Over the last few months, we have been looking at the best rookies of all time in this space. Around the time I started that series, my thoughts turned to the other side of the coin; that is, which players had enjoyed the best final season?
I filed that thought away for a future column, thinking I’d get around to it at some point. Well, the question interested me enough that I decided not to delay any further. I appreciate our benevolent overlords here at The Hardball Times permitting me the opportunity to write about nagging little questions that may interest only me.
Let’s set a couple of ground rules. We are looking at the final season for every inactive/retired player in baseball history. Final season means just what it says: It’s the last season a particular player appeared in a major league game, whether he played in one game or 162. In other words, we aren’t looking at a player’s last full season. Today, we are going to focus on hitters, and we’ll examine pitchers at a later date.
If you are even a semi-casual fan of baseball history, the first name that probably pops into your head when talking about productive final seasons is one of the all-time greats: Ted Williams. Williams’ last year was 1960, when he was 41 years old. The Splendid Splinter hit .316/.451/.645 that season, with 29 homers and 75 RBI in 113 games. Among players in their final season, his 1.096 OPS and 190 adjusted OPS+ are the highest ever (minimum 100 games), and Williams’ 29 homer total is tied for second most.
Not bad, eh? Well, according to wins above replacement, that season doesn’t make even the top 10:
1. Joe Jackson, White Sox (1920): 7.6 WAR
2. Happy Felsch, White Sox (1920): 5.6
3. Roberto Clemente, Pirates (1972): 4.8
4. Jackie Robinson, Dodgers (1956): 4.6
5. Roy Cullenbine, Tigers (1947): 4.3
6. Chick Stahl, Boston Americans (1906): 4.1
7. Will Clark, Orioles/Cardinals (2000): 4.0
8. Ray Chapman, Indians (1920): 3.8
9. Buck Weaver, White Sox (1920): 3.5
10: Barry Bonds, Giants (2007): 3.4
(WAR is a cumulative statistic, obviously, so Williams’ WAR total (which ranks 18th in baseball history among hitters) suffered from the fact that he played in only 113 games.)
Most of the names aren’t particularly useful for our purposes, as several of the above “retirements” weren’t voluntary (though, to be honest, most baseball retirements are involuntary, in their own way). There are a number of fascinating stories within this group, however.
Interestingly, four of the players on that list played their final season in 1920. You probably know all about three of those: Shoeless Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, and Buck Weaver were among the eight members of the powerhouse Chicago White Sox who were banned from baseball for conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. Shoeless Joe’s 1920 season was, sadly, one of the greatest of his legendary career; in 146 games, at age 32, Jackson hit .382/.444/.589 with 42 doubles, a league-leading 20 triples and 121 RBI.
That year was, in fact, the best of Felsch’s career. Only 28 years old at the time, Felsch hit .338/.384/.540, with 40 doubles, 15 triples and 14 home runs, all career-highs. Weaver’s final season wasn’t quite on par with his teammates’, but all three were productive major leaguers at the time they were banished from the game.
Three other players in that top 10 list would also make any list of the saddest stories in baseball history. Ray Chapman is the fourth player above whose career ended in 1920; he had been a star shortstop over nine years with the Cleveland Indians, and was enjoying another fine season at the plate (.303/.380/.423) when tragedy struck. On Aug. 16, 1920, Chapman stepped into the batter’s box at the Polo Grounds, facing Yankees hurler Carl Mays. Mays let loose with an 0-1 fastball, and it came in high and tight on the right-handed hitting Chapman. Chapman never had a chance; the ball bounced off his head with “a sickening thud.” He died the following day, still the only on-field death of a player in baseball history.
You probably know Roberto Clemente’s story; he perished in a plane crash while delivering much needed supplies and food to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Chick Stahl, on the other hand, seems to be largely forgotten. Stahl was an outstanding center fielder for the Boston Americans and Beaneaters, hitting .305/.369/.416 over a 10-year career. He also served as player-manager for the 1906 season, and agreed to stay on to manage the Americans in 1907. However, on the morning of March 28, Stahl committed suicide in an Indiana hotel room.
Who else has a claim on the title of best final season ever? Jackie Robinson’s swan song was awfully good (.275/.382/.412), but he decided to retire for a number of reasons (including, to some extent, his trade to the New York Giants in December of 1956). Roy Cullenbine probably would have been able to stick around for a few more years in modern-day baseball; he walked 137 times, hit 24 homers, and posted an on-base percentage of .401 over 142 games in his final season. His batting average, however, was just .224, and that appears to have been seen at the time as evidence of an inexorable decline.
Barry Bonds and Williams are the only two players in this conversation who were older than 40 during their final season. Bonds was 42 when he hit .276/.480/.565 with 28 homers. Bonds led the league in OBP, walks (132) and intentional walks (43). He also led the league in bad press, at least some of which was his own fault. There’s no question that Bonds could have continued to be a productive major leaguer, but no team was willing to accept the headaches that would have been associated with signing Bonds to a contract for 2008 or beyond.
Will Clark’s final season came after a number of injury-riddled years with Texas and Baltimore, but that last year was awfully good: .319/.418/.546 with 21 homers and a 145 OPS+. Hank Greenberg was 36 in his final season, but led the league in walks (104) while hitting 25 homers and posting a slash line of .249/.408/.478. Kirby Puckett hit .314/.379/.515 in 1995, posting 3.1 WAR before being forced to retire at age 35 due to eye problems.
The only other names we might want to add to this conversation would be Mickey Mantle (.237/.385/.398, 18 homers, 143 OPS+ in 1968), or players like Jim Doyle and Tony Cuccinello. We must also mention the immortal Dave Kingman, who hit more homers in his final season than anyone in baseball history (35, while hitting .210/.255/.431 for the 1986 Athletics).
Ultimately, I think it comes down to Bonds or Williams, though I have a soft spot for Cullenbine (given his particular skills) and Clark (given his excellent middle name: Nuschler). In some ways, it would be fitting to give this “honor” to Robinson, as a bookend to his historic rookie year but, really, Barry and Ted are at the top of this heap. Between Bonds and Williams, you can take your pick.
As for me, I’ll take them both, move one to first base, and enjoy the show.