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In Memoriam: STL Sports Figures We Lost In 2021

by Brian Ledford

In a year that included perpetual heartbreaks, there were those from the local sports scene that left us altogether. Some had lengthy ties within the St. Louis athletic community while others had smaller, but impactful, bursts of association.

Within the group included hall of famers, all stars, influential coaches and support personnel.

Here is a look back at those with St. Louis connections that departed this past year (in alphabetical order):

Lou Angotti – St. Louis Blues Player/Coach

Agnotti, a former St. Louis Blues Head Coach during the 1970s who also was a member of the St. Louis Braves CHL team in 1965, passed away September 21 at the age of 83.

The right winger played ten seasons in the NHL, including a stint as the first-ever captain of the Philadelphia Flyers in their inaugural season of 1967, logging 653 career games. For his decade-long NHL career, Agnotti scored 102 goals and 189 assists while collecting 355 penalty minutes.

He played one partial season for the Blues (1973-74), where he collected 11 goals and 22 assists in 51 games. With 23 games left in that season, then-coach Jean-Guy Talbot was fired by St. Louis management and Agnotti was shifted to the role of head coach for the remainder of the season. In the finishing stretch, Agnotti compiled a record of 4-15-4 as the Blues missed the playoffs.

Agnotti returned as Head Coach the following season but was fired after nine games as the team started 2-5-2. He transitioned post-career to behind the microphone, providing color commentary for the Chicago Blackhawks’ television and radio broadcasts and inevitably became a fixture of franchises’ community outreach programs.

Leo Bolvin – St. Louis Blues Coach

A Hall of Fame defenseman who played 19 seasons in the National Hockey League and served as an interim Head Coach of the St. Louis Blues for two seasons, passed away October 18 at the age of 90.

Bolvin’s lengthy career saw him amass 72 goals and 250 assists in 1,150 games, which resulted in him being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in September 1986.

Locally, Bolvin served as interim Head Coach of the Blues for their 1975-76 and 1977-78 campaigns, where he compiled an overall coaching record of 28-53-16. He later worked as a scout with the Hartford Whalers until his retirement in 1993.

Rheal Cormier – St. Louis Cardinals Pitcher

A left-handed pitcher that played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including his first four as a St. Louis Cardinal, Cormier passed away March 8 at the age of 53 due to pancreatic cancer.

Following performances at the 1987 Pan American Games and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, the Canadian was drafted by the Redbirds in the sixth round of the 1988 Major League Baseball draft.

He made his pitching debut on August 15, 1991 against the New York Mets, working six innings en route to the Redbirds picking up a 4-1 win. Cormier proceeded to spend the next four seasons with the Cardinals, where he compiled a 24-23 record with six complete game victories.

At the onset of 1995 baseball season in April, Cormier, alongside outfielder Mark Whitten, was traded to Boston for Cory Bailey and Scott Cooper, thus ending his stint in St. Louis.

After a solo season with the Red Sox, Cormier continued with subsequent tenures at Montreal, a return to Boston, as well as stops at Philadelphia and Cincinnati. In his 683-game MLB career, his record was 71-64 with an ERA 4.03.

Following his retirement in 2007, Cormier played for Team Canada in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. At age 41, he was the oldest player in the competition.

Cormier was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.

Joe Cunningham – St. Louis Cardinals Player/Executive & MLB All-Star

A multi-positional fixture of the St. Louis Cardinals during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cunningham passed away March 25 at the age of 89.

Signed by the St. Louis Cardinals as an amateur free agent prior to the 1949 season, he played in the minors until making his major league debut at age 22 on June 30, 1954. In that game, Cunningham went 2-5 with a home run and five RBIs as the Cardinals defeated Cincinnati 11-3.

Nicknamed “Smokey,” his best season for individual stats was 1959, where he led he National League in on-base percentage (.453) and finished second to Hank Aaron for the NL batting title (.345). Cunningham’s success was rewarded with a pair of appearances at that year’s All-Star Game (back when the league held multiple events).

Following the 1961 season, Cunningham was traded to the Chicago White Sox, where he played for three seasons, before finishing with three season with the Washington Capitals. In his 12-season career that covered 1,141 games, “Smokey” posted a .291 batting average with an on-base percentage of .403 (#48th all-time).

Following his on-field retirement, Cunningham returned to the Cardinals and served as manager the franchise’s Class A affiliates in Modesto and St. Petersburg before landing in the front office in 1972 as the club’s director of sales. He also assisted former manager Whitey Herzog as a member of the coaching staff during the Redbirds’ World Series title run of 1982.

His tenure with the club also included acting as the community relations director in the 1990s. Cunningham was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and the St. Louis Hall of Fame three years later.

Jim “Mudcat” Grant – St. Louis Cardinals Pitcher & MLB All-Star

Recognized as the first African American pitcher to become a 20-game winner within a regular season, Grant, who had a brief tenure with the Cardinals in 1969, passed away on June 11 at the age of 85.

Making his major league debut in April 1958, the right-hander had a 14-season career that included a pair of All-Star appearance (1963 & 1965). In his 1965 campaign with Minnesota, Grant’s 21-7 record was tops in the American League and established the aforementioned benchmark as the Twins reached the World Series. He notched a pair of wins over Los Angeles prior to the team’s setback to the Dodgers in Game 7.

Later in his pitching career, Grant would find work as a reliever in a partial season with the Cardinals in 1969. In 30 appearances for St. Louis, “Mudcat” accumulated a 7-5 record and seven saves. He retired in 1971 with a career record of 145-119 with 54 saves.

Upon retirement, Grant worked for the Cleveland Indian’s public relations department and as a broadcaster while using his influence as an advocate and activist. His also was the co-author of “The Black Aces,” a 2006 book which chronicled other African American 20-game winner, including Ferguson Jenkins and the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson.

Johnny Groth – St. Louis Browns Outfielder/St. Louis Cardinals Scout

A 15-season player with a one-year stint with the St. Louis Browns during their final season and a post-career tenure in the Cardinals front office, Groth passed away August 7 at the age of 95.

Groth joined the St. Louis Browns as a full-time center fielder in 1953 and actually produced better power numbers (10 home runs, four triples) than the season prior although the overall average dropped dramatically (.253). In his one season with the Browns that covered 141 games, he collected precisely 141 hits. His tenure with the club would end on September 27, 1953, the last game in St. Louis Browns history.

Groth went to the Chicago White Sox following that season and resumed a career that included stops in Washington, Kansas City and inevitably Detroit before retiring in 1960. In his 15-year career, he collected 1,064 hits and 197 double while batting .279.

Post-career, Groth worked as a scout for Milwaukee and Atlanta, and also served in that capacity with the Redbirds. He retired in 1990. Prior to his August 7 passing, Groth was only one of five remaining living members of the St. Louis Browns.

Julio Lugo – St. Louis Cardinals Shortstop

Lugo, a major league infielder whose 12-season career included a 2009 stop in St. Louis, passed away due to a heart attack on November 15 at the age of 45.

The Dominican Republican made his major league debut with Houston in April 2000 and spent three seasons with the Astros before being traded to Tampa Bay early in the 2003 season. It was with the Devil Rays where Lugo had his most productive seasons, peaking with a 2005 output that contained 182 hits and a .295 average.

He then had stops in Los Angeles and Boston (including a World Series ring claimed in 2007) before the Red Sox traded him to St. Louis for Chris Duncan on July 22, 2009. In his 51 games with the Redbirds, Lugo batted .277 with 41 hits, nine doubles and 21 RBIs.

St. Louis traded him to Baltimore prior to the start of the 2010 season and Lugo finished his career with Atlanta in 2011. In his twelve-year career, he batted .269 with 80 homers and 475 RBIs.

Post-career, Lugo was active yearly with tournament hosted by the All-American Amateur Baseball Association, whose governing body inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2018.

Carl Madsen – National Football League Official

The Weldon Springs resident, an NFL official whose career had extended beyond two decades, passed away October 26 at age 71 while driving back from a game that he had officiated earlier in the day.

Nicknamed “Big Country” – a reference to both his tall, athletic build as well as a his outgoing and warm personality – Madsen was an on-field official from 1997-2008 and became a replay official in 2009. At the time of his passing, he was serving his twelfth season in that capacity.

Madsen had worked the Nashville vs. Kansas City game that afternoon and was en route back to his Missouri home base. Within city limits, Nashville police were dispatched to a stalled vehicle in a traffic lane. Upon arrival, they noticed that Madsen was unresponsive and had suffered a medical emergency. He later died that afternoon at an area hospital.

According to his fellow officials, Madsen generously mentored younger referees at clinics held nationally.

Bob Plager – St. Louis Blues Hall of Famer

Plager, the beloved ambassador of the St. Louis Blues that served as a player, coach and alumnae member, died on March 24 of a cardiac event while driving on I-64 that resulted in a fatal crash. He was 78.

The Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Canada native began his lengthy tenure with St. Louis in 1967, the inaugural season for the club, as a result of a four-player trade with Edmonton. That began the defenseman’s ten-season tenure with the ‘Note that resulted in 20 goals overall and 116 assists for 136 points.

He currently ranks seventh all-time with the Blues in games played (615) and tenth in penalty minutes (762).

Following his retirement as a player in 1978, Plager became a fixture of the front office as a figurehead in advanced scouting. His first tenure as a coach was at the helm of the Peoria Rivermen affiliated club during the 1990-91 season, where he led the team to the Turner Cup Championship and, as a result, won the Commissioners’ Trophy as Coach of the Year.

He then became the coach of the Blues heading into the 1992-93 NHL season, but resigned after only 11 games (record 4-6-1) due to his unhappiness in the role and returned to his job as the team’s Vice President of Player Development.

His No. 5 jersey was retired on February 2, 2017 and was able to see his hard work behind the scenes for the franchise come full-circle when the Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019.

Warren Powers – Missouri Tigers Football Coach

Powers, who helmed the role of Mizzou’s Head Football Coach from 1978 to 1984, which included three bowl victories, passed away at age 80 on November 3 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.

The Kansas City native played professional football in the American Football League for six seasons. As a safety with the Oakland Raiders in 1967, he participated in the AFL-NFL World Championship game, known now as Super Bowl II.

Powers became the Head Coach of Missouri for the launch of the Tigers’ 1978 season, where the team notched an 8-4 record and a victory in the 1978 Liberty Bowl, defeating LSU. His most successful seasons at Mizzou were during the 1980 and 1981 campaigns that saw the team post identical 8-4 records and claim a triumph over Southern Mississippi in the 1981 Tangerine Bowl.

In Powers’ seven seasons with the Tigers, he amassed a 46-33-3 career record, which places him fourth all-time in career wins at Mizzou.

Ken Reitz – St. Louis Cardinals Infielder and MLB All-Star

The St. Charles, Missouri resident – whose major league baseball career spanned 11 seasons and contained two separate tenures with the Redbirds – passed away March 31 at the age of 69.

Nicknamed the “Zamboni” for the way the third-baseman scooped balls off Busch Stadium’s artificial turf during the 1970s, Reitz was drafted by the Cardinals in 1969 and made his major league debut with the club in September 1972 at the age of 22.

During his rookie campaign, management elected to supplant Reitz as the full-time starting third basemen, resulting in a shift to then-starter Joe Torre back to first base. A defensive standout, he claimed the Gold Glove Award for that position in 1975.

Even with that portfolio, and decent offensive stats to supplement, the Cardinals traded Reitz during the offseason to San Francisco for pitcher Pete Falcone. Reitz would return to St. Louis a year later and would re-establish himself as the starting third baseman.

His final season with the Cardinals (1980) resulted in a personal benchmark as he was named to the National League All-Star team. Following that season, Reitz was involved in a four-player trade that included Leon Durham with the Chicago Cubs in exchange for pitcher Bruce Sutter.

A partial season with the Cubs ensued and Reitz finished his career in 1982 in limited duty with Pittsburgh. In his 11-season career, Reitz played over 1,300 games, batted .260 with 1,243 hits and 548 RBIs. On the defense side, he led the National League in fielding percentage at third base for five seasons and ranks tenth all-time at that position.

John Rotz – Hall of Fame Horse Racing Jockey

An American thoroughbred horse-racing world champion that had early ties to Fairmount Park, Rotz passed away July 12 at the age of 86.

Following his high school graduation in 1952, Rotz worked at the Collinsville, Illinois track as a groom, hot walker and exercise rider. He eventually transitioned to a professional rider the following year and was nicknamed “Gentleman John” because of his demeanor and his ability to handle temperamental horses.

Rotz went on to jockey an impressive 20-year career that saw him claim victories at the 1962 Preakness Stakes, aboard Greek Money, and the 1970 Belmont Stakes, aboard High Echelon. When he retired in March 1983, he had recorded 2,907 overall wins and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame later that year.

Leon Spinks – Heavyweight Boxing Champion

A hard-hitting pugilist that shocked the fighting world by upsetting Muhammad Ali for the World Boxing Council undisputed heavyweight championship in 1978, Spinks passed away February 5 at the age of 67 following a lengthy battle with prostate cancer.

The St. Louis native had a distinguished amateur career, highlighted by a gold medal win in the light-heavyweight division at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Overall during his amateur career, Spinks amassed a 178-7 record with 133 knockouts.

Transitioning to the pro ranks in 1977, the gap-toothed Spinks had only seven fights under his belt when he received a February 15, 1978 championship fight against Ali, then the WBC heavyweight kingpin. Ali had projected an easy victory but was overwhelmed by the gritty contender.

By never tiring during the 15-rounder and by simply out boxing the aging Ali outright, Spinks won on a split-decision and claimed the highly coveted title. The upset netted the local the cover of Sports Illustrated the week after.

The ensuing rematch later that September went about as poorly as it could have been. A sharper Ali regained the title via a unanimous 15-round decision and Spinks was never granted a rematch. Spinks inevitably moved to the cruiserweight with mixed results. During his 46-fight career, his record was 26-17-3 with 14 knockouts.

Following his 1995 retirement, Spinks mentored his son Cory during the 2000s, who went on to hold the undisputed welterweight title and record multiple International Boxing Federation junior heavyweight title victories within the decade.

Ford Stuen – St. Louis University Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach

The SLU Athletic Department were dealt an emotional blow on May 11 when Stuen, an assistant with the Billiken’s men’s basketball program, and nephew of coach Travis Ford, passed away at age 29 due to an infection.

Following a collegiate career as a walk-on at Oklahoma State that saw him play under his uncle, Stuen joined the SLU program in 2016 as a director of player development. Three seasons later, he was promoted to assistant, working primarily with the squad’s guards while logging minutes in both scouting and statistical analysis.

During his first year as an assistant to Ford, Stuen was named on the National Association of Basketball Coaches “30-Under-30” list, earmarked for those under 30 years old.

During Stuen’s tenure with the Billikens, the team made the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and was competing in the 2021 NIT Tournament as his health took a turn for the worst this past spring.

Bill Virdon – St. Louis Cardinals Player – MLB NL Rookie of the Year

Virdon – a long-time major league baseball player/manager who won the 1955 National League Rookie of the Year as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, passed away November 23 at the age of 90.

A prospect of the New York Yankees in the early-1950s, the bespectacled 24-year old right-hander joined the Redbirds’ line-up in 1955 and was subsequently slotted to play center field, which pushed then-outfielder Stan Musial back to first base.

The move proved beneficial as Virdon batted .281 with 150 hits, 17 homers and 68 RBIs, leading to the aforementioned Rookie of the Year designation. Following that success, management traded Virdon to the Pittsburgh Pirates in May 1956 for a pair of players that, in hindsight, the franchise readily regret.

Virdon’s ten-year tenure with the Pirates included a World Series win in 1960 and an individual Gold Glove snare in 1962. In his 12-year playing career, batted .267 with 1,596 hits with 502 RBIs.

Virdon continued his association with the sport as a manager with four different MLB franchises, highlighted by winning The Sporting News Manager of the Year award in 1974 with the New York Yankees and again in 1980 when helming the Houston Astros. As a manager, his career record is 995-921 for a .519 winning percentage.

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