Lou Gehrig, Don Mattingly and the Top 10 New York Yankees First Basemen
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In honor of the passing of New York Yankees 1950s first baseman Moose Skowron, here is a quick ranking of the top 10 Yankees first basemen of all time. This is an interesting exercise in that the Yankees have had many more great outfielders than first basemen. There will be a few names in here you might not expect to see. As for Mattingly, you'll see him again soon.
10. Mickey Mantle (1967-1968)
Mickey Mantle in frustration (via LIFE).
Mantle was only a first baseman for a couple of seasons at the end of his career, when his legs had gone altogether. On the surface, he combined for .241/.388/.416, and Mantle retired because of it, but take into account that those two years represent the nadir of offense after the Deadball Era.
Mantle wasn't hitting .365 anymore, but neither was anyone else, and since he retained his power and patience, he still had value; his production in those years was about as valuable in context as the .295/.398/.497 he hit in 1953.
...I'm also not willing to list Hal Chase, the crooked glove man, and if I didn't give Mantle his due I would have had to do that.
9. Mark Teixeira (2009-Present)
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Mark Teixeira seems to be considered a disappointment for the Yankees because his production has declined over three straight seasons. But sometimes that's what happens when you buy into players who are about to crest 30 years of age.
Teixeira was the right decision at the time, the best available first baseman (and perhaps the best in baseball at that moment in time) and the Yankees having gone years without a quality regular at the position—we will get to Jason Giambi shortly for more on the 2002 to 2008 period.
Assuming Teixeira can make some adjustments and find a second wind, he will climb higher on this list.
8. Wally Pipp (1915-1925)
Wally Pipp, more than the headache guy.
Remembered today as the guy whose headache (the result of getting beaned) allowed Lou Gehrig to kick off his consecutive games streak, Pipp was a solid first baseman, and was occasionally better than that, such as in 1922, when he hit .329/.392/.466.
He was the starting first baseman on the first three pennant-winners in Yankees history, and twice led the AL in home runs during the Deadball Era. All these years later, Pipp is still third on the franchise's games played list at first.
7. Chris Chambliss (1974-1979)
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The hero of the 1976 ALCS, Chambliss was a mixed bag for the Yankees. Always an impatient hitter, he averaged .282/.323/.417 overall in pinstripes, bouncing between strong, mediocre and outright poor seasons.
His first season with the Yankees qualified as the latter; he hit .243/.282/.343 that year and arguably was the difference in the Yankees finishing two games behind one of the weaker Baltimore Orioles editions of the period.
Conversely, he was at his best in the 1975 to 1977 period, hitting .293/.323/.441 in 1976. Only once, though, was he a top-five AL first baseman during his Yankees years.
6. Joe Collins (1948-1957)
Joe Collins, platoon guy.
Not talked about much today, Collins was part of Casey Stengel's first-base timeshare until Moose Skowron came along. He was at his best from 1951 to 1954, when he hit .276/.365/.467 overall.
5. Tino Martinez (1996-2001, 2005)
Tino Martinez: Just good.
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Martinez was an excellent glove, and in 1997, when he hit 44 home runs, his bat lived up the rest of his game. The rest of the time he was an unexceptional hitter for a first baseman of the time.
In 1999 and 2000 he was not only far behind the first-base pack, he threatened to slip behind the average player.
4. Jason Giambi (2002-2008)
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I know I'll be unpopular for ranking Giambi above Martinez. As a defender, he had the range of a fire hydrant, he used PEDs and his bad years, 2004 and 2007, were really bad.
There is also a great many DH at-bats in the .260/.404/.521 he hit for the Yankees. Still, a .925 OPS is a .925 OPS, and popularity has nothing to do with productivity: Giambi's bat would have made him a plus even if he played first base every day.
3. Moose Skowron (1954-1962)
Never pretty (he was called "Moose" by his grandfather because his grandfather thought the infant version of the face above resembled that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini), Skowron's career was truncated by a late start and injuries.
In between, though, he learned to hit to the opposite field at Yankee Stadium, an essential skill for a right-handed hitter in those days. He hit .289/.344/.457, which doesn't sound like a lot in the context of the current bandbox to bear that name, but in those days, the original just castrated batters who hit from Skowron's side of the plate.
2. Don Mattingly (1982-1995)
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A unique hitter with amazing bat control, combining high batting averages and power, as well as a terrific glove, the only bad thing you can say about Mattingly was his peak period was too short. I feel sorry for anyone born too late to have seen him at his 1984 to 1987 peak.
1. Lou Gehrig (1923-1939)
The Iron Horse.
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Sure, he played in a segregated era in which there was no night baseball, no fireballing relievers and the slider had yet to come into wide use. Sure, his defensive game was not reputed to be great. Sure, it was one of the most offensively inflated eras in baseball history.
Still, you can only subtract so much from .340/.447/.632. Gehrig wouldn't have been as good today, but when you look at films of him, you can see the strong upper body that would have made him a fine hitter in any era.