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Folks with regular occupations probably find it amusing to hear the term “retired” applied to baseball players in their 40s — or younger. They have to wonder: at what age do baseball players retire?
Baseball players retire an average of 5.6 years after they break into the major leagues. The retirement age of course differs for players since the age when they crack the big leagues could range from late teens to late 20s (or even later).
A prominent demographers’ study released in 2007 noted that modern MLB players tend to remain active longer than players of past eras, and therefore retire later, for a variety of reasons. Reasons for longer careers can include free agency, league expansion (resulting in more available spots on MLB rosters), advanced sports medicine and training, better health overall health, and higher salaries.
In general, rookies tend to be 22 or 23 — after a usual 4-year tour through the various minor league levels. Therefore, the typical retirement age for MLB players is somewhere between 27 and 29 years old (considering the average 5.6-year career).
Baseball Retirement Age Changes by Era
The study states rookie players from what they call the Early Era of 1902 to 1945 could anticipate playing 4.3 years. Rookies of the Golden Age of 1946 to 1968 played quite longer, at 6.47 years; and it bumped to 6.85 years in today’s Modern Era.
Note that the report is 14 years old … and consider how many players since then staved off retirement until deep into their 40s:
- Jamie Moyer retired at 49 — after becoming the oldest pitcher ever to win a game.
- Hall of Famer Randy Johnson retired at 46.
- Nolan Ryan pitched until age 45 — and tossed no-hitters while in his 40s.
- Roger Clemens pitched until he was 45.
- Tim Wakefield tossed knuckleballs until he was 45.
- Bartolo Colon last pitched at age 44 (but as of early 2021 would not announce retirement).
- Tom Gordon relieved games until age 41.
- Curt Schilling pitched until he was 40.
- David Ortiz slugged well during his final age-40 season.
This means the average career lengths for major league players may be a bit longer now, depending on how many players had very short careers to balance the numbers.
The study noted that careers of only 1 or 2 years were more commonplace earlier in the 20th century. One could surmise that more players today either remain healthier longer, or are kept around longer because of significant investments into their development. Player salaries (and signing bonuses) from 1902 into the mid-1970s were nowhere near today’s levels.
Individual team finances often play a role in whether an older player is signed or not. For the latter, teams may opt for a younger, and therefore cheaper, player to fill a roster.
Of the 5,989 position players who began careers during the period of the study, 1 in 5 had a single-season career. Only about 1 percent of MLB players lasted at least 20 seasons, the study noted.
Career Length Often Out of Players’ Control
Major league baseball careers can end on a whim, often in a single day. The length of their career can be affected by a number of factors, including:
- Financial. How willing a team is to pay for their services after many years of service which typically commands a higher salary.
- Personal. Sometimes a player’s attitude or reputation forces MLB teams to give up on, or avoid, a player.
- Scandal. A player’s career can end when he is involved in a scandal, whether directly or indirectly.
- “Untemprary.” Sometimes older players are brought on and told their service is temporary, such as to address a sudden team emergency caused by an injury or injuries. While the player might believe his performance would ensure a long stay, teams often cut the cord with little notice.
Colon played 21 seasons for 10 teams. Careers like that would seem to bump the average up significantly. However, the numbers get balanced out by the numerous players who jumped up to a major league club for only 1 game — and sometimes a single at-bat. Notable very short MLB careers include:
- Eddie Gaedel, the smallest player ever to play in a major league game, at 3 feet 7 inches tall. He made one plate appearance and walked on four consecutive pitches (unsurprising, considering the tiny strike zone) before being lifted for a pinch-runner for the St. Louis Browns. The at-bat was a publicity stunt, and the American League’s president voided Gaedel’s contract the next day saying the event made a “mockery of the game.”
- Larry Yount made a major league roster but never made it into a game before his career ended. He was warming up in the bullpen as an announced relief pitcher for the Houston Astros in 1971, when his elbow popped.
- Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham played two innings in the field for the New York Giants in 1905 and was on deck to bat when the final out was recorded. He then was sent back to the minors, where he toiled for two more years before retiring.
The Baseball Encyclopedia is filled with players with only 1 at-bat or 1 inning pitched in their careers.
Retiring, then Un-Retiring
If Colon plays again, it wouldn’t be a case of coming back from retirement because the past two seasons he actually tried to get signed to a major league club to continue playing. However, many major leaguers have announced retirement, only to return some time later. Notables:
- Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankees pitcher who retired in 1970, authored the controversial “Ball Four” book chronicling major league baseball behind the scenes (and raising the ire of former teammates), only to return to the mound for the Atlanta Braves in 1978.
- Jim Morris, who was drafted out of high school by the Milwaukee Brewers, injured his throwing shoulder early in his minor league career and turned to high school coaching. After his players noticed how hard he threw in batting practice, they nudged him to a tryout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — and he later became a rookie at age 35. It is the subject of the motion picture “The Rookie.”
- Minnie Monoso left baseball in 1964 after a solid 15-year career — only to return briefly in games for the Chicago White Sox in 1976 and 1980 in what are considered publicity stunts. Minoso became the second player to appear in major league games in five decades.
Maybe He’ll Pitch Forever
Negro Leagues and American League star Leroy “Satchel” Paige pitched from the 1920s into the 1960s, for a great variety of teams ranging from Mexico to the heartland of America on “barnstorming” travel teams, to the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. Paige later appeared with the St. Louis Browns from 1951 to 1953, and very later for a celebrated appearance for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965.
He never announced retirement and expected to always pitch in baseball games.
Question: Who played the most games in MLB history before retiring?
Answer: Pete Rose played 3,562d games — including some as a player-manager at the end of his career in the mid-1980s.
Q.: Are there any tricks to playing a few more seasons?
A.: Many suggest that introduction of the designated hitter in 1973 lengthened the careers of many players, whose ability to field eroded with age but they could still hit, remaining attractive to teams needing an offensive boost.
Others might point to pitchers considered “specialty,” such as those who throw the knuckleball which is not stressful to a player’s arm and shoulder and also does not require high velocity to be effective; or those who were brought in to pitch to just one or two batters such as left-hander Jesse Orosco who ended up appearing in 1,252 games, the most ever.
Q.: Why do some major league players stick around so long?
A.: The answer is twofold. First is ego, as players still believe they “have it” — and want to prove it. Second is money. Considering record-high salaries in today’s game, players are tempted to stick on rosters as long as possible with hope of another payday — or paydays.