In the history of baseball, just 50 Hall of Famers played their whole careers with one team. (That link lists the 47 who were in the Hall as of 2010. Since then, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Barry Larkin have joined their ranks.)
In the old days, before the dawn of free agency in 1975-76, a player had no control over where he played. When his team tendered him a contract, he had three options: he could accept it, he could hold out for more money, or he could retire. Baseball’s reserve clause prohibited a player from going to another team without his current team’s permission, and Major League Baseball’s monopoly meant that there was no other league worth playing in.
Many great players, like Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, spent their whole careers in one place. But they had scarcely more say over their fates than Billy Williams, still revered by fans of the Cubs — who traded him to Oakland after 15 years of a Hall of Fame career. Or Dizzy Trout, who spent 14 years in Detroit before being traded to the Red Sox for a package including Walt Dropo and Johnny Pesky.
But as rare as it is for a player to remain in a single place from his first summer to his last, the practice has not quite disappeared. Just as with magic marks like the 3,000-hit club and the 300-win club, every naysayer who has clucked that the list will never grow longer has been proven wrong. There are almost certainly a few players in the majors right now who will retire before ever darkening a rival club’s doorstep. One may be Yadier Molina, who just signed a three-year, $60-million contact extension that will take him through his 38th birthday in 2020.
Who might join him?
First, for comparison, I looked at now-inactive players from 1980 to 2016 to see who had appeared in 1,500 games or pitched 1,500 innings with a single team. Just 21 hitters and five pitchers reached those marks.
Before I show you what I found, three caveats:
1) All I was interested in was their major league team; if they were traded before reaching the majors and then played all their major league games with one team, like Jeff Bagwell or Elvis Andrus, they were counted. But if they had even a brief swan song with another team, like Geoff Jenkins or Ron Santo, I left them out.
2) Two of them, Ryan Howard and John Danks, signed minor league contracts with the Braves this year; both have since been released. If either ever again appears in the major leagues with any team other than his original one, he will be removed from the list. (If they miraculously were to resurface with the Phillies and White Sox, though, they would stay on.)
3) The cutoffs that I used obviously restricted the list to starting players, so relievers like Mariano Rivera were excluded. But no one other than Rivera is even worth including. Relievers generally don’t stay healthy for two decades, much less remain in the same city the whole time. Since 1980, Rivera’s the only reliever with 10 seasons of at least 50 innings pitched to have stayed in one place his whole career.
That having been said, here are the inactive and retired players who stayed in one city for their whole career:
(Several of those players began their careers before 1980, like Brett in 1973; Yount in 1974; Guidry in 1975; Gantner and McGregor in 1976; and Trammell, Whitaker, and Soto in 1977. But all played their whole careers with the same team and played at least 1,500 games after 1980, so they met my arbitrary threshold for players in the recent past.)
So, over the past four decades or so, there are a couple of dozen players who had prominent careers spent entirely in one place.
I then looked at the active pitchers and hitters in baseball this year, and restricted my list to the men who have been with a single team and have played at least a thousand games or thrown a thousand innings.
These are they:
|Player||G||Tm||Signed thru||Age at contract end|
|Yadier Molina||1611||STL||2020||38 years, 121 days|
|Joe Mauer||1593||MIN||2018||35 years, 205 days|
|David Wright||1583||NYM||2020||37 years, 326 days|
|Andre Ethier||1433||LAD||2017||35 years, 214 days|
|Ryan Zimmerman||1408||WSN||2019||35 years, 42 days|
|Dustin Pedroia||1405||BOS||2021||38 years, 86 days|
|Ryan Braun||1354||MIL||2020||36 years, 359 days|
|Evan Longoria||1279||TBR||2022||37 years, 34 days|
|Joey Votto||1271||CIN||2023||40 years, 62 days|
|Alex Gordon||1268||KCR||2019||35 years, 273 days|
|Elvis Andrus||1222||TEX||2022||34 years, 75 days|
|Andrew McCutchen||1192||PIT||2017||31 years, 30 days|
|Brett Gardner||1070||NYY||2018||35 years, 78 days|
|Player||IP||Tm||Signed thru||Age at contract end|
|Felix Hernandez||2426.7||SEA||2019||33 years, 215 days|
|Justin Verlander||2352.3||DET||2019||36 years, 263 days|
|Matt Cain||1965.7||SFG||2017||33 years, 39 days|
|Adam Wainwright||1777.3||STL||2018||37 years, 72 days|
(may opt out)
|30 years, 234 days|
|Homer Bailey||1033||CIN||2019||33 years, 190 days|
|Madison Bumgarner||1412.7||SFG||2017||28 years, 99 days|
|Chris Tillman||1025.3||BAL||2017||29 years, 207 days|
That’s 13 hitters and eight pitchers. A few of them are so young that it’s impossible to reasonably predict how the rest of their careers will go, like Bumgarner and Tillman. Bumgarner will expect and earn a king’s ransom this offseason, and it’s anybody’s guess whether his windfall will keep him by the Bay. Most of the rest will require at least one more late-career extension to see them through to the end of their careers, like Molina just received. Two possible exceptions are Joey Votto, who will turn 40 shortly before his current contract expires, and David Wright, whose spinal stenosis and chronic health struggles have made his future an open question.
Looking down the list of recent retirees who stayed with a single team, there appear to be a few basic models. One could be considered the “star” model, and that’s the track that Yadier Molina appears to be on. That’s for beloved players who received a lucrative contract extension late in their career that was explicitly designed to keep them in town until they hung up their cleats. That definitely applies to Chipper Jones and Jorge Posada, and slightly to Todd Helton (his extension was only two years, not all that rich). The Yankees gave a more lucrative two-year extension to Mariano Rivera, so this category would apply to him, too. This could make sense for the Rays and Longoria, or the Tigers and Verlander.
There’s much more common variant on that, which we could call the “one more year” model, where a team re-signs a star to a one-year deal for what will be understood to be his final campaign. That was the approach the Astros took with Craig Biggio, the Yankees with Derek Jeter, the Padres took with Tony Gwynn, the Red Sox with Jason Varitek, the Orioles with Cal Ripken, and the Reds with Barry Larkin. If Joey Votto has another year in him after he turns 40, that might be the approach the Reds take with him. Likewise with the Red Sox and Pedroia, or the Cardinals and Wainwright.
Of course, there are the tragic cases of players whose careers are ended too soon by injury. That happened to Kirby Puckett and Jeff Bagwell, and it may happen to David Wright.
Finally, there are the players whose careers just sort of ended — they had a lot of success, but the well ran dry. It happened to Bernie Williams, who chose to leave baseball after the Yankees refused to tender him a guaranteed contract — he likely could have at least signed a minor league contract somewhere else and played his way into a backup role, but he didn’t want to have to audition for a job. It happened to Jim Gantner, whose career ended just a year after he lost an arbitration case. And it is possible that could happen to Danks, Howard or Ethier.
The trouble is that the timing rarely works out just right. For players like this, who have starred for a team for a long time as their skills have gradually eroded, their hometown name recognition typically means that they’re more valuable in that city than they would be elsewhere.
But depending on how old they are when their previous contract expires, they’re likely in line for a massive pay cut anyway, and their team may simply decide to move on. In that respect, players are just as helpless as fans: they don’t control the makeup of the team. The suits do.
In the end, it’s fairly certain that some of these players will stay where they are until they retire, though it’s certain that some will be cut adrift before their swan song. Some of the latter may even manage to find their way back to the city where they started, like Henry Aaron and Tom Glavine did.
By then, a new crop of young talent is likely to have emerged from the farm, and young fans will have moved on, and older fans will be so inured to the pain of watching players go that they will be less moved by the joy of watching them return, particularly when the 40-year old who happens to show up with the same last name on his uniform is just a gray-haired shadow of his former self. But they’ll get an ovation all the same. And there will be a flickering glimpse of a beautiful memory.
For all of the players who spent their whole careers in one place, the farewell contains a lifetime of memories: two decades of their youth, and nearly the whole of ours.