Most players don’t go out on top. Likely because most players don’t want to leave with something still left in the tank or they simply don’t have enough left in the tank to leave at the pinnacle of their respective sport. In the case of Derek Jeter, his storybook career would suggest a sixth title could technically be within reach. Yet if past is prologue, in the lore of the New York Yankees, Jeter would be hard pressed to find some company in this class of players going out on top.
Babe Ruth swatted 24 home runs in his final campaign in the Bronx. Although Ruth also hit a respectable .288 and was named an All-Star, the 1934 Yanks went 94-60 and finished second in the American League. The following season, Ruth finished his career with the Boston Braves.
Lou Gehrig and Thurman Munson finished as champions but in tragic fashion. In Gehrig’s final full season, he was named an All-Star and hit .295 with 29 home runs, driving in 114. The 1938 Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs (4-0) in the World Series that season, with Gehrig hitting .286 in the Fall Classic. They would win it the next but Gehrig only played in eight of them, before succumbing to ALS, which cut his life short in 1941. Munson was also an All-Star in his final full season of 1978, batting .297 in the regular season, before hitting a robust .320 in the Yankees (4-2) World Series victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, in 1979, a season in which Munson was batting .288, he perished in a plane crash.
Bill Dickey was named an All-Star and hit .261 in 1946 but the Yanks finished in third place. Billy Martin won a World Series in his final full year with the Yankees in 1956 but was traded in 1957. Phil Rizzuto was also a part of that 1956 team but only played 31 games before being released. Although to be fair, “The Scooter” did go out on top as an announcer, with the team winning it all in 1996.
In the 1960′s, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Elston Howard and Mickey Mantle went out at different positions, on second division clubs or on other clubs altogether. Berra hit .293 in 64 games for the pennant winning Yankees in 1963 but went 0-for-1 in the World Series, as New York was swept by the Dodgers. Ford made only seven starts for the 1967 Yankees, posting an ERA of 1.64 in 44.0 innings pitched, for the ninth place squad. Also on that team was Howard, who hit .196 on that team in 66 games, before being traded to the Boston Red Sox and helping guide that pitching staff to an A.L. pennant. Yet, Howard’s Red Sox were upended by Maris’s St. Louis Cardinals. Maris was traded after the 1966 season, in which the Yankees finished tenth and and Maris hit .233 with 13 home runs in 119 games. Mantle was named an All-Star in 1968, with 18 home runs but he only hit .237, while playing first base for a fifth place Yankees club.
Reggie Jackson didn’t finish his career with the Yankees but his final season in 1981, Jackson was named an All-Star but only hit .237 with 15 home runs, although he did hit .333 in the Fall Classic against the Dodgers.
Ron Guidry pitched only 56.0 innings, while posting an ERA of 4.18 for the fifth place Yanks in 1988.
Don Mattingly and Jorge Posada both went out similarly. Each went out with a so-so regular season, although they did come up with some key hits down the stretch to help the Yankees clinch a playoff spot. Mattingly was still a stellar first baseman but Posada was moved from catcher to DH. While both players had their careers end in the ALDS in 1995 and 2011 respectively, Mattingly hit .417 and Posada hit .429.
Playing mostly DH and right-field, Bernie Williams hit .281 with 12 home runs in 2006. The Yankees won the AL East but lost to the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS, with Williams going 0-for-3 in one game.
In 2013, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte went out on a team that finished in third place and out of the playoffs. Rivera was named an All-Star, saving 44 games with an ERA of 2.11. Pettitte had his ups and downs but was the Yanks best starter down the stretch, winning eleven games, while sporting an ERA of 3.74.
That leaves Joe DiMaggio as the only viable player of comparison to Jeter. In 1951, DiMaggio played center-field for the Yankees, who won the World Series against the New York Giants (4-2). DiMaggio hit .263 that season with 12 home runs and 71-RBI in 116 games. During that World Series, DiMaggio batted .261 with one home run and five-RBI. Hence DiMaggio was the only Yankees player to end his career at his position on a championship Yankees team.
Will Jeter follow the path of DiMaggio? The odds wouldn’t appear to be in his favor but would you bet against him?