Go out on top? Not every HOFer can

May 8th, 2021

Few players put together the sort of career worthy of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Even fewer manage a more difficult feat: going out on top.

Sure, there are those rare superstars who are productive until the end, or who snag a championship ring on the way out. Some are able to orchestrate graceful exits, enjoying retirement tours and perhaps authoring a few more memorable moments in front of adoring fans.

But often, the end is messy -- even for the great ones. It remains to be seen if that will be the case for Albert Pujols, who on Thursday was designated for assignment by the Angels a little more than a month into the final year of his contract, carrying a .622 OPS. The 41-year-old reportedly wants to latch on with a new team and continue playing.

There’s no shortage of precedent for that. While examples abound, here are 15 notable Hall of Famers whose storied careers ended in unceremonious fashion. The focus here was on those who wound up in an unfamiliar uniform, so no Ken Griffey Jr. (Mariners), Carlton Fisk (White Sox) or Jim Palmer (Orioles), for example.

Players are listed in descending order of their final season.

Vladimir Guerrero, 2011 Orioles
As a full-time DH with Baltimore, Guerrero was below average offensively (98 OPS+) for the first time since his nine-game debut for the 1996 Expos. Guerrero didn’t get another opportunity until the following May, inking a Minor League deal with Toronto. And so it was that Vlad’s final game with an MLB organization turned out to be with the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s. When the Blue Jays elected not to promote him in mid-June, Guerrero asked for and was granted his release.

Ivan Rodriguez, 2011 Nationals
Pudge played his final two seasons in Washington and was a bit player by the second, starting only 34 games behind the plate, including just two after going on the injured list in early July. The 13-time Gold Glove Award winner hit .218 with a .604 OPS, although he still had 13 caught stealings in 25 attempts.

Trevor Hoffman, 2010 Brewers
After a successful first season in Milwaukee, the longtime Padres closer blew five of his first 10 save chances in 2010 and posted a 13.15 ERA before losing his job in May. While he was effective the rest of that season and picked up five more saves to surpass the 600 mark, Hoffman still finished with a 5.89 ERA and had his option for 2011 declined.

Frank Thomas, 2008 Blue Jays/A’s
In the end, the Big Hurt was just hurt. His time in Toronto came to an acrimonious end in mid-April, when he was released with a .167 batting average rather than accepting a reduced role. The A’s, who had Thomas in 2006, scooped him back up. While he performed better in Oakland, a right quad issue limited him to 55 games, and Thomas didn’t play in September after being placed on the injured list for the second time that year.

Rickey Henderson, 2003 Dodgers
Few have clung harder to baseball than Henderson, who bounced around well into his 40s. Henderson played for the Padres, Angels, Mets, Mariners and Red Sox in those final years before making his final stop with the Dodgers, who signed him away from the independent Atlantic League’s Newark Bears in July. Alas, Henderson hit only .208 in 72 at-bats. Henderson played for Newark again in 2004 and in a different independent league in ‘05 but never got back to the Majors.

Eddie Murray, 1997 Angels/Dodgers
In 1996, Murray had returned to Baltimore midseason and joined the 500-homer club. He then signed with the Angels in the offseason but put up a .591 OPS as a DH while missing almost two months due to injury. The Halos released him in mid-August before Murray hooked on for a second stint with the Dodgers (also 1989-91) and wrapped up his career by appearing in nine games as a pinch-hitter.

Lee Smith, 1997 Expos
Smith earned the last five of his 478 saves -- then the MLB record -- with Montreal. But after a strong start, he allowed 14 earned runs in his final 13 2/3 innings, and by the time he abruptly walked away in mid-July, he had not been used in two weeks. Smith attempted to return with the Royals and Astros in 1998, but didn’t get back to the Majors and retired again.

Dave Winfield, 1995 Indians
By this point, Winfield was 43 years old and limited to a DH role. He also played in only 46 games around multiple stints on the injured list and posted a .572 OPS. Winfield finished the season in a 4-for-31 slide and did not appear during Cleveland's postseason run.

Jack Morris, 1994 Indians
Morris had struggled with the 1993 Blue Jays (6.19 ERA) and didn’t appear during their championship-winning postseason run. He got another chance with Cleveland the next year but posted a 5.60 ERA over 23 starts (8.67 over his final five) before he was released in August, shortly before the strike. Morris signed with the Reds that offseason but retired during Spring Training, and a 1996 stint with the independent St. Paul Saints didn’t lead to an MLB return.

Steve Carlton, 1988 Twins
Lefty already had been struggling for two seasons -- bouncing to five different teams -- before he began 1988 in the Minnesota bullpen. Things didn’t get any better, and after Carlton made his first start of the season on April 23, allowing eight earned runs, he was released with a 16.76 ERA and without adding to his total of 329 wins.

Ron Santo, 1974 White Sox
After 14 seasons manning the hot corner with the Cubs, Santo was traded to the South Side, and the move did not suit him. Santo made a plurality of his appearances as a DH and batted only .221/.293/.299 with five homers, his first below-average offensive season since 1962.

Juan Marichal, 1975 Dodgers
A Giants legend, Marichal started 63 games against the Dodgers, more than any other opponent. He started for them only twice, early in 1975, but with a balky back, allowed nine runs in six innings before calling it quits.

Willie Mays, 1973 Mets
While perhaps it’s unfair, Mays stumbling in the outfield in the 1973 World Series became a go-to analogy for any athlete seen to be hanging on past his prime. At age 42, Mays battled injuries, started only 55 games that season and hit .211/.303/.344, before appearing in four postseason games for the pennant-winning Mets. Still, New York fans -- who saw him play with the Giants from 1951-57 -- were able to show their appreciation.

Duke Snider, 1964 Giants
Before Marichal was a Dodger, Snider was a Giant. The Duke of Flatbush had spent 16 seasons in Dodger Blue, then one with the Mets, who sold him to San Francisco prior to the 1964 season. But there wasn’t a whole lot left in Snider, who mostly came off the bench and produced a .625 OPS.

Babe Ruth, 1935 Braves
The Great Bambino, a Brave? It really happened. Despite Ruth’s .985 OPS in 1934, the Yankees were looking to cut ties, and the Braves wanted a box-office draw. A deal was arranged. But it didn’t last long. Ruth still had his moments, launching his final six homers, but he batted only .181, and by June, he was done.