Home Editor's Picks St. Louis Sports Figures We Lost In 2020

St. Louis Sports Figures We Lost In 2020

by Brian Ledford

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

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

Here is a look back at those from the sporting community that departed this past year (in alphabetical order):

DICK ALLEN (1942-2020) – St. Louis Cardinals All-Star

A 15-year Major League Baseball veteran that spent one All-Star season with the Cardinals, Allen passed away December 7 at age 78 due to cancer.

Although he contains enough in his portfolio to be considered Baseball Hall of Fame worthy (seven-time All-Star, American League MVP and National League Rookie of the Year), Allen has yet to be placed into that elite status. He is considered one of the greatest hitters of the late-60s and early-70s, often drawing comparisons to Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson.

In his first full season with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964, he won Rookie of the Year honors and proceeded to claim three All-Star appearances (1965-1967) in his six seasons with the club. Even during this successful stretch, Allen was often at odds with both team management and the Philly fan base for off-field activities.

Allen was traded to St. Louis after the 1969 season and in his solo cycle with the Cardinals (1970) he batted .279 with 34 home runs and 101 RBIs. He also claimed his fourth All-Star appearance during the campaign.

Allen notched his final trifecta of All-Star appearances in his three-year tenure with the Chicago White Sox (1972-74). In his 15-year career, he sported a .292 average with 1,848 hits, 351 home runs and 1,119 RBIs.

Allen will have an opportunity to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022 when the Golden Days Committee, a collective of Baseball Writers’ Association of America members that votes on overlooked candidates, makes their selections in 2021.

LOU BROCK (1939-2020) – Baseball Hall of Famer

One of the most beloved Cardinals of all-time, the Hall of Fame outfielder that was best known for his base stealing achievements and as a lifetime local ambassador for the sport passed away September 6 at age 81.

After spending the first four of  his 19-year major league career with the Chicago Cubs, Brock was traded to St. Louis on June 15, 1964 in the six-player shuffle that would be classified as “Brock for Broglio,” which defined future trades that were considered lopsided in hindsight.

For this monumental transaction, it was quite clear that the Cardinals benefitted. The left fielder helped the squad inevitably win the 1964 World Series (the franchise’s historical seventh) over the New York Yankees and later propelled St. Louis a return trophy in 1967.

His reputation as a top-flight base stealer was highlighted by setting a new single season benchmark for stolen bases (118) in 1974 and career stolen bases (893) in 1977. Brock finished his career with 938 swipes and currently sits second All-Time behind Rickey Henderson. He joined the “3,000 Hit Club” on August 13, 1979 in a game against the Cubs and finished his career with 3,023 hits.

In retirement, Brock served as a television analyst for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball in 1980 and in subsequent years as a spring training base running coach for the Cardinals, Minnesota, the LA Dodgers and Montreal. He remained in the area, serving as an ordained minister at Abundant Life Fellowship Church in St. Louis while appearing at official Cardinals ceremonies and other local public sports benefits up until his late-70s.

A six-time All-Star, Brock was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.

BILLY DEMARS (1925-2020) – St. Louis Browns

An infielder for the St. Louis Browns and baseball manager whose career spanned over three decades, DeMars passed away December 10 at age 95.

His brief three-year career as a major leaguer ended with a pair of seasons with the St. Louis Browns (1950-51). During that stretch he batted .237 with 14 RBIs in 211 at bats.

Although those numbers are underwhelming, upon retirement DeMars found his niche as an effective manager and hitting coach on numerous levels, which included a World Series title. He began his 19-year Major League coaching career with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969 and helped the franchise claim four National League East Division trophies (1977-79, 1980) and their first-ever World Series championship in 1980.

After leaving the Phillies following the 1981 season, DeMars served with the Montreal Expos (1982-1984) and the Cincinnati Reds (1985-87).

BOB GIBSON (1935-2020) – Baseball Hall of Famer

Nicknamed “Gibby” and “Hoot”, the right-handed Hall of Fame pitcher that played all 17 seasons in the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals passed away October 2 at age 84 due to pancreatic cancer.

After spending his inaugural seasons shuffling between the starting rotation and the bullpen, Gibson was moved into the slot as a full-time starter midway through the 1961 season, which would start his journey to pitching greatness.

His 1962 ledger was punctuated by a pair of All-Star appearances (two were held that season), a streak of 22 2/3 scoreless innings pitched and his first 200-plus strikeout season (208), a checkpoint he would reach for five consecutive seasons.

After missing part of the 1967 season with a leg fracture, Gibson returned to full form in 1968 and procured his best individual career year, often defined as the “Year of the Pitcher.” In 34 starts, he sported a 22-9 record with a 1.12 ERA and 268 strikeouts. In that stretch, he threw a mind-blowing 13 shutouts, including a World Series Game 1 performance against Detroit that featured 17 strikeouts, en route to the winning the National League Cy Young Award, an achievement he would achieve two seasons later.

He aced the Cardinals’ 1964 & 1967 World Series title wins while earning Most Valuable Player honors for each series, was a nine-time All-Star, a nine-time Gold Glove winner and a two-time National League Cy Young Awards winner (1968 & 1970).

In 528 career games, Gibson was 251-174 with a 2.91 ERA, 56 shutouts, 3,117 strikeouts and leads just about every franchise pitching record. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981 and the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2014.

Upon retirement, Gibson had multiple stints as a pitching coach, including tenure with the Joe Torre-helmed Redbirds of 1995. He was also an analyst for ESPN’s baseball coverage for one season (1990).

LARRY GRAHAM (1942-2020) – Hall of Fame Basketball Coach

An inductee of numerous sports hall of fames for his winning seasons as a coach at Madison (IL) High School and SIU-Edwardsville, Graham passed away August 31 at age 77 due to natural causes.

Although he was standout in hoops in high school (1,387 career points and 929 rebounds at Odom High School in Indiana), Graham is best known locally for his success on the sidelines on both the prep and collegiate level.

In 1969, Graham took over the boys basketball program at Madison and eventually turned the program into a statewide force. During his tenure at Madison, he took the Trojans to five IHSA Class A state tournaments with a pair of championships (1977 & 1981). In his 15 seasons at Madison, Graham’s career record was 312-103 while winning the IHSA Coach of the Year twice.

In 1984, he took over coaching duties at SIU-Edwardsville after the program had been suspended the year prior by the NCAA. After a shaky first season, Graham’s Cougars claimed their first-ever Division II post-season tournament appearance in 1986 and finished the season 23-7. SIUE also made post-season treks in 1987 and 1989 as Graham finished his nine-year tenure with the Cougars with a 147-84 coaching record.

Graham was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1994, the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012 and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.

KEVIN GREENE (1962-2020) – Football Hall of Famer

A Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker that had Metro-East ties, Greene passed away December 21 at age 58 due to unknown causes as of this publishing.

His inevitable path to enshrinement has minimal initial fanfare. He started two seasons at defensive end for then-Granite City South (IL) High School (1978-79), where he earned an honorable All-Conference mention his senior year.

After enrolling in Auburn University’s ROTC program in 1980, he attempted to walk-on the Tigers’ football team as a punter, but failed. Three years later, he officially tried out and made the team as an outside linebacker won the Southwestern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1984.

Greene was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the fifth round of the 1984 NFL Draft and played with the franchise over the next eight seasons, earning his first Pro Bowl designation in 1989. What was starting to show in his play was his ability to bust through offensive lines and sack the quarterback. In 119 games with the Rams, he recorded 72.5 sacks.

He joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent in 1993 and spent the next three seasons honing his legacy, claiming another 35.5 sacks total. He earned Pro Bowl Status three more times and also played in Super Bowl XXX in the Steelers’ 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in January 1996.

Greene then signed with Carolina during the 1996 off-season and helped the then-second-year franchise reach the NFC Championship game (a subsequent loss to Super Bowl XXXI champ Green Bay). Paced by his 14.5 sacks recorded that season, Greene was awarded the NFC Linebacker of the Year Award. During his three-season tenure with the Panthers, he notched another 41.5 sacks.

Overall, Green ranks third all-time in sacks (160) and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. He also had one Super Bowl ring in his portfolio as an outside linebackers coach for Green Bay in their Super Bowl XLV win over Pittsburgh in February 2011.

JIM HANIFAN (1933-2020) – Former St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Rams Coach

The longtime National Football League coach, who spent six seasons as head coach of the Cardinals (1980-1985) as well as tenure with the Cardinals (1973-78) and the Rams (1997-2002) as an offensive line coach, passed away November 24 at age 87 due to natural causes.

Despite never playing a down in the NFL, Hanifan was an excellent teacher of the sport and was considered an offensive line guru. His first foray into the pros began in 1973 with the Cardinals and was highlighted by being named the NFL’s Assistant Coach of the Year in 1977. Hanifan left St. Louis after the 1978 season and spent a year with the San Diego Chargers until he returned to the Cardinals to take over as head coach in 1980.

In his six seasons with the Cardinals, the team was 39-49-1 and Hanifan was fired after the final game of the 1985 season, which contains the legend that the locks to his office was changed, unbeknownst to him, during the second half of the Cardinals’ loss to the Washington Redskins.

Hanifan returned to coaching with stints in Atlanta and Washington until returning to St. Louis to serve as an assistant to Rams’ newly-christened Head Coach Dick Vermeil in 1997. This was when Hanifan found his greatest success as a coach as the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999 and pair of NFC Conference Championships (1999, 2001).

Hanifan retired after the 2002 season and then made the transition to broadcasting, serving as a game-day color commentator for Rams’ radio broadcasting team from 2004-2008. He was known for openly critiquing players during the game, which some saw refreshing.

DALE HAWERCHUK (1963-2020)– Hockey Hall of Famer

A five-time NHL All-Star that had a brief stint with the St. Louis Blues, Hawerchuk passed away August 18 at age 57 due to stomach cancer.

The center was selected first overall in 1981 NHL Entry Draft by the Winnipeg Jets and was jettisoned as the franchise’s immediate superstar. He became youngest NHL player to reach 100 points in a single season that led to him netting the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s 1982 Rookie of the Year.

In a nine-year stretch with the Jets that contained six seasons of 100-plus point performances, four All-Star appearances ensued (1982, 1985-86, 1988). Hawerchuk was involved in a 1990 blockbuster trade between the Jets and the Buffalo Sabres, whose players in the exchange included inevitable Blues’ players Phil Housley and Keith Tkachuk.

Hawerchuk skated five seasons with the Sabres and was signed by the Blues as a free agent prior to the 1995 season. He played 66 games with the ‘Note, recording 14 goals and 28 assists for 41 points before being traded to Philadelphia for center Craig MacTavish on March 15, 1996. The trade actually benefitted the Flyers as Hawerchuk recorded 20 points in the season’s final 16 games and added nine points in the playoffs. He added one more All-Star appearance in 1997, which would be his final season as he retired at age 34 due to a degenerated left hip.

In his 17-year NHL career, Hawerchuk scored 518 goals and 891 assists for 1,409 points and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

ROCKY JOHNSON (1944-2020) – Pro Wrestling Hall of Famer

Known by contemporary audiences as the father of current actor and former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the grappler that competed in numerous St. Louis main events from 1975 to 1986 passed away January 15 due to pulmonary embolism at age 75.

Johnson (Wayde Douglas Bowles) debuted within the squared circle in 1964 and wrestled actively until 1991. During that stretch, he wrestled for both the National Wrestling Alliance and the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

In matches held at the Kiel Auditorium, Johnson shined on the undercards and inevitably competed against then-NWA Champ Harley Race. In the June 13, 1980 “2 out of 3 falls” main event for the NWA title in front of 9,546 fans, Johnson and Race were tied at one fall apiece when Johnson could not compete in the third fall due to a groin injury.

Later in his career, championship gold was claimed. Alongside partner Tony Atlas in a tandem billed as the “Soul Patrol,” Johnson co-held the WWWF Tag Team Championship from November 1983 to April 1984.

He was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2008.

JUSTIN LOVE (1978-2020) – SLU Basketball Hall of Famer

A standout basketball player at St. Louis University, Love passed away June 23 at the age of 41.

The 6-2 San Francisco native played his final two years of NCAA collegiate eligibility with the St. Louis Billikens under coaches Charlie Spoonhour (1998-99) and Lorenzo Romar (1999-2000).

His senior campaign at guard saw him collect 602 points in 33 games for an 18.2 PPG average. He propelled the Billikens in claiming the championship of the Conference USA post-season tournament in March 2000 and was awarded Most Valuable Player for the event.

Following graduation, Love played international basketball over the next fifteen years with stints in Europe, China, Latvia and the Ukraine. Love was inducted into the SLU Billiken Hall of Fame in 2009.

In 2017, Love became the head coach of the boys’ basketball team at Mascoutah High School (IL) and manned the Indians to the IHSA Class 3A regional title in 2019.

GREG MARECEK (1949-2020) Missouri Sports Hall of Famer

A longtime sports journalist, a figurehead in St. Louis sports radio and the founder of the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame, Marecek passed away September 13 at age 71 due to multiple organ failure.

After a career that included editorial responsibilities at the now-defunct Suburban Journal newspapers and as a producer televised sports programs, he led a 22-person investor group in 1997 to purchase sports-talk oriented KFNS-AM. That collaboration under Marecek’s leadership, Missouri Sports Radio, later added 100.7 FM and 1190 AM to its arsenal until selling all three properties in 2004.

In 2006, he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame as a pioneer in sports entertainment and broadcasting. He continued his involvement with athletics on the local level by founding the non-profit St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, whose displays are currently featured in the concourse of the Enterprise Center.

CHARLES PETERSON (1974-2020) – St. Louis Cardinals Amateur Scout

Peterson scouted with the Cardinals for eight seasons until his passing September 13 (coincidentally, the same date as the above-mentioned Meracek) at age 46 after being hospitalized with COVID-19.

After a standout prep career at Laurens High School (South Carolina) that produced state championships in both football and baseball in the early-1990s, Peterson was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round of the 1993 MLB draft. A power-hitting outfielder, he reached as high as Triple-A and then played independently for eight seasons.

He joined the Cardinals’ organization in 2012 as an assistant to Scouting Director Randy Flores and was responsible for seeking potentials in South Carolina, Georgia and North Florida. Among the players he signed for the Redbirds was their top pick in 2020, third baseman Jordan Walker.

WOODY WIDENHOFER (1943-2020) Former Mizzou Football Head Coach

A NFL Super Bowl-winning assistant coach that had a four-season tenure as the leader of the Missouri Tigers’ football program during the 1980’s, Widenhofer passed away March 22 at age 77 due to complications from a series of strokes.

He played collegiate football at Mizzou (1961-1964) as a linebacker and used that defensive knowledge to hone a career as an assistant coach for Michigan State and Eastern Michigan.

Widenhofer was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1973 as a linebackers coach and was promoted to the team’s defensive coordinator in 1979. Within that seven season-stretch, the Steelers won four Super Bowl Championships (1974-75 & 1978-79).

With much fanfare, he was named Head Coach for the University of Missouri Tigers in 1985 and subsequent marketing campaigns cheered folks to “climb on Woody’s Wagon.” Unfortunately, the Tigers finished 1-10 that season and Widenhofers’ tenure at Mizzou was unsuccessful overall (12-31-1) and he resigned after the 1989 season.

He returned to the NFL with stints in Detroit and Cleveland as an assistant and finished his coaching career in 2007 as a defensive coordinator with New Mexico State.

LARRY WILSON (1938-2020) – Football Hall of Famer

An eight-time Pro Bowl safety that played his entire 13-year National Football League career for the St. Louis Cardinals, Wilson passed away at age 82 on September 17 due to cancer.

Historically, he is considered one of the best at his position due to his aggressive approach to defense that hounded quarterbacks, so much so that the term “safety blitz” is associated with his style of play.

Selected in the seventh round by the Chicago Cardinals at the 1960 NFL Draft (held in November 1959), Wilson found himself a Gateway City fixture when the team moved to St. Louis prior to the 1960 season start. Over the next 13 years, he set numerous defensive benchmarks, including a 1966 stretch of an interception in seven straight games. That streak resulted in him leading the NFL with ten picks that season.

In 169 NFL career games, Wilson finished with 52 interceptions for 800 return yards and five touchdowns. Even with those outstanding individual efforts, he never took part in an official NFL playoff game as the Redbirds only had five winning seasons during his career.

After retirement, he served the organization in numerous capacities over the next four decades, highlighted by becoming the team’s Vice President when they relocated to Phoenix, Arizona in 1988 and remained in that capacity until 2002.

Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978 (his first year of eligibility) as well as the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team (1994) and the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team (2019.)

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By trade, he is a six-time, regional Emmy Award-winning news videographer/editor for KTVI/KPLR-TV. By hobby, he is an announcer and digital content producer for St. Louis-based Arch Rival Roller Derby. Also a webcast announcer for post-season roller derby tournaments on wftda.tv. Yep, this Illinoisan primarily writes about derby, covering Arch Rival, the St. Chux Derby Chix and the STL GateKeepers men's league. He also writes about St. Louis SLAM Women's Football, St. Louis Lions women's soccer and other sports topics.

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