Top 10 Unsung Heroes in New York Yankees History
Finding unsung heroes in the Yankees' landscape is difficult business.
If you do something noteworthy in New York, chances are you'll be remembered for it. Just ask Aaron Boone, who will be signing photographs of aging knuckleballers for the rest of his life.
This isn't a bad thing, mind you. Boone deserves his fame, just like Stéphane Matteau, Jim Leyritz, and Mookie Wilson deserve theirs.
Combine a knowledgeable fanbase and a competitive media contingent and you get a hyper-aware sports town. Simply put: We don't forget.
(John Starks can tell you this goes both ways.)
Of course, not everyone gets their proper due. The Yankees have been in existence for more than 100 years, and there will always be players who slip through the cracks. We can't all have a movie about our life starring John Goodman, you know.
The following is a list of unsung heroes in Yankees history.
10. Roy White, OF (1965-79)
White was a respected foot soldier for the Yankees, a man who bridged the gap between two eras of championship baseball.
The Compton, Calif., native joined the Yankees in 1965 and played his entire major league career in the Bronx before heading to Japan for his final three seasons.
The '65 season is famously the year the Mantle Dynasty died. The club stumbled to a 77-85 record, beginning an unfathomable 11-year postseason drought.
None of this was the fault of White, who was a two-time All-Star (1969, 1970) and consistent producer.
White's abilities would translate well to today's game: He combined speed with good patience at the plate.
White led the AL in walks in 1970 and had a .360 lifetime on-base percentage despite his pedestrian .271 batting average. He had some pop as well, hitting 14 or more homers six times.
When the Yankees made their run of three straight pennants in the 70s, it was White who deserved the spoils of victory more than anyone.
9. Jorge Posada, C (1996-present)
Of all the
Core Four Old Guard Yankees who have starred for the franchise during the last five title runs, it seems like Posada is the only member of the group who must continue to prove himself year after year.
This is kind of ridiculous, of course, since Posada is unequivocally one of the greatest hitting catchers in major league history.
What? You think I'm being hyperbolic in my defense of our husky-eared backstop? Think again.
A seven-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger winner, Posada was baseball's top producing catcher of the 2000s, averaging 23 homers and 89 RBI in his nine healthy seasons during the decade.
If anything, Posada was hurt by Joe Torre, who didn't hand over the everyday catching job to Posada until he was 28.
Those lost years in his 20s truncate his career numbers, but they remain impressive.
Heading into his 15th season, Posada has 243 homers, 964 RBI and a .281 average. His .859 OPS (on-base + slugging percentage) puts him in the upper echelon of catchers.
By comparison, Mike Piazza—considered by most as the greatest hitting catcher of all time—had a lifetime OPS of .922. Johnny Bench finished at .817. Gary Carter sits at .773.
Posada will never win a Gold Glove, and I suspect the limitations of his defensive game are part of the reason many Yankees fans have been guarded in their adulation.
But the truth is that If Posada puts together two or three more productive seasons, he will be a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame.
8. Jimmy Key, SP (1993-96)
If George Steinbrenner had his way, Jimmy Key would've never put on a Yankees uniform.
During the 1992 offseason, the Yankees were major players in the battle for free agent Greg Maddux.
When Maddux opted to sign with Atlanta, the Yankees settled for Key, a 32-year-old left-hander who was an All-Star for the Blue Jays.
The signing paid immediate dividends.
Key may have been the best pitcher in the American League during the 1993 and '94 seasons. He finished in the top five in Cy Young voting both years, going a combined 35-10 with a 3.12 ERA.
A shoulder injury wiped out his 1995 season and led to concerns about his future. In 1996, he struggled to a 12-11 record with a 4.68 ERA.
Despite his inconsistencies, manager Joe Torre gave the veteran the ball in Game Six of the World Series against the Braves.
Facing Maddux, the Yankees' first choice three years earlier, Key allowed one run over six innings, helping New York to its first championship in 18 years.
Key joined Baltimore as a free agent that offseason, but the left-hander had a lasting impact on the Yankees.
The soft-spoken Southerner's decision to sign and his subsequent success with the Yankees signaled that New York was no longer a toxic place to play. Soon, other top free agents began to flock to the Yankees.
This made Key's impact reverberate for years to come.
7. Dave Winfield, OF (1981-90)
Q: What's a sign your employer might not appreciate your services?
A: He hires a seedy underworld flunky to dig up embarrassing details about your past.
George Steinbrenner actually did this in 1990 as part of a convoluted plan to rid himself of Winfield. It's no wonder free agents wouldn't go within two time zones of the Yankees at the time.
And here's the thing: Winfield was a stud on those Yankees teams of the 1980s. He was in pinstripes for eight seasons of his prime, and he was an All-Star in every one of them.
From 1981 to '88, he averaged .291 with 25 homers and 102 RBI and played a ferocious right field. Winfield paired with Don Mattingly to form one of the most fearsome 1-2 punches in the AL.
His stigma as a "loser" was completely unwarranted. His struggles in the '81 World Series are well documented, but these things happen.
Ted Williams batted .200 in his only World Series appearance. I don't remember Tom Yawkey telling people the Splendid Splinter was a pinko commie.
6. Chris Chambliss, OF (1974-79)
Who knows what would've happened had Chambliss not taken Kansas City right-hander Mark Littell deep to clinch the 1976 ALCS for the Yankees?
If Chambliss' high drive to right-center dies at the warning track, maybe the Yankees go in order in the bottom of the ninth, and maybe George Brett puts a Dick Tidrow meatball in the upper deck in the 10th.
Maybe the Yankees lose and a furious George Steinbrenner—borderline psychopath that he was—dismantles the team. Maybe Reggie Jackson doesn't like what he sees and decides to join Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski in Boston.
Everything was in play in the chaotic 1970s. Luckily, Chambliss' shot off Littell did clear the fence, and luckily he made it back to the Yankees' dugout before the maniacal Bronx fans tore him to pieces.
(Random aside: Did the NYPD even have guns in 1976? Seriously, what was going on there? The disrespect of the law was outrageous during this period. Literally, 50,000 people committed a crime at the same time. I haven't seen a police force manhandled that badly since the first Terminator.)
The showdown against the Royals was the high point of Chambliss' career—he hit an ALCS record .524 with two home runs and eight RBI in the series. On balance, he was a steady producer in pinstripes, serving as the cleanup hitter before Jackson assumed the role in 1977.
But one swing will always stand out above the rest. It was the swing that launched the Yankees back to prominence. It's a moment that Chambliss has gotten plenty of credit for, but I'm not entirely sure it's been enough.
5. Mel Stottlemyre, SP (1964-74)
They—whoever "they" are—say you should savor your moment on the big stage, because you never know if you'll get back.
Stottlemyre knows all about that. He was a midseason call-up in 1964, winning nine of his 12 decisions to help New York advance to the World Series against St. Louis.
Just 22, Stottlemyre faced future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in the series, picking up a no-decision, win, and loss in Game Seven.
Stottlemyre appeared in line to inherit the title of Yankees ace from the great Whitey Ford. He won 20 games in 1965, but the Yankees missed the postseason for the first time in six years.
The next season he completed the ultra-rare 20/20—also known as the Hugh Downs—losing 20 games the year after winning 20.
The Yankees were in a free fall and Stottlemyre was dragged along for the ride. He managed three 20-win seasons for a collection of mostly mediocre teams before being forced into retirement in 1974 at age 34 with a rotator cuff injury.
Stottlemyre never did get back to the World Series after his rookie season. He finished his career with a 164-139 record and a 2.97 ERA.
He may be the best Yankees pitcher never to win a World Series.
4. Bill Dickey, C (1928-46)
The "other" No. 8 retired in Monument Park, Dickey is probably the greatest Yankee who 85 percent of the fanbase doesn't know existed.
His resume speaks for itself: 11-time All-Star, eight-time World Series champion, Hall of Famer.
His statistical peak occurred from 1936 through '39. Dickey (age 29 to 32) averaged 26 homers, 115 RBI and a .327 batting average. It's as impressive a stretch as any catcher ever had.
That four-year tear was followed by a sharp decline from 1940 onward, likely the product of the demands of his position and grueling schedule of that day. (Something tells me a bag of ice was considered pampered treatment back then.)
Despite the sudden downturn, Dickey remained a popular figure long after his heyday, as evident by his inclusion in the All-Star Game in nine straight seasons before retiring in 1946.
The All-Star love shows that Dickey was fully appreciated during his career. But we've included him here because his legacy hasn't had the staying power of other stars of his era.
Dickey doesn't look like a man to get on the wrong side of, even if he's underground.
Wikipedia fun fact: Dickey is the only Yankee with a retired number not yet featured on the YES Network series Yankeeography.
(That's some weak sauce, YES men.)
3. Bernie Williams, OF (1991-2006)
To understand why Williams was underappreciated, it's important to realize where he came from.
The Yankees signed Williams out of Puerto Rico when he was just 16. As a prospect coming up in the system, he was soft-spoken and awkward, outfitted with a pair of thick-rimmed glasses that made him a prime target for ridicule.
Mel Hall—who would later fulfill his dirtbag destiny by going to prison for having sex with a 12-year-old girl—once drove Williams to tears with his incessant taunting.
But Hall was soon gone and Williams grew up, eventually becoming the star center fielder for a modern Yankees dynasty.
Williams' resume speaks for itself: a five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, 1996 ALCS MVP, 2002 Silver Slugger winner, four World Series rings.
But despite all those accomplishments, many of the insecurities remained. Derek Jeter was the farmhand who received the media attention, the lavish contract, the undying loyalty of the fans.
In 1999, the Yankees had a deal in place to replace Williams with Albert Belle. It was only when the temperamental slugger backed out of an agreement that the Yankees decided to bring Williams back.
Even at his apex, Williams was viewed as replaceable.
There's an uneasy truce between player and team today, now three years removed from his awkward push into retirement.
Williams, who is in the top 10 in almost every relevant offensive category in franchise history, deserves to be treated with more respect by the franchise.
Retiring his No. 51 would be a good start.
2. Tony Lazzeri, 2B (1926-37)
Lazzeri's nickname was "Poosh 'Em Up," which I can only guess was an obscene nickname given to him by the Bambino over a card game gone wild.
Lazzeri was really the Rodney Dangerfield of those 1920s and '30s Yankees teams. He hit in the middle of one the most feared lineups of all time, averaging 103 RBI over an eight-year stretch from 1926 to '33.
Unfortunately for Lazzeri, those spotlight hogs Ruth and Gehrig chewed up most of the scenery during his heyday.
And so it was that a man who once had 60 homers and 222 RBI in one season of Pacific Coast League action could be so easily overlooked by the baseball gods.
Lazzeri was long dead before he finally made it to the Hall of Fame, elected in 1991 by the Veterans' Committee (a group of old codgers who I imagine spend most of their time wailing against beepers and color televisions).
Lazzeri is celebrated here, though, as the best-hitting second baseman in Yankees history. Poosh 'em up forever, Tony.
1. Mariano Rivera, RP (1995-present)
Sometimes we forget how long Rivera has been the best at what he does.
Rivera rose to prominence as an unhittable setup man on the 1996 Yankees. Twins manager Tom Kelly said of the young reliever: "He needs to pitch in a higher league, if there is one. Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal."
That was before he learned how to throw "the pitch." That cutter that some say is the greatest pitch in the history of the game.
He is the embodiment of the Yankee myth: stoic, proud, a hero with a supreme sense of the moment. For 15 years he has been the most important Yankee, more vital than A-Rod, Bernie, Pettitte, and yes, Jeter.
Everybody knows how good he is. But the truth is he's even better than that.
We assume he'll always be in the back of the Yankees bullpen, always assume any game is safe, no matter how precarious the situation is.
Once "Enter Sandman" plays, the Yankees will be triumphant. Obviously, this won't always be the case, and there have been occasions when Rivera has failed. But he always retains the representation of iron-clad safety. He is the ultimate security blanket.
Rivera has never won a Cy Young Award and never finished higher than ninth in MVP voting. He is the greatest pitcher most of us will ever see, and I don't think we'll ever truly realize it until he's finally gone.
That is the definition of an unsung hero.