Saying goodbye is not always easy, especially when your stay has brought you fame and fortune, as it has for many a professional ball player. Here is Part II of guest correspondent Ron Carmean’s look at “when to say when.”
How about an example –or more than one– of great players who walked away before tarnishing their career? That would lead to someone like Joe DiMaggio. What baseball player did the fisherman in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” think of as he battled the Big Fish? “Joltin’ Joe”, of course. In 1941, as DiMaggio established a record consecutive game hitting steak of 56, everyone in the country thought of him. They thought of him every Fall as the Yankees appeared in 10 World Series —winning nine of them— in Joe’s 13-year career. He was admired and loved. Yes, he put up stats, too. Ten times in the top 10 in MVP voting —winning three times. Eleven times hitting .300+, winning two batting titles. Hit .325 lifetime and was in every All-Star game for his 13 seasons. In 1948, he injured a heel and was limited to playing in only 76 games the following year but still managed to hit .346. But the injury lingered. After 1951, hitting a career low .263, he hit a home run in the (winning) World Series, and retired, saying: “I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates.” He played gracefully and left the same way. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
[Time Out….Who said: “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street, folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’” And who said: “Then when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said ‘There goes ___ _____, the best there ever was in this game.’” Answers to follow soon.]
Ted Williams missed three years of baseball because of WWII. He also missed all but 43 games in 1952 and 1953 while serving in Korea. In the war he was a pilot. In the ballpark he was the last player whose batting average soared to .400. (Specifically, .406 in 1941.) He began the last day of the season at .400 exactly. His manager was willing to let him sit out a double header. He said: “No thanks,” or something like that. He always spoke his mind, if you wanted him to —or not. He got six hits in eight at-bats and ended the season at .406. In his career, he hit over 500 doubles, and over 500 homers. His lifetime BA was .344 —7th best all-time. He won six batting titles. After hitting over .300 for his first 17 years, he batted only .254 at age 40. He was urged to retire. “One more year” he replied. So, at age 41, he batted .316 with 29 home runs. In his last at bat EVER, he hit a home run. He circled the bases, ran into the dugout and to the clubhouse beyond. He did not look back or come back.
[Timeout: The first quote was Ted Williams. The second quote was Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) in the film, The Natural.]
Sandy Koufax played 12 years for the Dodgers. The first six years he won less than half his games. Then he hit his stride, and the hitters who faced him lost theirs. In the final 5 years of his career he accumulated these totals: 111 – 34, 5 ERA titles (yes, that’s every year), 3 times over 300 strikeouts, 33 shutouts, and 3 Cy Young awards. In the 1963 World Series, which the Dodgers won 4 victories to none over the New York Yankees, Koufax came into the Championship series with a record of 25 – 5. Watching Koufax warm up, Yogi Berra was asked: “What do you think of him?” Yogi replied: “I don’t see how he did it.” A second question for Yogi: “You mean, win 25 games?” Yogi: “No. How did he lose 5?” (Note: In the Series, Koufax pitched 2 complete games, winning both with an ERA of 1.50. He was the Series MVP.)
Koufax retired after the 1966 season. After going 27 – 9. He was 30 years old. Why did he leave? Chronic arthritis in his left —pitching— arm. Medical treatments had helped little. Koufax feared if he kept pitching, he could lose the use of his arm. So he retired. What is not often remembered is the reaction of many people to his announcement. It was not all positive. They wanted him to continue playing. HE WAS 27 – 9 FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE. But, as he explained, he wanted to use his arm in the future, to play with children, etc. He stayed retired —and now is loved by all.
Koufax went out on top. Richie Ashburn did not. While Mays, Mantle, and Duke Snider played Center Field for 3 teams in NYC, Ashburn played for the Phillies 90 miles away in Philadelphia. Few noticed. Few cared. Until 1995, when Ashburn entered Baseball’s Hall of Fame. In 12 years as a Phillies center fielder and lead-off hitter, he hit .300+ 8 times. He won two batting titles. His best year was 1958. He led the NL in: batting .350, OBP .440, hits 215, walks 97, and triples 13. He was 7th in MVP voting. Good as he was, he was not a home run hitter. In his final season, playing for the NY Mets in 1962 in their inaugural season, when they lost 120 games, he hit a team-leading .306. He was voted the Mets MVP. His reaction: “MVP on the worst team ever? I wonder what exactly what they meant by that?” The best player on baseball’s worst team. Perhaps, at age 35, and after 15 years in MLB, it was time to leave. So, he did.
I’ve talked about nine baseball players in this two-part posting. Four had difficulty knowing when to walk away —and stayed too long. Four did not. Meanwhile, Ryan Howard is currently struggling with the question. I hope he does what is best for him, and the Phillies —the only team for which he has played. Time will tell when he chooses …when to say when.
The next posting on marc’s blog will be number 400! WooHoo!