In Honor of Jamie Moyer: The Oldest Pitchers Ever

May 21, 2012

Although, "wins" and "losses" have led to the greatest misappropriation of value among all statistics applied to pitchers, Jamie Moyer deserves a thunderous cheer for becoming the oldest pitcher to win a game in the Major leagues. Win or no win, there is only one pitcher who started a major league game when he was older than Moyer’s current age. He was a full decade older and he came out of official retirement for the occasion. I’m speaking of Satchel Paige, of course. 

The one player for which there are the most amazing stories, fabulous quotes and unbelievable feats of greatness that are not officially a part of the major league record, rendering the word "legend" an understatement due to its overuse in other cases, is Satchel Paige. However, one appearance in 1965 for maverick Charlie Finley’s Kansas City A’s is in the record books: 1 game, 3 innings, 1 hit (by Carl Yastrzemski), 1 strikeout, no walks, no runs–by Satchel Paige at age 59! That, my friends, is the oldest appearance on any major league team at any position. 

Kansas City was Paige’s home and where he played during his prime with the Negro Leagues. Here is a good Hardball Times account of Paige’s return as a 59-year-old. 

The older one gets, the harder it is to heal. Moyer deserves a stadium-filled ovation just for coming back from Tommy John surgery at age 49. Moyer hasn’t even been an average pitcher since 2008 when he was 45–although, to pitch that well at that age is an extremely rare achievement. Moyer must have had one of the longest inclines and longest declines in pitching history. He never did reach greatness, but he peaked about a decade after the age most pitchers would have. From the ages of 35 to 40, Moyer was a reliably solid 225 inning 3.50 ERA (125 ERA+) guy. 

There have been only two other pitchers who were still continuing their major league careers at Moyer’s current age. Looking at the months that they were born, I am afraid Moyer will have to come back next year to top them, although he has already passed the oldest continuous major league position player: Julio Franco. 

Knuckleball artist Hoyt Wilhelm’s last game in 1972 came about two weeks short of his 50th birthday. Wilhelm was a relief pitcher for most of his career.  The only year Wilhelm started more than he relieved was as a 36-year-old on the 1959 Baltimore Orioles. That year he led the American League in ERA. 

Wilhelm didn’t reach the Majors until he was 29. He pitched enough innings in that season to qualify for the ERA title and he won it that year, too. That was in the National League with the New York Giants–a team that played in the hitter-friendly Polo Grounds. 

Knuckleball pitchers are notorious for maturing late and retiring late. It was true of 9 of the 11 successful knuckleball pitchers of my baseball fandom: R.A. Dickey (so far), Tim Wakefield, Steve Sparks, Dennis Springer, Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough, Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro, and Wilhelm.  Only Wilbur Wood and Eddie Fisher had more typical career arcs. Generally, for a pitcher to pitch that late he needs a trick pitch that is easier on the arm. 

The only other 49-year-old pitcher besides Moyer and Wilhelm was Jack Quinn – and in 1933 he pitched his last major league game a day past his 50th birthday. Hence, Jack Quinn is still the oldest continuously employed major league pitcher of all time – if you consider pre-integration baseball "major league". Born in Austria-Hungary on July 1, 1883, Quinn was one of the last pitchers to legally throw the spitball–his primary pitch. That arsenal was outlawed in 1920, but established spitball pitchers were allowed to ply their trade until they retired. At the ages of 48 and 49, while pitching for Brooklyn, Quinn led the National League in saves. His last win in 1932 was the oldest win by any pitcher until Moyer’s this year. 

The oldest pitcher besides Paige and Moyer to start a game was a knuckleballer: Phil Niekro at age 48 in 1987. He pitched for three teams that year—the Indians, Blue Jays, and Braves—and won 7 games. Niekro reached the Majors several years younger than Wilhelm. His first year as a starter didn’t occur until age 28, and he, too, led the league in ERA with 1.87. That was 1967. 

Niekro spent his first 19 1/4 seasons in the majors with the Braves, starting in 1964 when they were still in Milwaukee. That ranks as the ninth longest tenure with one team, but only the third longest on the Braves – after John Smoltz and Warren Spahn. Not only did Niekro pitch to a record old age, he was a workhorse – a hulking Clydesdale. He was the last pitcher to pitch more than 310 innings and those were seasons of 330, 334, and 340 innings (’77-’79). Niekro’s 1984 season of 216 innings and 3.09 ERA was the best in history of any pitcher 45 or older. 

The only other 48-year-old pitcher other than Niekro, Quinn, and Wilhelm (Moyer was recovering from his surgery) was Nick Altrock, who pitched two innings for Washington in 1924 without letting in an earned run. Although he was a pitching star for a few years towards the start of the 20th century, Altrock had long since retired from pitching to became a clown-coach. That’s right: clown-coach. Altrock started his new career by doing comedy routines as a first base coach to get the opposing pitcher to lose focus. 

More importantly it was a hit with the fans and he was paid well to continue it. Altrock was a master of comical pantomime. His antics evolved into comical bits that were often performed with another player on the team – usually Germany Schaefer in the first several years, then long-time partner Al Schacht. Altrock and Schacht became a popular vaudeville act. Often towards the end of the year, Altrock was allowed to pitch an inning or enter the game as a pinch-hitter. 1924 was the last year he pitched. His last pinch hit at bat came in 1933 as a 57-year-old. 

There was another 47-year-old pitcher named Wilhelm who made four relief appearances for the Phillies in 1921. His first name was Irvin, but he is remembered as Kaiser Wilhelm, named after the German Emperor defeated in World War I. Wilhelm had an excellent season for Brooklyn in 1908 at the ripe old age of 34, but that was the best year of his career by far. By 1911, Wilhelm was in the minors. The emergence of the Federal League gave Wilhelm "major league" employment in 1914 as a pitcher, then in 1915 as an umpire. In 1916 he was pitching in a B level minor league, then he was out of professional baseball in 1918. 

Yet, in 1920 at age 46 Wilhelm was back in the International League. The Phillies made him their manager in1921 and Wilhelm used himself as a last resort mop-up man in four big losses spread across the season. 

Apparently, the Negro League schedules and record keeping were too haphazard to make accurate estimates of what Satchel Paige would have accomplished, if he had been allowed to pitch in the major leagues when he was in his prime. Paige debuted in the majors with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948 – shortly after his 42nd birthday. He pitched in 21 games, 73 innings, winning 6, losing 1 with a 2.48 ERA.  

The next year Paige pitched 83 innings--mostly in relief--producing an ERA of 3.04. The Indians’ owner Bill Veeck had to sell his team to pay for his divorce. Incredibly, Paige was released and spent the next summer back in the Negro Leagues.   After Veeck bought the St. Louis Browns (now Baltimore Orioles), Paige was back in the majors. In 1952 in his age 45-46 year, Paige had the best season of his major league career: 138 innings of 3.07 pitching including an all-star game selection and MVP votes. In fact, that might be Paige’s most impressive entry in the "official" major league records as it is the best season (by Baseball-Reference’s WAR) by any pitcher who reached 46 or older. As a 46-47-year-old, he logged 117 innings and a 3.53 ERA. Again Veeck sold his team, Paige was released and didn’t pitch in the majors until he wowed us in 1965. Moyer, Niekro, and Paige are the oldest pitchers to throw a shutout. 

Paige threw only overhand fastballs early in his career. Almost everything about Paige was amazing. Later in his career, he could throw just about every pitch - including the knuckleball and various pitches only he knew - from almost any angle. 

So, at ages 47-50, we still only have Quinn, Wilhelm, Moyer, Niekro, and Paige as continuously active pitchers. At age 46, we can add another knuckleball pitcher: Charlie Hough (’94 Marlins). Hough didn’t become consistently outstanding on a year-to-year basis until he was 35. That was with the Rangers, although he had been in the Dodgers’ organization for 14 years. Credit the Rangers for making him a regular starter. Hough’s powers began to fade at 41, but still had a league average ERA+ at 43, 44, and 45. 

Hod Lisenbee from Tennessee is among the group of 46-year-old pitchers. In an apparently desperate dig for talent by Cincinnati during the war-depleted 1945 season, Lisenbee was lured off his farm. He hadn’t pitched in the majors since 1936 – and he was terrible then. His last decent year had been 1930. His best year was his first as a 28-year-old Senator in 1927, although he only began pitching at the age of 21. From the early comparisons to Walter Johnson, let’s assume he was known for his fastball. 

Sinkerball pitcher Tommy John makes the 46-year-old list. We all know John was the first pitcher to recover successfully from a transplanted ligament in his elbow. The surgery was performed on Sept. 25, 1974. He was 31. After skipping the next season to rehabilitate, John returned to all-star form, pitching with enough durability to log 234 innings at age. John’s last year came with the Yankees in 1989. As he first came up with the Indians in 1963 at age 20, he had an incredibly long career as a major league pitcher: 27 seasons minus a year missed for his famous surgery. 

Finally, at 46, we find the oldest fireballer: Nolan Ryan, who is well remembered as a fitness freak. Ryan led the National League in ERA at age 40. His first three seasons pitching for Texas at ages 42-44 (1989-1991), he averaged a 3.20 ERA and 205 innings. His age-44 season was the best of anyone ever that old (in WAR). 

Remember, this was way before Ryan was employed by the Rangers as an executive who turned their pitching development program around. Until recently, there was not a more dreaded environment for pitchers than Arlington, Texas. Even the 4.06 combined ERA of his last two seasons was good, given that ballpark. After constantly seeing Ryan’s jowly scowl during Rangers’ postseason last year, I wish he had continued to stay on top of his fitness. However, I bow to the job he has done with his organization. 

Ryan had two appearances as a 19-year-old New York Met, but his real rookie season didn’t come until he was 21 – which sort of ties him with Tommy John with the all-time most pitching seasons as a major leaguer – depending on how you count Ryan’s brief 1966 debut or John’s year off for surgery. If you count 19th century baseball as, Cap Anson is the only player at any position with 27 full seasons of major league play. 

The oldest non-knuckleball or spitball throwing pure reliever was Jesse Orosco. Using primarily a slider, Orosco was an effective LOOGY up until his last season at age 46. His prime years were quite normal: ages 26 to 30, when he had his fastball. Three of those years were as a Met, one as a Dodger, one more as an Indian. After two more years with the Tribe, he pitched for the Brewers, a long time with the Orioles, one year with the Cardinals, back with the Dodgers, onto the Padres, back to the Mets, and finally finished with the Twins in 2003. Got that? Beginning in 1979, Orosco pitched in four decades, two centuries, and two millennia. More significantly, Orosco holds the record for most games pitched in the Majors: 1,252.

 
 

COMMENTS (6 Comments, most recent shown first)

ajmilner
That was a question at the 2009 SABR trivia competition... Dan Brouthers and Jim O'Rourke in 1904 were both older than Teddy Roosevelt, and Satchel Paide in 1965 was two years older than Lyndon Johnson (Note: When Minnie Minoso played in 1980 it was reported that he was 57, which would have made him older than Jimmy Carter, but it turns out Minnie added several years to his age when he signed his first pro contract).
8:07 PM May 21st
 
TomStrother
Concerning players older than a president, I thought that someone older than TR or JFK, 42 & 43 respectively, when taking office, was surely possible. When Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency following McKinley's assassination, it was late in 1901 season. It appears that Chief Zimmerman, the old catcher, was the only player in either league even 40. In 1961, JFK's first year, when he was 43, Spahn was 40 & Wynn 41. Among non-pitchers, Dave Philley was 41. Kennedy actually turned 44 in May. It's obviously hard to play MLB past 40. More power to all the knuckleballers who did and to Jamie Moyer.
5:18 PM May 21st
 
rgregory1956
I haven't found a MLB player older than the president, but I have found one HOFer who continued to play minor league ball after his MLB career who was older than the president. Joe McGinnity was older than Calvin Coolidge.
3:59 PM May 21st
 
Trailbzr
Ok, but those were both novelty un-retirements. Not a "real player," like BillJ puts it in the Historicals.
11:01 AM May 21st
 
taosjohn
Jin O'Rourke was older than TR when he caught a game in 1904, and Satchel Paige's listed age was 59 when he made that start in 1965. LBJ was 57.
10:53 AM May 21st
 
Trailbzr
Has there ever been a major league player older than the President of the United States? Moyer is 15 months younger than Barack Obama; and Nolan Ryan pitched in 1993, was five months younger than Bill Clinton. It's possible someone in 1901 or 1961 achieved this, but I can't find one.
9:43 AM May 21st
 
 
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