Will A-Rod end at 696? Looking back at players' final HRs

BySteve Wulf ESPN logo
Thursday, August 11, 2016

NOBODY THOUGHT IT would be his last, least of all him. On July 18, Alex Rodriguez hit a second-inning solo shot off Baltimore Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman deep into the left-field seats at Yankee Stadium. It was only A-Rod's ninth homer of the year, but it was also the 696th of his career, and it gave the New York Yankees a 1-0 lead en route to a 2-1 victory. After the game, he told reporters, "I'm getting to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Turns out it was a train. Last week, the Yankees pressured him into retiring after tomorrow's game, when he still could hit another. Or he could decide to come back at a later date. But for now, he remains tantalizingly close to joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only members of the 700 Club.

For some of the game's greatest hitters, farewells don't always end well. Parting is such sorrow, and all that, but there's little poetry in balls, or players, reaching the warning track.

That's something to keep in mind as 40-year-old David Ortiz tries to finish what he says will be his last season with a bang(528 HRs and counting); as Prince Fielder is forced to call it quits with 319 homers (same as his father Cecil); as Mark Teixiera (404 ... do I hear 405?) takes a final bow. And as A-Rod, who just turned 41, hangs 'em up. In announcing his retirement, A-Rod said, "As far as 700 or those types of milestones, look, I would have had an unbelievable fun time trying to go after them. ... [But] those are not the cards I was dealt."

If Friday is indeed his last game, and No. 696 was his last homer, it's worth replaying his trot around the bases.As he circled the bases against the Orioles, Rodriguez blew a chewing gum bubble.

As it always does, the bubble burst.

SOME DAY, A-ROD will go to Cooperstown. Six days after his home run, the honors belonged to Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza. This year, as usual, the hamlet was crawling on induction weekend with gods, some on a higher pantheon than others, but all adored by their worshippers. It's as good a time and place as any to dust off the memories.

George Brett, No. 317. The man in a golf shirt, shorts and Kansas City Royals ankle socks is about to tee off on the sixth hole of the Leatherstocking Golf Course in Cooperstown, New York. It's the annual golf tournament that precedes the ceremonies, and while George Brett waits his turn, he is asked to go back to Sept. 26, 1993 -- the day he hit his 317th, and last, home run.

"Refresh my memory," he says. "No, wait, it's coming back to me. ... It was a 10th-inning, two-out game-winner against the Angels in Kansas City. High fastball into the balcony in right."

Brett then hits his tee shot straight down the middle, and as he drives off down the fairway, he shouts, "Hey, that was my second homer of the game."

After his round, he asks, "Who did I hit it off of?" Paul Swingle.

"Greg Swindell? It couldn't have been him. This guy was a right-hander." Yes, he was, but his name was Paul Swingle. S-w-i-n-g-l-e.

"Oh. I don't remember him. And who gave up my first homer in that game?" John Farrell. "The Red Sox manager? Really? That's kind of neat."

Neater still was that the home runs came on the day after Brett had tearfully announced his retirement. When that Sunday game ended with his walk-off, his line in the box score read: Brett 5-3-3-5.

As he says, "I got to be George Brett for one more day."

Mike Schmidt, No. 548. Fate is funny. With the fifth pick of the second round of the 1971 draft, the Royals selected a shortstop named George Brett. Right after that, with the sixth pick, the Philadelphia Phillies also went for a shortstop: Mike Schmidt. They would become the greatest third basemen of their generation, making 25 All-Star Games between them.

They went head-to-head in the 1980 World Series, won by the Phillies, and Schmidt would win three MVPs, two more than Brett. But when it came to their final home runs, Brett got the better deal.

Schmidt's was a two-run homer off Jim Deshaies in the first inning of a May 2, 1989 game at the Vet -- it gave the Phillies a 2-1 lead in a game they would lose 12-4. "It was a high fastball that I hit down the left-field line," Schmidt says. "It barely stayed inside the foul pole. I had no idea at the time that it would be my last."

A month later, Schmidt broke down at his retirement news conference.

"Looking back, the only reason to have delayed my retirement would have been the career numbers: I was two short of 550 home runs and five short of 1,600 RBIS -- one good game. But I was feeling my age, the team was in transition, and I had what I thought were Hall of Fame credentials and enough money. I'm actually very comfortable with how my career ended and how my retirement played out. I even have the home run ball in a case at home.

"I just wish I'd have written a better goodbye speech."

Frank Thomas, No. 286. There were two Frank Thomases in Cooperstown. There was one who was in the Hall of Fame, and then there was the large hulking man signing photos and balls at a card table on Main Street.

The other Frank Thomas is an 87-year-old Pittsburgh native who played for seven National League teams over 16 seasons. When fans tell him how good it is to see him alive, he tells them, "Well, it's a lot better to be seen than to be viewed."

Thomas was a pretty good slugger in his day, not to mention the Home Run King of New York in 1962 (he hit 34 for the original Mets, while Roger Maris hit 33 and Mickey Mantle 30 for the Yankees). Asked about his final homer, Frank has to think. "I don't remember much about it. Wait, I was with the Astros, and it was against the Mets. And it got me traded!"

It was Aug. 31, 1965, at Shea Stadium, and like Brett, Thomas hit his last two home runs in the same game. In fact, the right-handed-hitting first baseman provided all of the Astros' offense in a 4-3 victory, with a three-run bomb off Larry Miller in the first inning with Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn aboard, and a solo shot in the third off Darrell Sutherland.

"The next day, they sent me to my old pals on the [Atlanta] Braves for a player to be named later," Thomas says. "I guess they figured I had something left. No more homers, but I got to play the last month of the season with Hank [Aaron] and Eddie [Matthews] again. Joe Torre and Phil Niekro, too. That's four Hall of Famers right there. That was my reward, I guess."

Frank Thomas, No. 521. The Big Hurt was also in town, looking as imposing as ever besides his plaque, which has him in his White Sox hat. But it didn't end well for him in Chicago: he was hurt big when the club released him after winning the 2005 World Series. He signed with the Oakland A's and hit another 39 in '06, then 26 more as the Toronto Blue Jays' DH in '07. Then the fly balls then started coming up short. On Aug. 9, 2008, back on the A's and playing at Comerica Park, Thomas hit one last home run, a two-out, first-inning shot to left-center off Armando Galarraga.

He played 18 more games that season, then went into denial, refusing to announce his retirement. Finally, on Feb. 12, 2010, Thomas officially called it quits by signing a one-day contract with the White Sox, who announced that they would be retiring his No. 35. At the news conference, he said, "For some reason, it seems like there is never a happy ending to superstars' careers. They end up playing for other teams -- but they always end up coming back."

Had he hit one more home run, Thomas would be alone at No. 20 on the all-time list. But he's in very good company with 521, tied with Willie McCovey and ...

Ted Williams, No. 521. Standing sentinel on the first floor of Cooperstown's museum is The Splendid Splinter. His statue perfectly captures his lefty-swinging follow-through -- the same follow-through he used to hit his 521st homer off Jack Fisher in the eighth inning of a 5-4 comeback win over the Orioles.

It was not only the last at-bat of his career, it was also the inspiration for one of the finest sports stories ever written. Here is how John Updike described the third pitch of the at-bat in "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," which appeared in the Oct. 22, 1960 issue of The New Yorker:

"Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs -- hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. ... The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."

Al Kaline, No. 399. As Williams was to Boston, Kaline was to Detroit. Mr. Tiger's final round-tripper was a ninth-inning, two-run homer off Reggie Cleveland in Fenway on Sept. 18, 1974, but it didn't mean much to the Tigers, who lost 8-5, or to Kaline at the time.

"I hardly recall it," says Kaline, who was at a cocktail reception in the Hall of Fame gallery, not far from the Williams figure. "I do remember my home run off Steve Carlton in the 1968 World Series and my 11th-inning homer off Rollie Fingers in the '74 ALCS. But I never really tried to hit home runs. I was more concerned with getting to 3,000 hits. That was the mark I was really after. ... It wasn't until Yaz came along that I really realized the significance of 400 home runs."

Kaline did get his 3,000th hit, in his hometown Baltimore, and five years later, Carl Yastrzemski recorded both. Indeed, it's right there on his plaque: FIRST AMERICAN LEAGUER TO HAVE 400 HOME RUNS AND 3,000 HITS.

Roberto Clemente, No. 240. He hit it on Sept. 13, 1972, and it was his 10th homer of the season. Seventeen days later, he got the 3,000th hit of his career. Who could have known they would be the last of each -- Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve, en route to delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

"What a shock," says Ferguson Jenkins, the Hall of Famer who gave up the Hall of Famer's final home run. "I loved facing Roberto, and believe me, we faced each other a lot over the years."

It was the sixth time Clemente had homered off Jenkins. The only other pitcher to give up as many as six to Clemente was Sandy Koufax. "I remember it like it was yesterday," Jenkins says. "Wrigley Field, seventh inning, right? Man on and two outs, score tied 3-3. He was a bad-ball hitter, so I tried to throw it off the plate, get him to chase. I forget the count, but I threw it inside, and he hit it over the ivy in left. You win some, you lose some, and that one I lost."

Because this was the 25th anniversary of Fergie's induction, he invited his family up to Cooperstown. He showed them the Clemente statue in the museum.

Steve Garvey, No. 272. When he retired in 1987, there was no way Steve Garvey wasn't going into the Hall of Fame -- not with his 10 All-Star appearances, his .338 batting average in 11 postseason series, the National League record for most consecutive games played (1207).

But his numbers were diminished by the sluggers of the steroid era, and his once angelic reputation was tarnished by a soap operatic personal life. Now Garvey is stuck in purgatory, and on this HOF weekend, he is sitting at the same table in the same souvenir shop with the devil himself, Pete Rose.

Garvey's last home run came on April 12, 1987, a three-run, first-inning homer off the Cincinnati Reds' Guy Hoffman at Riverfront Stadium that gave the San Diego Padres a 3-0 lead en route to a 5-2 victory. One Hall of Famer, Tony Gwynn, scored ahead of Garvey, and another, Barry Larkin, watched it sail out of the park.

"It went into the seats in left center," Garvey says. "I didn't think it would be my last, but then, you never do.Bicep tendinitis got to me, and I retired at the end of May. I didn't know what became of the ball.

"But then a funny thing happened. Six or seven years ago, a box arrives in the mail. It's from one of the groundskeepers at Riverfront. Back in those days, you could buy game balls and stuff in the team store, and he bought the home run ball. I guess he saw the date and realized the significance. Eventually, he tracked me down and sent it to me because he thought I might like to have it.

"It's kind of special. Not so much because of its significance, but more because a fan went out of his way to send me a gift he thought I might want."

George Foster, No. 348. Right across the street from Garvey, in another souvenir store, is another man who thought he might be going to Cooperstown for a different reason. "I really thought I would get 500, which would have gotten me into the Hall of Fame," Foster says. "Just five more 30-homer seasons. But injuries got the best of me."

When Foster hit 52 home runs for the 1977 Reds, only seven other players had hit more in a season. But after the Mets acquired him in '82, he went from great to good to gone: He and manager Davey Johnson locked horns, and he was released in August of '86. The White Sox picked him up, and it was for them that he hit No. 348, a solo shot in the fourth inning off Bill Wegman on Aug. 15. Two months later, his ex-teammates on the Mets won the World Series.

Though his MLB career was soon over, Foster still had a little left in him: He reappeared in 1989 in the Senior Professional League, where he hit 11 homers in 70 games for the St. Lucie Legends.

Eddie Murray, No. 504. A final home run ball is worth saving. But sometimes circumstances prevent that. Murray was playing for the Angels on May 30, 1997, when he hit a solo shot in the second inning of a game the Minnesota Twins would win 4-3. "It was off Bob Tewksbury to center field," he says. "That's about all I remember. I don't even know what happened to the ball.

"The funny thing is that the year before, when I hit 22 for the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles, the balls kept bouncing back on the field, and people were collecting them for me. I think I have 19 of those. But that last one happened so early in the season that I had no idea it would be my last."

Actually, that was not the last professional home run that Murray hit. "Yeah, I hit two more that season for Albuquerque after the Dodgers picked me up. That was weird, me playing with all those kids. I have no idea who gave up my last one."

Just for the record, it was a Phoenix pitcher named Mike Villano.

Donora, Pennsylvania, No. 1,259. Seven hours west southwest of Cooperstown is another baseball mecca, a town of 5,000 that, thanks to native sons Stan Musial, Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr., can claim more home runs per capita than any place on earth. Together they hit 1,257 -- the other two came from Steve Filopowicz, a Donoran who had them for the 1945 New York Giants.

The last one was hit by one of the men celebrated in this Cooperstown weekend, Ken Griffey Jr. It came on Oct. 3, 2009, in the bottom of the fourth inning of a game between the Rangers and Mariners at Safeco Field. Junior took Tommy Hunter's 3-1 pitch deep to right field to give the M's a 1-0 lead in a game they would win 2-1. At the time, it was his 19th homer of the season, the 630th of his career.

Nineteen years and 595 home runs earlier, there was another date to remember: Sept. 14, 1990. That's when the Griffeys homered back-to-back off the Angels' Kirk McCaskill to become the first father-son combo to go yard in the same game. After touching home plate, Senior told Junior, "That's how you do it, son."

Willard Brown, No. 1. He's in the Hall of Fame for his hitting, baserunning and outfield play for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. But he did play for the St. Louis Browns in 1947, and became the first African-American to hit a home run in the American League: an inside-the-park homer off future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser of the Tigers on Aug. 13. It was also his last in the majors, and the last for the bat that he used.

It seems he had borrowed it from teammate Jeff Heath, who was so enraged at his presumption that he smashed the lumber to pieces in the dugout.

Hank Aaron, No. 755, and Billy Williams, No. 426. What's it like to give up a Hall of Famer's last home run? Dick Drago knows. Pitching for the Angels, he gave up two in a two-week span.

"Aaron's I knew about," Drago says. "But I had no idea I also gave up Billy's last one."

The Aaron homer came first, 40 years ago on July 20, 1976, in County Stadium, a solo homer deep to left in the seventh inning of the Milwaukee Brewers' 6-2 victory. "It was a hanging slider. I tried to get cute. Not the best inning of my career-I gave up a homer to George Scott when Hank was in the on-deck circle. Other than that, I don't remember much, just him circling the bases and me fuming on the mound.

"When was the Williams' home run?"

Aug. 8, an eighth-inning solo shot in a 9-3 loss to the Athletics in Oakland.

"I did give up a few. I guess it's kind of a distinction that I gave up Hank Aaron's last. You know, we signed balls together a few years ago. But I've never seen the actual ball."

Therein lies a tale. A part-time groundskeeper named Richard Arndt caught the ball in the bleachers. Not knowing its future significance, he just wanted to give the ball to Aaron and maybe have his picture taken. But he was told Aaron was busy and that he should hand the ball over. When he refused, he was fired.

Later that season, Arndt tried to get Aaron to sign the ball, but the legend balked, saying the ball belonged to him. Over the years, Arndt entertained various offers for the ball, even some from Aaron and the Brewers. He finally sold it to a Connecticut portfolio manager for $655,000, a large chunk of which he gave to Aaron's Chasing the Dream Foundation. ("What, nothing for the guy who hung the slider?" Drago says.)

That ball is now on loan to the museum, in a third-floor exhibit called "Hank Aaron: Chasing The Dream."

As for the Williams' ball, Billy had it once. "I threw it in my baseball bag," he says. "The next year, I was in Midland, Texas, looking at some hitters for the Cubs, and a kid asked me if I had any baseballs. That was the only one I had to give him."

Barry Bonds, No. 762. Bonds hit two balls worth a lot of money. The first was the one he hit to pass Aaron, No. 756, an Aug. 7, 2007 homer off Mike Bacsik of the Nationals. It was caught at AT&T Park by college student Matt Murphy and sold to fashion designer Mark Ecko for $752,467.20 so that he could make a statement by engraving an asterisk on it. That's now housed on the third floor of the HOF museum, in an exhibit called "One For The Books: Baseball Records and the Stories Behind Them."

The second was the last home run ball of Bonds' career, a two-run homer off rookie Ubaldo Jimenez in the first inning of the Giants' 5-3 win in Colorado on Sept. 5, 2007. (Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday actually asked that the homer be negated because of fan interference. You decide.)

The fan who emerged from the scrum with the ball was Jameson Sutton, who put the ball in a safety deposit box in the hopes that it would be Bonds' last waltz around the bases. When Bonds retired without another home run, collectors predicted that Sutton would get as much $1 million for the ball.

He sold it that offseason to an unnamed collector through SCP Auctions for $376,612. Sutton used the money to pay off the medical expenses of his stepfather, who had just died after a battle with lung cancer.

That ball is not in Cooperstown. It remains to be seen whether Bonds himself will be there.

Babe Ruth, No. 714. It was May 25, 1935, and the 40-year-old Bambino waddled up to the plate for the truly dreadful Boston Braves on a chilly Saturday afternoon before 10,000 curious Pittsburgh fans in Forbes Field. No longer wanted by the Yankees -- firewood had been stored in his spring training locker and No. 3 had been given to George Selkirk -- he signed with the Braves, who needed a turnstile draw.

He came into the game batting .183. But in the first inning, he hit a two-run homer into the right-field stands off Red Lucas. That was 712. He gave the Braves a 4-0 lead with another two-run shot, this one off Guy Bush, in the fourth -- 713. The Pirates tied the score, but Ruth put the Braves back ahead 5-4 with an RBI single in the fifth. In the top of the seventh, with the home team back ahead 7-5 but the crowd behind him, Ruth took a mighty swing at Bush's 3-1 pitch ... and launched it clear over the right-field roof. No batter had ever done that in the 26-year history of the park: 714.

In an article for the Society of American Baseball Research, Jack Zerby described the scene thusly: "After rounding the bases in a 1935 version of his classic trot, Babe saluted the fans with a tipped cap, and then excused himself from the game. Sole access to the visiting clubhouse was through the Pittsburgh dugout. En route, he plopped himself down at the end of the bench and told rookie Pirate pitcher Mace Brown, 'Boy, that last one felt good.'"

After going 4-for-4 with three homers and six RBIs, Ruth played five more games, but he never got another hit.

The ball that Ruth hit for No. 714 is now part of the Hall of Fame's touring exhibit, "We Are Baseball," which is at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City until Aug. 21. Then it's on to St. Louis. That's the thing about last home runs. Long after the batter touches home, the ball is still traveling.