Ichiro and the Hall of Famers Who Returned Home

The Mariners made the Ichiro Suzuki signing official on Wednesday, returning the 44-year-old outfielder to the team for whom he starred from 2001 until mid-2012, when he was traded to the Yankees. Aside from a genuinely useful 2016 season in a part-time role — highlighted by his 3,000th major league hit — he hasn’t been a very productive player over the past five years, totaling 2.5 WAR over the span, and he may not have much to offer the Mariners beyond wisdom, leadership, warm fuzzies, and other soft factors. Still, there are worse ways to end a storied career, as Rian Watt pointed out when the news of Ichiro’s westward return first broke.

The history of such homecomings among Hall of Fame-bound players isn’t filled with many resounding successes, and in Seattle’s case, the most immediate example that comes to mind represents a worst-case scenario in this realm: an old, underperforming player outright embarrassing himself in some way, as Ken Griffey Jr. did in 2010. Junior hit just .184/.250/.204 without a homer before being released on June 2, shortly after he allegedly fell asleep in the clubhouse and missed a pinch-hitting opportunity. That’s no way to go, whether or not you’re a member of the 600 home-run club.

Via a quick skim through annals of the game, I counted 13 other stints in which a Hall of Famer wrapped up his career with a return to his original team, plus one that deserves an asterisk. That count doesn’t include players who finished with the team for whom they became stars after previously breaking in elsewhere, as was the case with Early Wynn coming back to the Indians, Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox, or Fergie Jenkins and the Cubs. Nor does it include players who moved on again after their second stint with their original team, such as Greg Maddux with the Cubs, Tim Raines with the Expos, or Ivan Rodriguez with the Rangers. Listed chronologically, these are the most noteworthy.

Eddie Collins (A’s 1906-14, 1927-30)

During his first run with the A’s, the Columbia University-educated Collins played the keystone in Connie Mack’s “$100,000 Infield,” which led the team to four pennants and three championships. But after losing the 1914 World Series to the “Miracle” Braves, Mack broke up the team for financial reasons — one of the earliest tank jobs. Sold to the White Sox for $50,000, Collins spent 12 years on the South Side, helping the team to pennants in 1917 and 1919 (he was not part of the World Series fix), becoming the sixth player to collect his 3,000th hit in 1925, and serving as player-manager for that season and the next.

Relieved of managerial duties following the 1926 season, the 40-year-old second sacker returned to the A’s and hit .336/.468/.412 in a part-time role on a team that also featured late-career Hall of famers Ty Cobb and Zack Wheat. He spent three more seasons as a player-coach but took the field sparingly.

Pete Alexander (Phillies 1911-17, 1930)

Though he didn’t debut until age 24, Alexander quickly became one of the NL’s dominant pitchers. In his first seven years with the Phillies, he led the league in innings six times, in strikeouts and wins five times apiece, and in ERA three times (all of which were part of Pitching Triple Crowns). Concerned about the prospect of losing their ace to the military, the Phillies traded Alexander to the Cubs in December 1917, but he made just three starts before heading off to combat in France, injured both ears, and came home suffering from shell shock and epilepsy, which exacerbated his preexisting problems with alcohol.

He did pull himself together, winning back-to-back ERA titles in 1918 and -19 and a fourth Triple Crown, and after landing with the Cardinals in mid-1926 (the year he made his famous World Series bullpen appearance), he reinvented himself as a finesse pitcher. His final stay with the Phillies in 1930 was a grim one, however, as the 43-year-old righty fought a losing battle with the bottle and went 0-3 while being rocked for a 9.14 ERA in 21.2 innings before drawing his release.

Al Simmons (A’s 1924-32, 1940-41, 1944)

Known for his unorthodox batting stance, “Bucketfoot Al” led the AL with 253 hits in 1925 and was a key cog on three pennant-winning A’s teams from 1929-31, winning batting titles in the last two years and ranking in the league’s top five in slugging percentage eight straight times. High salaries led Mack to break up another championship-caliber team: Simmons was one of three players sold to the White Sox for $100,000.

After three years in Chicago, he quickly passed through the hands of the Tigers, Senators, Braves, Reds, A’s (again), and Red Sox, his focus diminishing amid so much second-division dwelling. He went 3-for-6 as a player-coach for the A’s in 1944 but finished his career 73 hits short of 3,000. “When I think of the days I goofed off, the times I played sick or something and took myself out of the lineup because the game didn’t mean anything, I could cut my throat,” he later lamented.

Joe Medwick (Cardinals 1932-194, 1947-48)

A heavy hitter and reviled brawler, Medwick broke in as a 20-year-old and, over an eight-season run, led the league in RBIs and total bases three times apiece and hits twice. He helped the “Gashouse Gang” win the 1934 World Series, winning the MVP and NL’s last Triple Crown in 1937.

Traded to the Dodgers in June 1940, he helped them to a pennant the following year, then bounced around from the Giants to the Braves and back to the Dodgers. When they released him after the 1946 season, he signed with the Yankees and went to spring training the next year. Though he made the team, he was released two weeks into the regular season, before he could get into a game. The Cardinals, desperate for help against left-handed pitching, summoned the 35-year-old Medwick four weeks later, and he pinch-hit an RBI double in his first game back. After batting.307/.373/.467 in 166 PA, he was less successful in a 20-game pinch-hitting stint in 1948.

Willie McCovey (Giants 1959-1973, 1977-80)

On the heels of Orlando Cepeda’s receipt of NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1958, McCovey arrived on July 30, 1959, and tore up the Senior Circuit, hitting .354/.429/.656 with 13 homers in just 52 games en route to his own Rookie of the Year award. Though various Giants managers would have to juggle the two first-base types until Cepeda was traded away in mid-1966, McCovey starred for the team until 1973, making six All-Star teams, leading the league in homers three times, and winning the 1969 NL MVP award.

When owner Horace Stoneham was desperate to cut salary, the Giants traded McCovey to the Padres in October 1973. The iconic slugger spent three years in San Diego and one in Oakland before returning to the Giants in 1977. On the strength of a 28-homer season at age 39, he won the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Three more seasons of diminishing returns were highlighted by his 500th home run in 1978.

Phil Niekro (Braves 1964-83, 1987)

Though he didn’t debut until age 25, Niekro spent 20 years with the Braves, winning 268 games, making four All-Star teams, and throwing an ungodly number of innings — 1006.1 from 1977-79 alone — on the strength of his famous knuckleball. The Braves, who had won the NL West in 1982, unceremoniously released him after a more or less league-average 1983 season.

He was 11 days shy of his 45th birthday when he first pitched for the Yankees in 1984, a year in which he made his final All-Star team. At 46, he spun a three-hit shutout on the penultimate day of the 1985 season to claim his 300th win, and after a solid age-47 season with the Indians in 1986, he pitched his way out of a job, getting knocked for a 5.89 ERA before being dealt to the Blue Jays, who were fighting for a playoff spot, on August 9, 1987. Niekro was battered in three turns before being released on August 31 so that the Jays could upgrade to Mike Flanagan. The Braves, who took plenty of heat for letting him go the first time around, signed him on September 23 and gave him a proper sendoff four days later. Though he walked six and allowed six runs in three innings of what would turn out to be a 15-6 loss to the Giants, both he and the franchise gained some necessary closure.

Reggie Jackson (A’s 1967-75, 1987)

Jackson made six All-Star teams, helped the A’s win five division titles and three World Series, led the AL in homers twice, and won an MVP award in his first stint with the A’s. With the slugger’s free agency on the horizon in the wake of the landmark Messersmith-McNally decision, owner Charlie Finley traded him to the Orioles on April 1, 1976, and after a year in Baltimore, Jackson landed in the Bronx via a five-year, $3 million deal.

Jackson spent five colorful and tumultuous years in pinstripes, then five more as an Angel, before returning to Oakland for a final go-round. Sharing a lineup with the Bash Brothers — 1986 and ’87 AL Rookies of the Year Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire — until he was benched in September, the 41-year-old Jackson hit 15 homers but batted a weak .220/.297/.402.

Don Sutton (Dodgers 1966-1980, 1988)

A four-time All-Star in his first stint with the Dodgers, which began in Sandy Koufax’s final year, Sutton found modest success in Houston, Milwaukee, Oakland, and California, surpassing the 300-win and 3,000-strikeout milestones while showing remarkable durability.

Returning to the Dodgers at 43 years old, he put up superficially respectable numbers (3-5, 3.70 ERA) through his first 15 turns. In early July, though, an elbow strain sent him to the disabled list for the first time in his 23-year career. In fact, it was the first time he ever missed a start due to injury or illness. Knocked around in his August 9 return, he drew his release him the next day: the Dodgers dealt for the Cardinals’ John Tudor before the week was out and went on to win the World Series, a result that eluded Sutton in his five trips to the Fall Classic.

Gary Carter (Expos 1974-84, 1992)

Inheriting the mantle of the NL’s top catcher from Johnny Bench, “The Kid” made seven All-Star teams as an Expo before being traded to the Mets in December 1984. He made the All-Star team in his first three years in New York and helped the Mets win it all in 1986. After departing in 1989, he spent seasons in San Francisco and Los Angeles before returning to Montreal in 1992. Though he hit just .218/.299/.340 in 325 PA overall, the 38-year-old backstop lashed what would prove to be a game-winning RBI double in the final at-bat of his career, a poignant moment that Jonah Keri recalled when Carter died of a brain tumor in 2012.

Tom Glavine (Braves 1987-2002, 2008)

The first member of the dynasty-anchoring trio of future Hall of Fame hurlers to reach the majors (August 17, 1987), Glavine won two Cy Young awards and made eight All-Star appearances with the Braves before departing for the rival Mets via free agency. After pitching well enough in New York to make two more All-Star appearances — but infamously getting knocked out in the first inning on the final day of the 2007 season, costing the Mets a shot at a playoff berth — he returned to Atlanta for 2008. Unfortunately, a mid-April hamstring strain landed the 43-year-old southpaw on the DL for the first time in his 22-year career. Once he returned, he made just 13 starts with a 5.54 ERA before a flexor tendon strain and shoulder injury required season-ending surgeries. Though he made four minor-league rehab starts in 2009, the Braves concluded he was finished and released him in June.

Honorable Mentions

Wee Willie Keeler (Giants 1892-93, 1910). Best known for his 1894-98 run with the original Orioles, Mr. Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t also starred for the Dodgers and Yankees but bookended his career with the Giants, albeit for a grand total of 40 games spread over three seasons.

Rabbit Maranville (Braves 1912-20, 1929-33, 1935). The 5-foot-five fielding whiz played for the Pirates, Cubs, Dodgers, and Cardinals in between his two stints with the Braves, the second of which included a five-year run as a regular and a season missed due to a broken ankle.

Chuck Klein (Phillies 1928-33, 1936-39 and 1940-44). Legendary for his ability to take advantage of the Baker Bowl bandbox (where he hit .395/.448/.705 in 2600 PA), Klein’s third stint in Philadelphia wound down as a pinch-hitter/coach, with 41 PA over the final three years.

Bert Blyleven(Twins 1970-76, 1985-88, 1993*). The Dutchman, who pitched in the postseason for Twins teams both as a teenager and a grizzled vet, actually returned for a third stint in 1993, hoping he could make a run at 300 wins. (He had 287.) Alas, the 42-year-old curveballer was released at the end of spring training, hence the asterisk.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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kingharis
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kingharis

No mention of Jim Thome returning to the Indians? (Is he ineligible for the list because he played elsewhere in 2012?)

burts_beads
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burts_beads

“Nor does it include players who moved on again after their second stint with their original team”

kingharis
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kingharis

Thanks.