In what may have been the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer’s last game, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning led his team to victory over the Carolina Panthers, 24–10, in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday to win his second NFL championship. While Manning has not officially announced his retirement, the possibility of it was a topic that has dominated discussion in the sports world in recent days. With that in mind, below is a ranking of 10 of the most triumphant final appearances baseball has ever seen.
First, the guidelines: To be eligible for this list, players had to be in the Hall of Fame, carry-over candidates from the 2015 Hall ballot, or retired players who were not yet eligible but have strong (though not necessarily slam-dunk) Cooperstown cases. Also, because we only have game logs dating back to 1914, players whose final game came before then were not considered.
Performances are ranked subjectively based on a combination of individual performance, impact on game result and the importance of the game itself.
Finally, before you ask: Babe Ruth played five more games after his three-homer performance in Pittsburgh in 1935, and Derek Jeter played in two more after hitting a walk-off single in his Yankee Stadium finale in 2014. Thus, neither appears below.
1. Joe DiMaggio, Yankees, Oct. 10, 1951
No Hall of Famer played a larger part in helping his team win the clinching game of a World Series in his farewell game than did DiMaggio. Entering Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees led the Giants, three games to two. Batting cleanup and playing centerfield, DiMaggio was intentionally walked in the first inning as the Yankees got out to a 1–0 lead. With the game tied 1–1 in the sixth and Yogi Berra on second, DiMaggio was intentionally walked again and came around to score the tie-breaking runs with Berra and Johnny Mize on Hank Bauer’s two-out, bases loaded triple. Finally, DiMaggio doubled to lead off the eighth in what would be his last major league at-bat. He was thrown out at third base on a subsequent comebacker off the bat of Gil McDougald, but that was of little concern; an inning later, he won his ninth and final World Series ring. That December, just 2 1/2 weeks after his 37th birthday, DiMaggio announced his retirement.
2. Curt Schilling, Red Sox, Oct. 25, 2007
Schilling isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet, but he received 52.2% of the vote in 2015, his fourth year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, and he seems likely to be inducted before he falls off the writers’ ballot in '22. If he is voted in, he will become the first Hall of Fame pitcher to have won a World Series game in his final major league appearance.
Starting for Boston against the Rockies in Game 2 of the 2007 Fall Classic at Fenway Park, Schilling hit Colorado leadoff hitter Willy Taveras, who scored on a one-out RBI grounder two batters later. That was the only run Schilling would allow to score in 5 1/3 innings of work. Hideki Okajima stranded the two runners Schilling bequeathed to him in the sixth, and Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon nailed down Boston’s 2–1 win, delivering the victory to Schilling in what would become a series sweep for the Red Sox sweep and his second championship with Boston.
3. Mike Mussina, Yankees, Sept. 28, 2008
Less than a year after Schilling’s final game, Mussina—another surging Hall of Fame candidate (he improved to 43% of the vote this year, his third on the ballot)—also brought his career to a triumphant end at Fenway. Unlike Schilling, who sat out the 2008 season with a shoulder injury and didn’t officially retire until the March 2009, Mussina knew going into his start that it would be his last. As if that day needed any added significance for him, Mussina was sitting on 19 wins; he'd twice won 19 before and reached the 18-win mark three times, but he had never recorded 20 wins in a season in his remarkable 18-year career.
Facing a playoff-bound Red Sox lineup that scored 5.22 runs per game that season, Mussina didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning and didn’t allow a run or an extra-base hit in his six innings of work. Meanwhile, the Yankees' offense pushed across six runs, and five New York relievers combined to nail down Mussina's long-sought 20th win.
4. Andy Pettitte, Yankees, Sept. 28, 2013
Pettitte—who won 256 games in his major league career and will appear on his first Hall of Fame ballot in 2019—grew up in the Houston suburb of Deer Park, briefly attended junior college in Houston and played for just two teams, the Yankees and Astros, in his 18-year career. It was fitting, then, that his final major league game came as a Yankee in Houston against the Astros with his friends and family in attendance.
The 41-year-old Pettitte announced his retirement a week before that final start, then rose to the occasion against an admittedly awful Houston team that had lost 13 games in a row coming into that Saturday evening outing. Pettitte allowed a run in the fourth to fall behind 1–0, but New York's offense picked him up with two runs in the sixth, and he allowed just two base runners from that point forward. With one on and two out in the ninth, Pettitte got J.D. Matinez to ground out to third base, wrapping up both his first complete game in seven years and his career.
5. Eppa Rixey, Reds, Aug. 5, 1933
A questionable Veterans Committee selection for the Hall of Fame, Rixey was nonetheless a stalwart for the Reds in the 1920s and the winner of 266 major league games (albeit against 251 losses). He went out on top at the age of 42 with a complete-game victory over the Cardinals at Redland Field in his final start, scattering 10 hits and three runs in a 6–3 win.
6. Gary Carter, Expos, Sept. 27, 1992
Carter’s premature passing due to brain cancer, at age 57 in 2012, has given added weight to his final game in the two decades since it was played. Starting at catcher and batting fifth for Montreal, the team he debuted with in 1974, the 38-year-old Carter grounded out and struck out in his first two at-bats and allowed a pair of stolen bases before his final trip to the plate in the seventh inning. When he came to the plate in the seventh, however, the game was still scoreless.
With two outs and Larry Walker on first base after drawing a walk from Cubs veteran Mike Morgan, Carter fell behind 0–2, but the next pitch was a fastball down the middle. Carter crushed it over the head of former Expos teammate Andre Dawson in rightfield for an RBI double. Montreal manager Felipe Alou sent in a pinch-runner for Carter, who left to a deafening ovation from the Olympic Stadium fans. It proved to be the only run in the Expos' 1–0 win. Carter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003, the first Montreal player to be so honored, two years before the Expos moved to Washington D.C. and became the Nationals.
7. Ted Williams, Red Sox, Sept. 28, 1960
Williams’s home run in his final at-bat is arguably the most famous final appearance by any player in sports history, and it holds that distinction thanks in large part to John Updike’s New Yorker essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” published a month later. But you need not have read that landmark bit of prose to appreciate the poetry of Williams’s final act as a major leaguer. Facing the Orioles, Williams entered that at-bat in the bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park knowing it was likely his last. On an 0-1 count, Williams crushed a monstrous home run to deep center off Jack Fisher, the 521st of his career. He rounded the bases with his head down, refusing one last time to tip his hat to the Fenway crowd that had ridden him so hard throughout his career.
That was Williams’s only hit of the game, however. He walked and scored in the first but then flew out twice, once in the third and once in the fifth. Williams would later write in his autobiography, My Turn At Bat, that both of those fly balls might have gone out of the park had the day not been so damp and dreary and the air so thick. Though Williams was sent out to his position in leftfield in the top of the ninth, it was just to prompt another ovation; he was replaced by Carroll Hardy before the first pitch of that inning. Brought to within 4–3 by Williams’s homer, the Red Sox rallied to win, 5–4, in the bottom of the ninth, with Hardy on deck when Tom Brewer crossed home plate with the walk-off run. Williams then sat out Boston's season-ending three game series at Yankee Stadium. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1966.
8. Frank Robinson, Indians, Sept. 18, 1976
Robinson had a secret weapon when he became the first African-American manager in major league history in 1975: his own bat. On Opening Day that season he homered in his first plate appearance, and on Sept. 18 of the following year, he sent himself up to pinch-hit with one out and men on first and second in the bottom of the eighth inning and Cleveland trailing Baltimore, 3–1. Robinson delivered an RBI single to left, and while the Indians still lost the game, the at-bat—Robinson’s final appearance as a major leaguer—was a triumphant one nonetheless.
9. Sam Rice, Indians, Sept. 18, 1934
Rice was elected to the Hall of Fame by the same 1963 Veterans Committee that approved Rixey and was just as questionable a choice. A star for the Senators in the 1920s who compiled 2,987 hits, Rice spent 19 years in Washington but finished his career with 97 games with Cleveland in 1934. The last of those was the second game of a Tuesday doubleheader against the Senators at League Park in which Rice went 3 for 5 with a double, two RBIs and a run scored in a 9–6 Cleveland win.
10. Eddie Plank, Browns, August 6, 1917
A deserving Old Timers Committee selection to the Hall of Fame in 1946, Plank was the ace of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics for the first 14 years of their existence. Plank jumped to the Federal League’s St. Louis Terriers in 1915 and was one of the best pitchers in that league at the age of 39. When the league folded at the end of that season, Terriers owner Phil Ball bought control of the American League’s crosstown Browns and brought Plank back to the majors at age 40. Plank was better for the Browns in 1916 than he had been for the A’s in either of his last two seasons in Philadelphia, going 16-5 with a 2.33 ERA. He dominated in '17 as well, posting a 1.79 ERA (145 ERA+) in 14 starts and six relief appearances until stomach problems and age prompted his retirement in mid-August.
The week before Plank announced his retirement, he made his final major league start against the Senators in Washington. Plank, who would turn 42 at the end of that month, matched zeroes with a 29-year-old Walter Johnson for 10 innings that Monday afternoon, scattering just four singles and three walks until second baseman Eddie Foster singled home catcher Eddie Ainsmith with one out in the bottom of the 11th. That walk-off run made Plank a hard-luck 1–0 loser in what was arguably the most impressive final performance by a Hall of Fame pitcher in MLB history.