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By Neil Shalin
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Neil Shalin
All rights reserved.
1. First Base
1. Lou Gehrig
2. Don Mattingly
3. Tino Martinez
4. Bill "Moose" Skowron
5. Chris Chambliss
6. Wally Pipp
7. Mark Teixeira
8. Hal Chase
9. Joe Pepitone
10. Jason Giambi
Lou Gehrig is the best first baseman of all time. So he would be at the top of any team's list, even though it's been more than 70 years since he played his last game.
Mattingly — a Hall of Famer in our opinion — is at the top of a formidable group that has Jason Giambi at No. 10 because he was usually a designated hitter but played first base at times during several productive years. Martinez, Pipp, Skowron, and Chambliss weren't quite superstars, but it's safe to say that first base for the Yankees was in pretty good hands with all four.
Teixeira, a relative newcomer to the Bronx, can certainly move up several slots if he continues at his present rate of production for a few more years. And Pepitone was a very good ballplayer who went to the outfield for several years.
We give him the Hall of Fame on the Sandy Koufax Law, which states that if a player is dominant enough in his prime years and fulfills the required number of years as an active player, then he belongs.
We're not saying that Mattingly was as dominant a hitter as Koufax was a pitcher, but there was a stretch there in the late '80s (1984–89) when many observers thought he was the best player in the game.
In a six-year period, he batted over .300 every year, made the All-Star Game every year, won five of his nine Gold Gloves, won the batting crown in '84 (.343), the RBI title (145), and the total base title (370), as well as being voted the league's MVP that year. In '86 he had the highest slugging percentage, total bases, and OPS. He finished second in the MVP voting that season. The following year he set a record by hitting six grand slams in one season, and he also tied a major league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games (10 home runs during the streak).
A back injury suffered during the '87 season bothered Mattingly for the rest of his career, and his power numbers decreased steadily, though he remained a good contact hitter and continued to be a team leader (he was named captain in 1991). He is also regarded by many experts as one of the greatest fielding first baseman of all time.
At the same time that Mattingly played for the Yankees, the Mets also had a first baseman who was his equal as a fielder, Keith Hernandez. Since both were good hitters — both had won a batting title and an MVP award — many observers believe that Mattingly and Hernandez belong in the Hall of Fame.
"That was always the battle in New York — who was better," said broadcaster Tim McCarver in Mike Shalin's Mattingly biography Donnie Baseball. "Oh, it was unbelievable. They were two guys who were maybe the best fielding first baseman in the history of the game."
While Hernandez may have had a slight edge because he had a better arm, Mattingly was more of a power hitter in his prime.
"You talk about Mattingly's offense," McCarver said. "I remember when I was working with ABC and he had all the home runs in eight straight games. I remember how exciting it was to be around. And he was always such a classy guy, the way he carried himself. I didn't know him at the time, but I was always impressed with the way he carried himself and the way he approached the game. He had a religious concentration on what he was doing and how he went about his job."
The fact that Mattingly didn't make the postseason until his final year is one of the factors that Hall of Fame voters point to for not selecting him.
He came up in 1982, the year after the Yankees lost the World Series to the Dodgers, and he retired after the 1995 season with only that one playoff appearance against the Mariners. The Yankees lost to the Mariners, but Mattingly hit .417 and knocked in six runs.
The back injury forced him into retirement after that season at the age of 34.
The following year the Bronx Bombers, with Tino Martinez playing first base, started their string of five straight pennants, including World Series victories in four of those five years.
Lou Piniella believes the injury that limited Mattingly's career is the only thing keeping him from the Hall of Fame. "Legitimate .300 hitter, legitimate RBI guy, legitimate home run–hitting, Gold Glove–type first baseman," Piniella said. "You take away the back injury from Donnie and you have a guy that, say, plays another five or six years in top shape — Hall of Fame numbers."
Bill "Moose" Skowron
Bill "Moose" Skowron was in a nostalgic mood when I spoke to him in March 2011. He had recently gone to New York for an autograph and memorabilia show and spent his time hanging around with former Yankees teammates Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Jim Coates, Art Ditmar, and Hector Lopez. It got him thinking about the good old days.
Skowron, a six-time All-Star, played in the World Series eight times in his career, taking home five championship rings.
Along with Yankees teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, he still holds the record for most home runs hit in a single season by three teammates. In 1961 the three combined for 143 dingers. Maris, of course, broke Babe Ruth's record with 61 that year, while Mantle finished second in the home run race with 54, and Moose belted 28.
Moose remembered that as a high school player in Chicago in 1946 he went to New York as a member of a Chicago Herald American all-star team for a tournament. There he played against future All-Stars Dick Groat, Bob Grim (a New Yorker who would become a teammate on the Yankees), and the great Harry Agganis (who would go on to play first base for the Red Sox before tragically dying at the age of 25).
Skowron was 16 years old when he hit an inside-the-park home run into the gap in right field at the Polo Grounds. "The thing that was so special about the trip was that I got to meet Babe Ruth," said Skowron. "It never occurred to me to ask him for an autograph."
During his early years in baseball, Skowron, who now works for his hometown Chicago White Sox in community relations, met many old-time greats including Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. When he signed his first Yankees contract, Moose was sent to a winter league where he played for Rogers Hornsby.
"I could kick myself for not getting all those guys to sign a baseball or a program," said Skowron. "So many of them came back for Old-Timers Days at the Stadium."
In 1957, Moose was invited by teammates to the infamous birthday party for Billy Martin at the Copacabana, but he didn't attend. So Skowron wasn't present on the night of the Copa incident, when teammates Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer, and Johnny Kucks went out to celebrate Billy Martin's birthday and wound up being implicated in a brawl with a group of rowdy revelers who were allegedly shouting racial epithets at entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. during his show.
Where was Skowron?
"I told Hank Bauer and his wife that I'd be happy to stay with their two-year-old daughter," said Moose. "I was at the hotel babysitting. What a guy won't do for a buck."
Skowron said he and Bauer, who died in 2007, became really close friends after their playing days. "Hank was a tough ex-marine and a natural leader," Skowron said. "He wouldn't put up with anyone who didn't work hard and hustle. He counted on that World Series check every year, so he would really come down on someone who slacked off because, as he saw it, the guy was taking money out of Hank's pocket."
When Moose first signed with the Yankees he played shortstop and third base, and they even tried him in the outfield. "I couldn't catch a fly ball," he said. "But Johnny Neun worked with me when they decided to make me a first baseman. I even went to the Fred Astaire Dancing School two nights a week to work on my footwork. I really think it helped."
And speaking of dancing, Skowron also remembers when he and several teammates appeared on The Arthur Murray Dance Party TV show. The players got to dance with professional dancers who were dressed in evening gowns, and there was a competition among three ballplayers for the audience to choose the best dancer. "Whitey Ford was doing a jitterbug with one of the dancers, and she fell and was slightly injured," said Skowron. "We were never invited back again."
The recent death of infielder Gil McDougald saddened Skowron. McDougald was a good friend and former roommate. "I was on first base when Gil hit that line drive that hit Herb Score," said Skowron. "Gil was such a compassionate man that I believe that incident really affected the rest of his career. Of course, Score had already proven at a young age that he was one of the best pitchers in the game."
According to Skowron, McDougald — who was a Yankees starter at all three infield positions during his 10-year Yankees career — is a prime example of the team's solid defense during the dynasty era that went from 1949 to 1964.
"We were famous for hitting all those home runs and we had outstanding pitchers through the years," said Skowron. "But I don't think enough credit has been given to the defensive play we had in both the infield and the outfield. Jerry Coleman, Andy Carey, Phil Rizzuto, Bobby Richardson, Billy Martin, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, and Eddie Robinson in the infield, and outfielders like Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer were essential to the Yankees winning every year."
Skowron is thrilled to still be around the game at the age of 80, and he's had a great experience working for his hometown White Sox these past 11 years. "Jerry Reinsdorf is an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan," he said. "So there's still that connection to the era that I played for the Yankees. But the White Sox have been great to me. And it's terrific to be at all the home games and meeting the fans at the ballpark and at special events."
We know, we know. Wally Pipp was the Yankees first baseman who missed a game in 1925 because of a headache, allowing Lou Gehrig to step in and play the next 2,130 games over 15 years.
As the years went by, "pulling a Wally Pipp" has grown to include anyone who loses their job by taking a day off at an inopportune time, giving a replacement the opportunity to make you irrelevant. Even Pipp added to the mythology years later when he said, "I took the two most expensive aspirins in history."
Now, let's get to the rest of the story.
First of all, it probably wasn't true that Pipp sat out the game because of a headache, which was supposedly the result of a beaning in batting practice the day before. Actually, that beaning took place about a month after Gehrig took over at first base.
Pipp was probably taken out of the lineup along with several other starters in order to shake things up for a Yankees team that wasn't doing well, one that would eventually finish seventh in the American League. And while the story reduces the memory of Wally Pipp to some kind of slacker, a look at his record shows that he was one of the team's best players, a respected slugger who was adept at fielding his position.
Pipp was the Yankees' starting first baseman for 11 years, including their first two pennant winners and the 1923 World Series championship. In fact, his fine career continued with the Reds after it became clear that Gehrig was in the position to stay.
He was a good fielder who was a starter and a slugger in an early Murderers Row–type Yankees lineup that included Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, and "Home Run" Baker.
For his career, Pipp was a .281 hitter who drove in more than 100 runs in 1923 and '24 and 90 or better four other times. He was the AL home run king in 1915 and 1917 with 12 and nine respectively, before the Babe took the home run to heretofore unseen heights.
1. Whose record did Mattingly tie when he hit home runs in eight consecutive games in 1987?
2. Who later tied the record by also hitting home runs in eight consecutive games?
3. Which first baseman played in seven World Series for the Yankees, all in the 1950s?
4. Which first baseman played in seven World Series for the Yankees in a period spanning the 1950s and '60s?
5. Who was the Yankees starting first baseman after Lou Gehrig retired?
6. Which first baseman hit the walk-off home run for the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS against Kansas City, sending the Yankees to the World Series for the first time since 1964?
7. Which All-Star National League first baseman — who never played for the Yankees — served as their TV and radio announcer from 1971 to 1988?
a. Ted Kluszewski
b. Joe Adcock
c. Bill White
d. Bill Terry
8. Lou Gehrig attended which Ivy League university?
9. Which Yankees first baseman/outfielder in the 1950s also played pro basketball in the 1940s?
10. Which Yankees first baseman from the 1940s was known for his sweet tenor voice, earning him the nickname "the Bronx Thrush?"
a. Enrico Pallazzo
b. Dennis Day
c. George McQuinn
d. Buddy Hassett
1. Dale Long of the Pirates, who later played for the Yankees.
2. Ken Griffey Jr.
3. Joe Collins
4. Bill Skowron
5. Babe Dahlgren
6. Chris Chambliss
7. c. Bill White
9. Irv Noren
10. d. Buddy HassettCHAPTER 2
1. Tony Lazzeri
2. Joe Gordon
3. Willie Randolph
4. Bobby Richardson
5. Robinson Cano
6. Gil McDougald
7. Billy Martin
8. Chuck Knoblauch
9. Aaron Ward
10. Jerry Coleman
11. Steve Sax
12. George "Snuffy" Stirnweiss
13. Alfonso Soriano
14. Horace Clarke
15. Jimmy Williams
Down through the years second base has been one of the Yankees' strongest positions. It has been so good that we made the list a Top 15 in order to include everyone who deserved recognition.
We've got a pair of Hall of Famers in Lazzeri and the recently elected Gordon — who was long overdue — at the top of our list. After that are a pair of great second-sackers, Randolph and Richardson, who were All-Stars and among the best of their eras. Cano, still a relatively young man, could rank higher in a few years if he keeps up his current pace. McDougald is sixth because we decided to put him at second, even though he could have made the list at either shortstop or third base. The next four were important members of great Yankees teams, while the last five all had more than a moment in the sun.
It's safe to say that the Yankees have been well-covered at second base for just about a century.
Is it too early to be talking about Robinson Cano as an eventual Hall of Famer?
He's only been in the majors for seven years, but he's already made the kind of impact that ranks him among the best at the position and, if he continues the trend of the past few years, could put him up among the great Yankees of all time.
He ranks behind only Joe DiMaggio in most career hits in his first six years as a Yankee. The Yankee Clipper had 1,183 to Cano's 1,107, ahead of both Don Mattingly and Derek Jeter.
Cano is a native of the Dominican Republic whose dad, Jose, pitched briefly for the Astros in 1989. Robby's been good since he came to the majors in 2005, but in the past three years he's become one of the elite players in the game.
He was the runner-up to A's reliever Houston Street for the Rookie of the Year in '05, hitting .297 with 14 homers and 62 RBIs. He made the All-Star team in 2006, finishing the year with a .342 average, third best in the league. His power numbers went up in '07 as he hit 19 homers and drove in 97 runs. The following year, Cano's production was down, but he put it all together in 2009, when he was one of the team's leaders in the push to the Yankees' first World Series title since 2000. His breakout year in 2009 firmly established him as the No. 5 man in the batting order and maybe the most dangerous hitter on that championship team. Cano hit .320 with 25 home runs and 85 RBIs. He ranked in the top 10 in the AL in hits, extra-base hits, total bases, at-bats, doubles, batting average, runs scored, and triples. He and Derek Jeter became the first double-play combination to both have 200 or more hits in one season.
Excerpted from Yankees Triviology by Neil Shalin. Copyright © 2011 Neil Shalin. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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