“Last Time Out: Big League Farewells
of Baseball’s Greats”
The publishing info:
Released July 1, 2022
The review in 90 feet or less
Pull up a chair from the bullpen and let us tell you about Mark Lee’s last time out in a Major League Baseball game was nothing to write home about.
And if he did write home, it would have been to his family in Hawthorne, California — also my hometown. Lee came through Hawthorne High a few years ahead of me during the 1970s, as the Elton John glasses and Goose Gossage-like glare gives away that time period.
Nonetheless, and for the record, this occured:
October 4, 1981: The 28-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates reliever makes his 118th appearance as the team wraps up the strike-interrupted season at Three Rivers Stadium against St. Louis on a crisp Sunday afternoon.
Lee gives up a run on three hits over the fourth and fifth innings. His sixth inning is three up and three down — a Dane Iorg fly ball to Mike Easler in left field, Steve Braun grounds it back to the box Lee throws him out, and then coaxing Orlando Sanchez to fly out to right fielder Bill Robinson. In the bottom of the sixth, Lee Lacy pinch hits for Mark Lee, and manager Chuck Tanner sends Kent Tekulve to mop up the final three innings in a game the Pirates eventually drop, 4-0.
For Lee, and the other 10,022 in the park, time to go home for the winter.
Lee comes back to 1982 spring training for the Pirates, but he is apparently expendable. The Pirates sell him to the Detroit Tigers (there is video evidence above). After giving him some innings in Florida, the Tigers dispatch Lee to Double-A Evansville. But after 18 games — a 7.25 ERA with a 1-2 mark — Lee is released in early June.
But he’s not finished.
The Pirates are game to have him back, but only at their Triple A Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers. There could be worse places to wallow.
As the season wears down, Lee’s 0-5 record and 4.08 ERA aren’t all that notable, even when one factors in he had a team-best eight saves (following up his PCL-best 20 saves in ’81). The Pirates aren’t committed to this re-investment, so it’s time to cut ties. Again.
This was exit, stage right:
August 16, 1982: Lee enters the game in the top of the ninth inning with his team up, 8-3, at Vancouver. No save opportunity. Just get it done.
The first out is a pop-up.
Lee strikes out Bob Skube for the second out.
Lee then calls his manager Tom Trebelhorn, the future MLB skipper, out to the mound.
“Nothing against you, Treb, but I’d rather go out this way,” Lee said he told the manager. Lee then walks off the mound toward the dugout, throws the ball back toward the infield, throwshis cap in the air, and then takes off his jersey.
Lee later explains that before the game, management said he was going to be released — there was no shot at him joining the Pirates when rosters expanded in September, even though that’s what they did in the 1980 and ’81 seasons.
“If they say I’m done, I’m gonna pick when I’m gonna leave,” Lee told the Times. “It was my way of saying, ‘You guys can control some of the things, but you can’t control all the things in my life. … I just hope the message was heard in Pittsburgh. I feel they just dumped on me. I can’t stay I’m retired. I don’t feel I’m a minor league player.”
Lee added: “You see a lot of guys go and you wonder when it’s your turn. If it is mine, then that’s the last hitter I ever want to face. … I didn’t want to die in Triple A. If that was my last day, I had a hell of a good time.”
Consider how long a road Lee had just to get to pro ball.
He wasn’t drafted out of Hawthorne High. He got the scouts’ attention while at El Camino College (drafted twice by Baltimore) but still went to Pepperdine. A year after he was the conference pitcher of the year in 1976, he was drafted by San Diego. Contract signed, he goes to Single-A Walla Walla, Wash., Double-A Amarillo, Tex., and Triple-A Hawaii with the Padres.
(On a personal note, we were told Lee once dated the older sister of my high school girlfriend. The sisters’ dad laughed so hard when Lee once told him he’d play pro ball someday, the dad said he’d eat Lee’s contract if that happened. Lee made sure that promise was kept. There’s no miscommunication with someone who got communications degree from Pepperdine in ’76.)
For almost a decade, Lee’s sinkerball kept him in the game. At the end, when he saw a sinking ship, instead of simply jumping off, he did a swan dive and strip tease.
And that, friends, is another chapter right out of Beavers’ Believe it Or Not.
Lee’s story isn’t included in this updated version of Nogowski’s chronicling some of the most famous last acts in the big leagues. Nor does it need to be. Far bigger names had far heart-tearing stories about how they saw the exit sign.
This can go take on several extremes.
Sept. 28, 1960: Ted Williams launches a home run into in the right-field bullpen at Fenway Park in the bottom of the eighth. It is decided will be his final appearance for the Boston Red Sox. Just 10,454 are in the house. He doesn’t come out to play outfield in the ninth. A guy named Carroll Hardy takes his place. Teddy Ballgame is done.
They still write poems about it. Right next to letters to the editor in the Boston Globe.
“Gods,” John Updike would later write a few months later, “don’t answer letters.”
Then there is Sept. 3, 1975, a muggy Wednesday night in St. Louis. The Cardinals and Cubs are locked in an otherwise meaningless 6-6 tie game before 14,111 at Busch Stadium.
Bob Gibson, age 39, just three seasons removed from a 19-win year, walks in from the bullpen in the seventh inning. He leave everything a mess.
With the bases loaded, a wild pitch scores one. An intentional walk reloads them.
Then 23-year-old rookie pinch-hitter Pete LaCock goes grand yard. Cards right fielder Willie Davis watches it go over his head. Gibson is furious. He walks off the mound and berates LaCock as he is circling the bases. Gibson, who himself would break into the game as a 23-year-old in 1959, isn’t just saddled with the loss, dropping him to 3-10 with a 5.04 ERA, but he doesn’t pitch the rest of the month. Season over. Career done.
“A few guys on the bench said he looked like he was just going through the motions,” said the Cubs’ Bill Madlock the next day about Gibson, who finished his 17th season. “Now, I didn’t say that – that’s just what I heard.”
Every time the baseball gods smile at someone like George Brett – he hits a ground-ball single up the middle in the ninth inning of the final game during a Royals’ win that allows him to check out with a career hit total with 3,154 at age 40 — someone like Tom Seaver has a cringe-worthy departure. The future Hall of Famer finds himself in Toronto sporting a Boston Red Sox jersey. He hears his knee pop in the fourth inning, but guts it out, inducing a ground out before leaving with torn ligaments. The plan had been to have him on this Red Sox roster as the elder statesman helping Roger Clemens and company as they charged toward the 1986 World Series. But Seaver, whose record would fall to 7-13, was done at age 41.
In 2004, Nogowski had a keen idea of researching 20 career-ending tales for Taylor Trade Publishing, and was able to fill 172 pages with his research. The launch angle was his read on how Williams’ poke inspired famous local author Updike to pound out “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” for The New Yorker.
So, who else you got?
Almost 20 years later, Nogowski tracks down 25 more career-enders to tell.
Like Mark McGwire.
In the decisive Game 5 of the 2001 NL Division Series, McGwire, now 37, after hitting .187 in the regular season, has already struck out three times in a row against Arizona’s Curt Schilling. With the game on the line in the top of the ninth, Cards manager Tony LaRussa calls McGwire back from the on-deck circle. Someone named Kerry Robinson pinch hits for him. LaRussa wanted, and got, a sacrifice bunt from Robinson. But nothing else came from it. The Cards lost the game, and the series, a half-inning later. What if McGwire just got three big swings instead?
These stories told cover the likes of Clemens, Pete Rose, Bob Feller, Roberto Clemente (he got that 3,000th hit in his final regular season game of ’72, but still had the playoffs coming up), Barry Bonds, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr.
At age 40, the Yankees’ Derek Jeter gets an high chopper to third in the third inning, his second AB, during a late September, 2014 game against the rival Red Sox at Fenway Park. He is the DH, hitting behind Ichiro Suzuki; Stephen Drew is the shortstop. Jeter then asks to come out for a pinch runner – revealing at last the immense pressure he was under every single day. It was a year the Yankees missed the playoffs. The final hit, Jeter’s 3,465th, left him with a .310 career batting average, raising it from .30945 to .30951. And it came at Fenway Park, the same field where Mickey Mantle played his finale exactly 46 years earlier.
Joe DiMaggio — in the decisive Game 6 of the 1951 World Series against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium — has a stand-up double in the eighth inning. He is thrown out at third trying to advance on a sacrifice bunt. It was his 10th World Series appearance in what was simply a 13-year career (that took out three years of military service).
On the last day of the 1920 regular season, Shoeless Joe Jackson gets the game-winning hit — a two-run single to center in the sixth inning during a 2-0 win for the Chicago White Sox over Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers — which gives pitcher Dickie Kerr his 20th victory. Kerr was the one White Sox pitcher who tried to win in the 1919 World Series a year earlier.
On the last day of the 1987 season, Oakland A’s DH Reggie Jackson, at 41, hitting fourth behind Jose Canseco, sort of laughs to himself as he gets a broken-bat single in his last at-bat, off Bobby Thigpen in the eighth inning. Back in the first inning, he drove in the game’s first run, scoring Canseco with an RBI double.
Of all the entries here, the most special might be the one no one could really see coming. Nogowski flips the script and writes instead about a special entrance at long last, not another last appearance.
John Nogowski Jr. made his big-league debut on Aug. 16, 2020 – his first and only MLB appearance that season. It came after six years in the minor leagues, two hand surgeries and winter ball in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The St. Louis Cardinals brought him up, giving him No. 34. Leading off the sixth inning, he singles off the Chicago White Sox’s Dallas Keuchel at Guaranteed Rate Field. The next day, teammate Adam Wainwright gave him the ball, officially authenticated.
But a season later in 2021, Nogowski could have experienced his final MLB appearance. It went this way:
Aug. 15, 2021: Now with the Pittsburgh Pirates (someone wake up Mark Lee for this), where fans have already started embracing him with “The Big Nogowski” T-shirts, Nogowski is asked to pinch-hit in the bottom of the fifth for relief pitcher Kyle Keller. Nogowski strikes out against the Brewers’ Brent Suter.
The 29-year-old first baseman/pitcher just signed on with the Washington Nationals for a minor-league look-see on June 22. A 34th round draft pick in 2014 by Oakland, out of Tallahassee, Fla., Nogowski has logged 53 MLB games — .233 average, one homer, 14 RBIs – with St. Louis (’20 and ’21) and Pittsburgh (’21), as well as dancing through the Giants and Braves organizations.
To be continued …
How it goes in the scorebook
So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu, to you and you and you.
All that, and the kid stays in the book.
This concept is a tricky one. It’s difficult to find a lot of “I did it my way” moments. The nature of the game is more survival and showing humility, if you can handle it. There’s not a whole lot either building suspense or giving away a sad parting-gifts account of the grand finale.
We wonder if there are too many downers to deal with in one sitting. It can feel that way if that’s not the intent.
As much as there are the glory of a Williams or Brett or Jeter-type moment — not to mention Stan Musial, in 1963, battling back from a benching, collecting two hits in his last two at bats of his final game to give him an even split home and road for his 3,630 career hits — there have to be more failed attempts at trying to have control over the situation.
There’s the iconic photo of Willie Mays on bended knee in a New York Mets uniform crying to an umpire about what he felt was a botched call. That was Game 2 of the 1973 World Series — his last at-bat was as a meaningless pinch hitter for Tug McGraw in Game 3 back at Shea Stadium — far less dramatic, grounding out to Bert Campaneris, then watching the series from the bench.
Then there is Babe Ruth wearing a Boston Braves jersey, falling down trying to stop a ball hit in the gap near him in left field by the Phillies’ Lou Chiozza, which allowed the runner to get to third. Ruth limps back to the dugout asking to come out in the second inning of a Memorial Day doubleheader opener in 1935 at the Baker Bowl. This, after he hit a weak grounder to Philadelphia first baseman Dolph Camilli for an unassisted putout in the first inning, failing to score a runner from second.
Nogowski explains his thinking behind this in an email exchange:
“We all know that in the daily battle with life, we all will lose. Baseball is such a relentlessly challenging sport – and trust me on this, following the daily struggles of my son for all these years has given me a deeper perspective on the game. So mining these finales, some sad, some triumphant, some puzzling aren’t really all that different than the way we all go through life. Remembering that for all of these men, they wrung a wonderful career out of this game, now they’re getting to see what baseball has been like for almost everybody else. As a friend of mine said, it gives us a chance to see these guys in a different perspective. As more human, fallible, aging.”
Nogowski says he can still revel in some of the wonderful moments, such as Dizzy Dean accepting a $1 challenge from the owner of the St. Louis Browns to pitch the season finale, then going out and proving he can still do it. Or Christy Mathewson finally settling the score way down at the end of the line with Three-Finger Brown, “the two of them beaten to the pulp like DeNiro and Stallone at the end of that B-movie,” as Nogowski says.
Then there is the bittersweet ending the Jackie Robinson’s career in 1956, World Series Game 7.
A year after the Dodgers knock off the Yankees in 1955 for their only World Series in Brooklyn, the Dodgers have a 3-2 World Series lead over the Yankees in ’56 — despite having Don Larsen throw a perfect game against them. Robinson’s 10th inning game-winning hit gives the Dodgers that advantage. In Game 7, Yankees starter Johnny Kucks is finishing off a 9-0 complete-game win at Ebbets Field. With two out, Duke Snider singles. Robinson comes up. He swings and misses at a pitch in the dirt for strike three – Kucks’ only strike out in the game as he only allows three hits. But Yogi Berra mishandles the pitch and it rolls to his left. Embarrassed, Robinson has to run to first and is thrown out, ending the game, the World Series and his career.
“To me, that’s drama. They’re not all sad stories but sure, there’s a built-in ache to the finish; who of us gets to script out own exit? In selecting these stories, I tried to find things that transcended the hit-or-out result-oriented finish, a bigger picture, something true to the game. To me, the Fenway Park crowd standing and cheering for a failing Mickey Mantle of the hated Yankees in his final Fenway at bat is touching, what a measure of respect! Or the back story of Lou Gehrig benching himself before the famed speech. And you had the heartlessness of the game, Carlton Fisk getting blind-sided by his release just after setting a record for career games caught. Ty Cobb, desperate to get back into the World Series, accepting a $1 more than Ruth contract from Connie Mack, making a great run at those damn Yankees, then not even waiting until the end of the season before disappearing … These are all untold stories until now. I never knew any of them.
“Having watched the game this closely and this personally – with my son’s career – I wanted to try to show the joy, the pain, the difficulty, the unpredictability through these varied stories. Something that was true to the game. I think it was Bart Giamatti who said the game was designed to break your heart. So to show the finest players the game has had, many of them being literally brought down to earth for the first time in their lives, to me was immersive, fascinating and compelling.”
For the record
Research for projects like this can be problematic. Fact checking is essential to gain readers trust.
Nogowski, who worked in the newspaper biz from New Hampshire to Florida for 20 years and was a three-time national winner in the AP Sports Editor competition with many other state and regional honors is retired from teaching journalism at a Florida high school.
In the first recap we found: Sandy Koufax’s one and only appearance for the Dodgers in the second game of the 1966 World Series at Dodger Stadium. He lasted six innings, and went out with a 4-0 deficit against the Orioles, and called it a career at age 30. That we knew. Below is how it reads in the Retrosheet.org game recount.
Nogowski’s account was that Dodgers manager Walter Alston lifted Koufax for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth, but that really wasn’t so. Koufax hit for himself and flew out in the fifth inning — moments after Willie Davis made three errors in the top of the fifth, allowing three unearned runs and unraveling Koufax’s day. Koufax gave up another run in the top of the sixth and escaped with an inning-ending double play grounder. The Dodgers’ bottom of the sixth had Junior Gilliam, Willie Davis and Ron Fairly hit as scheduled.
In Gibson’s recap, Nogowski’s version tells of how there was the meltdown against LaCock, and Gibson then going back to the mound to find Cards manager Red Schoendienst there to yank him. As it turned out, Gibson finished out the inning to get Don Kessinger on a 3-to-1 putout. Gibson’s last play ended with the ball in his glove.
Nogowski explained: “No writer wants errors in his work. When I originally wrote those years ago, I had only baseball box scores in the New York Times on microfilm to go by – there really was no Internet – and I did not go back and double check each one for this updated edition. I should have. But in either case, I don’t think those details took anything away from the emotion or importance of the moment. It wasn’t like somebody hit a home run and I said it was a pop out. I guess I was thinking more big picture – for all of these. … I tried to write the best book I could, just like these guys tried to have the best career they could.“
More Q&A with the author
Catching up with Nogowski after the review posted, via email, we expand a bit more on this project:
Q: What else did you want to convey about how the book has been received, what feedback you’ve got from promoting it, or whether there’s another version of this to follow up on 10 years or so down the road?
A: The feedback I’ve gotten so far has been exceptionally good. Many people have told me they started with the chapter on John, others have said they couldn’t put it down. I was able to use some of it in the classroom; the chapter on Shoeless Joe Jackson, for example, was perfect to use with my “Eight Men Out” assignment. I’ve done a couple of radio shows – and hope to do more – and the response has been outstanding, the hosts told me later they had all kinds of great responses. So hope that translates into some baseball fans getting to read some untold stories. Considering where the game is headed now, it’s important, I think, to share the stories of these icons, talking about them, their achievements instead of how much money they made or what drug test they failed. I hope these stories show these players as individuals, guys who were – at least for a good while – able to triumph in the most difficult and demanding of all professional sports. It was fun to write and I hope, fun to read, maybe with a lasting hint of appreciation for having cared about some of these men, their teams and their legacy.
Q: What a unique perspective you have. Including him as the last chapter kind of a pivot from the whole intent about “final appearances.” What do you think the chances are that he’ll find a window of opportunity and make it to the big leagues again? Maybe this September call ups with the Nationals? What has his season been like in 2022 with Triple A Gwinnett (Atlanta), Triple A Rochester (Washington) and Double A Harrisburg (Washington)?
A: If ever there was an Exhibit A of the unpredictability of baseball, it’s John’s season, really, the last two seasons. With absolutely no chance of making the team, or so it seems, he has a hellacious Spring Training in 2021, generally playing the ass-end of games behind (St. Louis first baseman Paul) Goldschmidt – not an easy thing to do, sitting for an hour in the heat but he leads the team in hitting, HRs and RBIs. There’s a podcast in St. Louis that asks “How do we get John Nogowski on the team?” Really. So he makes the team — huge surprise. Pinch hits twice on the road in Cincinnati, gets a 108 mph hit, is robbed on a missed call at first (I have the video) his first two at-bats. They go to Miami, the Cards are up in the ninth, Liz and I are in St. Louis, awaiting the home opener. They pinch-hit John with two outs and he gets hit on the hand with a 98 mph fastball. We’re shocked! They do X-rays, nothing’s broken (they think) and he gets back to the hotel. Goldschmidt texts him: “Nogo, my back is out. I’m out tomorrow.” So John calls, “Dad, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. I’m not going to take myself out of the lineup.” So swollen hand and all, he plays, tries to fight through it for 10-to-15 pinch-hit at bats and it never gets better. Finally, they do an MRI, which they should have from Day One, and he has two fractures in his hand. Trying to play through it. Four trips up and down to the minors, they DFA him.
He goes to Pittsburgh, is a holy terror for a good two weeks, setting records for the start of a career (19 hits in first 38 at bats, and he even pitches a scoreless inning). They’re selling T-shirts. And all of sudden, guys are diving all over the field, going back to the warning track and he can’t even negotiate for hit, never mind buy one. The Pirates fly him all the way out to Los Angeles, then cut him loose before the first game.
The Giants grab him, he plays a few games in Sacramento.
The Braves grab him in Rule 5 minor-league draft, he hits a 440-foot HR in his first at bat in Gwinnett then can’t hit a good ball that someone doesn’t catch. They release him.
The Nationals sign him, send him to Double A (only spot open) and more of the same. He hit 17 hard-hit outs (over 95mph), had an expected average of .346 — his real average was 120 points lower. After the All-Star break, they promote him to Triple A, he has a five-hit game, his first as a pro, and through his first 60 at bats was hitting .411.
Sure, this sport makes sense.
As for his chances to move up, he has a tremendous glove, generally has more walks than strikeouts (in the top three in all of baseball) and usually hits for a good average. But not a ton of power, which evidently is a law in modern baseball. The Mark Graces and Doug Mientkiewicz (whom I covered in college) are no more. The Pirates’ heir apparent at first is a kid named Mason Martin — hitting .203 with 15 HR and well over 100 strikeouts.
If it’s me, I’d rather have consistent contact, run production and great defense than a guy who’s going to hit 10 solo HRs and butcher ground balls at first. But what do I know?
And here’s another issue with baseball: Luke Voit, the oft-injured, oft-dealt first baseman came to the Nationals as part of the Juan Soto deal. John is better all-around, I’d say but Voit will hit more HRs. Yet he plays first base like a blacksmith. The other player who plays first is Joey Meneses, a 10-year minor-leaguer who was suspended a year for steroid use. John won’t even take an aspirin, so that’s grinding, too.
Sure, people make mistakes (see my earlier comments regarding the games by Koufax and Gibson) but when it comes to your profession and a cheater is rewarded and essentially, takes something that might be yours, that’s tough to take.
But look at Robinson Cano. There are still teams offering that guy.
Q: Does he have an idea on what he might like to do if baseball runs its course? As a dad, how do you advise?
A: John’s baseball IQ is almost always one of the first things his coaches say about him. He thinks the game better than anybody and I can’t imagine he won’t go into coaching once he’s done playing. He says he’s not sure about that but I think he would be a natural. Long ago, I decided that I would never tell him to quit; it’s his call, his career and as long as he was playing, I’d do everything I could to support him. When he was in the minors coming up, I’d go online, find that night’s pitcher, send video, we’d talk about it… I think as a hitting coach or manager, he’d do great. His manager in Rochester said he’s a professional hitter. I tell our guys to watch his at-bats.
Q: What compelled you to you circle back to update the book you did years early?
A: During the COVID time, MLB TV was struggling for programming. So I thought, well, my book is all untold stories; it’d be perfect. I called the publisher of my book and by luck, good luck, got Rick Reinhart, who edited my original book. Hadn’t talked to him since it was published in 2004. He said, “Why not update it?” Helluva an idea. So I did.
Q: With the access we have these days to box scores and game description, maybe explain how it’s impossible to write an error-free book but try to come as close to it as possible with all the research and fact-checking that happens? Was this really a one-person project or are there editors that can help? Describe the process of your book in how maybe others can get an insight on the process.
A: The first version was me sitting in the Strozier Library at Florida State, squinting through the microfilm of the newspapers they had. (Mostly the NY Times.) And I don’t want to be critical of my editors but it was pretty much all me. For the updated version, I did have some help on the editing end but at times, that was odd, too. You might think these baseball records are carved in stone but record-keeping isn’t always as spot-on as you might think. We had a lengthy discussion about Christy Mathewson’s actual career wins and his record vs. Mordecai Brown. It was much more convenient to use Baseballreference.com and read the box scores and use the Elias Sports Bureau. They were a big help. And you know, I was a full-time teacher at a struggling school in Florida so I was working on the weekends, in the evenings, wherever I could. But it was fun and I think, worth it.
More to ponder
== Nogowski tells his story to WFSU in Tallahassee.
== In 2012, The Bleacher Report’s Randy Robins wrote about the “20 Saddest Retirements in Baseball History,” which has some overlap here. The author, after reading this, might have wanted to get more into the departures of players like Herb Score, Kirby Puckett, Minnie Minoso, Sam Rice, Hack Wilson, Dave Concepcion, Roy Campanella and Moonlight Graham. Mays and Koufax are included.
== Sometime we get publishers to send us review copies of books. We appreciate it, whether it’s a paperback, hardbound or a PDF. Sometimes, we order the books ourselves — yup, buy ’em. Because they get here faster. And by doing so we’ve learned a valuable secret: You can save money with pre-orders on Amazon. Check out what happened to us here, via this email, and don’t get jealous.