For some reason, I’ve always been a little obsessed with “four-decade players” in baseball. It’s probably because when I was young, I must have read (and/or seen something on the “Game of the Week”) that talked about how incredible it was that Willie McCovey and Jim Kaat were still playing in 1980 when their careers began in the 1950s, well before I was born. (I also found it amazing that Kaat had played for the Washington Senators, a team that had come and gone twice before I started paying any real attention to baseball.) Tim McCarver would come out of retirement later in 1980 to make three four-decade players who had played from the 1950s to the 1980s.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how baseball is now a young man’s game, and teams prize youth above all. A side-effect of this seems to be the end of the four-decade player. There were two players from the 1990s active in 2018: Adrian Beltré and Bartolo Colon . Beltré retired and while Colon still wants to pitch, he’s not getting any offers after a poor 2018 campaign with the Rangers at age 45. Unless Colon can find a team to give him another chance or Beltré decides to come out of retirement, MLB is going to be without a four-decade player for the first time since 1970 when the calendar turns to 2020.
In the first century of baseball, true four-decade players were rare to non-existent. You’ll see a lot of players from the 1870s to the 1920s listed as four-decade players, but in every case, it was an old-time great who had retired years earlier taking the field one last time for a promotional stunt. They turned meaningless late-season games by teams out of the pennant chase into de facto old-timers games to goose the gate. (White Sox owner Bill Veeck would continue this tradition with Minnie Minoso, whom he gave at-bats to in 1976 and 1980, turning him into baseball’s only five-decade player.)
The first true four-decade player was spitballer Jack Quinn, whose career spanned from 1909 to 1933, after he had turned 50 years old. Quinn’s longevity had less to do with his staying fit and more to do with him being the second-to-last player legally allowed to throw a spitball, having been grandfathered in years earlier. Hall-of-Famer Eddie Collins also had three pinch-hit appearances in 1930, but he was actually a coach for the Athletics. I can only assume that three times in 1930, manager Connie Mack just had a good feeling that Collins would get a hit that day if he sent him to the plate. He did once.
After Quinn, there were a few more four-decade players: pitcher Bobo Newsom (1929-1953), pitcher Early Wynn (1939-1963), first baseman Mickey Vernon (1939-1960) and Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams (1939-1960). No player from the 1940s lasted until the 1970s, unless you want to count the aforementioned Minoso. (Minoso had actually retired from playing in 1964. He was 38 at the time.)
So that’s likely why such a big deal was made out of McCovey and Kaat (and eventually McCarver) in 1980. It was a rare thing. But it didn’t stay a rare thing. Five players played from the 1960s to the 1990s: Bill Buckner, Rick Dempsey, Carlton Fisk, Jerry Reuss and Nolan Ryan. None of them were stunts either — Buckner and Reuss were basically done in 1990, but teams signed them in the hope that they still might have something, not because they were box-office draws. Dempsey played until 1992 and Ryan and Fisk lasted until 1993, so they clearly weren’t stunts.
There were four players who played from the 1970s into the 21st Century. One of them, ironically, was Mike Morgan (1978-2002) and his four-decade career was a publicity stunt—but at the beginning of his career and not the end. The A’s had drafted Morgan out of high school with the fourth pick of the 1978 draft. In an attempt to stir some interest in his sad team that had been decimated by the onset of free agency, A’s owner Charlie O. Finley sent Morgan straight to the majors. Morgan got shelled in three starts and got sent down to the minors where he should have been all along. The A’s called him up again in 1979 to no better results before sending him down again. Morgan’s first full season in the bigs was 1982 with the Yankees.
The other three players from the seventies were two Hall-of-Famers, Rickey Henderson (1979-2003) and Tim Raines (1979-2002), along with reliever Jesse Orosco (1979-2003), who was able to pitch until he was 46 as a left-handed relief specialist.
Three more players from the 1980s were still active in 2010: Ken Griffey Jr. (1989-2010), Omar Vizquel (1989-2012) and Jamie Moyer (1986-2012).
So will we ever see a four-decade player again? Are there any current veterans whom we can see still playing in the year 2030? While I can’t rule out the possibility of some current left-handed reliever going the Jesse Orosco route and finding a way to pitch until he’s 45, the most likely candidates are going to be someone who made their majors debut in 2008 or 2009 and was 21 or under when they did. There are also some players we can rule out because they’re barely keeping jobs now. Pablo Sandoval meets the criteria, but no one can seriously envision Panda still playing in 2030. The same goes for Jay Bruce. Rick Porcello would be a stretch too, considering how he’s pitched the past two seasons.
There are, in my mind, only three good candidates to become a four-decade player in 2030. Two of them are NL West starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner was the youngest player in the majors in 2009 and Kershaw was the youngest player in the majors in 2008. Both were just a month or two past their 20th birthday when they debuted.
Both Bumgarner and Kershaw have had injury issues, which complicates the issue. But both are extraordinarily talented and could certainly find a way to pitch into their early-40s. Bumgarner would only be 40 in April 2030 and Kershaw is 18 months older. Both of them seem tough enough and competitive enough to still want to pitch after they turn 40.
The only strong position player candidate is shortstop Elvis Andrus. Andrus would be 41 in March 2030 and while he’s a solid player, Andrus has never been considered among the best players in the game like Kershaw and Bumgarner. But Andrus has a lot in common with Vizquel. Both were decent hitters without much power, but they had very good speed. Speed is important to being a four-decade player — it’s not a coincidence that the last four position players to play four decades were fast when they were young. Everyone slows down as they age. If a fast player slows down, they’re still fast enough to play major-league baseball. If a slow player slows down, they’d better hope they’re a catcher or that they’re are still such a good hitter at 40 that they can be a full-time DH.
Of course, the other thing that Andrus and Vizquel have in common is that they were very good gloves at shortstop. Andrus could certainly follow Vizquel’s path and add four or five years onto his career as an utility infielder who also serves as a “respected veteran clubhouse presence” in 2030.
But while all three of these players could end up still active in 2030, the odds are against it. And that is what makes me think the days of the four-decade player could be over, at least for the foreseeable future. Here it is, only 2019, and I can only come up with three strong candidates for the title.