This year has brought countless challenges to all of us. We continue to fight against a global pandemic, still wear protective masks, and do our best to practice social distancing. We’ve curtailed travel plans until further notice, learned how to work from home, and can only hope life gets back to some normalcy in 2021. But 2020 also carried its fair share of death in both the sports and entertainment arenas that rocked us.
Dozens of former players and coaches across the sports realm met their demise including Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Paul Hornung, Don Shula, Al Kaline, Lou Brock, Tom Dempsey, Wes Unseld, Chris Doleman, Jerry Sloan, Willie Davis, Kevin Greene and Diego Maradona. The entertainment world also suffered losses including Chadwick Boseman, Nick Cordero, Eddie Van Halen, Olivia De Havilland, Carl Reiner, Alex Trebek, Kelly Preston, Jerry Stiller, Charlie Daniels, Brian Dennehy, Regis Philbin and Charlie Pride.
This entry pays tribute to five athletes and/or performers who left us this year, but whose legacies will never be forgotten. From Kobe Bryant to “007” himself, Sean Connery, these guys made their marks indelible.
Kobe Bryant – ‘Black Mamba’ – 41
The Lakers great had it all. Recently retired with his basketball accolades intact – 18 All-Star Game appearances, five NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVP awards – Bryant was embarking on a new chapter in his life, one that centered on being a dad to his four daughters. He was a superstar whose signature was always sought after.
During the course of his 20-year NBA career, all with the Lakers, Kobe enjoyed multi-year autograph deals with both Upper Deck Authenticated and Panini America. He initially spelled out his full name but quickly opted to just use his first name oftentimes accompanied by his uniform number; 8 for the first 10 seasons in L.A. and then 24 for the next decade when the “Black Mamba” made a number change entering the 2006-07 season. As his popularity and championships grew, so did requests for his signature. In fact, shortly after his untimely death on January 26 in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others, submissions of Kobe autographs flooded PSA headquarters. As it turned out, nearly 90% of the rapid-fire submissions were forgeries, which just goes to illustrate the importance behind third-party authentication. When a beloved sports hero dies, countless fans want something to remember him by. Now more than ever, his authentic sign is highly coveted.
Tom Seaver – ‘Tom Terrific’ – 75
Known as “Tom Terrific” by virtue of his clutch pitching for the 1969 World Series Champion New York Mets, Seaver was a dominant right-hander. In a career that spanned 20 seasons with five MLB teams, he recorded 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts and posted a 2.86 lifetime ERA. It was in just his third season when the 24-year-old flame-thrower led the young Mets to the Fall Classic where they upset the heavily favored Orioles in five games. A three-time Cy Young Award winner, Seaver kept throwing fastballs at Shea Stadium for seven more seasons before changing his uniform to that of the Reds (six seasons), then the White Sox (two), and, ultimately, the Red Sox in 1986. In fact, almost poetically, his MLB career ended as a member of the Red Sox at Shea Stadium in the ’86 Fall Classic. Though at age 41 he didn’t suit up and play, he was there.
Seaver enjoyed his golden years, made plenty of signing appearances at card shows and The National, and eventually became the owner of a vineyard in Calistoga, a small city in California’s Napa Valley. It was there that he died in his sleep on Sept. 3 at age 75 due to complications from Lewy body dementia and COVID-19. Always an affable signer, his precision on the mound was matched by his penmanship on collectibles. Seaver’s signature will always be a coveted keepsake as he took great pride in delivering his John Hancock. Trading cards, baseballs, photos of any size provided the perfect canvas for Seaver’s crisp pen or masterful Sharpie.
Gale Sayers – ‘Kansas Comet’ – 77
In 1965, Univ. of Kansas standout Gale Sayers arrived at Chicago’s Soldier Field and started playing for legendary Bears coach, George Halas. As a rookie, he started 11 games and scored a then-NFL record 22 touchdowns: 14 rushing, six receiving and one each on punt and kickoff returns. He was a blur to defenses – elusive as a ghost – and was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. As it turned out, his career in the NFL was short-lived (seven seasons) but extraordinary. A devastating knee injury during the ‘68 season sidelined him for the final five games. He still finished with 856 yards rushing and rehabbed his way back to a 1,032-yard campaign the next season when he was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He twice led the league in rushing (1966 and ’69) and ended his tenure in the Windy City in 1971 with 4,956 career rushing yards and 39 touchdowns to go with 1,309 receiving yards and nine more TDs.
After leaving pro football, Sayers worked for his alma mater and then Southern Illinois University where he served as athletic director from 1976 to ’81. In 1977, at age 34, Sayers became the youngest player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a distinction that still holds true. He next founded the Crest Computer Supply Company just outside of Chicago, which became an information technology company called Sayers Inc., LLC, in 1993. A fixture on the autograph circuit, Sayers was a consummate professional when it came to signing. He always spelled out his first and last name and was not adverse to adding inscriptions for eager fans. He died on Sept. 23 due to complications from dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 77.
Bob Gibson – ‘Gibby’ – 84
On Oct. 2, another pitching great, hard-throwing Cardinals ace Bob Gibson, passed away. It marked the 52nd anniversary of his unforgettable, 17-strikeout performance against the Tigers in Game 1 of the ’68 World Series. Always a formidable foe, the 6′ 1″ Gibson intimidated opposing batters with his share of brushback pitches and a good sprinkling of chin music thrown in. He threw his entire body behind every pitch. His fastball was legendary as he struck out 3,117 batters and recorded 251 wins over a 17-year career, all while playing for the Cards. He notched nine seasons of 200 or more strikeouts. In five different seasons, he recorded 20 or more wins. But Gibson often saved his best stuff for last as was evident in the ’67 World Series when he won three games against the Boston Red Sox inside of eight days to bring St. Louis its eighth WS title. A year later he went 22-9, was named the NL MVP, and earned the first of two Cy Young awards.
Gibson made the rounds on the autograph circuit and was a constant presence at the annual MLB FanFest’s autograph pavilion as well as The National’s signing stage every year. Like the man himself, his signature was big and bold. His well-known stare from the rubber could at times be felt by collectors who stood on the other side of the table asking for an autograph. But in the end, “Gibby” always delivered and like everything else that ages over time, softened his demeanor. When it comes to landing a treasured signature of one of baseball’s best flame-throwers, Gibson’s name ranks high on the list.
Sean Connery – ‘007’ – 90
He mastered many roles during his Academy Award-winning film career. He played the gruff, reclusive writer in “Finding Forrester,” the seasoned, grizzled Irish cop in “The Untouchables,” and the strategic, rogue Soviet naval captain in “The Hunt for Red October.” But it was portraying the dashing and debonair secret agent James Bond, a.k.a. “007,” where Sean Connery made his lasting imprint. “Shaken not stirred” was his famous catchphrase whenever he ordered a martini. As the star who flew off the pages of seven novels written by Ian Fleming and onto the movie screen, Connery possessed a confidence and swagger few have delivered before or since. Interestingly, perhaps fittingly, he passed away on Oct. 31 – Halloween – a time when Hollywood costumes and alter egos flourish.
Although a born-and-bred Scotsman, Connery earned his only Oscar in 1988 for his portrayal of “Jimmy Malone,” a tough, aging Irish beat cop from Chicago who becomes a vital member of Elliott Ness’s band of crime-fighters in “The Untouchables.” His roles usually demonstrated rugged masculinity, a characteristic Connery seemed to exude on screen and off. He penned a very distinctive “S” and “C” in his first and last names whenever he signed, which seemed to confirm the self-assurance he displayed with each of his movie personas. A proud man, and a revered actor, Connery’s autograph will always be in demand. In the end, Father Time finally caught up to James Bond. Although he starred in “You Only Live Twice,” even Sean Connery could only live once.