The Last Hurrah: Late Career Revivals
Richard Chester had a recent guest post concerning George McQuinn, 1st baseman in the 30s and 40s, mostly for the Browns and Yankees. That’s George on the left, with Chet Laabs, Harlond Clift and Wally Judnich, all regulars for the 1940-42 Browns. Looking at McQuinn’s career, specifically his standout 1947 season at age 38 with the World Series champion Yankees, reminded me of something Bill James wrote about in his Abstracts back in the 80s. James called it the “Last Hurrah” phenomenon when aging players, having started their inevitable decline phase, suddenly have a bounce-back year reminiscent of their younger days.
James associates the Last Hurrah as occurring in a player’s next to last season or the season before that and most commonly at age 37 or 38. So, that’s what I looked for – players of that age and in that part of their careers who have a really good season, which I defined as a bWAR of 4.0 or better. Here’s the list:
What I got were some good players, some very good players and some all-time greats, including THE all-time great. There are 6 HOFers and 4 who are not. But, the ones who aren’t were either All-Stars or (in Daubert’s case) an MVP. So, I’ll call Daubert an All-Star too. Let’s see if the seasons we’ve found fit the Last Hurrah mold.
CAVEAT ALERT: This is a mostly for fun exercise to see who would come up in the query. Not intended to be a taken as a serious study.
Indian Bob Johnson – This was the best season of Bob’s career, breaking an increasing downward trend (although only modestly down) since his earlier peak years at age 31-33 (Bob was a late bloomer, making his major league debut at age 27). Part of the rebound may be attributable to moving from Griffith Stadium to the cozy confines of Fenway Park (although the park factors for the two seasons in question refute that notion). Fenway or not, the revival faded (in relative terms) the next season, Johnson’s last, even though Bob was still a quite productive player when Boston released him. VERDICT: Last Hurrah
Babe Ruth – Babe’s age 38 season was the start of Babe’s decline phase, if you can call an OPS over 1.000 as declining. That decline accelerated in his next season, his last with the Yankees, and was confirmed without doubt in his brief stint with the Braves. VERDICT: No Hurrah
Mike Schmidt – Schmidt’s age 37 season was a virtual carbon copy of his MVP season the year before. Schmidt’s decline began the following season and ran its course in his final year at age 39. VERDICT: No Hurrah
Zack Wheat – Wheat had a most unusual career peak at age 35-37. His age 37 season was only slightly behind his career best season the year before. Wheat’s decline occurred over the next two seasons, though he remained a useful contributor to the end. VERDICT: No Hurrah
Joe Morgan – Morgan’s decline phase began at age 34, just two years removed from the second of his back-to-back MVP seasons, and continued for 4 years until interrupted in dramatic fashion with his age 38 season, similar to his age 33 season jut before his decline. But, the revival was short-lived, as Morgan’s slide resumed over the last two seasons of his career. VERDICT: Last Hurrah
Tris Speaker – Speaker did not have any significant decline until his final season at age 40. Thus his age 38 season did not follow an earlier decline phase. VERDICT: No Hurrah
George McQuinn – McQuinn is a different level of player from the ones discussed to this point. His age 37 season was the best of his career, but similar to his age 31 season after which began his decline phase culminating in a quite dreadful season, the worst of his career, at age 36. But, after the revival, the slide continued in his last season at age 38. VERDICT: Last Hurrah
Jake Daubert – Like McQuinn, Daubert’s season on this list was, at age 38, the best of his career. He had a broad but not high peak from age 27 to 32 after which his decline ensued, interrupted at age 36 and then interrupted again with the season on this list. But, the slide accelerated rapidly in the Daubert’s final two seasons. VERDICT: Last Hurrah
Ellis Burks – Burks’ age 38 season was close to a carbon copy of his good season the year before. His real decline began the following year. Interestingly, Burks’ age 36 season (he turned 37 before the end of the year) looks more like a Last Hurrah. That year was very similar to his age 31 season, with Burks slugging above .600 both times. In between, Burks had a couple of down years at 32 and 33 before ramping up at age 34 and 35 leading into his big age 36 year. Part of the difficulty assessing this period of his career is that Burks played over 140 games only once after his age 31 season. VERDICT: No Hurrah
Kiki Cuyler – Cuyler had an unusual career pattern, with a early peak at age 25-27 and a late peak at age 30-32 (guess we can’t really call them both peaks, but you know what I mean). Cuyler then started his decline, with limited playing time at age 33 and 34, a good year at 35, a real stinker at 36, and then quite a good season at 37. All down hill after that, though. VERDICT: Last Hurrah
Some of you may be thinking “What about Ted Williams in 1957?” Indeed, that year looks very much like a Last Hurrah season and did happen at age 38. But, it was in the 4th to last season of Williams’ career, so not picked up in the query.
So, FWIW, here’s the final score.
|Last Hurrah||No Hurrah|
What this might mean is that the all-time greats, with their much higher and broader peak, don’t start declining until later in their careers than most other players. With that late start in their decline, there’s less likelihood of a Last Hurrah season at 37 or 38, and less likelihood of one later just because it is later (not many players have 4 WAR seasons in their forties).
Finally, for a little more to talk about, here’s a larger group (including the above seasons), of players since 1901 who had 4 WAR in their 2nd to last or 3rd to last season, aged 37 or older.
What do you think?
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