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40 Biggest Heroes in Baseball History

Jeffrey BeckmannCorrespondent IAugust 29, 2011

40 Biggest Heroes in Baseball History

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    Major League Baseball is a game of heroes—literally. There is a hero during every inning of every game of every season. That's part of what makes baseball so great.

    The 40 players on this list are men who have gone above and beyond what most people would consider normal. With MLB's storied history, I could have done a list of 100 without having to "reach."

    From one spectacular play on the field to an uncommon valor off the field, heroes come in many different forms. For the most part, the men on this list are the ones who stepped up during a time when it mattered most, whether it be on or off the field.

    Here are the 40 Biggest Heroes in Baseball History.

40. Antonio Alfonseca

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    While his hardship may not have been as debilitating as having only one hand or one arm, Antonio Alfonseca certainly still had to overcome plenty of obstacles in order to realize his dream of playing in Major League Baseball.

    Just like his grandfather, Alfonseca was born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot in what is known in the medical world as polydactyly. Refreshingly, the right-handed pitcher is proud of what some would consider an abnormality.

    Nicknamed "The Octopus," Alfonseca ended his career in 2007 with 129 saves and helped the Florida Marlins to a World Series championship in 1997.

39. Chase Utley

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    Chase Utley's heroism is summed up in one clutch six-game span, which happened to be during the 2009 World Series.

    Utley slugged five home runs against the New York Yankees in the World Series to etch his name in the record books next to Reggie Jackson.

    Utley's teammate Jayson Werth also went on a tear by hitting seven home runs during the 2009 playoffs, yet the Philadelphia Phillies somehow lost the World Series in six games.

38. Carlos Beltran

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    While Carlos Beltran's career has been derailed by injuries over the past few seasons, there was a point in time when there was no better center fielder in the game.

    After being acquired by the Houston Astros via trade from the Kansas City Royals in 2004, Beltran put together one of the most remarkable and heroic performances in MLB playoff history.

    In 12 games spanning the NLDS and NLCS, Beltran hit .435 with eight home runs and 14 RBI. Add to that a slugging percentage of over 1.000 and and OPS of over 1.550.

    Beltran has hit 11 home runs in 22 career playoff games and owns the MLB records for slugging percentage (.817) and OPS (1.302).

37. George Brett

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    George Brett was a lovable superstar and one of the greatest third basemen to ever take the field.

    From his monster home run during the 1980 ALCS to the "pine tar incident" in 1983, Brett was always at his best when the game mattered most, and he was always adored by fans.

    Brett has also raised money for the research of what we know as "Lou Gehrig's Disease" since the mid 1980s.

36. Tony Perez

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    With more two-out hits than any player in MLB history, Tony Perez had a knack for getting on base in tough situations.

    As a member of the "Big Red Machine" in Cincinnati, Perez hit the most clutch home run in Reds history during the 1975 World Series—a series that is regarded as one of the best of all time.

    After the Red Sox's Carlton Fisk hit a dramatic walk-off home run the night before, the Reds were down 3-0 in Game 7 with no signs of life in their bats. Perez stepped to the plate and hit a two-run bomb to ignite the Reds offense, and they would go on to win the game and the series 4-3.

35. Barry Bonds

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    Barry Bonds may be one of the most arrogant and self-centered players to ever play the game, but we can't deny how enthralled we all were with the slugger at one point during his record-breaking career. That is, at least until the steroid allegations came about.

    Bonds holds the single-season record of 73 home runs as well as the career record of 762 home runs, and he will always be a baseball hero in my eyes.

34. Roger Maris

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    Roger Maris' single-season home run record lasted for nearly 50 years, but what makes him a hero are the obstacles he had to overcome in order to accomplish the feat.

    Maris wasn't well liked by fans of the New York Yankees (at least that's how the media would portray it), especially while he was making a run to break Babe Ruth's record—a record they would rather see belong to Maris' teammate Mickey Mantle.

    While the media crucified him, Maris was able to fight through and eventually hit his record-breaking 61st home run on the final day of the season.

33. Mark McGwire

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    Mark McGwire falls in the same boat as Barry Bonds. Major League Baseball has never captivated the nation and the world as much as it did during the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998. 

    After he broke the record, it could have been argued that he was the most popular player (to the fans) that baseball had ever known. Of course, his rise didn't come nearly as fast as his fall.

    Much of the world turned on him once the steroid allegations came about, but someday McGwire will be looked at as the baseball hero that he truly is.

32. Christy Mathewson

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    A two-time winner of the pitching Triple Crown, Christy Mathewson was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history. 

    After 17 years as a player and three seasons as a manager, the 38-year-old Mathewson enlisted in the US Navy to serve in World War I. He served alongside fellow baseball legend Ty Cobb.

    Mathewson proved to be clutch on the mound as well, tossing 27 innings of shutout baseball during the 1905 World Series, leading his New York Giants to the championship.

31. Manny Ramirez

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    Manny Ramirez's career can be summed up in many choice words, but regardless of what people think of Manny being Manny, he always showed up when it mattered.

    Ramirez has hit more home runs in the playoffs than any other player in MLB history. Second to his 29 long balls is Bernie Williams with 22. He was also the World Series MVP during the Boston Red Sox's magical run in 2004.

30. Mickey Mantle

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    When it comes to clutch home runs in the World Series, nobody has ever done it quite like Mickey Mantle.

    Mantle was the greatest World Series hitter in the history of Major League Baseball, slugging a record 18 home runs to accompany a record 40 RBI. Pretty impressive on all accounts, especially considering there was no ALDS or even ALCS during that time period.

    Mantle won seven World Series rings with the New York Yankees during his 18-year career.

29. Dave Roberts

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    This may be a tough one for many to grasp, but one stolen base by Dave Roberts changed the whole landscape of baseball, more specifically for the Boston Red Sox.

    With the Yankees' Mariano Rivera and his career 0.71 postseason ERA on the mound, Roberts was sent to first base as a pinch-runner with the Red Sox down three games to none in the 2004 ALCS. He stole second base, ultimately allowing him to score on a Bill Mueller single to tie the game. David Ortiz would later win it in the 12th inning.

    If Roberts doesn't steal that base, he doesn't score on the single, the Red Sox don't tie the game and the "Curse of the Bambino" lives on.

    Many Red Sox fans will argue that Roberts' steal was the single most important play in ending the curse. That makes Roberts a hero in my book.

28. Joe DiMaggio

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    Holding one of the greatest and most unbreakable records in all of sports—the 56-game hit streak—is almost reason enough to get DiMaggio on this list, but Joltin' Joe was heroic for many reasons.

    DiMaggio has the second most championship rings of all time with nine, behind only fellow Yankee Yogi Berra. Amazingly, all of his baseball accomplishments came in only 13 seasons.

    Midway through his career, "The Yankee Clipper" enlisted in the US Air Force and served during World War II from 1943-45.

27. Andy Pettitte

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    Andy Pettitte may never be enshrined into the Hall of Fame (although he should be), but he put together a postseason résumé that no one will ever touch.

    Pettitte started 42 playoff games—winning 19 of them—and pitched 263 innings, all of which are records. That's more than a full season's worth of game time. No active player has 18 starts, nine wins or 130 innings pitched in the postseason.

    Pettitte won five World Series titles with the Yankees and was the only starting pitcher to be a member of all five championship teams.

26. Pete Gray

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    Pete Gray is living proof of what a person can accomplish if he or she has the will and desire to do so.

    Gray spent the first six years of his life right-handed and with two arms. As a six-year old, he fell off a wagon and got his right arm caught in the spokes, leading the doctor to amputate his arm above the elbow.

    With an enthusiasm for baseball, the "One-Armed Wonder" learned how to bat left-handed and play great defense. While most of his career was spent in the minor leagues—which included a 1944 Southern League MVP Award after batting .333 with 63 stolen bases—Gray's contract was purchased by the St. Louis Browns in 1945.

    Gray batted .218 with 13 RBI that season, and he was an inspiration to all service members who returned home from war with injuries.

25. Yogi Berra

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    Lawrence Peter Berra was a hero on and off the field.

    Yogi won 10 World Series championships with the New York Yankees—the most by an individual in MLB history. The beloved Berra and his malapropisms have become iconic around baseball.

    Prior to taking the field with the Yankees in 1945, Berra enlisted in the US Navy during World War II. He was a gunner's mate and even took part in the D-Day invasion at Normandy.

24. Curt Schilling

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    I probably could have done one slide titled "2004 Boston Red Sox," but along with their historic season came numerous historical individual performances.

    Curt Schilling may have a knack for stirring up controversy off the field, yet his heroic performance during the 2004 playoffs was priceless.

    Schilling tore his tendon sheath during the ALDS before the Yankees lit him up during Game 1 of the ALCS. With magic in the air, Schilling took the mound in Game 6 after having the tendon stabilized. He would pitch seven innings of one-run ball to help the Sox notch the win and tie the series at 3-3. 

    By the end of his outing, blood was visibly soaking through Schilling's sock. How heroic of a moment was this? Well, that bloody sock now resides in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

23. Ted Williams

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    Not only was Ted Williams one of the best clutch hitters of all time, but many baseball historians consider him to be the greatest hitter to ever play the game.

    Williams had the distinction of serving during two different wars—in the United States Marine Corps during World War II and later in the US Navy during the Korean War.

    After being recalled for the Korean War, Williams was given many opportunities to stay back at base and play baseball rather than go overseas to fight. "The Splendid Splinter" turned down all offers, and in early February of 1953, Williams was a part of a 35-plane air raid on a Pyongyang military training facility.

    Williams was awarded an Air Medal during the raid after his plane had its hydraulics and electrical systems knocked out, wherein he limped it back to a US airfield close to the front lines.

22. Cal Ripken Jr.

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    Cal Ripken Jr. was arguably the most popular player in baseball during the '80s and early '90s, and he had the entire world watching as he became Major League Baseball's "Iron Man."

    On September 6, 1995, in one of the most watched baseball games in cable television history, Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's age-old record by playing in his 2,131st consecutive game. 

    During the record-breaking game, Ripken connected on a deep home run to left field to send the crowd wild.

21. Larry Doby

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    Eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Larry Doby became the first black player in American League history when he was signed by the Cleveland Indians.

    Doby's first full season in the league came in 1948, when he helped the Indians win 111 games along with the AL pennant. During Game 4 of that year's World Series, Doby became the first black player to hit a home run in the Fall Classic.

20. David Ortiz

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    Some people may not understand why a player like David Ortiz makes this list. If you want a quick answer, just check the box score of the 2004 ALCS.

    Ortiz went from hype to hero when he came through for the Red Sox in the biggest way. Down 3-0 in the series, Ortiz slugged a 12th-inning walk-off home run to keep the Sox alive. Then in Game 5, Big Papi homered in the eighth to bring the Red Sox within a run before hitting a walk-off single in the 15th inning to pull the series to 3-2.

    He homered again in Game 7 as the Red Sox became the first team in history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series.

19. Kirk Gibson

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    Kirk Gibson is another overnight sensation who inscribed himself in Major League Baseball history with one swing of the bat.

    During Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, with the Oakland Athletics clinging to a 4-3 lead and All-Star closer Dennis Eckersley on the mound in the ninth, Gibson came out to pinch-hit with two bum knees and one big heart.

    Gibby swung a 3-2 slider and hit a two-run, game-winning home run to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a 1-0 lead in the series.

18. Derek Jeter

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    While some people may disagree, especially fans outside the New York area, there is no doubt in my mind that Derek Jeter is a modern-day hero. After all, he didn't earn the nickname "Mr. November" by not coming through in clutch situations.

    Jeter owns dozens of MLB playoff records, including games played (147), runs scored (101), hits (185) and doubles (30). Most of his records are by a landslide.

    Jeter's even third all-time in playoff home runs with 20—none bigger than the shot in this video that made him Mr. November.

17. Greg Maddux

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    When you consider the brilliant career of Greg Maddux came at a time when it's possible that most of baseball was on steroids, while Maddux himself never used, his numbers look even more impressive.

    Known as "The Professor," Maddux would outsmart his opponents rather than try to overpower them. It worked, as Maddux became the first pitcher in MLB history to win four consecutive Cy Young Awards.

    Arguably the greatest defensive pitcher to ever take the mound, Maddux won 355 career games while being one of the most respected players baseball has ever seen. He was also a key member of the Atlanta Braves' historic run in the NL East and helped them win the World Series in 1995.

    If you're wondering who Maddux's hero is, I'll give you a hint: His son's middle name is "Satchel," while his daughter's middle name is "Paige."

16. Satchel Paige

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    Satchel Paige was a legend before he died in 1982, so it's no doubt the right-handed force is considered a hero today.

    Paige helped the Cleveland Indians win a World Series during his rookie season in 1948, and although he didn't make his MLB debut until he was 42 years old, it is heavily argued whether Paige is the greatest pitcher to ever play the game.

    From 1926-48, Paige dominated the Negro Leagues, and he later became the first Negro League player enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

15. Stan Musial

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    Stan Musial is the greatest St. Louis Cardinal of all time along with being one of the greatest pure hitters in Major League Baseball history.

    Four seasons into his big-league career, having already led the Cardinals to two World Series championships, "Stan the Man" left the team to go serve in the US Navy during World War II.

    Musial led the Cards to another championship during his first season back in baseball in 1946 and would eventually end his career with more than 3,600 hits and almost 500 home runs.

    On February 15, 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime achievement and service.

14. Joe Carter

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    While some people spend their entire lifetimes trying to become a hero, it took Joe Carter only one swing of the bat to become a living legend.

    In Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, Carter slugged a walk-off, series-winning home run to give the Toronto Blue Jays back-to-back championships. He was named World Series MVP.

    Carter is one of two players in MLB history to end a World Series on a home run.

13. Reggie Jackson

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    You don't acquire the nickname "Mr. October" if you aren't a hero of sorts. Jackson was one of the best clutch hitters in baseball history, especially during the postseason.

    Mr. October was born during the 1977 World Series when his Yankees were up against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the clinching Game 6, Jackson slugged three of his World Series-record five home runs to lead the Yankees to victory.

    Jackson was the first player to win the World Series MVP award with two different teams.

12. Mariano Rivera

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    While Mariano Rivera's heroism needs no explanation, I'll give you a brief summary of what the soon-to-be career saves leader has accomplished during his Hall of Fame career.

    Rivera is the greatest postseason pitcher in baseball history, and it's not even a contest. Over nearly 140 innings pitched, Rivera has a 0.71 ERA and 0.766 WHIP with 42 saves. In second place on the saves list is Brad Lidge with 18.

    Rivera was the World Series MVP in 1999, when the Yankees took down the Braves in four games.

11. Frank Robinson

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    Heroic moments were the norm throughout Frank Robinson's playing and managerial career's.

    Robinson became the first and only player in MLB history to win the MVP award in both leagues, a feat he accomplished with the Cincinnati Reds in 1961 and the Baltimore Orioles in 1966. He was also a clutch performer with the Orioles in the playoffs, winning two World Series titles and an MVP award.

    His most historic moment came in 1975, when Robinson was named player-manager of the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first black manager in MLB history. He would homer in his first at-bat of the season.

10. Babe Ruth

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    Babe Ruth is not only the most beloved player of all time, but many argue he is the greatest player of all time as well. Either way, the impact he's had on American culture is ever so clear.

    When people hear Babe Ruth, they think baseball, and the other way around. The "Sultan of Swat" changed the game of baseball with his towering home runs and his record-setting performances—many of which still stand today.

9. Bill Mazeroski

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    Bill Mazeroski hit the greatest home run in Major League Baseball history and has forever since been a hero.

    Maz was known for his stellar glove-work and not for a strong bat—hitting only 138 home runs during his Hall of Fame career.

    During Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run to give his Pittsburgh Pirates the championship. It is the only Game 7 walk-off home run in World Series history.

8. Lou Gehrig

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    We all know the story of Lou Gehrig, but the longtime Yankee was a hero well before he was diagnosed with "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

    Gehrig was the original "Iron Horse," playing in 2,130 consecutive games over a 15-year period before he became disabled due to his disease. He was a two-time AL MVP and seven-time World Series champion.

    Gehrig's farewell speech was one of the saddest yet greatest moments in baseball history.

7. Hank Aaron

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    Hank Aaron is one of Major League Baseball's all-time greats, and his accomplishments on the field speak for themselves.

    Just 27 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, Hammerin' Hank Aaron was set to break Babe Ruth's home run record. Ruth was not only white but was also considered the greatest player of all time. 

    Amid hate mail and death threats stemming from a black man breaking Ruth's record, there was supposedly even an obituary written for Aaron in fear that he might get murdered.

    Aaron persevered, and on April 8, 1974, he hit home run number 715 to break the all-time record.

6. Branch Rickey

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    Branch Rickey had only 82 hits over a scattered four seasons in MLB. It was his accomplishments off the playing field that made Rickey a hero.

    As an executive with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey broke the color barrier in baseball by signing Jackie Robinson to be the first African-American player in MLB history. Later, as the GM of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rickey also became the first person to draft a Hispanic/black Hispanic player when he selected Roberto Clemente.

    Rickey was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1967.

5. Bob Feller

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    Bob Feller was one of the most overpowering pitchers in baseball during his time with Cleveland Indians from 1936-56. He was still able to garner 266 career wins despite missing four prime seasons due to military service.

    On December 8, 1941—the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor—Feller became the first MLB player to voluntarily enlist for combat service. As a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama, the hurler earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. 

    Feller is the only Chief Petty Officer in the Hall of Fame. 

4. Jim Abbott

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    Jim Abbott was born without a right hand, but he wouldn't let that deter him from fulfilling his dream of playing Major League Baseball. What he accomplished was simply remarkable.

    The southpaw would rest his glove on his right forearm, pitch the ball and then get the glove on his left hand in time to field almost any ball a two-handed pitcher is able to.

    Abbott was selected in the first round of the 1988 MLB draft by the California Angels and made it to the big leagues the following season. He played for 10 seasons, won 87 games and even pitched a no-hitter with the New York Yankees in 1993.

3. Warren Spahn

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    Warren Spahn spent 21 seasons in Major League Baseball establishing himself as the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. He retired in 1965 with 363 victories and over 2,500 strikeouts.

    After his rookie season in 1942, Spahn enlisted in the US Army to serve as a combat engineer during World War II. The southpaw saw extensive action during the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge and was eventually awarded a battlefield commission.

    Spahn received a Purple Heart after being wounded, as well as a Bronze Star for his bravery during combat.

2. Jackie Robinson

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    Jackie Robinson was a true hero in every sense of the word.

    After being drafted in 1942, Robinson became an officer in the US Army. His military career was derailed after he was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus and was subsequently arrested by military police. Put up for court-martial, he was later acquitted by a panel of nine whites.

    Three years after Robinson was discharged, he became the first black player to play in Major League Baseball when he broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Against all odds, Robinson was named the 1947 NL Rookie of the Year. His No. 42 is retired throughout baseball.

1. (tie) Rick Monday

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    If you have five minutes to spare, you must watch this video.

    On April 25, 1976, in a game at Dodger Stadium, two radical fans ran out to center field with an American flag doused in gasoline. As they began to light matches to set the flag ablaze, Rick Monday ran by and rescued the flag.

    This is a true act of heroism. Monday could have easily stood back while the two vandals desecrated the flag. Instead, without even thinking, he did the courageous thing.

    Great play, Rick Monday.

1. (tie) Roberto Clemente

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    Roberto Clemente was a great baseball player, but he was an even better person.

    During every offseason, Clemente would spend a majority of his time involved and participating in charity work. The same was the case on December 31, 1972, when the longtime Pirate was flying to an earthquake-ravaged city in Nicaragua to help ensure aid was delivered to victims of the quake.

    Clemente's chartered plane went down in the ocean shortly after takeoff, and everyone on board was killed.

    Manny Sanguillen—a teammate and close friend of Clemente—was the only member of the Pirates that didn't attend Clemente's funeral. Instead, Sanguillen chose to dive in the waters where the plane had crashed in hopes of finding his teammate.

     

    Jeffrey Beckmann is an MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Jeffrey on his new Twitter account for all of his latest work. You can also hear him each Friday at 1 pm EST on B/R Baseball Roundtable.

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