The 5 best first basemen in Yankee history

4 04 2016

Last year I wrote a series about Yankee starting pitchers that included a ranking of the top 50 starting pitchers.

That series was interrupted by the death of Yogi Berra, which prompted a post on the Yankees having a far greater tradition at catcher than any other team (I didn’t actually rank the top Yankee catchers initially, but I’ve added a ranking to make the post fit into this series).

So I thought then I should open this baseball season (Yankees open this afternoon against the Astros) by going around the diamond, reviewing the Yankees’ tradition at each position and ranking the top five Yankees. I’ll review the top five, then review where Yankees rank among other teams in our tradition at that position (catcher’s not the only one where the Yankees are the best). Then I’ll explain my ranking criteria. Today: first base.

1, Lou Gehrig

The best first baseman in Yankee history is an easy call: Lou Gehrig, probably the best first baseman in baseball history.

Gehrig leads all Yankee first basemen in career homers, RBI, hits, runs, batting, slugging and nearly every important statistical category, and has the best single-season totals in several categories, too. He’s the only first baseman in the Hall of Fame who was primarily a Yankee. He’s the only Yankee first baseman to win a Triple Crown. And then there’s the consecutive-game streak. He led his league more times in homers (three times) and RBI (five) than all the other Yankee first basemen combined. And on and on. This is an easy call.

2, Don Mattingly

Don Mattingly is clear choice for No. 2 on this list. With 13 years as the Yankees’ starting first baseman, he’s second only to Gehrig and second in most career or single-season offensive categories, too. He’s the only Yankee first baseman other than Gehrig to win an MVP award or lead the league in batting, RBI or hits. In baseball history, only Keith Hernandez has more Gold Gloves at first base than Mattingly’s nine. Though not primarily a home run hitter, Mattingly holds or shares the records for most grand slams in a season and most consecutive games with a homer.

As I’ve noted before, Mattingly was superior to most of his contemporaries who are in the Hall of Fame. Only the Hall of Fame voters’ biases in favor of longevity and against Yankees are keeping him out of Cooperstown.

3, Tino Martinez

Here’s where the choices get a little murkier. Tino Martinez, Chris Chambliss, Jason Giambi and Mark Teixeira each played the position for the Yankees for seven years, and Moose Skowron played it for nine. Skowron has the most All-Star selections for the Yankees (5), Giambi the most homers (209), Teixeira the most Gold Gloves (three) and Chambliss hit the walk-off homer that made the Yankees American League champions in 1976 after a post-season absence of 12 years.

But I go here with Martinez, who led the group with Yankee RBI (739) and stacks up well with the rest in most other hitting numbers. Only Skowron could match Tino’s four world championships with the Yankees. Only Teixeira, with league-leading totals of 39 homers and 122 RBI in 2009, almost matched Martinez’s best season (44 homers and 141 RBI in 1997). Both Teixeira and Martinez finished second in MVP voting their best Yankee years.

And Martinez had some pretty special post-season homers, too.

4, Moose Skowron

Skowron’s regular-season stats don’t stand out among the other competitors here. But damn, he hit eight World Series homers (tied for seventh all-time) and drove in 29 RBI (sixth). Championship performance means a lot to me.

5, Mark Teixeira

I give Teixeira the nod here, based on that 2009 season (and his role in returning the Yankees to championship status that year). Chambliss won two world championships with the Yankees and Giambi had a nice run without any World Series titles. But Tex is a little better than either of them in my view. Plus he’s still playing, with plenty of opportunity to move up to third or fourth on this list.

The rest

My autographed Joe Pepitone card

My autographed Joe Pepitone card

Joe Pepitone, who played eight years at first for the Yankees and was a three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, and Wally Pipp, who played 11 years before losing his job to Gehrig, are the best Yankee first basemen I haven’t mentioned yet.

Joe Collins started at first base for the Yankees of the 1950s, but was never an All-Star, never hit 20 homers or drove in 100 runs (or even 60) and never hit .300. He contributed to five Yankee championships, but hit only .163 in World Series play. I’m not sure I’d include him on a list of 10 best Yankee first basemen.

Several Yankee first basemen had their best years with other teams: Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, Felipe Alou, Bob Watson and Giambi. Center fielder Mickey Mantle spent his final two years at first base.

Hal Chase’s SABR biography by Martin Kohout calls him the “most notoriously corrupt player in baseball history,” so I’m not going to dwell on him here. He was also a New York Highlander (before they became the Yankees), and I’m ranking the best Yankees.

Grand slams

You don’t want to face a Yankee first baseman with the bases loaded.

Gehrig held the career record for grand slams with 23, until he was finally passed by Alex Rodriguez (who, I should note, has played first base for the Yankees in two games). Giambi, with 14 grand slams, makes the top 20 all-time. Martinez, with 11, and Teixeira, with 10, are also on the all-time leaders list.

As noted before, Mattingly shares the record of six grand slams in a season with Travis Hafner (an Indian most of his career, including when he set the record, but he finished as a Yankee, exclusively as a DH).

Martinez, Pepitone and Skowron all hit World Series grand slams.

Who has the best first-base tradition?

While the Yankees likely have the best first baseman ever, I don’t think I can claim they have the best tradition of any team at first base. The best tradition would probably be the Giants or Cardinals.

Johnny Mize's autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

Johnny Mize’s autograph on a ball belonging to my son Mike.

The Giants have had six Hall of Fame first basemen: Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Bill Terry, Johnny Mize, George Kelly and Roger Connor. The Cardinals have had four Hall of Fame first basemen: Cepeda, Mize, Jim Bottomley and Stan Musial (who mostly played outfield, but played more than 1,000 games at first, more than at any outfield position, and he played primarily at first in his 1946 MVP season). Add certain Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire, who had Hall of Fame numbers but is being kept out of Cooperstown because he used performance-enhancing drugs. Each team also had some pretty good first basemen in the Skowron-Martinez range who won’t make the Hall of Fame: Hernandez, Bill White and Jack Clark for the Cardinals (Clark played longer for the Giants, but was an outfielder then), Will Clark and J.T. Snow for the Giants, to name a few.

Even if you concede my point that Mattingly belongs in the Hall of Fame, and count Bottomley and Kelly as among those marginal players from the 20s who don’t belong in the Hall, both the Giants and Cardinals were the clear leaders here. I’d probably give the edge to the Cardinals, but I could go either way here. The Yankees are contending for third place with the A’s, Tigers and Cubs.

Ranking criteria

If a player is in the Hall of Fame (Gehrig) or should be (Mattingly), that carries considerable weight with me.

I rank players primarily on their time with the team, so Gehrig and Mattingly stand out not just for their great careers, but because all their time was spent with the Yankees.

Cepeda and Mize both made it to Cooperstown and had Hall of Fame seasons for both the Giants and Cardinals, so they count heavily for both teams, but not as heavily as Gehrig and Mattingly, who spent their whole careers for one team, or McCovey, who had all his great seasons as a Giant, though he didn’t finish up in San Francisco. Mize doesn’t get as much credit in Yankee rankings for being in the Hall of Fame, because he didn’t play like a Hall of Famer for the Yankees.

I value both peak performance and longevity, but peak performance more. If Martinez, Skowron and Teixeira had played as long at first base for the Yankees as Mattingly, his MVP award and league titles in batting, RBI, hits and doubles still would have given him the second spot on this list.

Few ballplayers actually matter in the broader culture beyond baseball, but Gehrig did and that counted for him, too. C’mon, Gary Cooper played him in a classic movie, “Pride of the Yankees,” and the disease that killed him is known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Time at the position is important, too. Musial played great years at first base. Mantle didn’t. A-Rod doesn’t get consideration based on just two games at first.

Post-season play and championship contributions matter a lot to me. I should add that I don’t consider those to be the same thing. Martinez and Skowron both contributed to four Yankee World Series championships, so they’re dead even in the first level of championship contributions. But Skowron also contributed to three American League champions who didn’t win the World Series and Martinez played on one, so Moose gets a bit of an advantage there. Skowron also hit eight homers in the World Series, to just three for Martinez. But I still credit Martinez for his nine total post-season homers. I give Skowron the edge in post-season play, since he didn’t have the opportunity to play extra rounds. If Martinez didn’t have a sizable advantage in regular-season play (five 100-RBI season to none for Moose), Skowron would have moved ahead of him based on championship contributions and post-season play. But championship contributions and post-season play were sizable advantages that pushed Moose ahead of Teixeira, Giambi and Chambliss.

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, Teixeira’s great seasons with the Rangers (or Giambi’s with the A’s) would be a tie-breaker if either had been tied with another player based on Yankee years.

Scandals are a secondary factor here. I didn’t eliminate Giambi from consideration because of his use of performance-enhancing drugs. But if I were ranking a top 10, the combination of Giambi’s drug use and Chambliss’ clutch homer would have offset Giambi’s stronger regular-season performance, so Chambliss would be sixth.

Special moments matter, too. If Chambliss were dead-even with someone based on other criteria, that 1976 pennant-winning homer would push him ahead. Look for Bucky Dent to rank a notch or two higher than he otherwise might when I rank the shortstops.

How would you rank them?

The free version of Polldaddy doesn’t let me ask you to rank them. I’ll be surprised if anyone seriously disagrees with me on the first pick. But I thought I’d do a poll with each post in this series, so tell me whether you agree with the Gehrig poll or prefer someone else:

Rankings of Yankees by position

Starting pitchers

Catchers

Second base

Shortstop

Third base

Left field

Center field

Right field

Designated hitter

Other rankings of Yankee first basemen

Steve Goldman of Bleacher Report

Uncle Mike’s Musings

Source note

Unless noted otherwise, statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

 

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