Fantastic finishes: Pitchers who won 20 games in their final season

A regular reader emailed me recently with a question. He wrote: Besides Henry Schmidt (only season) and Mike Mussina, can you think of any other major leaguers who won 20 games in their last season?

The answer is yes, though it’s a small club. I found nine pitchers who’ve managed this feat and only two who have done so since 1920. This is because most hurlers, even future Hall of Famers, don’t bow out gracefully. Most are lucky not to wind up like Steve Carlton, bouncing from team to team or Roger Clemens, in disgrace or Nolan Ryan, whose ESPN highlight his final season might have been putting Robin Ventura in a headlock during a brawl.

Occasionally, a pitcher finishes well. Here are nine men who won 20 games their last year:

Mike Mussina: It’s a wonder Mussina didn’t keep playing after his 20-9 season in 2008. Mussina quit just shy of his 40th birthday with 270 wins when he might have stuck around to win 300. In fact, I think he could still be pitching if he wanted. Or Mussina could go the route of Jim Palmer and try an ill-conceived comeback in a few years.

Sandy Koufax: Has a pitcher ever done better his final season? This may be the standard. Koufax went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts in 1966, winning the Cy Young and leading the Dodgers to the World Series. Afterward, Koufax retired at 30 because of his arthritic arm and later was the youngest man inducted into Cooperstown. He’s also the only Hall of Famer here, at least until Mussina gets in.

Jim Devlin, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams: Devlin went 35-25 in 1877 and, late in the season, participated in baseball’s first game-fixing scandal, costing his team the pennant and earning a lifetime ban. Decades later, Williams and Cicotte were rotation-anchoring hurlers for the Chicago White Sox who played crucial roles in throwing the 1919 World Series. Williams and Cicotte pitched again for Chicago in 1920 and won a combined 43 games but were barred before the 1921 season.

Henry Schmidt: Perhaps my favorite on this list, Schmidt went 22-13 as a 30-year-old rookie for Brooklyn in 1903 and then wrote the club a note saying he didn’t like playing on the East Coast. He never pitched in the majors again. Brooklyn had a hard time keeping pitchers in those days, losing another promising starter the year before, Jim Hughes, for similar reasons.

Charlie Ferguson: Ferguson won at least 20 games each of his four seasons in the majors, but died at 25 in 1888 after contracting typhoid fever. Overall, he went 99-64 with a 2.67 ERA and also hit .288 as an outfielder and second baseman.

Toad Ramsey: Going 23-17 in 1890 didn’t turn this Toad into a prince, at least not for the St. Louis Browns of the American Association who released him that September. Ramsey was done in professional baseball and so was the nickname Toad, which probably left the game for good reason.

Hank O’Day: Another pitcher who won at least 20 games in 1890 but didn’t play thereafter, O’Day’s 4.21 ERA that year and .227 batting average as an occasional outfielder perhaps doomed him. O’Day later became an umpire and was the official who ruled Fred Merkle out at second on the infamous Merkle’s Boner play on September 23, 1908 that helped the Giants lose the pennant.

Did I miss anyone? Let me know.

14 Replies to “Fantastic finishes: Pitchers who won 20 games in their final season”

  1. Koufax is definitely the class of this list. His biography is remarkable. He’s probably my favorite pitcher of all time, and that’s saying a LOT from a Giants fan…

  2. Toad Ramsey, who once threw 2 one-hitters in the span of 3 days(striking out 16 in the first and 17 in the second), basically drank his way out of baseball, and eventually out of life. In July of 1890 it was reported that Toad enjoyed a “Ramsey’s Cocktail” three times a day. That doesn’t sound too extreme until you find out that the “cocktail” was basically a pint of whiskey poured into a small bucket of beer.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for sharing. I wondered about Ramsey. It seems like there were a lot of great hurlers in the early days of baseball who drank themselves out of the big leagues, men like Bugs Raymond and Rube Waddell. If only there were better treatment options for alcohol abuse back then.

  3. Yeah, Ramsey was one of those lovable reprobates that made up early baseball. Quite possibly the best left-handed pitcher (when sober)of the 1880’s, Toad was once fined $50 (a huge sum)and suspended from the Louisville team when after a bad outing against Baltimore he went on a bender with a “scarlet woman” and did not show up until noon the next day. It was his 40th violation of team rules and it was only mid May!!! One of the terms of his reinstatement was that he had to sign a contract swearing off “bad women and whiskey.” He signed, but he found whiskey and women a hard habit to break.

  4. Left off the list was Bill Sweeney, who won 40 games with Baltimore in the old Union Association in his last year, 1884.

    1. Hi Bruce, thanks for commenting.

      Sweeney’s name came up while I was researching this post. I think I may have left him off the list since there’s been some debate in the baseball research community about whether the Union Association was a true major league.

  5. Nice job. SABR sends out an email once a week to all members listing interesting articles on the internet. That is where I found out about it.

  6. I don’t know why fans emulate the way Sandy Koufax retired, or ended his career. First of all, I don’t think one would wish his ailment on any other pitcher. Secondly, you don’t see other pitchers copying what he did – quitting after his peak, do you, in order to follow his standard? (a poor choice of words here, I think.) Sandy Koufax’ career happened, but I don’t think his retirement is something to be emulated as a standard. Maybe in boxing of football retiring at your peak is something to emulate, but it is not in baseball.

    Although Clemens’ last year was less than great, and Ryan was not close to winning 20 games at his end, I believe you are a bit harsh on how they ended their careers. In general, even the greatest pitchers are far from their best at the end, and most of them have earned the right to end their careers how they choose to. Even Warren Spahn ended up on a different team than the Braves. Tom Seaver was just hanging on at the end. Early Wynn quit the day after he won 300 games, as did Lefty Grove. Really, two or three years of trying to make it work at the end is NORMAL.

    Steve Carlton may have hung on a bit too long, but so did Tommy John, and Jim Kaat, and dozens of others. Cicotte and Williams were forced to end their careers. One could say ending with 20 wins is not normal. Which brings to question Mike Mussina. No one could deny he was a very fortunate pitcher. He pitched with style and had regular success, but the way he ended his career is not normal according to history. Was he just playing for the money, so he could just walk away from it?

    1. Hi Jonathan, well said.

      Perhaps I was a bit harsh on Ryan, Clemens, and others. It certainly seems understandable for a ballplayer to not want to quit. I know I would do everything I could to delay retirement if I was in their shoes. Who wants to walk away from being a baseball player, a wonderful opportunity that lasts for two decades, tops?

      That being said, I still think it worthwhile to consider exceptions to the rule. If nothing else, it’s an exercise in exploring the unusual which I have a tendency to do a fair amount here.

  7. Super piece, but maybe a quibble. Ramsey, Schmidt and O’Day won 20 games their final MAJOR league season – all three played later in the minors. The list did answer the question that popped in mind.
    Thanks again for all you do.

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