The 10 most durable position players in baseball history

1. Lou Gehrig: It took a fatal illness later named after him to end his consecutive games streak and drive him from the game. His nickname was the Iron Horse. If Gehrig’s not the standard for durability, I don’t know who is.

2. Cal Ripken Jr: Broke Gehrig’s record and for much of his career played every inning of every game until someone told him that Gehrig set his mark, in part, by playing a few innings some days and resting.

3. Pete Rose: Last played at 45; has the career marks for games played, plate appearances, at bats and hits. The year Rose broke the hits mark, 1985 when he was 44, he had a beefy .395 on-base percentage in 500 plate appearances.

4. Ty Cobb: Played until he was 41 in an era where most ballplayers didn’t last much beyond 35. Unlike another contemporary who cracked 40, Honus Wagner, Cobb was effective his final seasons. After playing most of his career with the Tigers, he spent his last two seasons with the Athletics, batting .357 in 490 at bats and .323 in 353 at bats.

5. Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe: A fine Sports Illustrated article in 2002 introduced me to Radcliffe, who was as durable in life as he was in his career. A Negro League legend, Radcliffe earned his nickname in 1932 from sportswriter Damon Runyon who watched him catch one game of a doubleheader and pitch another. Radcliffe played professionally as late as 1954 and died in 2005 at 103.

6. Rickey Henderson: He earns a spot here for playing in four different decades and, at the end, prolonging his career in the independent leagues and going on ESPN to ask any pro team to sign him, the only 40-something, future Hall of Famer I know of to do this. It worked, as the Dodgers signed Henderson in 2003, though he played just 30 games and hit .208.

7. Ted Williams: Unlike Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays or many others, Williams looked formidable his final season, 1960, hitting .316 with 29 home runs, 72 RBI and a .451 on-base percentage. Though Williams turned 42 in August that year, he made his final All Star appearance and finished 13th in American League Most Valuable Player voting, even though the Red Sox finished second-to-last.

8. Oscar Charleston: A reader told me recently that Bill James has Charleston rated higher in center field than Joe DiMaggio. Another Negro League immortal and, unlike Radcliffe, a baseball Hall of Famer, Charleston played from 1915 to 1941, in a circuit notorious for epic seasons, low pay and squalid travel conditions.

9. Jigger Statz: Played eight seasons in the majors and 18 in the Pacific Coast League, finishing out with Los Angeles in 1942 at 44. Statz had over 4,000 hits lifetime, including 3,356 in the PCL, and Lawrence Ritter wrote of him as “The Pete Rose of the Minors.”

10. Brooks Robinson: He has a feat of durability not as widely celebrated as that of fellow Baltimore great Ripken, though it could be equally hard to top. From 1960 to 1975, Robinson amassed 16 consecutive Gold Gloves. No other position player has that many Gold Gloves, period, let alone that many in a row.

Related post: All-time durable pitchers

12 Replies to “The 10 most durable position players in baseball history”

  1. Concerning durable catchers in the Bigs, two names from my youth come to mind: Walker Cooper and Smokey Burgess. Both played 18 years and past the age of 40. In both cases, I think, it was their great abilities as pinch-hitters that lengthened their careers. But, still…

  2. To make sure that I could always say that I saw Ted Williams play, my father took me and my friend Jimmie (the same kid who was at the Maris game with me) to see a Red Sox game in 1960. I found the rain check for that game the other day, but I haven’t checked the dates against the schedule yet to see if my memory is correct that it was Williams’ last series in Detroit. I’ll be putting up a post about it on my blog soon.

    1. Cooper got a decent number of Hall of Fame votes, peaking at 14.4 percent in his second-to-last year of eligibility in 1976. I wouldn’t be completely surprised if he’s an eventual Veterans Committee pick.

      Good call on he and Burgess’s longevity, as they both cracked 40 in an era where that didn’t often happen.

      I’m waiting for somebody to say Minnie Minoso, so I can explain why he’s not on this list….

    1. Some people may make a big deal out of the fact that Minoso technically played in five decades. However, he got all but 26 of his 6,579 at bats in just two decades. Minoso played regularly from 1951 to 1964, bowed out at 38 and then returned to go 1-10 in five games between 1976 and 1980.

      Cute marketing ploy? Yes. Is Minoso a future Hall of Famer? Maybe (I see him as a potential Veterans Committee pick– more on that another time.) Is he one of the most durable baseball players of all-time? Far from it.

  3. Don’t forget Clemente has the record for most games by a Pirate and despite injuries, his skills at the plate and on the field did not diminish even at the old age at that time for a ball player time of 38. The great irony is that Clemente often unjustly accused of being a hypochoncriac would hold such a record, would be 41st all-time in at bats, 69th in games played and 27th in hits. All the preceding are signs of durability and skill, despite a tragically aborted career.

  4. IMHO, Satchel Paige should be at the top of this list. Who played longer and more often than he did, and with more excellence? Paige often pitched 4-5 games in a row– and I don’t care who it was against. Rare that anyone could sustain such a rigorous effort as a pitcher and do that decade after decade.

  5. For catchers, Ivan Rodriguez has the most games played at catcher, although Jason Kendall has averaged 135 games caught per year, Ivan 115 games caught per year. Eddie Murray averaged 144 games/year, more than Ripken (although about 800 were as a DH), as did Yaz over 23 years, with Aaron at 143 games per year over 23 years.

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