Going Out with a Bang: Players Who Homered in Their Final Major League At Bats, Part Two
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, continued from yesterday (http://goo.gl/kWhaon)–the product of research first undertaken in 1988.
16. Marv Blaylock, September 28, 1957. Blaylock was in the throes of an 0-for-summer slump: he had not had a hit (in 16 at bats) since June 15, and had not even come to bat since July 27. The Phillies’ first baseman had lost his starting job to rookie Ed Bouchee, and was now finishing his career as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Jim Hearn.
Batting against Brooklyn’s Rene Valdez in the fifth inning, Blaylock blasted a solo home run. “The ball cleared the scoreboard in right center field in Connie Mack Stadium, which was a good distance,” recalled Blaylock more than 30 years later. The Phils lost, 8-4, and Blaylock’s contract was sold to Cincinnati after the season. The Reds “wanted me to report to Havana or Seattle,” Blaylock said in explaining the end of his career. “I refused.”
Blaylock died at age 64 on October 23, 1993. A few years before his death, he expressed appreciation for this research effort, and his inclusion on the list. “It’s nice to be remembered,” he said.
19. Don Gile, September 30, 1962. Gile was playing first base for Boston the day Ted Williams hit his farewell homer, but no one would have dreamed Gile would end his career in similarly dramatic fashion two years later.
The 6’6” Gile, who also caught for the Sox during his four-year career, entered his final day in the big leagues with a lifetime average of .142 – more than 200 points lower than Williams’s – and all of two home runs. In this season, he had a perfect record: 34 times up, 34 times retired. He broke the slump with a single in the first game of a season-ending doubleheader but, by the last inning of the nitecap, his 1962 record stood at 1-for-40. It seemed clear that Gile’s services would no longer be required after this.
Boston’s Bill Monbouquette and Washington’s Jack Jenkins were engaged in a pitchers’ duel. There had been 16 strikeouts and only 12 hits in the game. Going into the bottom of the ninth, the score stood at 1-1, as it had since the third. Boston had one out and a man on first, with the bottom of the order due up: Gile (.025), Chuck Schilling (.230), and Monbouquette (.096), a combined 0-for-9 in the game. Extra innings seemed imminent, but Gile stepped to the plate and boom! As suddenly as the ball disappeared from the confines of Fenway Park, it was all over: the game, the season, and Don Gile’s big league career.
20. Ed Hobaugh, September 2, 1963. “Hoby” had been called up from the minors for the third and final time. He had been pitching professionally since 1956, when he went 11-4 (including a no-hitter) in the Three-I League, and had won 9 of 19 decisions in his previous trials with the hapless Senators. On this day, he was picked to start at Cleveland in the second game of a doubleheader.
Cleveland led, 3-2, going into the fourth, when homers by Don Zimmer and Ed Brinkman gave Washington three runs. Jerry Walker then came in to pitch to Hobaugh, a career .111 hitter with nary a home run to his credit. Nevertheless, Hobaugh recalled “a very strong feeling that I was going to hit the ball out of the park.” Walker delivered a high fastball, and Hobaugh deposited it over the left-center field fence.
Hobaugh was knocked out of the box in the bottom of the inning, but the Nats held on to win, 8-7. The 29-year-old righty would appear in eight more games, all in relief, and walk in his only plate appearance on September 7 (he didn’t remember whether he offered at any pitch). After the season, Hobaugh was traded to the Pittsburgh organization. He pitched for six more years in the minors, finishing his pro career with 97 wins and 68 losses, then became a manager in the Pirates’ system.
Hobaugh was aware he had homered in his final at bat. It provided him little satisfaction, however, serving only to remind him that “It ended too soon for me.”
21. Tony Kubek, October 3, 1965. You might say that Kubek was born to play ball: his father and two uncles all played in the high minors. Raised in a “Polish ghetto” in Milwaukee, Tony excelled in football, basketball, and track, in addition to baseball, in high school. He passed up scholarship offers to go straight to the minor leagues, where he jumped from Class-D to Triple-A in two years, batting over .330 at each level. His propensity to hit line drives earned him the nickname “Rope.”
Kubek joined the Yankees in 1957, alternating between third base, second base, left field and center field. He batted .297 in 127 games, technically earning unanimous selection as A.L. Rookie of the Year (the lone dissenting vote went to an ineligible player). Teammate Mickey Mantle called him “the best young ballplayer I ever saw.” To cap it all off, Kubek starred in the first World Series game ever played in his hometown. On October 5, after manager Casey Stengel had predicted “Tony will do something big yet in this Series,” Kubek blasted two homers and drove in four runs to lead the Yanks to a 12-3 victory over Milwaukee.
Kubek became the team’s regular shortstop, making the All-Star team three times, and helping the Yankees to seven pennants. He reached a peak salary of $37,500, big money in the early 1960s. However, his batting averages started to tumble after 1962, a year in which he was in military service until August. Tony didn’t realize it then, but a touch-football injury suffered in the service had literally broken his neck: three vertebrae in the cervical section of the neck were crushed, imperiling his spinal cord and impairing his reflexes and mobility. The injury was finally diagnosed after the 1965 season, and Kubek was forced to retire at age 29 rather than risk permanent paralysis. He finished with a .266 career average and 57 homers.
Before he quit, Kubek had had one last hurrah. In his final game, at Boston’s Fenway Park, he went 3-for-4 with a sacrifice and three RBIs. In his last at bat, facing monstrous relief pitcher Dick Radatz in the ninth inning, Tony poled a two-run homer to pad a New York victory. Kubek didn’t realize he had homered in his last at bat until 1988, when he and Radatz were chatting near the batting cage at Fenway. “Dick talked about how easily he got Mickey out and the trouble he had with me,” recalls Kubek.
With his playing career over, the well-read Kubek had several other activities to fall back on. He had done some radio announcing for WRIT in Milwaukee. He was vice-president and sales manager of a cheese company in Wausau, Wisconsin. He was a team ring salesman in the same area. And, he was signed to scout for the Yankees in 1966. In the end, broadcasting won out over the vocations.
Kubek was hired to do color commentary for NBC-TV’s “Game of the Week” series starting in 1966. Three years later, he was promoted from the backup-game team to join Curt Gowdy in the national booth. Kubek became known as a bright, outspoken analyst, not afraid to ruffle feathers. He sometimes became embroiled in controversies with those he criticized, most notably George Steinbrenner in 1978.
Kubek was with NBC until 1988, also doing telecasts for CBC in Toronto. He later broadcast Yankees’ games for the MSG cable network. In 2009, Kubek won the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting.
23. Ken McMullen, September 14, 1977. Unlike most of the players on this list, McMullen was an accomplished slugger. Despite playing his entire career in pitchers’ parks, he hit 156 home runs, reaching double figures seven times in a row. His last circuit clout was unexpected, however.
McMullen was signed by the Dodgers as an 18-year-old bonus player in 1961, having been a three-sport standout in high school. After two solid seasons in the minors, the youngster was called up for his first taste of the majors at the end of the ’62 season. Ken helped the Dodgers into the 1963 World Series, although a leg injury kept him out of the Fall Classic. The team couldn’t find a regular lineup spot for him, however, and they sent him to Washington with Frank Howard in a six-player deal following the 1964 campaign.
With the Senators, McMullen blossomed into one of the best third basemen in the AL. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1965, after hitting 18 homers for a ninth-place club. A year later, he tied an all-time record with 11 assists in a nine-inning game. Mickey Mantle called him “the most underrated player in the league.”
McMullen socked 20 home runs in 1968, “the year of the pitcher,” then had his best all-around year under manager Ted Williams in 1969: 19 homers, 87 RBI, and a .272 average, plus his usual sterling defense. A year later he was traded for two solid players to California, where he hit 21 homers in 1971 and won the Owner’s Trophy as the club’s MVP. After the 1972 season, McMullen and Andy Messersmith were traded to the Dodgers in exchange for five players, including future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.
McMullen was troubled by a bad back during Spring Training, 1973, and his position was filled by rookie Ron Cey. McMullen became a Wally Pipp story: Cey did not give up the job for ten years, and McMullen was relegated to the sidelines. Ken became a star pinch-hitter for the Dodgers over the next three seasons, but had only 191 at bats over that period, being typecast as a bench player. He also suffered personal tragedy during this time, as his 30-year-old wife, Bobbie, died of lymphatic cancer four months after giving birth to the couple’s third child.
McMullen went to Oakland in 1976, the year he remarried, then finished up his career with Milwaukee in ’77. His last appearance came a week after he tore a nail off one of his fingers. “I didn’t expect to hit for another week,” recalls McMullen, “but (I) got called to pinch hit [for Jim Gantner] and was just trying to hit a sacrifice fly to score the run.” It was the eighth inning of a game at Seattle, and the Brewers were clinging to a 6-5 lead. Tom House – best-remembered as the man who caught Hank Aaron’s 715th home run ball in the Braves’ bullpen in 1974 – was on the mound. “I took a pitch for a strike,” says Ken, “and then swung at the next pitch almost one-handed and it went out.” Milwaukee won, 8-5.
McMullen was released on December 14, then retired to his Camarillo, California home. He began devoting more time to his hobbies of golf, tennis, and gardening, to the “Ken McMullen Baseball Camp” he had established during his playing career, and to watching his kids grow up.
McMullen was aware of his last-at bat feat. “I’ve never wanted to brag about it,” he says, “but it’s the only way to finish a career.”
25. Mike Cubbage, October 3, 1981. Cubbage hit only 34 home runs during his eight-year career, but many were noteworthy ones. Four were grand slams, one each in 1975 (his first major league hit), ’76, ’77 (when he drove in five runs in one inning), and ’78. One was part of a “cycle” performance in 1978. And, one was hit off the last pitch he received in the majors in 1981.
After playing two years of semipro ball, and attending the University of Virginia (where he was a shortstop and quarterback), Cubbage began his pro career in 1971. He moved up the ladder and made his first big league appearance at age 23 with the 1974 Texas Rangers. Two years later he was dealt to the Twins, developing into a solid third baseman. After an injury-plagued 1980 season, Cubbage signed a lucrative free agent deal with the New York Mets. He was expected to solve the team’s third base problems, but instead lost his job to rookie Hubie Brooks. By the season’s final weekend, Cubbage had accumulated just 79 at bats, with no home runs.
With the Mets down by two runs against the visiting Expos, Cubbage came in to pinch-hit for Doug Flynn in the bottom of the eighth. Facing ace reliever Jeff Reardon, Cubbage cracked a solo home run, but the Mets lost anyway, 5-4. Cubbage was released during spring training, 1982, agreeing to a demotion to the minors. He remained with the organization, becoming the Mets’ third base coach and serving a seven-game stint as their manager.
26. Joe Rudi, October 3, 1982. Of the perpetrators of this feat, only Ted Williams had hit more than the 179 home runs collected by Rudi. And, Rudi is the only man to homer in his last at bats in both regular-season and World Series play.
His Norwegian-born father “kept telling me to stop this foolishness and concentrate on preparing myself for a real career,” Rudi recalls. Nevertheless, Joe went straight from high school (where he lettered in baseball, football, and wrestling) to the minor leagues in 1964. He began a long climb, failing in three trials with the A’s in the late 1960s. He finally stuck with the big club in 1970, batting .309 in 106 games, with help from Oakland batting coach Charlie Lau. Joe would reach his zenith two years later.
In 1972, Rudi led the A.L. in hits and triples, batted .305, and finished second in the league MVP voting. The outfielder made the All-Star team, and paced his club to the first of three consecutive world championships. In Game 2 of the World Series, his homer provided the margin of victory in a 2-1 contest, and his spectacular leaping, wall-crashing, backhanded catch – one of the best in Series history – in the bottom of the ninth saved the game for Oakland.
Rudi had another big year in ’74, leading the A.L. in doubles and total bases, and again finishing second in MVP balloting (he is one of 13 players to twice finish second without ever winning the award). He also won his first of three straight Gold Glove Awards. “Fundamentally, the best player of this generation,” marveled rival manager Billy Martin. “He’s one of the best ever to play this game, and nobody knows him!” Rudi’s teammate, Reggie Jackson, concurred. “Nicest guy in the league,” said Reggie, known more for talking about himself than about others. “Underrated, underpaid, a self-made ballplayer, and the best left fielder in the American League.” Others, including broadcaster Tony Kubek, picked up on Rudi’s “underrated” label. “I get more ink about not getting any ink than about the things I do,” noted Joe.
Rudi, who owned two sporting goods stores in California, stayed with Oakland through 1976, before signing a rich free agent deal with the Angels. Hampered by injuries, his career spiraled downhill. He went to Boston in 1981, then finished out his career back with Oakland in ’82. This set the stage for his farewell homer.
Rudi was not a stranger to dramatic dingers. On June 7, 1970, fresh out of service in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, Joe arrived in the eighth inning of a game against Detroit and hit a three-run, pinch homer to win the game, 5-3. In September 1972, having been sidelined for two days due to dizzy spells and fatigue, Rudi climbed out of bed to again beat the Tigers with a three-run homer. In the final game of the 1974 World Series, Joe homered in his last at bat to give Oakland a 3-2 win and the world title.
On this date – a year to the day after Mike Cubbage’s farewell homer – Oakland was wrapping up its season at Kansas City. Rudi had doubled and scored (on a homer by Dave McKay, also playing his last game) in the second, and the game was tied at three when Joe came to bat in the fourth. Rudi walloped a two-run homer off Larry Gura, and was replaced by rookie Kelvin Moore. Rudi watched as the A’s held on to win, 6-3.
Bothered by a torn Achilles tendon, Rudi retired following the season. He did not realize he had homered in his last at bat, recalling “nothing unusual” about the event.
29. Willie Aikens, April 27, 1985. When Aikens’s mother gave birth to a boy in 1954, 15 days after Willie Mays’s historic World Series catch off Vic Wertz, she named him after his uncle, Willie. The doctor who delivered him suggested the middle name “Mays” (although it was never officially added to the birth certificate), predicting that the newborn would become a “famous ballplayer.” Two decades later, the prediction was well on its way to realization, as Willie Mays Aikens became the Angels’ number one pick in the January 1975 free agent draft.
The big first baseman led the Midwest League in RBIs in ’75, then topped the Texas League in runs, homers, and RBIs the following year. Aikens got a shot at the majors in 1977, but didn’t stick. After winning the PCL home run crown in ’78, Willie was called up to stay.
Aikens helped the Angels to the AL West title in 1979, batting .280 with 21 homers and 81 RBIs in 116 games before tearing knee ligaments while sliding late in the season. In December he was traded to the Mets, but the deal was quashed, and he went instead to Kansas City (taking uniform #24, the one used by Mays). Aikens had 20 homers, 98 RBI, and a .278 average for the Royals, helping them to the 1980 World Series.
Aikens excelled in the Fall Classic. In Game One, on his 26th birthday, Aikens smashed two home runs and drove in four runs, becoming just the third player to collect two round-trippers in his first Series game. In Game Four he became the first player ever to have a pair of two-homer games in one World Series, leading the Royals to a 5-3 win. All told, Aikens batted .400 in the six-game Series loss, with a triple (his first in the majors), four homers, eight RBIs, and a 1.100 slugging percentage.
Aikens helped KC to the postseason again in 1981, batted .281 in ’82, and reached career highs with 23 homers and a .302 average in ’83. Regrettably, those were not the only highs Aikens experienced that year. Convicted of cocaine possession, Willie spent three months in a Fort Worth, Texas prison, and was suspended for the 1984 season. The suspension was lifted on May 15, 1984, by which time Aikens had spent time in rehabilitation and been traded to the Blue Jays.
Aikens played sparingly in 1984, batting just .205, and by early 1985 the writing was on the wall. On April 27, he came to bat for the last time, pinch-hitting at Texas in the ninth inning. Batting for Tony Fernandez against Tommy Boggs, Aikens crashed a dramatic, game-tying, two-run homer, and Toronto went on to win, 9-8. Three days later, Aikens was “designated for assignment,” winding up in the minor leagues. “There’s no doubt in my mind I can still hit,” said Aikens. “I don’t think it’s over yet.” But it was.
Aikens batted .311 for the Syracuse Chiefs, but never got the call back to the bigs. He became convinced that he was persona non grata in U.S. baseball. Released by Syracuse, Aikens signed with the Puebla Black Angels of the Mexican League for 1986, at a salary of $2,500 per month.
Aikens had one of the best seasons in minor league history that year. In 129 games for Puebla, he led the league with 202 hits, 154 RBIs, and a staggering .454 batting average. He scored 134 runs, hit 46 homers, and had a slugging percentage of .863. Surely, this performance would earn him a call back to the majors, Aikens thought. But the call never came.
Willie stayed in the Mexican League for five more seasons, batting .354, .352, .395, .358, and .299, still wondering why lesser hitters were in the majors and he was not. He finished his minor league career with 276 home runs and a .344 average; combined with his major league figures, he had amassed 386 homers, 1524 RBIs, and a .318 mark. Aikens also played in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in the winter of 1989-90. For the last-place St. Lucie Legends, Aikens batted .345 with 12 homers and 58 RBIs in 66 games.
Willie Mays Aikens lived in Seneca, South Carolina, but made an unplanned move. On August 17, 1994, he was convicted by a federal jury on four counts of distributing crack cocaine and one count of using a gun in a drug transaction. He was fined $18,000 and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, without parole.
Part Three tomorrow!