One more time, let’s get macabre, everybody.
The last few weeks at THT, I’ve had a theme in my columns: death. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, the theme has been long lives. Well, that sounds better.
Inspired by the recent passing of former Tigers pitcher Virgil Trucks at the ripe old age of 95, I did a lot of looking to figure out who are the longest-lasting players. First, I looked at who lived the longest time after playing in a World Series. Then I looked at the last surviving men to have played for some important managers.
Let’s try something similar to last week. Instead of looking at the last remaining links to managers, let’s look at teammates. When did dugout memories of stars fade completely from memory to history? Who were the last surviving teammates of some of the game’s biggest greats?
Let’s start with Joe DiMaggio. We’ll start with him and keep going back until we find whose teammates are all dead.
Last ones left
At any rate, DiMaggio. He’s both one of the games’ iconic greats and someone who retired such a long time ago that there aren’t too many of his teammates left. His last season was 1951, 62 years ago. His last game is about as close to us in time as it is to the Oklahoma land rush.
From those Yankees teams through 1951, there are exactly 13 survivors. Two of those survivors are Hall of Famers. Longtime Yankee ace Whitey Ford went 9-1 as a rookie for the 1950 Yankees. At age 84, Ford is the second-youngest surviving DiMaggio teammate, behind only Bob Wiseler, whoever he is.
Even more well-known that Ford is his old battery mate, Yogi Berra. Famous for his on-field ability and off-field mis-speakings, Berra won 10 world titles, more than any other player. He turned 88 years old on Mothers’ Day. Most of DiMaggio’s other survivors are forgotten role players and marginal major leaguers from the late 1940s and early 1950s Yankees squads.
Go back one year before DiMaggio retired, and you come across the final season of another Hall of Famer, one with a much longer career: Luke Appling. Nicknamed Old Aches and Pains, Appling played for the White Sox from 1930 until 1950. When he began, he shared a dugout with Red Faber, born in 1888. And he lasted so long that a dozen of his teammates are still alive.
Of those 12, five are in their 90s, and a sixth, Bob Kusava, will join them later this month. The oldest is Tom Jordan, who caught a handful of games in 1946 and will turn 94 in September. The youngest, by three years, is Joe Kirrene. An 18-year-old prospect in 1950, Kirrene made his big league debut in Appling’s final game, the last day of the 1950 season. In fact, Kirrene batted just before Appling in the lineup. It would be interesting if Kirrene ended up becoming Appling’s last surviving teammate.
Take it back another year, 1948, and the most important retiring player was shortstop Arky Vaughan. All of his teammates from his glory days with the Pirates have since passed on, but he still has eight teammates left from his final seasons with the Dodgers.
Two terrific players retired in 1947, and here’s where we run into the first player on the verge of fading completely from memory into history. Longtime Giants star Mel Ott was the first NL player ever to hit 500 home runs, and he has only one former teammate left alive: Charlie Mead. When he passes, there will be none left.
The other first-rate player to retire in 1947 is Hank Greenberg, and his teammates have had better health. Eight of them are still alive, including Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner, who was Greenberg’s teammate in his last season with the 1947 Pirates. His most famous surviving Tigers teammate is a player no one associates with Detroit: pitcher Billy Pierce. The Tigers traded him to the White Sox, where he later became a teammate of Appling.
Two notable players left in 1945, hit machine Paul Waner and slugger Jimmie Foxx. Both have approximately seven surviving teammates. The most famous by far is Foxx’s Red Sox teammate Bobby Doerr, the Hall of Fame second baseman.
Let’s go back before Pearl Harbor. 1941 was the final season for superstar pitcher Lefty Grove. (In fact, he announced his retirement on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, Dec. 7.) When you go this far back, there aren’t may surviving players at all. There are just five people who played in 1941 that are still alive, but one played with Grove. Again, it’s Doerr.
Go back earlier, and you finally run into people who have no surviving teammates. The most recent all-time great to have no living teammates is the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig. The disease that killed him forced him to retire in 1939. An outfielder for that club was Tommy Henrich, who died on Dec. 1, 2009. He was the last Yankee left who heard Gehrig say that he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. The day Gehrig gave his famous speech, Henrich appeared as a pinch-hitter for the Yankees and made an out.
Speaking of great Yankees, there is none bigger than the Bambino, Babe Ruth. His last living teammate was Billy Werber. A shortstop, Werber played seven games for the early-1930s Yankees before catching on elsewhere as a starter. Werber died on Jan. 22, 2009, and thus narrowly missed being Gehrig’s last living teammate, as well.
Let’s take it back a few more years to 1930, when a trio of early Hall of Famers retired: Eddie Collins, Pete Alexander, and George Sisler. Collins, a four-decade second baseman with well over 3,000 hits, was last survived by first baseman Joe Hauser. The former Philadelphia A’s infielder died at age 98 on July 11, 1997.
Alexander is in the conversation for best pitcher of the 20th century, and ironically his career ended on perhaps the worst pitching staff of the 20th century, the 1930 Phillies. Another member of that Godforsaken staff was Ray Benge, who departed on June 27, 1997.
Sisler isn’t as big a name as either Alexander or Collins, and I’d skip over him if it wasn’t for the oddity of his last surviving teammate. Whereas almost every player’s last surviving teammate is someone he played with at the very end of his career, in Sisler’s case his last living teammate was someone from his rookie season. As a 22-year-old rookie with the 1915 Browns, he was a teammate with a 24-year-old pitcher named Chet “Red” Hoff. As it happened, Hoff became the longest living pro player ever, dying at age 107 on Sept. 17, 1998. Sisler was barely younger than his last living teammate—incredible.
Since we’re mentioning Hoff, it’s also worth noting that he’s the last surviving player with Hall of Fame infielder Bobby Wallace, whose career began in 1894. They overlapped on the 1915 Browns. Admittedly, Wallace was just a coach by then and played only on very rare occasions, but he did play, and Hoff was on the team. Thus, a man who nearly lived into the 21st century can say he played with a Hall of Famer who began playing in the 19th century.
Though the trio of 1930 retirees didn’t have any teammates live into the 21st century, the same can’t be said for the most famous men to quit playing in the late 1920s. Ty Cobb, the all-time leader in batting average, retired in 1928 but had teammate Ray Hayworth pass away on Sept. 25, 2002. Also retiring in 1928 was Tris Speaker, and his last teammate, Paul Hopkins, died on Jan. 2, 2004. Hopkins was also a teammate of Walter Johnson, who retired in 1927.
Taking it back further, you get perhaps the most famous non-Hall of Famer of them all, Black Sox left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson. He was banned from baseball after the 1920 season, and his last surviving teammate didn’t even make it until 1990, let alone 2000. Zeb Terry passed away in March of 1988.
Let’s see, we’ve mentioned Ruth, Cobb, and Johnson; that’s three of the inaugural Cooperstown class of Hall of Famers. The other two are Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson. Their last survivors are a mixture of obscure and famous. The last man to say he laced up spikes with Wagner was Erv Kantlehner, a forgettable pitcher, who died on Feb. 3, 1990.
Mathewson’s last living teammate was himself a Hall of Famer. In fact, this Hall of Famer served as Mathewson’s teammate on two different squads. On July 20, 1916, John McGraw traded his longtime ace Mathewson along with two kids to the Reds. One of those kids was centerfielder Edd Roush. He lived another 72 years before passing away on March 21, 1988.
There is at least one other Hall of Famer whose last surviving teammate was another Hall of Famer. 19th-century slugger Ed Delahanty might be better remembered for his death than his career. Drunk and going through major emotional problems, he went over Niagra Falls without a barrel in the middle of 1903 after being thrown off the team train for his belligerent behavior.
But during his career, he was one of the best and most feared hitters of his generation. At any rate, while with the Phillies at the turn of the century, he teamed with a young Elmer Flick, who had a tremendous 10-12 year stretch before being felled by injuries. Though Flick’s career was shortened, his life wasn’t. He died at age 94 on Jan. 9, 1911.
Between Mathewson and Delahanty, the most famous player to retire has to be legendary pitcher Cy Young, he of 511 wins fame. While Young neared the end of his line with the 1911 Braves, he had a young infielder named Art Butler on the team. Butler died at age 96 on Oct. 7, 1984, the same day the Cubs lost Game Five of the NLCS to the Padres.
Going back to the 19th century, the pre-Babe Ruth home run champion was first baseman Roger Connor. He retired in 1897, and his last teammate, Ike Samuels, passed away 67 years later, on Feb. 22, 1964, at age 90.
The most famous player from baseball’s first 15 years is Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn. A pitcher, Radbourn won 59 games in 1884, and has since become the object of a recent book and a current Twitter feed. Radbourn played his last game in 1891, but his final teammate died 61 years later, in 1952. That would be like Joe DiMaggio’s last teammate dying last year.
Well, lifespans were shorter back then. In fact, Radbourn himself didn’t even make it into the 20th century, dying at age 42 in 1897. That was 55 years before Arlie Latham, his 1891 Reds teammate, departed. He was 92 when he died on Nov. 29, 1952.
Radbourn, like Gehrig and everyone in between, has faded into history. Over the next decade or so, the same will be true of Grove, DiMaggio, and those who retired between them. All last living links are eventually broken.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com provided the info for this column.