While scanning through Twitter this morning, I saw this Tweet from the MLB Network asking who was the “Face of Major League Baseball”:
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) February 5, 2013
You might, as I did, have to Google one of the names listed. It’s not like the Astros are usually seen as a threat to the Yankees, due to their former National League standing. (Side note: we do play them first at the end of April and then on our last series of the season this September in the Minute Maid Park — I’d expect a mimosa over Budweiser at that stadium.)
Now, we Yankees fans have known the obvious choice of that question for almost as long as Altuve has been alive (he will be 23 this May). But it got me thinking about the Yankee tradition of being the face of baseball since (another obvious choice) Babe Ruth.
There have some fantastic exceptions to that rule — my personal favorite being the recently departed and lifelong Cardinal Stan Musial, a man of personal character and great passion for the game. But when the greater population thinks of baseball in general, their imagination takes them to the men in pinstripes first more often than any Sox or Stars or Bird.
The Yankee dynasty was arguably established with the nearly infamous 1919 sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. The Babe loved the attention he could conjure from New York’s large stage and knew how to play the crowd brilliantly, easily becoming the most well-known baseball player of his day. You could argue he was the first media darling of the game, one from which many current players need to take a lesson. By 1927, Ruth was one of six power hitters dubbed “Murders’ Row”: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri. Another media favorite of the time, Lou Gehrig was celebrated for his accomplishments and a life cut too short by a crippling disease.
Next up for the face of baseball: Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Though he was known for liking his privacy (and his storied love life), the baseball part of him was always something to behold. In 1941, he and Red Sox great Ted Williams were competing as to who could bat over .400 for the season. DiMaggio ended up on a 56 game hitting streak, one that over 70 years later remains unbroken by anyone in the league. He led the Yankees to their 9th World Championship that year before heading off to serve his country in World War II. (And the Yankees still won the 1943 Series without him.) He was later named baseball’s “Greatest Living Player” at the baseball centennial celebration in 1969.
The face of baseball in the 50’s and early 60’s would have to be split between so many greats (and my personal favorite era of Yankees history): Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Roger Maris lead this generation. This was the era that cemented Yankees as the all-time world champions and brought baseball to television and thus into the hearts of every American. And they had good reason to love the Yankees: Berra, for example, would retire from playing in 1963 with 10 World Series rings and Mantle and Maris would compete for that 61st Home Run in 1961 (one more than Ruth’s record, achieved on the last day of the season by Roger Maris, who still holds the AL record).
It wasn’t until the late 1970’s when the Yankees were suddenly in the limelight again and not always for good reasons. But the face of the Yankees (and maybe all of baseball) would have to go to “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson for the Yankee comeback in 1977, the infamous “Bronx Zoo”, and World Series win. But the heart of the team would have to lie with Thurman Munson, who tragically died in a plane crash in the middle of the 1979 season.
The 1980’s slump still saw many classic Yankees in the making like Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, and Dave Winfield. But none would be of any significance to rank up with the greats until the start of the 1996 season.
Joe Torre at the helm, the rise of the Core Four — Andy Pettitte on the mound, Jorge Posada catching, Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, and Derek Jeter at Shortstop — 1996 was the start of the 2nd Golden Era of baseball and a renewal of the Yankees Dynasty.
So how does one judge one of the greats? I always say they must have three main qualities:
- Ability — from the batter’s box to the field, a player has to have the ability to perform, under pressure and professionally. Stellar numbers at the plate are nice, but not much if you can’t catch a ball in the field.
- Teamwork — there are two sides to baseball: offensively, it’s just the player with a bat, trying to hit a home run and get those big numbers; defensively, it’s about the team. And while stars are made at the plate, winning teams are made on the field. If you can’t work as part of a team, then what are you doing in a team sport?
- Character — with all the recurring news on drugs and philandering and just nastiness, it takes a lot for someone with character not to get caught up in the messy world around them. So I love to hear stories about how players stay out of that mess.
Stan Musial, as I stated above, fits this bill, as do many of Yankee greats listed. But only one of MLB’s nominees today has proven his quality over the past two decades and thus gets my vote.