When most fans think about previous captains of the Yankees, we think of Lou Gehrig, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter.
The Yankees have actually had 11 captains in their storied history.
In fact, being a Yankee captain is more of an exclusive club to get into than the club of retired Yankee numbers. 16 retired Yankee numbers to 11 Yankee captains.
Today, I’d like to look back on one of the captains that we do not hear a lot about these days.
It all began following the Thanksgiving Holiday break of 1972. The Yankees came back to work on Monday November 27, and General Manager Lee MacPhail promptly made a move to impact the 1973 season and many seasons to come. He acquired third baseman Graig Nettles from the Cleveland Indians.
Oddly enough, at the time the Cleveland General Manager was Gabe Paul. He would resign from his position and join the Yankees shortly after the Nettles trade.
Many conspiracy theories arose from the shores of Lake Erie for years to come.
The trade was a 4 player for 2 exchange between the Tribe and the Bombers. The Yankees sending Rusty Torres, Charlie Spikes, Jerry Kenney, and Johnny Ellis to Cleveland in exchange for Jerry Moses and Graig Nettles.
Nettles, a 28-year-old lefty hitting third baseman coming off his third year as a starting third baseman in the Major Leagues, was the main player in the deal. Nettles would be changing uniforms for the third time in 5 seasons, as he came up with the Minnesota Twins in 1967, and then was traded to Cleveland in 1970.
It was time for his career to take off and for him to settle in with one team.
That is exactly what would happen. Number 9 began to develop into the player the Yankees needed and settled into becoming a main cog in the Yankee wheel.
Prior to the trade he was already a respected player in the League, but not viewed as anything special, just a decent offensive player, with a good glove. But back in those days Brooks Robinson was the baseline that every other third basemen was measured against. Hardly very fair!
The knock on Nettles at the time was his batting average. He averaged .250 in his three years with the Tribe, not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but also not the stats of an untouchable. However, he did hit 71 home runs in that period, so he was viewed as having value. Cleveland was coming off of a last place finish in 1972, the highlight of the season was the Cy Young Award winning performance by Gaylord Perry. But the Cleveland offense was 10th in the American League in runs scored, and had a team batting average of .234. They needed multiple position players. But did not have many assets on the current roster that other teams considered valuable.
Nettles had value, and was moved to fill multiple holes. A sound strategy no doubt.
As a result, Cleveland ended up with 4 new position players.
In last 20 or so years, a player traded to the Yankees could bank on October baseball. However that wasn’t the case in 1973.
Nettles would arrive at Spring Training 1973 with the Yankees missing the playoffs for 8 straight years following a 79-76 1972 record, in a strike shortened season.
These were not good times in the Bronx, as the Yankees drew fewer than one million fans for the first time since World War II.
The beginning of what could be a core was being formed with star catcher Thurman Munson, Roy White, Bobby Murcer and now Nettles. But much worked remained.
The 28 year old new Yankee third baseman would go on to hit .234 with 22 home runs with 81 RBI in his freshman season in the Bronx. But now, we started seeing his outstanding defensive on a nightly basis. He was quickly recognized as the second best player on the team behind Munson.
During the renovation of Yankee Stadium years (1974 and 1975), when the Bombers called Shea Stadium home, Nettles would hit .256 with 43 home runs and 166 RBI, while displaying his superb defense.
In 1975 he would have a very solid first half of the season hitting .287 with 14 home runs, and would be voted to his first All-Star game as the starting third basemen, beating out the aging Brooks Robinson. He would go on to get voted in 5 more times.
1975 also became the year he was reunited with his old Twins Manager of 1969, Billy Martin, who took over with 56 games left in the 1975 season.
Things would start to change very quickly for the Yankees.
When 1976 arrived, the Yankees moved back to the Bronx and the core was in place. The Yankees had added Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers, Oscar Gamble and Lou Piniella over the last couple of years to the starting lineup, to go along with Munson and Nettles.
In a Pennant winning year, Nettles had his best season to date, hitting 32 home runs to lead the American League, with 93 RBI while hitting .254, and continuing to shine and make incredible plays at third base, helping to lead the Yankees back to the postseason; with a 97- 62 record (2 rain outs).
If the WAR stat existed in 1976 he would have had an 8.0 WAR, which would have been the best among all position players in the league.
In the thrilling 1976 ALCS against the Royals, in which the Yankees won in 5 games, Nettles would contribute with 2 home runs in game 4 and continued to shine at third base.
When 1977 rolled around, he picked up right where he left off making his second All-Star team while reaching career highs in home runs (37), RBI (107), and runs scored (99). His defense remained great and he went on to win the Gold Glove Award at the hot corner and placed 5th in MVP voting.
Under Billy Martin, the Yankees would win 100 games and their second straight division title, ALCS title and win their first World Series since 1962.
Due to his defensive abilities, 1978 became the year a lot of us remember him by. He would win another Gold Glove, hit .276 with 27 home runs and 93 RBI, and get voted in to another All-Star game.
1978 is remembered as a very tumultuous season for the Yankees, and for good reason. After a tough 11-inning loss to the Royals on July 17th the Yankees were behind the Red Sox by 14 games. That game became a point of reference in the season because it was the game where Reggie Jackson struck out trying to bunt in the bottom of the 10th, after getting the sign to “swing away” from Martin.
Reggie’s actions were regarded as an act of defiance by Martin. It would set off a chain of events that eventually concluded with Martin being fired less than a week later.
Martin was replaced by the calming influence of Bob Lemon. Guys got healthy and the team won 47 of its last 67 games to tie for the division lead with Boston.
From July 21 to October 1, 1978 Nettles was red hot at the plate and would play a major role in the turnaround, hitting .321 with 10 HR and 50 RBI.
As we all know, the Yankees would go on to win the one game playoff at Fenway Park, with Nettles catching the final out on a foul popup by Carl Yastrzemski off Goose Gossage with the tying run on 3rd base.
Winning their third straight AL East title, the Yankees again defeated the Royals in the ALCS in a heated battle. This would set the stage for a rematch with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and what would become the biggest moments of Nettles’ career.
The date was October 13, 1978; a Friday night in the Bronx. The Yankees took the field for game 3 of the World Series, down 2 games to none, after losing the first 2 in Los Angeles.
The Yankees had 25 game winner Ron Guidry on the mound that night, so a collective calm filled the stadium and most family rooms in the area that evening.
The Dodgers countered with future Hall of Famer Don Sutton.
Calmness quickie turned to nervousness when it was obvious that Gator didn’t have his “A” game that night; the Dodgers hit the ball hard throughout the game.
The problem for Tommy Lasorda and the Dodgers was that it seemed nearly every hard hit ball was hit to third base, where Graig Nettles resided.
With the Yankees clinging to a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the 3rd inning with two outs and a runner on first, up came Reggie Smith. He hit a one hopper to Nettles’ right, which looked like a clear double down the line. Nettles would have none of that and made a diving catch and fired a strike to first to end the inning.
Gator would get in more trouble in the 5th Inning. The Dodgers would load the bases with two outs and had the great hitter Steve Garvey at the plate. Garvey would hit a smash to third that took a bad hop. With cat like reflexes Nettles backhanded the ball spun and threw a strike to second base for a force out, ending the threat.
Nettles created another collective sigh of relief in the stadium as near pandemonium would erupt as he jogged of the field, with the 2-1 lead still safe.
As fate would have it, the 6th inning brought more drama. The Dodgers would once again load the bases with 2 outs against Guidry. Now he had to face Davey Lopes. Tension filled the air. Lopes would hit a rocket down the third base line, Nettles made a brilliant catch and got the final out of the inning with a force at second.
When the game had ended with a 5-1 Yankee win, Nettles had five assists, two putouts and one double play started. By himself, he arguably saved at least 4 runs and as many as 7.
Since we have no games to watch these days, if you’d like to watch the full game click here.
The Nettles play on Reggie Smith play is at 1:00:30, the Garvey play at 1:24:00 and the Lopes play at 1:40:50.
After the death of Thurman Munson in 1979, the Yankees clearly took a step back, and it took them a year or so to regroup.
With the core of the team, including Nettles aging, they would again make the playoffs in 1980, but this time they did not get past the Royals.
In the strike shortened season of 1981 the Yankees would make it back to the fall classic against those same Dodgers.
In the 1981 ALCS Nettles hit .500 with a home run and 9 RBI. Nettles was named the ALCS MVP.
In the World Series he would break his thumb on a diving play at third base in game 2. They would hold on to win the game, but would not win another game in the series and lost to the Dodgers in 6.
Although a captain in Baseball is not nearly as important as it is in other sports, George Steinbrenner was a proponent of it. The Yankees had not had a captain since the death of Thurman Munson in 1979, so on January 29, 1982, Steinbrenner named Nettles captain of the Yankees.
At this point and 37 years old, Nettles’ best days were behind him. He played with the Yankees through the 1983 season, and then was traded to his home town team San Diego Padres prior to the 1984 Season. He would appear in the 1984 World Series against the powerhouse Detroit Tigers, for his final post season appearance.
He would retire as a player following the 1988 season as a member of the Montreal Expos.
When his career was concluded he ended up with 390 career home runs, making him 24th most in the history of baseball (up to that point), and the most by any left-handed hitting third basemen.
Nettles was not the captain of a world championship team, and maybe that is one of the reasons why he is rarely mentioned as a captain. But, he is one of the greatest third baseman in the storied history of the New York Yankees, and played a major role in back to back World Series Championship teams.
Hang in there, everyone!