Casey Stengel’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.
You can’t place anyone else at the top of this list. Casey Stengel managed the Yankees for 12 seasons, 1949-60. They won seven World Series (more than any manager has ever won) and lost three (each in seven games). He never got out of last place with the Mets and never made the post-season (which back then was just the World Series) for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves. But for the 12 years he was the Yankees’ skipper, he was simply the best manager ever.
Stengel was a master of juggling his lineup and his pitching staff (rotation and bullpen, including pitchers who played both roles).
As with Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ best shortstop, I’ve already written a lot about Mariano Rivera, not only the best reliever in Yankee history, but also the best reliever in major league history. He’s the best reliever in regular-season history, the best in post-season history and the best in World Series history. He’s simply the best.
In 11 of Rivera’s 19 major-league seasons, he had an ERA below 2.00. And in 22 of his 32 post-season series, he surrendered no earned runs. His ERA was less than 1.00 at every level of the post-season: 0.32 in 39 Division Series games, 0.92 in 33 Championship Series games and 0.99 in 24 World Series games.
You might be inclined to rank Goose Gossage second here, since he’s in the Hall of Fame, but I think Lyle was better as a Yankee. Both pitched seven seasons for the Yankees (but Gossage pitched only six prime seasons, returning for 11 games late in 1989). Both led the league twice in saves for the Yankees. Both dominated in the post-season for World Series champions, Lyle in 1977 and Goose in 1978.
I give Lyle the edge based on three factors:
His 1977 Cy Young season, better than any Gossage season.
His dominant, unmatched 1977 post-season performance.
Gossage’s most memorable moments didn’t work out in his favor.
Lyle is the only Yankee reliever ever to win a Cy Young Award (though Rivera probably should have won two or three times). Sparky was 13-5 with 26 saves and a 2.17 ERA in 137 innings and 72 games in 1977. Gossage had some similar seasons statistically, but none that stood out as the best pitching performance in his league that year.
He entered in the fourth inning of Game Four of the 1977 League Championship Series, with the Yankees facing elimination, and leading 5-4. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up two hits and no runs. I was in the ballpark, and Lyle was absolutely dominant.
Then he came in the next night in the eighth inning, trailing 3-2 with two men on base. He got out of the inning. The Yankees took the lead in the top of the ninth and Lyle closed out the game to win the Series.
After just one day’s rest, he entered in the ninth inning of Game One of the World Series. He gave up a game-tying single, but then retired 11 batters in a row, and the Yankees won in the 12th inning.
That’s three straight wins in post-season games, 10 innings pitched against the best teams in baseball, with four hits and no walks given up, and the only run being an inherited runner.
3, Goose Gossage
Gossage was an All-Star, with 25 or more saves in a season, for four different teams: White Sox, Pirates, Yankees and Padres. He’d rank higher than Lyle on a list of major-league relievers, and some might rank him higher among Yankees.
He did save 151 games as a Yankee, almost half his career total of 310, and saved six games in the 1981 post-season.
But the enduring memory of Gossage for me as a Yankee fan is the three-run homer he gave up to George Brett, losing Game Three of the ALCS in 1980, giving the Royals a sweep into their first World Series. Three years later, the Yankees called again on Gossage to close out the Royals, and Brett took him deep again, this time with a bat smeared with too much pine tar.
I couldn’t find a YouTube video from his relief pitching for the Yankees, so I have him closing out his most memorable Yankee start:
5, Johnny Murphy
The role of closer hadn’t developed yet when Johnny Murphy was closing games for the Yankees in the late 1930s. He was an All-Star three straight years, 1937-9, as a reliever. Saves weren’t yet a stat, but he led the league four times.
I very much wanted to make Luis Arroyo my No. 5 reliever, on the strength of his 1961 season, with a 15-5 record and a league-leading 29 saves. But that was his only great year.
John Wetteland‘s solid two years as the Yankee closer pushed him close to this list.
So did Lindy McDaniel‘s six solid bullpen years for Yankee teams during the late-’60s-early-’70s championship drought.
Going back even further than Murphy, Wilcy Moore started only 12 games, but pitched in 50 for the 1927 Yankees. He won 19 games and led the league in saves and ERA.
Andrew Miller and Delllin Betances have been excellent, but haven’t been relieving long enough for the Yankees to make this list. If I update this list in a few years, either or both might be on it.
Allie Reynolds came close to making the list as well. If only he didn’t start so many games in his best relief years …
Update: Thanks to Ken Freed for pointing out on Facebook that I originally omitted Joe Page from this list of people who almost made this list. I dealt with him last year in the list of pitchers who succeeded in starting and relieving. I was remembering incorrectly from that research that Page was primarily a starter with a year or two of relief. It was the other way around. He was an All-Star as a rookie starter in 1944, but he led the league in saves twice and was an All-Star two seasons as a reliever. I probably was thinking of Bob Grim, who was better as a starter, but also belongs here, based on an All-Star season and one year leading the league in saves. Neither of them displaces Murphy, but both deserve mention.
Everyone on this list was primarily a closer, though Rivera was an outstanding set-up man for Wetteland on the 1996 Yankees. Betances is an eighth-inning pitcher now, and Miller could slide into an eighth-inning role if Aroldis Chapman becomes the Yankees’ closer.
I’m not going to do a separate post on the Yankees’ middle relievers, because that role’s definition continues to change. But some pitchers who would deserve consideration, in addition to those already named, would be Dick Tidrow, Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton.
Other strong relief traditions
No one has had as dominant closers as the Yankees or had strong bullpens for as long. Contenders for the second-best relief tradition would include the Cardinals, with prime years of Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and McDaniel; the A’s with prime years of Hall of Famers Eck and Rollie Fingers; the Padres, with Trevor Hoffman and prime years of Fingers and Gossage; and the Cubs, with Sutter and Smith.
I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for relief pitchers.
If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Gossage) or will be soon (Rivera), that carries considerable weight with me.
I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. Lyle edged Gossage for the second spot partly on this basis.
I rank players primarily on their time with the team. This made the Lyle-Gossage decision close. Based on full career, Gossage would have a distinct advantage.
Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me, another advantage for Lyle, based on his three consecutive wins in 1977. If anyone ever approaches Rivera’s single-season record, they’ll need to match his post-season dominance to catch him.
If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. As noted above, Gossage would have this advantage over Lyle, if Sparky hadn’t pulled ahead based on his Cy Young season and post-season dominance.
Special moments matter, too. Rivera had a few of those. And George Brett took Gossage deep for a couple special moments that counted against him.
If this isn’t unanimous, there’s something wrong with you:
The Yankees have never settled on a DH for a long stretch. A guy would hold the position for a year or two, or multiple players will share it during a year. Lots of great Yankees have played DH, but not for long.
1, Don Baylor
Don Baylor was a pretty easy choice to top this list. He won Silver Sluggers two of his three years at DH for the Yankees. His DH seasons for the Yankees weren’t great — no 30-homer seasons, no 100-RBI seasons, only one .300 season. But each year was solid: 21 HR, 85 RBI, .303 in 1983; 27, 89, .262 in ’84 and 23, 91, .231 in ’85. And he led the league in being hit by pitches with 23 in ’84 and 24 in ’85.
Perhaps most important (because, after all, it’s my blog), I got to see him hit grand slams live twice for the Yankees (against the White Sox in the 12th inning of a 1983 game and against the Royals in ’85).
I couldn’t find a YouTube video of Baylor as a Yankee, but I thought another grand slam would be appropriate here.
2, Hideki Matsui
Hideki Matsui was the Yankees’ primary DH for only 2008 and 2009. But he was the World Series MVP in ’09 as DH (he didn’t even play in the field in Philadelphia, pinch-hitting all three games there). No other Yankee DH has been a World Series MVP, so that was a pretty easy call.
3, Danny Tartabull
Danny Tartabull never topped 100 games at DH in a season. But he hit there 88 games in 1993 and 78 in ’94. And he was solid both years, hitting 20 of his 31 homers and driving in 70 of his 102 runs in ’93 as DH. The next year, he hit 13 of his 20 homers as DH. And he got a guest shot on Seinfeld.
I actually did find some Yankee videos of Tartabull, but decided to go with a game when he was a Royal that I saw with my son Tom.
4, Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez has played third base most of his career for the Yankees, but he was the DH in 2015 (and will be this year), hitting 33 homers and driving in 86 runs. He had one previous season with more than a dozen games at DH.
A-Rod, Matsui and Babe Ruth are the only Yankees on two of these lists. Babe is No. 1 in both left and right field. Matsui is No. 4 in left field. A-Rod is No. 1 at third base.
5, Raúl Ibañez
Given how no one sticks around as the Yankees’ DH, I’m giving the last slot to a guy who didn’t have a full single year at DH or even play a little DH for a few years (the best of the rest of the Yankee DH’s fall in one of those categories). I decided instead to go with a DH with a couple great post-season moments: Raúl Ibañez. He played for the Yankees only in 2012, and DH’ed in only 28 games. But in Game Three of the Division Series that year, Ibañez homered with one out in the ninth inning, tying the game, 2-2. He was pinch-hitting for Rodriguez, who was the DH, and Ibañez stayed in the game at DH. Then he homered again, leading off the bottom of the 12th, to win the game.
Without another DH who had a great year at DH, I’ll go with the one who provided the best post-season memories.
Jason Giambi never played more than 70 games a year at DH for the Yankees. But he played more than 60 games at DH in four years. He hit 21 homers as a DH in 2006, and probably belongs on the list ahead of Ibañez, but I dropped Giambi off the list because of the combination of Ibañez’s clutch homers, Giambi’s drug use and that DH was his primary position only in one season.
Jack Clark DH’d for the Yankees in 1988 at age 32, hitting 27 homers and driving in 93 runs. That one season nearly got him on this list. He was a rare Yankee to DH for more than 100 games in a season (112).
Chili Davis, one of the best DH’s ever, finished his career with the Yankees in 1998 and ’99, but he didn’t have much left, injured most of ’98 and hitting only 19 homers in ’99.
Rubén Sierra played parts of four seasons at DH for the Yankees, but his peak in DH homers for the Yankees was 13 in 2004.
Steve Balboni was the Yankees’ primary DH for 1989 and ’90 (a two-year run has been rare). With 17 homers each year, and because I was fond of Bonesy in his Royal years, I almost wanted to put him on the list, but he hit only .192 in ’90.
Cecil Fielder played less than two years as the Yankees’ DH, and was well past his prime.
I kind of wanted to include Ron Blomberg on the list, since he was the first DH in major-league history, but he played less than 150 games at DH for the Yankees and wasn’t that good.
Lots of great and good Yankee hitters played a handful of games at DH for a year or a few years, but I didn’t see any of them play long enough or well enough to move onto the list:
Reggie Jackson played 135 DH games spread over five seasons. His only season with double figures in homers as a DH was 1980, with 11 homers in 46 games.
Dave Winfield, a better fielder than Jackson, never reached even 10 games at DH in a season.
Darryl Strawberry played 143 games for the Yankees at DH, spread across five seasons.
Best DH tradition
The Yankees probably don’t rank even in the top half of American League teams in terms of a DH tradition. The White Sox may have the best, with Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, likely Hall of Famer Jim Thome, Harold Baines and Greg Luzinski all DH’ing well for at least a few seasons, many of them prime years.
Other teams with DH standouts playing longer than any Yankee DH include at least the Mariners (Edgar Martinez), Royals (Hal McRae), and Indians (Travis Hafner). The Yankees probably aren’t higher than sixth here, and they might be lower.
I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for DH’s.
If a player is in the Hall of Fame or belongs there, that carries considerable weight with me, but that’s not a factor with Yankee DH’s who played any substantial time.
I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. Baylor wins on both counts.
Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Tartabull’s “Seinfeld” turn helped him out here.
I rank players primarily on their time with the team, but the Yankees didn’t have anyone play DH for a long stretch.
Time at the position is important, too. I can’t rank Jackson or Winfield high based on their overall greatness, because they didn’t play enough DH.
Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. Both factors were big for Matsui.
If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. For instance, A-Rod’s overall career will probably move him ahead of Tartabull sometime this year, presuming he pulls even as a Yankee DH.
Special moments matter, too. They put Ibañez on this list.
Right field is another position where the Yankees have been loaded with talent throughout their history. They didn’t have the string of long standout tenures that New York had in center field or catcher, but the excellence and depth has probably been stronger in right than any position other than those two.
1, Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth leads both my left field and right field lists. I was surprised by the left-field choice, but I knew from the time I started thinking about this series that he was the automatic and only choice in right field. He played 1,132 games for the Yankees in right field and it was his primary position every year for the Yankees except 1921, ’22 and ’26.
Ruth led the league in homers eight times as a right fielder, including the 60-homer season in 1927. Throw in five times of his seven times leading the league in runs scored, two of his four RBI titles and his only batting title, and Ruth’s right-field years far surpass everyone else who played the position for the Yankees. And I’m not done: He led the league nine times in walks, seven times in on-base percentage, seven times in slugging and eight times in OPS playing primarily in right field.
Ruth is arguably the best player in the history of the game still today. His single-season and career home run records finally fell, but he still holds the records for career slugging and OPS. He changed the game like no one else has, swinging for the fences and introducing the long ball to baseball.
Not only did he dominate his league in hitting like no one before or since, but he was a standout pitcher for the Red Sox before his dominant hitting moved him to the outfield. While some people have both pitched and played an every-day position in the majors, do one else has even been good at both roles, and Ruth was great. The likely second-best player to do that was Lefty O’Doul, who won only one game. Ruth had back-to-back 20-win seasons and led the American League in ERA and shutouts. Is there any other baseball niche, however small, with a more dramatic gulf between the best ever and the second-best?
The only reasons to diminish Ruth’s achievements are that he played before baseball integrated, so he didn’t play against the nation’s or world’s best players, and he hit long before relief specialists made late-inning at-bats more difficult.
Throw in that he was an extraordinary character, and that he actually played a fair amount in left field, and I feel completely comfortable listing Ruth at the top of my lists for both right field and left field. I’m making lists at each position, not making an all-time Yankee team. And Ruth tops the lists at each position.
2, Roger Maris
My Roger Maris card
Roger Maris wins the second spot over two Hall of Famers who played right field for the Yankees in their prime. As I’ve noted again and again, Maris belongs in the Hall of Fame. But his placement here is based on performance, not bias. None of the right fielders below him on this list won a single MVP award, let alone back-to-back awards, as Maris did in 1960-61. None of them set a single major record, let alone held one for 37 years.
Maris led his league as a Yankee in homers, RBI (twice), slugging, runs and total bases. Neither of the Hall of Famers behind him on this list led his league in a major stat more than once for the Yankees.
No one else on this list had an HBO movie about his career highlight (Billy Crystal’s 61* is about Maris’ successful chase of Ruth’s single-season home run record).
The next two right fielders got the Cooperstown moments that Maris deserved and still has not received. But Maris was better than either as a right fielder for the Yankees. But he has to be second here to Ruth. While he broke one of The Babe’s cherished records, he didn’t match Ruth’s incredible career for the Yankees.
3, Reggie Jackson
Reggie Jackson gave the Yankees five strong years in right field, leading the league with 41 homers in 1980 and driving in 100 or more runs twice.
He was pretty even with the No. 4 right fielder in regular-season offensive production. But he wins the No. 3 slot based on his post-season play: 2 homers (three in the clinching game), 8 RBI, 9 hits, 10 runs and the MVP award in the 1977 World Series. He slacked off to 2 homers and 8 more RBI on 9-for-23 hitting in 1978. Jackson hit .300 or better for the Yankees in five post-season series and hit 12 homers. Jackson truly earned his “Mr. October” nickname, and I almost moved him past Maris based on post-season performance. But Maris had a sizable advantage in regular-season play as a Yankee.
4, Dave Winfield
Dave Winfield, like Reggie, played five years in right field for the Yankees (plus three in left). Winfield won three Gold Gloves and topped 100 runs four of his right-field years. He was an All-Star every year. His .340 batting average in 1984 was second to teammate Don Mattingly in the American League.
It wasn’t Winfield’s fault the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs after his disappointing World Series in 1981. I was glad to see him finally get a World Series ring (and drove in three runs) with the Blue Jays in 1992.
5, Paul O’Neill
Paul O’Neill played fewer games for the Yankees than Tommy Henrich and Hank Bauer: 1,406 for Bauer, 1,284 for Henrich, 1,254 for O’Neill. You could go with any of the three here. All three played the vast majority of their games in right field.
Henrich has the advantage in All-Star appearances: five (to four for O’Neill and three for Bauer). I give the nod to O’Neill because he was the best hitter: four straight seasons with 100 or more RBI (Henrich had one, Bauer none); a batting championship, .359 in 1994 (one of his six straight .300 seasons, more than Henrich and Bauer combined); 185 Yankee homers (to 183 for Henrich and 158 for Bauer), 1,426 Yankee hits (to 1,326 for Bauer and 1,297 for Henrich).
O’Neill was as solid in the post-season as Henrich and Bauer, though Bauer led the group in championship contributions, playing a role in seven World Series titles to four each for O’Neill and Henrich.
As good as Henrich and Bauer were, I think O’Neill is the clear choice here. And that’s not even counting his Seinfeld appearance.
Hank Bauer’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Tom.
Henrich lost three prime years to military service during World War II. Bauer was a stalwart for the Yankees dynasty of the 1950s, but also contributed to the ’60s dynasty, going to the Kansas City A’s in December 1959 in a seven-player trade that brought Maris to the Yankees.
Hall of Famer Willie Keeler deserves mention here. But he was a Highlander, not a Yankee, and his best years were in the National League, before joining New York at age 31.
I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for right fielders.
If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Ruth, Jackson, Winfield) or belongs there (Maris), that carries considerable weight with me.
I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. Measures of peak performance, such as MVP awards and leading leagues in important stats, will move a person up my list. Maris didn’t play right for the Yankees as long as O’Neill, Henrich or Bauer, but his back-to-back MVP seasons pushed him well ahead of them.
Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Ruth, Maris and Jackson all did and that helped them seal the top three spots. And, if the performance measures among O’Neill, Henrich and Bauer had been dead even, the Seinfeld appearance might have broken the tie for O’Neill.
I rank players primarily on their time with the team, and no one on this list played exclusively for the Yankees (this list and DH will be the only teams without any Yankee lifers). Henrich played only for the Yankees, but the others played long enough or well enough that they all ranked ahead of him.
Time at the position is important, too. Winfield might have passed Jackson if he hadn’t played three seasons in left field.
Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. Those were important positive factors for everyone on this list except Winfield.
This factor didn’t play into any of these decisions, but if two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. For instance, Jackson’s years with the A’s and Angels, Winfield’s years with the Padres and Blue Jays or O’Neill’s years with the Reds might have broken a tie.
Special moments matter, too. Ruth, Maris and Jackson all got credit for those.
So what counts more? DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Mantle’s Triple Crown? DiMaggio’s .325 career batting average or Mantle’s 536 career homers? DiMaggio led the league twice each in homers, RBI and batting average (just not in the same season). Mantle led four times in homers but once each (in the Triple Crown year, obviously) in RBI and batting. Each was such an icon, he was mentioned in song lyrics and pitched products on TV (I’ve embedded songs and commercials in the YouTube videos at the end of this post).
Each was a leading sports celebrity of his time, DiMaggio renowned for his grace on the field and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Mantle famed for his tape-measure homers, country-boy personality and carousing.
In the 1940s, baseball fans debated whether DiMaggio or Ted Williams was the best player, and in the ’50s and early ’60s, the debate was over Mantle and Willie Mays. Clearly both Yankees belong on any list of best baseball players ever.
Part of measuring Mantle vs. DiMaggio is weighing what they didn’t do: How do you account for all of Mantle’s injuries or for DiMaggio missing three prime years to military service during World War II?
Here’s the statistical case to choose Mantle for the top spot:
He played more games in center: 1,742 to 1,634.
Mantle hit more homers: 536 to 361.
Mantle got more hits, 2,415 to 2,214.
Mantle got more walks, 1,733 to 790 (some of these advantages are narrow enough to be explained by Mantle’s longer career, but not that one).
Mantle led the league in walks five times (DiMaggio never did).
Mantle led the league twice in intentional walks (the stat was not kept during DiMaggio’s career or for the first four years of Mantle’s).
Mantle scored more runs, 1,676 to 1,390.
Mantle led the league five times in runs scored (DiMaggio led the league once).
Mantle led the league three times in on-base percentage (DiMaggio never did) and had a higher career OBP, .421 to .398.
Mantle led the league four times in slugging (DiMaggio did it twice).
Mantle led the league six times in OPS (four times topping 1.000). DiMaggio never led the league in OPS, but their career figures were identical, .977.
Mantle hit for more total bases, 4,511 to 3,948. Each led the league in total bases three times.
Mantle stole more bases: 153 to 30. Six seasons Mantle was in double figures for steals, a feat DiMaggio never accomplished.
Mantle was faster down the first-base line, grounding into 113 career double plays in his longer career to 130 for DiMaggio (and the stat wasn’t kept his first three seasons). Mantle only twice topped 10 double plays in a season, and DiMaggio did it eight times.
DiMaggio has fewer but significant statistical advantages:
He drove in more runs, 1,537 to 1,509, though all those walks, especially the intentional ones, explain that difference.
DiMaggio slugged higher for his career, .579 to .557
DiMaggio struck out only 369 times to 1,710 for Mantle, who led the league in strikeouts five times.
DiMaggio doubled more times, 389 to 344.
DiMaggio tripled more times, 131 to 72 (each led his league in triples once).
DiMaggio topped 200 hits twice. Mantle never did (again, the walks help explain that).
For Mantle’s peak, from 1954 to 1962, he was better than DiMaggio. But Mantle’s final four years, 1965-68, really dragged down his career averages. DiMaggio’s only subpar year was his final season, 1951, the year their careers overlapped.
They both were incredible based on post-season play and championship contributions, which count heavily in my rankings. But here’s where I see Mantle with an advantage:
DiMaggio won nine World Series and played in a 10th. Mantle won seven World Series and played in a 10th.
Both of their batting averages were a bit down facing the National League’s best teams: DiMaggio hitting .271 in the World Series and Mantle hitting .257.
World Series pitchers walked Mantle a lot, 43 times vs. 19 for DiMaggio. That gave Mantle an OBP of .374, compared to .338 for DiMaggio.
Mantle also slugged more in October, .535 vs. .422. That gave him a huge OPS advantage in the World Series, .908 to .760.
Mantle had 40 World Series RBI, 10 more than DiMaggio.
Mantle scored more World Series runs, 42 to 27.
Mantle got more World Series hits, 59 to 54.
Mantle did play more games in the World Series than DiMaggio, 65 to 51. That advantage explains some of those differences in career totals, but Mantle’s higher averages (except in batting) don’t reflect playing time.
And even with more World Series games, Mantle grounded into only two double plays, compared to six for DiMaggio.
Here’s the big difference that sealed the advantage for Mantle in my view: He hit 18 World Series homers, breaking Babe Ruth’s record. DiMaggio hit eight homers, seventh all-time, but nowhere close to Mantle, who still holds the record. He holds the World Series records for homers, RBI, runs scored, walks and total bases. No one did more to help his teams win World Series than Mantle. His name appears 15 times in the rankings of World Series batting leaders, compared to nine for DiMaggio, who doesn’t hold any records.
I have to admit a bias here: Mantle was a childhood hero and I’ve read three books he “wrote” (ghost writers were clearly involved) as well as two biographies. If this were a dead-even tie, my childhood bias would give it to Mantle. But I think he wins on the basis of superior power and speed, especially in the World Series.
Mantle co-starred with Maris in perhaps the worst baseball movie (maybe the worst movie) of all-time. Even as a young boy idolizing both players, I could barely stand to watch “Safe at Home.”
I admired The Mick’s late-life admission that he was an alcoholic, a philanderer and a horrible role model. But I didn’t know any of that when I was a little boy. I just knew he was incredible to watch play. I only saw him on TV, not in real life. But it was watching Mantle play, and studying his stats on baseball cards, that launched me on a life as a Yankee fan and baseball-stats geek.
2, Joe DiMaggio
My autographed Joe DiMaggio card
OK, I’ve already pretty much told you all the reasons DiMaggio was pretty close to Mantle’s equal. If World War II hadn’t interrupted DiMaggio’s career in his prime, his career totals might have passed Mantle’s in many respects.
While DiMaggio didn’t self-destruct with alcohol the way that Mantle did, Richard Ben Cramer’s outstanding biography depicts DiMaggio as a cheap, arrogant, controlling jerk. Mantle was a lousy husband and father, and those are two of the most important roles any man can play. But I’m pretty sure I’d prefer Mantle as a friend or as a ballplayer to encounter by chance in boyhood or as an adult. I think he was a nicer person, for all his many failings.
One of the most famous DiMaggio stories illustrates. Before I repeat it, I should admit my longtime suspicion that the story might be apocryphal: During their 1954 honeymoon in Japan, the Army asked Monroe to make a side trip to Korea to entertain the troops. When she returned to him, telling him about the warm welcome from the troops, she supposedly said, “You never heard such cheering,” and he responded, “Yes, I have.”
Well, if it’s true, he was a jerk to his new wife. Yes, he, too, had enjoyed the cheers of adoring crowds. But they each knew whom they were marrying. And only a jerk would try to one-up his wife’s enjoyment of entertaining the troops.
But, damn, he could play!
3, Bernie Williams
The consideration for the third spot shows how ridiculous Hall of Fame selection has become. Earle Combs is a Hall of Famer, elected by the Veterans Committee in 1970. Bernie Williams lasted just two years on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for the Hall of Fame. He’s a long shot, I suppose, for Veterans Committee selection someday. But he’s easily the better center fielder and he ranks third on this list.
Williams played 1,856 games in center for the Yankees, more than Mantle or DiMaggio (or Combs, who played 1,157). Bernie beat Combs in career totals for homers (287-58), RBI (1,257-633), hits (2,336-1,866), runs (1,366-1,186) and stolen bases (147-98). Combs had a better batting average (.325-.298), but that’s mostly explained by playing in an era of inflated batting averages. Williams led the American League in hitting (.339 in 1998) and Combs never did that. Their OPS figures were nearly identical (.859-.858 in favor of Combs), reflecting a higher OBP for Combs and better slugging for Williams.
Combs had slightly better averages in the post-season, but Williams played in an era where reaching the World Series required two earlier rounds of October play. He holds the record for career post-season RBI and ranks second in career runs, hits, homers, doubles and total bases.
Combs contributed to three World Series champions and one more A.L. champ. Williams played key roles in four world championships and two more A.L. champions.
Combs’ last year was 1935 and DiMaggio’s rookie year was 1936. Neither was in center field full-time those years, but they both played there. That gave the Yankees a Hall of Fame center fielder every year (except when DiMaggio was in the military) from 1924 to 1966, Mantle’s last year in the outfield.
5, Rickey Henderson
I was not expecting Rickey Henderson to make this list and was expecting him to rank high on the left-field list.
But his 1985 season, leading the American League with 146 runs scored and 80 stolen bases, was probably the second or third best season of his Hall of Fame career. He hit .314 that year, slugged 24 homers and walked 99 times. He played only in center field that season and it was his primary position the next two years, too. That was a better season than either Williams or Combs ever had. They rank ahead of him because of their lengthy tenures in center, and their post-season play, not because they were better.
Henderson’s second year in center field for New York, 1986, was nearly as good, again leading the league in runs (130) and stolen bases (87).
Murcer was an All-Star all four years he played center for the Yankees, but never as outstanding offensively as Henderson. Rivers played well for the Yankees but left in his fourth year and also didn’t approach Henderson’s offensive value. Damon played less time in center for the Yankees than Henderson and not as well. Granderson started three years in center and led the league in runs (136) and RBI (119) in 2011, as well as hitting 41 homers. I wouldn’t argue if you want to give Granderson the fifth slot, but I give the nod to Henderson.
Bobby Bonds also deserves mention: He played only one season, 1975, as New York’s center fielder, but he hit 32 homers and stole 30 bases, one of his five 30-30 seasons.
Roberto Kelly played four seasons for the Yankees in center, one as an All-Star, but wasn’t good enough to challenge Henderson for the fifth spot. His contribution to the dynasty of the 1990s was that the Yankees traded Kelly for Paul O’Neill at a time when Kelly was probably the better player and O’Neill was a couple years older. But O’Neill had more good years remaining.
Other center field traditions
The Yankees win this position easily. The Cleveland Indians had three Hall of Fame center fielders: Tris Speaker, Earl Averill and Larry Doby. But they weren’t as good as the Yankee center fielders and combined for 30 seasons in center for Cleveland, barely more than Mantle and DiMaggio combined.
I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for center fielders.
If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Mantle, DiMaggio, Combs and Henderson) or belongs there (Williams), that carries considerable weight with me. His Cooperstown enshrinement helped Henderson nail down the fifth slot.
I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. That’s another reason Henderson won the fifth slot over players who spent longer in center for the Yankees. Measures of peak performance, such as MVP awards and leading leagues in important stats, will move a person up my list. Mantle and DiMaggio matched MVP awards, but Mantle led the league more, helping him win the top spot.
Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Mantle and DiMaggio did and that counted for them (watch those videos at the end of this post).
I rank players primarily on their time with the team, so Henderson couldn’t jump ahead of Williams and Combs, who spent their full careers with the Yankees. And Henderson doesn’t get credit for his great years with the A’s and other teams.
Time at the position is important, too. Henderson’s move to left field after 1986 almost cost him the final spot on this list.
Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. They were a big part of Williams’ advantage over Combs.
If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. This factor was part of Henderson’s advantage over the other contenders for the final spot on the list.
Special moments matter, too. Mantle and DiMaggio had a lot of those, as did Williams.
Left field has been a place to visit more than a place to stay for the Yankees. I list the five best, but they won’t necessarily be the five you were thinking of. And the discussions of criteria and the outfielders who didn’t make the list may be more interesting than the five best (at least beyond number one).
This position could not be a sharper contrast between the Yankees and the Red Sox, who had Hall of Famers (Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice) defending the Green Monster from 1940 to 1986, each of them owning the position and playing more than 1,500 games in left (Williams and Yaz each topped 1,900).
The only Yankee Hall of Famer on this list actually played more at another position and will be a surprise to many here (he doesn’t even make either of the left-fielder lists I linked at the end of this post). But I don’t bar players from being on the top-5 list at multiple positions. Lots of other Yankee Hall of Famers played left field, but not long enough or well enough to make this list. More on them later.
1, Babe Ruth (really)
I was surprised to learn that Babe Ruth actually played 1,048 career games in left field (almost as many as the 1,132 games he played in right). He played 891 left-field games for the Yankees. Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t have complete breakdowns of his offensive performance by position.
He started 132 of his 152 games in 1921 in left, and he led the league that year in homers (59), RBI (168), runs (177), walks (145), on-base percentage (.512), slugging (,846), OPS (1.359) and total bases (457). His .378 batting average was third in the league. No Yankee left fielder ever had a better season.
In 1926, Ruth played 82 games in left field, 68 in right and two at first base. No need for all the numbers, but he led the American League in the same stats that year, too. In his epic 60-homer season of 1927, Ruth played more in right field than left, but still played 56 games in left.
I actually had this list completed and looked Ruth up to list first in the section of Hall of Famers who didn’t make the list, presuming he played a few games here. But when I noticed how many games he played, I had to figure out where he belonged. And he belongs at the top. Even though left field wasn’t his primary position, he played enough to nail down the top spot here. No Yankee left fielder ever played better.
2, Charlie Keller
Charlie Keller played left field for 874 games, scattered over 13 seasons, all with the Yankees. I almost didn’t give “King Kong” this slot because he played over 100 games in left only four seasons. But I favor peak performance over longevity, and Keller’s peak was strong and his longevity looks stronger on closer examination. After splitting time between left and right his first two seasons (including the first of five All-Star selections in 1940), Keller became the starter in 1941. He was the left-field starter except for missing the 1944 season and most of 1945 to military service until a slipped disc sidelined him after only 45 games in 1947. (He still made the All-Star team that year.) He never returned to his star form after back surgery. For an eight-year stretch, he was playing important time in left field for the Yankees, except when in the military. He’s one of only two Yankees to command the position that long.
Keller’s performance in those eight seasons was stellar: three 100-RBI seasons, three 100-run seasons and three 30-homer seasons, scattered over five seasons. He led the American League in walks in 1940 and ’43.
In four World Series (three of them as champions), he hit .306 with five homers and 18 RBI in 19 games.
3, Roy White
Roy White was the Yankees’ longest-serving left fielder by far, 1,521 games at the position. He played left field from 1966 to 1979, spending his whole career with the Yankees. Nine of those seasons, he played more than 100 games, including starting every game in left in 1973.
In the rankings by other bloggers at the end of this post, White ranks first in one and eighth in another, an indication of how difficult it is to rank the Yankees’ left fielders. I think third reflects his longevity as well as the consistent quality of his play.
His patience through some grim Yankee seasons was rewarded with championship seasons three of his final four years (World Series championships in 1977-78 and an A.L. championship in ’76). White played well in the post-season, particularly the 1978 World Series, when he hit .333 (8-for-24) with nine runs scored, a homer, four RBI and two stolen bases. If Bucky Dent hadn’t been so hot, White might have been the Series MVP.
White was good, but not great, with the bat and the glove and on the basepaths. I gave Keller the edge because he had more great seasons, but White had more good seasons. He never hit .300 for a full season, but four times hit in the .290s and had a .271 career average. He never hit more than 22 homers, but hit 10 or more in eight seasons and had 160 for his career. He was in double figures in stolen bases every full season he played, with a peak of 31 in 1976 and 233 for his career. He never reached 100 RBI in a season, but had nine seasons of 50 or more, peaking at 94 in 1970 (one of his two All-Star seasons). He led the league with 104 runs scored in 1976 (one of two 100-run seasons) and in walks with 99 in 1972. Never spectacular, but solid for more than a decade.
4, Hideki Matsui
As noted above, I generally favor peak performance over longevity, and Hideki Matsui was a better hitter than White, with four 100-RBI seasons and a high of 31 homers, three 100-run seasons and two .300 seasons. But White’s huge advantage on the basepaths and in longevity gave him the edge for No. 2. Matsui was a Yankee just seven years, to 15 for White, and started in left field only four of those years.
If his 2009 World Series MVP performance had come as the left fielder instead of the DH, I might have pushed Matsui up a notch, but he’ll have to settle for third place. Johnny Damon played left field, even in the three games in Philadelphia (Matsui pinch-hit in all three games).
5, Bob Meusel
Bob Meusel played left field more than any other position, 626 games for the Yankees. But he alternated between left and right, and never actually played 100 games in left in any single season. But he was a heck of a hitter, playing lots and regularly in left. In 1925, when he played 88 games in left, 44 in right and 27 at third base, Meusel led the American League with 33 homers and 134 RBI (one of five 100-RBI seasons). His batting average in 10 Yankee seasons was .311, and left field was his primary position seven of those seasons.
As you’ll see shortly, greater Yankees played in left field, but they didn’t play there as long or as well as Meusel, even though he wasn’t anchored in left.
Other Hall of Fame Yankee left fielders
In addition to The Babe, at least seven Hall of Famers played left field for the Yankees, but all are known better for playing at other positions and/or for other teams:
Dave Winfield played in left his first three seasons as a Yankee, 1981-3. He was No. 5 on this list until I learned how much Babe played in left. Winfield was an All-Star all three left-field seasons and topped 100 RBI in both full seasons (’81 was shortened by a strike). He also won two Gold Gloves. I could have moved Winfield ahead of Meusel based on playing much more in left all three seasons than Meusel played in any season. But Meusel played almost 300 more games in left and played better in the post-season. And Winfield’s best Yankee years came in right field.
I presumed Rickey Henderson would be in the top five and maybe even top the list. But I was surprised to see that he played only one full season in left for the Yankees. I was remembering incorrectly that his center field hitch was pretty short. But it was the full 1985 and ’86 seasons. And ’85 was easily Henderson’s best season as a Yankee.
Joe DiMaggio played more games in left field (64) than center (55) his rookie year, before becoming the Yankees’ regular center fielder.
Earle Combs, another center fielder, played 215 games in left.
Yogi Berra played 148 games in left, 81 of them in 1961, when it was his primary position.
Enos Slaughter earned his Hall of Fame perch in his years with the St. Louis Cardinals (playing mostly right field). But late in his career, he played 100 games in left for the Yankees, spread across four seasons playing part-time.
I’m going to guess that Willie Keeler appeared in left field sometime, though Baseball-Reference.com doesn’t break down his outfield appearances by position. The Hall of Fame lists right field as his primary position. The Yankees were the Highlanders then, and I’m focusing on actual Yankees here.
Two Yankees who belong in the Hall of Fame also played left field:
Also playing left field (almost 50 games) for the 1990s Yankees was Darryl Strawberry, a former National League home run leader who appeared headed for Cooperstown before cocaine addiction sidetracked his career.
I was thinking Johnny Damon might have a shot at the fifth spot on the list, but he played mostly center for the Yankees. His only full-time season in left for the Yankees was 2009, a good season, but not good enough to move him onto the list. I think Damon’s shot at Cooperstown rested on reaching 3,000 hits, but he retired at 2,769.
Brett Gardner could push his way onto this list in a few years. He’s been the Yankees’ primary left fielder for four seasons (plus 2013 in center) and his hitting is improving. He led the league with 49 steals in 2011, but he isn’t the hitter Meusel was.
I thought Lou Piniella might make the fifth spot on this list (he’s fifth on both of the lists linked at the end of this post). But as I did my research, I found that he never started 100 games in left field in a season.
Gene Woodling’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Tom.
Gene Woodling started 100 or more games in left field four straight championship years for the Yankees (1950-53), but he never played more than 125 games for the Yankees, never hit 20 homers or drove in 70 runs. He hit .300 a couple times and led the league with a .429 on-base percentage in 1953. On longevity, he deserves consideration for the fifth spot, but he was never a full-time player. He was one of Casey Stengel’s platoon players.
Chad Curtis hit two homers in the 1998 World Series, but didn’t play left field long enough or well enough (except in that World Series) to push his way onto the list, even with my bias in favor of post-season play.
Chuck Knoblauch moved to left field after his defensive troubles at second base started.
Even Jose Canseco played four games in left for the Yankees. And a lot of Yankee left fielders played way more than that, but I’m not going to list them all here.
Other left-field traditions
As I noted at the top, the Red Sox had three straight Hall of Fame left fielders covering most of four-plus decades, except the breaks for Williams’ military service. Throw in Manny Ramirez and Mike Greenwell, and the Red Sox clearly have the best tradition in left field.
I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for left fielders.
If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Ruth) or belongs there (Howard and Raines), that carries considerable weight with me. If Howard had played left primarily or Raines had played for the Yankees in his prime, they would have made the list, probably second place.
I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. That’s why Ruth and Keller, who didn’t play as long in left as White, ranked ahead of him. Measures of peak performance, such as MVP awards and leading leagues in important stats, will move a person up my list. All the other left fielders together didn’t lead the league in important stats as Yankees as many times as Ruth did.
Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Ruth did and that counted for him, too.
I rank players primarily on their time with the team, so Keller and White stand out not just for their strong careers, but because all their time was spent with the Yankees.
Time at the position is important, too. Winfield missed the list because he played only three seasons in left field. Look for him on my right field list.
Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. Winfield made one post-season for the Yankees and hit 1-for-22 in the 1981 World Series. George Steinbrenner’s “Mr. May” shot was cruel and unwarranted, but all the people on the list played well in the post-season and contributed to Yankee championships.
This factor didn’t play into any of these decisions, but if two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. For instance, if Winfield or Henderson had been tied with someone, their years with the Padres, Blue Jays, A’s, etc. would have pushed them ahead.
Special moments matter, too. Ruth had a few of those.
When I ranked the Yankees’ best 50 starting pitchers, I decided that use of performance-enhancing drugs wouldn’t be a major factor. I would rank players based on their performance as Yankees, and if two players were even in that ranking, the player who wasn’t tainted by drug use would get the nod. But I wouldn’t totally discount a player based on PED use. So Roger Clemens ranked 16th among Yankee starters.
I’m taking the same approach with position players. I love Graig Nettles and I don’t like Alex Rodriguez. But I’m ranking them by performance as Yankees. Each has played 11 years for the Yankees (Nettles played more games at third base, but A-Rod has played over 1,000 games there). Rodriguez has better Yankee stats in virtually every offensive category. He won two MVP awards as a Yankee, both at third, and Nettles’ best showing in MVP voting was fifth place in 1977. A-Rod’s a seven-time All-Star as a Yankee, Nettles five.
As a Yankee, A-Rod led the league in homers twice, RBI once, runs scored twice, slugging three times and OPS once. Nettles led the league in homers once.
A-Rod’s post-season hitting has been awful most of the time, but Nettles wasn’t a great post-season hitter most of the time either. Nettles was a better fielder, but A-Rod has to rank first here.
2, Graig Nettles
Of course Nettles ranks second. I’ve noted before that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He would have a few more than his two Gold Gloves if he hadn’t had the misfortune to start playing when Brooks Robinson won that award every single year. Nettles’ Game Three defensive performance in the 1978 World Series was as good a post-season game as any fielder ever had.
Despite overall weak hitting in the post-season, Nettles sizzled in the 1981 American League Championship Series, going 6-for-12 with 9 RBI in just three games and being named MVP. He was a defensive, offensive and leadership anchor for the Yankees’ 1976-81 run that included two world championships, two more A.L. championships and a fifth division title. He’s an easy choice for No. 2 here.
Red Rolfe was an All-Star four of his 10 seasons (all with the Yankees), winning five World Series. He led the league with 213 hits, 139 runs and 46 doubles in 1939, his best season and the Yankees’ fourth straight as champions.
He topped .300 four seasons as a Yankee and hit a solid .284 in six World Series, emerging as champions in five of them.
The Yankees have done alright with Ivy League players. Lou Gehrig went to Columbia, Rolfe to Dartmouth. Rolfe also coached at Dartmouth and in the professional Basketball Association of America. He managed the Tigers for parts of three seasons (including a second-place finish behind the Yankees in 1950) and part of a fourth.
4, Wade Boggs
Wade Boggs played his best years in Boston, but was an All-Star and .300 hitter the first four of his five seasons as a Yankee. The last of those four All-Star seasons, 1996, Boggs won his only world championship, celebrating on horseback.
5, Scott Brosius
Scott Brosius gets the fifth spot on this list, based on four seasons that all ended in the World Series, three of them with victories and one with a Game-Seven, ninth-inning loss. He won an All-Star selection and a Gold Glove for the Yankees, and in the post-season he hit eight homers and drove in 30 runs. His two homers in Game Three of the 1998 World Series, including a three-run eighth-inning blast with the Yankees trailing 3-2, helped him win the World Series MVP.
Gil McGougald’s autograph (along with Hank Bauer’s, Ed Lopat and Eddie Madjeski.
As I mentioned in my post on second basemen, Gil McDougald would rank ahead of some of these players on a list of all-time best Yankees. But he kept switching positions. He was Rookie of the Year (in 1951) and an All-Star (in 1952) playing primarily at third. But he played more games at second (599) than at third (508). That’s almost as many games as Brosius played at third for the Yankees, but Brosius was better in the World Series, hitting .314 to just .237 for McDougald.
Joe Sewell is actually in the Hall of Fame, but that’s primarily for his decade at shortstop for the Indians, not for his final three years, playing third base for the Yankees, 1931-33. The same is true of Wade Boggs (except that he stayed at third base), but he played longer for the Yankees and was stronger at that stage of his career than Sewell.
Hall of Famer Frank “Home Run” Baker finished his career for the Yankees, after earning his Dead-Ball-Era nickname for the Philadelphia A’s, leading the league four straight years in homers, without ever hitting more than a dozen. He started only four years for the Yankees and, in an age of inflated batting stats, topped .300 only once for the Yankees. And he never led the league in any batting category for the Yankees.
Robin Ventura played only one full season, 2002, with the Yankees, but he was an All-Star, hitting 27 homers and driving in 93 runs.
I really liked Clete Boyer when I was young, and he’d have won some Gold Gloves except that he played third base in the American League in the era of Brooks Robinson (he did win one after being traded to the Braves). He played longer for the Yankees (eight years, seven as a starter) than Brosius or Boggs, but they were better hitters by far.
Joe Dugan hit better than Boyer in his seven years with the 1920s Yankees, but I still rank Boggs and Brosius higher.
It does seem odd not to have any Yankees from the 1920s, ’50s or ’60s on this list, but I think I have the right top 5.
Aaron Boone had a better special moment than any Yankee third baseman, but didn’t even play a full season for the Yankees. And even in the post-season, he hit just .170. But one of those hits will live forever in Yankee fans’ memories.
Which team has been best at third?
We don’t have a clear winner for the team with the best tradition at third base.
Without researching the other third basemen on any of these teams, I’d guess the Braves probably have the strongest tradition. But the Yankees are a contender and probably no worse than third or fourth.
I explained my criteria in the post on first basemen, so if this seems familiar, it’s because I cut and pasted that explanation here, then adapted it for third basemen.
If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Boggs), belongs there (Nettles) or would be a Hall of Famer if not for scandal (A-Rod), that carries considerable weight with me.
Boggs, Sewell and Baker joined the Yankees late in their Hall of Fame careers, but only Boggs was still playing at a Hall of Fame level (if in a bit of decline). Sewell and Baker weren’t nearly as good in their Yankee years.
If two players were dead even at a position for the Yankees, I would have moved the one with the better overall career ahead. I think Boggs was a bit ahead of Brosius as a Yankee, but his total career made that decision easier.
I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. A-Rod’s MVP’s and league crowns helped secure the top spot on the list.
I rank players primarily on their time with the team, but Rolfe is the only career Yankee on this list. Except if I needed a tie-breaker, I don’t count Boggs’ years with the Red Sox, Nettles’ with the Indians and Padres or A-Rod’s with the Mariners and Rangers.
Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. All the contenders for the fifth spot contributed to multiple champions, but Brosius played the best in the World Series. A-Rod’s poor post-season play might have dropped him to second place if Nettles had been closer in regular-season offensive performance.
Special moments matter, too. Nettles’ stellar defensive plays in the ’78 World Series and Brosius’ memorable 1998 homer helped seal their rankings. If Boone had played a few good years for the Yankees, his special moment would have pushed him onto the list.