The final games of the all-time winnersby Arne Christensen
February 11, 2011
A little bit ago I put together a list of how the game’s leading sluggers closed out their careers, and found that many of them bowed out with feeble grounders and pop-ups. Continuing the thought by looking at how the pitchers who won at least 270 games (they’re all retired) did in their last mound appearances turns up a similar pattern of struggle. I set the bar at 270 games because it’s 9/10ths of 300 wins, the same way that 450 homers, the bar for my earlier list, is 9/10ths of 500 homers. One thing you notice is that 34 pitchers have reached 270 wins, while 33 hitters have reached 450 homers: this could be a coincidence, or it could point to a general law governing how many players can reach career statistical landmarks.
Nine of the 34 pitchers wound up their careers before 1920, in a season not covered by Retrosheet’s not-quite exhaustive compilation of major league box scores, and I didn’t make the effort of hunting down newspaper coverage of their last games, so they’re not included here. But, here’s the list of what the 25 other pitchers did, with a few notes on their careers added in when warranted. It’s arranged in descending order, from Cy Young and his 511 wins to Burleigh Grimes and Mike Mussina and their 270 wins apiece.
Cy Young (511 wins)
Brooklyn Superbas (aka Dodgers) 13, Boston Rustlers (aka Braves) 3: Oct. 6, 1911: Young starts the second game of a doubleheader to end the season and pitches 6.2 innings, allowing 11 runs on 11 hits, including eight straight hits with one out in the seventh inning, which gives him the loss, for a 4-5 record, and provides “the signal for Young’s retirement,” as The New York Times writes.
Young does get a single and sacrifice in his three times at bat. I can’t tell if all 11 runs were earned, but all eight in the seventh were, and three runs scored in the second inning on two hits, a walk, error, and sacrifice fly.
Walter Johnson (417 wins)
Senators 10, Browns 7: Sept. 22, 1927: Johnson starts and pitches 3.1 innings, allowing six runs (five earned) and striking out two Browns. But he also hits a solo homer in his final at-bat; Tris Speaker replaces him as a pinch-hitter after Johnson is pulled for reliever Bobby Burke.
Pete Alexander (373 wins)
Christy Mathewson (373 wins)
Reds 10, Cubs 8: Sept. 4, 1916: At recently-opened Wrigley Field, Mathewson pitches his one and only game for the Reds (who he’s also managing), after the Giants had traded him and Edd Roush in July. It’s a complete game, which he wins despite allowing the eight runs, all earned, and 15 hits.
It’s also the last game for Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, who pitches all nine innings while allowing 19 hits, and goes 2-for-4 off Matty, with two runs scored; Matty goes 3-for-5 off Brown, with one run scored. Given that this was a staged final showdown between Matty and Three Finger, and Matty had last pitched in July or earlier, the abundance of scoring isn’t surprising.
Warren Spahn (363 wins)
Reds 17, Giants 2: Oct. 1, 1965: Spahn comes on in relief of Gaylord Perry (Bobby Bolin had started the game) in the middle of the seventh inning, and allows a walk, gets credit for an out when a base runner is thrown out at home trying to score on an error by his third baseman, and allows a run-scoring single by pitcher Sammy Ellis. He’s charged with one unearned run.
Looking back on his career, Spahn said, “The consensus of everyone in baseball was that I played a year too long. Maybe I did. But I honestly thought I could still be a winner.”
Greg Maddux (355 wins)
Phillies 5, Dodgers 1: Oct. 15, 2008: Maddux pitches the third and fourth innings in relief of Chad Billingsley. He allows two unearned runs and strikes out three.
Roger Clemens (354 wins)
Steve Carlton (329 wins)
Indians 10, Twins 2: April 23, 1988: Carlton starts and pitches five innings, allowing nine runs (eight earned) and two homers while walking three Indians, to earn the loss and an 0-1 season record. He’s relieved by Joe Niekro after allowing two hits and a walk to start the sixth inning.
The Twins release Carlton five days later.
Nolan Ryan (324 wins)
Mariners 7, Rangers 4: Sept. 22, 1993: Ryan starts and pitches to six batters, getting none of them out. Dann Howitt hits a grand slam after a single and three walks; Ryan leaves the game with an injury and the loss and a 5-5 record after reaching a 3-1 count on Dave Magadan; Magadan’s walk is charged to Ryan.
Don Sutton (324 wins)
Reds 6, Dodgers 0: Aug. 9, 1988: Sutton starts and pitches seven innings, giving up six runs (five earned), and two homers, earning the loss and a 3-6 record. He’s relieved by Jesse Orosco for the Reds’ last at-bat, but Sutton leaves the game with a swinging strikeout of Eric Davis to end the seventh.
Phil Niekro (318 wins)
Giants 15, Braves 6: Sept. 27, 1988: Niekro starts. After three shutout innings and a 5-0 lead through three, he fails to get any of five Giants batters out in the fourth, and leaves after walking Kevin Mitchell to load the bases. An ensuing Candy Maldonado grand slam means Niekro gets charged with the runs that all five of his batters scored. He gets a no-decision.
Afterward, Niekro says, “I was not embarrassed because I got beat around out there. I’ve done that before.”
Gaylord Perry (314 wins)
Angels 3, Royals 0: Sept. 21, 1983: Perry starts and pitches five innings, allowing three runs to get the loss and a 7-14 record.
Tom Seaver (311 wins)
Seaver had been traded by the White Sox on July 29, about a year after getting his 300th win.
Tom Glavine (305 wins)
Cubs 11, Braves 7: Aug. 14, 2008: Glavine starts and pitches four innings, allowing seven runs and two homers to get the loss. He does draw a walk in his final at-bat, though.
Glavine wound up 2008 with a 2-4 record and 5.54 ERA, numbers identical to those he posted in 1987, his rookie year.
Randy Johnson (303 wins)
Giants 4, Padres 3: Oct. 4, 2009: Johnson pitches the seventh inning in relief, allowing one unearned run and striking out two Padres, including his final batter, Adrian Gonzalez. The unearned run ties the game at 3, so Johnson’s charged with a blown save, but the Giants win 4-3, in 10.
In the 11 games after getting his 300th win, Johnson pitched 38 innings, six of them in starts, went 3-2, and allowed 21 runs, 19 of them earned, for a 4.50 ERA. He also struck out 30 batters.
Lefty Grove (300 wins)
A’s 7, Red Sox 1: Sept. 28, 1941: In the second game of a doubleheader, Grove starts and pitches one inning, allowing three A’s runs to get the loss and a 7-7 record.
In the six games after getting his 300th win, Grove pitched 24 innings, all of them in starts, went 0-3, and allowed 26 runs, 19 of them earned, for a 7.13 ERA.
Early Wynn (300 wins)
Indians 7, Angels 6: Sept. 13, 1963: In a game played at Dodger Stadium, Wynn pitches to two batters in the sixth inning in relief of Jack Kralick, allowing an Indians single and then getting a line out.
In the 15 games following his 300th win, Wynn made one start, went 0-1, picked up one save, pitched 27.1 innings, and allowed five runs for a 1.65 ERA.
Tommy John (288 wins)
Yankees 8, Angels 6: May 25, 1989: John starts and pitches 5.1 innings, allowing five runs and two homers (both hit by Bill Schroeder). Dale Mohorcic will blow the 5-3 lead John left him with but get the win nonetheless.
Somewhat incredibly, John, at 46, had been the Yankees’ Opening Day starter to begin the 1989 season.
Bert Blyleven (287 wins)
Rangers 9, Angels 5: Oct. 4, 1992: Blyleven starts and pitches 4.2 innings, allowing six runs on 12 hits for the loss and an 8-12 record on the season’s final day. Kevin Brown gets the win, and Kenny Rogers relieves Brown for two innings before Todd Burns closes out the game for Texas.
Robin Roberts (286 wins)
Pirates 9, Cubs 1: Sept. 30, 1966: Roberts pitches the eighth inning in relief of Ken Holtzman, allowing the first four Pirates to reach and score, the last three on a Willie Stargell homer, before recovering to get three outs.
Ferguson Jenkins (284 wins)
Jim Kaat (283 wins)
Red Ruffing (273 wins)
Red Sox 7, White Sox 5: Sept. 15, 1947: Ruffing starts and pitches seven innings, allowing seven runs and three Red Sox homers to get the loss and a 3-5 record.
Ruffing had started out as an outfielder, but switched to pitcher after losing four toes from his left foot in a mining accident as a teenager. Nonetheless, he hit over .300 in several seasons, and from 1928 through 1932 was a well above average batter.Burleigh Grimes (270 wins)
In 1985, Grimes will say of a suggested comparison between himself and Dwight Gooden, "I wouldn’t put myself in that class."
Mike Mussina (270 wins)
Yankees 6, Red Sox 2: Sept. 28, 2008: Mussina starts and pitches six innings, allowing no runs and three hits to get the win and a 20-9 record. His final pitch produces a double play grounder from Dustin Pedroia.
The great sluggers cumulatively produced a woeful 6-for-26 with three walks in their final at-bats. These 25 pitchers did even worse in their final games. They cumulatively pitched 83.2 innings, and posted a 2-10 record. They allowed 91 earned runs (assuming that one of Cy Young’s 11 runs allowed was unearned), for a 9.79 ERA. Sixteen of them made starts in their final game, with the other nine pitching in relief. Mussina was the only starter to allow fewer than three runs, and it would be hard to improve on either his six shutout innings or him obtaining two outs with his final pitch.
The generally ugly showings summarized above hint that at least a few of these 25 pitchers got the message from their final performances that it was better not to come back next year (all but six of them had their last game in the season’s final month), and so they left the field forever. Presumably the cumulative numbers would improve somewhat after adding in the nine missing pitchers from the dead-ball era, but my guess is that many of those nine also left the stage as losing pitchers.
Arne Christensen runs an eclectic baseball history blog called Misc. Baseball, as well as the 1995 Mariners website.