Last living links

It always has to be someone. There always has to be some last link. Someone always has to be the final man standing.

Last week I wrote a somewhat morbid column here at THT noting who were the last survivors for various pennant winners. It was interesting to see who the guys were who held on the longest after their brightest days in the sun.

Since I’m on this weird death kick, let’s combine it with another of my ongoing sources of interest: managers. I did write a book about them, after all, so let’s see who was the last surviving ballplayer for various prominent managers.

Obviously, there’s a ton of guys from recent times still alive. Most players from 40 years ago are still alive, and plenty from 50 years ago, too. Trying to find out how many men are left alive who played for Casey Stengel would result in too long a list.

Let’s start with 1950. That has two advantages. First, it’s a very long time ago. A 22-year-old kid rookie from then would now be 85, and most men die before they’re that old. Second, several prominent managers phased out of baseball around that time, including some Hall of Famers. Last see who their last living links are.

As it happens, every single team from 1950 has at least one surviving player. (The most recent team that is entirely demised is the 1949 Indians, if you’re curious.) Also, 1950 was a big year for managerial retirements, as a quarter of pennant-winning managers left: Burt Shotton, Eddie Dyer, and Hall of Famers Joe McCarthy and Connie Mack.

Last living links

Let’s not waste time; Mack is the most interesting fellow of the bunch. The man piloted teams in seven decades, a feat that no one will ever match. He began playing in the majors in 1886. That’s barely after the game legalized overhand pitching and before pitchers threw from mounds. It’s before the three-strike, four-ball count. And there are still some guys still alive who played for him, 14 to be exact.

The youngest of them is Carl Scheib, a pitcher who turned 86 years old on New Year’s Day. If Scheib does end up being Mack’s last living link, it’ll be his second claim to trivia fame. He’s already the answer to the question, who is the youngest player in AL history? Thanks to the demands of WWII, Mack debuted Scheib in 1943, when he was just 16 years old. Once he matured, Scheib established himself, winning 14 games for a surprisingly good 1948 A’s club.

Scheib is one of five more Mack-men under 90 years old. The others are Vern Benson, Billy DeMars, Lou Brissie, and Bobby Shantz. The first two are forgettable call-ups, Brissie had a few good years as a pitcher, and Shantz was a star pitcher in the early 1950s, even winning the 1952 MVP Award. Obviously, that was after Mack stepped down.

Predictably, most of these guys are from the end of Mack’s career. He still has one player left from the 1930s, Ace Parker. He played outfield for the A’s in 1937 and ’38. His birthday is next week, and he’ll turn 101 years old. Mack’s other half-dozen survivors were all born between 1918 and 1922: Carl Miles, Dick Adams, Larry Eschen, Bob Savage, Joe Astroth, and George Yankowski.

With 14 survivors, Mack has more than the other skippers who stepped down at that time. Joe McCarthy also managed throughout the 1940s, but he has just 10 men left. The most prominent of them is Yogi Berra, who turns 88 later this week. Yogi is one of just two men to survive from McCarthy’s Yankees, the other being Bobby Brown, who later served as AL president.

McCarthy has one other Hall of Famer left alive, Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr. The most prominent non-Cooperstown McCarthy survivors are Sam Mele, who piloted the 1965 Twins to the pennant, and Dave Ferriss, the Dontrelle Willis of his day, a stud youngster with no second act. Charlie Maxwell is McCarthy’s youngest survivor, 85 years old.

Shotton managed the 1930s Phillies, who are all dead, and late 1940s Dodgers, who have 10 survivors, most notably pitchers Don Newcombe, and Ralph Branca. Dyer wasn’t nearly as important a manager—he lasted just five years—but he has eight men left alive who played for him. One is Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, and another had quite a successful post-playing career: catcher-turned-broadcaster Joe Garagiola.

Before moving backwards, in early 1951 another Hall of Fame manager retired, Billy Southworth. Only one player survives from his days helming the mid-1940s Cardinals, Schoendienst again. Several notable players from his days with the Boston Braves are left, including Alvin Dark, Johnny Logan, and Johnny Antonelli (who, born in 1930, is Southworth’s youngest surviving player).

Working backwards

Let’s start going back a ways and see when we finally reach a manager with no remaining living links.

The next notable manager you come to is Mel Ott. One of the last prominent player-managers, Ott managed over 1,000 games for the Giants from 1942 to 1948. However, those Giants haven’t aged as well as Mack’s A’s. Only two are left alive.

Well, Ott’s hardly a prominent manager, more a prominent player who lasted a bit in the dugout.

Go back a little further, though, and you hit the real deal: Bill McKechnie. One of only two men to win pennants with three different teams, he managed for 25 years and won nearly 2,000 games.

McKechnie’s last stop came in Cincinnati, and only four players are left from those squads, none of them at all notable. The baby of the group, Bob Usher, is 88. The others are 90. So in a few years, there will be no living connection to McKechnie.

At about the same time McKechnie left the dugout, so did Joe Cronin. More famous as a Hall of Fame shortstop, he did manage over 2,000 games and is still easily the all-time winningest Red Sox skipper. A half-dozen of his players remain, all of whom are in their 90s. Heck, 95-year-old Bobby Doerr isn’t even the oldest, as his WWII teammate Lou Lucier is two weeks older. Cot Deal, a call up in Cronin’s last month helming Boston, is the youngest, having just turned 90 earlier this year.

During WWII, the only manager of any prominence to retire was Jimmie Wilson. Because he managed the 1930s Phillies when they were at their most pathetic, Wilson has the unenviable distinction of the most games under .500 by any manager: 242. He later piloted the early-1940s Cubs, and two of his players are still with us: Lennie Merullo and Andy Pafko. (As noted last week, they’re also the only men left alive who have played for the Cubs in a World Series).

Last man no longer standing

You have to go back to pre-Pearl Harbor baseball to find a manager whose players are all gone.

As it happens, the most recent notable manager to have no surviving players is Bill Terry. Famous as a Hall of Fame first baseman and the last National Leaguer to bat .400, Terry succeeded John McGraw as Giants manager, lasting a decade in the role and winning three pennants. His last surviving player was Eddie Mayo, who passed away around Thanksgiving of 2006.

Go back further, and there aren’t too many notable managers who retired in the mid-to-late 1930s. Really, there’s no one memorable until you go back to the big man himself, John McGraw.

One of the iconic names in the game, McGraw managed from the 1890s until he was near death in the 1930s. McGraw retired early in the 1932 season, and his last remaining player was Hank Boney, who died on June 12, 2002. Am I the only one who finds it awesome that one of McGraw’s players lived long enough to see the John Mabry-for-Jeremy Giambi trade? Hell, he nearly outlived Darryl Kile.

Shortly before McGraw retired, his longtime friend turned bitter enemy—and fellow Cooperstown skipper—Wilbert Robinson retired. He ran the Dodgers until 1931, and his last living player is also a Hall of Fame manager: Al Lopez. In fact, Lopez was the last ballplayer from the 1920s still alive.

In fact, the Robinson-Lopez connection serves as a key link in one of my favorite baseball chains. When Robinson broke into baseball as a catcher in the 19th century, he briefly was a teammate of a veteran pitcher named Bobby Mathews. Mathews had first pitched in the 1871 National Association, the first ever professional league.

So the Mathews-Robinson-Lopez chain takes you from the game’s first season until 1969, when Lopez retired, in just three steps. Unfortunately, neither Tony LaRussa nor Joe Torre nor anyone else like that played for Lopez. Here’s the best I can do. Lopez’s later White Sox teams had a young third baseman named Bill Melton, who is still active in the Chicago sports media doing postgame coverage on Sox cable TV broadcasters. So if you count that, you have the duration of baseball history in just four people.

Walking back further, two years before Robinson retired, Hall of Fame Yankee manager Miller Huggins died in Sept., 1929. His last surviving player was Milt Gaston, who passed away in April of 1996 at age 100.

It’s odd that Gaston would be the last survivor of the first great Yankee manager. He started out with the Yankees in the 1920s, but then they dealt him away. He spent the rest of his career toiling for terrible teams, resulting in a 97-164 record despite an average ERA. Yet this pitcher with the woeful record is the last survivor of the man who began the great Yankee tradition. I guess it’s fitting Gaston died just at the Yankees were about to begin a new stretch of glory.

People don’t typically think of Frank Chance as a great manager, but he was. The Peerless Leader earned his nickname, as you can’t imagine his teams doing any better than they actually did. Unfortunately for him, he took too many fastballs to the head, which shortened his dugout career and eventually his life.

Chance stopped managing in 1923, but he had a former player make it all the way until Sept. 17, 1998. That’s when Chet “Red” Hoff passed away. Remarkably, Hoff played for Chance way back in 1913, when Chance ran the Yankees for a brief spell. Hoff died at age 107, the oldest ballplayer ever. Hoff also is the last person to have played for manager Branch Rickey.

Go back further and there is Fred Clarke. Like Chance, he’s better known for his Hall of Fame on-field career, but not only did Clarke guide his Pirates teams to several pennants, but when he retired, Clarke was the game’s all-time winningest manager. His last player was Erv Kantlehner, who did in Feb., 1990. That barely beat out Carmen Hill, who died on New Year’s Day, 1990.

The man Clarke passed up as all-time winningest manager is Hall of Fame skipper Ned Hanlon, most famous for piloting the 1890s Orioles clubs featuring the likes of McGraw and Robinson. Hanlon managed until 1907, and his last living player made it to America’s bicentennial: Chick Autry, who passed away on Jan. 16, 1976.

Hanlon’s longtime antagonist was 1890s Braves manager Frank Selee, who later assembled the Tinker-Evers-Chance Cubs in the 1900s. A deadly illness forced Selee to retire in 1905, and his last player made it until 1972. That was Davy Jones, who played briefly for Selee’s Cubs before catching on with Ty Cobb’s Tigers. Jones is one of the people interviewed in The Glory of Their Times.

There is only one manager who retired before 1900 in Cooperstown: Harry Wright, the game’s first great manager. He stepped down after 1893, and his last player died in 1961: John Grim.

All of these men had at least one player survive 65 years after their last seasons in the dugout, and none had anyone make it beyond the 75-season mark. On average, the last living player passes on 70 years after a skipper’s last season.

So we should still have some Mack-men with us for another seven years or so. There is something comforting in that.

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Comments

  1. Tom Dockery said...

    The youngest player to have played for Stengel must be Jim Bethke,who’s only 66 today.At 18 in 1965-when he played for Stengel-he may have been the youngest ever to play for Casey.

  2. Robert Haymond said...

    Lou Brissie is still alive.  Quite ironic (in a positive way) considering that his left tibia and surrounding bone in his left leg was shattered by a blast during a campaign in WWII.  He was a purple heart winner and also distinguished himself with several other medals for bravery.  When he returned, he had several operations and, finally, played baseball (pitched) with a brace on his left leg.  I remember him from when I was a boy.  He was the embodiment of courage and determination and a pretty good pitcher in spite of his drawbacks.  Playing for the Philadelphia Athletics in those days did not insure a good record.  Later, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians.  Lou Brissie, an unsung American hero!

  3. Chris J. said...

    This is already a little out of date.  You know how I said there are four living players under played under Bill McKechnie.  Well, one of them – Grady Hatton – passed away right after I checked on it.  So now there’s just three.

    And I missed one under Mel Ott, so he’s up to three.

  4. Paul E said...

    Chris:
      “Ace” Parker is indeed the same “Ace” Parker of Duke football fame and the N F L Hall of Fame.

  5. Chris said...

    Great articles on these last living links!

    Sorry to hear about Astroth passing, hope this doesn’t become sort of an SI jinx thing now!

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