the boxing world by beating Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight title in his eighth professional fight in 1978. Spinks. lost the rematch seven months later to 72,000 fans at the New Orleans Superdome and an estimated 90 million national television audiences. Spinks fought for the title only once after that, when he was stopped in the third round in 1981 by Larry Holmes. He finished with a 26-17-3 record.
Hagler fought on the biggest stages in boxing against his biggest names, like himself, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran topped the middleweight classes during a heyday for boxing in the 1980s. Calm with a brooding public figure, Hagler finished 62-3-2 with 52 knockouts.
Medina Spirit suffered a heart attack and died after completing training in Santa Anita in suburban Los Angeles on December 7. The 3-year-old’s victory at the Kentucky Derby in May has come under intense scrutiny due to testing positive for betamethasone, a legal drug that is not allowed on race day.
The hockey world mourned the loss of Hall of Fame member Tony Esposito, the goalie who helped popularize the butterfly style, and Rod Gilbert. Walter Gretzky, who built a backyard ice rink that helped turn his son, Wayne, into the Great One, and Mark Pavelich, a member of the “Miracle on Ice” team are also missing.
Jacques Rogge, a former Olympic sailor and orthopedic surgeon, is remembered for bringing stability to the International Olympic Committee during his 12 years as president and for maintaining a hard line against doping.
The Professional Football Hall of Fame mourned the loss of four of its members, Sam Huff, Curly Culp, Floyd Little and Claude Humphrey. Marty Schottenheimer is remembered for leading to 200 NFL wins with his shattering football mark. Former NFL stars Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson and Darrius Johnson are gone far too soon. Raiders’ double defensive back Mike Davis and Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who drafted Aaron Rodgers when they already had Brett Favre on the roster and won a Super Bowl, are also missing.
Other notable sports figures who died in 2021 were Gerd Müller, who scored the game-winning goal for West Germany in the 1975 World Cup final against Holland; Tony Trabert, who won three of tennis’s four major titles in 1955 and five in total; former Olympic swimmer Clara Lamore Walker; and track star Milkha Singh from India.