They were touchstones of sports in the 1960s, and sports lost three of the best in 2018: big-hitting Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants; Jim Taylor, the punishing Green Bay Packers fullback; and Stan Mikita, the embodiment of powerful Chicago Blackhawks teams.
Mikita, the first to play in the NHL from what was then Czechoslovakia, spent all of his 22 seasons with Chicago. If fans need any reminder of what he meant to the team they can turn to his statue outside the arena.
Taylor may have been born in Louisiana and finished his career in the bayou with the Saints, but no one was better suited for the unforgiving demands of Green Bay winters and its mythologized “frozen tundra.”
McCovey, with the looping left-handed swing, has not just a statue in San Francisco but a body of water named for him — McCovey Cove, where home run balls to right field go to rest in the bay.
Each arrived just as the 1950s was going through its last paces and sports had yet to become a round-the-clock corporate behemoth. They were inextricably tied to city and team, their legacies burnished as the decades passed.
He gave hockey the curved stick blade — not that his shot needed a new layer of trickery – and gave Chicago a hockey team that would win its first championship in more than 20 years and become a perennial force.
Mikita , who died at 78, combined with Bobby Hull and goalie Glenn Hall to send the Blackhawks to the 1961 Stanley Cup title. The team lost in the finals the next year. Mikita, a nine-time All-Star, led the league in points four times.
He is the only player to win the Hart (MVP), Art Ross (scoring) and Lady Byng (sportsmanship) trophies in the same season, doing so in 1967 and 1968. The Lady Byng was of particular note considering that early on he ran up penalties, trying to show at just 5-foot-9 he could take on the big boys. Later, he was among the first to wear a helmet.
“He utterly transformed his playing style in his prime,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The Blackhawks record book is clogged with Mikita entries. His was the first team jersey retired. That was in 1980, three years before he joined the Hall of Fame.
“He embodied the Chicago Blackhawks,” team president John McDonough said.
Straight out of central casting, Taylor owned the role of the punishing, unrelenting fullback, all blood and grit and guts.
Vince Lombardi came to the Packers a year after Taylor, and the coach had his man to lead his ground forces — the vaunted Green Bay “Sweep,” with pulling guards making way for Taylor and Paul Hornung.
Taylor , a Hall of Famer who died at 83, helped the Packers win four championships, including the first Super Bowl in which he scored the first touchdown. He had five straight seasons in which he ran for 1,000 yards. In 1962, he was the MVP.
Taylor was often compared to Jim Brown, but Lombardi saw a difference.
“Jim Brown will give you that leg (to tackle) and then take it away from you,” the coach said. “Jim Taylor will give it to you and then ram it through your chest.”
That ethic was clear in the 1962 championship against the New York Giants on a freezing day with fierce wind. Taylor, hounded by linebacker Sam Huff, needed seven stitches for a gashed elbow at halftime. His tongue was bloodied. After Green Bay’s 16-7 victory, teammate Jerry Kramer recalled a shivering and spent Taylor covering himself with a topcoat all the way home.
“You got to enjoy punishment,” Taylor once said, “because you are going to deliver so much of it, and you are going to get so much of it.”
He never let go of it. What if he pulled the ball a few feet more? What if it had been a bit higher?
It was Game 7 of the 1962 World Series. The Giants trailed the Yankees 1-0 in the ninth inning but had runners on second and third with two out. McCovey was up and he scorched the ball, but shoulder-high and right at second baseman Bobby Richardson. That was as close as McCovey came to a championship.
“I still think about it all the time,” he said four years ago.
But McCovey could also dwell on a career in which he hit 521 home runs and batted .270 over 22 seasons, all but three with the Giants. The 6-foot-4 slugger known as “Stretch” was the NL’s Rookie of the Year in 1959, going 4 for 4 in his debut, and its MVP in 1969. He was a six-time All-Star with bum knees who glided into the Hall of Fame.
McCovey was born in Mobile, Alabama — as was his contemporary Hank Aaron — and died at 80, beloved in San Francisco. The Giants, of course, meant Willie Mays. But Mays’ major league roots took hold in Harlem and the Polo Grounds. Bay Area fans had McCovey to themselves. And McCovey never lost touch, basking in the team’s eventual World Series titles.
“Willie was a superb ambassador for the Giants and our game,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said.
Sports this year lost others who blazed paths:
—Anne Donovan , a pioneer of women’s basketball, died at 56. She was 6-8 and a Hall of Famer who won championships as player or coach wherever she went: Old Dominion, the Olympics, the WNBA.
—Broadcaster Keith Jackson , 89, was amiable company for so many years across all sports. But especially in front of a TV for a college football Saturday, with Jackson ready for a “Whoa, Nelly!” when the moment was right.
—Roger Bannister, the British track great who died at 88, smashed one of the mightiest barriers in sports in 1954 — the four-minute mile. But he would always insist his work as a neurologist mattered far more than his time of 3:59.4.
Baseball also said goodbye to third baseman Ed Charles and his joyous leap after the Mets won the 1969 World Series; Tony Cloninger, the Braves pitcher who hit two grand slams in a game; Rusty Staub, the “Le Grand Orange” and restaurateur with more than 2,700 hits; Red Schoendienst, a St. Louis baseball lifer who at 95 had been the oldest living Hall of Famer; Wally Moon, the 1954 NL Rookie of the Year who helped the Dodgers get to three World Series; Oscar Gamble, owner of 200 home runs and a resplendent afro; umpires Doug Harvey (nicknamed “God”) and Dutch Rennert, he of the bellowing strike call; and Wayne Huizenga, whose Florida business empire included not only the Marlins but the NFL’s Dolphins and NHL’s Panthers.
Basketball is now without the Celtics’ Jo Jo White and 76ers’ Hal Greer, champion guards who could hit a pull-up jumper like few others; Vic Bubas, the coach who set the foundation for Duke basketball; Frank Ramsey, sixth man for the mighty Celtics teams of the 1960s; Willie Naulls, among the NBA’s early black stars and winner of three titles with the Celtics; Jack McKinney, coach of the “Showtime” Lakers whose career was undercut by a bicycle accident that left him comatose; Paul Allen, the Portland Trail Blazers owner whose passion for basketball did not prevent him from owning the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks; and Tex Winter, 96, one the game’s most insightful minds and guru of the triangle offense.
Football mourned Dwight Clark , whose twisting touchdown sent the 49ers to their first trip to the Super Bowl and left the NFL with a peerless image of “The Catch”; Billy Cannon, the 1959 LSU Heisman Trophy winner whose fine career as pro was followed by one in dentistry and time in prison for counterfeiting; Tommy McDonald, the small, fleet receiver who teamed with Norm Van Brocklin on the Eagles’ 1960 title team; coaches Chuck Knox, who led the Los Angeles Rams to three straight NFC championship games behind his “Ground Chuck offense; Darryl Rodgers, who with the woebegone Detroit Lions said, “You don’t have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to know we’re going in the wrong direction”; and Earle Bruce, an Ohio State patriarch who succeeded Woody Hayes. The game is also diminished without Bob McNair, the Texans owner and founder who returned the NFL to Houston; and Burt Reynolds, the Florida State running back who never lost his love for Seminoles football all through his movie life.
Gone from hockey are John Ziegler, the NHL president who gave the league an international look but presided over a 1992 players strike; Bill Torrey, general manager of the 1980s New York Islander dynasty and first president of the Florida Panthers; Johnny McKenzie, the no-nonsense winger who led the Bruins to two Stanley Cups; and Ab McDonald, who played on Mikita’s line during the Blackhawks’ 1961 championship season. In the Saskatchewan prairie, a semi-trailer slammed a bus carrying a junior team, leaving 16 dead. Said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock: “It’s got to rip the heart out of your chest.”
Boxing’s losses included Karl Mildenberger, the German heavyweight who went 12 rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1966. In auto racing, it was do-it-all Dan Gurney, who won in NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCar. In horse racing, it was Manny Ycaza, the 1964 Belmont Stakes winner who cut a path for Latino jockeys, and Ronnie Franklin, aboard Spectacular Bid for wins in 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. In golf, it was two-time major winner Hubert Green; and Bruce Lietzke, a winner who loved a good time and didn’t care much for practice.
Soccer grieved for Walter Bahr, the last living player from the U.S. team that rocked England at the 1950 World Cup and the father of two NFL kickers. Tennis no longer has the graceful Maria Bueno, a Brazilian trailblazer who won Wimbledon three times and four U.S. Opens. In gymnastics, Elena Shushunova, the Soviet who won the 1988 Olympic all-around, died at 49. Bruno Sammartino was pro wrestling’s workingman champion and longtime box-office draw.
Newspaper pages and screens are poorer without Dave Anderson, the gentlemanly Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times. Likewise, The Associated Press with the death of Jim O’Connell, the Hall of Fame college basketball writer and resident courtside wit.
And dogs everywhere can raise a paw for Uno , the beagle who wowed the Westminster show a decade ago like no other. Said longtime dog commentator David Frei: “He lit everyone’s fire.”
AP Sports Writers Jay Cohen, Genaro C. Armas and Janie McCauley contributed to this report.
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