Chief Bender: The Hall of Fame pitcher had his last full season in the big leagues in 1917 at 33 but pitched off and on in the minors until 1937. He won 67 games his first three years in the bushes, and, still in his mid-30s at that point, had offers from the majors. Tom Swift, author of Chief Bender’s Burden, wrote that Bender wasn’t interested since his $8,500 salary with New Haven in 1921 was likely better than what he could make in the bigs. Swift wrote:
The minor leagues during Bender’s time were much different than the organized, affiliated leagues in the decades that followed. For the most part, they were independent, and rosters often contained players who were of Major League caliber–or at least once were. Players, especially those with name recognition, could make a decent living kicking around for five or ten years in places such as Richmond and Erie.
Joe McGinnity: Officially, McGinnity earned his nickname Iron Man working in a foundry. It could also refer to how he won over 200 games in the minors after leaving the majors in 1908 at 37. He pitched 15 years in the bush circuit in all and was active as late as 1925, four years before his death.
Rube Waddell: After drinking himself out of the big leagues in 1910, Waddell went 20-17 with a 2.79 ERA for Minneapolis in 1911, helping the team to an American Association championship. He contracted pneumonia while helping fight a flood in the offseason, which led to tuberculosis. Waddell managed a 12-6 mark against a 2.86 ERA for Minneapolis in 1912, slipped to 3-9 for Fargo-Moorhead in 1913, and died the next April. Prior to Waddell’s death, his manager from Minneapolis, Joe Cantillon paid his way to a sanitarium in San Antonio so he could be closer to his family.
Nap Lajoie: Lajoie spent 21 Hall of Fame seasons in the majors and last played in the show in 1916 two weeks shy of turning 42, outstanding longevity for his era. But he wasn’t done, becoming player-manager for Toronto of the International League in 1917 and hitting a circuit-best .380 with 221 hits. He bowed out the following year with Indianapolis in the American Association where he hit .282 in another player-manager gig.
Three Finger Brown: Brown won 20 games six straight years, Juan Marichal for an earlier generation. He last pitched for the Chicago Cubs in 1916 at 39, though he played another decade between the minors and exhibitions. In 1919, he was 16-6 with a 2.88 ERA for Terre Haute, his hometown, of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League.
Joe Jackson: Following his lifetime ban from organized baseball in 1921 for his alleged role in fixing the 1919 World Series, Shoeless Joe played outlaw ball under an assumed name for another two decades, mostly in Georgia and South Carolina. Photos from those days can be seen here.
Joe Gordon: A lot of ex-big leaguers opted to wind out their careers in the Pacific Coast League in the days before the majors came west. Gordon didn’t look like an old show horse out to pasture his first year in the PCL in 1951, when the former New York Yankees second baseman hit 43 home runs with 136 RBI for the Sacramento Solons. He declined dramatically the following year, and that was essentially the end of his playing days.
Luke Easter: Some sluggers might quit after being cut at 38. Easter was just getting started, heading to the minors where he hit 231 home runs over the next 11 years. He had his best years with Buffalo of the International League, hitting 113 bombs from 1956 to 1958. In ’57 at age 42, Easter had 40 home runs, led the league in RBI, and became the first man to clear the center field scoreboard at Buffalo’s home park.
Rickey Henderson: One of my favorite baseball stories in recent years was Henderson taking to ESPN in 2003 to ask for another shot in the big leagues. As he was in the midst of hitting .339 for Newark of the Atlantic League, Henderson got his chance, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He didn’t do much for them, and that was the end of his big league career after 25 seasons. All the same, Henderson played another two years in the independent leagues and said in 2009 at 50 that he was interested in coming back.
Jose Canseco: As of Sunday, the 47-year-old former Bash Brother was hitting .233 with two home runs and 17 RBI as player-manager for the Yuma Scorpions of the North American Baseball League. It can’t be helping his preseason aspirations, shared via Twitter, of returning to the majors for the first time since 2001 and leading the American League in home runs.