Thursday, February 17, 2011

Top 10 Yankee Second Basemen

Honorable Mention to Brian Doyle, for stepping in for the injured Willie Randolph in September and October 1978, and helping to put the finishing touches on what was, until 1996, my favorite baseball season. Speaking of which...

Honorable Mention also to Mariano Duncan. He was only a Yankee for a season and a half, but that full season was 1996, when the Bronx Bombers won the World Series, with Duncan batting .340 and giving the team its motto: "We play today, we win today, das it."

10. Horace Clarke, 1965-74. The native of the Virgin Islands had terrible timing, getting to the big leagues right as the old dynasty was collapsing, and tailing off just as it was all coming back together. For years, he was the answer to a trivia question: "Who was the only player to play 10 years for the New York Yankees without winning a Pennant?" There is, of course, now one who played 14 seasons for the Yankees without winning one, Don Mattingly.

Clarke wasn't a terrible ballplayer -- you generally don't last that long if you are. But he was a typical middle infielder of his time, "good field, no hit." He batted .285 in 1969, but that was pretty much as good as it got: He never topped 6 home runs (1966) or 48 RBI (1969), was a good but not exceptional base stealer (also topped out in that stat in '69, with 33), and never won a Gold Glove or made the All-Star Team. He gave his best, and was hardly the worst of the players the Yankees had when CBS was running the team (into the ground). Roy White, who came up at the same time and did last long enough to help the Yankees win titles, paid him a pretty good compliment: "A 100 percent player. He wanted to play everyday."

9. Aaron Ward, 1917-26. If you say you saw him play, either you're over 90 years old, or you've got a time machine, or you're lying. But somebody had to be the first Yankee 2nd baseman to win a Pennant and the first to win a World Series. This Arkansas was the Yanks' regular "keystone sacker" from 1920 to '25, and batted .306 in '21 to help win that first Pennant. The coming of Tony Lazzeri was the beginning of the end for him, but it should not be forgotten that he was at the beginning of the original Yankee Dynasty.

8. Billy Martin, 1950-57. Let's clear something up: Billy was batting .241 when he was sent to the Kansas City Athletics at the trading deadline, June 15, 1957. True, he was at the Copacabana Club that night a month earlier, but he never threw a punch, and it can be legitimately argued that he was traded because he wasn't hitting. Nevertheless, prior to that, Billy had his moments. He was a good fielder, and in 1953 hit 15 homers with 75 RBIs. In all 7 seasons he played for the Yankees, 1950 to '57, they won the Pennant. They failed to win it in '54, when Billy was in the Army. (The Korean War was over, but he got drafted anyway.) He never got tired of pointing out that fact.

In the 1952 World Series, his catch of a bases-loaded popup by Jackie Robinson, lost in the sun by all the other infielders, ended a potential Dodger rally and saved a Game 7 lead for the Yankees. In 1953, he got 12 hits, tying a Series record (since broken), and his 12th and final hit drove home the Series-winning run in Game 6. He batted .257 during the regular season, but .333 in the 4 World Series where he was a regular. Counting only full seasons, Billy was a member of 4 Pennant winners (1952, '53, '55 and '56) and 3 World Champions (all but '55). In those 4 Series, he played every game, despite the potential availability of Jerry Coleman.

It was his managing, from 1975 to '78 (and 4 more times between '79 and '88) that got him his Plaque in Monument Park and the retirement of his Number 1. But for most of his playing career, Billy was a good player. Yankee general manager George Weiss said he was a "bad influence" on his teammates, especially Mickey Mantle. Oh yeah? As Mickey himself said, "In 1956, I roomed with Billy and I won the Triple Crown and the MVP. How bad an influence could he have been? Then they traded him, and they realized it was Whitey (Ford) who was the bad influence on me."

7. Jerry Coleman, 1949-57. Billy's fellow native of the San Francisco Bay Area (San Jose and later San Francisco, as opposed to Billy's Berkeley) both preceded and outlasted him. Coleman served in both World War II (delaying his big-league debut) and the Korean War (causing him to miss all but the start of the '52 season and all but the end of '53), and was a renowned Marine Corps -- though he's said many times he doesn't consider himself a hero.

In 1949, his 8th-inning double in the season finale against the Boston Red Sox clinched the Pennant, putting him on the way to winning a World Series ring in his rookie season. He remained the Yanks' regular 2nd baseman in '50 and '51, with his reserve callup into the Corps giving Billy his chance. He was the regular again in '54 when Billy was in the service, but once Billy came back, that was it for him. Still, he won 5 Pennants (1949, '50, '51, '55 and '56) and was on the World Series roster for 4 titles (all but '55).

Coleman went into the broadcast booth, teaming with former double-play partner Phil Rizzuto for a few years -- what a mess that must've been, between Phil's whacked-out stories and Jerry's "Colemanisms" -- before going to the expansion San Diego Padres. He has been the voice of the team almost throughout their history, and for this service received the Ford Frick Award, the broadcasters' equivalent of election to the Hall of Fame.

Like Ralph Kiner with the Mets and Herb Score with the Cleveland Indians, Jerry is known for malaprops, such as "Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen," and a line used on a Padre star who became a Yankee star: "There's a long fly ball, deep to right field, Winfield's racing back, he hits his head against the wall! It's rolling away!" But he's also known for his equivalent of Rizzuto's "Holy Cow": "Oh, doctor! You can hang a star on that baby!" For this, his notation along with the Padres' retired numbers at Petco Park is a star. The uniform number he wore with the Yankees will be retired, but it's 42, so it will be retired for Mariano Rivera (and, officially, is already retired for Jackie Robinson).

6. Bobby Richardson, 1955-66. After brief callups in 1955 and '56, Richardson stepped into the void caused by the trade of Martin in '57 and was the Yanks' starting 2nd baseman for the next 10 years, winning 7 Pennants (1957, '58, '60, '61, '62, '63 and '64) and 3 World Series (1958, '61 and '62). He made 7 All-Star Teams. In 1961, the first season of the 162-game schedule, he became the first player ever to play in 162 games in a season. In '62, he set major-league records with 754 plate appearances and 692 at-bats (both since broken), got a League-leading 209 hits, batted .302 and finished 2nd to Mickey Mantle in the MVP voting -- after Mantle, asked in an interview who should get the MVP, said it should be Richardson.

Richardson's 2 most impressive feats came in losing causes. In the 1960 World Series, he collected a record 12 RBIs, including a grand slam, but the Yankees lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1964, he became the first player to get 13 hits in a World Series (since tied but not broken), but the Yanks lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. But he's best known for catching a Willie McCovey line drive that ended a San Francisco Giant threat and preserved Ralph Terry's 1-0 shutout to win Game 7 of the 1962 Series. He was a .266 hitter in the regular season, but batted .305 in Series play.

Injuries forced his retirement at age 31. He became an ordained minister, and the head baseball coach at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia, and, in his home State, at Coastal Carolina University and the University of South Carolina, leading them to the Final of the 1975 College World Series. Rev. Richardson presided over Mantle's funeral in Dallas in 1995.

5. Chuck Knoblauch, 1998-2001. Go ahead, make your jokes. And, I admit it, after that "Knob-block-head" play in the 1998 ALCS, I personally wanted to beat him to death with my own hands. But this man won 4 World Series rings, in 1991 with the Minnesota Twins (he was AL Rookie of the Year that season) and in '98, '99 and 2000 with the Yankees, and another Pennant in '01. His home runs tied up Game 1 in '98 and Game 3 in '99, and his sacrifice fly sent Game 1 in 2000 into extra innings, making Yankee wins in those games possible. He started the rally that won Game 5 in '01, scoring the winning run.

He made 4 All-Star Games. He led the AL in doubles in 1994 (had 45, a great total for a full season, in 2/3 of a season before the strike hit) and in triples in 1996. He had 3 .300 seasons and just missed a 4th. He had over 300 doubles and 400 stolen bases despite playing only 12 big-league seasons before whatever happened to his throwing also began to affect his hitting. But he still hit .289 for his career.

4. Robinson Cano, 2005-present. Already? Yes, it's been 6 full seasons, haven't you noticed? Named after Jackie Robinson and wearing Number 24, the reverse of 42 as a tribute, Robbie was 2nd in the race for AL Rookie of the Year in 2005 and 3rd for MVP in 2010. He's already been to 2 All-Star Games and won a Gold Glove. His "lifetime" batting average is .309 and his OPS+ 117 -- double-play partner Derek Jeter is at .314 and 119, so Cano is doing just fine. Last year was his first 100-RBI season, and his 4th of at least 40 doubles.

And he's only 28. He's getting better, with the apparent declines of Jeter and Alex Rodriguez he may already be the best player on the Yankees and one of the top 10 in all of baseball, and, barring a medical or ethical calamity, will become the greatest 2nd baseman in Yankee history within 5 years. If he doesn't end up in the Hall of Fame, I will be very surprised.

3. Willie Randolph, 1976-88. The first Yankee 2nd baseman I knew, and still the best in my memory. He got a cup of coffee with the Pirates in 1975, and was on their postseason roster as they won the NL East. Then he was on 3 straight Pennant winners with the Yankees, winning the Pennant in '76 and the World Series in '77 and '78, although he got hurt in September '78 and missed the postseason. In fact, starting in '75, he reached the postseason in 6 of his first 7 seasons.

But that was it, and the rest of his career, while respectable, came with lots of injuries. His last 4 seasons in Pinstripes, '85 through '88, he missed significant time each year; each year, the Yankees were in first place late, but didn't make the Playoffs. His injury shortly after the 1987 All-Star Game was particularly troublesome, as the Yanks went from 1st to 4th in the AL East before he came back. Still, he twice batted .300, had 2,210 hits (1,731 as a Yankee), 271 stolen bases (252 as a Yankee), made 6 All-Star Games (5 as a Yankee), and was as dependable at getting on base and fielding his position as anybody the Yankees have had in my lifetime.

After bouncing around for 4 years, he returned to the Yankees in 1993, first as an assistant general manager, then as 3rd base coach, winning 4 more rings and guiding several young players including Derek Jeter. In 2005, he became the first black manager in New York -- albeit with the Mets, the team he grew up rooting for in Brooklyn (though he was born in South Carolina). He got the Mets to the 2006 NL East title (their only first-place finish since 1988), but we know how that ended. The Mets were still in contention for another Division Title on the final day in 2007, but we know how that ended. Then came the Midnight Massacre (not to be confused with the one the Mets pulled on Tom Seaver in '77), and "Witless Willie," as the Mets' buh-rilliant fans called him, was gone. It wasn't just the results they hated: They hated him because he was a Yankee. Then Jerry Manuel was hired as Met manager and proved that it wasn't Willie's fault at all.

Buck Showalter, under whom Willie coached from 1993 to '95, has just hired him as his bench coach for the Baltimore Orioles. Willie does not have a Monument Park Plaque, and his Number 30 will probably never be retired. But on Old-Timers' Day in 2008, shortly after being fired by The Other Team, he got the biggest ovation of the day -- bigger than Yogi, Whitey, Reggie or Donnie. And in the pregame cermonies for the final game at the old Stadium, Willie, then 54 years old, ran out to his old position and slid into the base, to another thunderous ovation. It may have been 2nd base he was standing on, but, a Yankee forever, he was, truly, safe at home.

2. Joe Gordon, 1938-46. One of many West Coasters to come east in the 1920s and '30s to put on the Pinstripes. With the science-fiction movie serial becoming a phenomenon in the Thirties, it surprised no one that he was nicknamed Flash Gordon, and he certainly knew what it was to "flash the leather." There was no Gold Glove Award until 1957, but Gordon would have been a perennial contender.

But it's not his glove that finally, over 30 years after his death in 1978, got him into the Hall of Fame. Unusual for a 2nd baseman in those days, he was a heck of a hitter. A 9-time All-Star, he had a 120 career OPS+, and collected 1,530 hits in only 11 seasons. In 1942, he was named AL MVP even though Ted Williams won the Triple Crown. Red Sox fans are still pissed about that, but it's Most Valuable Player, not Most Outstanding, and Gordon led the Yankees to the Pennant with a .322 average, 29 doubles, 18 homers, 103 RBIs and 12 stolen bases (not much, but then the Yankees rarely needed a running game until Billy Martin became manager so this was a lot for a Yankee).

Gordon then missed 3 seasons due to World War II, and had a bad first season back in 1946. Then the Yankees pulled off a stunning trade, sending Gordon to the Cleveland Indians, straight-up, for pitcher Allie Reynolds. This may have been the greatest trade in baseball history, because it worked wonders for both teams. Reynolds became the ace of a staff that won 6 of the next 7 World Series. The one AL Pennant the Yanks didn't win in that stretch was in 1948, when Gordon and his manager and double-play partner Lou Boudreau led the Tribe to what is still their last World Championship. Gordon later became a manager, taking the Indians to a 2nd place finish in 1959 and, 10 years later, becoming the first manager of the expansion Kansas City Royals.

1. Tony Lazzeri, 1926-37. Yet another -- perhaps the first -- great player who came out of the Pacific Coast League to star with the Yankees. Like Joe DiMaggio, basketball pioneer Hank Luisetti, and football legend turned criminal defendant O.J. Simpson, he came out of Galileo High School in San Francisco, and became a star on the playing fields of the Bay Area. In 1925, playing for the Salt Lake Bees, he became the first player in the history of professional baseball to hit 60 home runs -- albeit in the PCL, where the weather allowed them a 200-game schedule. But it was enough for the Yankees to send the Bees 3 players and $50,000 for him. As sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar would say, these were Coolidge dollars: It's about $625,000 in today's money.

He wasn't the first Italian player in Major League Baseball, but he was the first who was that good, and New York's Italian community saw runners on base and yelled from the stands, "Push them up, Tony!" In their accent, he became known as Poosh-em-Up Tony. In his first big-league season, 1926, the Yankees won the Pennant. Unfortunately, the Yanks lost the World Series to the Cardinals, with aging legend Grover Cleveland Alexander coming out of the bullpen to strike Lazzeri out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th in Game 7. It is still the most famous strikeout in baseball history, save for the fictional one of the poem "Casey At the Bat."

It didn't faze the 22-year-old star. He helped the Yankees win 6 Pennants (1926, '27, '28, '32, '36 and '37) and 5 World Series (never losing one after that first). In 5 seasons he batted at least .300, and 7 times he had at least 100 RBIs. In 1933, he was the American League's starting 2nd baseman in the first All-Star Game. In 1937, he dropped from a .287 average the year before to .244, and Gordon was brought in to replace him. He signed with the Chicago Cubs, and in 1938 won one more Pennant, but losing the Series to the Yankees. He hung on in the high minors until 1943, age 39.

In 1945, in an interview for John P. Carmichael's classic book My Greatest Day In Baseball, Alexander chose that 1926 Game 7, and mentioned that, just the other day in New York, he'd met Lazzeri on the street, and said, referencing how many times he'd been asked to tell the story, "Tony, I'm getting tired of fanning you." Lazzeri didn't think it was funny, and said, "Maybe you think I'm not!" Sadly, within 5 years, both men would be dead. On August 6, 1946, Lazzeri, who had epilepsy, suffered a seizure at his San Francisco home, fell down the stairs, and broke his neck, killing him at age 42. Alexander, by a sad twist of fate, also had epilepsy, but it was not that but alcoholism that ruined his health and led to his death in 1950, at 63. Alexander did live long enough attend his election to the Hall of Fame in 1938. Lazzeri, with only 14 big-league seasons under his belt, didn't make it until well after his death, in 1991.

I chose him as the greatest Yankee 2nd baseman because he was the first Yankee 2nd baseman elected to the Hall; Gordon recently joined him. But there is no consensus that Lazzeri was better than Gordon; in fact, a lot of people disagree. As a result of there not being a consensus on who the all-time Yankee 2nd baseman is, neither Lazzeri nor Gordon has a Plaque in Monument Park. Nor has the Number 6 that both wore for most of their careers been retired for either of them -- it will almost certainly be retired, but for Joe Torre. And there are very few fans left who saw either of them at their peak. But they deserve to be remembered.

3 comments:

Glenn Castillo said...

Uncle Mike ! Thanks for all the work you put In to educate us all... Thanks again

Mantle77777 said...

Chuck Knoblauch had his best years with the Twins. Only played three years of second base with the Yankees. Never made an all star team or won a gg with the Yankees and is a proven steroid user. Shouldn't even be on the list. Oh yeah, did I mention he couldn't throw either.

Christopher Atwood said...

Snuffy Stirnweiss definitely should be on this list. He was almost as good a fielder as Gordon, won a batting title, and could steal bases, too. One of my all-time favorite Yankees. Also, ranking Tino Martinez above Don Mattingly is, I'm sorry, just asinine (I was at his plaque day, and it was something special)! You're better than that, Mike.