Valedictory Dingers: Home Runs In Farewell At-Bats

Gregg Olson is one of two players ever whose last hit was also their first hit…and was also a home run. (via Brianlgmac)

On June 2, 1959, some three months prior to the final at-bat of his major league career, Senators shortstop Ron Samford drew his 156-pound body to the right-hand batter’s box at Cleveland Stadium and drilled an inside pitch from Bud Podbielan into the lower left field deck to put Washington up, 3-2, in the top of the tenth inning of its game against the Indians. Just as he crossed home plate following his solo shot against the reliever, Samford paused and glanced at plate umpire Charles Berry.

“How’d I do?” the shortstop asked.

Three months earlier, in the midst of a spring training game, Berry had advised the light-hitting Samford to “stop swinging for the fences” and to “just meet the ball.”

Granted, the advice had been the stuff of Little League coaches who by day sell insurance to members of the Rotary Club, but, based on the evidence, it had been both wise and effective. Entering the 1959 season, his fourth in the big leagues, Samford had never homered. In fact, through the 106 games of his four partial seasons, he had produced just 12 extra-base hits. Yet suddenly, he had just slugged his third home run. By all appearances, he needed to send Berry a gift basket.

And he wasn’t finished yet.

The following evening, in the fifth inning of the series finale, Samford homered again, this time off of one-time ace Herb Score. Joining Samford in the Senators’ homer column was slugger Harmon Killebrew. In its game story a day later, the Associated Press cited their exploits in the 4-0 victory by calling them “Bombin’ Harmon Killebrew and Rampagin’ Ron Samford.” In all likelihood, it marked the first time–and the last–the skinny infielder assumed such a masculine moniker.

As suddenly as his power surge had begun, it stopped. Across the 94 at-bats of his next 45 games, Samford’s slugging percentage checked in at .202. Among his 16 hits were three doubles, no triples and, alas, no homers. Then on Sept. 7, thanks to Brooks Robinson’s game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth inning of the second game of Washington’s twin bill against the Orioles, Samford drew his 156-pound body to the right-hand batter’s box once more. And once more, he homered, sending an Ernie Johnson offering deep into the left-field bleachers to score Killebrew and reserve catcher Steve Korcheck and complete the Senators’ seven-run inning.

And that was it: Samford would never again homer in the big leagues.

In fact, he would never again get a big league at-bat.

True, he would play in four more games, each time as a late-inning replacement, and true, he would get another plate appearance, executing a sacrifice bunt in the season finale against the Yankees. And yes, that’s right, he would hit 28 home runs across four additional seasons in the minors, topping out with 10 in Triple-A in 1960.

But in that Sept. 7 game against Baltimore, the player formerly known as Rampagin’ Ron had just homered in his final major league at-bat. Today, Samford remains one of nearly five dozen major leaguers who achieved the same feat. Two are Hall of Famers. Eight are pitchers. For 15, that valedictory homer represented their only homer in the major leagues. What follows is a closer look at those who, in their farewell at-bats, went deep, and, in so doing, went out in a most memorable way.

On Sept. 28, 1960, just a day after hitting his first major league home run, Don Gile watched Ted Williams hit his last. Williams, with 520 home runs to his credit, stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning of Boston’s game against Baltimore and lofted a pitch from Jack Fisher deep to center field at Fenway.

Gone!

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So was The Splendid Splinter.

Replaced by Carroll Hardy in the top of the ninth inning, with Boston leading, 4-3, after the go-ahead home run, Williams had just joined Ron Samford and seven others as players who homered in their valedictory big league at-bats.

As for Gile, the 6-foot-6, 220-lb. first baseman had gone hitless in four at-bats on the day to drop his slugging percentage to .304, exactly 341 percentage points below that of his most famous teammate, the 41-year-old Williams. Alas, even after his home run a day earlier, Gile’s slugging belied his size–or his size belied his slugging.

In either case, Gile had failed to deliver on the promise he had shown at San Mateo High School, whose 1952 yearbook called him “the team’s power hitter,” and at the University of Arizona, where, in a 1954 College World Series game, he stroked two homers among his four base hits. Gile had even shown pop in the minors, going deep 23 times in classes A and Double-A in 1958. But across the 31 games of his major league career, Gile hadn’t flexed much muscle…save for that one Sept. 27 at-bat, when, with Boston trailing, 17-1, he went deep against Baltimore reliever Gordon Jones.

Two years later, on Sept. 30, 1962, Gile got the start at first base in the opening game of Boston’s season-ending doubleheader against Washington. Was the assignment a reward? It was not. Entering the day, Gile had gone hitless in 37 at-bats on the year.

Having remained on the roster because he had exhausted his minor league options, Gile had gotten the start for one reason: The Red Sox, at 75-84 entering the doubleheader, were out of the American League race. The games meant nothing–nothing but a chance for 6,346 Fenway fans to see 22-year-old budding star Carl Yastrzemski twice more before season’s end. And for Yaz, the end came early. In the fourth inning of game two, he departed in favor of bench player Carroll Hardy, the man who had replaced Teddy Ballgame exactly two years and two days earlier.

Just as Gile had done two years and two days earlier, when he watched Williams step in for his final at-bat, Hardy watched as Gile stepped in for what would be his own last chance. With one out, a runner on first and the score tied, 1-1, Gile deposited a Jack Jenkins offering into the Fenway seats for his second hit of the day and the third homer of his career. Game over, season over and, for Gile, career over.

Separated by 518 homers and 858 points on their slugging percentages, Williams and Gile now had this feat in common. Each had gone deep as he was going away.

Yet Gile, not Williams, remains the only Red Sox to walk away on a walk-off.

Don Gile, that hulking but unlikely power source, is the only Red Sox to have finished his big league career with a walk-off homer. It’s his memento. But Gile is hardly alone among major leaguers in finishing with a game-winning blast.

On Sept. 27, 2014, Ramon Santiago stepped to the plate and into a childhood dream: score tied, bases loaded, two outs. To plate the winning run, he needed only to get on base–a walk, a hit by pitch, a blooper.

At 5-foot-11 and 185-pounds, the 34-year-old utility infielder wasn’t much of a power threat. Not only had he homered just 29 times in 2,435 big league at-bats, he had homered just once all season. And not only had that homer come two months earlier, it had also come against homer-prone Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin, who would finish the season with an abysmal HR/9 rate of 1.5.

Nope, Santiago was no power threat. He was barely an offensive threat.

His lifetime batting average entering the at-bat: .2427.

You can figure out the rest. And that’s why baseball is baseball. The unpredictable is so predictable–especially when you’re hip to the theme. On a 1-0 pitch from reliever Bobby LaFromboise, Santiago parked the ball deep in the left field seats at Great American Ball Park for a walk-off grand slam.

The following day, in the Reds’ season finale, Santiago didn’t play. And so on the final swing of his career, he had become the only player in big league history to club a bases-loaded walk-off and then walk away. That’s what you call a score.

Santiago, that small and unlikely power source, is the only player to have finished his major league career with a walk-off grand slam, but he is hardly alone among major leaguers in finishing with a game-winning blast.

On Aug. 3, 1901, 30-year-old Cleveland Blues pitcher Ed Scott stepped to the plate against Milwaukee’s Bill Reidy in the top of the tenth inning with the bases empty and the score knotted, 7-7. Having homered just once in his 170 big league at-bats, Scott drove a Reidy offering over the left field fence to give Cleveland an 8-7 lead. The right-hander now needed to blank the Brewers for one half inning to hang on for his sixth victory. He did.

Though Scott had started 16 games, the extra-innings triumph marked the only time all year he had finished a game. He had also just finished his major league career. But what a way to go out!–a 10-inning complete-game victory coupled with the game-winning round-tripper.

Eight decades later, on April 27, 1985, 30-year-old Blue Jays pinch hitter Willie Aikens stepped to the plate against Texas’ Tommy Boggs in the eighth inning with a runner on first base and Toronto trailing, 8-6. One swing of the bat, as they say, could tie the game. But by this point of his career, Aikens had become about as unlikely a power threat as Ed Scott.

True, he had hit 20 or more home runs in three of his first five full major league seasons and, in 1980, became the first player to collect a pair of two-homer games in a World Series, but to this point of the 1985 season, the man born Willie Mays Aikens had gone homerless in 19 at-bats. In fact, he’d posted just one extra-base hit.

What had happened to his power?

It had gone up his nose.

Convicted of cocaine possession in 1983, Aikens had spent three months in a federal prison and served several weeks of an MLB-mandated suspension in 1984. But those were just the punitive consequences. The big left-hander later told journalists that he had snorted cocaine “every day, every game.” Traded to Toronto prior to the 1984 campaign, Aikens had played sparingly and poorly that season, slashing .205/.298/.376 in 265 plate appearances while homering 11 times.

Now here he stood, at Arlington Stadium, facing Boggs. Moments hence the score was tied. The Jays would go on to an extra-innings win. Days later they would designate Aikens for assignment. After a season in Triple-A, he played in the Mexican Leagues, where, in 129 games in 1986, he paced the league with 46 home runs. He had already hit his last homer in the big leagues, on the last pitch he saw.

Ed Scott, that unlikeliest of heroes, isn’t the only pitcher to have homered in valedictory fashion. When hurler Walt Kinney stepped to the plate in the top of the sixth inning at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis on May 9, 1923, he had become more famous for his mischief than for his deeds with a bat or ball.

As a member of the Red Sox in 1918, Kinney had been involved in a mysterious horseplay incident in which Boston star Babe Ruth sustained a hand injury that nearly derailed his pitching performance in Game Four of the World Series against the Cubs. Only later, after the Red Sox had prevailed in both the game and the Series, did the Boston Globe inform readers that Ruth’s pitching hand had been “bruised during some sugarhouse fun with W.W. Kinney.”

Then in May of 1920, following eight starts and two relief appearances for Connie Mack’s Athletics, Kinney jumped his contract to join an independent team that had offered him $500 more than his salary with Philadelphia. When Kinney tried to rejoin the Athletics in the spring of 1921, Mack referred him to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who not only denied Kinney’s application for reinstatement but also banished him from the major leagues for five years. Kinney spent the next two seasons out of baseball, but when Landis lifted the ban in 1923, he rejoined the Athletics.

On May 9, with the Athletics trailing the Browns, 3-0, Kinney came out of the bullpen with one out in the third inning and held St. Louis scoreless through the fifth. Then in the top of the sixth, he came to the plate and belted an Urban Shocker pitch into the right field seats for a solo home run to tie the score at 3-3. He then got knocked from the mound during a four-run Browns rally, having yielded three earned runs. His home run, alas, had made Kinney the pitcher of record.

That’s right: In the final game of his major league career, Kinney took the loss, but in the final at-bat of his career, Kinney got the homer.

And yet the homer, in the final analysis, is why Kinney took the loss. Go figure.

Like Kinney, pitcher Ed Hobaugh homered in his final at-bat, but unlike Kinney, he had always been a terrible hitter. Entering that final at-bat, on Sept. 2, 1963, at Cleveland Stadium, the former Bonus Baby had batted all of .111 in 54 big league at-bats. By contrast, Kinney had batted .274 in 124 at-bats, with a home run and 18 RBI, prior to his farewell swing.

Of course, it wasn’t for his hitting ability that Hobaugh had been signed out of Michigan State University. Having secured an MSU season record by striking out 155 batters in his senior year, he had received a $4,000 bonus for his ability to throw fastballs and biting curves. And in the fourth start of his pro career, for the White Sox’s Class-B affiliate, he’d supplied evidence of a bonus well paid by pitching a no-hitter that lowered his ERA to 0.75.

By 1963, however, it had become clear Hobaugh would never fulfill his early promise. Already 29 years old, he had seen his progress stunted by a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army and had picked up just nine victories–against 10 losses–in his big league career. Now, having been called up for the third and final time, Hobaugh got the start in the second game of the Senators’ doubleheader against the Indians on that September afternoon.

It was his first start of the season and the last of his career.

With Cleveland leading, 3-2, Indians manager Birdie Tebbetts called on right-handed reliever Jerry Walker to pitch to the right-handed Hobaugh. Against all statistical odds, Hobaugh connected on a high fastball and sent it over the fence in left-center field. His unlikely blast–the Senators’ third home run of the inning–had made the score 6-3.

Perhaps high on adrenaline, Hobaugh walked the first two batters in the bottom of the inning and then gave way to reliever Ed Roebuck, who promptly yielded a run-scoring single. Though the run went on Hobaugh’s ledger, he did not take the loss. The Senators ultimately prevailed, 8-7. Say this for Ed Hobaugh: He had supplied the winning margin.

Though Hobaugh had swung his last piece of lumber, he hadn’t thrown his last pitch. He would appear in eight more games that season, finishing three and pitching to a 4.85 ERA across 13 innings. The pitcher who had homered would also surrender a homer–to pitcher Pedro Ramos.

Ed Hobaugh, that unlikeliest of sluggers, isn’t the only big league hurler to have homered in his last at-bat and then pitched additional innings. On April 20, 1998, Diamondbacks reliever Gregg Olson stepped to the plate in the seventh inning to face Marlins reliever Oscar Henriquez with two outs and a runner on second base. It marked just the fourth at-bat of his major league career. Prior to the 1998 season, Olson had played 431 of his 456 career games in the American League, where, particularly before the 1997 implementation of interleague play, pitchers almost never batted. What’s more, he was a relief pitcher, and relievers rarely wield lumber.

Indeed, prior to that at-bat, Olson had “batted” only three times, striking out once as an Oriole in 1993, once as a Brave in 1994 and once, alas, an inning earlier against the same Oscar Henriquez.

Per the evidence, “batting” would seem a misnomer.

Despite Olson’s history at the plate, manager Buck Showalter decided to let him swing away, as it were. After all, the Diamondbacks were leading, 9-4, with two innings to go. Early in the at-bat, the decision appeared as though it would yield the expected result. After three pitches, Rodriquez had Olson in a pitcher’s count–one ball, two strikes. Then, after taking two balls and fouling off a pitch, Olson turned on Henriquez’ full-count offering and yanked it 403 feet.

Olson, in his ninth major league season, was truly a batter–past tense. He would pitch in 99 more games but never wield the lumber again.

Twelve years later, in 2010, Astros reliever Gustavo Chacin would join Olson as one of two pitchers whose final-at-bat homer accounted for his only big league hit. Chacin, like Olson, would go on to pitch additional big league innings–in his case, 38.1. He would finish the 2010 season with an ERA of 4.70–and an OPS of 5.000.

Gustavo Chacin, that unlikeliest of power hitters, is one of two pitchers to have hit a final-AB homer as his only big league hit. There is, however, one non-pitcher who achieved that partly ignominious/partly glorious feat: Chris Jelic.

Entering the Mets’ season finale on Oct. 3, 1990, the 25-year-old September call-up had gotten just two starts, and each had come in the previous two days. Now, with the Mets eliminated from NL East contention despite 90 wins, manager Davey Johnson had decided to give Jelic, a former quarterback/punter at Pitt, his third straight start against his hometown Pirates. Jelic would man left field at Three Rivers Stadium and bat sixth against starter Jerry Reuss.

It must be said that Jelic’s first two starts had not gone well. In the first, he went 0-for-2 before being removed. In the second, he went 0-for-4. Add those performances to his hitless pinch-hitting appearance on Sept. 30, and what you get is an 0-for-7.

What you get is an 0-for-career.

Entering the eighth inning, Jelic had added to his 0-fer by going hitless in three at-bats. Leading off, with the Mets up, 4-3, he took three balls and one strike against reliever Doug Bair. Then, on the fifth pitch, he sent the ball into the seats in left-center field for his first big league hit, his first big league homer, his last big league homer and his lone big league hit.

Jelic touched home plate and never officially set foot on a big league field again. Johnson replaced him in a double-switch in the bottom of the inning, and Jelic played three more seasons in Triple-A but never returned to The Show.

Gregg Olson, Gustavo Chacin and Chris Jelic are the only players to have produced their only big league hit with a final at-bat home run. It’s theirs to share. There are four players, though, whose final-at-bat home run served as one of their two major league hits. Three were pitchers. One, Clay Van Alstyne, achieved the feat on May 7, 1928, when he drove a pitch from Browns starter Lefty Stewart out of Griffith Stadium for his only big league homer. Van Alstyne also had produced a single that day to finish the contest at 2-for-3 and his career at 2-for-9.

Another, Phillies pitcher Frank O’Connor, achieved the feat on Aug. 3, 1893, when he homered to finish his three-game career at 2-for-2, with a slash line of 1.000/1.000/2.500. The third, Tim Stoddard, did it on June 18, 1986, when, in the 20th at-bat of his career, he took Giants starter Mike LaCoss deep at Jack Murphy Stadium. Two years earlier, Stoddard had singled, and so his career batting average came in at precisely .100.

Add to the list a non-pitcher: Juan Diaz. On June 23, 2002, in the final game of his four-game big league career, the 270-lb. pinch hitter stepped to the plate in the sixth inning with his Red Sox trailing the Dodgers, 9-3, and belted a full-count pitch from starter Andy Ashby for a two-run homer. His other hit, a double, had come in a 2002 game against the Rockies. Playing in that game was Colorado third baseman Todd Zeile. Two years later, Zeile would homer in his final big league at-bat.

On Oct. 3, 2004, 38-year-old Zeile stepped to the plate in the sixth inning of the Mets’ finale, with New York leading Montreal, 4-1. In contrast to other players–players who might not have known their final at-bat had come and gone–Zeile knew he was nearing the end.

Prior to the game, the Mets had honored the 16-year veteran with a ceremony that included a framed Mets uniform and a video tribute to his career, which had already yielded 252 home runs for 11 teams. Five pitches into the at-bat, Zeile produced his 253rd and final home run by hitting a Claudio Vargas offering off the Newsday sign at Shea Stadium.

Replaced later by a pinch-hitter, Zeile basically had left the building.

Meanwhile, in the sixth inning of the Cardinals’ season finale, in St. Louis, Zeile’s former teammate Ray Lankford stepped in with the Cardinals leading the Brewers, 4-3. Moments later the lead jumped to 6-3. In the final at-bat of his 14-year career, Lankford had parked the last of his 238 career homers in the Busch Stadium seats. In the seventh inning, Lankford again came to the plate but drew a full-count walk to register a plate appearance but no at-bat.

Zeile’s game had ended at 4:33 p.m. EST, Lankford’s at 4:32 p.m. CST. A minute on the clock had separated the conclusions of their finales, but no amount of time would ever separate their home runs from their final at-bats.

The perfect ending, no matter the place or time, is in the books.

Zeile and Lankford were among the lucky ones. They knew the end was near. Likewise, Bert Haas knew his story had nearly reached its conclusion. Informed he would be released a day later, Haas, a nine-year major league veteran, came to bat in the seventh inning of his White Sox’s Aug. 26, 1951, game against the Yankees and parked an Art Schallock offering into the Comiskey Park seats for a pinch-hit homer on the concluding swing of his career.

Haas, like Zeile and Lankford, had gone out in style–and had enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing so. Each had seen a place for punctuation and had made it an exclamation point. Other players were lucky in different ways.

Cubs catcher Paul Gillespie, having homered in his first big league at-bat, also homered in his last, on Sept. 29, 1945. He then went on to compete in the World Series. Granted, he went 0-for-6 in Chicago’s seven-game loss to Detroit, but still–World Series! Gillespie had twice gone out in style, once in the regular season and once in the postseason.

On Sept. 29, 1895, Hercules Burnett stepped to the plate in his sixth and final major league game and used the opportunity to slug his second and final home run, a solo shot off Cleveland’s Phil Knell. Had darkness not ended the contest after the eighth inning, Burnett might well have gotten another at-bat and therefore another chance to do anything but hit another home run. As it stands, he makes this list.

Score one for those early September sunsets.

On Sept. 28, 1957, Marv Blaylock got one last chance. He hadn’t had a hit since June 15 and hadn’t even had an at-bat since July 27, but in the fifth inning of his Phillies’ game against the Dodgers, he got to pinch hit. He made it count. Boom!

Johnny Schulte, you could argue, got luckiest of all. Released by the Browns early in the 1932 season, he was watching a Cardinals-Braves from the stands when Boston catcher Pinky Hargrave suffered a broken leg. In response, Boston manager Bill McKechnie fetched Schulte and signed him to a contract. On Sept. 20, in his ninth and final at-bat with the Braves and his 374th and final at-bat in the bigs, Schulte drove a pitch from the Giants’ Freddie Fitzsimmons into the right field stands at the Polo Grounds. It marked his 14th and final blast. He never played pro ball again.

Schulte and Zeile, et al, managed great mementos.

Others might not have thought themselves as lucky.

From 1958 through 1961, Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek made the AL All-Star team three times, but in 1963 his performance began to suffer. Entering the 1965 finale, Kubek had slashed .212/.253/.281. Despite his performance, he got the start that day, only his second in the past 13 games. He took advantage, going 3-for-4 and swatting a two-run homer in his final at-bat of New York’s 11-5 win over Boston. At season’s end he discovered the source of his troubles, as doctors diagnosed three broken vertebrae from an injury he had suffered in 1962. Rather than risk paralysis, he immediately retired, lending a retroactive importance to that last home run.

He hadn’t seen it coming. The end could not have seemed near.

Likewise, Joe Rudi had struggled going into Oakland’s 1982 finale, accruing an OPS of .599 in 70 games, but at age 36, the three-time All-Star had no plans to retire. Following his 2-for-2 day, which included a second-inning double and a two-run homer in his final at-bat, he had more reason to believe his career would continue. Injured, he spent the entire 1983 season on Oakland’s disabled list. Then, after the season, the A’s released him. Suddenly, his final at-bat of 1982 was his final at-bat.

More than Joe Rudi, Albert Belle appeared to have a few seasons ahead of him. At 34, he entered the 2000 finale with 22 home runs and 101 RBI on the season. Granted, his totals paled in comparison to his 40-homer, 125-RBI average across the previous eight seasons, but Belle was still a force and proved it with his eighth-inning blast off of Yankees reliever Denny Neagle. Alas, it would be his last.

Limited by a hip condition, he retired the following spring.

More suddenly, and surprisingly, came the end for Chick Stahl and Mickey Cochrane. Entering the Red Sox’s 1906 finale, Stahl, a 10-year veteran and star, had accrued a .305 career batting average but just 35 home runs. In his final at-bat of the game and season, he blasted a two-run shot against the Highlanders’ Tom Hughes.

Months later, in March, Stahl committed suicide.

Thirty-one years later, on May 25, 1937, Detroit catcher Cochrane stepped to the plate and belted a solo shot against Yankees starter Bump Hadley to tie the score, 1-1. In the top of the fifth, on a 3-1 count, Hadley unleashed a fastball that hit Cochrane in the right temple. Suddenly, his third-inning homer had come on his final at-bat.

“I lost the ball,” the future Hall of Famer muttered as he lay in the dirt.

He hadn’t seen it coming, but it had come.

 

Resources & References


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Anon
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Anon

Any candidates from this year? I don’t know of a good way to search for this. I pulled up all homers hit the final day and none of the names jumped out at me as likely candidates except maybe Eric Young Jr. He homered in his final AB this year and he’s 32, barely played the last 2 years and really only has 1 good year to his credit. He could be done.

87 Cards
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87 Cards
I will yield to the quibblers in the audience about “last at-bat” after I tell of John Miller. Miller two-run homered for the Yankees off of the Red Sox Lee Stange on Sept. 11, 1966 in his first MLB at-bat. On Sep. 23, 1969 (Game 1), Miller, a Dodger then, hit a pinch-hit solo round-tripper off of the Reds’ Jim Merritt. On Sep. 27, 1969, Miller was announced as a pinch-hitter then recalled without appearing at the dish, his last official-appearance in MLB. Miller: Two career MLB home-runs, A homer on the first at-bat; a homer in his last at-bat.… Read more »
bwitt30
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bwitt30

How about David Ross last year? Game 7 of the World Series. Doesn’t get better than that.