Rehearsals for Retirement

Modern players like Mariano Rivera were better set up for retirement than many players who came before him. (via Dennis Yang)

“The days grow longer for smaller prizes…I turn to old friends, they do not know me.”
—Phil Ochs, “Rehearsals for Retirement” (1969)

Sometimes we hang on too tightly. Sometimes we hang on too little.

If we are lucky, in the course of our lives we will come to many partings of the ways with ourselves. How boring it would be to remain the same person from cradle to grave, never evolving. Evolution can be a painful business, and rebirth can be as distressing in its own way as birth itself, for it requires disposing of outdated self-images and relinquishing old dreams.

The thing you grew up wanting to do becomes the thing you’ve done and then, after many repetitions, becomes the thing you want to be done with. Alternatively, the thing that you haven’t done but might still dream of doing may now be beyond you, and this too is difficult to accept. There are, of course, those who will never reach that last turning, and more power to them: May they blessedly sleepwalk through the rest of their days.

Ballplayers often don’t have a choice in the matter. As wonderful as it is to conjure stories out of nothingness, a writer might, like Prospero on some depressed whim abjure the rough magic of words, break his staff, and drown his book, or he might not, or he might do so and then reconstitute them and begin telling tales again. It’s all optional so long as the market will indulge him. Time will make that decision for all but a handful of baseball players.

There are rare exceptions who might, to continue with the Shakespearean analogy, break their bats and drown their glove, feeling the call of other things. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, 29 and just two seasons removed from back-to-back 30-homer seasons, no longer felt like playing: “I was still a competitor, The Hawk was still there, but I didn’t want to play baseball anymore.” He opted to become a professional golfer. Similarly, future Hall of Famer Robin Yount, only 22 but already in his fifth major league season, lost time in 1978 to the lure of the PGA tour.

More recently, players like Mariano Rivera and David Ortiz felt they had accomplished all they could in the game and retired before the years diminished their skills. The rich salaries earned by today’s players have made it possible for them to step away the moment they felt their commitment waver and their capabilities erode.

Though he was, in his own words, not as well fixed as Rivera and Ortiz would one day be, Joe DiMaggio cited similar reasons for retiring in December, 1951. “I feel that I have reached the stage,” he said, “where I can no longer produce for my ball club, my manager, my teammates, and my fans the sort of baseball their loyalty to me deserves.” A career .329/.401/.589 hitter through 1950, the 36-year-old Yankee Clipper had hit only .263/.365/.422 and was able to take the field in only 116 games due to injuries. Physical adversity had changed the way DiMaggio felt about baseball: “When baseball is not fun, it is no longer a game.” He was no longer that Joe DiMaggio.

DiMaggio, Ortiz and Rivera embraced retirement. Most players run like hell, and it’s hard to blame them. The cliché is that athletes die two deaths, the first coming when they relinquish their career. In doing so, they are letting go of the qualities that made them special and the goals that animated them from childhood on. This is a terrifying thing to face, but most of us don’t do it until we reach the proverbial “midlife crisis,” that time when, as Meg Rowley recently said, we are at a painfully uncomfortable age when we are not yet old but are also no longer young. The major league ballplayer might reach that moment at any time between 15 and 50, between Joe Nuxhall and Jack Quinn.

Inventing oneself the first time is a process of trying on and discarding different identities, sometimes rapidly, from childhood through adolescence. Though self-discovery can be a joyful process, it’s also a relief once it’s over and we know who we are. The thought of reembarking on such an uncertain enterprise invokes terror for many, especially when, rightly or wrongly, the goals that one embraced the first time, like becoming a rock star, running for president, founding the successor to Apple, or, for the ballplayer, hitting 500 home runs, seem out of reach or no longer appeal. Many retiring players say something along the lines of, “My kids are getting older, and I’d like to be around to watch them grow up.” That’s a laudable thing, insofar as it goes, but ultimately seeing to the start of someone else’s life does not necessarily equate to the productive continuation of your own.

No wonder players, even those set financially, fight to delay the inevitable. Consider the recent non-retirement retirement of Ichiro Suzuki. He’s 44, and between the United States and Japan he has totaled more hits than Pete Rose, and yet he’s not ready. The word “retirement” was pointedly avoided in any discussion of his transfer from the Seattle Mariners roster to the front office. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it ain’t over ‘til Ichiro says it’s over—and he ain’t saying.

Babe Ruth’s decision to end his career straddled the DiMaggio, Rivera/Ortiz and Ichiro versions of hanging ‘em up. By 1934, no one could quite figure out what to do with Ruth, including the Babe himself. Thirty-nine years old, overweight, and slowing rapidly on defense, he had hit only .288/.448/.537 with 22 home runs that season and played in only 125 games. Those rates, which would earn a player millions on today’s free-agent market, were considered disappointing given (a) The only stats anyone paid attention to at the time were batting average, home runs and RBI, (b) even those numbers paled badly compared to those of Ruth’s prime, and (c) his outfield play was causing Yankees pitchers to manifest full-blown depression.

Ruth was aware of his growing limitations and began to speak of 1934 being his last season as a regular. He thought he still had enough left in the tank to warrant a spot in the lineup and pinch-hit the odd home run, but he insisted he would only do so as a player-manager. New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert made it clear to Ruth he was not going to can incumbent skipper Joe McCarthy in his favor, so it was obvious that if he was going to get his wish he would have to go somewhere else. The Yankees, wanting him gone but unwilling to take the publicity hit of simply letting go of a national institution, were happy to facilitate this.

Ruth’s failure to land a managerial position in the 1934-1935 period is often framed as one of character. As his own general manager Edward Grant Barrow asked, how could Ruth manage other people when he couldn’t manage himself? There can be little doubt the escapades of Ruth’s wild 20s followed him into his more settled, married-with-children 40s, but a larger problem was one of timing.

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In the winter of 1933-1934, Tigers owner Frank Navin was interested in acquiring Ruth and letting him run the club, but Ruth had procrastinated until it was too late; the job ultimately would go to catcher Mickey Cochrane. The bankrupt Dodgers were also avid, but Ruppert and Barrow had no interest in Ruth turning up so close by; Brooklyn went with Casey Stengel instead. The Yankees offered Ruth the Newark Bears of the International League, but the Babe turned up his nose: “To ask me, after twenty years of experience in the major leagues to manage a club in the minors would be the same, I think, as to ask Colonel Ruppert, one of the foremost brewers in the country, to run a soda fountain.”

A year later, most teams were set. Several clubs changed managers during the 1934 season, but in the ensuing offseason only the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators made changes. And for all practical purposes they swapped skippers, with Joe Cronin headed north and Bucky Harris going south. As a result, Ruth pursued the undefined promise of a future managerial position and other ego-flattering titles offered by Judge Emil Fuchs, owner of the Boston Braves.

Back in 1922, Fuchs, a baseball fan and the attorney for the New York Giants, had purchased the Braves as a kind of get-well-soon present for his friend and idol Christy Mathewson, who was slowly succumbing to tuberculosis. Matty would serve as team president and, though in his 40s, maybe pitch now and again. The latter didn’t happen, and he was only intermittently capable of the former. He died in 1925, leaving the under-financed Fuchs directionless and deeply in debt.

Fuchs’ Braves were generally terrible, which was a missed opportunity; the rival Red Sox were equally bankrupt and inept in this period. Boston may not have been able to sustain as a two-team town, but it was not inevitable the Braves would be the team to leave. With a properly capitalized owner, the Braves might have captured the hearts and minds of Bostonians before the Red Sox could reorganize. Instead, millionaire Tom Yawkey bought the Sox in 1933 and began paying high prices for veteran drawing cards like Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx. The best Fuchs could offer was a plea to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to let him lease Braves Field for dog racing while the Braves moved in with the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Landis was unenthusiastic.

With the canines shut out, Fuchs’ big hope was to pick up a drawing card of his own, even a superannuated one like Ruth. He offered the Babe a $25,000 salary, a $10,000 reduction from his 1934 earnings, but, as with the Yankees, he would get a cut of the gate at any exhibition games the club played (at that time teams tended to fill off days with non-league games), and he would be named vice-president of the team as well as assistant manager. Ruth took the bait.

There were as many as four lies embedded in the offer to Ruth. The smallest of the four was that a percentage of the gate for anything involving the Braves was unlikely to net enough money for cab fare. The second was that being vice-president of the Braves was a meaningless title. The role was wholly undefined, and in practice what it meant was that whereas every player got a locker in the clubhouse, Ruth had a locker and a desk. The third lie was that the team’s manager, Bill McKechnie, had any use for an assistant, never mind one who was planning to take his job.

The fourth lie was that Fuchs had the slightest intention of replacing McKechnie with Ruth. McKechnie had been managing in the NL since 1922 (he also had a stint managing the Newark Pepper of the Federal League in 1915) and had won pennants with both the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates and the 1928 St. Louis Cardinals, the former team winning the World Series over the Washington Senators. He was justly regarded as one of the best managers in the game. Whether Ruth could manage is a question that can never be answered. What can be said definitively is that the idea of replacing McKechnie without cause would be akin to today’s Los Angeles Angels replacing Mike Scioscia with Albert Pujols, sight unseen, or the Cubs swapping out Joe Maddon for Yu Darvish.

Ruth told a lie, too: He was done as a regular player, both physically and psychologically. He was 40, fat, fragile and fed up. In the third inning of a game against the Cleveland Indians on July 18, 1934, Ruth was standing on first when Lou Gehrig’s hot smash in the second-base hole took a hard bounce into his right ankle. He had to be borne off the field by teammates and coaches. “I’m getting out of this game before I’m carried out,” Ruth said while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

Although Ruth shrugged off a doctor’s insistence that he be hospitalized and fought to get back in the lineup, there was resolution in what he had said. His decision to prolong his career in Boston was a means to an end, that of succeeding McKechnie in the dugout. The grand result was that no one was happy.

The Braves were awful, as it would turn out, both with and without Ruth one of the worst teams of all time (38-115, .248). Ruth didn’t want to play. Fuchs needed him to. McKechnie needed him to sit or leave—a left fielder has to be able to bend over and pick up grounders that make it through the infield. They have to run after fly balls. They have to hit. Ruth couldn’t do those things with any consistency, the other players resented it so team discipline unraveled, and the Braves were 8-20 when Ruth played. As New York Times columnist John Kieran later put it, “Ruth, Fuchs, and McKechnie: three men on a lame horse.”

On Opening Day against the New York Giants, Ruth hit a home run off of Carl Hubbell at Braves Field. He homered again in the fifth game. Thirty days passed until his next home run. During that span he went 1-for-32, albeit with 13 walks (.031/.311/.031). At no time in 1935 did Ruth both start and finish a game. His knees hurt, and he had an unshakeable cold. Simultaneously, Fuchs kept booking him to play in exhibitions before small crowds on subpar fields. It’s an exaggeration to say that in 1935 the Braves were so desperate for money that they played games in sewers, junkyards and coal mines, but not by much.

When there were no exhibitions to play, Fuchs pushed him to go to store openings. Ruth tried to walk away in early May. Fuchs begged him not to go. On May 25 came the famous game at Pittsburgh in which Ruth hit three home runs, one going clear out of Forbes Field. Friends and teammates urged him to walk away then and there, but he felt some obligation, either to Fuchs or his own managerial ambitions, and so for five miserable days he played on, badly wrenching a knee in the process.

Somewhere during this time, Fuchs asked Ruth to invest $50,000 in the club.

One of the great American stories ended over what Ruth called “a big boat.” In the 1930s, when transatlantic crossings by air were still in a nascent stage, sea travel was the only way of getting from the United States to Europe and vice-versa. Great luxury liners still captured the public imagination, even in the decades after the Titanic and Lusitania. As Ruth was struggling with his failing powers, the new French liner Normandie was speeding across the ocean to New York. The biggest ship in history at 1,029 feet, it carried 1,013 passengers on its four-day, 11-hour crossing.

Great festivities were planned for the ship’s arrival. It was truly a huge thing—an estimated 200,000 people lined pieces of the New York City waterfront watching the ship come in. Ruth had been invited to a celebrity gala to be held aboard ship in some amorphous capacity as the “representative of baseball.” He very much wanted to be there and didn’t see why he shouldn’t go. As he said after what he called “the blow-off” with Fuchs:

Here is my argument. I’ve got a bad leg, threatened with water on the knee unless I keep off it and can’t play ball. We have an exhibition game scheduled for tomorrow. I’m willing to go and hobble around in that to please the crowd. The game and my appearance have been advertised for a long time—and the Braves need the money. But I am not fit to play in a league game…So when I received the special invitation to attend the Normandie celebration as the representative of baseball I thought it would be a great honor and that it would mean a great deal to the Braves if I attended…Inasmuch as I couldn’t play ball on either Tuesday or Wednesday, I believe that I can help more by representing baseball at a big thing like that than sitting on the bench.

Fuchs said no. Ruth said, fine, then I’m retiring so I can go. Fuchs didn’t like that either, and fired Ruth before he could quit. “When permission was refused, Ruth did not take the refusal in a sportsmanlike way at all, but declared that he would ask to be placed on the voluntary retired list. I didn’t want that, so I unconditionally released him.” Obviously, he was fired as vice-president as well.

One headline joked, “Ship Rams Ruth!” A more accurate headline might have been, “Ship Gives Ruth the Excuse to Do What He Wanted to Do Anyway.” Ruth had made a series of mistakes after 1933—challenging Ruppert to replace McCarthy with himself, declining the Newark job, blowing off Frank Navin, and signing with Fuchs.

These could be read as a self-destructive fecklessness, but they can and should also be seen as a fatal ambivalence about what to do at age 38, 39, 40. Even in his farewell press conference at Braves Field, Ruth insisted, “I love the game. You fellows know I’ve played damn hard. I still want to manage a team.” Even upon returning to his home in New York, he said, “There’s no use kidding myself or the public. I’m through as a day-in and day-out player. I just can’t go out there every day and play…But I still can play a few days a week. I can go in there and play maybe on Saturdays and Sundays. I can pinch-hit. I’m not through with baseball. At least I hope I’m not.”

But for an ill-fated coaching stint with Brooklyn in 1939 and some exhibitions, he basically was. This is how we remember him from this point of his life—drinking, golfing, eating too much, developing cancer, fading away and dying at 53. That emphasis discards what is valuable about Ruth at that moment of his life. What the 40-year-old Ruth can teach us is how hard it is to let go of who you are, or, more accurately, were. He spoke the truth when he said, “I love the game.” After his death his wife, Claire, told this story about a moment late in his career:

One evening, the Babe, my mother, [daughters] Julia, Dorothy, and I were driving downtown after a long, long doubleheader. The Babe was exhausted. We were stopped by a red light beside a park in Harlem where a bunch of Negro kids were playing baseball. They recognized the Babe and crowded around the car. One of them said, “Come on, Babe. Let’s see you hit a few.”

Weary as he was he did just that. He climbed out of the car, resplendent in white flannels, black and white shoes, and silk shirt. For thirty minutes the Babe hit and the kids had the thrill of their lives.

When someone who loves the game as much as Ruth did values meeting a ship over the continuance of his career, he’s trying to give himself a message he might otherwise not have been ready to hear, all his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Ruth was ready to quit and would never be ready to quit. George Herman Ruth had long since been subsumed by the Babe. He hadn’t been anyone else for so long it was impossible to let go of him. He was just like everybody else in that he couldn’t be anybody else. And so he dithered, he cost himself the opportunities he most desired, and in the end he drifted on without new definition, a ghost who haunted himself.

Late in life, Ruth did an as-told-to book with Bob Considine. There are many things in it he undoubtedly did not say, but there are some ideas that are likely consistent with his own thoughts and behavior. “A man who has put away his baseball togs after an eventful life in the game must live on his memories, some good some bad,” and, “Don’t quit until every base is uphill.”

Wrong! Quit at the very first moment that whatever it is you’re doing no longer feels like it suits you because it was made for the version of you that was rather than the version that is, and then rather than dwell on memories, go ye forth and make new ones. When it comes to the inevitable change, be you civilian or ballplayer, don’t be like Babe Ruth was at his worst, but rather emulate him at his best. In other words: Call your shot.

References and Resources

  • The Associated Press, July 19, 1934, “Ruth, Leg Injury Improved, Plans Return To Yankee Line-Up in Chicago on Sunday”
  • The New York Times, June 3, 1935, “Babe Ruth ‘Quits’ Braves And Is Dropped by Club; Unconditionally Released Following Wrangle Over Attending Normandie Celebration — Declares He Will Stay in Baseball.”
  • Babe Ruth as told to Bob Considine, The Babe Ruth Story (New York: Dutton, 1948).
  • Arthur Daley, The New York Times, December 12, 1951 “Sports of The Times; End of the Trail”
  • Alexander Edelman, SABR Bio Project, “Ken Harrelson
  • Greg Johns, MLB.com, “Ichiro transitioning from field to front office
  • John Kieran, The New York Times, June 4, 1935, “Sports of the Times; The Babe in Blunderland.”
  • Leigh Montville, The Big Bam (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
  • Claire Ruth and Bill Slocum, The Babe and I (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959).
  • Marshall Smelser, The Life That Ruth Built (New York: Quadrangle, 1975).


Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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Jim
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Jim

Albert would probably decide on a closer.

brewcat
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brewcat

I hope Victor Martinez reads this.

Richie
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Richie
I think it was Frank White who said, “don’t quit till they tear the uniform off your back”. Jim Brown retired in his prime, and within 10 years he was doing stuff like challenging Franco Harris to sprints, and just not letting go till Franco finally said “OK, let’s just get this over with” and smoked him. Wilt Chamberlain retired early, after which he went and on about how he was going to become an Olympic volleyballer, which after Karch Kiraly couldn’t stop laughing, then Wilt started blathering about how he was going to become an Olympic long jumper. Jim… Read more »
francis_soyer
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francis_soyer

I don’t know, Barry Sanders said goodbye and was never a weirdo about it, so just going by the anecdotal evidence isn’t all that conclusive.

Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards

Willie Mays is a more recent example of a legend staying on too long. He should have retired after the 1972 season, but hung on for 1973, and retired after Game 3 of the Fall Classic that year. Struggled badly in the outfield, not the way you want to see a great leave the game.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Fans always want their legends to go out on the fans’ terms, but why should Mays have quit when he didn’t want to? What difference does it make that Mays “embarrassed” himself in 1973? Just because it made fans feel bad was no reason for Mays to do something he didn’t want to do. He did what he wanted to do when he was good and ready.

Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards

Self-awareness is always important in life, whether it’s in sports or elsewhere. While that final season doesn’t affect Mays’ standing as a legend, it’s still not the way to go out. Of course, some greats play for the wrong reasons, like money.

Muhammad Ali would be he worst example of a sports great hanging on too long for financial reasons.

Richie
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Richie

Tho’ my recall was that finances were actually secondary in Ali’s case. He just could not let go, and had too many people around him telling him that he was still ‘the Greatest’.

Richie
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Richie

Maybe we can all agree that Boy Oh Boy! boxers should NOT! try to extend their careers for as long as possible.

Anon
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Anon
Agree with the other poster – players should play until they are told to go away. Once they retire, there is no unretiring and coming back. I’ve been looking recently at the end for a number fo all-time greats and for the most part, I think they walked away at the right time, after that one last season where it was clear that they just didn’t have it anymore. Ichiro is an exception and probably could have walked away several years ago, but you know, if someone is willing to pay him, why shouldn’t he play? BTW, David Ortiz’s retirement… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
Agreed. I would think that if the Mets had thought they had someone better than Willie Mays to play center in the World Series, they would have played him. The other thing, although not so much in relation to baseball, is that players might get on bad teams at the end which makes them seem worse than they are. I remember when Johnny Unitas went to the Chargers. No doubt he was over the hill, but playing on a bad team exacerbated it. I mean, he was getting sacked because they had a poor offensive line. That would have happened… Read more »
JamesD84
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JamesD84

On Yount’s PGA flirtation, I’m pretty sure I read a Baseball America interview of him in Jan-Feb of 1989 or 1990 that said he had hurt his knee doing something dangerous like motorcycle riding or snowmobiling and stayed out using the considering-the-PGA excuse until the knee was better.

francis_soyer
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francis_soyer

“The Yankees offered Ruth the Newark Bears of the International League”

francis_soyer
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francis_soyer

Makes me think about Jermaine Dye. Great player, really solid final season, just kinda disappeared.