With 36-year-old Victor Martinez on the 15-day disabled list, the oldest player on the Tigers active roster is (drumroll, please) Rajai Davis, who turned 34 in October.
At this writing, the average age of the 2015 Tigers is 28.5, which is a tick below the Major League average this year (28.7).
Baseball players peak physically in their late 20s and early 30s. With proper conditioning, sustained talent, and a bit of luck (not to mention the designated hitter), some can play into their late 30s and beyond.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Every man over 40 is a scoundrel.” That may be, but heck, if they can still hit or pitch, give them a contract.
Here’s a look at some notable players who suited up for the Detroit Tigers while in their 40s.
The first was the mustache-wearing Bobby Lowe, who reached the milestone age on July 10, 1905. He played only four undistinguished seasons in Detroit. Today, if we remember him at all, it is because he was the first player to hit four home runs in a game, which he did as a member of the Boston Beaneaters in the summer of 1894. Remember that?
In 1906, hard-hitting outfielder and future Hall of Famer Sam Thompson, who began his career back in 1885 with the Detroit Wolverines, and later starred with the Philadelphia Phillies, came out of retirement to play eight games at age 46. Of his seven hits in 31 at-bats, one was a triple, making him the oldest major leaguer to stroke a three-bagger (a mark that still stands).
The 1912 Tigers fielded three 40-somethings in one game alone, but it is deserving of an asterisk. That was the year that Ty Cobb ran into the stands to attack a fan who’d been heckling him in Philadelphia. American League President Ban Johnson immediately suspended The Georgia Peach. His teammates, however, felt Cobb had been given a raw deal, and they refused to play until the suspension was lifted. As a result, owner Frank Navin and manager Hughie Jennings were forced to quickly round up amateur sandlot players to field a squad for the team’s scheduled game in Philadelphia.
The contest was a farce, as the Tigers lost 24-2. The 43-year-old Jennings even inserted himself, along with two of his coaches, 41-year-old Joe Sugden and 48-year-old Deacon McGuire, as substitutes. When Jennings approached home plate wielding a bat, the umpire asked him who he was pinch hitting for. Jennings, so the story goes, answered, “None of your business.”
But it wasn’t the last time in his career that Jennings saw action. Six years later, at the ripe old age of 49, he played first base in an interesting game at the tail end of the season and before many players left for the first world war, without an at-bat.
One of the more interesting Tiger geriatrics was Chuck Hostetler. The native Pennsylvanian was a pretty good minor-league hitter for a decade, compiling a .307 average. Hostetler had actually retired from baseball following the 1937 season, figuring he was too old to make The Show. But he continued to play in industrial and semi-pro leagues. When World War II decimated the rosters of teams everywhere, the Tigers signed him, and he wound up making the team in 1944, at age 40 (at the time he was the oldest rookie ever). He hit .298 that summer in a limited role. In 1945, he slumped to .159, but the Tigers included him on their World Series roster. Hostetler was guilty of one of the biggest base-running blunders in postseason history in Game Six, which Detroit lost. But the story has a happy ending, as the Tigers defeated the “cursed Cubs” and won Game Seven, and Hostetler got his World Series ring.
Surprisingly, it took 61 years for Detroit to finally trot out a 40-year old pitcher. Jerry Staley was a veteran of 15 big league seasons, with five teams, when the Tigers picked him up in a trade with the Kansas City A’s in August of 1961. He pitched in only 13 games for the Tigers, and was released after the season, ending his career at age 40.
On August 31, 1968, the Tigers purchased 40-year-old Elroy Face, the longtime bullpen star of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Face, however, only pitched in two games in the regular season for Detroit, and did not see action in that year’s World Series. The club released him the following spring.
Team leader Darrell Evans had a great year in 1987 at age 40, hitting 34 home runs with 99 RBIs. He also drew 100 walks, contributing to his excellent .379 on-base percentage. He wasn’t bad the following year, either, hitting 22 bombs with 84 free passes at the ripe old age of 41. He didn’t set down his bat until after his age 42 season.
Forty-one year old Kenny Rogers pitched Detroit all the way to the World Series in 2006, winning 17 games in the regular season and making mincemeat of the Yankees and A’s in the playoffs. He also pitched a great game for the only Tigers win in the Series. The Gambler spent the next two seasons in the Motor City before finally hanging it up at age 43.
A pair of closers have toiled for Detroit after their 40th birthday. Todd Jones, another star on that 2006 team, pitched until age 40, when he saved 18 games for the ‘08 Tigers. And finally, everybody’s favorite Tiger, Joe Nathan, pitched in one game this season at age 40, before being sidelined with a likely career-ending injury.
And what does our crystal ball say? Barring injury, Miguel Cabrera will still be slugging it out for the Tigers in his 40s. His multi-million dollar deal has him locked in until the end of the 2025 season, at which point he’ll be 42, with somewhere in the vicinity of (can you believe it?) 650 lifetime home runs.