Ten greatest career-ending performances of all timeby Chris Jaffe
November 14, 2011
Earlier this fall, I wrote a pair of fun columns for THT: “Ten worst career-ending performances of all-time,” and “Ten weirdest career-ending performances of all-time.” They’re intended as fun pieces looking at the final moments of some of the game’s greatest players.
There’s a final chapter to this trilogy we’ll look at today: the best ever career-ending performances.
The key guideline here is that we’re looking for the best players. Specifically, I checked the last game for all players with at least 30 career WAR who retired from 1919-onward. That said, if there’s a person of note with fewer WAR I want to throw in, I will. After all, it’s my list—and heaven knows there’s nothing scientific about these things.
OK, without further delay, here are the ten best career-ending performances from the game’s greatest:
10. Oct. 2, 2005: Al Leiter: Going away by blowing them away
It’s a lot easier for a hitter to end his career on a high note that a pitcher. A hitter just has to have a couple nice swings. A pitcher has to have a nice entire game, and if he can do that, it probably won’t be his last one.
Leiter around the time of his last stand.
Leiter around the time of his last stand.
For some similar reasons, it’s easier for a pitcher to have a nice final game if his last appearance is in relief than a start, since he doesn’t have to be good for very long.
Al Leiter had a rotten 2005 season to end his career. Ineffective as a starter, for the last month of his ,he pitched out of the bullpen. He saved his best for last, with a fine outing in the last game of the season.
Pitching for the Yankees against Boston, Leiter entered with the Red Sox ahead 10-1 with one out in the eighth. Charged with a simple task—record two outs to end the inning—Leiter did as well as anyone could’ve hoped, fanning both batters.
It’s not the most dramatic of career conclusions, but it’s nice to fan every batter faced in a guy’s last game. The last batter Leiter faced was veteran hitter John Olerud. As it happened, the strikeout was also the last at-bat for Olerud.
Actually, it’s more accurate this was the final regular-season game for each man, as both saw action in the 2005 ALDS. Leiter generally pitched poorly but had a nice ending to his career there as well.
In Game Four of the 2005 ALDS against the Yankees, Leiter faced one batter in the top of the seventh and got him to hit into an inning-ending double play. Leiter ended up with the win for that one batter.
Whether you look at the regular season or postseason, Leiter went out with a bang.
(As for Olerud, he belted a single in his last at-bat in the ALDS against the World Series-bound White Sox).
9. April 6, 1973: Tony La Russa: He went out on top as a player, too
This one doesn’t belong because he’s not a great player. But it’s Tony La Russa, and it’s a good story, so why not?
First, his last game came for the Cubs on Opening Day. Out of curiosity, how many players end their career on Opening Day? It can’t be many. If you’re good enough to make the roster that day, they’ll usually keep you around for another day, especially if you do well on Opening Day, as La Russa did. But no matter—it was his last game.
La Russa’s contributions were technically rather slim. He was simply a pinch runner. The Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth trailing Montreal 2-1 when Joe Pepitone reached on a single, and Ron Santo on an error. La Russa came in to run for the aging Santo.
La Russa didn’t have much to do. He didn’t even need to run. A walk loaded the bases, sending La Russa to second. Another walk brought home the tying run and sent him to third. After two outs failed to advance anyone, yet another walk sent La Russa home. He was a passive bystander in his own last game.
True, but there’s one key fact. In his last game, La Russa got to score the walk-off run in the bottom of the ninth to bring his team a victory. Nice.
Plus, it meant the Cubs were in first place with a perfect 1-0 record, so La Russa went out on top as a player.
8. Sept. 27, 1931: Edd Roush: Legging them out all the way until the end
Edd Roush was one of the best centerfielders of his day, and at age 38 he showed he still had a little bit of gas in the tank.
In his last game, he went out on a high note, going 2-for-3 with an RBI and a walk. Not bad. Oh, and one of those hits was a triple, the 185th and final one of his career. You normally don’t associate triples with a guy’s last game, but Roush showed he could do it.
Brett Butler also had a triple in his last game, but he was 1-for-4, not 2-for-3, so Roush makes this list instead. Gil McDougland tripled in a pinch-hit appearance in his last regular-season game, but Roush’s extra hit puts him ahead there, too.
7. Aug. 8, 1994: Rich Gossage: shutting them down
Just before the 1994 players’ strike began, an aging Rich Gossage came out of the bullpen for the Seattle Mariners and earned the save the old-fashioned way—by pitching the last three innings. In Seattle’s 14-4 rout of the Rangers, Gossage faced nine batters and retired them all to close out the game.
As an added bonus, two of the men Gossage retired—Jose Canseco and Juan Gonzalez—were former MVPs, and a third (Will Clark) was once a runner-up in the MVP voting. These weren’t creampuffs. It was the 310th save of his career and the first in nearly 16 months.
6. Oct. 3, 1897: Cap Anson: The best last day, though not the best last game
Cap Anson played 22 years of major league ball (27 if you count the National Association).
During his 2,000-plus games played, Anson belted multiple homers in a contest only a handful of times, but damned if one of those times didn’t occur on the final day of his final season.
Against the sad sack St. Louis Browns (now called Cardinals), Anson unleashed a pair of home runs against starting pitcher Willie Sudhoff. Making it even more incredible, Anson entered the day with only one homer despite being Chicago’s starting first baseman. No one else has ever done that on their last day.
So why in heck is Anson placed sixth? Shouldn’t he top the field?
Sure he should—if it was his last game. But it wasn’t, for the Cubs played a doubleheader that day against the Cardinals. Perhaps it was Anson’s last game. We don’t have gamelogs for 1897. Odds are, he played in the nightcap, too.
It probably wasn’t his last game, so technically doesn’t belong, but the guy hit two homers in one game on his last day. That deserves a mention at least.
5. Sept. 18, 1934: Sam Rice: Who needs three cheers when you got three hits?
None of the players I looked at recorded four hits in his last game. Hall of Famer Sam Rice had three hits, though, earning his spot on the list. Playing for the Indians against the Senators, Rice’s longtime former team, Rice went 3-for-5 with a double, a run scored, and two RBI. It was an all-around impressive performance.
That all-around performance allows Rice to get this slot for himself, instead of in a tie with Chet Lemon. In the last game of his career, Lemon also went 3-for-5, but with no runs, RBIs, or extra-base hits. Thus, Rice gets the space to himself.
Rice and Lemon are the only guys I found with three hits in their last game.
4. Sept. 28, 1974: Don Wilson: It’s more enjoyable if you don’t know the story about why this was his last game
I checked God only knows how many starting pitchers but found only one man who tossed a complete-game shutout in his finale.
It was Houston’s Don Wilson, who tossed a two-hit shutout despite fanning zero members of the opposing Atlanta Braves. It was actually a no-hitter until the fifth inning, when Rowland Office laced a single. Wilson’s Game Score of 80 is easily the best for a last game.
Only 29 years old at the time, no one expected it to be Wilson’s last game. That’s because no one expected him to be dead in a little over three months.
On Jan. 5, 1975, Wilson died of what authorities decided was accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. He was behind the wheel of the car in the locked garage with the engine running. Nasty, eh? It’s even worse. Fumes got in the house and killed his son and put his wife and daughter in comas. Yeah, that’s nasty alright.
Want a less depressing entry? Well, the second-best Game Score in a career finale belongs to Charlie Root, who posted a 73 in a complete-game victory in which he allowed only one run. That narrowly tops a 72 by Sandy Koufax. (However, if you include the postseason, Koufax had a less stellar final game, allowing four runs in six innings against the Orioles in his only start in the 1966 World Series, though three runs were unearned).
3. Sept. 28, 1960: Ted Williams: Gods do not answer letters
Wait, this is only in third place? Shouldn’t it be in first? After all, it’s maybe the most famous of all last games. After all, Ted Williams famously banged out a home run in his last at bat; the only member of the 500 home run club to do so. In fact, he’s the only member of the 400 home run club to do so.
Famously, despite a cheering ovation from the crowd, Williams held true to his long-established practice of not doffing his cap to the crowd. Adding to the lore of The Kid’s last swing, legendary writer John Updike saw the game in the stands and wrote a famous article about it, noting “Gods do not answer letters” as Williams never gave the crowd a curtain call.
If this were a column on the best last at-bats, Williams would come in first place without question. But it’s last games, and until the last swing, Williams’ day was nothing special.
Mattingly: one of the men who homered in his last game.
Mattingly: one of the men who homered in his last game.
The homer was his only hit, as he walked and flew out twice in his previous times up. Granted, he scored after the walk, but overall it was more a great last swing than a great overall game.
Besides, others have homered in their last at-bat. As noted in the “10 weirdest career ending games” article, Jim Edmonds did so—and injured himself rounding the bases. Albert Belle also blasted one out in his last time up, as did Todd Zeile.
Broadening it out to last game, Don Mattingly hit a homer during a 2-for-4 performance with a walk in his last regular-season game. (Including the postseason, though, Mattingly’s last game was a 1-for-5 game in that year’s ALDS).
Jackie Robinson also homered in his last regular-season game before having a less impressive final game in that season’s postseason.
My personal favorite is Ray Lankford, who was 1-for-1 with a homer and a walk.
So hitting a homer in and of itself doesn’t get Williams on top of the list. But it was the most poetically perfect of the final games, so he ranks here.
2. Aug. 15, 1999: Tony Phillips: Power, speed, and, um, injury
This is very nearly the number one game on the list. In fact, I would put it on top, if it weren’t for Phillips getting injured in the sixth inning.
Phillips was perfect in his last game. Four times at the plate, four times on base. And he did it in a variety of ways. Twice he walked, and twice he got hits. Oh, and as an added bonus, one of those hits was a home run. In fact, Phillips belted a home run in his last career at-bat (though not last PA, as the two walks came after it).
Man—good plate discipline, hitting for average, hitting for power—what else could you want in a guy’s final game?
How about speed? He did that, too. After leading off the game with a single—an infield single, mind you—Phillips stole second base. Homers are more glamorous, but a stolen base in a guy’s last game is pretty rare. Phillips and Reggie Smith are the only guys I know of that did it.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t supposed to be Phillips’ last game. After a leadoff walk in the sixth inning, he was thrown out at second on a fielder’s choice. While breaking up the double play, he got injured and had to leave the game, never to return.
Still, Phillips must’ve felt he had something left in the tank. He was still playing ball in the independent minor leagues this year, despite being 52 years old. Nice.
Random fact I may never have a chance to use again: Phillips is the answer to an odd trivia question. In the All-Star Game era (1933-onward), he’s played in the most games of anyone never selected to an All-Star squad. Unless someone passed him up since I checked this a few years ago, his 2,161 games are the tops for all never-All-Stars. (In your face, Tim Salmon!)
1. Oct. 1, 2000: Will Clark: a perfect day
Only one batter played an entire game without making a single out: Will "The Thrill" Clark. (Phillips was perfect but didn’t last the entire game). Playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, Clark went 2-for-2 with a pair of walks.
In the first inning, he plowed a pitch into the stands for a two-run homer. Yeah, that’s a nice start. Next time up, the opposing Cincinnati Reds walked him on five pitches. That was a smart move. Later, with the score tied 2-2, Clark ripped an RBI single for the go-ahead run. In his last time up, Clark walked on four pitches.
Technically, it wasn’t his last game. St. Louis advanced to the postseason, and in the NLCS Clark posted a fantastic .412 batting average. In his last game, the Mets three-hit St. Louis, but one of those hits was a fourth-inning single by Clark.
Frankly, Phillips’ day was a bit more impressive. Both he and Clark had a homer, single, two walks, and zero outs, but Phillips had the stolen base. But who would you rather be: the guy with the stolen base and an injury, or the guy with neither a stolen base nor injury? Yeah, I like Phillips’ game better, but I have to put Clark ahead of him for the title Best Career-Ending Performance Ever.
References and Resources
I checked these guys at Baseball-Reference.com. The site's wonderful Play Index allowed me to find everyone with more than 30 WAR.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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