Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Top 10 Yankee First Basemen

The batteries are done. As Tony Reali would say on ESPN, Let's go around the horn!

Honorable Mention to Bob Watson. He was only a Yankee for 2 seasons and the start of a 3rd, 1980-82, but batted .307 in '80, his only full season in The Bronx, and was the general manager who built the 1996 World Champions.

10. Mark Teixeira, 2009-present. He'll be 31 shortly after Opening Day, and has had only 2 full seasons in Pinstripes. But they've been fantastic seasons: In 2009, he led the AL with 39 homers and 122 RBIs, batting .292; in 2010, he dipped to .256, but still hit 33 homers with 108 RBIs. That's 72 homers as a Yankee, 275 overall. His 2 100-RBI seasons with the Yankees makes 7 overall. His OPS+ was 141in '09 and 125 in '10, and it's 134 for his career. It's too early to say that he'll get Number 25 retired, a Plaque in Monument Park, and election to the Hall of Fame. But I wouldn't bet against any of those.

9. Johnny Mize, 1949-53. He put up big numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants before being acquired by the Yanks, and at age 36, most people thought he was done. Manager Casey Stengel thought otherwise, and the Big Cat was an All-Star twice more, with a 116 OPS+ as a Yankee. (That's well below his career OPS+ of 158, which got him, albeit belatedly, into the Hall of Fame.) He was with the Yankees 5 seasons, and they won the World Series all 5. He wore Number 10 as a Cardinal, 3 as a Giant before going off to World War II and 15 after coming back. As a Yankee, he wore 36, probably the best Yankee to wear the number until David Cone.

8. Wally Pipp, 1915-25. He's remembered today as the man whose headache -- possibly as a result of getting beaned in those pre-batting helmet days -- allowed Lou Gehrig to step in and not miss a game for 14 years. This led to anyone thinking about asking for a day off to worry about "getting pipped." It's not fair, because Pipp was, by the standards of his time, a very good player.

He led the AL in home runs in 1916 and '17 -- albeit, in those last few years of the Dead Ball Era, with 12 and 9 homers in those seasons. He led the AL with 19 triples in 1924, his last full season as a Yankee. He batted .300 3 times and just missed 2 others. He hit 311 doubles despite playing his last game at age 35 (he closed his career with the Cincinnati Reds from 1926 to '28) and in the parks of the time, most of which had faraway center field fences. And, yes, he helped the Yankees win the 1921 and '22 Pennants and the '23 World Series. He is worth remembering, and for his presence, not just his absence, whatever the real cause.

7. Chris Chambliss, 1974-79. The 1971 AL Rookie of the Year came to the Yankees on April 26, 1974 in a controversial trade that sent 3 party-boy pitchers to the Cleveland Indians. With Watergate in the headlines, some called the trade the Friday Night Massacre. But it was a great trade: None of the guys going to Cleveland did anything for the Indians, while the Yankees got Chambliss and Dick Tidrow, a versatile pitcher without whom the 1976, '77 and '78 Pennants would not have been won.

Nor would they have been won without Chambliss. He gave the Yankees their first really reliable 1st baseman since Moose Skowron -- say what you want about Joe Pepitone, but "reliable" is not an adjective that comes to mind. You need 17 homers in a season? You need 90 RBIs? You need a good glove at 1st? Chambliss was your man. He was an All-Star in 1976, and he gave the season its exclamation point on October 14, hitting a home run to win Game 5 of the ALCS and then Pennant over the Kansas City Royals. He also hit a home run that tied Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, setting up The Reggie Jackson Show. Speaking of Reggie, he was in the ABC booth for that '76 ALCS, assisting Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell, and he said it was a shame that there was no MVP award for the ALCS at the time: Chambliss batted .512 with 2 homers and 8 RBIs, meaning that if the award had been in place, he might have won it even without his capper. Overall, he batted .282 as a Yankee, and his career postseason average was nearly identical, .281. He hit 185 homers, 79 as a Yankee.

The Yankees sent him to the Toronto Blue Jays after the 1979 season, to get Rick Cerone to fill the catching void caused by the death of Thurman Munson, while Watson came in to play 1st in 1980 and '81. But the Jays foolishly traded Chambliss to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Barry Bonnell, who did nothing in Toronto. Chambliss helped the Braves win the NL West in 1982 (their only postseason appearance from 1969 to 1991), and forged a friendship with manager Joe Torre that led to being hired as Torre's hitting instructor when he managed the St. Louis Cardinals and later the Yankees.

Chambliss was recently hired as the hitting instructor for the Seattle Mariners. His Number 10 has been retired by the Yankees, albeit for Phil Rizzuto. But he should be remembered as a fine player, and not just for one amazing moment, a hot bat on a cold night in The Bronx.

6. Joe Pepitone, 1962-69. The Brooklyn native played his last big-league game at age 32. He said that once his father, his biggest fan, died, he began to lose interest. Clearly, he was one of these guys who was more interested in being a star than in being a great athlete. He knew he'd blown it: He titled his memoir Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud.

He sure could have. After a cup of coffee in '62, the Yankees traded Moose Skowron to make room for him, and at first it worked. He was an All-Star the next 3 seasons, helping the Yankees win Pennants in '63 and '64, hitting a grand slam in Game 6 of the '64 Series. But that was the high-water mark, and he was only 24. Despite 3 Gold Gloves and 219 homers (166 as a Yankee), Joe played himself out of baseball, and I don't mean on the field: Times Square when he was with the Yankees, Rush Street when he was with the Chicago Cubs, and the Ginza in his brief, scandalous (over there, anyway) tenure in Japan. His post-baseball life has had its difficulties as well. He now lives on Long Island, and has kept his nose (and liver) clean for about 15 years.

Fast facts with which you can amaze your friends: Like John Lennon, Joe Pepitone was born on October 9, 1940, made his "big-league debut" in 1962, was a huge star by 1964, but left his "group" in 1969. Too bad Joe never found his "Yoko": He's been divorced 3 times. But at least he's alive, which is not true of John, and back in the good graces of Yankee management, for whom he does public-relations work. He will never get a Monument Park Plaque, or Number 25 retired in his honor. But he's doing okay now, and that's not something that could always be said of him.

5. Jason Giambi, 2002-08. Okay, the Giambino, shall we say, had help. Unlike those lying AND cheating bastards David Ortiz, Mark McGwire, Ivan Rodriguez and Luis Gonzalez, all of whom contributed to Yankee postseason defeats, Giambi was man enough to admit it and stop.

He recently turned 40, and re-signed with the Colorado Rockies, so they, as well as he, think he's not done yet. He has 415 career home runs, 209 with the Yankees. He helped the Yankees to the postseason 6 straight times, and his 2 homers kept the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Roid Sox long enough for the alleged Curse of the Bambino to work one last time. (Unless you count that 13-inning dance of death of July 1, 2004, featuring Derek Jeter flying into the stands -- and I don't count it as part of The Curse.) He hit at least 30 homers in 5 Yankee seasons, and had 100 or more RBIs in 3. He's a 5-time All-Star, 3 as a Yankee. He flopped in the '03 World Series (.235) and the '06 ALDS (.125), but overall he's got a .911 OPS in postseason play.

He'll never make the Hall of Fame or Monument Park, and his Number 25 stands a much better chance of being retired for Teixeira than for Giambi (or Pepitone), but it's unfair to call Giambi's tenure in Pinstripes a failure. After all, he was better over those particular seasons than Tino Martinez was.

4. Bill "Moose" Skowron, 1954-62. A 6-time All-Star, he hit 211 home runs (165 as a Yankee) in spite of playing his entire career in pitcher's parks, particularly as a right-handed hitter in the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium, with its 402 feet to straightaway left, 457 to left-center and 461 to center. In spite of those dimensions, Moose still hit 28 home runs in 1961 -- joining with Roger Maris' 61 and Mickey Mantle's 54 to produce 143 home runs, still the highest total ever by 3 teammates. A great fielder for a big man. (Although the nickname "Moose" had nothing to do with his size: As a kid, he got a crewcut, and someone said it made him look like Benito Mussolini. He still has a crewcut today, only now his hairline has receded to the point where it looks okay.)

He won 8 Pennants (1955, '56, '57, '58, '60, '61, '62 and '63 -- the last after being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers to make room for Pepitone) and (1956, '58, '61, '62 and '63 -- 4 with the Yanks, 1 with the Dodgers). He is also one of the few players to hit World Series home runs for both leagues, including a grand slam in Game 7 of the '56 Series against the Dodgers in the last postseason game ever played in Brooklyn.

Moose, once again living near his native Chicago, is a member of the National Polish-American Hall of Fame -- that's for all walks of life, not just sports. Na zdrowie, Moose. I have another reason for liking him: We share a birthday, December 18, albeit 39 years apart. (Another player with that birthday, Gino Cimoli, died this week. He was an outfielder who hit 40 doubles for the '59 Cards, and his 15 triples for the Kansas City Athletics led the AL in '62.)

3. Don Mattingly, 1982-95. Only Number 3? This is the New York Yankees. We are about winning World Championships. He never even won a postseason series. Donnie Regular Season Baseball.

But if I'm going to be completely fair, I not only have to say all of that, but I have to say all of this: The guy did more than anybody in those years to get the Yankees there, and, talk of mythical sports-related curses aside, it wasn't his fault that it didn't happen. His 145 RBI in 1985 were the most by a Yankee since Joe DiMaggio in 1948. His .352 batting average in 1986, although not enough to win the AL batting title as his .343 was in 1984, is the highest by a Yankee in a full season since Mickey Mantle in 1956. (Paul O'Neill batted .359 in strike-shortened 1994.) His 238 hits in 1986 are a Yankee record (breaking the 231 by Earle Combs in 1927). He's probably the best-fielding 1st baseman in Yankee history (although see Wally Pipp above), winning 9 Gold Gloves.

No, he never won a World Series, a Pennant, or a postseason series. And he was far from, as Michael Kay of the YES Network puts it, "the most popular athlete in New York history." But Don Mattingly earned his Monument Park Plaque and the retirement of his Number 23.

2. Tino Martinez, 1996-2001, with a brief comeback in 2005. The Bamtino ahead of Donnie Baseball? Blasphemy! No, it's not, and I'll give you 4 reasons why: 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. In 1997 -- oddly, not one of the Yanks' Pennant years -- he had 141 RBIs, and his 44 homers were the most by a Yankee between Roger Maris (and Mickey Mantle) in 1961 and Alex Rodriguez in 2005. He hit 339 home runs, 192 as a Yankee. And he hit 2 of the most dramatic homers in Yankee history, the grand slam that won Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, and the homer that sent Game 4 of the 2001 Series to extra innings.

Tino will never make the Hall of Fame. Baseball-Reference.com lists his "10 Most Similar Batters" as Lee May, Gil Hodges, George Foster, Paul Konerko, Boog Powell, Joe Adcock, Jack Clark, Willie Horton, Norm Cash and Derrek Lee. Konerko has a shot at the Hall (he'll be 35 in March and already has 365 homers despite playing his entire career in pitcher's parks), and Hodges should be in, but none of the others ever will be. And at the rate Robinson Cano is going, he's a much more likely candidate to get Number 24 retired for him. But Tino deserves a Monument Park Plaque. As much as anyone else, he was one of the guys who got the Yankees over the hump in 1996, and kept them there into the dawn of the 21st Century.

1. Lou Gehrig, 1923-39. When Major League Baseball and MasterCard did the balloting for the All-Century Team in 1999, Gehrig got the most votes. Even more than Babe Ruth. How do you sum up Gehrig briefly? Said All-Century Team. Hall of Fame. His Number 4 was the first to be retired in all of baseball. A Monument -- not a Plaque -- in Monument Park. First Yankee to win the Triple Crown. Illness stopped him just short of 500 homers and 2,000 RBI. His brief callup in 1923 did not allow him to play in that year's World Series, but he played for the Yankees in 7 World Series (1926, '27, '28, '32, '36, '37 and '38), winning all but the first and as Captain for the last 4 of those. Moreover, when people think "Yankee Captain," the first name that comes to mind is not Derek Jeter or Thurman Munson, it's Lou Gehrig.

That's almost certainly due to the film The Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper. The film doesn't really hold up well: Cooper looked like Gehrig, but didn't sound like him, and had never played baseball in his life, while it's not really a movie about a baseball player, it's a love story between Lou and Eleanor (played by Teresa Wright), and the leading man's job happened to be that of baseball player. But the story is timeless, because Lou was timeless. The Iron Horse still runs, if only in our memories. A person would have to be about 75 years old now to have seen him play, and closer to 80 to remember him at his peak. But because of the movie, and because the Yankees have been so good at presenting their history, this man who died 70 years ago this June is still with us. Lou Gehrig lives.

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