Branch Rickey has an esteemed place in the history of baseball and his quotes are intelligent and insightful. One of the most famous is a microcosm of his General Manager philosophy…”Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late”. That may seem somewhat cold and heartless but the GM’s job is to win games, not make friends. Athletes in general and baseball players in particular, usually have to be dragged away from the game kicking and screaming. It is easy to say that the primary factor is money, but that would be much too simple an answer. In the days before free agency and guaranteed long-term contracts, players almost always played well past their prime and in numerous cases, embarrassed themselves and tarnished their reputations. The reasons are varied, but it comes down to just wanting to be a ballplayer. It is what they’ve always done and leaving the lifestyle is never easy. Very few players went out “on top” and many of those didn’t really do it voluntarily.
Some of the best final seasons that weren’t actually by choice include…
> Joe Jackson, 1920 White Sox – “Shoeless Joe” hit .382 with 121 RBI’s and led the AL in Triples with 20. For you stat geeks, his OPS was 1.033. Even at age 32, he was at an elite skill level before being banned from baseball due to his involvement with scandal of the 1919 World Series.
> Roberto Clemente, 1972 Pirates – At age 37, the Bucs legend still hit .312 and won a Gold Glove despite being limited to 102 games. It seems clear that he could have made a positive contribution for a few more years if not for the tragic plane crash on December 31st.
> Jackie Robinson, 1956 Dodgers – After 50+ years, the perception seems to be that this pioneer was washed up at age 37. A closer look, however, shows that his .275 BA with a .382 OBP included double digit HR’s & SB’s. Not bad for a player who also appeared at four different defensive positions during the season. The Dodgers did win the pennant and took the Yankees to seven games, so in retrospect, his retirement may have had more to do with being traded to the Giants after the season.
> Sandy Koufax, 1966 Dodgers – The premiere example of a player going out on top, this Hall of Fame Lefthander completed a season that included 27 Wins, 27 Complete Games, 323 IP, 317 K’s and a 1.73 ERA. Imagine what might have happened if more modern methods were available to fix his elbow. He was only 30 when he retired.
> Kirby Puckett, 1995 Twins – Another player impacted by injury, his final season at age 35 showed very little regression. The All-Star appearance was his 11th in a row and he hit .314 with 23 HR’s & 99 RBI’s.
> Lyman Bostock, 1978 Angels – Not really remembered by fans under the age of 40, this budding star was shot and killed at age 27 in September of ’78. He had just completed his first season with the Angels after hitting .323 & .336 for the Twins the previous two years. In over 2,000 major league AB’s, his BA was .311, but the prime of his career never materialized.
David Ortiz is an exception to the rule, as he had an excellent season (127 RBI’s) at age 40 before hanging it up. Many players have tried to accomplish this feat, but more often than not, the attempt was futile. Not everyone can be like Ortiz or Ted Williams, who after hitting .254 in an injury-plagued 1959 campaign, came back at age 42 to hit .316 with 29 HR’s in his final year.
This season’s baseball landscape has Francisco Rodriguez signing with an independent league team at age 36 despite the fact that he’s made over $83 Million in his career. Jose Bautista hit .203 last season at age 36 and was just released by the Braves after hitting .143…he’s made $103 Million. Albert Pujols has an OPS under .700 for the last two seasons and is still owed over $80 Million.
Too often, we painfully watch great players hang on to the dream as their performance deteriorates…
> Mickey Mantle – His last two seasons (’67 & ’68) produced batting averages of .245 & .237, which dropped his lifetime figure under .300. That statistic scarred him emotionally and he once said, “My biggest regret was letting my lifetime average drop below .300. I always felt I was a .300 hitter, and if I could change one thing that would be it.”
> Willie Mays – Hit .211 for the 1973 Mets.
> Hank Aaron – Played his final two seasons with the Brewers (’75 & ’76) compiling BA’s of .234 & .229.
> Pete Rose – Even the “Hit King” wasn’t immune, hitting .219 with the Reds in 1986.
> Duke Snider – His last two years (’63 & ’64), he hit .243 & .210.
> Steve Carlton – Pitching for a succession of teams in his 40’s, he had ERA’s of 5.10 & 5.74 in ’86 & ’87.
> Ernie Banks – Hit .193 in his age 40 season…he didn’t have the energy to “play two”.
> Reggie Jackson – Went back to Oakland at age 41…and hit .220.
> Harmon Killebrew – Played his final season in Kansas City as their DH and hit .199.
Of course, Billy Chapel pitched a perfect game to end his career…oh, wait, that was a fictional story. Even on that magical night, Billy said, “I don’t know if I have anything left”.