Saying Babe Ruth wasn’t the greatest Yankee of all time is like saying Mother Teresa wasn’t the toughest nun of all time. Well, he wasn’t, and neither was she. My eighth grade teacher, Sister Maria Gonzalez, was the toughest nun ever, and Yogi Berra was arguably the greatest Yankee ever.
Sure, I know the Babe turned the game upside down with his prodigious home run records and out-sized personality, and, yeah, he was a great pitcher with another ball club (Red Sox) before coming to Yankee Stadium. Both he and Lou Gehrig, batting back-to-back for so many years, truly benefited each other all through the 1920s and beyond. And together their play saved baseball after the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919 wherein it was found the White Sox threw the Series.
Ruth’s flamboyant lifestyle cost him playing time and denied him a shot at managing the Yankees, the greatest franchise of all time, management fearing his carousing habits would rub off on his players. He died young at 53.
In addition to Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter were also all tremendous Yankees, enjoying careers that led to Cooperstown, and will for Jeter the first year he is eligible.
But nobody crafted a career of success better than Berra. Along with Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, they are considered the two greatest winners in American sports history.
Standing only 5’8″, Yogi played in 13 World Series, winning 10, the most by anybody in the history of baseball. He played catcher, the most important position on the diamond, comparable to an NFL quarterback in that he was responsible for managing pitchers in making pitching decisions every bit as much as a quarterback does in changing plays at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of defensive situations. All other defensive baseball players simply stand where they are told based on stats showing where batters are most likely to hit.
Berra was the AL MVP three times, matching DiMaggio and Mantle.
Berra made 18 straight All-Star games and was hired to manage both the Yankees and Mets after retiring as a player. In 1973, he took over the Mets after the death of Gil Hodges and got them into the World Series.
One cannot deny Ruth’s 714 career home runs, but that record was accompanied by 1,330 strikeouts. It was all or nothing for the Babe. Indeed, nearly 50% of his hits were for extra bases. And he struck out almost 20% of the time. Berra struck out only 4% of the time while hitting 358 home runs.
Ruth’s domination of the Roaring 1920s in the eyes of sports fans came about in a very strange and sorrowful way.
Ruth had been a great pitcher with the Red Sox for five years before joining the Yankees, winning 95 games in that span. Back then, pitchers always worked with a dirty baseball. Foul balls hit into the stands were returned to the pitcher. Baseballs were used until the stitches literally began to fall off, so cheap were the owners. It was heaven for cheating pitchers to use spitballs or cut the ball up with a blade to make it dance funny on the way to the plate. Advantage: Pitcher. (Ruth)
In Ruth’s first year with the Yankees, the only fatality from a pitched ball occurred. It was determined that the batter never saw the dirty ball coming and he died 12 hours after being beaned. Immediately the rules were changed, taking the ball out of play when judged unfit for use by the umpire, providing a clean white baseball to hit every at-bat. Advantage: Batter. (Ruth)
What effect did that have on hitting?
That same year, Ruth hit more home runs himself, (54)—up from 29 the previous year—and greater than the total of 14 of the other 16 major league teams. The following year he would hit 59. St. Louis Browns first-baseman George Sisler had 247 hits in 1920, 77 more than the previous year. It would take Ichiro Suzuki 84 years to break Sisler’s record. The live-ball era had begun to open the ’20s and the fans wanted more and more home runs, leading to Ruth’s outsized popularity. Ruth was in the right place at the right time and he certainly took advantage of it.
At 5’8″, Berra became the best “bad ball” hitter in baseball history because all he ever saw were pitches away since his reach was so short. He drove in over 100 runs every year. Pitches low and away became line drives up the alleys and high pitches became home runs. Dodger Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella once said of Berra, “You can’t throw it bad enough by him!”
And Yogi never forgot where he came from. At Christmas, he would go back to St. Louis and sell Christmas trees with his boyhood buddy Joe Garagiola to raise money for a local orphanage.
No team in history has had the continued greatness of six players like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter. Who was the best? A strong case can be made for each of them, as I did in a previous post.
I happen to think Yogi’s offense, defense and managing skills gets the nod over “The Bambino,” “The Iron Horse,” “Joltin’ Joe,” “The Mick,” and “Mr. November.”