History is flush with folks — Mays, Edmonds, Popeye the Sailor — who thrived at this age. They prove there is still hope for the aging St. Louis Cardinals.
Pop Fisher: “You’re thirty-five if you’re a day.”
Roy Hobbs: “Thirty-four, but I’m good for ten years.”
Pop Fisher: “Thirty-four — Holy Jupiter, mister, you belong in an old man’s home, not baseball.”
— The Natural, Bernard Malamud, 1952
At age 34, Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic, and Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. On Opening Day, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Andrew Miller will also be 34, but that often-flowering age can be cruel to athletes. How much do those three richly paid, declining Redbirds have to offer in 2020?
The pessimist says, not much. The realist says, check with the pessimist. Relatively healthy players who sharply decline from 32 to 33, as Carp did, rarely bounce back. That said, 34 is a good age to make history.
Florence Nightingale began revolutionizing nursing care at 34. George Eastman perfected the Kodak camera at 34. And Elzie Segar introduced the perpetually 34-year-old Popeye the Sailor, a 5-6, 158-pounder (roughly the size of José Altuve), at 34. Popeye could even play a little baseball.
While 34 is an advanced age in baseball, it’s far from the brink of senility suggested by Roy Hobbs’ manager. The fictional slugger did well enough, till he didn’t (the book and movie tell far different tales), and three former Cardinals played their best at 34, as did several non-Redbirds. Here’s a rundown of individuals who owned this age:
Willie Mays, Giants, 1965
The Say Hey Kid slammed a career-high 52 home runs with a career-high 11.2 WAR in ’65. He is the best of seven players who won MVPs at 34 (their age on June 30th of the season), a list that includes Roger Peckinpaugh, Senators, 1925; Gabby Hartnett, Cubs, 1935; Charlie Gehringer, Tigers, 1937; Dolph Camilli, Dodgers, 1941; Elston Howard, Yankees, 1963; and Rollie Fingers, Brewers, 1981.
Mays, a Cardinals killer, had a 1.221 OPS in 18 games against St. Louis in 1965, second only to his 1.298 OPS against Pittsburgh.
Jim Edmonds, Cardinals, 2004
Another Gold Glove center fielder, Edmonds’s 2004 OPS of 1.061 ranks eighth among all 34-year-olds. He thumped 42 homers and 38 doubles with a .418 OBP and a .643 slugging percentage while driving in 111 runs, scoring 102, and generating his best-ever one-season WAR —7.1
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals, 2009
CC won the NL Cy Young Award as a 30-year-old in 2005, but he was even better as a 34-year-old in 2009 when his 2.24 ERA and .810 winning percentage (17-4 record) led the NL. He lost the ’09 Cy Young Award in a close vote to the Giants’ Tim Lincecum (15-7. 2.48, a league-leading 261 strikeouts).
Bob Gibson, Jim Perry 1970
This wasn’t either pitcher’s best season, but it was good enough for the 34-year-olds to win NL and AL Cy Young Awards. From ’68 to ’70, Gibby’s ERA rose from an astonishing 1.12 to 2.18 to 3.12, but his career-best and league-leading 23 wins got him the pitching award in 1970.
Likewise, Perry won a league-leading 24 games and took the other league’s Cy Young Award despite a 3.04 ERA that was just the eighth-best in the AL. Jim’s younger brother, Gaylord Perry, won 23 games for the Giants and finished second to Gibson in 1970 NL Cy Young voting.
Rollie Fingers, 1981
It’s easy to forget that Fingers was a Cardinal for four days in December of 1980, acquired in an 11-player deal with the Padres and then flipped to the Brewers in a seven-player swap. At 34 he peaked, posting a 1.04 ERA, a 0.872 WHIP, and a league-leading 28 saves in a strike-shortened season. Fingers took the AL MVP as well as the Cy Young Award.
Bill Veeck, 1948
At 34, Cleveland owner Bill Veeck was seven years younger than his team’s 41-year-old rookie reliever, Satchel Paige, when the Indians won the 1948 World Series. More than seven decades later, they have yet to win another.
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Elston Howard, 1963
A St. Louis native (Vashon High), the Yankees catcher could have been a Cardinal but for the club’s refusal to sign black players until 1954. The presence of Yogi Berra (another St. Louis native) may have barred Howard from a Hall of Fame career. He didn’t exceed 480 plate appearances till he was 32, then posted OPSs of .936, .791, .869 and .825 at past-his-prime (especially for a catcher) ages. After winning the AL MVP at 34, he finished third at 35.
Honus Wagner, 1908
Possibly the finest player of the Dead Ball era (Ty Cobb might differ), the Pirates’ shortstop was in peak form as a 34-year-old in ’08, leading the NL in batting average (.354), slugging (.542), OPS (.957), hits (201), doubles (39), triples (19), RBI (109) and stolen bases (53).
Oh, and he was also, as one author wrote, “among the greatest defensive players in the history of baseball” (The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract). Wagner was especially lethal vs. the Cardinals in ’08, batting .437 with a 1.079 OPS against St. Louis.
There are, of course, countless examples of baseball players, and others, who had a hard time of it at 34. Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty, for instance. A victim of the world’s most notorious maritime mutiny, the 34-year-old captain was thrust aboard a 23-foot launch with 18 other men by Fletcher Christian and the mutineers of the Bounty in April of 1789.
Somehow, Bligh survived, navigating 3,700 miles across the Pacific and landing on the island of Timor. Filmmaker Ed Wood had a mixed year at age 34, writing, directing and producing 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, an unintentionally hilarious flick that made his reputation — as the Orson Welles of rotten movies.
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Few Hall of Famers had a rougher 34th year than pitcher Robin Roberts, who won 286 games over a 19-year career but was just 1-10 with a 5.85 ERA for the 1961 Phillies. Still, that didn’t spell the end for RR, who recovered to go 10-9 (2.78 ERA), 14-13 (3.33), 13-7 (2.91) and 10-9 (2.78) the next four years. So if Carpenter, Fowler, and Miller (who turns 35 on May 21) falter in 2020, don’t abandon hope. With baseball, there’s always next year.