The greatest swan songs in baseball history

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.

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  1. BobDD said...

    . . . or DH if available

    You were certainly right that Teddy Ballgame is the first one I thought of, but I should have brought up Barry as well.  If you count the last season as the last full season (8 games vs. 157), then you could get Lou Gehrig in here too.

  2. dennis Bedard said...

    To Bed Rest:  Chad specifically said pitchers are for a later article.  But I think the unanimous choice for both hitters and pitchers would be Sandy Koufax, 1966.

  3. Jose said...

    As soon as I saw the title for this article, I thought “Will Clark.”  My favorite childhood player, I always thought he could have played a few more seasons.  Ironically, he spent most of his final year filling in for an injured Mark McGwire, his Bay Bridge counterpart to whom he was often compared to unfavorably in the late ‘80s.

    I think Bonds would still finish top ten in OBP and BB if he came back and played next year.

  4. Philip said...

    John Fox said “One interesting fact about Jackie Robinson: his last Major League at bat was batting cleanup in the seventh game of the World Series, I doubt if that was the case for many if any other players.”

    It wasn’t game 7, as the Red Sox only needed 6 to win it in 1918, but left fielder George Whiteman batted cleanup in the clincher, the last major league game he played in.

    Whiteman, 35, had a hand in 8 of the 10 runs Boston scored in the series and made several spectacular catches in the field and would have been one of the leading World Series MVP candidates if baseball had the award at the time. He was playing because regular left fielder Duffy Lewis had been drafted for military service.

    In the bottom of the 6th with the game scoreless, Whiteman came up with runners on 2nd and 3rd. With the Cubs electing to pitch to Whiteman instead of loading the bases for Stuffy McGinnis, Whiteman hit a liner into left. Max Flack was playing deep and nearly caught the ball, but dropped it for an error, both runners scoring.

    Whiteman wasn’t on the field at Fenway Park when Carl Mays got the Cubs’ Les Mann to ground out to second to end the game and series. Whiteman had been replaced in left by . . . Babe Ruth.

    The reason Ruth replaced Whiteman in left? Because Whiteman hurt his neck making a shoestring catch to rob the Cubs leadoff hitter in the top of the 8th of possibly an extra base hit.

    Though he ended up back in the minors in 1919, Whitman played baseball for another decade, finishing with a then-record 3,388 minor league hits.

  5. Lee Ambolt said...

    why didnt you show the top 10 in rate stats as well, i.e. WAR/game or WAR scaled to 162 games for players who played more than 100 games or something

  6. Paul G. said...

    It helps if you note which type of WAR this is.  From Joe Jackson, it looks like bWAR.

    Are you excluding the 19th century?  Because one of the position players that commonly comes up for walking away from the game in his prime is Bill “Little Eva” Lange, who retired after the 1899 season because his future (and later ex) father-in-law disapproved of playing baseball.  He scores a 3.6 bWAR in 1899 which would put him between Chapman and Weaver.  (If you do use the 19th century, adjusting for the length of season would help.  Does not apply to Lange as 1899 was a 154 game season.)

    And the pitch that killed Chapman is widely believed to be a spitball, not a fastball.

  7. John Fox said...

    One interesting fact about Jackie Robinson: his last Major League at bat was batting cleanup in the seventh game of the World Series, I doubt if that was the case for many if any other players

  8. Barney Coolio said...

    Why did Roy Cullenbine retire?  B-ref shows that he was released by the Phillies in April 1948.  So, maybe he sucked in spring training of ‘48.

    In 1947, Cullenbine hit:  .224/.401/.422.  The latter two stats are ten or less points less than his career stats. 

    Yeah, the BA sucks, and people didn’t value OB%.  However, he still hit 24 home runs, which ranked 4th in the AL, and led the Tigers.  It was also his career high.  In 1948, no Tiger hit 24 homers, and their first baseman had an OPS of .718.

  9. Paul G. said...

    @Barney: Here’s an article on Roy that addresses that topic:

    The short answer: Detroit released him because they thought he was an awful fielder, claiming that he lost them at least 15 games in the field at first.  (Yes, this is as preposterous as it sounds.  See the article for more.)  Why the Phillies released him is not clear, but he was injured in a car accident during spring training and the Phillies had more first basemen and outfielders than they needed.

  10. Cliff Blau said...

    I don’t know who believes the pitch that hit Chapman was a spitball, but Mays didn’t throw spitballs.  He was a fastball/curveball pitcher.

  11. Ralph C. said...

    Carl Mays was a spitball pitcher.  He was one of the pitchers allowed to keep throwing spitballs after they were banned, under the grandfather clause.

  12. Philip said...

    Whereas many pitchers pre-1920 threw a spitter, only 17 pitchers were designated as “spitballers” and who were allowed to continue to throw the pitch after it was banned following the 1920 seasons.

    Carl Mays was not among them.

    The 17 were:

    National League:

      Bill Doak
      Phil Douglas
      Dana Fillingim
      Ray Fisher
      Marv Goodwin
      Burleigh Grimes
      Clarence Mitchell
      Dick Rudolph

    American League:

      Doc Ayers
      Ray Caldwell
      Stan Coveleski
      Red Faber
      Dutch Leonard
      Jack Quinn
      Allan Russell
      Urban Shocker
      Allen Sothoron


    also see “Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One” by Charles Faber and Richard Faber.

    As for the pitch that fatally wounded Chapman, Mays said: “It was a fast ball. I knew it would be high and tight and I expected that he would drop as the others do when pitchers swing them in close to drive batters away from the plate.”

  13. Paul G. said...

    Poking around the interwebs, it seems pretty clear that Carl Mays threw spitballs.  Why he was not granted an exemption like the others is quite the mystery, one I would love to hear the answer.  It would not surprise me if it had something to do with the Chapman incident, either as unofficial punishment from the league or a pang of guilt on Carl’s part.

    Now whether the killer pitch was a spitball or not is murkier than I expected.  Some sources say fastball and some say spitball.  There is also the hybrid theory that it was a fastball but the ball was so darkened by the application of various foreign substances to throw previous spitballs that Chapman never saw the pitch.  Furthermore, there is Mays’s claim that the ball was wet from earlier rain, and as I understand it a spitball is essentially a fastball thrown with applied foreign substance, so that would make it an unintentional spitball.  I cannot say that I stand corrected, but I certainly stand confused.

    I will say that anything Carl Mays says must be taken with a grain of salt.  In his day he was generally reviled by both opponents and teammates alike.  Not only was he a notorious headhunter, there were suspicions that he threw a couple of games in the 1921 World Series and that he engaged in other uncouth activity like insurance fraud.  If anyone would misstate the facts to his own advantage, it would be him.

  14. Philip said...

    Ralph & Paul,

    Not disputing that Mays threw spitballs on occasion. But he apparently did not do so regularly enough to be designated as getting an exemption from the ban.

    Also, the talk about banning the pitch began in 1919. So perhaps a combination of Chapman’s death, the Black Sox fix and owners wanting more run production in the game all figured into the ban coming in two parts, the first of which was that each club could designate not more than two pitchers who would be permitted to hurl the pitch.

    But accounts of the day actually suggested a principal reasons owners looked at banning the pitch was to get more women to attend games as they thought the continued use and talk of “spitballs” would discourage women from wanting to attend ball games.

    For accounts of the pitch and aftermath, good sources are the Lewiston Evening Journal of August 17, 1920 “Chapman, Cleveland Star, Killed by Pitched Ball” and the Milwaukee Journal, August 18, 1920 “Yankees Resume Series with Cleveland Flag Contenders”

    Two American League umpires, Williams Evans and William Dineen, gave a statement that, “No pitcher in the American League resorting to trickery more than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball in order to get a break on it which would make it more difficult to hit.”

    The pitch which hit Chapman, who was leading off, was the third thrown in the 5th inning. Mays said that umpire Thomas Connolly should have thrown that ball out. When hearing this, Evans and Dineen noted that, “A short time ago the club owners complained to [American League] President Johnson that too many balls were being thrown out. President Johnson sent out a bulletin telling the umpires to keep the balls in play as much as possible, except for the dangerous ones.

    The Toronto World of August 18, 1920 described the pitch as “a fast underhand curve.”

    But Chapman told the Assistant District Attorney in New York, “It was a straight fast ball, and not a curved one.”

    Ty Cobb wanted Mays banned from baseball and sent the Yankees pitcher a note: “If it was within my power, I would have inscribed on Ray Chapman’s tombstone these words: ‘Here likes a victim of arrogance, viciousness and greed.’” Ironic, considering that Cobb was known to drag bunt just in order to spike Mays when the pitcher would attempt to field the ball.

    Cleveland manager Tris Speaker, a close friend of Chapman’s and on-deck at the time of the pitch, said he believed it was an accident and that he thought Chapman had time time to duck but didn’t.

    Speaker had to break the news to Chapman’s wife of her husband’s injury by phone to the stricken ballplayer’s pregnant wife, Kathleen, who immediately took a train from Cleveland to New York and arrived not long after her husband died.

    As if Chapman’s death wasn’t tragic enough, Kathleen committed suicide by swallowing poison in 1928 and a year later the Chapmans’ eight-year old daughter, Rae Marie, contracted measles and died.

  15. said...

    I too have read that Chapman just did not react to the pitch. Too this day it is the pitch which is thrown just behind the hitters head which is considered most dangerous, which the pitch from Mays was not. And if Mays reputation as a headhunter was as bad as I am reading here I don’t see how Chapman let himself take one on the noggin. I saw many a hitter take a dive with Gibson on the bump, and Mays was no Gibson. Best player by far not in the Hall.

    Don Zimmer spent eight days in a coma after being struck by a hanging curve ball. He admitted that he just did not react to it.

  16. gary said...

    Sandy Koufax was the name that jumped to mind when I saw the title of this article.  The phrase “going out on top” also jumps to mind.  At the top of his game, 27 wins, and he walks away.

    Clemente’s finish was also great.  There was something pitiful about watching Willie May’s final days…Aaron too.

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