Consistent northeastern Spring rain spoiled the opening game at Fenway for the rivalry series yesterday, forcing a reschedule for when the teams face off again in The Olde Towne, the first game of a doubleheader on July 16. So, the Yankees were looking to recoup some of their magic they found in the Bronx last week in this now shortened series before heading back home again.
They definitely found it again, despite the cold air and the misty rain and the fog that settled in later in the game. This was thanks in part to some stellar pitching by starter Luis Severino. Severino threw 100 pitches in his 7 strong innings, giving up just 3 hits and 2 walks, and striking out 6 Boston batters, setting himself up for the eventual win. Dellin Betances breezed through the Red Sox lineup with just 13 pitches, including 2 nasty strikeouts, for the 8th inning.
At one point in the 3rd inning, right fielder Aaron Judge went running for a long foul ball and misjudged how high the wall was, tumbling over the edge headfirst as he caught the ball. He came up with the ball, but for some really weird reason, the umpires didn’t trust that he hadn’t just picked it up off the ground. (It’s weird because Judge is one of the more honest guys in the game, so if he dropped it, he’d say he dropped it.) This, of course, sent Girardi out of the dugout to ask for a replay, which took far too long and ultimately revealed what everyone already knew — Judge had the ball the whole time, so it was an out.
It was all smooth sailing for the Yankees. Especially because they gave their pitchers a nice lead to defend. In the 2nd, Castro reached 1st safely on a sloppy throwing error and then scored as part of Aaron Judge’s big 2-run home run over the right field wall. Then in the 6th, with 2 outs, Judge worked a walk, moved to 2nd on a wild pitch, and then scored on Greg Bird’s single off the Green Monster.
So, come the bottom of the 9th, all they needed was 3 solid outs for a nice win. But it’s Fenway. And when are these games ever so simple? Aroldis Chapman just struggled his way through the 9th inning. He allowed a lead-off walk and a double to put runners in scoring position, and a ground out scored a Red Sox run and got the first out of the inning. But then a wild pitch moved the lone runner to 3rd, a mere 90 feet from scoring another run. And then he walked the next batter. So, runners at the corners pushed Chapman to dig deep and get a much-needed strikeout. And then to atone for his outing, he took command again and got another one on his 33rd pitch of the inning to end the game and give him his 5th save of the season so far.
Final score: 3-1 Yankees
And in injury news: Didi Gregorius has been amazing with the Tampa Yankees during his rehab stint. He’s batting .444 with them, going 2-for-4 with a walk and RBI just tonight. His home run last night scored their only run of the game. In other words, things are looking good for him to rejoin the team for the next series, which starts Friday back in New York against the Orioles.
Okay, so what makes today’s game even more special is that the hero of tonight’s game, Aaron Judge, celebrated his 25th birthday today. (Happy Birthday!) So, his home run statistic is kind of a fun one. Apparently, despite the regularity of the rivalry series, Yankees who have homered against the Red Sox on their birthdays is a very small group of notable players — Judge today (age 25 in 2017) joins Cecil Fielder (age 33 in 1996), Roger Maris (age 32 in 1966), Yogi Berra (age 22 in 1947), Bill Dickey (age 26 in 1933), and Lou Gehrig (age 26 in 1929). Not a bad club to be part of.
It’s hard to believe the season’s almost over. The Yankees certainly embraced their role as spoiler for the Orioles in their attempt to secure a spot in the Wild Card game next week. But it wasn’t exactly clear-cut, at least at first.
Luis Severino started this afternoon’s middle game of the series and kind of struggled his way through his 3.2 innings, gave up 5 hits, 2 walks, and 3 runs, striking out 3 batters. If you’re thinking Severino was a better long-term reliever, I think I’m with you on that. But the Yankees needed a starter today, with Tanaka being somewhat out of commission and not ready for the game today.
In the 2nd, the Orioles’ lead-off batter hit a ground-rule double to get on base. And then a walk and 2 outs later, the runners were in scoring position, which they did on a big 2-run single to get the O’s on the board early. A 2-out solo home run in the 3rd gave the Orioles their third and final run of the night.
Holder came on to relieve Severino for the last out of the 4th and to pitch through the 5th, which he started momentum for the bullpen to follow through the night — keeping the Orioles from adding to their score for the rest of the day. Bleier and Yates pitched through the 6th and 7th innings, each still giving up a walk and a single, but still keeping the Baltimore offense from crossing the plate.
Now, it was an early lead in today’s game, where the Yankees just didn’t seem to score runs at all for the first half of the game and the Orioles’ starter kept the Yankees offense to just 2 hits. But the Yankees started to chip away at the Orioles’ lead, bit by bit.
In the 5th, Teixeira led-off with a single and was replaced by Refsnyder as his pinch-runner. Headley worked a walk, and then Romine hit into a ground out where the play went to get Refsnyder out at 3rd. When Tyler Austin singled, Headley scored. And the chipping away began.
With 2 outs and 2 runners on base with singles in the 6th, Chase Headley doubled to score the lead runner, putting the Yankees within 1 run of the Orioles’ lead. Tyler Austin’s big lead-off home run in the 7th tied up the game. The Yankees were poised to do what they set out to do this series — spoil things for the Orioles.
Tyler Clippard breezed his way through the Baltimore batters in a 9-pitch 8th inning, setting himself up for the eventual win as the bottom of the 8th saw the Yankee offense charging forward. With 1 out, Ellsbury worked a walk and Headley doubled to put them in scoring position. So Austin Romine’s single scored both runners to break the tie. Then with another out, Torreyes on base with a walk, and a new O’s pitcher, Brett Gardner doubled home both runners to give the Yankees a healthy lead over the Orioles.
The Yankees turned things over to Dellin Betances who needed a strong outing to get himself back on track. While he did give up a lead-off single, Betances powered through and got three straight strikeouts to hand the Yankees the win today.
Final score: 7-3 Yankees.
Today was Roger Maris bobblehead day at Yankee Stadium to honor the great Yankees’ hitter’s famous milestone season. It was on this day 55 years ago that Roger Maris beat Mickey Mantle (much to the chagrin of Mantle’s loyal fanbase) to hit 61 home runs in a single season, beating Babe Ruth’s home run record. On hand for today’s pre-game festivities were Maris’ 4 sons Roger Jr., Kevin, Randy, and Richard, all sporting pinstriped jerseys with their father’s #9 on their backs. They threw out the ceremonial first pitch and drew a “61” in the pitcher’s mound dirt to honor their father’s milestone.
Maris played 7 seasons of his 12-year career with the Yankees (1960-1966), but they were by far his best years and left a lasting impact on the Yankee organization and fans everywhere. Maris’ life was cut short after a diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He died in 1985 at age 51. But his legacy lives on in Monument Park and in the hearts of Yankee fans.
Worth noting, Maris has not been elected to the Hall of Fame, despite certainly having some noteworthy statistics and honors, and would have to be elected via the special Golden Era Committee (formerly known as the Veterans’ Committee). Maybe it’s time to reevaluate this oversight.
Congratulations to all those who participated in the 2016 MLB All Star Game. And congratulations to the American League for their victory in this midsummer classic that highlights some of the best in baseball. It is wonderful to see these talented players, but also to see how many family-friendly events surround this yearly game that builds a strong fan base and encourages young players, boys and girls, to dream one day of “making the bigs”!
On that note, I have been thinking of all the ways baseball games are about so much more than just sitting in a stadium watching players hit, pitch, field, or run the bases. It is about family and fun and relationships built around a common interest in this great game of baseball. With the first half of the season already in the record books, it seems to be a good time to be reminded why we love to go to the ballpark. To give a nod and a bit of thanks to those who make a day at the stadium a memorable event.
For Yankee fans, the moment we get off the train and Yankee Stadium comes into view, we know it is going to be a memory-making day. From the moment our tickets are scanned at Gate 6, the excitement is palpable as we get that first view of the field from the concourse and are welcomed by the ushers as we settle into our seats. With creative verse or song, the vendors hawk their hot dogs or cotton candy while roaming the aisles. The scoreboard is lit up with baseball trivia, player interviews, and current stats.
The Bleacher Creatures are gathering and preparing for roll call. Seatmates all over the stadium greet each other with smiles in hopes for a Yankee victory. Fans continue to filter into the stands wearing a variety of Yankee shirts and jackets with numbers honoring Mantle, Maris, Berra, Munson, and others. Players on the field begin their pre-game warm-ups. The news crews and photographers roam the field looking for stories and photos. New York’s Finest takes their places to keep an eye on over-exuberant fans.
The National Anthem is sung by a Broadway artist. The ceremonial first pitch is thrown by a former player or celebrity. Inning by inning, faithful fans cheer or laugh or sigh at the plays on the field. It’s as if the fans are playing the game with the team, anticipating every pitch and every play. Yankee fans are involved in the game and seatmates who didn’t know each other at the beginning of the game are conversing and cheering together.
Even the mid-game “Cap Game” and “Subway Races” are cheered by the crowd. The birthday announcements and marriage proposals on the marquee are applauded. The grounds crew dances their way around the bases. The crowd stands with thundering applause for the military men and women who are honored in the 7th inning as “God Bless America” is sung by another Broadway talent. And then, no matter the score, the true fans stay to end because, as Yogi used to say, “It ain’t over till it’s over!”
Exiting the stadium while Frank Sinatra serenades the fans with his iconic tune “New York, New York”, the stands empty onto the waiting trains. Another great day at the ballpark.
Across the league, this experience is repeated almost daily in different ways in different cities that best reflect their own teams. From mascot races, to running the bases, to trivia contests, to guest vocalists for the National Anthem or “God Bless America”, each team chooses what best reflects the values of their team and sets the tone to build a loyal fan base for baseball. Everyone who organizes or participates in any of these events is to be thanked by us all. You are part of why we love to come to the ballpark and call this game “America’s pastime”.
So, to include how other teams have chosen ways to celebrate the game and include fans, I have included the following videos from the first half of the 2016 season:
“God Bless America” as sung by Yarrick Conner, USN Petty Officer (several games including the 2016 All-Star Game); the 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus (Fort Bragg); and Mackenzie Walker (Houston Astros).
And here is living proof that baseball fans are ageless: we applaud the delightful Kitty Cohen, 103 years old, as she fulfills her baseball dream of running the bases at a Toronto Blue Jays game.
So here’s to a great second half of the 2016 MLB season. Looking forward to continuing the race for October! Play ball!
When I get asked “Who’s your favorite Yankee of all time?”, I always have one response: “Mickey Mantle, but not for reasons you think.” And while I’ve chronicled my all-time favorite Yankees in the Classic Era (Rizzuto & Ford, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Berra), the hardest one to write is Mantle’s because my reasons for dubbing him my favorite (and not just of this era) are complex and layered. Sure, he’s considered by most people to be one of the greatest players who ever picked up a bat and certainly has the Hall of Fame caliber statistics to back that up. But “the Mick”, like any player really, is so much more than numbers on a scorecard and a retired jersey on a plaque in center field.
Born into a working class mining family in rural Oklahoma in 1931, Mantle was named after his father’s favorite ball player Mickey Cochrane (a catcher playing for the Philadelphia Athletics when Mantle was born and would go on to inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1947). Well before the advent of Google, Mutt Mantle’s easy assumption saved his son from a lifetime of being called “Gordon”, which seemed to please Mickey in the long-run.
As a personal challenge, Mantle picked up switch hitting playing against his father (who pitched right) and his grandfather (who pitched left). Though he would always think of those men with great fondness, neither saw Mantle rise to his full potential because the Mantle men tended to die young (his grandfather died at age 60 in 1944, his father at age 40 in 1952 from Hodgkin’s disease). Athletic by nature it seemed, Mantle rooted for the Cardinals (as did most kids in the area) and played on his high school’s basketball, football, and baseball teams. Mantle was eventually offered a football scholarship, but turned it down in favor of pursuing his real love — baseball.
An incident on the football field came close to ending his life at one point. Following an injury at a practice game, Mantle’s left ankle became infected with a bone infection called osteomyelitis, but thanks to emergency medical intervention with the newest medical miracle known as penicillin, he was spared amputation, which had previously been the normal treatment. That same condition actually spared Mantle from the draft for the Korean War in both 1949 and 1951. Though he was deemed well enough to play ball (which caused many fans to cry foul at his deferment), a recurring knee injury gave Mantle the final service rejection in 1952. Mantle wasn’t ever meant to be a solider.
After spending a couple of years in the minor leagues, Mantle was asked to attend the Yankees Spring Training Camp in 1951. Excited by the prospect, manager Casey Stengel decided to put Mantle in right field, wearing #6, taking a chance on the 20-year-old, small-town kid. But all that pressure took its toll on the kid, and after a drastic slump, Mantle found himself on a bus to the Yankee’s minor league team in Kansas City and that slump kept growing. After frustratingly admitting failure and contemplating quitting baseball altogether, Mutt drove up to see him and began packing up his son’s things. Mickey remembers his father saying, “I thought I raised a man. I see I raised a coward instead. You can come back to Oklahoma and work the mines with me.” The slump was over. And just 40 games in Kansas City, Mantle was back in New York, with a new number on his back — one he would keep — #7.
Of course, that rookie season of someone like Mickey Mantle wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the World Series. (I should note they faced the same Giants that won that famous play-off game against the Dodgers, where Bobby Thompson hit the “shot heard ’round the world”.) But for Mantle, it would be the Series that really affected the rest of his career. In Game 2, he and DiMaggio went diving for a Willie Mays fly ball, and on his way to the ball (which DiMaggio would catch for the out), Mantle tripped over an exposed drain pipe and tore his ACL in his right knee. He was out for the rest of the series and would play the rest of his 18 year career never fully healed from that injury. In fact, it was the first of many injuries that seemed to plague him.
After the Yankees won the 1951 Series, DiMaggio retired and Stengel again bet on Mickey, putting him in center field. Over the next 17 years, Mantle would go on to bat a career average of .298, hit 536 home runs, 2,415 hits, and 1,509 RBIs for the Yankees. He was a 20-time All-Star (1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, and twice in each 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962), went to the World Series with the Yankees 12 times and won 7 rings as part of that dynasty (1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962), was voted the AL MVP 3 times (1956, 1957, 1962), and the AL home run champion 4 times (1955, 1956, 1958, 1960).
1956 was probably Mantle’s best year as a player, leading the league in runs (132), home runs (52), RBIs (130), and batting average (.353). He was easily elected AL MVP that year and earned that coveted Triple Crown. So by that famous 1961 season with the race to 61 with newly acquired Roger Maris (seen by many Mantle fans as a “lesser Mantle”), Mantle was not just a celebrated Yankee, he was an icon. (I should note here that Maris is one of my favorite players to ever don the pinstripes and all that vitriol poured on him during this season was ridiculously undeserved, as through it all, Maris maintained his class and composure like any true Yankee great.) The press hyped up the rivalry between the two teammates and friends, but Mantle had his own personal issues and that nagging recurring injury to be focused on some cooked-up PR stunt of a rivalry. Mantle would end up with 54 home runs, his own personal best, but Maris would go on to win that race in the last game of the season, with Mantle cheering him on every step of the way.
That Yankee dynasty progressively tapered off along with Mantle’s career during the mid-60’s, which led to Mantle’s ultimate retirement just before the start of the 1969 season, leaving a record of 2,401 games played as a Yankee. This record was broken by Derek Jeter in 2011, who currently sits at 2,602 games played as a Yankees going into the current 2014 season.
Mantle spent retirement like many ex-players do — in the broadcasting booth at times, at special events, writing a book (about his favorite playing season: 1956), and of course, receiving all due honors. On Mickey Mantle Day (June 8, 1969), the Yankees retired his #7 and permanently cemented his legacy in Monument Park, that commemorative plaque given to him by former teammate and friend DiMaggio. Mantle insisted that DiMaggio’s honor be hung higher than his, and it was until renovations (and eventually a new stadium) changed the whole layout of Monument Park. Though at teammate Yogi Berra’s museum, DiMaggio’s plaque is still hung higher than Mantle’s, solely on this request.
He was later elected to Cooperstown the same year as his former teammate Whitey Ford (1974). Voters elected Mantle on the first ballot with 88.2% of the votes, though I’d like to meet the 11.8% of the people who didn’t think he deserved the Hall of Fame (but then again, I wonder that every time I don’t see an obvious 100% on someone like Mantle).
While Mantle’s public life soared and excelled, his personal life was certainly a different story. Strongly advised by his father, he married young to his hometown girlfriend Merlyn in 1951 and they had 4 sons Mickey Jr., David, Billy (named for teammate Billy Martin), and Danny (born 1953, 1955, 1957, and 1960). Mantle’s love wasn’t as obvious for his wife and his sons as it was for alcohol, and he set an example as they all quickly joined him in alcoholism. Mantle wasn’t quiet about his drinking, nor about his marital infidelities, but the press certainly kept him in a good light.
Just after completing treatment, Billy Mantle died at the age of 36 due to heart damage from years of substance abuse. Despite all fears this might send him into relapse, still Mickey stayed sober. Mickey Jr. later died of liver cancer in 2000 (age 47), and Danny would battled but survive prostate cancer. But it was more than just treatment, for Mantle at this point in his life. He realized the impact of his poor life choices weren’t just youthful indiscretions and found a strong foundation with his new Christian faith (because of former teammate Bobby Richardson, an ordained Baptist minister). Mantle’s past regrets may have been numerous, but he wasn’t going to let his past dictate his future any longer.
He helped raise funds to rebuild the federal building in Oklahoma after the 1995 bombing, spent time with family as much as possible, and gave numerous speeches across the country. He spent much of his time asking young people not to look at him as a role model because he can’t imagine wanting to make those same mistakes again or wishing that life on anyone else.
Due to severe cirrhosis, Mantle received a liver transplant in June 1995. Just prior to the operation, the doctors found inoperable liver cancer. While in recovery, he started the Mickey Mantle foundation that raises awareness for organ donations and made peace with his then-estranged family. But he was quickly back in the hospital, as the cancer was spreading quickly through his body.
Mickey Mantle died at the age of just 63, August 13, 1995, Merlyn at his side. The Yankees beat Cleveland 4-1, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was played on the stadium organ, and the world began mourning the loss of #7.
Mantle is a great example of an excellent player who could have been so much greater. As he so readily admitted, it was his own selfishness that interfered with every aspect of his life. And when you look at his professional numbers and honors and accomplishments, it’s not so hard to imagine to what levels a sober life would have taken him. His character may have been questionable when he was in pinstripes (he wouldn’t have made my list had I been doing so in 1961), but he most certainly went out with class and dignity. And as they say, “once a Yankee…”
I mentioned before the Christmas break that I was working on some things for the off-season to gear up for this next one. I spent most of the day today working out a lot of the details for Spring Training, truly one of my favorite parts of the year (the Spring, not really the preparations for it). There’s something to be said for having something to look forward to in life. It gives you a sense of hope, a sense of joy really because something’s just around the bend that is different and new and could lead to unlimited possibilities.
But before we get too caught up in what could be, I want to focus a little on what was. As Yankees fans, we’re constantly reminded, by those who will remain nameless and less “celebrated”, that we can always look to the history of our favorite team to remind ourselves (and anyone who’ll listen) of our great history. And while I understand that can be a crutch to carry a weaker team through some tough seasons (is anyone else hearing “86 year curse” right now?), I think there’s something to be said for carrying on a legacy of greatness. A long line of men worked very hard, played with excellence, and got those 27 rings (well, 26 rings and a pocket watch), setting a standard not just for the Yankees, but for baseball in general.
But in that long line of history, I’m often asked “who is your favorite Yankee?” as I’m sure many of you Yankee fans are asked from time to time. And unlike some other teams, this isn’t an easy answer. There’s almost too many “great ones” to choose from. So, I break my own down my top 5 players like this: classic era (1903-1961), expansion era (1961-2013), and current roster (those only on the 2014 40-man roster). Recent retirees have altered my list a bit, but I think I’ve figured it out.
We’ll start with the most historic ones. So my personal favorite Yankees from the Classic Era of Baseball (1903-1961) are:
Mickey Mantle (#7) — played 1951-1968
Yogi Berra (#8) — played 1946-1965
Joe DiMaggio (#5) — played 1936-1951
Lou Gehrig (#4) — played 1923-1939
Phil Rizzuto (#10) — played 1941-1956 // Whitey Ford (#16) — played 1950-1967
(Notes: I know some of these played into the Expansion Era, but honestly, their best playing years were solidly within the original time frame. Also, this was very difficult because I wanted to limit myself to players who played only with the Yankees during their time as professional players, or else I would have included greats like Roger Maris. And I allowed myself a tie on my fifth selection which I’ll explain in a later post.)
So, I hope I got you thinking now. Who are your favorites from that Classic Era? I know people wonder why I omitted certain choices, but if you remember my original criteria for who I think makes a great baseball player (ability, teamwork, and character), my decisions might make a bit more sense. Or maybe not. But I will take a post to explain each selection in the coming days (barring any further breaking news), and I’m curious to hear your responses and your selections. Use the comment section below to explain your choices.
Seeing as we have a nice off day today and the players are gallivanting around Tampa, I thought I’d use this opportunity to turn back the clock and look at two events that occurred on May 23rd in Yankee history. And in light of the recent touch of home run streaks, I thought both instances were appropriately timed.
Sunday, May 23, 1948, the Yankees were scheduled to play at Cleveland in a doubleheader. In the first game, Yankees great Joe DiMaggio hit three consecutive home runs (his 8th, 9th, and 10th of the season he hit 39 total). The first two alone were off future Hall of Famer Bob Feller (considered one of the Indians’ greats). That day, the Yankees beat the Tribe 6-5, DiMaggio was responsible for all 6 runs scored that game. I should note that they dropped the second game to the Indians 1-5, DiMaggio going 0-for-3 with a walk in that game.
For further reference that year, the Yankees 2.5 games behind, Cleveland won a one game playoff against the Boston Red Sox to get into the World Series against NL champions the Boston Braves. Cleveland would go on to win the Series in 6 games, for the second and last time in their franchise history. It was DiMaggio who led the league in home runs and runs batted in. But DiMaggio lost the AL MVP award to Lou Boudreau that year. Boudreau was the player-manager of the Indians. Another contender for the award was Boston’s Ted Williams who batted .369. The NL MVP went to Cardinal’s Stan Musial who batted .376, led the league in runs scored, runs batted in, hits, doubles, and triples — easily one of Musial’s best years as a player.
On Wednesday, May 23, 1962, the Kansas City Athletics were about halfway through the stint in the Midwest, an unimpressive showing on their way to Oakland by the end of the decade. And that day, they played at the original Yankee Stadium. By the 7th inning, Kansas City had racked up 7 runs to the Yankees’ 4. I’m sure at this point, Kansas City thought they were sitting pretty, sending in their starter to the 8th inning to continue their way to the win. But like a certain man who drew a walk that inning for the Yankees famously said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” And the Yankees suddenly pounced. Right off the bat, Joe Pepitone hits a home run. The starting pitcher is replaced and his next two batters (including Roger Maris) walk. Elston Howard (the first African-American Yankee) smacks a single to plate Maris. The score is now 6-7. Pinch hitter Berra draws a walk to load the bases (and is replaced by a pinch runner).
The next batter singles home Howard and another runner — 8-7. The next batter, a pinch hitter, walks to load the bases again. A single from Bobby Richardson easily scores another runner — 9-7. Finally, the Athletics replace their pitcher who clearly had a hard time finding the strike zone. A fly ball becomes a sacrifice fly scoring a runner — 10-7. And then Joe Pepitone is back for more damage — a 3-run home run to bring the final score to 13-7 Yankees. After the bases are cleared, the pitcher is able to get the next two batters out to mercifully end the inning. Joe Pepitone’s two home runs in one inning made him the second player in Yankee history to do so. Joe DiMaggio was the first Yankee to do so in his rookie year (1936).
I should note that 1962 was also one of the many years that the Yankees won the World Series. The Yankees won over the San Francisco Giants, taking it in a full seven games. I should note that technically, the Giants outplayed the Yankees in the Series, but as usual, the Yankees knew how to garner the runs that make a win a win. And it was Mickey Mantle, who watched the rout from the dugout that day on his off day, who took home the AL MVP. Mantle hit his 400th career homer in September of that year.
I guess it just serves as a reminder that you never know when the right hit or the right turn or the right moment is suddenly upon you. But when it is, jump on it. Go for it. You never know what can happen if you just go for it. And even if you fail, at least you won’t regret not doing it.
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.
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