Who is the greatest Yankee of all time?
Is it the incomparable, bigger-than-life Babe Ruth, an incorrigible kid from the streets of Baltimore who changed the way the game was played by hitting more home runs himself in 1920 than any other team in the entire American League, and in so doing, literally rescued the game, going down for the count after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919? “The Bambino,” who, before becoming the greatest hitter the game had ever seen, won 95 games over five years as the best pitcher in baseball. A roustabout, his own proclivity for high living cost him a shot at what he really wanted, a big league manager’s job. He died young at 53. His home run record of 714 stood for decades before finally being passed by Hank Aaron.
Lou Gehrig, aka “The Iron Horse,” was a substitute player in 1925 when regular first-baseman Wally Pipp, complaining of an upset stomach, asked to sit out the game. So manager Miller Huggins asked the native New Yorker from the Bronx to play first base that day. And he did so for 2,130 straight games, spread over the next 14 years. Gehrig and Ruth formed the greatest one-two slugging duo in the game’s history, collectively hitting over 1,200 home runs before the illness bearing Lou’s name took his life at 37. His farewell speech at Yankee Stadium is considered one of the most poignant moments in sports history. Near death, he told the crowd, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Joe DiMaggio came up as a rookie and was a major part of four straight World Series championships. He left to serve in WW II, losing three seasons to service. He hit in 56 straight games 75 years ago and no one has come close to that yet. “Joltin’ Joe” set the standard for playing center field, so smooth was he that he never seemed hurried but always snared the fly ball at the last second or cut off runners trying to get that extra base. When the United States lost its way in the 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel asked, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” so strong was the public’s yearning to return to the happier times that the Yankee Clipper represented.
Mickey Mantle had perhaps the greatest raw talent of any Yankee who ever donned the pinstripes. When Joe retired, Mickey took over center field seamlessly, hitting with power and running down deep drives into the cavernous outfield alleys of Yankee Stadium. He hit over 500 home runs, stole bases with blazing speed, and played hurt perhaps more than he should have. Once I heard the great Bear Bryant say while sharing the broadcasting booth with fellow Alabaman Mel Allen that Mantle could start on any Tide team he had ever coached. Mantle lived too hard and died too young. When he was healthy, no one was better. Too often living the high life, “The Mick” died at 64.
Yogi Berra said he never said half the things he said. Master of the malaprop, Berra was the best bad ball hitter in the history of the game. He hit the first pinch hit home run in a World Series, and along with basketball great Bill Russell is considered the greatest winner in sports history. He had 10 World Series Championships (the most of any player in MLB history) and he managed both the Yankees and the Mets. He was an 18 time All-Star and three time AL MVP. He said his saddest moment as a player was watching Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 home run sail over the left-field wall at Forbes Field giving the Pirates the only walk-off home run world championship in MLB until that date. Yogi coined the phrase, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” as a mantra to always keep trying.
Derek Jeter struggled early, being sent down to the minors a couple of times before embarking on his long Yankee career. In an era of steroids and performance enhancing drugs, Jeter was respected for his hard play, clean living and devotion to the Yankees. Along with Willie Mays, he made one of the most memorable plays ever in post-season play when he raced across the infield, relaying a throw from deep right to nail the runner at the plate, sending New York into the 2001 World Series. He had a higher World Series batting average than Berra, Mantle, and DiMaggio, and played in more regular season games than any other Yankee. He is the all time Yankee leader in hits, stolen bases, doubles and at bats. He captained five World Championships and hit .311 lifetime in resuscitating a dying franchise.
I have taken a close look at all the players above, reviewed their individual and team accomplishments, their contributions to the game of baseball, and their lasting influence on the American public. I will share next time my further thoughts with you as I choose my “Greatest Yankee of Them All.”