COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#20)
By Paul Semendinger
You might think that #20 would have had a better start. The Yankees began using uniforms in 1929. 20 is a low enough number that there had to be someone of note that wore it first. Alas! Not. Not at all.
The first person to wear #20 was Myles Thomas, a pitcher who wore the number until June when he was traded to the Washington Senators. Later that year, Julie Wera wore the number for five games to finish the season. Wera had 12 at bats and 5 hits for a .417 batting average, but he'd never again play in the big leagues.
In the early years of the Yankees, #20 was often a pitcher's number. First was Myles Thomas. Also wearing number twenty and also pitching were Lefty Gomez (1931), Charlie Devens (1932), Johnny Murphy (1932), Don Brennan (1933), Floyd Newkirk (a Least Among Them Yankee) in 1934. Burleigh Grimes and Harry Smythe wore #20 in 1934. Johnny Broaca wore this number from 1935 to 1937. Kemp Wicker in 1937 and 1938. Oral Hildebrand for 1939 and 1940. Tiny Bonham wore #20 from 1940-46. Spec Shea was #20 from 1947 to 1949.
The there was Ernie Nevil in 1950 and, finally, Art Schallock from 1951 to 1953.
In fact, every Yankee to wear #20 from 1929 to 1953 were pitchers, except for two players, Billy Werber (1930) and Bill Drescher (1944). Werber played in four games that year, Drescher also played in four games, but he also is recorded as having worn uniform #22 that year so I'm not sure how many games he actually appeared in uniform #20.
It's interesting to note that #20 was basically a pitcher's number until it wasn't. (The only pitcher to wear #20 after 1953 was Bill Kunkel in 1963.)
After the early 1950s, #20 became a number used for infielders, especially guys that could play shortstop. This list includes Billy Werber, Willy Miranda, Billy Hunter, Joe DeMaestri, Ed Brinkman, Eddie Leon, Mickey Klutts, Edwin Rodriguez, Bobby Meacham, Alvaro Espinoza, and Robert Eenhoorn. Among these names were two others: Horace Clarke (who also, of course, played second base) was #20 from 1965-74 and Bucky Dent who wore #20 from 1977 to 1982. Clarke and Dent deserve consideration in the "best ever" conversation.
In the 1990s, the number moved to catcher. Mike Stanley first wore #20 and then Jorge Posada did as well. The number today is retired for Jorge Posada.
In looking over the long history of the number, the top three candidates for best ever would be Horace Clarke, Bucky Dent, and Jorge Posada. Let's take a quick look at each...
Games Played: Posada (1,829), Clarke (1,230), Dent (695).
That one look, to me, eliminates Dent. Bucky was a champion, one of the missing pieces added at the start of 1977 who helped the Yankees win the World Series that year and the next. He played a solid shortstop that help solidify the Yankees defense. Of course, his homer in the 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox is legendary. He also won World Series MVP honors that year. His career WAR as a Yankee was 12.5. That's a nice resume, but one (most often) can't be the best ever if there are two other players who played significantly more than he did.
Horace Clarke was a very good Yankee. Except for 42 games played with San Diego in his final season, he was a Yankee for his whole career. In order to be great, one must show up - and Horace Clarke did. For seven consecutive seasons (1967-73), he played in at least 140 games for the Yankees. In 1969 and 1970, he led the American League in At Bats. Clarke had five seasons with over 20 doubles and four seasons with over 20 stolen bases. He was also a solid defensive second baseman who also played a little shortstop and third base. Unfortunately, when Horace Clarke played, the Yankees just weren't very good. As such, he's remembered as being not very good. That's just not the case. As a point of comparison, Bobby Richardson, who won multiple World Series as a Yankee second baseman, and was a fine player (and also a World Series MVP) had a lifetime WAR of 8.1. Clarke's lifetime WAR was 16.3. Horace Clarke deserves to be remembered better.
And then there's the greatest Yankee at #20. It's not even close. Jorge Posada was a five-time All-Star. He won five Silver Sluggers. Posada was one of the "Core Four," a player who came through the Yankees season and was a major contributor on the World Series and other pennant winning teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. A catcher, Posada played in 140 or more games in a season six times. He his 275 homers. He drove in 1,065 runs. Ranked by WAR, Jorge Posada (42.7) is the 18th greatest catcher in the history of baseball. Posada ranks fourth among Yankees catchers behind only Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, and Thurman Munson.
Jorge Posada was a champion, he was a lifelong Yankee, he was a very good player, who deserves at least some consideration for the Hall of Fame. He was the greatest Yankee to wear #20.
Oh, lest we forget...
Uniform #20 was first a pitcher's number, then a shortstop's, and then a catcher's... but there was one legendary baseball name that also wore #20 when he played (briefly) for the Yankees (and before he became more famous as a New York Met) - Marv Throneberry.
Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.
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