Sometimes the End is Unexpected

Since 1979, when Willie Mays was elected into the Hall of Fame (with 94.7% of the vote), there have been 31 Hall of Famers selected on their first ballot. Many of these players were able to retire under their own terms, but not all of them. Like Tom Glavine this week, or even Sammy Sosa two years ago, more than a few recent first-ballot Hall of Famers played their last game with no idea that it would be their final appearance in a Major League Game.

With the uncertainty left in Tom Glavine’s career – and with Sammy Sosa’s “retirement” speech earlier this week giving us yet another reminder of how sudden the end can come – I thought it might be interesting to look at how other Hall of Famers ended their careers.

Joe Morgan
On September 30, 1984, Joe Morgan ended his career as an Oakland Athletic, his fourth team in five years, when he was lifted for a pinch-runner after doubling in the 1st inning. From the AP report the next day:

“Baseball veteran Joe Morgan ended his career without fanfare, or even a farewell, as he slipped out of the ballpark while the A’s closed their season with an 8-2 win over Kansas City.

After a first-inning double Sunday, he left the field to a standing ovation from 23,028 fans. His action spoke louder than words, because Morgan made no statement following the game.”
Tom Seaver
Fellow Fresno, CA-native Tom Seaver played in the final game of his career on September 19, 1986, as a member of the Boston Red Sox. He started the season in Chicago, but was traded to Boston in late June. Seaver left the game that September due to a pulled muscle, fully expecting to be back in a couple of weeks. It wasn’t until June 1987 that he finally called it quits. From the game story the next day:
“Seaver was forced to leave the game after four innings with a pulled calf muscle.
‘I’ll probably miss my next start,’ said Seaver, who allowed three runs on five hits, walked two, and struck out one. ‘I felt something give, but I stayed on for the next out and maybe I shouldn’t have.'”
Seaver announced his retirement at Shea Stadium the following June:
“Tom Seaver, convinced that he cannot pitch with the old command at the age of 42 after a nine-month layoff, will appear in Shea Stadium at noon today to announce the end of his three-week comeback and his 20-year career.
Seaver reached his decision after pitching four dull innings in a simulated game at Shea Saturday, a performance that he described as ”so-so and mediocre.” He also said it marked ”no improvement” over his first two appearances. ”The bottom line is I’m not pleased with the way I’m throwing,” he said.”
Reggie Jackson
After spending five years with the California Angels, Reggie signed on with his original franchise during the 1986 offseason and batted a mediocre .220/.297/.402 with 97 strikeouts in 115 games. He played his final game on October 4, 1987. From the LA Times the next day:

“The crowd of 9,846, sensing in the Athletics’ final home game that Jackson’s appearance would be his last, gave him a standing ovation when he left the dugout to warm up in the on-deck circle.

Before batting, Jackson waved his helmet to the crowd as the fans began the familiar chant of “Reggie, Reggie.” After his single up the middle on an 0-and-2 pitch from Ed Vande Berg, Jackson left for a pinch-runner to another ovation. When the crowd persisted for more than a minute, Jackson returned and blew kisses to the fans.

‘This was my last at-bat,” said Jackson, 41. “I’d like to be around next year, but it won’t be as a player.'”

Steve Carlton
Carlton is best remembered as the dominant left-hander for the Philadelphia Phillies, for who he won 240 games and for who he struck out over 3,000 batters. By 1988, though, Carlton was on his fifth team in three years and having a difficult time. After a weak start on April 23, 1988, the Twins released him:
“Steve Carlton, one of the best left-handers in baseball history and who was the winningest active pitcher in the major leagues, was released Wednesday by the Minnesota Twins.
Carlton, 43, the only pitcher in baseball history to win four Cy Young awards, was 0-1 this year. He has a career record of 329-244.
In 9 innings this season, he allowed 20 hits, 18 earned runs and five homers. His earned-run average was 16.76.
“It’s never easy to release a baseball player, no matter who he is, but particularly someone with Hall of Fame credentials,” said MacPhail, who is eight years younger than Carlton.”
Dave Winfield
The big news in 1981 was the 10-year contract that George Steinbrenner gave to Winfield to join the Yankees. As the contract was finally set to expire at the end of the 1990 season, the Yankees traded Winfield to the Angels for Mike Witt. From there, he would play on 4 teams in the next five years, ultimately ending up on the Indians in 1995. Winfield played in only 46 games for the Indians that year, batting a pathetic .191/.285/.287, for which he was left off Cleveland’s postseason roster. He refused to admit his career was over, though:
“The only melancholy note in all of this was that Sunday marked the end of Dave Winfield’s timeless career. What made it melancholy – rather than part of the celebration – was Winfield’s refusal to acknowledge this was it after 23 big-league seasons.
Saturday, there was a postgame news conference in which the usually silent Albert Belle talked of hitting his 50th home run. The reporters in attendance had been told there would also be a Winfield news conference.
The assumption was Winfield, who turns 44 Tuesday, would be announcing his retirement. Not so. Winfield wanted to express his disappointment at being left off Cleveland’s 25-player postseason roster.
Retirement? His 1995 numbers – two home runs, four RBI, seven extra-base hits and a .191 average in 115 at-bats – were not enough to convince Winny to take the hint. “I have no comment right now on my future plans,” he said. “I will address those at a later time.””
Winfield finally retired in February 1996.
Eddie Murray
By the time Eddie Murray was near retirement in 1997, he ranked second all-time behind Lou Gehrig in career grand slams, with 19. So, when Murray found himself in the middle of a playoff race as a Los Angeles Dodger in September 1997, it seemed like the perfect situation for him and the team. On September 18 and September 20, the Dodgers called on Murray to pinch hit in close, late-inning, bases loaded situations. Both times, he failed, grounding into double plays each time. The Sept. 20 game, in which he grounded into a game-ending double play, would prove to be his final at-bat. From the LA Times the next day:
“With the game on the line in the ninth inning Saturday afternoon, and left-handed hitters Brett Butler, Nelson Liriano and Wayne Kirby on the bench, Dodger Manager Bill Russell called on Eddie Murray to face Colorado right-hander Jerry Dipoto.
The 41-year-old Murray, a 21-year veteran, grounded into a double play on a check swing to end the game.
Against the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, Murray came up with one out in the 10th inning and the bases loaded and grounded into a double play. The Giants went on to win in the 12th.
But Russell isn’t about to second-guess his decision to use Murray Saturday.
“Eddie is our best hitter in that situation,” Russell said. “You’re talking about a Hall of Famer. He’s been in these situations many times. You know you could get a ground ball and a double play, but that’s not what we sent him up there for.”
Dennis Eckersley
On September 26, 1998, Eck made the final appearance of his career as a member of the Boston Red Sox. The team was already down 2 runs by the time he entered the game, so there would be no decision coming for him. The appearance was meaningful, though, as it moved Eck alone into first place on the all-time appearances list. With only one game left in the season, he would not get to add to his total. From the New York Times recap:

“Dennis Eckersley set a major league record with his 1,071st career pitching appearance, breaking a tie with Hoyt Wilhelm. The Boston reliever got a standing ovation as he ran in from the bullpen to pitch the ninth, then gave up Surhoff’s second homer of the game and 22d of the year.”

Wade Boggs
Entering the 1999 season, Boggs needed only 78 hits to reach the 3,000 hit milestone, and it was obvious to just about everyone that the milestone was his main driving force. On August 7, Boggs went 3 for 4 with a home run to join the exclusive club. He would play in ten more games before the season ended. On August 27, 1999, Boggs went hitless against Dave Burba and the Indians in his final game. He would only merit passing mention in the New York Times recap:

“The Devil Rays got the tying run to third in the ninth when Mike Jackson walked Wade Boggs and made a fielding error on Jose Guillen’s bunt, but Jackson got the pinch-hitter Terrell Lowery on a game-ending grounder for his 30th save.”

Rickey Henderson
Rickey is, of course, the king of refusing to call it quits. From 1997, when he started the season on the Padres, until his final game as a Dodger in 2003, Rickey played on 8 different teams in 7 years, with 5 of those being in his last 3 seasons. On September 19, 2003, Rickey pinch-hit for Guillermo Mota in the bottom of the 7th inning. After getting hit by the pitch, Rickey came around to score on a Shawn Green single. It would be the 2,295th run of his career, and his last. The appearance was so non-descript that it didn’t even warrant a mention in the LA Times’ game recap the next day. Rickey would not officially “concede” his retirement until July 2007:
“‘This means I’m officially retired as a player,” he said. “I’m going to share my knowledge with the kids and let them go out and do the playing, and let me sit back and help them accomplish their goals.’
‘I haven’t submitted retirement papers to MLB,” Henderson joked, “but I think MLB already had them.'”
There you have it. With everyone talking about the Braves and Tom Glavine this week, and how unfair the whole situation seems to be, it’s good to remember that there are many all-time greats whose careers ended in a similar (or worse) way than Glavine’s seems to have ended. It’s the sad nature of the game, though, especially as players like Tom Glavine or even Tom Seaver age beyond the ability for their bodies to come back from injury.
Still, as true as that may be, we shouldn’t fret. Yes, we all remember Willie Mays falling down in the outfield as a New York Met or Dave Winfield failing to make the postseason roster in his final year, but that’s neither the lasting image nor the last feelings that we have of these greats. Instead, we remember their power and their grace and their energy and their attitude from back in their prime. That’s why, when you think of Babe Ruth, you see him swinging for the fences in Yankee Stadium or leaning on a bat grinning, and why you see Willie Mays running out to centerfield to catch that ball when you think of the Say Hey Kid. 
I’m not a big enough Tom Glavine fan to know what the image that we remember of him will be, but I know there is one, and I know that it’s not going to be from this year. It’ll be from some time back when he was at his absolute best, winning division title after division title alongside Maddux and Smoltz. That, to me, is fitting.
Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.