So now that Gil Meche has quit, does that mean the Kansas City Royals are going to win the World Series this year?
Too laughable for words? How about Milwaukee, because Trevor Hoffman has hung ’em up while still theoretically still with the Brewers?
If you haven’t clicked away by now, don’t think for a moment that I’m suggesting there’s a predictable correlation between any of these things, but there is a not insubstantial list of occasions in history in which a prominent player – or even star – has retired only to see his last team go on to win the World Series the following fall.
Three of the game’s All-Time greats managed this impossible and dubious trick. Stan Musial was a World Champ in three of his first four seasons in the majors (’42, ’44, ’46 – he spent 1945 in the service) and then slogged it out with some pretty bad Cardinals teams for the next 17 years before retiring after the ’63 campaign. He then watched from the distant front office as the Birds won it all in ’64.
The other two immortals managed to miss out together. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker had been forced out of their player-manager jobs in Detroit and Cleveland respectively after a gambling scandal hit the American League in the late ’20s, and concluded their careers as teammates with the 1928 Philadelphia A’s. They left (Cobb to true retirement, and Speaker to a pinch hitting/managing gig with Newark of the International League), and the Athletics won the 1929 Series. Speaker had won crowns in Boston and Cleveland, but though he was in the Series in his second, third, and fourth full seasons in the majors in Detroit, the Tigers lost all three of those Classics and for everything else he did, Cobb could never claim he won a Series.
The most touching example of this impeccably bad timing would obviously be Don Mattingly, who arrived just after the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series. Mattingly suffered through the worst of the Steinbrenner years at Yankee Stadium from 1982 to 1993 without once seeing the post-season. Mattingly’s ’94 Yanks, a pretty good team, were snuffed out by the strike, and in ’95, when he finally reached the playoffs after having announced his retirement, they blew a chance at what would’ve been his only Series appearance by coughing up the 2-0 lead to the Mariners. The Yankees, with Tino Martinez in Donnie Baseball’s stead at first base, went on to win the Series in 1996.
Amazingly there are at least two other Yankee first basemen who did the same thing, although neither had as much to complain about as did Mattingly. George McQuinn retired after the 1948 season, just before the Yanks went on their run of five straight Championships. But McQuinn had already gotten his ring with the ’47 Yankees.
McQuinn’s retirement opened up a path for Joe Collins to take over much of the work at first base in the Bronx. Collins was hardly cheated: he only played eight full seasons but was on six World’s Champs. When the Yanks decided to trade him to Philadelphia after they lost the 1957 Classic, Collins retired – and New York rebounded to win the 1958 crown.
Mathematically, with all those titles, it’s not surprising that there are at least four other Yankees on this strange list. They began asking “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” in the winter of 1951 when he retired. With nine rings in just thirteen years on the field, the Yankee Clipper did not get shortchanged. Nevertheless, New York won two more in his first two years away from the game. The talented Jerry Coleman, still going strong in the Padres’ booth just 53 years later, quit the Yanks after the ’57 loss to Milwaukee and, like Collins, missed the ’58 crown. His fellow Yankee infield stalwart Gil McDougald retired after the ’60 loss to Pittsburgh and thus missed the ’61 win over Cincinnati and the ’62 victory over San Francisco. And of the most recent vintage, Mike Mussina’s triumphant climax to his great career, his first 20-win season in his swan song of 2008, also meant he missed out on what would’ve been his only ring in 2009.
This list is probably incomplete; I confess to having done it off the top of my head. But Pee Wee Reese is on it, retiring from the 1958 Dodgers and so on their ’59 Series winners only as a coach. If you want a manager, take Earl Weaver. He retired from the Orioles after 1982. They won it under Joe Altobelli in 1983. Making things worse, the Birds soured on Altobelli in ’85 and Weaver un-retired for two unhappy seasons.
There are a couple of judgement calls, too. Tim McCarver called it quits from the Phillies at the end of 1979 and went into the broadcasting booth, only to be activated in September, 1980 when rosters expanded. But he was back in civvies for the World Series triumph, which would’ve been his first since St. Louis in 1964. There is also the iffy case of Harvey Haddix. The Baltimore Orioles traded the veteran pitcher to Milwaukee in August of 1965, but Haddix told the Braves he was intending to retire in a month and they shouldn’t waste money or players on obtaining him. In fact, his last major league game was on August 28, 1965, so I’ll leave it to you as to whether or not he qualifies on the bad timing roster considering the ’66 edition of the Orioles won the Series.
Lastly, the most frustrating case I can recall would have to be that of Mel Harder, the Cleveland Indians pitcher for whose Hall of Fame candidacy Ted Williams never stopped lobbying. Harder joined the Tribe in 1928, eight years after they’d taken the Series under player-manager Speaker. He won a tidy 223 games before finally giving up after his 20th season in Cleveland, in 1947. The Indians promptly won the 1948 World Series, in no small measure because of their rookie pitching coach – Harder himself. He stayed in that job through 1963 (and obviously the Indians never won the Series after his first year). To expand our terms a little bit, when the Indians let him go, Harder quickly hooked on as pitching coach of the Mets (five years before their Championship). He would move on to the Reds in ’66 and stay through 1968, exiting just before The Big Red Machine rose to prominence.
So if the Royals or Brewers surprise everybody this year, maybe you know why.