COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#15)
By Paul Semendinger
I have written a great del over the years about the impact of Thurman Munson's death on me as an eleven-year-old kid. I didn't understand it. Super heroes didn't die. I couldn't believe it. In some regards, I'll never believe it. Thurman Munson. How could he be gone?
After his tragic death, uniform number 15 was retired for Thurman Munson. That is how it should be. It's only right. Munson was a great Yankee. He was a leader of those 1976-1978 World Series teams. He was the captain.
I've also written a lot about the fact that Thurman Munson belongs in the Hall of Fame. He does, absolutely.
But, there was at least one other very good, if not great Yankee who also wore uniform #15. That player, known as "Old Reliable," was Tommy Henrich.
Let's compare the two players quickly:
Runs Batted In
Tommy Henrich was on six World Series winning teams.
Thurman Munson was on two.
Thurman Munson was a seven-time All Star.
Tommy Henrich was on five All-Star teams..
Many fans today don't know who Tommy Henrich was. They don't know about him because the Yankees seem to focus on their more recent stars, honoring them with plaques in Monument Park and retired numbers and such. I have said, often, that this is unfair to the greats of year's past.
Paul O'Neill's career WAR (38.9) falls short of Henrich's. As a Yankee, O'Neill accumulated only 26.7 WAR. Tommy Henrich was just as good of a player as Paul O'Neill. Yet O'Neill has his number retired and Tommy Henrich... he's not even remembered by many, if not most. It doesn't make sense that the better player of the two gets forgotten.
Tommy Henrich was also a career Yankee. O'Neill wasn't.
Tommy Henrich also lost three prime seasons to military service.
When I was growing up, one of the great old baseball stories was that of Mickey Owens dropping the third strike. That story has also been largely forgotten. That's too bad. Tommy Henrich was the batter when Owens dropped the third strike. Tommy Henrich had many big moments as a Yankee.
They called Tommy Henrich, "Old Reliable," because he was.
If the Yankees are compelled to retire numbers and hang plaques for the more recent stars, that's fine. What upsets me is that in doing this, the neglect players who are also deserving, many who are more deserving. Tommy Henrich deserves this honor (as do so many others) as much, if not more so than players who are currently honored.
I think it's fair to say that Thurman Munson was a better player than Henrich. Munson played a more important position, he was a catcher. Henrich played outfield (very well) and also first base. I think Thurman Munson will eventually reach Cooperstown. I don't believe Tommy Henrich ever will. Still, that doesn't take away Henrich's excellence or his contributions to the team.
Tommy Henrich was in six World Series. The Yankees won them all. Tommy Henrich hit a home run in every World Series in which he appeared.
Thurman Munson wore #15 his entire career.
Tommy Henrich wore #22 in 1937, #17 in 1938 and 1939, and then he wore another number where he's also over shadowed. From 1932 to 1942, before the war, Henrich wore #7.
Here's one more little known stat - Tommy Henrich twice led the American League in triples (1947 and 1948).
If the choice is between Munson and Henrich, I'll give the edge to Munson as the best player to wear #15...
Some other Yankees of note who wore #15 were:
Tom Tresh (1961-69) - American League Rookie of the Year (1962)
Joe Collins (1953-57) - An oft forgotten first baseman who was a key member of the team
Charlie Keller (1945) - Partnered with Tommy Henrich and Joe DiMaggio in the outfield in the late 1930s and through the 1940s.
WAIT!!! Mr. Munson.... we have some competition...
Years as a Yankee
Player X: 15
World Series Appearances
Player X: 7
World Series Wins
Player X: 6
Times an All-Star
Player X: 6
Hall of Fame?
Player X: YES
I can't compare batting stats, because Player X was a pitcher, but, among pitchers, this guy could hit...
Over 1,937 at bats (no small sample size), this player batted .269/36/273. Among pitchers, he was a great hitter.
When Thurman Munson played, a lot was made about the fact that he had three consecutive 100 RBI seasons. (Rightfully so.)
This player had four consecutive 20-win seasons:
1936: 20-12, 3.85
1937: 20-7, 2.98
1938: 21-7, 3.31
1939: 21-7, 2.93
This pitcher also won 15 games in 1930, 16 games in 1931, 18 games in 1932, 19 games in 1934, 16 games in 1935, and 15 more in both 1940 and 1941. After winning 14 games in 1942, he spent two years in military service.
Overall this player went 231-124, 3.47 as a Yankee. He is a deserving Hall of Famer. He was a leader on the pitching staff for more than a decade of excellence in Yankees history.
Do I dare go here?
Player X = 46.5
Munson = 46.1
I love Thurman Munson. Of the players in my life who have touched my heart and my life, it would be hard to argue that many if any, meant more to me than ol' Thurman.
Thurman Munson's #15 absolutely deserves to be retired. Absolutely.
But, once again, when a team retires a number for one player, then that player, alone (except for #8, which we'll get to in this series) is remembered for that uniform number - and the other players, like Tommy Henrich and this great pitcher get forgotten.
This great pitcher was Red Ruffing.
Hall of Famer Red Ruffing wore #15 from 1932-1942. He went 188-101, 3.39 wearing #15.
It would be difficult to argue that Thurman Munson was a greater player than Hall of Famer Red Ruffing. Those four 20-win season that Ruffing had were four seasons in which the Yankees won the World Series each year. Red Ruffing was the ace of the pitching staff during that critical period. Lefty Gomez was also a Hall of Fame pitcher on those teams, but Ruffing was the clear ace and better pitcher:
Lefty Gomez: 123 starts, 64-38, 3.27
Red Ruffing: 123 starts, 82-33, 3.29
This might come as a shock, but the greatest Yankee to wear #15 was not Thurman Munson.
It was Red Ruffing.
If could argue that they both deserve the honor. It is that close. And it makes some nice poetry, if you will, a pitcher and a catcher...
But if I have to choose one, that one is Red Ruffing.
Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.
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