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By Freddy Berowski
Art Mahan was born 13 months before Babe Ruth made his big league debut.
By the time Mahan died – on Tuesday at the age of 97 – Mahan had lived to see baseball evolve from a simple game to a national treasure.
Mahan, who played in 146 games for the Phillies in his only big league season in 1940, was the fourth-oldest living major leaguer at the time of his death. Ranking first on that chart is Tony Malinosky, who played 35 games for Brooklyn in 1937 and today stands at 101 years and 63 days old.
But Malinosky has a ways to go before he can lay claim to being the oldest major leaguer ever.
The Sept. 7, 1911 New York Times said of Chet “Red” Hoff’s major league debut against the Washington Senators: “Pitcher Hoff was in the game long enough to have his picture taken.”
This contemporary account is contrary to most published reports nearly 90 years later, largely based on the tales told by Hoff himself. But after a lifetime – the longest lifetime of any former big league player – Chet Hoff earned the right to tell a few stories.
Chester Cornelius Hoff was born May 8, 1891 in Ossining, N.Y., and lived 107 years, 4 months and 9 days, making him the longest living major leaguer. He pitched in five games his rookie season, going straight from the sandlots of Ossining to the top of the hill in New York City, playing for the Highlanders who would become the Yankees in 1913. He even met up with Ty Cobb that season, but not in his major league debut.
In the years shortly before his death, Hoff recalled his debut, getting the call from his manager Hal Chase in the ninth inning of a blow-out game, and striking out Cobb on three straight pitches. Hoff claimed he didn’t know who he had faced until the next day when he read the newspaper and was stunned when he read a headline “Hoff Strikes out Ty Cobb.”
Hoff’s actual debut came on Sept. 6, throwing a scoreless frame in a 6-2 loss against the Washington Senators. Hoff got his action against the Tigers 12 days later. The Sept. 19, 1911 New York Times stated, “Hoff pitched the last four innings and did good work.”
In his four innings of one-run ball, Hoff faced Ty Cobb and according to the Times, “fooled Ty with a roundhouse curve, which crossed the center of the plate for the third strike”. It was a rare two-strikeout day for the legendary Cobb, who also fanned in his first at bat of the day against Yankee ace Russ Ford.
Hoff pitched in 12 games for the Highlanders and Yankees over the course of three seasons and compiled an 0-2 record, with a 3.89 ERA. Hoff pitched one season for the St. Louis Browns, 1915, and went 2-2 with a 1.24 ERA. He retired from professional baseball in 1918, but his love for the game never diminished.
He returned home to Ossining, where he went to work as a paper cutter for Rand-McNally, continued to play semi-pro ball on weekends and continued to follow the Yankees. Chet Hoff’s story made national news when he turned 100 and appeared on The Today Show in 1993. He followed up that appearance with some appearances for his old ballclub, including an appearance alongside Gene Michael and Willie Randolph at a ceremony dedicating a plaque on the site of Hilltop Park, the Yankees original home, where Hoff made his major league debut.
Hoff passed away on Sept. 17, 1998.
Freddy Berowski is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.