As a new year approaches, it’s a good time to look back and savour the memories of some of the Canadian baseball legends that we lost in 2011.
Here are obituaries of the legends that passed away in the second half of the year:
Dick Williams, July 7
Elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008, Williams piloted the Oakland A’s to two World Championships (1972, 1973) and also guided the Red Sox (1967) and Padres (1984) to Fall Classic berths. To Canadians, he was best known as the fiery bench boss of Montreal Expos from 1977 to 1981, leading the club to two 90-win, second-place finishes in 1979 and 1980. Prior to becoming a manager, Williams suited up for parts of 13 seasons in the big leagues with the Dodgers, Orioles, Indians, A’s and Red Sox. He also played with the Triple-A Montreal Royals in 1953 and 1956 and he secured his first professional managerial gig with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1965. The outspoken Cooperstowner died of an aneurysm on July 7 at the age of 82.
Hideki Irabu, July 27
This onetime Japanese phenom is best remembered for his controversial three-season tenure with the Yankees from 1997 to 1999. Though often labeled as a bust, he did win 13 games for the Bronx Bombers in 1998 and 11 more in 1999. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-hander was dealt to the Montreal Expos in December 1999 and made 14 starts for the club in 2000 and 2001, before concluding his career as a closer with the Texas Rangers in 2002. Irabu committed suicide in his California home at the age of 42.
Randy Echlin, August 12
He was as passionate about baseball as he was about justice. That’s a good way to remember Ontario Superior Court judge Randy Echlin, who passed away after a courageous battle with cancer at age 60. In baseball circles, the modest Toronto native rarely boasted about his more than 30 years as Canada’s foremost authority on employment law. In 2003, he became a judge and presided over more than 100 employment law cases in Ontario. But it was as a baseball fan that I knew Randy. His knowledge of the game would’ve made him a great sports radio host and his tireless support of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is one of the key reasons that the institution has survived. Most recently, he served as the chair of the inductee selection committee for the St. Marys, Ont.-based ball shrine.
Mike Flanagan, August 24
What Blue Jays fan can forget Flanagan’s gutsy, 11-inning performance against the Tigers on the second last day of the 1987 campaign? The witty southpaw spent parts of four seasons in Toronto and was a key hurler on the Jays’ 1989 division-winning squad. Most fans, however, will remember Flanagan’s 15-season tenure with the Baltimore Orioles, where he would capture a Cy Young Award in 1979 and a World Series ring in 1983. He also served as an executive with the Orioles after he hung up his spikes. Flanagan committed suicide on August 24 at the age of 59.
Jesse Jefferson, September 8
Selected by the Blue Jays in the 1976 expansion draft, Jefferson was a mainstay on the club’s pitching staff from 1977 to 1980. Despite an ugly 9-17 record, Jefferson posted a respectable 4.31 ERA and tossed 217 innings for Toronto in 1977. On May 23, 1978, Jefferson would set a team record by pitching a 12-inning complete game against the Boston Red Sox. Despite struggling to hold his spot in the rotation in 1979 and 1980, Jefferson would hurl an impressive 11-inning shutout against the Oakland A’s on May 16, 1980. He died of prostate cancer in his hometown of Midlothian, Va., at the age of 62.
Charlie Lea, November 11
One of just nine big leaguers born in France, Lea would record 62 wins in seven seasons with the Expos and Twins. The likable right-hander made history on May 10, 1981 when he tossed a no-hitter against the Giants to become the first – and only – Expo to register a no-hitter at Olympic Stadium. An injury would sideline him for the Expos’ 1981 post-season run, but he rebounded to record 12 wins and a 3.24 ERA in 1982. With 13 wins at the all-star break in 1984, Lea was named the National League’s starting pitcher for the midsummer classic at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. In recent years, he had been working as a radio analyst with the Memphis Redbirds (St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate). He died at his home in Collierville, Tenn., of a heart attack at age 54.
Ron Stead, December 5
Stead grew up in Toronto close to Maple Leaf Stadium where he would hone his pitching skills by tossing batting practice. As his arm strengthened, he would sign a playing contract with the Leafs. The Leafs sent him to the Florida State League, where he recorded 17 wins and a sparkling 2.43 ERA for Gainesville in 1957. Following that campaign, Stead elected to return to Canada, where he would join the Intercounty League’s Brantford Red Sox. In his near decade with Brantford (1958 to 1966), the crafty southpaw evolved into the top pitcher in the circuit and led the Red Sox to six championships. He brought his overpowering arsenal to the Guelph C-Joys in 1967 and led the club to a league title in 1970. Stead also pitched at the 1967 Pan-Am Games in Winnipeg for Canada’s first national team. Though he retired in 1972, Stead still ranks as the Intercounty League leader in wins (104), innings pitched (1,365) and strikeouts (1,231). He died of pancreatic cancer on December 5.