161st and Jersey Part 1: The Yankees (gulp) Are Good Enough
This is part one of a two part miniseries in the Hall of Good Enough about the Red Sox and Yankees. The name 161st and Jersey comes from the addresses of Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park creating a cross street for the fans of the two teams. I grew up half way between Boston and New York and a Yankee fan co-worker, Tom Parkman, came up with the cross street name for an idea for a bar. I have to admit that I might be a little pissed at him for making me appreciate so many Yankees players through the research for this post after I've invested a few decades as a Red Sox fan.
I tried to find players from the most prominent eras of Yankee history that haven't made it to the Hall of Fame yet: the 1927 team that Lou Gehrig references as a special team from his "luckiest man" speech, the '61 team, the teams of the mid '70's and the dynasty team of the '90's. I probably missed some players in between although I scooped up a couple from the '80's along the way. Unfortunately for the 1927 team (well, fortunately for them, unfortunately for us) even the lesser remembered players who had good careers made it into the Hall of Fame like Waite Hoyte, Herb Pennock, Tony Lazzari and Earle Combs. Urban Shocker was on that team but has already made it on this site for his time with the St Louis Browns. A couple of Yankees that have already made it into our hallowed halls in previous posts are Gary Sheffield and Johnny Damon, and Johnny's going to come up again in another month.
The '50's and '60's
Roger Maris, OF
One of the best character guys to play in the game to be screwed over in the way that he was. His long standing home run record was marked with an asterisk because he broke Babe Ruth’s single season record because he didn’t do it in as many games, although he did manage to do it with fewer days off during the season. He was booed for not being Mickey Mantle, and to Mantles credit, he embraced Maris because he had remembered how distantly Joe DiMaggio treated himself as a rookie. Maris won AL MVP awards in 1960 and ‘61, played in seven world series, including the 1960 loss to the Pirates, where the Yankees outscored the Pirates by the biggest margin of any World Series, including teams that won the Championship. That World Series (won on a walk off home run in game seven by Hall of Famer Bill Mazerowski) was so tight that in the spring of ‘61, the Yankees had a ticker tape parade celebrating their 1960 team down the Canyon of Heroes, the only Championship losing team ever to do that in New York City. Maris did win three Championships between the Yankees and Cardinals, all in the 1960’s. Over 12 seasons, Maris hit 275 homers, had a .345 on base percentage despite a .260 batting average, was a four-time All-Star, two-time AL MVP and a Gold Glover.
Elston Howard, C
Before becoming the first black player for the Yankees, Howard played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs and was roommates with Ernie Banks. He spent most of his MLB prime MLB career backing up Yogi Berra at catcher (like Yoda, he was more than just a tiny backwards talking goblin), although both players were known to play in the outfield or 1B as well. Howard made it to four All-Star games before he was the Yankees starting catcher and was an All-Star 12 straight years. Known for great pitch framing, he got more strikes for his pitchers than anyone else according the the guys that threw it to him. He was agile, his glove wouldn’t move when the ball hit it, and he called a great game. He was traded to the Red Sox mid-way through the ‘67 season and it is reported that his signals did not get shook off in the 49 games that he caught. He led the Red Sox to their first pennant in three decades. That was the last of ten World Series that Howard played in although he could not pick up a fifth Championship. In 1963 he was the first black player to win the AL MVP award, after he hit 28 home runs and earned his first Gold Glove award. It might have been 16 years since Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, but he still faced racist hate mail and verbal attacks. Although he only played three seasons with more than 130 games over his 14 year career, he was considered the class of the Yankees. When he died Red Barber said “the Yankees lost more class on the weekend than George Steinbrenner could buy in 10 years.”
Bobby Murcer, OF
Sometimes autocorrect comes up with the best nicknames. Bobby Murder was a rather unlucky Yankee. He broke into the the majors intent that he would be the replacement for fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle who had retired the year before. Unfortunately, he was coming in as the dynasty had ended and his teams didn’t make the playoffs until he left the Yankees after 1975. He played in San Francisco and with the Cubs for four and a half seasons and during that time the Yankees went to three World Series, winning two. He came back to the Bronx for ‘79 through ‘83 and in 1981 he finally went to the Fall Classic as they lost the series to the Dodgers and he was 0 for 3 in pinch hitting duties. His best years, from ‘69 to ‘77, were personal achievements for him, a five-time All-Star, four times receiving MVP votes, 20 or more homers seven times, and 80 or more RBI eight times. In 1971 he led the league in OBP at .427, the next year he led the league in runs with 102. Although his career AVG was .277, his OBP was .357, just under the onbase rate a .300 hitter could expect and his 252 home runs were pretty impressive, too.
Graig Nettles, 3B
Known for his quick reflexes and powerful arm from the hot corner, Nettles’ left handed swing was perfect for Yankees Stadium to the tune of 390 career dingers. 250 of those homers came as a member of the Yankees. A member of the Yankee teams that won three straight penants in the ‘70’s, he went to six All-Star games during that time and won two Gold Gloves. In ‘77, he was second in the league in homers with 37 (behind Jim Rice) and hit a career high 107 RBI.
Thurman Munson, C
Thurman’s parents really did a number on him. He was a deeply insecure player who compared himself against the taller, more handsome Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox. he once dropped three third strikes just to collect three assists just to pass Fisk for the league lead in catcher’s assists.He was the leader of the team from ‘76 to ‘78 as they won three straight pennants, winning the Championship in ‘77 and ‘78. He was the 1970 Rookie of the Year and the ‘76 AL MVP. Over his 11 year career, he was a seven-time All-Star, and didn’t make the team his Rookie of the Year season. He got his pilot’s licence and bought a plane in order to fly back to see his family more during the season but in August 1979, his plane missed the runway and burst into flames, killing Munson at the age of 32. He had a .292 career batting average, 1558 hits and collected three Gold Gloves. The Yankees still leave his locker open in his honor. Recently, Munson's Hall of Fame case was made by Brian Kenny in his campaign for catchers who aren't Yadier Molina.
Side note: Thurman Munson lands on the same page of the Baseball Encyclopedia as Van Lingle Mungo. Mungo, not Mungo Jerry, his name was used for the title of a song in the ‘70’s that was just a list of old baseball players, yet the mentions of his real life in baseball are that he was an okay pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and he once had to sneak out of Cuba after having relations with a married showgirl whose husband was looking for him.
Ron Guidry, SP
Apparently the Gator liked to eat squirrels. With only two pitches, a blazing fastball and one of the best sliders of his time, he won 170 games and logged a 3.29 ERA. In ‘75, before he was a fixture in the rotation George Steinbrenner wanted to trade away Guidry and the GM refused to let him do it unless he made a public statement saying that the GM was against the trade. The GM, Gabe Cole didn’t want to explain why Guidry would be pitching so well for another team against the Yankees if the trade went through. His best year was 1978 when he won 25 games and lost only 3 games with an ERA of 1.74 and that post season he had an ERA of 1.06. He also lead the league in ERA in ‘79 at 2.78 and WHIP in ‘81 at 0.99. Guidry finished his career with five Gold Gloves, two World Series Championships and a Cy Young Award.
Willie Randolph, 2B
He was a bit of an extra player in his trade to the Yankees with Dock Ellis after just his first year in the league, but he became a stabilizing personality for the wild players of the ‘70’s in the Bronx. He was a fixture for 13 years with the Yankees, collecting over 1700 of his 2210 career hits. His 271 career stolen bases place him toward the top of the Yankees franchise rankings. Although he was a career .276 hitter, he was a Moneyball player ahead of his time getting onbase at a .373 clip. When the Yankees moved on from Randolph in favor of Steve Sax in 1988, he went on to be an All Star with the Dodgers the next season.
Tommy John, SP
While there might be more of a push for Dr. Frank Jobe, John’s surgeon, to enter the hall of fame, the titular patient probably deserves more of a look for his on-field achievements. Perhaps he already has that recognition, the replacement surgery is named after him, for the success that he had in recovering and coming back to his pitching career, much like naming an award after a player like the Cy Young or Hank Aaron awards. However, no baseball player wants to learn they’ve earned a “Tommy John.” Johns recovery was nothing close to a sure thing in 1974/75 when he was recovering, the Dodgers brought him back to throw the first pitch of a playoff game and he used right, non-throwing, hand to make the toss as it was expected that he wouldn’t pitch left-handed again. There was a work stoppage in ‘76 and John didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself in spring training, but he was still able to come back throwing 85 mph with a 3.09 ERA over 207 innings. In 1977, John was a 20 game winner, in ‘79 he had 17 complete games and ‘80 he led the league with 6 shutouts. He ultimately played 26 seasons, until 1989, winning 288 games, 91 with the Yankees over two stints, and posted a career ERA of 3.34. The average Hall of Fame pitcher has 251 wins and a 2.99 ERA for their career.
Don Mattingly, 1B
I have a distinct memory of going to my grandparents’ summer house when I was little and seeing ads for Yankee games off the antenna, picking up a channel from Long Island. In this commercial Don Mattingly would field a grounder at first, throw it to second, run to the bag at first and receive the throw to get the force for the double play. It looked so easy that I assumed that this was a common play in baseball. I think I could think of a couple of players from the last twenty years capable of such a play, but I don’t think I’ve seen it pulled off in such a smooth way. Donnie Baseball was such an icon of ‘80’s baseball that Scott Hatteberg recounts stopping at first for a single for his first major league hit, a gapper, a sure-fire double, just to stop and meet his hero.
He fielded his way to nine Gold Gloves at 1B but he was a smooth hitter, as well. In his first full season in 1984 he led the league in hits, doubles and batting average (207, 44, .343). The next year, ‘85, he led the league in doubles, RBI and total bases (48, 145, 370) to win the AL MVP. And in 1986, he led the league in almost everything else, leading plate appearances, hits, doubles, SLG, OPS, OPS+ and total bases (742, 238, 53, .573, .967, 161, and 388) while hitting career best AVG and OBP (.352 and .394). He finished second in MVP voting in ‘86 to Roger Clemens, pretty much establishing himself as the best hitter in the league without collecting that specific piece of hardware. He was a six-time All-Star and a three-time Silver Slugger, he just happened to play for the Yankees at a bad time in their history, as he only went to the postseason in 1995. As his career wound down he blamed the atmosphere created by Steinbrenner for the lack of team success, and he might have been right as the Bombers seemed to regain their prestige when George calmed down in the late ‘90’s. It was probably this lack of team success that has kept Mattingly and his .307 AVG, 222 home runs and 442 doubles out of the Hall of Fame.
The '90's, 2000's and Today!
Jorge Posada, C
As a prospect he had his heart set on being a middle infielder but the promotion of Derek Jeter to the same team stationed Posada behind the plate instead of roving around the diamond as a utility player. He was a player of intangibles, a cool headed demeanor to either come back the day after his son’s eight-hour surgery on his skull to hit two home runs the next day or to calm Roger Clemens after throwing a broken bat at Mike Piazza in the first inning of a World Series game to get him to pitch eight shutout innings. As a Red Sox fan, Posada was very frustrating to watch, he would tag runners with his glove while holding the ball in his bare hand and would get the out call but he was never outwardly cocky, never a jerk, always level headed. The Yankees of the ‘90’s were known for doing the little things to win using fundamentals like grounding out to the right side to move a runner along. While it turns out that this method of trying to create runs was frowned upon by Moneyball, Bill James and Nate Silver for giving up valuable outs without scoring runs, Posada was a valuable Moneyball-style player. His numbers of 1664 hits and a .273 career AVG aren’t eye popping, but his .374 on base percentage really is. He was in lineups of players able to drive in runs, some of the best in baseball history and he was getting on base at a better rate than a typical .300 AVG hitter while also hitting 275 home runs from the catching position. While he never won a Gold Glove, he was the best hitting catcher in the AL winning Silver Slugger Awards five times and made the All Star team all five of those seasons. Those tangibles added up to six trips to the World Series and four Championships ranging from 1998 to 2009.
Bernie Williams, OF
Bernie was a ball player who seemed more interested in being known as a classical and jazz guitarist according to every interview and commercial appearance he made in the second half of his career. Growing up in Puerto Rico Bernie played on Little League and Babe Ruth youth teams with Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez. At 15 he was one of the best 400-meter track runners in the world at his age group, winning four gold medals in a single international event. He was the first of his generation of Yankees to break into the league and his name was written in pen for his centerfield slot from 1993 to 2006. In 1998 he just edged out rival Mo Vaughn from the Red Sox for the batting title hitting .339. That offseason it seemed almost certain that he would sign with the Red Sox who had the best offer before he instructed his agent to give the Yankees one last offer. He didn’t win the batting title the next year, but he bested his hitting mark with a .342 AVG and a .435 OBP. Bernie was an incredibly well-rounded player for his career, 2336 hits, 287 home runs, 147 stolen bases, a .297 AVG and a .381 OBP. He was a five-time All Star, four time Gold Glover and a Silver Slugger. He went to the World Series six times, winning four times and was the ALCS MVP in 1996.
Paul O’Neill, OF
He once said the most dramatic moment he had seen in baseball was watching Pete Rose’s 4,192nd hit from the Reds bench as a rookie in 1985. He played about half of his career with the Reds, but he seemed to come out of nowhere as a star when he joined the Yankees in 1993. He had never hit better than .276 in Cincinnati, but in New York he he over .300 each of his first six seasons, including a batting title in ‘94 at .359. He won the 1990 World Series with the Reds, followed by four more championships with the Yankees and one heartbreaking loss off a walk off in game seven of 2001. He was a .288 career hitter, .303 with the Yankees, 2105 hits, 285 home runs, and a career .363 on base percentage and 141 stolen bases, mostly at the end of his career.
Tino Martinez, 1B
For all of the guys getting on base for the Yankees in the ‘90’s, Tino was the guy driving them right in. After breaking out as run producer with the Mariners (31 home runs and 111 RBI in his final season in Seattle) he finished second in AL MVP voting in 1997 behind his former teammate Ken Griffey, Jr when he hit 44 homers, 141 RBI, .296 AVG and claimed the Home Run Derby crown. This was just one of the six 100+ RBI seasons of his career. He won four out of the five World Series that he played in and was a Silver Slugger and two-time All Star. He even has a Gold Medal, playing on the 1988 US Olympic team with Jim Abbott and Robin Ventura. Unfortunately Tino’s legacy was tarnished after his playing career when he was fired from being the Marlins hitting coach in 2013 after reports that he bullied players (to put it lightly) and the team was historically bad when it came to offense. Ted Williams couldn't manage the Senators into being able to hit and Tino's 339 home runs, 1925 hits and .344 career OBP couldn't help the Marlins from the bench.
David Cone, SP
I have never been a Yankee fan in any way, but I have been a David Cone fan for the entirety of the time that I have been aware of baseball. The first taste of baseball that I had was a poster of some of the stars of the Mets from the late ‘80’s that was the brightest colored thing in the poster store in town. I loved the bright blue, orange and green of that poster and got to know almost all of the players highlighted on it. I only remember missing a baseball game on TV once in my life and that was the day I had to work at my high school job of washing dishes and missed seeing David Cone pitch the 16th perfect game in MLB history. He was a player to root for regardless of team because he was always changing teams. He broke in with the Royals and was traded to the Mets the years after each team had won World Series in ‘85 and ‘86, respectively. He won his first Championship with the Blue Jays in ‘92 and then won four more with the Yankees to have a 2.12 career ERA in World Series Games. He was the Cy Young winner in 1994 with the Royals, the strike shortened year still holds a bit of mystique for what could have been as break out year for so many players and franchises. It wasn’t a lost opportunity for Coney as a five-time All-Star, 194 game winner and 3.48 career ERA in a very offensive heavy era. He spent the strike negotiating the strike for the players and later testified in favor Sonia Sotomayor for her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.