Clemens Comeback Would Be Nothing New

If Roger Clemens winds up joining the Houston Astros, he'll join the likes of Satchel Paige in a long lineage of geriatric hurlers signed for more than their pitching abilities.

Golly gee whiz, is this thing really going to happen? Is Roger Clemens really going to pitch again, in the major leagues? At 50?

Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. First he has to take the mound this weekend for the Sugar Land Skeeters, and then he has to pitch well for the Skeeters, and then both he and (presumably) the Houston Astros have to come to some mutually beneficial agreement regarding Clemens' (presumably) short-term employment.

If all of those things happen, though? Yes, it would be a stunt. But Clemens would hardly be the first geriatric pitcher to make a comeback for reasons beyond simply winning baseball games.

To wit, let us hearken back! Through those dusty pages of Baseball-Reference.com!

In 1910, Irvin "Kaiser" Wilhelm seemed finished as a major leaguer. The 36-year-old spitball pitcher had toiled in the National League for seven seasons, mostly with the Braves and Dodgers, and posted a 44-88 career record. In those days, though, pitchers pitched until nobody would pay them to pitch. So Wilhelm returned to the minor leagues, and thrived for three seasons. And when the Federal League opened play in 1914, with designs on "major" status, Wilhelm found work there for two seasons. After going 12-17 in '14, Wilhelm pitched just once in 1915. In 1916 and '17, he pitched in the low minors. In 1918 and '19, he didn't pitch at all. In 1920, he went 12-12 in the high minors. And in 1921 -- yes, we're finally getting to the point -- Wilhelm, by then 47, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies as pitching coach. But he also pitched in four games: once in May, once in June, and twice in August.

Nick Altrock is perhaps more analagous to Roger Clemens. For a few years early in the 20th Century, Altrock was one of the American League's better pitchers, and he started twice against the Cubs in the 1906 World Series. Three years later, his arm was dead. In 1912, though, he signed with the Washington Senators, technically as a coach. But Altrock's real stock in trade was comedy, as he performed various antics while in the coaching box and ultimately teamed with another baseball clown, Al Schacht, to form an immensely popular team. Officially, Altrock coached with the Senators for 42 seasons, 1912-1953. Early in his tenure, Altrock would occasionally pitch an inning or three. After 1919, though, he pitched just once: in 1924, when he was 48, Altrock pitched two innings against the Red Sox in the last game of the season.

Satchel Paige pitched in the majors into his middle 40s, but that wasn't really a stunt because Paige could obviously still pitch. In 1953, though 46 by then, he posted a 3.53 ERA in 117 innings with the St. Louis Browns. After the Browns cut him loose, Paige continued to pitch (and pitch well) in the minor leagues, after which he returned to his old profession: barnstorming. In 1965, though, he signed one more professional contract. Paige would pitch in one game for his hometown Kansas City Athletics, in the same ballpark where he'd pitched in so many games for the old Kansas City Monarchs. He was 58 years old, and he shut out the Red Sox for three innings. As stunts go, this was a pretty good one. Artistically speaking, anyway. Commercially it was a bust, as fewer than 10,000 fans showed up to see it.

In 1990, Jim Palmer was elected to the Hall of Fame.

In 1991, Jim Palmer embarked on a comeback. There's a great story about that. He supposedly was doing some work at the University of Miami, where an assistant baseball coach didn't recognize him and said, "You'll never get into the Hall of Fame with those mechanics."

Anyway, Palmer wasn't terribly old, just 45. At the time, Nolan Ryan was 44 and still pitching quite effectively with the Rangers. So the Orioles, perhaps merely as a form of respect, invited Palmer to spring training. He pitched in one game, gave up five hits in two innings, and called it quits.

And then of course there's Jamie Moyer. Roger Clemens is 50. At 44, he posted a 4.08 ERA in the American League. When Jamie Moyer was 44, he posted a 5.01 ERA in the National League. Moyer pitched in the majors at 49, earlier this season, and won twice. Is it really a massive leap to suggest that Clemens could win a couple of games this season? Given a little luck, and a little run support?

Yes, this whole story is outlandish. But it's hardly unprecedented. There's a long and storied history of teams hiring pitchers not because they could win baseball games, but because they might bring something else of value. Usually it doesn't work all that well. But that's true of a lot of things that baseball teams do, isn't it?

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