After recovering from his famous surgery with the Dodgers, Tommy John pitched into his forties with the Yankees.
The New York Yankees of the 1980s won more games in the decade than any other team , but one of the reasons they were only able to parlay this success into two American League East division titles was their pitching. While the offense was quite potent and featured All-Stars like Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, the pitching staff struggled to attract such great players in their prime. Curiously, the starting rotation became a haven for aged aces. Ron Guidry played into his late thirties on the Yankees, but he was rarely the oldest arm on the staff. Former Los Angeles Dodgers ace and medical guinea pig Tommy John was on the team early in the decade, then came back in '86 to pitch four more seasons in his mid-forties. Additionally, both famous knuckleballing Niekro brothers Phil and Joe spent time in the Yankees' rotation during their forties, although it was Joe who was on the team when John returned to the Yankees.
On August 30th of that season, these two veterans were part of an unusual feat. The Yankees played a doubleheader at the Kingdome with the Seattle Mariners. Yankee manager Lou Piniella tapped the 43-year-old John to start the first game, and the 41-year-old Niekro to start the second game. It was the first time since September 13, 1933, when the Chicago White Sox sent veterans Red Faber and "Sad Sam" Jones to the mound, that two pitchers in their forties started both ends of a doubleheader for one team.
The oddity was a testament to the lasting abilities of John and Niekro. John recovered from his famous surgery at age 31 to pitch in the big leagues for an incredible 13 more years thanks to a post-surgery change in his pitching motion recommended by doctor and teammate Mike Marshall as well as the relative easiness with which he could throw his soft sinker. He was Jamie Moyer-esque when Moyer was just a rookie with the Chicago Cubs. For Niekro, surviving in the big leagues was much simpler. When mastered, the knuckleball does not hurt the arm much at all, and knuckleballers like the Niekros, Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, and Boston Red Sox great Tim Wakefield were thus able to pitch deep into their forties.
John did everything he could to help the Yankees win the first game of the doubleheader, matching opposing starter Bill Swift's shutout baseball through seven innings. John allowed only six hits and a walk, but the 24-year-old Swift did not even give up a hit to the Yankees until there were two outs in the eighth, when shortstop Wayne Tolleson beat out an infield single up the middle. Tolleson stole second to grant future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson a chance to give John the lead with a single of his own, but Henderson popped out to second base. Upon his return to the mound, DH John Moses singled up the middle to lead off the inning, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, then scored on a single by third baseman Jim Presley. Although he now trailed 1-0, John struck out dangerous right field power threat Danny Tartabull to end the inning. When the Yankees put runners on second and third with two outs against Swift, Mariners closer Matt Young entered the game and retired pinch-hitter Ron Kittle on a lineout to second base. John's solid eight-inning complete game effort was wasted.
In the second game, the Yankees again inexplicably struggled to score against the Mariner pitching. Both Swift and the second game's starter, Mike Brown, carried ERAs over 6.00 into the day, but after Swift shut them out, Brown limited them to two runs on three hits in seven innings of work. One of those runs came in the fourth inning, courtesy of first baseman Don Mattingly's 25th home run of the season, a blast over the left-center field wall. Armed with the one-run lead that John was not granted though, Niekro pitched five shutout innings, working around four hits and four walks to pick up the win. Relievers Rod Scurry and Dave Righetti followed Niekro with four shutout innings of their own, and the Yankees split the doubleheader by taking the second game 3-0.
On that day, the two quadragenarians combined for 13 innings with just one earned run allowed, a 0.69 ERA. The Mariner hitters notched 12 hits and five walks, but the veterans stayed tough and worked out of several jams. That's great pitching, combined age of 84 or not.