The 20 Saddest Retirements in Baseball History
Chronicling the “saddest” retirements in baseball history can be a thorny endeavor. Not merely because of ranking whose retirement was “sadder” than whom else’s, but by virtue of the definition of saddest itself.
Saddest as in a tear-jerking moment, as a beloved player or childhood hero is forced to hang up his spikes—from either age, injury or tragedy—causing even the most stoic of us to well up?
Or saddest as in an embarrassing end to a once-great career, a former diamond star who stayed too long and stained his legacy with an undignified finale?
Or maybe it’s the saddest to only a certain segment of fans—or perhaps just to a single person.
Fortunately, enough of each variety litter baseball lore that ranking the 20 saddest retirements in the history of the sport isn’t so difficult.
Because there is nothing quantifiable about this topic, the individual rankings—perhaps except for No. 1—don’t matter and weren’t given excessive thought. It’s enough that they made the list. (Frankly, I’m just happy that I can count to 20.)
So without further ado…
Score Derailed by Horrific Injury
He came to the Majors the same year as Sandy Koufax. And for his first two seasons, he was Sandy Koufax—before even Koufax was Koufax. According to Cleveland Indians broadcaster Ken Coleman, Ted Williams opined that Herb Score had the best fastball of any southpaw he ever faced.
Whereas Koufax took seven years to find himself, Score already was there.
Bursting into the American League in 1955, Score buckled the knees of 245 hitters, leading the league in strikeouts en route to a 16-10 record and Rookie of the Year honors. Just as Bob Feller was concluding the greatest mound career in Indians history, Score was beginning his—and perhaps was even bound to surpass Feller.
Score pitched even better as a sophomore, going 20-9 and fanning an AL-topping 263 batters.
The Boston Red Sox, ever in need of a fire-throwing southpaw to pitch at Fenway Park, offered Cleveland $1 million for Score—an amount nobody threw around in those days. General Manager Hank Greenberg turned down Boston flat.
If any pitcher seemed destined for the Hall of Fame, Score surely was Cooperstown-bound—and Cleveland was coming along for the ride.
But destiny took a brutal turn on May 7 of the 1957 season when a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald smashed into Score’s orbital bone. He dropped in a heap, blood pouring from a fractured nose and lacerated eyelid. Amazingly, Score did not suffer injury to the eyeball itself, and his vision eventually returned to normal.
Sidelined for the rest of the season, Score came back in 1958. But he’d unconsciously changed his pitching motion—hardly a surprise after his catastrophic injury. This helped lead to a sore elbow, which washed out yet another season.
Score always maintained that arm trouble, and not the injury from McDougald’s line drive, was the cause of his spiraling career.
He lasted only one more year in Cleveland. Score could still throw heat, but he was no longer untouchable—and even more troublingly, Score had trouble finding the strike zone. His ERA ballooned.
After a trade to the Chicago White Sox in 1960, Score lost two of every three decisions, walking more batters than he whiffed. He was sent down to Triple-A Indianapolis in 1962—just when Koufax was finally finding himself.
Score started a nightmarish eight games for Indianapolis in 1963, going 0-6 with an appalling 7.66 ERA. His pitching arm clearly gone, Score opted for retirement and accepted a spot on Cleveland’s broadcasting team, where he stayed—first on television, then radio—until 1997.
Ah, but what could have been. A 55-46 career record hardly does Herb Score’s talent justice. If not for fate, perhaps the world might have witnessed Herb Score and Sandy Koufax facing off in a World Series of the 1960s…
Youngs Dies Young
Ross Youngs was to John McGraw what Lou Gehrig was to Joe McCarthy. Calling Youngs “the greatest outfielder I ever saw,” and “the greatest fighter on a baseball field,” McGraw was further quoted in Youngs’ New York Times obituary that—presaging McCarthy’s loving appraisal of Gehrig—“in all his years with the Giants he never caused one minute’s trouble for myself or the club.”
Like Christy Mathewson a generation before, McGraw looked upon Youngs as the son he never had. Bill James relates in his Historical Baseball Abstract that the New York Giants manager kept photos of both of them in his office after their deaths.
Youngs must have been easy to like. Nicknamed “Pep” for his ceaseless hustle, Youngs immediately found stardom in the Polo Grounds. He finished in the top 10 in numerous offensive categories for seven straight seasons, helping lead New York to four consecutive pennants—the only National League team to accomplish that.
Coming off his best season, Youngs struggled in 1925, seeing his average dip below .300 for the first time in his career. Unbeknown to anyone, he had contracted Bright’s disease (now an archaic term for several distinct forms of kidney disorders).
By the following season, his health had deteriorated enough that the diagnosis became clear. Often a death sentence in those days, Bright’s disease had no cure, and although Youngs played with hallmark pep for 95 games (batting .306), he left New York in midseason for a San Antonio hospital.
Although he indulged hopes of returning to the Giants, Youngs spent more than a year in hospital and died in October 1927 at age 30. For McGraw, likely still reeling from the untimely death of Mathewson only two years earlier, losing his favorite player at the peak of the boy’s powers must have been overwhelming.
As an unfair coda all the way around, the Veterans Committee elected Youngs to the Hall of Fame in 1972. This was the era of Veterans Committee chairman Frankie Frisch, infamous for stocking the Hall with numerous undeserving teammates—Youngs is one of them.
Although an excellent ballplayer, Youngs’ career is simply too short and too lacking in truly great seasons for the hard-hitting 1920s to merit his plaque. Had he played another eight to 10 years at the same level, Youngs may well have earned a place, as his pace at the time of his downfall put him on track for 3,000 hits.
Turkey Mike Plays Chicken with the National League
He walked with a cocky strut—or whatever it is that turkeys do—and it earned Mike Donlin the nickname “Turkey Mike.” He drank, he brawled, he raised hell. And when he felt like it, he hit a baseball very well.
Donlin found immediate success as a Major League batter, hitting an impressive .323 and .326 in consecutive half-seasons for the St. Louis Perfectos at the turn of the last century. Problem was, Turkey Mike couldn’t play the field (as in with a glove—he did just fine with the ladies, according to reputation).
Donlin’s fielding, wherever his teams tried to hide him, was simply atrocious—the vast majority of his fielding percentages frighteningly below league average.
Still, Donlin could hit with the best of them and peppered the ball wherever he went.
But Turkey Mike’s drinking, run-ins with the law, constant demands for salary increases, subsequent holdouts and a bite from the acting bug distracted him from the diamond.
Only four of Donlin’s 12 seasons were played in full, even though he was consistently among the best batsmen in baseball. His marriage to a vaudevillian actress and his shared desire for stage stardom contributed to Donlin sitting out the 1907 season after a salary dispute with the New York Giants.
And after returning to New York and hitting .334 in 1908 as if he’d never been away, Donlin left baseball again, this time for two seasons. Then, while bouncing around the National League even though he could still hit better than most, Turkey Mike walked away from the game a third time.
In all, Donlin averaged 87 games played a season throughout his career—a damn shame, considering his batting prowess. In that checkered career, he hit a whopping .333 and often finished among the top 10 in most major offensive categories—not to mention spearheading the Giants to John McGraw’s first World Series victory.
Attempting one more comeback, his old buddy McGraw threw Turkey Mike a bone. But after 35 miserable games, Donlin reached the end of the road and hung up his bat, a regrettable end to potential only partially realized.
Despite his robust batting average, Donlin received virtually no support for the Hall of Fame—probably for the same reason as did another great hitter who put up glittering numbers over too short a career: Lefty O’Doul.
Puckett Halted in Mid-Career
Beloved by Minnesota Twins fans, Kirby Puckett was, despite his less-than-streamlined physique, rocketing toward historical greatness. With five 200-hit seasons (four of them league-leading), a batting title, an RBI crown and a .318 career average, he was sure to enter the 3,000-hit club and climb high on many offensive lists before age dictated his demise.
But age never got the chance.
Preparing to enter his 13th season—already the owner of two World Series rings and six Gold Gloves—Puckett experienced vision loss in his right eye. Found to be suffering from glaucoma, he never took the field again and announced his retirement in July 1996.
Arguably the most popular player in Twins history, especially after his walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, the Twin Cities community, and the baseball world, was stunned by his retirement. Puckett maintained a positive attitude, however, reassuring fans that he would continue flashing his trademark smile.
But misfortune was not through with Kirby. His longstanding “good-guy” reputation took several hits during, and in the wake of, a divorce in which allegations of abuse and infidelity were leveled at Puckett.
Worse still, away from baseball, Puckett’s weight ballooned out of control. Eventually exceeding 300 lb, Puckett suffered a massive stroke in March 2006 and died a day later.
An Old Man in a Young Man's Game
Assuming command of the A’s in the American League’s inaugural season of 1901, Mack proved himself the greatest manager in baseball through his first 14 campaigns. His White Elephants, sparked by some of the Deadball Era’s biggest stars, grabbed three World Series championships, another three pennants and only once finished below .500.
Then, amid allegations of game fixing after his juggernaut A’s were swept in the 1914 World Series by the Miracle Braves, Mack sold, traded away or lost many of his best players to the Federal League (as well as Home Run Baker to temporary retirement).
Philadelphia came crashing down like no champion before or since, finishing dead last for the next seven years (including a modern-era worst 36-117 record in 1916).
He spent the 1920s slowly reconstructing a dynasty, and by decade’s end, the New Mackmen had taken three straight pennants and a pair of Series titles right from under the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees.
Once again, though, Mack proved to possess the fickleness of the Old Testament God. Reeling from investments gone bad at the height of the Great Depression, Connie sold off or swapped some of the greatest weapons of the diamond and quickly fell down the cellar steps and into the darkness.
This time, there would be no recovery.
From 1934 through 1947, Philadelphia failed to play .500 ball, and Mack, a romantic anachronism to a more fondly remembered time in his three-piece suit and conducting A’s outfielders by waving his scorecard, had no place on a diamond. But he owned the team—and nobody was going to say it to him anyway.
Stories began circulating that Mack—in his late eighties by the last few years of his tenure—often fell asleep during games or had grown so dim with age that Al Simmons, a Mack devotee and now an Athletics coach, would surreptitiously countermand Mack’s absent-mindedly incorrect signs or simply call them altogether. A number of younger players simply tuned him out.
By the time the Grand Old Man of Baseball finally stepped down after the 1950 season (his A’s again in last place), the franchise was essentially irrelevant in Philadelphia.
To see an elderly man whose time had long ago passed laboring across the field and up and down the dugout may not have struck anyone as a sad sight other than Athletics fans tired of losing, but the fact that his retirement should have come 10, or even 20, years before made it all the sadder.
Eight Is Enough...Or Is It?
When Minnie Miñoso was released by the Chicago White Sox in July 1964, no one thought much about it, at least no one outside of Chicago.
Miñoso was 38 years old, and although he’d proven himself one of the best batters of the 1950s, the popular Cuban could no longer hit. (In fact, the futility of his last three seasons had dropped his career batting mark six points and cost him a lifetime .300 average).
But Miñoso loved the game, playing with a joie de vive that’s spread all over his career record—topping the American League at various times in hits, doubles, triples, steals, total bases and, incredibly, 10 seasons in hit-by-pitches.
The proto–Brett Favre—but with downtime instead of drama—Miñoso couldn’t keep off the grass and returned to the White Sox for three games late in the 1976 season. Appearing eight times as a 50-year-old designated hitter, his lone hit made him the second oldest man to hit safely.
Miñoso’s true birth date, as for many older Latin players, has been a subject of debate, and he originally was credited with being 53 years of age, and thus the oldest player to achieve a hit—at least, according to his 1977 Topps baseball card.
Mercifully, the White Sox did not wear their horrid short pants for any of the three games in which Miñoso appeared.
Four seasons later, Miñoso returned to Comiskey Park, pinch-hitting unsuccessfully in two games. In doing so, Minnie became the only player to appear in five different decades.
Punctuating two more extended layoffs, Miñoso donned the uniform of the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League and pinch-hit once during the 1993 and 2003 seasons. (He went hitless in 1993, but worked a walk in 2003—at age 77.)
These appearances meant that Miñoso played in a mind-boggling seven different decades.
But then he retired for good. And what’s so sad about this retirement is that Minnie has made no plans since the latest decade began to return for an eighth decade—which would most assuredly put his record out of reach.
It’s sad to think we’ve seen the last of Minnie Miñoso.
For Rice, 13 Could Have Been the Lucky Number
Although not particularly sad to anyone at the time—perhaps not even to himself, for he had undergone far worse trauma in his life—Sam Rice’s “early” retirement proved to have far-reaching consequences.
After losing his wife, two children, parents and two sisters in a tornado, Rice somehow picked up the pieces of his shattered life, turning first to the Navy and then to baseball.
Initially a pitcher, he spent 20 years as an outstanding outfielder—all but one for the Washington Senators.
Flying under the radar as Babe Ruth transformed baseball into a power game, Rice excelled as a contact hitter. Batting over .300 for 13 seasons, the speedy Rice did everything but smash the long ball. Twice leading the American League in hits, he even managed a 200-hit season at age 40.
Spending half his career at-bats in spacious Griffith Stadium, which was tailored to his line drives, Rice used his prodigious foot speed to leg out 184 career triples and steal 351 bases—a handy asset with Goose Goslin batting behind him.
A cornerstone of the Senators’ attack, Rice spearheaded Washington’s three trips to the World Series and proceeded to bat .333 in them. (He still holds the record for most singles in a World Series: 12, in 1925.)
After hitting .294 across half of the 1933 season (including Washington’s final moment in October sun), Rice was released. Though about to turn 44, Sam signed on to play the 1934 season for his long-time teammate Walter Johnson, now managing the Cleveland Indians.
In 97 games, Rice batted a solid .293, playing sporadically in September (only 12 at-bats), although he did go 3-for-5 in the final game of his career.
Rice quietly retired after the season, having compiled 2,987 hits.
In truth, such personal milestones were not nearly as prized in Rice’s day as they’ve become in modern times. Even more to the point, Rice was quoted that he had no idea of his hit total when he retired.
Very few reliable sources of statistical information were available to the public in the 1930s, and it was not until the first edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia's publishing in 1969 that official totals became known to the general public.
In Lee Allen and Tom Meany’s Kings of the Diamond, Rice related that Senators owner Clark Griffith informed him several years later how close he’d come to reaching the esteemed mark (at that time, only six other players had accomplished it—which further emphasizes Rice’s under-appreciated greatness).
Rice declined, not desiring to endure the rigors of regaining playing shape. He conceded, though, that he likely would not have retired had he known just how many hits he had.
Those 13 hits—less than one more measly single a season—loomed large in his personal history over the next three decades. Cast aside by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America—often earning a token vote—Rice repeatedly finished behind a slew of Hall of Fame candidates with not half his credentials.
Not until 1955 did Rice’s vote totals begin upward movement. By the early 1960s, he finally became a serious candidate for election. But his time on the writer’s ballot ran out after the 1962 election.
Wisely, the Veterans Committee inducted Rice the next year. Fortunately, he was still living, albeit now 73 years old.
Had Rice known how high he stood on the all-time hits list and stuck around for those final few hits, he likely would have received his Hall of Fame plaque—and become a household name—many years earlier.
Dave the Brave
Dave Dravecky was already 26 years old when the San Diego Padres called him up in June 1982. Working both out of the bullpen and as a spot starter, he showed immediate promise, logging a 5-3 record, two saves and an excellent 2.57 ERA for a team that needed all the pitching it could get.
By 1983, he had become the hope of the San Diego pitching staff, going 14-10 and earning a spot on the National League All-Star team.
Moving to the bullpen in 1984, Dravecky chipped in solid innings during the Padres’ first real pennant run. Nine wins and eight saves helped San Diego over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time in its 16-year history. The Padres fell to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, but Dravecky hurled 10.2 scoreless postseason innings.
Another strong season in 1985—back in the rotation this time—Dravecky helped keep the defending NL champs competitive, turning in a 2.93 ERA despite a September fade that stunted his record at only 13-11.
Whether the tumor diagnosed inside his left arm in 1988 was weakening it as early as 1986 is unknown, but Dravecky began struggling. He lost 18 of his next 30 decisions for San Diego, earning him a place in a seven-player trade up the coast to San Francisco.
Seeming to find his rhythm again, Dravecky won seven starts (including three shutouts) down the stretch for the Giants, as they clinched the NL West for the first time since 1971. He pitched brilliantly in the NLCS, shutting out the St. Louis Cardinals on two hits in Game 2 and taking a Game 6 loss despite giving up a single run in six innings—for a 0.60 series ERA.
By May 1988, something was clearly wrong with Dravecky’s arm, as he lasted only 37 innings in seven starts. A desmoid tumor was found, and half of the left deltoid muscle was excised in October.
After rehabilitation and a quick trip to the minors, Dravecky returned to the San Francisco mound in August 1989. In a comeback too good for Hollywood, he pitched eight innings for the victory.
Five days later, Dravecky, hurling a shutout through five innings, delivered a pitch to Tim Raines and—in a sight that turned the stomach of many spectators—collapsed in agony as his left humerus snapped.
His season finished, San Francisco again clinched the NL West. But as the Giants ran onto the field to celebrate another trip to the postseason, Dravecky was bumped by a teammate and his recuperating arm fractured again.
X-rays revealed that his cancer had returned, forcing the retirement of a truly courageous player. Further surgeries proved futile and in 1991, Dravecky's left arm and shoulder were amputated.
He has since become a motivational speaker and an author of several books about his challenges.
191 to 61 in 12.0 Months
Of all of the herculean hitting that took place during the 1930 season—Chuck Klein’s 445 total bases, Bill Terry’s .401 average, the entire National League batting .303—perhaps no feat is more impressive, and more safely secure in the record book, than Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs. (No player has made even a remotely serious run at it since 1938.)
Already one of the premier sluggers in baseball, the hard-swinging Hack took full advantage of the rabbit ball and launched 56 home runs—at the time, an NL record.
With four Chicago Cubs regulars (other than himself) racking up on-base percentages higher than .400, Wilson rarely came to bat with the bases empty, and his league-leading .723 slugging average ensured that he’d be knocking in someone with frightening regularity.
His incredible season earned Hack a hefty pay raise, but Wilson put a lot of that extra cash toward speakeasy refreshments. His lack of moderation, as well as suspensions due to brawling, cost Wilson dearly, causing him to suffer one of the worst comedowns in baseball history: 56/191/.356 to 13/61/.261.
Chicago, hoping to reclaim its crown from the St. Louis Cardinals, finished a distant third, and Wilson became Public Enemy No. 1 at Wrigley Field.
After the season, the Cubs traded Wilson to St. Louis in a three-player deal for Burleigh Grimes, but Hack never saw action for the arch-rival Redbirds, as they shipped him six weeks later to the Brooklyn Dodgers for cash and a prospect.
Hack relived a bit of glory in Brooklyn—clubbing 123 RBIs for the Daffy Dodgers—but it was the last flicker of a candle that had snuffed itself out too quickly. His career quickly deteriorated, and the man who had rung in the 1930s with a season for the ages was out of the Majors after 1934.
Wilson experienced all sorts of personal and financial problems after his career and grew bitter at a public that seemed to remember him more for two dropped balls in the 1929 World Series than his heroics of 1930.
He died a pauper at age 48, and, according to the November 27, 1948, New London (Conn.) Evening Day, only a donation from NL President Ford Frick kept his body from burial in a potter’s field.
Foxx Shoxx on the Mound
Conjecture long has swirled as to the reason why Jimmie Foxx fell from superstardom so rapidly. Alcohol remained the standard culprit for many years. But some have proffered the defense of sinusitis, which afflicted many ballplayers in those years before enlightened treatment.
Whatever the reason, baseball’s greatest slugger after Babe Ruth saw the bottom rapidly drop out of his career at age 34. Production since his mammoth 1938 season had decreased steadily, but Foxx still put up impressive numbers (as in another home-run crown and three more consecutive 100-RBI efforts).
Then, looking over the hill to Tom Yawkey, the Boston Red Sox waived him to the Chicago Cubs. (According to the June 2, 1942, Pittsburgh Press, Yawkey had tried to pawn off Foxx the previous season and had drastically cut Foxx’s salary two years in a row.)
Still mending from a broken rib, perhaps a league full of unfamiliar pitchers plagued Foxx (or perhaps it was booze or lingering effects of a sinus problem). Regardless, Foxx struggled mightily in Cubs blue. Over 70 games, he eked out a horrid .205 with only three homers.
Foxx was not invited back for 1943—his career finished just one season after batting .300 and knocking in 105 RBI.
Yet, sadly, Jimmie wasn’t really finished.
With many teams badly depleted by wartime service, Foxx returned to Wrigley Field in 1944. Coming primarily off the bench as a pinch-hitter, Jimmie managed one measly double in 20 at-bats. Chicago released him in early July.
But with the war raging in its final, destructive year, Jimmie again found work, this time back in Philadelphia where he’d long ago seen his greatest days. Getting into 89 games for a godawful Phillies squad, the 37-year-old Foxx hit a mildly respectable .268.
But those 89 games included nine as a pitcher. It must have been a curious, and distressing, sight to many Philadelphians who had witnessed Foxx’s former greatness but now watched him cling desperately to a career by taking the mound.
In Jimmie’s defense, he pitched very well, logging a team-best 1.59 ERA (in 22.2 innings) and managing not to lose a game for a squad en route to losing 108 of them.
Why did Foxx hang on? Perhaps because of money problems. A January 1958 Spartanburg Herald article reported that Foxx was virtually broke after amassing an estimated $250,000 during his career. He blamed himself solely for squandering his fortune.
Ironically, had Foxx hung on for one more season, he would have qualified for a Major League pension.
Adios, Maquina Roja Grande
Unless you grew up a Big Red Machine fan, this selection will probably leave you scratching your head. But I did grow up worshipping the Big Red Machine, each of them a hero in my young eyes. So I’m going to be greedy and include Dave Concepcion’s retirement as a particularly sad conclusion in baseball history, if only for me.
Making his last appearance as a Red late in the 1988 season, Cincinnati released Concepcion, who hit .198, the worst average of his career. Convinced he could still pull his weight, Concepcion told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he wanted to sign with another National League West team and play against Pete Rose and Reds General Manager Murray Cook.
No offer came, and Concepcion remained in his native Venezuela. The last starter from those great Reds teams to retire, I was saddened, though hardly surprised, at the confirmation that the Big Red Machine, and my youth, were long gone.
In his chronicle of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, The Machine, author Joe Posnanski relates how Concepcion wanted to be regarded in the same light as the Big Four of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Rose but that he had to settle for being the frequent target of their affectionate jokes.
He is no longer eligible for the Hall of Fame by the writers’ consensus (and never once came close), although the Veterans Committee may still enshrine him. It is doubtful his plaque will ever hang in Cooperstown, but should it come to pass, I would have no problem with it.
Sentimentality aside, as far as I’m concerned, Concepcion was the best shortstop of the 1970s. Five Gold Gloves, including a pair despite Ozzie Smith in the league, 2,326 hits, almost 1,000 RBIs, two top-10 MVP finishes, and solid postseason performances.
Not to mention a 0.00 ERA in 1.1 innings pitched.
So though it may have gone unnoticed by just about everyone else, the end of Dave Concepcion’s career certainly charts among my 20 saddest retirements in baseball history.
An Idol Is Worshipped
Mickey Mantle did it all—or at least as much as his body would allow. Visited by injuries as often as Yankees pennant runs, his body further weathered by Manhattan nightlife, The Mick compiled a career just short of what it should have been. He was, and remains, the idol of a multitude who grew up as adolescents and teenagers during the 1950s, more popular in modern times than even Babe Ruth (after all, how many newborn boys in Ruth’s heyday were named “Babe” or even “George”?).
With his blond hair, handsome looks and Midwestern innocence-that-wasn’t, Mickey fit the perfect mold for post-war America starving for a new hero.
Mantle hit gargantuan home runs that made opposing fans gasp. He stole bases and ran down flies like a cheetah chasing prey. He won triple crowns, yet took huge numbers of walks for the good of the team.
And most of all, Mantle seemed to be in the World Series every year, as if the ball were his and nobody could play for the championship without him. In his first 14 seasons, only twice did a box score not contain his exploits.
And what exploits they were. With his seven rings, Mantle still holds most of the major batting records in World Series play: home runs, RBIs, runs scored, total bases, and walks.
To many, Mickey Mantle was Superman, only in Pinstripes instead of a cape.
Although he’d been earning $100,000 a year since 1963, when Mantle’s used and abused body began aching too much even for him, he turned down another hundred-grand and announced his retirement shortly before Opening Day of 1969.
Surely, many a boy and young man in New York, and likely throughout the country, shed a tear.
Sixty-one thousand fans certainly did between a June 8 double-header with the Chicago White Sox, as they packed Yankee Stadium to applaud the man most responsible for maintaining the Bombers’ dynasty.
All athletes, no matter how great, are overtaken by time. Mickey Mantle’s greatness was neither deprived by injury nor dimmed by indignity. There is nothing inherently sad in Mantle’s retirement—he simply meant more to many people.
Baker a Forsaker of the A's
Rarely has a ballplayer turned such an infrequent hallmark into one of the most famous—and hyperbolic—nicknames in sports history. But home runs in consecutive World Series games in 1911 forever turned Frank Baker into Home Run Baker.
We can chuckle at the sobriquet tagged on a man who, with 93 career home runs, stands god-knows-how-low on the all-time list (it’s so far down that the top-500 list falls far short of even reaching 100).
Yet we must remember how infrequent were round-trippers in the Deadball Era. And Home Run Baker had a penchant for them even before he earned his moniker.
One of the best hot-corner men in baseball, Baker anchored Connie Mack’s vaunted $100,000 infield. Swinging ludicrously heavy bats (sources vary, but nearly all confirm in excess of 50 ounces), Baker provided both power and high average.
He paced the American League in homers for four consecutive years, while also twice leading the Junior Circuit in RBIs. A complete player, Baker not only could field and hit—he could run, as evidenced by a league-high 19 triples in 1909 and 88 three-baggers in a six-year span.
More importantly, Baker’s slugging and fielding served as the cornerstone of Mack’s first Philadelphia A’s dynasty, leading the White Elephants to four World Series in five years. One of the great big-game players, Baker—in addition to the hitting that transformed his identity—batted a hefty .363 in six Series, including three championships.
Only 28 years old and his reputation as the best third baseman in baseball—and perhaps history, at that point—already secure, Baker astonished Mack and fans everywhere by retiring. Numerous sources cite a salary dispute between Baker and Mack, although the New York Times of February 16, 1915, quotes the A’s manager as explaining that Baker was “sick of traveling” and wanted to “settle down on his Maryland farm.”
Although many a manager might hesitate to divulge that he’s being stingy toward a star player and could concoct a story like this to save face, Mack’s version may well be true for two reasons: first, if it were more money that Baker was truly after, he certainly could have jumped to the Federal League for a pay raise.
Second, Mack reported that Baker had two years left on a three-year contract (very rare for the time but easily verifiable), and not honoring contracts in that age was unheard of.
Then again, Mack, angry after his mighty A’s had been swept by the Miracle Braves—amid whispers of game fixing—began selling off his best players or losing them to the Federal League.
In any event, Baker retired to Maryland in 1915, and the effect on Philadelphia was calamitous. Without Baker, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender and the great Eddie Collins, the pennant-defending A’s went down the drain and wouldn’t recover for a decade. Philadelphians took it hard.
Equally calamitous was the effect on Home Run Baker’s career. One year after Mack’s quotes appeared in the Times, he sold Baker to the New York Yankees. Alas, Baker, who was eager to return to baseball, had short-circuited his greatness.
Baker still played well, but in only one of his six years in Pinstripes did he hit .300, and his run production was a shadow of what it had been in Philadelphia, even though Baker hit exactly as many home runs in New York—and all of this playing in the Polo Grounds, a much more favorable stadium for hitting.
Baker received deserved credit for helping build the Yankees into contenders, even before Babe Ruth’s arrival, and he enjoyed the fruits of that labor, twice returning to the World Series—although he may as well have been renamed Pair of Singles Baker for what was left of his October prowess by then.
One wonders how many more years of dominance Home Run Baker could have enjoyed had he not permitted his skills to languish at the height of his powers. Never the same ballplayer after 1915 (he actually retired again, in 1920, only to return for two more seasons), his desire for personal contentment over fame and fortune is admirable.
Still, Baker did make it up to Mack and disenchanted Philadelphians by discovering a young Jimmie Foxx and recommending him to the A’s.
There Is Crying in Baseball
As outspoken as its fans, Mike Schmidt and Philadelphia were a match made somewhere below heaven. Fickle and never shy about expressing their disappointment, much of Phillies’ fans frustration at a century of futility fell on the back of their best player.
And like any good Fightin’ Phil, Schmidt often fought back, angering the town with his criticism of their attitude and his string of postseason failures (.191 and no home runs through his first four League Championship series).
But as the 1980s wore on, sparked by Schmidt’s MVP in the World Series—the Phillies’ first title—opinions on both sides softened, especially as Philadelphians began to appreciate the good fortune of having Schmidt’s entire career unfold in South Philly.
A third National League MVP—for a team that finished just short of a light-year behind the division-champion New York Mets—ended any lingering debate as to who was the greatest third baseman in history.
When Schmidt officially announced his retirement at a 1989 press conference, he broke down and began weeping uncontrollably as he thanked God that his dream of becoming a Major League ballplayer came true—a sound bite that gained new life as a target of comic derision on Howard Stern’s radio program.
Bowing out with Grace
To many who saw him pitch, he was overpowering, perfect, the best ever to take the mound. To many too young to have seen him pitch, Sandy Koufax has become the benefactor of an illegally high mound and an expanded strike zone, his eye-opening statistics an illusion of time and place.
Though I belong to the latter, I subscribe to the former and find this revisionism to be hogwash. Firstly, the strike zone was not expanded until 1963; Koufax had already found the secret to his success two seasons earlier (going 32-20 with 485 strikeouts and an ERA crown), and although Koufax had yet to take the quantum leap to certifiable greatness, he was well on his way. Furthermore, every pitcher in the Majors had the new strike zone with which to work, affording Koufax no inherent advantage.
Secondly, raising the Dodger Stadium mound a few inches simply doesn’t seem capable of accounting for transforming a 54-53 disappointment (Koufax’s record through the end of 1961) virtually overnight to the second coming of Cy Young. And remember that Koufax’s breakout year of 1961 (18-13, 269 strikeouts) took place while the Dodgers still played in Los Angeles Coliseum.
Besides, pitching off an excessively high mound is not the advantage it has been made out to be. The pitcher may seem inordinately dominating to the batter, and may even generate slightly more energy on the ball, but it also makes the follow-through more unwieldy, which can make hitting the strike zone tricky.
And if it truly were the advantage it’s been made out to be, you can bet other teams would have caught on and raised their mounds as well.
True, Koufax's ERA at Dodger Stadium is more than a full run better than on the road, yet although he clearly dominated at home (.792 winning percentage), his winning percentage away from Chavez Ravine during the same span (.740) is more than outstanding, with a nearly identical ratio of strikeouts to innings pitched (1.05 K/IP at home; 1.04 away).
And in 33 World Series innings pitched away from Dodger Stadium, Koufax owns a 1.09 ERA (this includes pitching at Los Angeles Coliseum, which had left-field dimensions that would have made the Baker Bowl blush).
Or you could just watch, for example, Koufax blowing away Tony Oliva and the rest of the Minnesota Twins as he twirled a three-hit shutout in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series…in Metropolitan Stadium….on two days’ rest.
His record from 1961 onward is astounding: five consecutive ERA titles, four times leading the league in strikeouts, three pitching triple crowns, a winning percentage that didn’t drop below .750 for four straight seasons.
And, of course, the three no-hitters and a perfect game—which begat three Cy Young Awards and an MVP.
And all of it while pitching with an increasingly arthritic elbow that caused him excruciating pain.
As we all know, the pain and the prospect of a permanently damaged arm outweighed temporal glory, and Koufax announced his retirement after the 1966 season with unparalleled dignity. Not yet 31 years old and finished at the very height of his wizardry, Koufax left a tantalizing legacy of What if?
The Babe Stayed a Bit Too Long
Everyone knew the end was near. He was old and fat and had suffered his worst full season since coming to New York.
And the Yankees didn’t want him anymore.
Babe Ruth took his release from the franchise he made famous and headed back up the Post Road to play for the Boston Braves in 1935. It’s unknown whether owner Emil Fuchs expected anything out of the Babe’s bat—he signed Ruth to fill seats in a mostly empty Braves Field. Unfortunately, the Babe signed on the dotted line under the impression that Fuchs would eventually install him as manager (which Fuchs had no intention of doing).
Surprisingly, Ruth roared out of the gate, hitting .400 through his first five games, including two home runs. Grossly overweight, however, his advanced age and lack of conditioning quickly caught up with him, and the Babe’s batting dried up. Going nearly a month before getting another hit, his plummeting average passed his weight on the way down and never recovered. It was all over for the Bambino, save for one final, fleeting moment of glory.
On May 25, Ruth cracked three home runs (and a single) against Pirates pitching, the final moonshot of his incredible career clearing the Forbes Field roof, which had never before been accomplished.
A natural-born showman, Ruth would have done well to call it quits after this day. Sadly, and perhaps believing that more magic was left in his bat, he continued for another five games, going hitless in his final 13 at-bats (only a knee injury forced him from the lineup, else Ruth might have kept playing).
He turned in his uniform two days later.
For a player who had reinvented the sport and then dominated it like no one before or since—not to mention epitomized the American Dream and become the idol of untold millions in the process—the Babe’s final season, except for one day in Pittsburgh, wrote a sorry epilogue to a retirement lamented by everyone but opposing pitchers.
A's and Mays and Knees and Pleas
Clearly in his twilight and having lost several implements from his five-tool kit, the San Francisco Giants swapped Willie Mays back to the city that adored him, albeit one borough over.
Slightly revitalized in New York Mets blue, Mays stalled Father Time for the rest of 1972—even managing to lead the team in on-base percentage and OPS—but his 42-year-old body finally betrayed him in 1973.
Still, it’s hard to walk away from the game you were born to play, especially while earning $165,000 a year to play it ($850,000 in today's money).
Suiting up for only 66 games, Mays bore no resemblance to the perfect ballplayer of the Say Hey Kid’s heyday. Batting just .211 and slugging a putrid .344, Willie looked to be going out with a whimper.
That whimper became literal when the Mets, taking advantage of a Pittsburgh Pirates squad still reeling from the untimely death of Roberto Clemente, won the National League East with an 82-79 record, believed themselves past the Big Red Machine in the NLCS and marched right into an unexpected World Series.
Playing in only the first three games (and managing two singles in seven at-bats), Mays stumbled several times while pursuing fly balls—particularly painful in light of having once upon a time made the most famous defensive play in World Series history—and, in the top of the 10th inning of Game 2, after Bud Harrelson was gunned down at the plate in an inning-ending double-play, Willie sunk to his knees and pleaded in vain with umpire Augie Donatelli to reverse the call.
New York eventually won the game, but the sight of the great Willie Mays actually going out with a whimper instead of a bang made for a sad end indeed.
So Close Yet so Far
Anyone taking the time to read this must be well acquainted with Moonlight Graham, or at least the Field of Dreams version of him. Largely accurate except for the time line, there really was an Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, and he really did appear in a single game in the Majors, without taking an at-bat.
Virtually anonymous until W.P. Kinsella included Graham as a central figure in his 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, it is easy to imagine Moonlight experiencing the same anguish portrayed by his onscreen counterpart, Burt Lancaster. Here was a young man, brimming with love for baseball and the pride of donning a New York Giants uniform after climbing out of the obscurity of rural North Carolina, sitting quietly on the bench and hoping for a chance to play.
Whether old John McGraw actually pointed a bony finger in his direction will never be known, but Graham got the call to take right field on June 29, 1905 (not the last game of the 1922 season, as Lancaster relays in the film). The ball never came his way in the bottom of the eighth inning, and he got as close as the on-deck circle (or whatever it was called in 1905) when the Giants made the third out.
Again, nothing was hit to Graham in the bottom of the ninth, and the game ended in a Giants victory.
Unlike the film, which states that Graham quit immediately after a season-ending game and returned home rather than face “another year in the minors,” there was plenty of season left after this early summer contest, and Graham was sent back down to the minors. Not only did he finish the season there, but he hung on for three more years in the low minors, hoping to one day return and taste the moment he had come so very close to tasting on that June afternoon.
“It was like coming this close to your dreams…and then watch them brush past you like a stranger in a crowd,” Lancaster laments with a smile about never stepping in for that one at-bat. Like the celluloid character, the real Moonlight did go on to serve Chisholm, Minnesota, for many decades as the beloved Doc Graham—yet having to retire without ever experiencing the one moment to which he came so achingly close must have lingered melancholily for the rest of Moonlight’s life.
Campanella's Career Comes Crashing to an End
Even though he technically was no longer a Brooklyn Dodger, Roy Campanella remained adored by the borough in which he’d spent the previous 10 years.
But on a January evening in 1958—three months after the Dodgers had played their last game in Brooklyn and three before they’d play their first game in Los Angeles—Campanella’s car skidded on an icy road and overturned, breaking his neck and leaving him almost completely paralyzed. Although some function would return to his upper body, Campanella would never regain the use of his legs—his career, of course, finished.
Thankfully, he’d enjoyed a sterling tenure in Dodger blue: three MVPs, five All-Star selections and, according to sabermetrician Chuck Rosciam, by far the highest caught-stealing percentage by a catcher in baseball history: an incredible 57.2% of runners gunned down.
Campanella backstopped Brooklyn to its first and only World Series title and was a core member of the great Dodgers teams that ruled the National League from 1949 to 1956.
Though born and raised in Philadelphia, Campanella was, in Brooklynites’ hearts, one of their own, and even though he would never play another game for them regardless of the accident, his tragic plight devastated the borough and Dodgers fans everywhere.
An Awful Lot to Live for
No retirement in the history of baseball—or perhaps in all of American history—can approach Lou Gehrig’s tragic departure. Likely, nothing ever will.
A paragon of the Puritan work ethic, Gehrig was loved and admired even by fans who despised the lordly New York Yankees. His humility in the face of such success struck a chord even deeper than did the all-American dream personified by Babe Ruth. And perhaps even more than the Babe, Gehrig turned the Yankees into a superpower even before the United States became one.
His story is well known and his exploits are legend: a triple crown, three home-run titles, eight 200-hit seasons and a .340 batting average to go along with his brute power, seven world championships—and, of course, the RBIs.
Simply, the most devastating run producer in baseball history, Gehrig averaged 149 RBIs per season—a statistic made all the more staggering because he spent the bulk of his career hitting immediately behind Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, themselves two of the most prolific base-cleaners to step into a batter’s box. Between them, Ruth and DiMaggio smashed 990 home runs in Pinstripes, which means that, conservatively, Gehrig came to bat 900 times in his career—the better part of two full seasons—with the bases empty, yet still drove home those colossal totals.
His numbers very nearly run off the scale—and they would have, had Gehrig not developed the horrible disease that took his name after taking his life.
Playing every contest, regardless of injury or fatigue, Gehrig amassed a streak of 2,130 consecutive games, a mark so far beyond the previous record that it was considered insurmountable—and Gehrig indestructible. With his blacksmith’s physique and blue-collar mentality, Gehrig seemed like a redwood that would stand strong forever.
But as the 1938 season progressed, the Iron Horse appeared to be running out of steam. Not until the first week of May did he club his first home run or raise his average above .200. And although his hitting warmed with the summer, Gehrig finished the season with numbers that, although many lesser hitters would happily embrace, constituted his poorest year since becoming a regular.
Everyone thought Gehrig was just feeling the slowly mounting effects of time. Who could have anticipated anything else?
During spring training of 1939, those who saw Gehrig labor through exercises and scrimmages were shocked by the deterioration of skills. When the season began, so were opponents and fans around the league. Something much more serious than encroaching age had got hold of him.
Eight games into the season, Gehrig removed himself from the lineup before a contest in Detroit. For the first time since June 1925, Lou Gehrig would not appear in a regular-season game. Detroit fans, realizing at the announcement of Babe Dahlgren starting at first base that they were witnessing the unthinkable, gave Gehrig a standing ovation.
His official retirement came on June 21, but visits to the Mayo Clinic confirmed that the mighty Gehrig was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The nation reeled in shock.
Gehrig was given a “day” on July 4 between a double-header against the Washington Senators. After a showering of praise and gifts from teammates, foes, politicos and the Babe, he delivered his famous and achingly moving speech. (Newsreels have fooled us for decades into believing that Lou considering himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” concluded the speech, when, in actuality, he uttered those words in its opening lines.)
As Gehrig wiped away tears, it’s safe to say that not a man, woman or child in Yankee Stadium that day didn’t do the same.
Less than two years later, Lou Gehrig was gone.