: August 19, 2008
Strange Endings to Baseball Careers by Sam Person
Our Readers' Submissions Vault
From our "Ripley\'s Believe It or Not" baseball file, we unearthed this article by Sam Person, a mathematician and baseball historian who regularly contributed to these pages back in the day. This article by Sam first appeared in the BBL on September 22, 2000
On September 5, 2000, Dave Cone of the New York Yankees made an excellent fielding play, diving for a pop fly on an attempted bunt. He caught the ball for an out, but landed on his left shoulder and dislocated it.
As Cone was on the ground writhing in pain, it occurred to those watching the action (this writer included) that the end of an outstanding baseball career was before our eyes.
Not long after, in another game involving the New York Yankees, Bryce Florie, a Boston Red Sox pitcher, was hit in the face by a vicious line drive, and suffered a severe eye injury (and a broken nose was well).
Dave Cone, who has had remarkable comebacks in his career, has pitched twice since his accident, with mixed results. Conceivably, there is hope that what appeared to be a career ending injury may not have that result yet; only time will tell. However, 2000 was not a banner year for Cone, and all things considered, he may indeed have reached the end of his big league career. At this writing, Bryce Florie’s status is still up in the air, and it appears that the damage he suffered to one of his eyes may indeed be career threatening.
Injuries are part of every athletic undertaking, and the specter of a career ending prematurely is always out there. There have been many athletes who have had premature career endings as a result of injury.
As I watched Cone being escorted from the game with his left arm hanging limply, and witnessed the scene of Bryce Florie being placed on a cart and wheeled off the field, my thoughts turned to career-ending episodes involving major league baseball players over the years.
Not all of these were physical; indeed, physical injuries are not uncommon and a rather long listing would be easy to provide. On the other hand, there have been many unusual career endings affecting major league players, and some of those are detailed here. The examples that I point out are just that; examples. To be sure, there are others, and I do not profess to classify all such happenings in the fashion of an encyclopedia.
» Lou Gehrig’s career as one of baseball’s all time greats needs no introduction. Suffering from a degenerative disease that would be named for him, Lou Gehrig removed himself from the lineup in May 1939, and was honored at Yankee Stadium in July 1939. The day given him in 1939 may well have been the first time a major league team put on an “Old-timers’ Day”.
Lou Gerhig’s departure from baseball was unusual in that it ended his 2,130 consecutive game streak. While Cal Ripken Jr. would ultimately break Gerhig’s streak, in Lou’s time it was widely held that the streak “would never be broken.” Lou died in 1941, and Baseball’s mandatory five-year post-retirement rule for induction into the Hall of Fame was waived for him, and he was installed in December 1939.
» Unusual also was the end of the career of Thurman Munson, a New York Yankee catcher of the 1970s, whose premature ending came on August 2, 1979, when a private jet aircraft that he was learning to fly crashed. Ironically, he had purchased the aircraft in order to be able to travel back to his home in Ohio and spend more time with his family. Several of his New York Yankee teammates were invited to join him, and did not. For them, of course refusing to fly with Munson meant that they would continue on to end their careers in a less tragic manner.
» An accident involving an aircraft also abruptly ended the career of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On December 31, 1972, Clemente was involved in a humanitarian mission; flying relief supplies to Nicaragua. Shortly after takeoff the plane disappeared off of Puerto Rico. As was the case with Lou Gehrig, the five-year post-retirement wait for induction into the Hall of Fame was waived for Clemente, and he was inducted in 1973.
» Bobby Brown, a third baseman with the New York Yankees from 1946 through 1952, had a promising future as a big league player. However, he also had a future in other fields as well. Brown graduated from medical school while with the Yankees and left baseball to become a noted cardiologist. Years later, he returned to baseball as president of the American League.
» No examination of unusual career endings would be complete without mentioning “Shoeless” Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox, and an alleged perpetrator of the infamous “Black Sox Scandal.” Following the investigation concerning rigged betting involving the 1919 World Series, Jackson (along with other members of the Chicago White Sox) was banned from baseball for life. His accomplishments while an active player are among the most outstanding attained by any player in history.
» Certainly, the manner in which the career of the great Brooklyn Dodger catcher, Roy Campanella, ended was tragic and ironic. Both the Dodgers and the New York Giants left New York for California following the 1957 season. That winter, Campanella, one of the most popular Dodgers ever, was in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair. As such, the tragic accident that impacted Campanella’s life also had an ironic result; namely, this three time National League Most Valuable Player never wore any uniform other than that of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
» Consider Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, two stars who shared center stage in the same era, leaving behind their singular accomplishments in the fabled baseball season of 1941. That year (the last season before World War II), DiMaggio would hit in fifty-six consecutive games and Williams would bat .406, the last .400 season in history.
Joe DiMaggio’s career ended following the 1951 season, and was announced at a press conference. The understated DiMaggio indicated that he could no longer play up to the standards that he had set for himself, and thus, it was time to call it a career. Many professional athletes stay too long, but with his classic grace, DiMaggio called it a career when he felt it was time.
By the same token, Williams’ career ending is worth noting, for it typified the petulance that was part of his persona. In the last time he was at bat in his last game in 1960, he hit a home run. Rounding the bases, he headed straight into the dugout. When asked why he didn’t tip his hat to the fans, Williams replied “I never did it once in my career, so why should I do it now?”
» Floyd (Bill) Bevens of the New York Yankees, and Harry Arthur (Cookie) Lavagetto of the Brooklyn Dodgers ended their careers on one pitch in the background of the 1947 World Series. Bevens had walked a record ten batters, yet he was pitching a no-hitter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Lavagetto then doubled in the tying and winning runs, and Brooklyn won the game even though the Yankees would go on to win the series.
Bevens’ major league career was brief; he pitched from 1944 through 1947. Lavagetto had a long major league career, including ten as a player and several as a manager and coach.
» Ray Chapman, a shortstop with the Cleveland Indians in 1919 and 1920 had a brief career that ended on the most tragic and abrupt of circumstances. On August 16, 1920, he was hit in the head by a ball pitched by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees, and died several hours later. Chapman was the only player in major league history to have had a career interrupted by a fatal accident.
» If any of the endings described above stand out as unusual, there is yet one which must be mentioned because it is perhaps the weirdest ending of all. It involved Willard Hershberger, an otherwise obscure player.
Reportedly possessed of suicidal tendencies, he was allegedly upset because he called some wrong pitches in a July 31 loss, which occurred during a pennant race. Blaming himself for the lost game, Hershberger committed suicide in his Boston hotel room on August 3, 1940.
Undoubtedly, baseball fans will reflect and recall unusual endings that they are aware of; this collection merely represents those that stand out in my memory.
Sam Person is a retired CPA and university professor of accounting who has been a baseball fan for sixty years. He enjoys writing on baseball history.