Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Mark Appel became the feel-good story of the baseball season when he made his MLB debut. Appel was the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft, but he retired in 2018 after injuries and other struggles derailed his path to the major. He signed with the Phillies in 2021 and finally made his MLB debut a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday.
Though this story is remarkable, Appel is far from the oldest rookie in sports history. Dozens of players have debuted in the MLB or other major sports leagues well past their 30th – and sometimes even 40th – birthdays.
To determine the oldest rookies of all time, 24/7 Tempo reviewed NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB data from Sports Reference to find the oldest players with rookie status in the modern era of these four sports leagues. Older players who were rookies during the first years of these leagues and those who only debuted because of extenuating circumstances like World War II were not considered.
The four major American sports leagues date back decades. In the early years, the organizations still had yet to fully flesh out their rules, which led to some odd instances of older players getting into the game. Coaches occasionally suited up for their teams if they lacked enough players. Sometimes, athletes played in upstart competitor leagues to the NFL, MLB, or NHL before joining the league, so they were technically listed as rookies even though they had been professional athletes for years. These players were not considered.
All players on this list debuted at age 36 or later, except for former NBA player Pablo Prigioni, who first played in the NBA at age 35 – making him the oldest rookie in NBA history that fit our criteria.
Nearly all the athletes on this list are baseball players. The sport’s unique physical requirements make it easier for players in their 30s and 40s to make the big leagues, especially compared to physical contact sports like basketball or football. These are the athletes whose careers lasted into their 40s and beyond.
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