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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World Series champs nearly always feature Hall of Famers

30 11 2015

As I pondered the Hall of Fame prospects of young members of the Kansas City Royals 2015 World Series champions, I wondered how rare it would be for a world champion to have no Hall of Famers.

While any young star faces long odds of reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame, quick research showed that a World Series winner without anyone making it to Cooperstown is also exceedingly rare.

I just went back to 1947 in answering my question, because, as I noted in an October post, Hall of Fame standards were much lower before baseball integrated.

So I will note year by year the starters and other important contributors of world champions who eventually became Hall of Famers. While I won’t speculate on whether players appeared bound for Cooperstown at the time (the point of yesterday’s post), I will note their ages at the time they won. If a player is in the Hall of Fame, but primarily for his play with another team, I will note that.

Joe DiMaggio autograph

My Joe DiMaggio autograph

1947

Champion: New York Yankees. Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra, 22; Phil Rizzuto, 29; Joe DiMaggio, 32.

1948

Champion: Cleveland Indians. Hall of Famers: Larry Doby, 24; Bob Lemon, 27; Bob Feller, 29; Lou Boudreau, 30; Joe Gordon, 33.

1949-53

Champions: Yankees. Hall of Famers: Mickey Mantle, ’51-3, 19-21; Whitey Ford, ’50 and ’53, 21 and 24; Berra, all years, 24-28; Rizzuto, all years, 31-5; DiMaggio, ’49-’51, 34-6. Johnny Mize, a member of all five Yankee teams, was not a full-time starter most of these seasons. He joined the Yankees at age 36 and is in the Hall of Fame primarily for his slugging for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants.

1954

Champion: New York Giants. Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, 23; Hoyt Wilhelm, 31; Monte Irvin, 35.

1955

Champion: Brooklyn Dodgers. Hall of Famers: Duke Snider, 28; Roy Campanella, 31; Jackie Robinson, 36; Pee Wee Reese, 36.

A ball autographed by "Larry Berra," before he started signing "Yogi."

A ball autographed by “Larry Berra,” before he started signing “Yogi.”

1956

Champion: Yankees. Hall of Famers: Mantle, 24; Ford, 27; Berra, 31. Rizzuto, 38, was a part-time player, as was Enos Slaughter, 40, elected to the Hall of Fame primarily as a St. Louis Cardinal.

1957

Champion: Milwaukee Braves. Hall of Famers: Hank Aaron, 23; Eddie Mathews, 25; Red Schoendienst, 34; Warren Spahn, 36.

Whitey signed this ball "Ed. Ford" before his better-known nickname stuck.

Whitey signed this ball “Ed. Ford” before his better-known nickname stuck.

1958

Champion: Yankees. Hall of Famers: Mantle, 26; Ford, 29; Berra, 33; Slaughter, 42.

1959

Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers. Hall of Famers: Don Drysdale, 22; Sandy Koufax, 23; Snider, 32.

1960

Champion: Pittsburgh Pirates. Hall of Famers: Bill Mazeroski, 23; Roberto Clemente, 25.

My Mantle autograph

My Mantle autograph

1961-2

Champions: Yankees. Hall of Famers: Mantle, 29-30; Ford, 32-3; Berra, 36-7.

1963

Champions: Dodgers. Hall of Famers: Drysdale, 26, and Koufax, 27.

1964

Champions: St. Louis Cardinals. Hall of Famers: Lou Brock, 25; Bob Gibson, 28.

1965

Champions: Dodgers. Hall of Famers: Drysdale, 28, and Koufax, 29.

1966

Champions: Baltimore Orioles. Hall of Famers: Jim Palmer, 20; Brooks Robinson, 29; Frank Robinson, 30, and Luis Aparicio, 32.

Bob Gibson's autograph, with some Cardinal teammates, on a ball belonging to my son Joe.

Bob Gibson’s autograph, with some Cardinal teammates, on a ball belonging to my son Joe.

1967

Champions: St. Louis Cardinals. Hall of Famers: Steve Carlton, 22; Brock, 28; Orlando Cepeda, 29; Gibson, 31.

1968

Champion: Detroit Tigers. Hall of Famers: Al Kaline, 32; and Mathews (a part-time player in his final year at age 36). Since yesterday’s post was about Hall of Fame projections, I should note here that 24-year-old Denny McLain, who won 31 games that year and won the Cy Young and MVP awards, looked like a lock for Cooperstown, but didn’t make it.

1969

Champion: New York Mets. Hall of Famers: Nolan Ryan, 22, and Tom Seaver, 24.

1970

Champion: Orioles. Hall of Famers: Palmer, 24, and the Robinsons, 33 and 34.

1971

Champion: Pirates. Hall of Famers: Willie Stargell, 31; Mazeroski (playing part-time at 34); Clemente, 36.

1972-4

Champions: Oakland A’s. Hall of Famers: Rollie Fingers, 25-7; Catfish Hunter, 26-8; Reggie Jackson, 26-8. I don’t count Cepeda, who had just three at-bats for the ’72 A’s and didn’t play in the post-season.

1975-6

Champions: Cincinnati Reds. Johnny Bench, 27-8; Joe Morgan, 31-2; Tony Pérez, 33-4. Pete Rose, 34-5, would be in the Hall of Fame, but he accepted a lifetime ban from baseball for betting on games.

1977-8

Champions: Yankees. Hall of Famers: Jackson and Hunter, both 31-2; and Goose Gossage, 26 (’78 only).

1979

Champions: Pirates. Hall of Famers: Bert Blyleven, 28, and Stargell, 39. Dave Parker of this team probably deserves mention with Denny McLain as a player who appeared on his way to the Hall of Fame. Cocaine use sidetracked Parker’s career.

My Steve Carlton autograph

My Steve Carlton autograph

1980

Champions: Philadelphia Phillies. Hall of Famers: Mike Schmidt, 30; Carlton, 35. Rose, 39, was also on this team.

1981

Champions: Dodgers. No Hall of Famers yet. Steve Garvey probably has the best shot of making it someday.

1982

Champions: Cardinals. Hall of Famers: Ozzie Smith, 27, and Bruce Sutter, 29.

1983

My Ripken autograph

My Ripken autograph

Champions: Orioles. Hall of Famers: Cal Ripken Jr., 22; Eddie Murray, 27; Palmer, pitching part-time at age 37.

1984

Champion: Tigers. No Hall of Famers yet. Jack Morris, 29, probably has the best shot.

1985

Champion: Kansas City Royals. Hall of Famer: George Brett, 32.

1986

Champion: Mets. Hall of Famer: Gary Carter, 32. As noted in yesterday’s post, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, 24, of this team appeared headed for the Hall of Fame before drug use stalled their careers.

1987

Champion: Minnesota Twins. Hall of Famer: Kirby Puckett, 27, and Blyleven, 36. Carlton, 42, pitched nine games for the Twins that year, but not in the post-season.

1988

Champion: Dodgers. Hall of Famer: Don Sutton, 43, was in his last year. He pitched only 16 games, none in the post-season. Of major contributors on this team, Orel Hershiser, 29, and Kirk Gibson, 31, may have the best shots at reaching Cooperstown someday.

1989

Champion: Oakland A’s. Hall of Famer: Rickey Henderson, 30, and Dennis Eckersley, 34. This is the first champion where performance-enhancing drugs are keeping a player out of the Hall of Fame (Mark McGwire, 25, for sure, possibly Jose Canseco, 24).

1990

Champion: Reds. Hall of Famer: Barry Larkin, 26.

1991

Champion: Twins. Hall of Famer: Puckett, 31.

1992-3

Champions: Toronto Blue Jays. Hall of Famers: Roberto Alomar, 24-5; Henderson, 34 (just on ’93 Jays); Paul Molitor, 36 (also just in ’93); Dave Winfield, 40 (only in ’92).

1995

Remember, baseball had no champion in ’94 because of a strike. Champions: Atlanta Braves. Hall of Famers: John Smoltz, 28; Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both 29. Chipper Jones, 24, appears to be a certain Hall of Famer, but retired in 2012, so he won’t be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration until the 2018 election.

My Derek Jeter rookie card

My Derek Jeter rookie card

1996

Champions: Yankees. Hall of Famer: Wade Boggs, 38. Derek Jeter, 22, and Mariano Rivera, 26, appear certain to reach Cooperstown when they become eligible for election: 2019 for Rivera and 2020 for Jeter. Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada are less likely to make the Hall of Fame, and will be on the ballot in 2019 (Pettitte) and next year (Posada).

1997

Champion: Florida Marlins. No Hall of Famers. Gary Sheffield is another player whose Hall of Fame chances are hurt by PED use.

1998-2000

Champions: Yankees. Again, Jeter, 24-6, and Rivera, 28-30, are certain Hall of Famers. Roger Clemens, 36-7, pitched for the ’99-2000 Yankees, but suspicion of PED use is keeping him out of Cooperstown. Tim Raines, 38, a ’98 Yankee, got 55 percent of the baseball writers’ vote last year and almost certainly will make the Hall of Fame someday, but mostly for his play for the Montreal Expos.

2001

Champion: Arizona Diamondbacks. Hall of Famer: Randy Johnson. Curt Schilling will certainly join him. He got 39 percent of the writers’ vote last year, his third year on the ballot.

2002

Champion: Anaheim Angels. No Hall of Famers and no likely prospects.

2003

Champion: Florida Marlins. Miguel Cabrera, 20, is a Triple-Crown winner and two-time MVP. He’s still playing and only 32 years old but certain to make the Hall of Fame if he stays free of scandal. Iván Rodríguez would be a certain Hall of Famer if not for allegations that he used PEDs.

2004

Champion: Boston Red Sox. Hall of Famer: Pedro Martínez, and Schilling will follow. David Ortiz, who’s still playing, would be an automatic selection if not for his failed drug test. Manny Ramírez won’t be on the Hall of Fame ballot until 2017, but drug issues are likely to keep him out of the Hall of Fame, too.

2005

Champion: Chicago White Sox. Hall of Famer: Frank Thomas, a part-time DH at 37.

2006

Champion: Cardinals. No Hall of Famers yet, but Albert Pujols, a three-time MVP, is a lock if he can avoid scandal.

2007

Champion: Red Sox. This seems a good place to stop this exercise. No star of the ’07 Red Sox, or any subsequent champion, is already in the Hall of Fame, and most aren’t even eligible yet. I’ve already addressed Schilling, Ortiz and Ramírez. While I projected the Hall of Fame chances of the 2015 Royals, I’m not interested in doing that for the young stars of other recent teams.

What does this mean?

Obviously, the numbers or Hall of Famers on some of these teams, especially the more recent ones, will grow, as Morris, Raines, Schilling and others eventually get elected.

But already the vast world-champion teams have multiple Hall of Famers. In a 60-year stretch, only five teams don’t have Hall of Famers yet. From 1947 to 1980, the 1960 Pirates and ’68 Tigers were the only World Series champions without at least two Hall of Famers elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

All of the champions with no Hall of Famers or even just one played since 1980, so many of their best players aren’t even eligible for Hall of Fame consideration yet (or are being kept out of Cooperstown because of drug suspicions). Few of the contenders who aren’t automatic Hall of Famers have had second chances yet through the Expansion Era Committee.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I expect at least two players from the 2015 Royals to join the Hall of Fame. If I’m wrong, they will be one of few exceptions among World Series champions.

Source note: Players’ ages are taken from the Baseball-Reference.com team rosters for the championship years.





Changing standards for the Baseball Hall of Fame always favor white players

6 10 2015

If you’re a borderline candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame, it sure helps to be a white guy.

Rules, standards and the election process to the Hall of Fame have changed a lot over the years, but one thing is certain: Except for special committees to consider Negro League players, the voting has always been skewed toward white players.

As I noted in the last post, only one Latino player (Orlando Cepeda) and one African American player (Larry Doby) have been chosen to the Hall of Fame by Veterans Committees, the second-chance committees that have chosen most white players in the Hall of Fame.

Part of that is a function of time. Baseball was integrated in 1947, so a player starting a 20-year career in 1950 would retire in 1970. That player then would have to wait five years before going on the writers’ ballot (1975), then, if not elected by the writers, would not become eligible for Veterans Committee consideration until about 1995. So we’ve had roughly 20 years of Veterans Committee consideration of retired black and Latino “major” league players.

And that timetable has pretty much worked out. Three minority players (other than Negro Leaguers) were elected to the Hall of Fame before 1975:

  • Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in 1947 and played only 10 years in the “majors.”
  • Roy Campanella, Robinson’s Dodger teammate who started playing in 1948 and whose career was curtailed by a car accident in 1957.
  • Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972. The Hall of Fame waived the five-year waiting period and he was elected immediately, the first Latino in the Hall of Fame.

After those three, Ernie Banks‘ election to the Hall by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1977 started a steady stream of black and Latino Hall of Famers. He was one of nine selected over the next 10 years. Read the rest of this entry »