Chicago sports tragedies: off the field



Eddie Waitkus: Mythologized.
Derrick Rose's season-ending knee injury made me, like many a Chicago sports fan, immediately flash on Gale Sayers's career-altering knee injury in 1968. The Sun-Times's Mark Potash used that this week as a springboard to compile a top-ten list of the worst injuries in Chicago sports history.

It's a very impressive list, as right behind Rose and Sayers comes Jim McMahon's 1986 shoulder separation at the hands of a dirty hit by the Green Bay Packers' Charles Martin. It most likely cost the Bears a second Super Bowl championship, and at very least deprived them the opportunity to defend their title against the upstart New York Giants, the eventual season champs, as a cocksure Mike Ditka tabbed newbie Doug Flutie as his playoff starter on the way to getting badly outcoached by his Washington Redskins counterpart Joe Gibbs.

Yet Potash's list concentrated on the field, and I began to wonder, what about Chicago's sports tragedies away from the field of play?

The White Sox were thankfully underrepresented on the list, so I thought right away of Carlos May, who was on his way to the 1969 American League Rookie of the Year Award when he blew off his right thumb in a mortar mishap while on duty with the marine reserves. May lost the award to Lou Piniella and, while he returned to have a more than decent career hitting for average, never again displayed the nascent power he showed as a rookie.
Speaking of rookies of the year, the Cubs' Ken Hubbs won the National League honor in 1962, when he also stole the Gold Glove from Bill Mazeroski, without question the greatest fielding second baseman in baseball history. Yet, after a subpar 1963, he died in a plane crash in Utah during the offseason in early 1964 after only recently obtaining his pilot's license.

That puts things in perspective doesn't it? As does the Eddie Waitkus affair, mythologized by Bernard Malamud in The Natural. Waitkus wasn't technically a Chicago athlete when he was shot by a stalker fan he didn't know in1949, having just been traded from the Cubs to the Philadelphia Phillies, but that trade, which deprived the fan of her favorite player on a daily basis, led directly to the shooting at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Waitkus returned to action and, in fact, won the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1950.

Which leads us to Billy Jurges, the Cubs shortstop shot—more deservingly, it seems—by a smitten fan in 1932. Jurges and the young lady both survived, and Jurges was back in action within weeks, while declining to press charges against the woman.
Finally, before I turn it over to others who recall off-the-field Chicago sports tragedies, I'll cite Jack Quinlan. He wasn't a player, but a Cubs announcer killed in a car crash in Arizona during spring training in 1965. They also serve who only call the game.

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