Notable Deaths in 2021

National News

A look back at the esteemed personalities who left us this year, who’d touched us with their innovation, creativity and humanity.

Baseball’s one-time home run king, Hank Aaron (February 5, 1934-January 22, 2021), endured virulent racism as he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714, long held to be an insurmountable target. Aaron became a target himself, of hate mail and racist threats, forcing the Atlanta Brave to have bodyguard protection. He kept the hateful letters, he said, as a reminder of the abuse he bore.

Nevertheless, Aaron matched Ruth’s record on April 4, 1974, and topped it with homer no. 715 four days later before a sold-out Atlanta Stadium and a nationwide TV audience. (The unlucky pitcher: Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

Home runs were only part of his game. Aaron remains baseball’s all-time RBI leader (with 2,297) and leader in total bases (6,856). He ranks second in at-bats (12,354); third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771); fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174); and 13th in doubles (624).

He won two National League batting titles, was a three-time Gold Glove winner, and recorded more than 20 stolen bases in seven seasons. His sole National League MVP Award came in 1957, when the Braves beat the New York Yankees to win the World Series (the only championship of Aaron’s career).

After 21 years with the Braves, he ended his career with two years back in Milwaukee, as a designated hitter for the Brewers. (He was traded after refusing to take a front-office job with a significant pay cut.) He added 22 homers to his lifetime total, finishing with 755, a record that would stand for 33 years (until Barry Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants, surpassed it).

“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron once said.

After his retirement in 1976, the Hall of Famer’s status as one of the game’s all-time greats, and as a civil rights hero, philanthropist, supporter of the NAACP, and an advocate for increased diversity among major league baseball’s coaching staffs, would lead boxer Muhammad Ali to describe Aaron as “the only man I idolize more than myself.”

CREDIT: Joe Holloway, Jr./AP

Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda (September 22, 1927-January 7, 2021) bled Dodger blue for more than seven decades as part of the Los Angeles baseball team’s organization. Earning notice in the minors as a strikeout hurler (once recording 25 KOs in a 15-inning game), he was brought up to the majors in 1954. But in his first start, in 1955, he threw three wild pitches against the Cardinals and was called from the mound after the first inning. During three seasons in the majors (with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Kansas City Athletics) he achieved a 0-4 record with a 6.48 ERA and 37 strikeouts.

Lasorda then became a scout and coach and, later, the Dodgers’ manager for 21 years. During that time, his gregarious leadership skills helped the team to two World Series championships (in 1981 and 1988), in addition to four National League titles and eight division titles. He also managed the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Just as evident as Lasorda’s enthusiasm for the game was his waistline: “When we won games, I’d eat to celebrate,” he once explained. “And when we lost games, I’d eat to forget.”

CREDIT: Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In 1964 British filmmaker Michael Apted (February 10, 1941-January 7, 2021) was a 22-year-old researcher working on a documentary for U.K. television. His assignment: find a cohort of seven-year-old schoolchildren from across socio-economic lines for a film about London youth, inspired by the adage, “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” “Seven Up!” was a success, capturing the hopes and dreams of young Britons, affluent and poor, Black and White. Apted subsequently directed follow-up visits to the same schoolchildren, filmed at seven-year intervals, beginning with “14 Up” and “21 Up,” all the way through “63 Up,” released in 2019. For Apted, the series became his life’s work – a living document of humanity probing the joys and sadness of growing up.

In 2013 “Sunday Morning” correspondent Lee Cowan asked Apted what made the Peabody Award-winning series so compelling. “Well, ’cause I think people identify with it,” Apted replied. “You see 13, 14 stories up there, and there’s elements in some of them that hit home on every life. Everybody who watches it can identify with something.”

In addition to capturing real life, Apted also directed biopics (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas of the Mist”), comedies (“Continental Divide”), dramas (“Agatha,” “Thunderheart,” “Nell,” “Enigma”)  thrillers (“Gorky Park,” “Blink”), fantasy (“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”), concert films (Sting’s “Bring on the Night”), and even a James Bond movie (“The World Is Not Enough”).

Apted said he hoped to keep the “Up” series going as long as his interviewees were willing and healthy. (“63 Up” included the passing of one subject, Lynn.) His goal: to keep it going until his film family are in their 80s – which would put Apted at nearly 100: “I figured out when I do ’84,’ I’ll be 99. So, that could be a nice swan song, shouldn’t it?” he laughed. 

CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

A war correspondent for United Press International and The New York Times in the early years of the Vietnam War, Neil Sheehan (October 27, 1936-January 7, 2021) was a national correspondent for the Times based in Washington when he obtained from Daniel Ellsberg, a former consultant to the Defense Department, a history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Sheehan broke the story of the Pentagon Papers in his articles for the Times, beginning in June 1971, which exposed widespread government deception, by political and military leaders, about U.S. prospects for victory. The Washington Post soon followed with reporting of its own.

In an interview published posthumously in the Times (Sheehan had asked that it not be printed until after his death), the writer revealed that Ellsberg did not give him the Pentagon Papers (as was widely believed), but that Sheehan had deceived his source and taken them. Admitting he was “really quite angry” by what the papers revealed, Sheehan decided that “this material is never again going in a government safe.” He smuggled the documents from the Massachusetts apartment where they had been kept, and copied thousands of pages to take to the Times.

“You had to do what I did,” Sheehan said. “I had decided, ‘This guy is just impossible. You can’t leave it in his hands. It’s too important and it’s too dangerous.'”.

The Nixon administration sought a restraining order against publication, argued on national security grounds. But on June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of allowing the Times and the Post to continue revealing the Pentagon Papers’ contents. The coverage won the Times the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The Nixon administration tried to discredit Ellsberg after the documents’ release, including orchestrating a break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s Beverly Hills psychiatrist to find information with which to discredit him. When evidence of the break-in and government wiretaps surfaced, Ellsberg’s trial for theft, conspiracy and violations of the Espionage Act ended in a mistrial.

When Ellsberg bumped into Sheehan and accused Sheehan of stealing the papers, the journalist replied, “‘No, Dan, I didn’t steal it. And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it.'”

Sheehan’s 1988 account of the war, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” won him the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He also authored “After the War Was Over: Hanoi and Saigon.” In a 1988 C-SPAN interview Sheehan said, “Vietnam will be a war in vain only if we don’t draw wisdom from it.”

CREDIT: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Bronx, N.Y. native Tanya Roberts (October 15, 1955-January 4, 2021) studied acting under Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen, but her earliest jobs were in modeling and commercials that highlighted her beauty. Even her first big break, replacing Shelley Hack on the TV series “Charlie’s Angels,” was more glamorous than substantive.

Roberts would star in the films “The Beastmaster,” “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle” and “Hearts and Armour,” before being picked to star opposite Roger Moore in his last appearance as James Bond, in 1985′s “A View to a Kill.”

In a 2015 interview with London’s Daily Mail, Roberts admitted that she was cautious about accepting the role in a Bond film: “I remember I said to my agent, ‘No one ever works after they get a Bond movie,’ and they said to me, ‘Are you kidding? Glenn Close would do it if she could.'”

After “A View to a Kill,” Roberts made few film appearances. Her most notable role was in the sitcom “That ’70s Show” as Laura Prepon’s hippie mother, Midge, who embraced the women’s liberation movement.

“I’ve made a lot of good choices and a lot of bad choices and that’s part of life,” Roberts told the Daily Mail. “Whether you’re really successful or moderately successful … You can’t go through life defeated. It’s just trial-and-error.”

CREDIT: The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Bestselling novelist Eric Jerome Dickey (July 7, 1961-January 3, 2021) was a software developer and aspiring actor and stand-up comic when he began writing fiction in his mid-30s. His first book, “Sister, Sister,” was celebrated for its depiction of Black sisterhood.

His witty and conversational prose style punctuated such novels as “Friends and Lovers,” “Milk in My Coffee,” “Cheaters,” ” Liar’s Game,” “Thieves’ Paradise,” “The Other Woman” and “Genevieve,” and the “Gideon” crime fiction series, which included “Sleeping With Strangers” and “Resurrecting Midnight.” Dickey wrote 29 novels in all, with more than seven million copies in print worldwide. His final novel, “The Son of Mr. Suleman,” is due in April.

He also contributed to anthologies such as “Mothers and Sons” and “Black Silk: A Collection of African American Erotica,” and wrote a comic book miniseries for Marvel featuring the characters Storm and Black Panther.

In 2016 he talked with the Washington Independent Review of Books about how he “reinvented” himself by attending UCLA: “Studied, studied, studied, read, read, read, wrote, wrote, still rewriting what I wrote, wrote, wrote. At UCLA, I started with all the 101 classes, learned what I could from the ground up. My best approach to anything, no matter my level of experience or education, has always been with an empty cup. You never know everything.”

CREDIT: Jody Cortes/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

By senior producer David Morgan. The Associated Press contributed to this gallery.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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