A flip of their baseball cards would reveal two starkly different ballplayers.
After a stint in the Negro Leagues, Henry Aaron blossomed into one of the game’s all-time superstars, using his lightning-quick wrists to post year after year of 30-plus home runs on his storied journey into the record books. Homegrown fan favorite Jerry Remy, with a game built on speed and savvy, tallied all of seven homers in almost 5,000 trips to the plate.
Yet the people behind those statistics possessed similar qualities that we hold especially close as this challenging year of hope and loss comes to an end: grit and perseverance.
The deaths of these two beloved sports figures, in January and October respectively, framed a year that saw the passing of scores of noteworthy figures: men and women whose achievements in myriad fields, from politics and business to science and the performing arts, deserve celebrating as 2021 enters the history books.
While Remy wasn’t in Aaron’s league as a ballplayer, he excelled in other ways. Even when dealt a tough hand — cancer, depression, family tragedy — Red Sox Nation’s beloved RemDawg brought a special sparkle to the summer game as a color analyst with his insightful commentary and deadpan wit.
Hammerin’ Hank’s Hall of Fame career was hardly carefree, either, as he was targeted with racist hate mail and worse — bigotry with which too many Black athletes, then and now, are painfully familiar. The quiet dignity with which he conducted himself only rendered his batting feats more remarkable.
From the local stage to the global one, the past year underscored how talented individuals and everyday heroes, in death and in life, mirror our better natures. And how once admired figures can wind up reflecting our worst.
There were angels among us like the late Phil Saviano, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse who gave voice to countless other victims, helping spark a worldwide reckoning for Catholic Church leaders.
There was Dick Hoyt, piloting his son Rick’s wheelchair through dozens of Boston Marathons: profiles in courage, both. And Aaron Feuerstein, the mill owner who kept paying his employees after a devastating fire that would have caused most CEOs to close shop for good.
All could have lived out their lives as victims of misfortune or malfeasance. Instead, they set examples of selflessness and resilience that resonate deeply during these me-first, politically polarized times.
Eulogized for their enduring service to the nation were a pair of admired senators whose presidential aspirations ultimately fell short: Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale, who served as vice president in the Carter administration, and Kansas Republican Bob Dole, a war hero who never forgot his humble Midwestern roots.
Colin Powell’s legacy perhaps suffered a blow from his tenure in the George W. Bush administration. But as a decorated military leader and the first Black man to become secretary of state, he offered contributions to the nation’s diplomacy and security that were immense and indeed historic. Another diplomat of note, economist George Shultz, wielded enormous influence on public policy over many decades, as did former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a prime architect of two controversial wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) that cost America dearly in blood and treasure.
The country owed a deep debt of gratitude to civil rights leaders Gloria Richardson and Vernon Jordan, a trusted presidential confidant; Bob Moses, who spearheaded voting registration programs in Mississippi before becoming an education activist in Cambridge; Watergate prosecutor Philip Heymann; and astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted Apollo 11′s command module as Neil Armstrong made history on the moon below.
Mourned around the world was South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and leading figure in his country’s long, bloody struggle to cast off the shackles of apartheid. His death in the waning days of 2021 came amid a flurry of headline-making losses, among them author-screenwriter Joan Didion, a pioneering New Journalist who eloquently (and mordantly) plumbed the depths of ‘60s and ‘70s youth culture, and evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, who in popular works such as “On Human Nature” opened readers’ eyes to the wonders of the natural world — and to the many perils it currently faces.
Their deaths were soon followed by those of Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader from Nevada who helped shepherd through the Obama administration’s landmark Affordable Care Act, and NFL legend John Madden, a Super Bowl-winning coach, Emmy-winning broadcaster, and lovable pitchman whose eponymous video game became the gold standard for gridiron gamers everywhere.
In the annals of investment fraud, nobody outdid crooked financier Bernard Madoff, who died in April after running history’s largest Ponzi scheme. Although G. Gordon Liddy achieved later success as an actor, talk show host, and author, his obit last year invariably led with his central role in the Watergate scandal.
For high-flying defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, notoriety came with the territory, his courtroom brilliance often eclipsed by his clients’ celebrity or notoriety, a group that included Albert DeSalvo, O.J. Simpson, and Patty Hearst.
Show business lost a titanic talent in composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the genius behind such musical masterpieces as “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Sunday in the Park with George.’'
Struggling to stay open during the ongoing pandemic, Broadway dimmed its lights for Tony winner Cicely Tyson, celebrated for her portrayals of strong Black women; actor-director Hal Holbrook, a versatile star whose signature role, portraying a cigar-puffing Mark Twain, delighted fans worldwide; and multitalented Christopher Plummer, who made each character he played, villainous or virtuous, a memorable one.
French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo (“Breathless”) and trailblazing Black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”) were remembered in memoriam, along with Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis (“Moonstruck”), Emmy winner Ed Asner (“Lou Grant”), comic actresses Cloris Leachman (“Young Frankenstein”) and Betty White (“The Golden Girls”), and two brilliant, boundary-pushing comedians, Mort Sahl and Norm Macdonald. All will be missed.
The Rolling Stones, still rolling along after 60 rollicking years, bade goodbye to their reliably steady (and elegantly dressed) drummer, Charlie Watts. The music industry lost a signature voice in Don Everly, whose brotherly harmonies lit up the pop charts in the 1950s and ‘60s. Chick Corea, who grew up in Chelsea, delivered amazing numbers — nearly two dozen Grammys and 90 albums — as an acclaimed jazz-rock fusion composer, keyboardist, and bandleader. Ex-Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith graduated from TV-made teen idol to music-video pioneer.
For Phil Spector, dizzying success as a studio producer — he invented the Wall of Sound, heard on dozens of hit records — could not erase the dark stain on his troubled life; he died in prison 18 years after his 2003 murder conviction. Conductor-pianist James Levine, who once led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, died, too, his once lofty reputation tarnished by multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.
Book lovers had their own favorites to remember fondly at year’s end.
On many lists of great American novels is Larry McMurtry’s Western epic “Lonesome Dove.” A Pulitzer-winning novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter, McMurtry, who died in March, was also a renowned bookseller, as was poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, proprietor of City Lights bookstore and spiritual godfather to the Beat Generation. Playing an analogous role in the 1990s Men’s Movement was poet and author Robert Bly, whose mega-selling book “Iron John” inspired drum-banging workshops in modern masculinity.
Farewells were also penned for a pair of cherished authors of children’s books, Beverly Cleary (“Henry Huggins,” “Ramona the Pest”) and Eric Carle (“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”); Gothic novelist Anne Rice (“Interview With the Vampire”); author bell hooks (“Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism”), a fearless and influential explorer of race and gender issues; and scholarly bibliophile Vartan Gregorian, who restored the New York Public Library to its central position in American intellectual life.
The media landscape, ever changing and ever challenging, lost several influential figures. Conservative talk-radio megastar Rush Limbaugh, patron saint of the Ditto Heads, and Larry King, who occupied the interviewer’s chair for 50 lively years, were two of the biggest names. Other tributes poured in for reporter-anchor Roger Mudd, a longtime fixture on network news broadcasts, and Pulitzer winner Neil Sheehan (“A Bright Shining Lie”), who broke the Pentagon Papers story in The New York Times.
As the pandemic reminds us, humankind relies upon advancements in science, medicine, and technology for its very survival. Thus, the contributions of pioneers such as peace activist Bernard Lown (cardiology), Steven Weinberg (theoretical physics), Muriel Lezak (neuropsychology), Joseph Sonnabend (AIDS research), Myriam Sarachik (experimental physics), Sherif Zaki (disease pathology), Richard Lewontin (genetics), and Paul Crutzen (climate science) were especially valued in a year when public health concerns and extreme climate events dominated the headlines.
In addition to Aaron and Remy, the sports world tipped its cap to a slew of departed superstars, led by acrobatic basketball great Elgin Baylor, boxing champ Marvelous Marvin Hagler of Brockton, race car legends Bobby and Al Unser, and Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters tournament.
Hometown fans paid tribute to Patriot alums David Patten, Sam “Bam” Cunningham, and Demaryius Thomas, Bruins stalwarts Fred Stanfield, Bobby Schmautz, and Jimmy Hayes, Red Sox outfielder Billy Conigliaro, Celtics guards Sam Jones and Paul Westphal, who was later an NBA coach, boxer Tony DeMarco, basketball standouts Medina Dixon and Terrence Clarke, and sports reporter Bob Neumeier, NBC’s peerless horseracing analyst.
Today’s Boston was built upon the vision, ingenuity, and largesse of several major civic players who died this past year. Prominent among them were developers Jerome Rappaport and Gerald Blakeley and clothing mogul Carl Shapiro, whose collective philanthropy supported an impressive range of local institutions; billionaire Eli Broad, who financed the Cambridge research institute that bears his name; and Friendly’s cofounder S. Prestley Blake, whose love of ice cream sweetened the coffers of many area schools and colleges.
Others whose contributions had a sizable impact on the city, state, and region included Doris Bunte, the first Black woman elected to be a Massachusetts state representative and to run the Boston Housing Authority; Barbara Rockett, first female head of the Massachusetts Medical Society; Boston Public Schools chief Thomas Payzant; public servant Harry Spence; Boston Children’s Museum leader Louis Casagrande; journalists Ian Menzies and Robert Turner; WCVB broadcaster Mary Richardson; and jazz impresario George Wein.
Also, Boston Marathon historian Gloria Ratti; Mission Hill housing advocate Theresa Parks; Trustees of Reservations chief Barbara Erickson; Boston fire commissioner Leo Stapleton; Chinatown restaurateur Billy Chin; and Holocaust survivor Israel Arbeiter, who died in November at age 96 and whose message to the world rings ever truer today. “There is never enough remembering,” he said of history’s obligation to bear witness to the truth.
In that spirit, let us salute all the other heroes — men and women serving in harm’s way, first responders and health care workers on the front lines of public safety — who are no longer with us yet whose lives will forever matter as a new year unfolds.
This year’s Notable Deaths roundup marks the 50th anniversary of a Globe feature originally written by reporter-editor Martin F. Nolan. Now retired, Nolan, in 1971, began a New Year’s tradition now widely adopted by other media entities and publications.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed both Travis Roy and Tom Seaver. Both Roy and Seaver died in 2020.