Kobe Bryant’s tragic and unexpected death in a helicopter crash on Sunday has struck a chord not just in the NBA, but throughout sports. At just 41, Bryant was supposed to have decades more to spend with fans, players and especially his family.
Bryant’s death brings up memories of similar tragic events in sports. Unfortunately, he joins a regrettably long list of athletes who died young as the result of an aviation accident.
Roy Halladay, star pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies, died on Nov. 7, 2017 when his ICON A5 plane crashed into shallow water off the Gulf of Mexico. Halladay, just 40 at the time, was a pilot and had been flying the plane himself. He had not sent any distress signals, and the autopsy revealed that he had a combination of morphine, amphetamines, antidepressants and Ambien in his blood at the time of the crash. It was later revealed that Halladay had privately struggled with addiction to prescription painkillers after his 2013 retirement.
Following his death, the Blue Jays retired Halladay’s number, and the Phillies inducted him into their Wall of Fame. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected Halladay to the Hall of Fame in 2019, the first player since Roberto Clemente to be elected posthumously. Halladay’s widow, Brandy, gave the speech at the induction ceremony with the couple’s two sons, Braden and Ryan, in attendance.
In 1999, Payne Stewart won the US Open and helped the US Ryder Cup team rally to victory. On Oct. 25, just four months after his win at the Open, Stewart was one of six people who died when a Learjet 35 crashed in South Dakota. The plane had originally been flying to Dallas from Orlando, and investigators believe that cabin failed to pressurize on takeoff, which led to the flight crew being incapacitated and unable to correct the problem. Both pilots and all four passengers had died from lack of oxygen before the plane hit the ground.
Stewart, a golfer known for his unique, historical garb, had been on his way to the Tour Championship in Houston when he died, and his fellow golfers all wore his signature short pants during the tournament’s final round. At the 2000 US Open, 21 golfers simultaneously hit balls into the water as part of a “21 gun” salute in his memory, and the PGA Tour established the Payne Stewart Award in the same year. Stewart was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001, and a golf club bearing his name opened in his home state of Missouri in 2009. Stewart was survived by his wife, Tracey, and two children.
New York Yankees catcher and team captain Thurman Munson was a pilot, just like Halladay, and died at age 32 on Aug. 2, 1979 while practicing takeoffs and landings at Akron-Canton Regional Airport. Munson, who had been flying since late 1977, clipped a tree about 1,000 feet from the runway on his final landing of the day. The plane crashed and burst into flame.
Munson’s two passengers, friends and trained pilots Jerry Anderson and Dave Hall, were both able to exit the plane after it crashed and attempted to save Munson. Munson was strapped into the pilot’s seat, motionless, and Anderson and Hall were unable to pull him free before the plane was engulfed in flames. The investigation into the crash showed that Munson’s neck had been broken on impact, leaving him paralyzed. He died of smoke inhalation before the craft began to burn in earnest.
Munson’s number was immediately retired by the Yankees, and a commemorative plaque was placed in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. The entire team flew to Akron for his funeral four days after his death, and Munson’s locker was never reassigned. It remained empty until Yankee Stadium closed, and then his locker was transported to the Yankees museum. Munson was survived by his wife, Diana, and their three children.
Major League Baseball has lost a number of greats in plane crashes, but none are as great as Roberto Clemente. Clemente, who was just 38, was an outstanding baseball player, but also a humanitarian and philanthropist. He and four others died on Dec. 31, 1972 while flying relief supplies from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake a week earlier.
The plane, which was overweight and piloted by an inexperienced flight crew, gained very little altitude on takeoff and experienced the failure of at least one engine within minutes of hitting the sky. Without one or possibly two engines, the plane was essentially unflyable, and crashed into the ocean. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
Three months after Clemente’s death, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a special election to waive the standard five-year waiting period and voted Clemente into the Hall of Fame, making him the first Puerto Rican player to ever be enshrined. MLB renamed the Commissioner’s Award after Clemente in 1973, and it has been awarded every year since to the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team."
Clemente was survived by his wife, Vera, and three children. Vera Clemente, who died in November 2019, became the chairwoman of the Roberto Clemente Foundation and an MLB goodwill ambassador. Following her husband’s death, Vera spent years preserving and spreading Clemente’s legacy of compassion, service and love.
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