Monday, March 21, 2016

Top 10 Yankee Left Fielders

This is a tough one. Several center and right fielders in Yankee history have also played left field at various times in their careers, including Major League Baseball All-Century Team honorees Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. I decided to limit this to only players who are best known for playing the position.

That gets harder when you consider that, from 1955 to ’58, the Yankees’ main left fielder was Elston Howard, who was a catcher by trade, but was waiting behind Yogi Berra. In 1959, Yogi’s decline began, although he could still hit, and he and Ellie switched positions. So both Yogi, who remained the starting left fielder until 1962, and Ellie could be among the Top 10 Yankee Left Fielders -- even among the Top 5. But I won't, since I’ve already included them in the Top 10 Yankee Catchers. That means there’s going to be a big gap from 1955 to 1962, one of the most successful periods in Yankee history. This also lets out Johnny Damon.

Honorable Mention to William “Birdie” Cree, 1908-15. The 1st time I did this, I put him at Number 10. He got his nickname because he liked to whistle. He twice batted over .300 and helped the Highlanders/Yankees finish 2nd in 1910. In 1911, he batted .348 with 30 doubles, 22 triples, 4 homers and 88 RBIs.

Dishonorable Mention to Ben Chapman (1930-36) and Jake Powell (1936-40). Chapman was a member of the 1932 World Champions, a .302 lifetime hitter, a 4-time All-Star, and one of the few base-stealing threats the Yankees had between the 1920 arrival of Babe Ruth and the 1975 return of Billy Martin.

But as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947, he led the most vicious bench-jockeying any athlete has ever received, the noxious racial abuse hurled by the Phils at Jackie Robinson. The backlash got so bad that it was recommended that, when the Dodgers got to Philadelphia, the two men pose for a conciliatory picture. But the Alabama-born Chapman refused to shake hands with Robinson, settling instead for posing with the two of them holding the same bat.

The next year, with the Phillies having rising stars like Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts but still far behind the National League lead, Chapman was fired, and, except for a brief tenure as a Reds coach, never worked in the game again. And the Phillies began to get better, winning the Pennant in 1950. This was the last NL Pennant won by an all-white team, and the Phils would be the last NL team to integrate, in 1957.

Years later, Chapman would admit he had gone too far with Robinson. Powell did not. He was, effectively, Champman's replacement as Yankee left fielder, and was a member of the 4 straight World Championship teams of 1936-39.

But in 1938, with the Yankees in Chicago, White Sox broadcaster Bob Elson interviewed him for a pregame radio show, and asked Powell what he did in the off-season. The native of the suburbs of Washington, D.C. said he was a police officer in Dayton, Ohio. Asked what he did to keep in shape, Powell told Elson, "Crack (N-word)s over the head with my nightstick."

Even as notorious a racist as Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis knew this was too much – and, as a former federal judge, probably also cared that his claim of being a lawman was a bald-faced lie – and he suspended Powell for 8 games. Two years later, Powell was out of The Bronx, and was out of the game by 1945. In 1948, arrested for public drunkenness, he grabbed a cop's gun and shot himself, an ironic end considering what he’s best known for.

10. Brett Gardner, 2008-present. Along with Alex Rodriguez, Gardy is the last remaining Yankee who played home games at the old Yankee Stadium. Like Willie Randolph, he was born in Holly Hill, South Carolina; unlike Willie, his family stayed there, and he grew up there. Like Willie, he became a Yankee star.

He's best known for his speed, having stolen 202 bases in his career. In 2011, he led the American League with 49 steals. In 2013, he led the AL with 10 triples. Last season, he was named an All-Star for the 1st time. He's never won a Gold Glove, which is ridiculous.

He probably won't get a Plaque in Monument Park or his Number 11 retired, but he was a member of the 2009 World Champions, and he deserves our thanks for that.

9. Tim Raines, 1996-98. He spent just 3 seasons in Pinstripes, but they were all Playoff seasons, and '96 and '98 were World Championship seasons. "Rock" batted .321 in '97 and .290 in '98, despite being 37 and 38 years old in those seasons. In Game 3 of the ’96 Series, he led off the game with a walk, and scored on Bernie Williams' single to give the Yanks their first lead of the Series, and later started a double play. His 2-out walk in the top of the 10th led to his scoring the winning run in Game 4.

Overall for his career, he was a 7-time All-Star, with a .294 average, a 123 OPS+, 2,605 hits, and a whopping 808 stolen bases, 5th all-time and the most of anybody not in the Hall of Fame. Judging by Baseball-Reference.com’s HOF Monitor (90 of 100), HOF Standards (47 of 50), and Top 10 Most Similar Batters (4 of 10 already in), he’s got a very good case.

His Number 30 was retired by the Montreal Expos, but Willie Randolph was coaching with the Yankees at the time, so Raines took 31. If that number is ever retired by the Yankees, it will be for someone else on this list.

8. Roy White, 1965-79. He was the 1st Yankee (or former Yankee) I ever actually met (if you’ll pardon the choice of that word), and all the talk about him being classy was an understatement.

His timing was bad, arriving just as the old dynasty was collapsing, but he was a 2-time All-Star, led the American League in walks in 1972 and runs in 1976, and finally got to play in 3 World Series, winning 2. His 1st-inning homer in Game 3 of the ’78 Series gave the Yanks their 1st lead of the Series, and in Game 4 he scored the winning run in the 10th. It was against his hometown team, the Los Angeles Dodgers: Like Brooklyn and L.A. Dodger legend Duke Snider, Roy was, literally, straight outta Compton.

He never batted .300, hit 25 homers or had 100 RBIs, although he came close to each. But he won games and he won titles. He wasn’t a headline, but he helped make them. He later became a Yankee coach. His Number 6 has been retired, although not for him. But he was the 1st former player introduced at the old Yankee Stadium finale in 2008, and deservedly got a big hand.

7. Gene Woodling, 1949-54. He was from Akron, Ohio – the 1st Yankee star to be born there, but not the last – but became the last Yankee star to be purchased from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

He helped the Yankees win the next 5 World Series, batting over .300 in 1952 and '53. Not that anybody knew it at the time, but he led the AL in on-base percentage in '53, .429. He bobbled what should have been the last out of the 1950 Series, costing rookie Whitey Ford a shutout, but in a far tighter situation (ahead by 2 with the winning run at the plate in Game 7, as opposed to the earlier 5-run lead in a sweep-clincher), caught the last out of the '52 Series.

The Yankees included him in the biggest trade in baseball history, the 18-player deal with the Baltimore Orioles after the '54 season that brought in 2 pitchers who would make their mark in Pinstripe history: Don Larsen, still the only man to pitch a no-hitter in the World Series; and Bob Turley, the 1st Yankee to win the Cy Young Award. It was with the O’s that he reached his only All-Star Game, in '59. (A guy named Ted Williams being in the AL and having the one subpar year of his career in '59 had something to do with that.)

6. Tom Tresh, 1961-69. He had a cup of coffee with the M&M Boys’ Yankees, then was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1962, playing shortstop while Tony Kubek was spending most of the season in the Army. He moved to the outfield when Kubek came back, and, depending on how big the field was in a ballpark and how much Mickey Mantle’s legs were bothering him, spent much of the next 4 seasons switching between left and center with Mickey.

An All-Star in '62 and '63 and a Gold Glove in '65, his homer won Game 5 of the '62 Series, and his homer in Game 1 of '63 broke up a no-hitter by Sandy Koufax (though it didn't stop Koufax from fanning 15, then a Series record and still a Series record for lefties).

He never batted .300 or had 100 RBIs, but topped 20 homers 4 times – and, like Mantle, was a switch-hitter, so he wasn't just taking advantage of the pre-renovation Stadium’s right field "short porch," and in fact was hurt by its left and center field Death Valley.

He grew up outside Detroit, where his father Mike Tresh grew up; unlike his father, who played mostly for the White Sox, he finished his career with their hometown Tigers. His own son, Mickey (named for Mantle), was a Yankee farmhand, but never got past Double-A ball.

5. Lou Piniella, 1974-84. The 1969 AL Rookie of the Year with the Kansas City Royals, he didn't get along with management there, so they sent him to the Yankees for lefty reliever Lindy McDaniel. This was a great trade for both teams. McDaniel was washed up, but he was practically an extra pitching coach for the Royals' young staff. Piniella, well, let’s just say he was called "Sweet Lou" for his swing, not for his disposition.

Originally, he played mostly right field, with White in left. By the time Reggie Jackson arrived for 1977, White was mostly a bench player and Lou was the main man in left, and he became a pretty good left fielder, his catch taking a home run away from Ron Cey of the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series. In the 1978 Playoff with the Red Sox, Reggie was the DH, Roy was in left and Lou in right, and he made 2 key plays in that game to save it.

And what a hitter: .291 lifetime average, 109 OPS+, 6 .300 seasons (4 with the Yankees), and always seemed to come through in key situations. As a boy, I enjoyed Nathan Salant's book This Day In Yankee History, and as he wrote of the 1978 "Boston Massacre" series, he mentioned that Reggie had been intentionally walked: "That made no sense at all, because the next batter was the Red Sox killer himself, Lou Piniella."

Salant was right: Piniella went 10-for-16 with 5 RBIs in that series. He also batted .305 with 2 homers and 6 RBIs in his 5 ALCS appearances, and .319 with 10 RBIs (albeit none on homers) in his 4 World Series. His single in the 10th inning won Game 4 of the '78 Series, driving in the aforementioned White. If it was October, and Lou was batting against you, you were not thinking it was sweet.

He retired, and became the Yankees hitting instructor, then, except for a brief 5th term for Billy Martin, was the Yankees' manager from 1985 to '88, getting them in the AL East race 4 straight seasons, but never getting that 1 extra starting pitcher he needed from George Steinbrenner. He helped make Don Mattingly a great hitter, but had to go to the Cincinnati Reds – where he helped make Paul O’Neill a great hitter, if one with a similarly explosive temper – to win a Pennant and a World Series as a manager. (The opposing manager was Tony La Russa of the Oakland Athletics -- he and Lou played high school ball together in Tampa.) He remains the only manager to lead the Seattle Mariners to a postseason berth, 4 of them.

It's unlikely that the Number 14 he wore as a Yankee will be retired anytime soon, but Lou was a classic Yankee, and one of my 5 favorite players of my time.

4. Bob Meusel, 1920-29. "Long Bob" and his brother Emil (known as Irish even though the family was of German descent) were from San Jose, and among the earliest Californians to reach the majors – or, as the people involved in or rooting for teams in the Pacific Coast League said until 1957, "the eastern leagues." Both went to New York, Irish to the Giants, Bob to the Yankees, and they opposed each other in 3 straight World Series, the Giants winning in 1921 and ’22, the Yankees in '23. Bob also helped the Yankees win the '26 Pennant and the '27 and '28 World Series.

He was a lifetime .318 hitter, who was a perfect fit in the Yankee lineup, 5th after Babe Ruth batted 3rd and Lou Gehrig 4th – hence, in his last full season, 1929, the 1st season in which the Yankees wore uniform numbers, Meusel was the first to wear the Number 5 that would be solely identified with Joe DiMaggio (who, of course, did not always bat 5th).

Five times, Meusel drove in at least 100 runs, and led the AL in homers and RBIs in 1925. He played with the Cincinnati Reds in 1930, then headed back west and ended his career in the PCL. He died in 1977, at age 81.

3. Charlie Keller, 1939-49, with a brief return in '52. He was big and strong and hairy, and for this they called him "King Kong" – though not to his face, as he hated the nickname. (This was also true of Joe Medwick, who was called "Muscles" because you didn't use "Ducky" in front of him.) This guy formed one of the greatest outfields ever, with Joe DiMaggio in center and Tommy Henrich in right.

His best known hit was a double off the right-field wall at Ebbets Field to complete the rally after Mickey Owen’s muff kept the Yanks alive in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series. He was hitting at a Hall of Fame pace, averaging a .296 batting average, 24 homers and 98 RBIs in his 1st 5 seasons, 4 of which ended with Yankee Pennants (1939, '41, '42 and '43) and 3 with World Series wins (all but ’42).

Then he went off to war, and when he got back, a back injury slowed him down. He helped the Yankees win a 4th and 5th Series in '47 and '49, but that was pretty much it for him: His last great year was at age 29, and he packed it in at 35. He returned to his native Maryland and trained racehorses at his Yankeeland Ranch, many of them with "Yankee" in their names.

2. Hideki Matsui, 2003-09. In his 1st home game at a Yankee Stadium, he hit an Opening Day grand slam. In his last home game at a Yankee Stadium, he went 3-for-4 with a homer and 6 RBIs to clinch a World Championship for the team, and the World Series MVP for himself. In between, he gave us a bunch of memories, including one of the 4 straight hits off Pedro Martinez in 2003 ALCS Game 7, maybe the best game ever played at the old Stadium.

In U.S. play, he batted .282 with 175 home runs. In 4 seasons, he drove in 100 or more runs for the Yankees; twice, he batted over .300. In the U.S. and Japan combined, he hit 507 homers. I know, it doesn't work that way.

"Godzilla" was a beast. I wonder if he'll be the 1st Yankee to get a Plaque with part of its text not in English? His Number 55 is currently being worn by relief pitcher Bryan Mitchell. That's a travesty: If you're not going to retire it, at least give it to a better player.

But then, look who's gotten Number 31 since the guy at Number 1 on this list: Good players like the aforementioned Tim Raines, Lance Johnson, Glenallen Hill, Ichiro Suzuki, and currently (though he'll miss the entire 2016 season due to injury) Greg Bird; but also the disappointing Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens, Aaron Small and Jose Veras; a once-good but washed-up Frank Tanana, the execrable Javier Vazquez in his totally unnecessary 2nd go-round in Pinstripes; and nonentities like Brian Dorsett, Mike Humphreys, Xavier Hernandez, Brian Boehringer, Dan Naulty, Steve Karsay, Jason Anderson, Edwar Ramirez, Josh Phelps, Michael Dunn, Pedro Feliciano, Gregorio Petit and Ramon Flores.

No, it's about time the Steinbrenner brothers put their father's grudge against this man behind them, and retired Number 31 and gave a Plaque in Monument Park to...

1. Dave Winfield, 1981-90. In the strictest sense, Big Dave was the Yankees' main left fielder for only 3 seasons: 1981, '82 and '83, before moving over to right field. (Steve Kemp was the main one in '84, Ken Griffey Sr. in '85, Dan Pasqua in '86, Gary Ward in '87, Rickey Henderson moving from center to left for '88, then Mel Hall taking over after Rickey was traded in '89.)

Big Dave went 1-for-21 in the 1981 World Series, and that led George Steinbrenner to eventually call him "Mr. May." It was totally unfair, and even less fair was how George got rid of him -- which led to baseball temporarily getting rid of George, and Dave getting the hit that clinched the 1992 Series for the Toronto Blue Jays.

He collected 3,110 hits, including 540 doubles and 465 home runs, 205 of those as a Yankee.  He had 1,833 RBIs, 17th all-time, 6th among players born after World War II, and if you take away steroid users he is thus surpassed only by Eddie Murray and Ken Griffey Jr.

He is in the Hall of Fame, and had most of his great years with the Yankees. No ring? Don Mattingly has a Plaque but no ring, and he was not a better player than Winfield. The ovations Dave gets when he comes back for Old-Timers' Day are not enough: Hank, Hal, give him his Plaque! And don't ever let another kid just off the Columbus -- excuse me, Scranton -- Shuttle sully his 31!

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