Going Out with a Bang: Players Who Homered in Their Final Major League At Bats
Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats. I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, from research first undertaken in 1988.
I had heard it claimed that Williams was the only player ever to finish his career with a homer, but found it hard to believe. In 1988 – long before Retrosheet or Baseball Reference – I set out to research it. I started by sitting down with The Baseball Encyclopedia for some 30 hours, going page by page and player by player. I looked at the statistics of each of the nearly 14,000 men who had played major league baseball, noting each one who hit at least one home run in his last season (or his last season with any official times at bat). This left me with a list of a little more than 2,000 candidates for the “home run, last at bat” feat.
Next, I went to the official day-by-day sheets for each of these 2,000 player-seasons. The official sheets are housed at the National Baseball Library & Archive in Cooperstown, New York, and show each player’s day-by-day record, as recorded by the league statisticians, for virtually every season. In years for which no official sheets were available, an organization called Information Concepts, Inc. (ICI) assembled computerized unofficial day-by-day sheets, from boxscores and game accounts, in preparation for the first Macmillan Encyclopedia. The ICI sheets (except those for the 1876-90 N.L. seasons) are also on file at the NBL&A. Examination of these sheets whittled my list of 2,000+ down to about 80 players who had homered in their last big league games, or their last games with any at bats. Among these were Benny Kauff (July 2, 1920) and Jackie Robinson (September 30, 1956). Dozens more, incidentally, homered in their next-to-last games, including Harry Hooper, Walter Johnson, Wally Pipp, Moe Berg, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Kluszewski, Jackie Jensen, Tony Perez, Jose Cruz, Ron Kittle, and Joe Carter. Cruz’s homer was a grand slam, and Anson and Pipp each hit two homers in his next-to-last contest.
The final part of the process was examining accounts of the 80 or so contests in which a player homered in his final game, to see which of those had done it in his last at bat. This was the only part which required serious detective work, with which I received invaluable help from SABR members Bob McConnell and Bob Tiemann. This left a list of 31 players who had “gone out with a bang”; the number is now up to 56 (among players inactive in 2015), listed at the end of this article.
I gathered biographical information on the perpetrators from the clipping files at the NBL&A. I wrote to most of the living ones, receiving responses from ten. I accumulated data on the historic games and on tangential subjects. And, having completed the fun parts of the project, I procrastinated for years before finally putting all the material together for SABR Presents the Home Run Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1996).
Each year after 1988, I checked all the players who had homered in the previous season but not batted in the current year, spending a couple of hours to update the list each year. In 2000, Dave Smith of Retrosheet created a program to do this task in minutes. With the help of Smith and Dave Vincent, I now have the list complete and up-to-date to include all players who didn’t play in 2015.
Most of these men performed their feats in virtual anonymity, with observers neither realizing nor caring that a career was coming to a close. Record books duly note players who homer in their first major league appearances, but none had ever listed those that did it in their last, because it had never been documented. The list includes a few well-known names and a whole lot of little-known ones. There is a story to go with each name, and this article will tell some of those stories.
3. Hercules Burnett, September 29, 1895. He was not the first to accomplish this feat, having been preceded by Cleveland’s Buck West in the National League of 1890 and the Phillies’ Frank O’Connor in 1893 (see below for the full list corresponding to this part of the essay). Playing in his sixth and final major league contest, center fielder Burnett had already singled, tripled, stolen a base, and scored two runs when he came up in the seventh inning. Facing Cleveland’s Phil Knell, Burnett completed his Herculean performance by drilling a solo home run. His Louisville Colonels (NL) won, 13-8, in a home game stopped by darkness after eight innings. Louisville was not only Burnett’s team, but his home: he was born there in 1865, and died there in 1936.
4. Ed Scott, August 3, 1901. In one of the most dramatic ends to a career, Scott pitched a 10-inning victory at Milwaukee, and hit the game-winning home run over the left field fence. It came off Bill Reidy with nobody aboard in the top of the tenth, and gave Cleveland an 8-7 win in an American League game marked by “wretched” umpiring. Ed had hit only one homer in 170 previous big league at bats. Scott was employed at the Toledo Furnace Company after his playing career, and he died in that city at age 63 in 1933.
5. Chick Stahl, October 6, 1906. Stahl was completing his tenth season in the majors, having established himself as a star of the game. The outfielder sported a .305 lifetime average and had played for four pennant-winners, all in Boston. He was now acting manager of the Red Sox, who were closing their season at home against the New York Highlanders.
New York led by three when Stahl batted in the bottom of the eighth. Stahl was not much of a home run threat, having hit but 35 in 5,068 previous big league at bats; nevertheless, he connected for a two-run shot off Tom Hughes. It wasn’t enough, as the Sox lost 5-4.
Less than six months later, Chick Stahl was dead at age 34. Though his career had ended with a bang, his life ended with a gulp. The papers reported that he had been despondent and overcome by the pressures of managing (he resigned as manager three days before his death). More likely, he was overwhelmed by the demands of a pregnant groupie with whom he had had an extramarital affair. In any case, Stahl ended his life by drinking three ounces of carbolic acid on March 28, 1907.
8. Walt Kinney, May 9, 1923. Kinney was a hurler for Connie Mack’s Athletics during one of their hapless periods. He had more success during his career as a batter (.280 average) than as a pitcher (11-20 record). On this day, the 29-year-old Kinney was brought into a game at St. Louis, inheriting a 3-0 deficit score in the third inning. He held the Browns at bay until the sixth, when Philadelphia scored three to tie up the game. Contributing to his own cause, Kinney hit an Urban Shocker pitch into the right field stands for a solo homer. But, in the bottom of the frame, Kinney was knocked out of the box during a four-run rally. The A’s lost, 10-5; ironically, as it turned out, Kinney’s homer had made him the pitcher of record – on the losing side!
Kinney was out of organized baseball for four years, put on the “ineligible list” for playing in an outlaw league. He returned to pitch six seasons in the Pacific Coast League before retiring in 1932, and died 39 years later.
10. Johnny Schulte, September 20, 1932. Schulte had joined the Braves late in the 1932 season, having been literally plucked from the stands for a job. Released by the Browns earlier that year, the St. Louis native was watching a Cardinals’ home game when Boston catcher Pinky Hargrave broke a leg. Manager Bill McKechnie sent a courier into the stands to fetch Schulte, and signed him after the game. It was the second time that year Schulte had been hired out of the Sportsman’s Park seats, having joined the Browns when Rick Ferrell broke his hand in a game Johnny was watching. Schulte made a career out of being in the right place at the right time.
In Schulte’s final big league appearance, he drove a solo home run into the lower right field stands at New York’s Polo Grounds. It came off the Giants’ Fred Fitzsimmons in the ninth inning, but did not prevent a 13-3 New York victory. It was Schulte’s 14th major league homer, but his first in four years. This merely ended one chapter of his remarkable career.
Schulte had played semipro baseball and soccer in St. Louis before starting his pro career in 1916. The catcher had his first cup of big league coffee with the Browns in 1923, then resurfaced with the rival Cardinals four years later. There he picked up the nickname “Eagle Eye,” when he twice within a week drew game-winning, bases-loaded walks in pinch-hitting appearances, both on 3-2 counts. From St. Louis, Schulte went to the Phillies in 1928 and the pennant-winning Cubs in ’29. It was at Chicago that he established a professional relationship with Joe McCarthy that would keep him employed until 1950. Schulte was a coach for McCarthy with the Yankees from 1934-48 (being part of eight pennant-winners and seven World Championships), and with the Red Sox in 1949-50.
“As a catcher,” said historian Bob Broeg, “Johnny Schulte was a better coach. As a coach, he was an even better scout.” Indeed, it was for his scouting tips as a Yanks’ coach that Johnny was best remembered. He was principally responsible for the signing and development of Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford. Following his coaching career, Schulte scouted for Cleveland before retiring in 1963. He died of cancer in 1978, aged 81.
11. Mickey Cochrane, May 25, 1937. When Cochrane hit a game-tying solo home run off the Yankees’ Bump Hadley in the third inning, nobody realized it would be the final official at bat of Mickey’s career. At 34, the Tigers’ catcher-manager was still at the top of his game. The homer had brought his season average over the .300 mark for the ninth time in his 13 big league seasons. Cochrane was regarded as the best all-around catcher in the sport, probably the best of all time.
Two innings later, Cochrane lay prostrate at Yankee Stadium’s home plate, his skull fractured in three places. A Hadley fastball on a 3-1 count (3-2, by some sources) had sailed inside, crashing into Cochrane’s temple with a sickening sound. “Good God Almighty,” Mickey mumbled. “I lost the ball.” He would battle for his life, slipping into and out of consciousness for some ten days before recuperating. Except for a one-inning stint in a 1938 exhibition game, Mickey Cochrane would never play again. His career had ended not with a bang, but with a thud.
Cochrane was hardly a one-dimensional performer. While attending Bridgewater State Teachers’ College and Boston University, he had starred in football, basketball, track, and boxing, in addition to baseball. He later became an expert trap shooter, an amateur glider pilot, and a saxophone player. As a ballplayer, he had speed enough to bat leadoff, power enough to hit three home runs in one game (May 21, 1925), and defensive skills that would earn him accolades as “the most successful handler of pitchers baseball ever had.” Cochrane began his pro career in 1923, using the name “Frank King.” Some say he did this to protect his amateur status, but Cochrane explained that “if I was a flop, nobody would know who I was, and I could start all over again someplace else.”
Mickey made it to the majors with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1925. On April 14, Cochrane batted for regular catcher Cy Perkins and drilled a two-run single, helping the A’s to a come-from-behind 9-8 win. “I knew I’d lost my job,” Perkins recalled. Cochrane went on to bat .331 in 134 games, leading the A’s to a surprise second-place finish and their first winning season since 1914.
Cochrane continued to excel, winning the American League Award as the circuit’s most valuable player in 1928, and sparking his team to three consecutive league titles in 1929-31. “More than any other player,” said Mack, “he was responsible for the three pennants.” Financial straits forced Mack to sell off his stars shortly after this. The Detroit Tigers were looking for a player-manager for the 1934 season, and bypassed Babe Ruth to get Cochrane for the princely sum of $100,000.
Mickey promptly led the Tigers to their first pennant since 1909, winning his second MVP Award to boot. Detroit won again in 1935, and Cochrane scored the winning run in the World Series. But, with the team struggling the next year, the intensely competitive catcher suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent weeks at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital and recuperated at a Wyoming ranch.
Back on the lines in 1937, Cochrane seemed to have his life on track again. The Tigers were battling the Yankees in the pennant race as the two teams began a crucial series on May 25. “This first game is all-important,” said Cochrane. “If we can win it we’ll take the series.” He had respect for the opposing pitcher that day. “He has everything,” Cochrane had once said of Hadley. “A fastball that buzzes by your chin, and a curve that has you breaking your back when you swing at it.” When Cochrane poled a Hadley pitch into the right field stands, the score stood at 1-1. It was the same when Mickey batted two innings later. “I relaxed, thinking it would go by,” Cochrane later said about the fateful pitch. “All of a sudden I lost sight of it…. I think I could have played four or five more years, but there’s nothing that can be done about that now.” Mickey finished his career with a .320 lifetime average.
Cochrane returned as Tigers’ manager in 1938, but without the same fire. He just wasn’t able to lead as effectively from the bench as from the field. With Detroit in fifth place, he was fired on August 6. Mickey made a few brief returns to baseball: as a coach and later general manager with the Athletics in 1950; as a scout with the Yankees in 1955; and as a scout and later vice-president of the Tigers between 1960-62. On July 21, 1947, Cochrane was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with former battery-mate Lefty Grove, who had debuted in the majors on the same day as Mickey.
Between his baseball sojourns, Cochrane’s post-playing career included a job with the Dryden Rubber Company in Chicago; a three-year hitch as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy; and operations of a Detroit-to-Chicago trucking line, a dude ranch in Montana, and an automobile sales agency. Following a long illness, Mickey Cochrane died in 1962.
13, Paul Gillespie, September 29, 1945. In the second game of a doubleheader at Pittsburgh, Gillespie hit a two-run homer off Rip Sewell. It keyed a five-run rally in the fourth frame, two innings before darkness ended the contest with the Cubs victorious, 5-0. It completed their 20th doubleheader sweep of the season, a record that is surely safe for all time. Gillespie did appear in a game the following day, but did not come to bat; the catcher also played in the 1945 World Series against Detroit, going 0-for-6, but retained his distinction of homering in his last regular-season at bat. Gillespie had also connected in his first big league at bat, for the Cubs on September 11, 1942; thus, two of his six career four-baggers made history.
Gillespie returned to the minor leagues, playing until 1949. He died in 1970, aged 49.
14. Bert Haas, August 26, 1951. Haas knew that he was going to be released outright the following day, allowing him to hook on with Montreal of the International League. The 37-year-old utility player had played in nine big league seasons for five teams, and had accumulated just 21 career home runs in 2,439 at bats. The youngest and most successful of nine ballplaying brothers, Haas had begun his pro career in 1936, and became an All-Star with the Reds before suffering a fractured skull in 1948. He would perform as a minor league player and manager until 1962.
The White Sox sent him up to pinch-hit for pitcher Howie Judson in game two of this Comiskey Park doubleheader against the Yankees. It was the seventh inning, there was a man on base, and lefty Art Schallock was pitching. “I knew (Yankee manager Casey Stengel) thought he could get me out by having Schallock throw me a curve ball,” Haas recalled decades later. Schallock did, and Haas deposited it out of reach. The Sox lost, 8-6, but Haas had ended his big league career in style. “At the time I thought it was great,” Haas wrote me from his Tampa, Florida home. “And still do.” Haas died in Tampa in 1999.
Part Two tomorrow!