MLB Legends Who Pulled an MJ and Ended Up Playing for a Random Team

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 19, 2020

MLB Legends Who Pulled an MJ and Ended Up Playing for a Random Team

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    Remember when Ken Griffey Jr. was with the Chicago White Sox? Probably not.
    Remember when Ken Griffey Jr. was with the Chicago White Sox? Probably not.Ron Vesely/Getty Images

    Nobody thinks of Michael Jordan, noted Chicago Bulls champion and purported dancer, as a Washington Wizard. But that's a thing that happened. For two seasons, no less.

    Do the annals of Major League Baseball contain similar stories of legendary stars ending up with random teams? Of course, and we know this because we looked into it.

    To be sure, a great many superstars who have come through MLB played for more than one team during their careers. Our search, however, was specifically focused on Hall of Fame-bound players who:

    • Were strongly tied to one or two teams in their playing days
    • Somehow ended up with another club for one stint and one stint only
    • Barely played for said club for one reason or another

    Apropos of that last note, we set the following bars: no more than 50 games for hitters and no more than 10 appearances for pitchers. And the less memorable, the better.

    Ultimately, we settled on 15 "Wait, that guy played for that team?" stories worth telling. Save for one deviation for the sake of narrative convenience, we will proceed in chronological order. 

When Christy Mathewson Was a Cincinnati Red

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    Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    To be clear, we're referring to when Christy Mathewson actually suited up for the Cincinnati Reds.

    After the New York Giants sent him to the minors following his rough debut in 1900, the Reds promptly signed him for $100. But the story goes that principal owner John T. Brush, who had designs on turning his stake in the Giants into full ownership, forced a trade that sent Mathewson back to New York.

    Sure enough, Mathewson went on to become one of the greatest pitchers of all time. But when his career was winding down in 1916, he set his mind on managing. The Giants did him a solid in July by shipping him to Cincinnati, where he would take over as the Reds' new skipper.

    Come Sept. 4, however, Mathewson found himself back on the mound for a final showdown with Chicago Cubs ace and longtime rival Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. Albeit with 15 hits and eight runs on his line, Mathewson emerged the victor in a 10-8 Reds win.

    Hence his final appearance figures: 635 for the Giants and one for the Reds. He was later in the first-ever Hall of Fame class in 1936, though he had died 11 years earlier at just 45.

When Hack Wilson Was a Philadelphia Philly

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    Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    If Hack Wilson's name rings a bell, that's likely because of his claim to fame as the single-season record-holder for runs batted in.

    He drove in a whopping 191 runs in 1930, which capped an extraordinary five-year run with the Chicago Cubs. Altogether, he put up a .331/.419/.612 batting line with 177 home runs and 708 RBI. 

    But no thanks to his notorious alcoholism, Wilson's career began to deteriorate in 1931. That winter, the Cubs traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, who subsequently flipped him to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He put up wildly mediocre numbers for them through August 1934, when they finally released him.

    In what was surely a move made with their attendance in mind, the also-ran Philadelphia Phillies quickly signed Wilson. But after he went just 2-for-20 in seven games, they ended the experiment and cut him loose.

    Though Wilson was only 34 at the time, his release from the Phillies marked the end of his major league career. He died only 14 years later in 1948 after enduring years of hardship in his post-baseball life.

When Babe Ruth Was a Boston Brave

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    Associated Press

    Babe Ruth was famously a Boston Red Sox through 1919, and he was even more famously a New York Yankee through 1934.

    Altogether, Ruth's time with the Yankees was a revolutionary experience marked by 659 home runs, including an untold 60 in 1927. He also led the Yankees to seven World Series, winning four of them.

    Yet Ruth was clearly on his last legs heading into his age-40 season in 1935. The Yankees granted his wish for a new beginning in February by ending their relationship so the Bambino could join the Boston Braves as a player, assistant manager and executive.

    Ruth's jump from the American League to the National League was thought of as a boon for the latter, and he quickly made good on the hype by homering on Opening Day. But through the end of May, he was batting just .181 and feuding with Boston's manager and owner.

    After only 28 games, all this resulted in the abrupt end to Ruth's tenure with the Braves on June 3. That concluded his record-setting career as a player, and he unfortunately went to his grave in 1948 having never managed a team of his own.

When Lefty Gomez Was a Washington Senator

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    Charles P. Gorry/Associated Press

    By the time Babe Ruth's tenure in New York was coming to a close in the 1930s, the Yankees were congealing around a new core of young stars.

    One of them was Lefty Gomez, who debuted in 1930 and won 151 games between 1931 and 1938. The Yankees also won all seven of the starts he made in five different World Series.

    Come 1940, however, injuries were beginning to pave Gomez's way out of the majors. The Yankees finally cut ties with him in January 1943 when they sold him to the Boston Braves. Alas, he didn't even get to pitch for them before they released him in May.

    The Phillies sought a Hack Wilson-ian maneuver on Gomez, but he instead caught on with the Washington Senators. He finally got back on the mound on May 30, only to struggle through 4.2 innings before succumbing to a sore shoulder.

    The Senators released Gomez not long after, but his story at least has a happy ending. He was still alive when the Veteran's Committee inducted him into Cooperstown in 1972, and he was 80 when he died in 1989.

When Dizzy Dean Was a St. Louis Brown

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    Gil Friedberg/Associated Press

    Suffice it to say that Dizzy Dean had a weird career in Major League Baseball.

    He was at his best for the "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals, winning 133 games between 1932 and 1937 and a World Series in 1934. But then the injury bug came for him, and he was done as a pitcher by 1941.

    Subsequently, Dean transitioned into the broadcast booth and became a cult hero on account of his colorful commentary. For example, he boasted that he could throw better than any of the pitchers on the St. Louis Browns staff while covering the team in 1947.

    The Browns decided to take him up on that, signing him to a contract that stipulated he would pitch one game and one game only. That came to pass on the final day of the regular season on Sept. 28. And despite his six-year layoff, Old Diz came through with four shutout innings against the Chicago White Sox.

    Dean hung up his spikes for good after that, and he went into the Hall of Fame just six years later in 1953. He carried on as a beloved broadcaster into the late 1960s and died in 1974.

When Yogi Berra Was a New York Met

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    Associated Press

    Yogi Berra truly did it all as a Yankee.

    He played 18 seasons with the Bronx Bombers between 1946 and 1963, in which he was a regular All-Star and a 10-time World Series champion. He then took over as the club's manager in 1964 and promptly led it to an American League pennant.

    But then things got weird as the Yankees parted ways with both Berra and longtime radio voice Mel Allen during the 1964-65 offseason. Berra's next move was to head across town to reunite with former Yankees manager Casey Stengel on the Mets' staff for the 1965 season.

    Berra also found himself back in the crouch in spring training, which he admitted "felt a little strange" after more than a year in retirement. He was later pressed into action for four games in May, but the experience only served to drive home the point that Berra, then 39, simply couldn't play anymore.

    Thus ended Berra's career as a Mets player, but he followed it with a generally successful stint as their manager between 1972 and 1975. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in '72, and he lived to the ripe old age of 90 before dying in 2015.

When Orlando Cepeda Was an Oakland Athletic

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    Mike Groll/Associated Press

    Ask the average baseball fan about where Orlando Cepeda earned his fame and they'll likely side with the San Francisco Giants or St. Louis Cardinals.

    Cepeda broke in with the Giants as the National League Rookie of the Year in 1958 and was a regular All-Star for them through 1966. Following a trade to the Cardinals in May of that year, he went on to win an MVP and a World Series ring in 1967.

    But Cepeda's stardom was winding down when the Cards traded him to the Atlanta Braves in 1969, and it seemed to be all but spent by 1972. After he had played in only 28 games and gotten suspended for feuding with manager Luman Harris, the Braves traded Cepeda to the Oakland Athletics in June.

    In the end, Cepeda's time with the A's consisted of just three pinch-hit appearances in July. They later released him in December, which seemingly marked the end of his career.

    It wasn't, though, because the Boston Red Sox tabbed Cepeda to try out a new position called the designated hitter in 1973. That resulted in him padding his numbers ahead of his eventual call to Cooperstown in 1999.

When Willie McCovey Was an Oakland Athletic

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Think Orlando Cepeda is the only San Francisco Giants legend who had a brief, unforgettable stint across the bay? Think again.

    Though he was often lost in Willie Mays' shadow, Willie McCovey was one of San Francisco's defining stars between 1959 and 1973. He won three National League home run titles in that span, not to mention a Rookie of the Year and MVP.

    But McCovey's star was beginning to dim when the Giants traded him to the San Diego Padres in October 1973, and he was eventually relegated to a reserve role at the outset of the 1976 season. After 71 unspectacular games, San Diego sold him to the Oakland Athletics in August.

    McCovey wasn't exactly rejuvenated by his return to the Bay Area. He played in only 11 games for the A's, going 5-for-24 with no home runs. So when the Giants picked him up as a free agent the following January, it seemed to be little more than a courtesy.

    McCovey, however, rallied to hit 28 homers in '77 and then 28 more through 1980. He went into Cooperstown in 1986, and he was just a few months shy of his 81st birthday when he died in 2018.

When Juan Marichal Was a Los Angeles Dodger

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    If San Francisco Giants stars turning into Oakland A's stars is odd, then Giants stars turning into Los Angeles Dodgers stars is something more akin to sacrilege.

    Especially if your name is Juan Marichal.

    As San Francisco's ace between 1960 and 1973, Marichal beat up on the Dodgers in more ways than one. He posted a 2.36 ERA in 63 starts against them, and he infamously took a bat to catcher John Roseboro's head in an ugly brawl in 1965.

    The Dodgers were nonetheless willing to give Marichal, who was then 37 and coming off a bleak season with the Boston Red Sox, a tryout on the eve of the 1975 season. He accepted it and did well enough to earn a one-year contract.

    What followed were two lousy starts in April, resulting in the end of Marichal's career after 16 years in the majors. But he at least succeeded in making friends of his longtime adversaries. One Dodger, catcher Joe Ferguson, even bid Marichal adieu by remarking that he was "one helluva nice guy."

    Marichal even made amends with Roseboro. So much so, in fact, that he honored Roseboro during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1983 and even eulogized him at Roseboro's funeral in 2002.

When Steve Carlton Was a San Francisco Giant

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    BILL BEATTIE/Associated Press

    Though Steve Carlton initially made a name for himself with the St. Louis Cardinals between 1965 and 1971, it was with the Philadelphia Phillies that he became a superstar.

    After the Cardinals traded Carlton to Philadelphia in February 1972, he went on to win four National League Cy Young Awards through 1982. He also led the Phillies to a World Series title in 1980.

    By 1985, however, Carlton was into his 40s and no longer a viable ace. The Phillies even pushed him to retire in 1986 but settled for releasing him after he refused. Not long after, he signed with the San Francisco Giants in July.

    Understandably, Carlton wanted to keep pitching because his 4,000th career strikeout was in reach. He finally got it in August, but by then he had a less-than-impressive 5.10 ERA in six appearances as a Giant. He decided he would go no further, issuing a statement that he meant to retire.

    But through some strange twists of fate, Carlton was pitching for the Chicago White Sox shortly thereafter, and he continued to bounce around the majors through the 1988 season. He was second on the all-time strikeout list when he finally called it a career, and he went into Cooperstown in 1994.

When Phil Niekro Was a Toronto Blue Jay

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    Mike Groll/Associated Press

    Whether it was in Milwaukee or Atlanta, Phil Niekro authored the bulk of his mythic career as a Brave.

    Between his debut in 1964 and the end of his first stint with the club in 1983, Niekro won 268 games and pitched to a rock-solid 3.20 ERA. What he lacked, though, was so much as an appearance in the World Series.

    Remedying that was a pressing matter for Niekro in his final seasons, during which he played for the New York Yankees in 1984 and 1985 and then the Cleveland Indians in 1986 and 1987. After nothing came of those experiences, Niekro got a golden opportunity when the Indians, who were in last place, traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays, who were in first place, in August 1987.

    But it didn't last. Niekro bombed in his three starts with the Blue Jays, who opted to release him in September rather than pursue his potential feel-good story any further.

    On the plus side, that allowed the then-47-year-old to return to Atlanta for one final start with the Braves. And while he never did get his World Series ring, he did make it into Cooperstown in 1997.

When Mike Piazza Was a Florida Marlin

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It says a lot about Mike Piazza's tenures with the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets that there was some drama over which club's cap he was going to wear into the Hall of Fame in 2016.

    In seven seasons with Los Angeles between 1992 and 1998, Piazza was a frequent All-Star and MVP candidate. In eight seasons with New York between '98 and 2005, he kept the All-Star production coming and even led the Mets to the World Series in 2000.

    Oh, and he was also a Florida Marlin in the middle of all that.

    Noting as much perhaps breaks the rules of this little project, but there's just no ignoring how one of the greatest catchers of all time was involved in one of the most bizarre trades of all time. The Marlins only dealt for Piazza in May 1998 as a means to jettison payroll. He stayed for only five games before they flipped him to the Mets for prospects.

    Of course, Piazza also had short and generally forgettable stints with the San Diego Padres and Oakland A's in 2006 and 2007, respectively. It's surely his stint in Miami, however, that looms as the strangest chapter of his great career.

When Ken Griffey Jr. Was a Chicago White Sox

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Though Ken Griffey Jr. hit most of his 630 career home runs with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds, he might have won his one and only World Series ring with the White Sox.

    During the 2005 season, Chicago sought to bring Griffey aboard via a waiver trade in August. But the deal fell apart, reportedly because Cincinnati CEO Carl Lindner didn't like that the White Sox were asking the Reds to pay down the bulk of Griffey's remaining contract.

    It wasn't until 2008 that the White Sox actually acquired Griffey in a deadline-day deal. By then, he was 38 and well past his prime. He hit only three homers for Chicago in 41 games down the stretch, followed by a 2-for-10 performance in a losing effort in the American League Division Series.

    That could have marked the end of Griffey's career, but he returned to Seattle for a last hurrah and enjoyed a solid season in 2009. But the Mariners missed the playoffs, and Griffey's attempt at another last hurrah in 2010 ended with his sudden retirement in June.

    Even without a ring to his name, however, he was still a nearly unanimous selection for Cooperstown in 2016.

When John Smoltz Was a Boston Red Sox and a St. Louis Cardinal

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    John Smoltz was a lot of things for the Atlanta Braves between 1988 and 2008.

    For the most part, he was an ace who was good enough to win a Cy Young Award in 1996 and clutch enough to rack up a 2.65 ERA in the postseason. But there was also that time when he served as an All-Star closer between 2002 and 2004.

    Smoltz's durability was challenged by Tommy John surgery in 2000. And come June 2008, the then-41-year-old's career seemed to be over when he went in for major shoulder surgery. In the words of Braves skipper Bobby Cox, doctors had to repair "a lot of damage."

    In retrospect, it might have been best if that was the end for Smoltz. While he came back for the 2009 season, the end result included eight mediocre appearances apiece for the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. Altogether, he tallied a 6.35 ERA in the regular season and one forgettable relief appearance in October.

    But all this was clearly forgotten by 2015 when Hall of Fame voters deemed Smoltz worthy of Cooperstown.

When Jim Thome Was a Los Angeles Dodger

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Though he's mostly remembered as a Cleveland Indian, Jim Thome hit his 612 career home runs with five different teams.

    Which leads us to one hell of a bar trivia question: What's the one team for which Thome played but never went deep?

    Anyone who guesses the Los Angeles Dodgers has the right answer and should also be credited for remembering that Thome was even on the Dodgers. They acquired him from the Chicago White Sox on the final day of August 2009. Sans a designated hitter spot with which to play Thome on an everyday basis, the Dodgers were limited to using him as a pinch-hitter.

    That didn't go so well. Thome, who was 38 at the time, went 4-for-17 with no extra-base hits through the remainder of the regular season. His five plate appearances in October yielded one hit and one walk.

    To his credit, Thome went back to the American League for 2010 and came through with a 25-homer campaign for the Minnesota Twins. He retired in 2012 and easily went into the Hall of Fame in 2018.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.