Thursday, March 17, 2016

Top 10 Yankee First Basemen

Honorable Mention to Ellsworth Tenney "Babe" Dahlgren, 1937-40. Part of the Yankees' 1920s and '30s San Francisco connection, he was only a starter for 2 seasons, but 1 of those was the 1939 World Championship season. After a bad 1940, manager Joe McCarthy dumped him. He actually got better after the Yankees got rid of him, including an All-Star season with the 1943 Philadelphia Phillies. But the Yankees started winning again, so they didn't miss him.

Still, he'll forever be remembered, albeit not for any particular feat, rather simply taking the place of Lou Gehrig on that sad day in Detroit, May 2, 1939.

Honorable Mention to Johnny Sturm, 1941. Due to World War II and a subsequent injury, this was his only season in the major leagues. But it was a World Championship season.

Honorable Mention to John "Buddy" Hassett, 1942. Known as the Bronx Thrush for his home Borough and his fine singing, he was a 3-time .300 hitter, twice for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the Yankees' starting 1st baseman in 1942, winning a Pennant (something Don Mattingly never did) and batting .284. But he went off to war, and never played in the major leagues again.

Honorable Mention to Nick Etten, 1943-46. He had 107 RBIs for the 1943 World Champions, led the AL with 22 homers in 1944, and led with 111 RBIs in 1945. But when the good pitchers came back from The War, he wasn't as good a hitter anymore. He played his last big-league game shortly before his 34th birthday.

Honorable Mention to George McQuinn, 1947-48. A 6-time All-Star, twice for the Yankees, he was the 1st baseman on the only St. Louis Browns team to win a Pennant, in 1944. He was released by the Philadelphia Athletics before the 1947 season, because he was about to turn 37 and had batted .225 the year before. He looked done. This was the kind of decision that led to the A's moving after 1954.

The Yankees took a chance on him. This was the kind of decision that led to the Yankees dominating baseball for a generation, as they had in the previous generation. McQuinn batted .304, hit 13 homers, drove in 80 runs, and helped the Yankees win the World Series. He tailed off in 1948, was released, and retired, but, for 1 year, he and the Yankees were good for each other.

Honorable Mention to Joe Collins, 1948-57. The Union, New Jersey native was the starter on 4 World Championship teams: 1950, '51, '52 and '53. He then served as a backup to Moose Skowron. He was a good fielder who might have won a Gold Glove had the award been established a few years earlier, and had a little power.

Tommy Henrich, normally a right fielder, played the most games at 1st base for the Yankees in the 1949 World Championship season, including catching a popup for the final out in the Pennant-clinching finale against the Boston Red Sox.

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

10. Johnny Mize, 1949-53. He put up big numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals and the 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.)

The Georgian 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, and was probably the best Yankee to wear the number until David Cone.

9. 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, by the standards of his time, Pipp was a very good player.

The native of Grand Rapids, Michigan led the American League 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 big-league last game at age 35 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.

The truth is, he was in a nasty slump when Gehrig began his streak on June 1, 1925, batting only .244 after having been at .321 on May 11. He wasn't benched because of a headache, or a concussion, or a fractured skull, or whatever version of the story you heard; the condition, whatever it was, apparently came later. No, he lost his job because he wasn't getting it done.

After that season, the Yankees sold him to the Cincinnati Reds (which was odd, because interleague transactions were rare in those days), and he had 3 more productive seasons in the majors and one more in the high minors with the 1929 Newark Bears (meaning, in a 30-team MLB, he almost certainly would have played well in The Show).

His lifetime batting average was .281, he had 6 seasons of at least 100 RBIs (5 with the Yankees), and had there been an All-Star Game in the 1910s and '20s, he probably would have played in 8 or 9 of them. He is worth remembering, and for his presence, not just his absence.

8. 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 4 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 the Indians did much for them, 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, who grew up in Oceanside, California. 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 the 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.

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.

7. Joe Pepitone, 1962-69. The Brooklynite 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 his 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 20 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.

6. 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 (and Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez, who did not, and Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, who never even got the chance), Giambi was man enough to admit it and stop.

He hit 440 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.

5. Mark Teixeira, 2009-present. The man from the Baltimore suburbs will be 35 shortly after Opening Day, and has had 7 full seasons in Pinstripes. But don't be shocked that I have him so high on this list. The 1st 3 were 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. In 2011, he dropped to .248, but hit 39 homers with 111 RBIs. He;s battled injuries ever since, although, as in 2009, he was having a monster year with Alex Rodriguez hitting behind him, until he got hurt and missed the last quarter of the season.

He's hit 191 of his 394 career home runs as a Yankee. His 3 100-RBI seasons with the Yankees makes 8 overall. His OPS+ is 124 as a Yankee, 129 overall. And he's won 5 Gold Gloves, 2 as a Yankee. 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.

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. He was also a great fielder for a big man.

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 kept the crewcut for the rest of his life, although in his old age his hairline had receded to the point where it looked right.

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 5 World Series (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 was elected to 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.

3. Don Mattingly, 1982-95. Only Number 3? This is the New York Yankees. We are about winning World Championships. Saint Donald Arthur of Evansville 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 in a position to win, and, talk of mythical sports-related curses aside, it wasn't his fault that it didn't happen.

His 145 RBI in 1985 are 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 even 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.

Does he belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame? His lifetime batting average is .307. His OPS+ is 127. He was a 6-time All-Star and, as I said, a 9-time Gold Glove. But he had just 2,153 hits and 222 home runs. He had 14 stolen bases -- in his entire career. As Yogi Berra would have said if he'd thought of it first, Even when he could run, he couldn't run.

On its Hall of Fame Monitor, on which a "Likely HOFer" is at 100, Baseball-Reference.com puts Mattingly at 134, meaning he should absolutely be in. But that measures peak performance. On its Hall of Fame Standards, which is geared more toward career statistics, and at which the "Average HOFer" is at 50, he comes in at 34, thus he falls well short.

Its list of his 10 Most Similar Batters is as follows: Cecil Cooper, Wally Joyner, Hal McRae, Kirby Puckett (the man who gave him the nickname "Donnie Baseball"), Will Clark, Magglio Ordonez, Jeff Conine, Tony Oliva, Matt Holliday and Keith Hernandez. Only Puckett is in the Hall, although Oliva and Hernandez, his New York contemporary to whom he is so often compared (right down to also having his career cut short by a back injury), arguably should be; while Holliday is still active and could get himself into consideration. The others all fall short. So does Mattingly: He is not a Hall-of-Famer, neither in fact nor in evidence.

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.

The Tampa native 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, and Hodges should be in, but none of the others ever will be.

Tino was the 1st player of the Joe Torre Dynasty to get a Monument Park Plaque, although his Number 24 remains in circulation. (At this point, it certainly won't be retired for Robinson Can.) 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 held the balloting for the All-Century Team in 1999, Gehrig got the most votes. Even more than Babe Ruth.

How do you briefly sum up the greatest baseball player to actually come from New York City? (He grew up in Harlem, when it was still full of white German immigrants.) Said All-Century Team. Hall of Fame. His Number 4 was the 1st to be retired in all of baseball. A Monument -- not a Plaque -- in Monument Park. He was the 1st 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 85 years old now to have seen him play. But because of the movie, and because the Yankees have been so good at presenting their history, this man who died 75 years ago this June is still with us. Lou Gehrig lives.

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