Greatest Yankee player not named...


Sultan of Swat
Staff member
The Yankees are the most celebrated team in Major League baseball history, and there's been so many good players to wear the pin stripe uniform. But in your opinion who's the great Yankee player to ever wear that uniformed not named Babe Ruth, and why?

You can only judge a player for what he has done with the Yankees, which means if he played for more then one team you can only take into consideration his yankee playing days.


This is a tough question, but only because of the 2 guys I find it hard to choose from. I do NOT think that Joe DiMaggio, Derek Jeter, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Whitey Ford or any of a few dozen other great players can compete in this contest. I think it comes down to Lou Gehrig vs. Mickey Mantle. Those who consider DiMaggio superior to Mantle will likely say it comes down to him and Gehrig, I guess. I don't agree, but their viewpoint is certainly a rational one.

Anyway, I've spent a lot of time thinking out my rankings of MLB players on my all-time list. So far, all I've done is a Top 20, but I may go to 40 or 50, someday. For now, here's where notable Yankees rate on my all-time Top 20 Players List:

#18: Roger Clemens
#12: Joe DiMaggio
#08: Lou Gehrig
#05: Mickey Mantle
#01: George Herman Ruth

So I pick Mantle and Gehrig, in that order. I'm giving DiMaggio credit for 3 lost years during WWII. I'm not giving Gehrig credit for the roughly 3-4 great years he lost due to that horrible disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. If I gave him credit for those years, he might well end up as my #3 player of all time.



To focus this discussion a little more narrowly:

The contest between DiMaggio and Mantle comes down to what you value more. DiMaggio, though not as good in the field as at least one of his brothers (Dom), was a much better defensive CF for his overall career than Mantle was. Mantle started out as an excellent CF, but an arm injury in the late 1950's pretty well ruined his arm, and that horrible disease of his, osteomyelitis, pretty well ruined his knees and range. Fielding stats are notoriously subjective, but the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to such matters, a guy who calls himself SABR Matt, is of the opinion Mantle was a flat-out terrible CF in the second part of his career, consistently finishing at or near the bottom of the league in key defensive categories.

I saw Mantle from 1960 on. For sure, he couldn't carry Willie Mays' jock as a CF, but that's hardly the same as saying he was a terrible CF. Almost nobody could carry Mays' jock as a CF, including Joe DiMaggio. But I've read a lot about both men, and it's clear to me that, even apart from the apparent avalanche of supporting statistics, DiMaggio was easily the better CF of the two men. Then again, Paul Blair, Devon White, Richie Ashburn, Andruw Jones and Curt Flood were all, at least on paper, better defensive CF's than Willie Mays. Anyone want to trying arguing they were better PLAYERS than Mays? I'm betting not.

Also, and this will raise some eyebrows, DiMaggio was the better OVERALL baserunner. He had a vastly better ratio of 2B's/AB's and 3B's/AB's, two categories in which Mantle was surprisingly bad, and was considered a better judge on the basepaths. Conversely, Mantle had that famous explosive move from home to 1B, and it's a stone fact that he grounded into only 113 double plays in his entire career, fewer than 1/2 the number speedy Willie Mays grounded into, and almost exactly 1/3 the number speedy Hank Aaron grounded into. The only reason the immortal hero of the 1960 World Series was Bill Mazeroski, and not Pirates reserve catcher Hal Smith, is that after Smith's titanic 3-run HR had capped off the Pirates' 5-run rally in the bottom of the 8th, and had put them ahead 9-7, the Yankees scratched out 2 runs in the top of the 9th to tie the game at 9. The do-or-die tying run scored because after Yogi Berra had made the 2nd out by grounding out to 1B, Mantle oh-so-barely beat a throw back to 1st that would have ended the game, thereby enabling the tying run to score from third.

So, DiMaggio has a large edge defensively for their careers as a whole, while the baserunning issue is a mixed one. That leaves the most important thing everyday players do: HITTING.

And here, although absolute numbers like batting average and slugging percentage seem to support DiMaggio over Mantle, those disparities are an illusion created by the huge gulf between the way baseball was played in DiMaggio's time and the way it was played in Mantle's time. The first half of DiMaggio's career was played in offense-superfriendly conditions, with Hank Greenberg hitting 58 HR's and amassing 183 RBI's in 1938, and with Ted Williams outhitting DiMaggio during DiMaggio's famous hitting streak (!), as well as batting .406 for the year and winning a Triple Crown the next year. Meanwhile, Mantle's career was generally spent in a run-suppressed era, and the second half of it was spent in the most run-suppressed era since 1919.

Even then, despite DiMaggio's gaudy batting averages, Mantle got on base well more often than Joe D., with a career OBP of .421 compared to Joe D.'s .398.

But the big stat is OPS+ (adjusted on-base plus slugging), which takes into account the parks one plays in and, more important, the fact one plays in a run-friendly or run-scarce era. An average OPS+ is 100. DiMaggio's career OPS+ was 155, 55% above his average contemporary player; Mantle's was 172, which is about 31% farther above 100 than 155 is. That's a huge difference. To me--and I realize reasonable minds can differ on this--it well more than makes up for the gap between Mantle and DiMaggio defensively. So my vote between those 2 goes to Mantle, and I don't think it's that close.

Let me add that I give DiMaggio full credit for 3 big years during WWII, because that's obviously what he would have had, barring calamitous injury, if the world hadn't gone insane. I give Mantle zero credit for what he could have done without the alcoholism and the osteomyelitis, just as I give Gehrig zero credit for what he could have done without A.L.S. Even then, I have DiMaggio as the #12 player all time, Gehrig at #8 (very narrowly behind #7 Musial and #6 Speaker), and Mantle at #5.

Gehrig, to me, is a tougher question because he was a better hitter. His career OPS+ was 179, even higher than Mantle's. But, as harsh as it may seem to punish Gehrig for this, the fact is that 1938 was his only "decline" year--and as to that year, please read Jonathan Eig's book about Gehrig's life and death; you may conclude, as I did, that it's the most heroic, incredible year any player ever had, as Gehrig's feats that year, though badly depressed from his Olympian norm, are almost unbelievable in light of what A.L.S. was doing to his body. Had he not developed that horrible disease, Gehrig would have had 2 or 3 more good-to-great seasons (1938-1940), then declined naturally like Mantle did. Since Gehrig's decline phase was only one year long, I think their career OPS+ stats should be viewed as essentially identical. If anything, I give Mantle the edge because he didn't have the greatest player of all time batting ahead of him, constantly filling up the bases, presenting RBI opportunities and forcing pitchers to throw strikes.

Also, while Mantle may have been a bad CF for the last part of his career, and a first baseman only in his last 2 years (at ages 35 and 36), Gehrig was strictly a 1Bman, and no great defensive wonder at that. The fielding edge, such as it is, must go to Mantle.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the proper analytical framework for comparing Mantle, Gehrig and DiMaggio, who are pretty obviously the 3 greatest Yankees not named Babe Ruth. Jeter will never be close, and A-Rod will have to continue doing great things--and probably return to SS, where he belongs--if he wants to rank amidst that group. He very well could do it, but he's not there yet.

There are five guys I could make a case for as the 2nd greatest player ever, and that's not counting Barry Bonds, for obvious reasons. They are: Mays, Cobb, Williams, Mantle and Gehrig. (I rate Speaker ahead of Musial and Gehrig, but I see no case for putting him ahead of Mays, so he can't be #2; I rate Musial ahead of Gehrig, but cannot see putting him ahead of Mays or Ted Williams, so #4 is his ceiling.) The case for Williams involves giving him full credit for those 4 years he missed due to military service, and then saying that despite his indifference in the outfield and on the basepaths, he was SO great a hitter as to outdo everyone but Ruth. The case for Gehrig necessarily involves saying, "He was an awesome player when the A.L.S. first started kicking in in 1938, and would have been an awesome player for at least 3 more years, so it's cruel to punish him for that tragedy while giving "war credits" to WWII vets and "contractually bound" credits to Grove for 1921-1924. And maybe it is cruel, but Gehrig turned 35 in 1938, and a lot of spectacular players have fallen off very abruptly at, or before, that age. It's not speculation to say how DiMaggio and Williams would have played during WWII, given how they played before and after the war. Nor is it speculation to say how Grove would have pitched in 1921-1924, since he led the league in K's his first 7 seasons and won his first ERA title in his second season. But it IS speculation to say Gehrig would have remained perhaps the greatest hitter in MLB in 1938-1940. Addie Joss might have become one of the 10 greatest pitchers ever, but for his tragic tubercular meningitis at age 29, but I'm not ranking him among my 10 greatest pitchers, tragedy or no.

Anyway, that's why I have Mantle ahead of DiMaggio, and why I have Mantle ahead of Gehrig. I could write a lengthy, detailed, stats-filled argument in favor of ranking Mantle ahead of Mays, Cobb and Williams, as well, and thus as my choice for the #2 player in MLB history. I possibly could persuade some people that's what he deserves. But I don't buy it. I think I've got him right at #5, and I'll just add that I think he's closer to my #4 (Williams) than he is to my #6 (Speaker). What I DO buy are these truths about Mantle's career:

(1) At his prime, he was a better player than Willie Mays--and perhaps any other player, except Ruth--ever was;

(2) He gets way too much credit defensively, but not enough credit for the 100 or so outs he saved by being almost impossible to double up, especially since a variant on that skill kept his team alive in the 9th inning of a Game 7;

(3) The end of his career was not nearly as horrible as people think. Most people seem to think he made a sad spectacle of himself for thost last few years, as Mays did soon afterward, but the truth is that Mantle's TEAM made a sad spectacle of itself during those years. Mantle's OPS+ figures for his final 3 seasons were 169, 148 and 141. Mays played 8 more seasons after his last year of 169 or better, and only reached or exceeded 141 once in his last 5 years. So it's a real stretch of the English language to call what Mantle had "a decline phase," his shrunken batting average notwithstanding. It is fortunate that, through all the adulation he received and all the drunken stupors he lapsed into, he knew better than to play out the string and wind up as a crash-and-burn case, like Foxx and so many others had. As a lifelong Giants fan, I sure wish Mays had possessed the same honesty and ego-control.

I rate Mantle at #5 and Mays at #2, but I easily could fashion an argument that Mantle had the better overall career of the two men, and not just the better peak.
Taking nothing away from Mantle, I go with Gehrig on this one. The reasons are, that I don't knock him heavily for being a first baseman. The guy was an athlete through and through, and could have played corner outfield very well (and did so during many exhibition games). Granted, at the end of the day he was still a first baseman, but I think that position was beneath his true abilities. Also, I choose to give him credit for a natural decline. ALS wasn't something he could stop from happening and we know what he did do even after it began to take hold. There's no doubt in my mind that at the very least, he would have produced 2 very good to great seasons and had another good one before tailing off. I see his natural career ending in '44.


Actually, if you're going to give Gehrig credit for what would have happened had he not gotten ALS, you're probably looking at the #2 player of all time, because otherwise the stars would have lined up just right for him. It's reasonable to assume he would have been great in 1938 (I mean, if he did that with ALS setting in...), 1939 and 1940, and at least very good in 1941-1942. And then? And then he would have volunteered for the military, as you surely know from having read Eig's book about the kind of guy he was. So instead of baseball's most hideous premature decline, you're looking at a guy whose only "decline" would have been from great to very good circa 1941-1942, and whose serious decline years would have been spent in the military, serving his country during WWII.