Mark Clark: Baseball players who ended their careers far too early

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On another page of this newspaper, I compiled a list of five athletes who played the game too long – Michael Vick, Michael Jordan, Johnny Unitas, Chris Chelios and Rickey Henderson. That list could have been 25 or 30 or even 50, if I had wanted to keep going. But, I decided five was enough. Otherwise, I would never have gotten to write this column.

If I had extended the other list, I could have included Chipper Jones, Patrick Ewing, Gordie Howe, Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Emmitt Smith and many, many more.

I guess I could have saved this column and used the people I am about to name in another of the five or 10 Best or Worst athletes ever that I have done over the past several months. But, I have not done that. I have decided to name a few baseball players who ended their professional careers far too early – at least in my eyes.

Some of the baseball players had a choice of when to call it quits and others did not. I will begin with a player who did not have the opportunity to quit on his own terms – Lou Gehrig.

Lou Gehrig was the heart and soul of the New York Yankees during his career in the major leagues. I know, you want to argue that the honor belong to Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth was a heck of a player – one of the greatest of all-time. But, Lou Gehrig will always be remembered for his leadership on and off the field of play. Babe Ruth will not be remembered for being a leader.

Lou Gehrig led the Yankees to six World Series championships and was a seven-time all-star during his career. He had to famously end his career prematurely when he was diagnosed with ALS – commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease today. It is clear he would have had many more years in the major leagues had he not gotten the disease. He was at the top of his game – even an all-star – during his final season in 1937. He died two years later at 37 years of age.

Bo Jackson was one of the biggest names in sports because he was not just a superstar in baseball, but in football as well. He was an amazing hitter and was one of the fastest players in MLB and in the NFL. If you will allow me a moment to recall the one time I saw Bo play baseball for the Kansas City Royals in a Spring Training game in Kissimmee, Fla., I will tell you how amazed I was to watch him.

While taking batting practice before the game, George Brett called for Bo to watch as he placed consecutive pitches in left, center and right fields. When Bo stepped up to take his cuts, he called to George and hit three consecutive pitches over the centerfield fence. When the game began, Bo hit a one=hopper to shortstop and beat it out at first. He then stole second base and when the ball went into the outfield on the catcher’s throw to second, Bo scored. The Royals went on to win 1-0.

No one who saw Bo Jackson will forget the wall run catch he made as a Royal or the home run he hit in the All-Star Game. If you watched him in football, you will not forget how he ran over Brian Bosworth at the goal line to score a touchdown against the mouthy linebacker. You will also remember it was a hip injury sustained playing football that ended both of his professional careers. Oh, Bo Jackson did come back to baseball briefly with the Chicago White Sox, but the hip pain was too much and he retired.

Don Mattingly is probably known for being a manager by most youngsters today, but he was once one of the best first basemen in baseball. Don Mattingly was a six-time all-star and the American League MVP in 1985 while with the New York Yankees. He suffered back pain during his career and retired in 1997 after he was unable to play for two seasons.

Sandy Koufax is one of the greatest pitchers to ever step on a major league mound. For 11 seasons, Sandy Koufax dominated the MLB in both individual and team accomplishments. He won four World Series championships, three Cy Young Awards, two World Series MVPs and threw four no-hitters. Amazingly, Sandy Koufax did all that before retiring at 31 years old. He retired in 1966 because of arthritis.

Nomar Garciaparra was the best shortstop in the major leagues during the 1990s and early 2000s. Along with Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, the three were the poster boys of the MLB. Nomar Garciaparra saw his statistics plummet as he suffered through more and more injuries. After being traded from the Boston Red Sox, he played on a handful of teams, but never played as well again because of a wrist injury.

I wish I could go on and name some others who left the game too early. Maybe on another day I will write another column to reveal the ones I think are most significant.

Mark Clark is a local sports writer for 

The Citizen of East Alabama.