The Greatest Living Yankee

Back in 1969, in what was called “Baseball’s Centennial,” there was a vote by the nation’s sportswriters and broadcasters to name baseball’s greatest living player. Let’s start by saying that it was pretty questionable that 1969 was really baseball’s Centennial. The somewhat flimsy idea was that 1969 was 100 years after the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings became baseball’s first “professional team.”

Well, let’s face it, all anniversaries are just an excuse to party. And baseball needed a party in 1969. The sport was coming off the now-famous “Year of the Pitcher,” which at the time was more known as the “Incredibly Boring Year of the 1-0 Game.” The mounds were lowered. The strike zone got smaller. Bowie Kuhn was brought in to liven up the game (yippee). And one of the big ideas was this Baseball Centennial vote. The fans created a large ballot, and the sportswriters and broadcasters voted for the greatest ever player (living or dead), the greatest living player, the greatest ever player at each position, the greatest living player at each position, the greatest ever manager, the greatest living manager and so on. The announcement was made in New York on the Monday night before the All-Star Game. That also happened to be the same day that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. So, yeah, baseball didn’t quite make the front page with that one.

Anyway: It’s worth going back for a moment to look at votes, even though it’s not the point at all:

We’ll start with the greatest ever players, living or dead. Babe Ruth was voted the greatest ever player. That one was pretty obvious, though Ty Cobb got his share of votes.

The greatest ever team was as follows:

Right-handed pitcher: Walter Johnson

Left-handed pitcher: Lefty Grove

First baseman: Lou Gehrig

Second baseman: Rogers Hornsby

Shortstop: Honus Wagner

Third baseman: Pie Traynor

Outfield: Ty Cobb

Outfield: Joe DiMaggio

Outfield: Babe Ruth

Catcher: Mickey Cochrane

There is only one REALLY questionable choice on there – that was Pie Traynor at third base. I mean, sure, you could argue for Ted Williams over Joe DiMaggio or Yogi Berra over Mickey Cochrane – frankly, I would argue for both. But, and this will come up again and again here, in baseball there is a powerful bias toward the distant past, a favoritism for the creaky memories of youth. Yogi and Ted Williams had both played in that decade; they were too fresh in the memory. DiMaggio, meanwhile, retired almost 20 years earlier, and Cochrane had retired more than 30 years earlier. Anyway, they’re both fine choices, just not ones I would have chosen.

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But the Traynor thing was pretty much indefensible. The greatest living third baseman in 1969 was so obvious — he had retired just one year earlier. Then, the writers never did appreciate just how good a player Eddie Mathews was. He was a SO much better player than Traynor. I mean, Traynor was a speedy third baseman with a high batting average in a time of high batting averages. He also gained a reputation as an unparalleled defensive third baseman, though it’s not entirely clear from his defensive statistics or some of the contemporary accounts that he was as good as the reputation he developed.

Meanwhile, Mathews hit 500-plus homers, had a higher on-base percentage than Traynor despite the gap in their batting averages (not that anyone in 1969 cared about on-base percentage), was a good defensive third baseman (even if he didn’t always get the credit for it) and played in a brutal hitting park in one of the lowest-scoring eras in baseball history.

Neutralizing their numbers gives you a fair idea of what we’re talking about here:

Pie Traynor: .307/.348/.418 with 1,128 runs, 1,209 RBIs, 163 triples, 1,135 runs created.

Eddie Matthews: .281/.388/.528 with 1,678 runs, 1,615 RBIs, 553 homers, 1,837 runs created.

Yeah: 700 runs created. This isn’t close. But, you know, they didn’t have runs created in 1969. They did have batting average, and they loved it.

In addition, the writers/broadcasters chose the greatest living team, which went like so:

Right-handed pitcher: Bob Feller

Left-handed pitcher: Lefty Grove

First base: George Sisler and Stan Musial

Second base:  Charlie Gehringer

Shortstop: Joe Cronin

Third base: Pie Traynor

Outfield: Ted Williams

Outfield: Joe DiMaggio

Outfield: Willie Mays

Catcher: Bill Dickey

Again, lots of quirks. It’s basically inexplicable how George Sisler, a guy who hit for high batting averages and stole bases for a few years in a great hitters park in a crazy offensive time, could be considered even in the same stratosphere at Stan Musial, one of the greatest players who ever lived. But, again, you have the baseball power of the years. Sisler was an old-timer who hit .400 a couple of times and he was still alive (he died four years later at age 80). We do love old baseball players.

For the record: Stan Musial created 2,562 runs, third all-time.

George Sisler created 1,468 runs.

As mentioned they didn’t have that statistic in 1969 but they should have KNOWN instinctively that Musial was much better than Sisler.

As for the rest of the choices? Gehringer was a good choice at second, though Jackie Robinson would have been my pick.

I personally think Lou Boudreau would have been a better choice than Joe Cronin at shortstop, but Cronin is certainly defensible.

Trayner over Mathews, as mentioned, was a major blunder.

The outfield contains the three best outfielders, but it’s a weird configuration because you have two center fielders in Mays and DiMaggio. Mays joked about it: “I’ve played right field maybe two or three days in my life,” he said. Then he said he would happily move over for Joe DiMaggio.

Catcher, I think Yogi would have been a better choice than Dickey, but that’s also close.

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Righty pitcher: I think Bob Feller was a good choice because of what he lost in the war years.  Bob Gibson had already done enough to be in the discussion, though he had no chance as an active player. The only active player to make the list was Mays.

Lefty pitcher: Yeah, Grove by a landslide. He lived until 1975.

Then, drumroll, the greatest living player was announced. By Wins Above Average, which obviously was not available to voters at the time, the list of greatest living players would have gone like follows:

1. Willie Mays

2. Ted Williams

3. Stan Musial

4. Henry Aaron

5. Mickey Mantle

6. Eddie Mathews

7. Frank Robinson

8. Joe DiMaggio

9. Charlie Gehringer

10. Johnny Mize

Obviously, Joe DiMaggio won.

“I never dreamed it would be me,” DiMaggio said.

Hey, you can make the argument for Joe DiMaggio. He, like Feller, missed some war years (though not as many as Williams). He was an amazing hitter. He had the 56-game hitting streak. He was known as a defensive maestro in centerfield. He was an American icon who had married Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps most significantly: The song Mrs. Robinson with the classic lyric “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” had just come out.* That took DiMaggio from legend to something even bigger.

* Here’s irony for you: You probably know that Paul Simon, who wrote Mrs. Robinson, was a Mickey Mantle fan, not a DiMaggio fan. When asked why he didn’t use Mantle’s name in the song, he said: “It’s about syllables.” It’s very possible that syllables got DiMaggio the greatest living player title.

Anyway, now we get to the point: After Joe DiMaggio was named the greatest living player, he decided to make that title his own. He may not have dreamed it would be him, like he said in the moment, but he got used to the idea pretty quickly. According to Richard Ben Cramer’s “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life,” DiMaggio insisted that whenever he was introduced – at Yankee Stadium, at a dinner, at an autograph session, whatever – he be introduced as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer.”

In other words: That became a thing. Before DiMaggio, I would argue, nobody determined who was the greatest living player vs. the greatest to ever play. When Ted Williams revealed his goal, it was to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.” The goal was not to have them say, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who happens to be alive right now.” But Greatest Living Ballplayer had an unmistakable ring, and DiMaggio wore it well, and it become a bona fide title.

It was, like a Supreme Court Justiceship, a title that would last until death. Even after superior players like Mays and Aaron and Robinson stopped playing, even after his career was equaled or perhaps surpassed by remarkable players like Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt, DiMaggio remained the Greatest Living Ballplayer. He would come to Yankee Stadium, give that two-handed wave he made famous, and Bob Sheppard would say those three words: “Greatest … Living … Ballplayer …”

Over time, of course, the New York Yankees co-opt everything. They can’t help it. So, at some point, people in addition to “Greatest Living Ballplayer” started calling DiMaggio the “Greatest Living Yankee.” That really had a ring to it. DiMaggio held on to to both title until his death in 1999 (Mickey Mantle went four years earlier). At that point, Greatest Living Ballplayer went into receivership — Willie Mays or Stan Musial or Henry Aaron might have been the greatest living ballplayer, but nobody really called them that.

But “Greatest Living Yankee” lived on. And it was obvious who was next: The Greatest Living Yankee was Yogi Berra.

Trouble was, Berra had been out of the Yankee family for more than a decade when DiMaggio died in March of 1999. He was rightfully angry about the way George Steinbrenner and the Yankees had treated him as manager in 1985. Well, they canned him. For years, people kept trying to find ways to bridge the Yankees-Yogi gap, but Yogi would have no part of it. Loyalty coursed through Yogi Berra. He had given everything in his heart to the Yankees. He could not tolerate a break in that loyalty.

Just before DiMaggio died, he reportedly told George Steinbrenner, “You’ve got to get him back.” Truth was, the Yankees needed Yogi back. They needed a Greatest Living Yankee. George Steinbrenner went to Yogi Berra’s museum to apologize just two months before DiMaggio died. He showed up five minutes late, a no-no in Yogi’s world, but then he made up for it. “I made a mistake,” Steinbrenner said. “I never should have fired you. It’s the worst mistake I’ve ever made in baseball.”

This was good enough for Yogi, and he returned to Yankee Stadium on July 18 for Yogi Berra Day. He came back with Don Larsen, the man who threw the only World Series perfect game. And together, they watched David Cone throw a perfect game.

“Cam you believe it?” Yogi asked over and over. The return was complete, and the Greatest Living Yankee was back in the family.

When Yogi Berra died on Tuesday night, it was a moment to recall one of the most iconic players – and one of the most remarkable men – in baseball history. And then, Thursday morning, kicked off by the New York Times, the question was asked: Who is the Greatest Living Yankee now?

It did seem a little bit quick to be debating that topic, but you know Yogi would be the first to tell you: Baseball goes on. The Yankees go on. The excellent George Vecsey in the Times wrote that Whitey Ford is now the Greatest Living Yankee.

Whitey Ford was a fantastic pitcher. The Yankees won 68 percent of the games he started, which is quite remarkable (297-139 – this is not his pitcher record but rather the record of the team for every start). He won a Cy Young Award when only one was given in baseball, and he pitched brilliantly in his first eight World Series (not as well in his last three). He was superb.

But let’s not kid anybody: There’s no way that Whitey Ford is the Greatest Living Yankee.

The Greatest Living Yankee, if such a title must exist, is absolutely, undoubtedly and without question Derek Jeter.

Well, OK, you could make arguments for others. Realistically, I think, you are dealing with five possible choices.

Here they are, by Wins Above Replacement earned with the Yankees:

— Derek Jeter, 71.8 WAR

— Mariano Rivera, 56.6 WAR

— Whitey Ford, 53.9 WAR

— Willie Randolph, 53.7 WAR

— Andy Pettitte, 51.6 WAR

Sure, you can throw out a bunch more names — Reggie Jackson, Bernie Williams, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry on and on — but those those are the five Yankees with more than 50 WAR, meaning those are the five who actually played long enough with the Yankees to make a real difference. I mean, Reggie Jackson was only with the team five seasons — he was with A’s AND the Angels for longer. So we’re going to stick with those five.

Well, OK, I lied. There’s a sixth Yankee player with more than 50 WAR. But I see no value in putting Alex Rodriguez (55.3 WAR while in pinstripes) in this conversation. He is obviously not the Greatest Living Yankee, and to include him in here would be ridiculous.

Of the five, Willie Randolph was one of the more underrated players in baseball history, and Andy Pettitte was rock solid. But they are not in the class of the other three. Whitey Ford is in the Hall of Fame. Jeter and Rivera will be elected on the first ballot and almost unanimously. So I think the Greatest Living Yankee should be one of those three.

The instinctive choice, as Vecsey proves, is Ford because he’s older, and the instinct in baseball is ALWAYS to go older. I have mentioned this a few times, but let’s make the point as emphatically as I can. In the Top 10 list of players on Baseball Reference’s EloRater, the only one player still living is Willie Mays, and he retired more than 40 years ago. There are more players from the 1800s than from the last four decades.

1. Babe Ruth

2. Ted Williams

3. Honus Wagner

4. Lou Gehrig

5. Willie Mays

6. Nap Lajoie

7. Stan Musial

8. Eddie Mathews

9. Mickey Mantle

10. Ty Cobb

Imagine a similar Top 10 list in football:

1. Red Grange

2. Sammy Baugh

3. Jim Thorpe

4. Bronko Nagurski

5. Jim Brown

6. Don Hutson

7. John Unitas

8. Otto Graham

9. Night Train Lane

10. Sid Luckman

How would that list stand up for football fans? No Montana. No Brady. No Manning. No Rice. No Payton. No Sanders. No Reggie White, no Lawrence Taylor, no Bruce Smith, no Anthony Munoz, no Tony Gonzalez. Forget it. But that list approximates the baseball timing (though even I couldn’t pick that many football players from before 1920.

It’s better when you go to the Elo Rater Top 10 pitchers; at least Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson are on the list, and they pitched this century. But even there, the top-three pitchers (Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Pete Alexander) pitched during Deadball. Boy, do baseball people love the past they can’t remember.

So, yeah, you could see why some would like Whitey Ford as Greatest Living Yankee.

There’s also something appealing about Mariano Rivera because, in addition to being an iconic player and one of main reasons the Yankees won five World Series, he (unlike the other two) is almost unquestionably the best ever at his position.

But with Rivera, you have to face the hard question: Can a closer be the Greatest Living Yankee? He pitched 1,283 innings in his entire career. He is 23rd on the Yankees’ innings list behind guys like Tommy John, Fritz Peterson and CC Sabathia. Obviously, because of his position, he never threw a shutout, never pitched a complete game, won just 82 games if you want to count pitcher victories.

This is not to diminish his extraordinary achievement – I mean 652 saves is incredible. There are four other pitchers who managed 100 saves in their Yankees careers – Dave Righetti, Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle and Johnny Murphy. Add their saves together (620) and you don’t get all the way to Mariano Rivera. Also, when you talk about Wins Above Average – not Replacement, but Average – he actually has a higher WAA than Jeter or Ford. Rivera was so much better than any closer in baseball history, he certainly belongs in the conversation.

But, let’s be blunt: Greatest Living Yankee seems a royal title, and I suspect that when people think about it they are thinking about PLAYERS. Everyday player. Not pitcher. And certainly not relief pitcher.

That leaves Jeter, who, let’s be honest, was the obvious choice all along. If Jeter had played in the 1950s and 1960s, nobody would have even considered anyone else. He was the Yankees’ captain for so long that “The Captain” became his nickname. I’ve long thought he should have won at least two MVP Awards (two from 1998, 1999 and 2006), he made a few of the most iconic plays in Yankee history, he’s the team’s all-time team leader in game played, plate appearances, hits, doubles, stolen bases and he’s second in runs, just 36 behind Babe Ruth. He also has just about every postseason record.

I have no idea how this is even a question. The only thing that hurts Derek Jeter is that he just retired, and we tend not to think of recent players the same way we think of old player. But that’s a mistake. I remember years ago, someone was talking to the great Buck O’Neil about “when baseball was baseball.”

Buck stopped her right there. “Baseball,” he said, “is still baseball.”

In other words, it’s fine to respect the distant past. But let’s not miss out on the great things going on in our time. Derek Jeter is the Greatest Living Yankee.

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