In an era of multi-million dollar salaries, it's not surprising that most players retire from the game as major leaguers and pursue whatever post-baseball careers they choose. In days past, when salaries were lower and college educations fewer, it was not rare for a long-time major league player to return to the minors as his talents eroded.
Not only was this practice was common among fringe players, but research shows that many stars and superstars spent their last few seasons in the bushes. Of the 145 men elected to the Hall of Fame for their playing skills whose major league seasons were confined to the 20th Century, 40 ended their careers riding a bus.
This list excludes those elected as executives, managers, and umpires, or those whose playing fame was achieved in the Negro Leagues. In this first of a two-part series, we will look at the members of that group who entered the hall as pitchers. The following list presents them in alphabetical order.
Grover Alexander, having been released in mid-season by the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, joined the Dallas Steers and pitched his final five games in the Texas League. Broke, in poor health, and ravished by years of alcoholism, he finished with a 1-2 record and an 8.25 ERA.
Charles (Chief) Bender retired as a player to spend the last year of World War I working in a shipyard. He then returned to the game as a minor league pitcher and manager for seven more years. His final season on the mound was in 1927 with Johnstown of the Middle Atlantic League where, at 43, he was able to win seven games and post a 1.33 ERA. Following the 1927 season, he continued in baseball as a manager, coach, and scout, ending his association with the game as a coach for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953, the same year he joined the Hall of Fame and one year before his death.
Vernon (Lefty) Gomez ended his major league career with the 1942 Washington Senators. Following World War II, he managed Binghamton of the Eastern League in 1946 and 1947, pitching in one game each season. El Goofo, a star pitcher and comedian, brought one of the last-place 1947 Triplett's few memorable moments in a one-inning shutout pitching performance.
Burleigh Grimes followed up his 270 major league victories with a pennant-winning season as manager of the I.I.I. League's Bloomington Bloomers in 1935. To help the cause, he took his turn on the mound, winning ten of his final fifteen decisions. Ole Stubblebeard fit the mold, and may have set it, as the tough-talkin', tobacco-spittin' old-timer.
Walter Johnson, like Lefty Gomez, ended his career with one minor league game while serving as his own manager with the 1928 Newark Bears. Johnson, as gentle a man as Burleigh Grimes was rough, led his team to a seventh-place finish. It was an unusual one in that they finished only three games under .500 and nine and one-half games out of first place.
Bob Lemon was released by the Cleveland Indians on July 2, 1958, less than one month after the same fate befell another Indian great, Mike Garcia. While Garcia came back to the Tribe for another two seasons, Lemon finished out 1958 with San Diego of the PCL before turning his knowledge and leadership skills into success as a coach, manager, and executive.
Richard (Rube) Marquard won his 201st and final major league game in 1925, but he lasted another seven seasons as a minor league manager, coach, part-time pitcher, and umpire. His final win came in 1932 with the Southern Association's Atlanta Crackers.
Robin Roberts pitched in 676 major league games and another twenty-two in the
minors. The first eleven followed his 1948 graduation from Michigan State, as he compiled a 9-1, 2.06 stint with Wilmington of the Inter-State League. As a 40-year old greybeard, he pitched eleven more with the Eastern League's 1967 Reading Phillies. Not surprisingly, there was enough life in the old arm to produce a 5-3. 2.48 record.
Warren Spahn, a few years older than Roberts, received his education during the Battle of the Bulge. A twenty-game winner twelve times, the great Spahn was in his mid-40's before he finally lost touch with the fountain of youth. Unwilling to call it quits, he pitched three games for the 1966 Mexico City Tigers and another three for the 1967 Tulsa Oilers of the PCL.
Ed Walsh achieved spectacular success before turning 30, but won only 13 games during his final five major league seasons. Thereafter he returned to the minors for two years as a manager and sore-armed pitcher. He called it quits after the 1920 season with the Eastern League's Bridgeport Bears. Like many of his contemporaries, Big Ed stayed in the game as a manager, coach and umpire, and spent one season as coach of the Notre Dame baseball team.
Having looked at the pitching greats, we will examine next month the much longer list of Hall of Famers who achieved baseball immortality with their bats and gloves.
On a personal note, the author is grateful to Sean Holtz for his providing the space, attractive art work, and accessibility which enable this monthly look at minor league history to be shared with its fans. Those who take the time to read this account of names and faces, some known and others obscure, are also to be thanked. If any in this dedicated group would like to suggest a favorite player, team, or event for consideration in this column, they are welcome to drop a line to bbdata@AOL.COM.