The Greatest Yankee

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.”

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12 responses to “The Greatest Yankee

  1. Robert Chambers

    Wow Coach. Thank you for presenting such a formidable case for Yogi as the greatest Yankee of all time. While I had a frame of reference for some of the facts you present I was not aware of them all. Specifically the baseball. To me their are two telling facts you present. The lineup being one of them and Yogi’s ability to hit any ball thrown near the plate. So can I change my selection from the Babe first with a nod to Yogi to Yogi with a nod to the Babe? Thank you for the post.

  2. Yes, Robert, come on aboard the Yogi train. A simple man–yet wiser than most–who lived to be 90. He grew up cheering Ruth and tutoring Jeter.. A Yankee for the ages.

  3. Paul Larkin

    Berra was great. Ruth is the best in this discussion. His records were “Ruthian”, he was so great, ruthian is a word in the dictionary. There is no “berraian” or “mantleing”. Jeter, despite his HOF career and inspirational leadership, would be just another player if he hadn’t played with NY and, while a terrific player, does not deserve to be in the conversation with the others. Coach, its Ruth, Ruth, and Ruth as number one…….two, and three. In my mind, its not even close, let alone arguable. He was not only the best Yankee, he was the best ever in the game. And I would bet, if you asked any old time Yankee fan who was the best, his name would come up nearly 100% of the time. Paul PS BTW, the baseball change, while interesting, is not really relevant in this discussion, in my opinion. Keep in mind, it was (and is) the same for all.

  4. Paul, thanks for your thoughts on the “Greatest Yankee Ever.” I expect and accept dissenting points of view. I do believe, though, that cases can be truly made for any of the six nominees, Jeter included. Your comments on Ruth ring true as do mine for Berra. As to Jeter, I was touched to see Red Sox fans pay such tribute to him on his final trip to Fenway. That was class personified.

  5. Ross Alander

    Well said Coach
    Peace/Go Green
    Ross

  6. Frank Brennan

    Intriguing, jimmy! No question yogi was one of a kind. Maybe the best best bad ball ball hitter I ever saw.

    • At 5’8″, he played like 6’2″ on the field, both at bat and behind the plate. I remember when he hit the first World Series pinch hit home room into Bedford Avenue against Brooklyn in 1947. Stengel gave him free rein handling pitchers.

  7. Craig Latimer

    Great recap Coach. All I could think of was all the great “Yogi” lines you discussed in your coulumn once before.
    “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
    Won’t be long you will have to tell us about Aaron Judge!

  8. Yogi was unique in all the baseball world. He was born to play baseball. Glad you liked it, Craig. ⚾️⚾️⚾️

  9. Alice B ourque

    Jim, the only reason you think Sr. Maria Gonzalez was the toughest nun of all time is only because you never had ME in eighth grade!
    Hello to Peggy …

  10. Knowing you know as I do, you could surely give Sr. Maria Gonzalez a run for her money. Go, Saints🏈🏈🏈