Every player wants to retire while he’s still near the peak of his craft, but the reality is that not many have enjoyed that fate. Countless stars have held on past that point, only to see their footspeed, hand-eye coordination and preternatural talent diminish ever so slightly.
That’s what makes it so special when stars dig deep for one last push and remind both themselves and the baseball world of their past glory.
We saw it happen in 2022, when Albert Pujols capped his Hall of Fame-bound career with a historic burst. And now Miguel Cabrera will try to match Pujols in 2023. The 12-time All-Star, slowed by age and injuries in recent years, said on Nov. 28 that he expects his age-40 season to be his last, setting up what he hopes will be a productive farewell tour.
But will Cabrera do enough to join this list of the top 12 "swan song" seasons? He will have his work cut out for him.
Note: In order to stick to the spirit of the “swan song” term, the list below does not include players whose final seasons came before their careers were cut short by tragedy (e.g. the untimely deaths of Roberto Clemente or José Fernández; Kirby Puckett’s vision loss due to glaucoma) or by actions that saw them banned from the game (Black Sox members Shoeless Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver and Eddie Cicotte; New York Giants pitcher Phil Douglas).
Albert Pujols, 2022
When Pujols was released by the Angels in May 2021, it appeared that his baseball story was headed for a less-than-stellar conclusion. But Pujols flipped the script after signing with the Dodgers for the rest of that season, and that was only the beginning. His return to St. Louis for one final year set the stage for a magical, late-season run up the all-time home run list, as Pujols stunned the baseball world by reaching and then exceeding the 700-homer mark. Even better, that coincided with the Cardinals surging to an NL Central title.
Pujols wound up batting .270/.345/.550 with 24 homers -- his most since 2016. His 154 OPS+ was his highest since 2010, the penultimate season of his first St. Louis stint, when he was the NL MVP runner-up. While he wasn't a full-time player, that number tied for seventh among Major Leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances.
Buster Posey, 2021
When the 2021 season rolled around, Posey had nothing left to prove. He'd won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, a Gold Glove Award and a batting title, made six All-Star teams and been a key part of three World Series champions. But Posey and the Giants also had declined significantly in 2018-19, and the catcher opted out of the pandemic-shortened '20 campaign.
So when Posey returned in '21, there were big questions about what the 34-year-old had left in the tank. A lot, as it turned out. He batted .304/.390/.499 (140 OPS+) with 18 homers, while starting more than 100 games behind the plate. It wasn't until after the season -- when the Giants stunned baseball by winning 107 games and the NL West title -- that Posey announced his retirement.
David Ortiz, 2016
Even the most diehard Red Sox fans had to be surprised by just how good Ortiz was in his final year. Big Papi swatted 38 homers (a record for any player’s last season) and paced the Majors in both OPS (1.021) and doubles (48) while also leading the American League with 127 RBIs. And at 40 years of age, Ortiz still ranked among the game's leaders in many of Statcast’s quality-of-contact metrics and put the finishing touches on a career that sent him to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Cleveland swept the Red Sox in that year’s AL Division Series, but Boston fans gave a tearful Ortiz a rousing ovation following the series’ final game.
Barry Bonds, 2007
Bonds’ public reputation -- particularly outside San Francisco -- had taken many hits, and was the biggest reason why he didn’t find work past the 2007 season. But Bonds was still an extremely potent slugger as he crossed his 43rd birthday. His 12th and final walk title (132), along with a Major League-best .480 on-base percentage, easily showed how much pitchers hated to face him, and Bonds still homered 28 times -- good for one dinger for every 12 at-bats.
Bonds passed Hank Aaron for first place on the all-time home run list by knocking No. 756 off Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik in early August. Bonds' 762nd and final four-bagger came against Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jiménez in September.
Will Clark, 2000
The Rangers replaced Clark with Rafael Palmeiro in free agency after the 1998 season despite Clark's excellent numbers (.305/.384/.507, 23 HRs, 102 RBIs), and though injuries robbed him of more than half the ‘99 campaign, Will the Thrill turned the clock back once more in 2000. Clark hit .301 for the Orioles before the Cardinals traded for him to replace the injured Mark McGwire at first base, and he was even better for St. Louis, posting a 1.081 OPS and homering 12 times in 51 games down the stretch.
Clark hit a three-run homer off Braves ace Tom Glavine in Game 2 of the NL Division Series and was scorching hot (.412/.500/.706) during the Cardinals’ NL Championship Series loss to the Mets, but he abruptly retired at season’s end.
“I can still hit, I can still play, still field my position,” Clark told reporters. “But also, at the same time, it’s the right time for me to exit.”
Ted Williams, 1960
Williams finally looked human in 1959, hitting just .254 and homering only 10 times as he swung through a stiff neck that developed in Spring Training and crossed his 41st birthday that August. Though many expected Williams to retire, the Splendid Splinter refused to go out that way. He came back for one more Red Sox season, volunteering himself for a 30% pay cut on account of his performance in ‘59.
It turned out to be a genius decision. Not only did Williams produce one more monster campaign in 1960 (.316/.451/.645, a staggering 190 OPS+), but he saved his 29th and final homer of the year for his very last at-bat -- truly going out with a bang.
Hank Greenberg, 1947
Greenberg led the AL with 44 homers and 127 RBIs in 1946, but his career-low .277 batting average was seen as a sign of decline in that era. But the Pirates weren’t deterred, purchasing Greenberg’s contract from the Tigers for $75,000. The club pulled in the left-field wall at cavernous Forbes Field to create a home run porch for its new slugger, and the area quickly became known as “Greenberg’s Gardens.” Greenberg clubbed 25 home runs and led the NL with 104 walks while recording a .408 on-base percentage, and then retired and became the Indians’ general manager. But perhaps his biggest final-year contribution was his mentorship of future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, who called Greenberg “the biggest influence on my life.”
Mike Mussina, 2008
Mussina’s final season might have had as much impact on any Hall of Famer’s candidacy in recent times. Mussina was a brilliant pitcher over the first 17 years of his career, having finished in the top five of AL Cy Young Award voting five times, earning six Gold Glove Awards and winning 250 games, but a 20-win season was one of the only feathers missing from his cap. Moose checked that off with a late-September win against the rival Red Sox, becoming the oldest first-time 20-game winner at age 39, while also going 200 1/3 innings and leading the AL with 34 starts. He became the first pitcher to retire after a 20-win season since Koufax, and was voted into the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2019.
Curt Schilling, 2007
Schilling emptied the tank in his 20th and final big league season. Pitching well past his 40th birthday, Schilling spun a 3.87 ERA (123 ERA+, his best mark in four years) for the Red Sox during the regular season before writing one more entry on his considerable postseason resume. Schilling tossed seven shutout innings in Boston’s sweep-clinching victory over the Angels in Game 3 of the ALDS, and then bounced back from a rough outing in Game 2 of the ALCS against Cleveland to win Game 6 -- his record-tying fourth career win in a game in which his club faced elimination. A solid one-run effort against the Rockies in Game 2 helped the Red Sox sweep the World Series, netting Schilling his third championship ring before he walked off the diamond for good.
John Tudor, 1990
Tudor returned to the Cardinals after a year and a half with the Dodgers and a long time on the shelf as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, as well as procedures on his shoulder and his knee. Tudor’s fastball had receded to roughly 78-80 mph after the procedures, but he got off to a hot start, allowing only three earned runs in his first 28 innings. Pitching mostly on guts and guile, Tudor went 12-4 and put up a 2.40 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP across 146 1/3 innings. He won the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year award and announced his retirement.
Sandy Koufax, 1966
Koufax is the gold standard for leaving baseball on top -- even more so than Williams. The all-time southpaw led the Majors in wins (27), ERA (a career-best 1.73), complete games (27), shutouts (five), innings (323) and strikeouts (317), unanimously winning his third Cy Young Award and placing second in NL MVP Award voting for the second straight year. Koufax’s loss to Jim Palmer in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, in which he suffered three unearned runs via three errors by Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis, was the only blemish in an otherwise dream season.
But Koufax shocked the baseball world that November by retiring on account of severe arthritis in his pitching arm. Koufax explained of his decision to walk away from the remainder of his historic salary, “If there was a man who didn’t have the use of one of his arms, and you told him it would cost a lot of money but he could buy back that use, he’d give him every dime he had.”
Larry French, 1942
French was a workhorse during his prime years with the Pirates and Cubs, twirling a wicked screwball to average 15 wins and 245 innings per season from 1931-40. Many thought he had run out of gas at the end of '41, however, after he went 5-14 with a 4.51 ERA. The Cubs placed French on waivers, but a fateful lesson on the knuckleball from new teammate Freddie Fitzsimmons powered French’s resurgent ‘42 campaign with the Dodgers. French clearly had an aptitude for the flutterball, winning his first 10 decisions and finishing the year 15-4 with a 1.83 ERA for the runner-up Dodgers. That turned out to be French’s last campaign, as he enlisted for service in World War II and began a 27-year career in the Navy.