Only ten pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball have pitched for 24 or more years. Four of them are in the Hall of Fame at this time and another should be in the future. But, as you will discover, longevity does not necessarily guarantee enshrinement into baseball heaven. A total of forty-one pitchers have toed the rubber for 20 or more years. You will recognize some of those Hall-of-Fame names like: Cy Young (22), Warren Spahn (21), Hoyt Wilhelm (21), “Red” Ruffing (22), Don Sutton (23), Early Wynn (23), Walter Johnson (21), Gaylord Perry (22), Ted Lyons (21), Tom Seaver (20), and Pete Alexander (20).
The guy who pitched the longest: you guessed it, Nolan Ryan. This Texas legend and Hall of Fame pitcher spent 27 years standing on the bump, the loneliest place in a baseball stadium, the pitcher’s mound. Along the way he won 324 games, recorded a 3.19 ERA, all while striking out an unbelievable record of 5,714 batters. He also threw a record seven no-hitters. Nolan Ryan also holds the record for most losses in the live-ball era at 292, and the record for most strikeouts in a single season with an astonishing 383. The live-ball era is considered 1920 to the present. Nolan Ryan made his debut for the New York Mets in 1966. With stops in California with the Angels, Houston with the Astros, and finally in Texas with the Rangers, “The Ryan Express” retired in 1993 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999 on his first try. Most of us think he can still pitch and so does he. “Ryan’s the only guy who puts fear in me. Not because he could get me out, but because he could kill me if he hit me. You just hoped to mix in a walk so you could have a good night and go 0-for-3,” said Reggie Jackson.
This next guy pitched so long he has a surgery procedure named after him. Tommy John found a home on the mound for 26 seasons. He pitched his first game in 1963. After 12 seasons, John injured his elbow and required surgery. After a year in recovery, he returned to finish with 288 wins, an ERA of 3.34, and he struck out 2,245. John, a ground-ball pitcher, threw his sinkerball for seven different teams during his career. No doubt the surgical procedure on his elbow which has been named after him helped him prolong his career. Tommy John once said, “When they operated on my arm, I asked them to put in a Koufax fastball. They did, but it turned out to be Mrs. Koufax.”
Two players have pitched for 25 seasons in the Majors. They are Jim Kaat and Charlie Hough.
Jim “Kitty” Kaat won 16 Gold Gloves during his career, second only to Greg Maddux, and struck out 2,461 batters. He also won 283 games; that’s more than Whitey Ford, Jim Palmer, or Juan Marichal won in their careers, yet Kaat has not yet been elected into the Hall of Fame. After retirement, Kaat entered the broadcast booth for 22 years and won seven Emmy Awards for his work. “My dad was a big Philadelphia Athletics fan, so I grew up idolizing Connie Mack and “Lefty” Grove, who was my first hero, and Bobby Shantz, who was my pitching model,” said Jim Kaat.
Charlie Hough was praised for his longevity, his kindness, and a dancing knuckleball. He won as many games as he lost (216-216). Hough became the very first starting pitcher for the Florida Marlins’ expansion team in 1993, but is probably better known for being one of the three pitchers to give up a sixth-inning 475-foot home run to Reggie Jackson in the 1977 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodger and the New York Yankees. The other two pitchers were local boy, Burt Hooten, and Elias Sosa. Hough has been elected to the Texas Rangers’ Hall of Fame.
The other six of the top ten served the game for 24 seasons. They are as follows: Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, and Dennis Eckersley are already in the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. Jesse Orosco, Jamie Moyer, and future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens are the others.
Phil Niekro, a master of the knuckleball, pitched the most innings in the live-ball era, 5,404 1/3. Niekro also became the first Yankee in pinstripes to win his 300th game. On October 6, 1985, on the last game of the season, Niekro became the oldest pitcher to toss a complete game shutout, at age 46. Phil’s amazing feat stood for 25 years until 47-year-old Jamie Moyer threw his own complete game shutout for the Colorado Rockies. “A Phil Niekro knuckleball actually giggles at you as it goes by,” said Rick Monday. Phil Niekro joined the Baseball Hall-of-Fame Museum in 1997.
Sneaky pitcher, Steve “Lefty” Carlton, picked off more base runners at first base (144), than anybody, but he also set the Major League record for balks with 90. Carlton amassed incredible numbers while pitching for six different teams. He has the second-most wins of any left-hander with 329, while losing 244. He won four Cy Young Awards and recorded 4,136 strikeouts. Carlton joined the Hall of Fame in 1994. “Lefty was a craftsman, an artist. He was a perfectionist. He painted a ballgame, stroke, stroke, stroke; and when he got through (pitching a game), it was a masterpiece,” said Richie Ashburn.
Dennis Eckersley or “Eck” as he was called began his career as a starter and ended as a closer. He was the first of only two pitchers to record a 20-win season and a 50-save season during his career. The other pitcher was John Smoltz. Eck, at that time a pitcher for the Oakland A’s, coined the phrase “walk-off home run” when he offered up a home run ball to Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers during Game One of the 1988 World Series. Announcer Jack Buck screamed “I don’t believe what I just saw,” as Gibson limped around the bases after taking Eck deep into the right-field seats for a Dodger victory. Eckersley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. His record reflected a 197-171 win-loss record with 390 saves. He threw one no-hitter, won the Cy Young award, and was a six-time All Star. His #43 was retired by Oakland.
Jesse Orosco holds the record for most Major League games pitched, with 1,252. This left-handed reliever pitched for ten different teams and became one of only 29 players to play the game in four different decades. Jessie retired at the age of 48, with 87 wins and 80 losses.
During his career, Jamie Moyer gave up the most home runs to his opponents (511). He became the oldest pitcher to win a game at age 49, on April 17, 2012. Moyer also became the oldest player to record an RBI in the Major Leagues. Moyer won 269 games while losing 209. He also won the Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente Awards in 2003.
“The Rocket” was a dominant pitcher for 24 seasons. Along the way Roger Clemens won 354 Major League games, struck out 4,672 batters (the third highest), and was selected to 11 All-Star games. He has won the most Cy Young Awards (7) in Major League history and is a two-time World Series Champion. Roger Clemens tied the record for the most strikeouts in one nine inning game, at 20. He did it twice. Unfortunately, the Mitchell Report, sanctioned by MLB, has identified Clemens as a user of illegal steroids. He has taken his case to court and won, yet still waits on his induction.
These guys were not just pitching against left-handers, or designated hitters. They weren’t pitching against home run hitters or call ups searching for a cup of coffee in the big leagues. Line drive hitters or drag bunt specialists made no difference. These guys loved the game too much to leave. They were pitching against time.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.