COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#21)
By Paul Semendinger
Whether he really deserves it or not is one debate, but now, going forward, for the Yankees and their history, #21 will always, and forevermore, be associated and remembered for Paul O'Neill.
If one were to list the All-Time Yankees by WAR, Paul O'Neill ranks as the 36th greatest Yankee position player. 36th. There are a bunch of players who rank above O'Neill in WAR who don't have their number retired. This list includes: Dave Winfield, Bobby Murcer, Bob Meusel, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Red Rolfe, Hank Bauer, Rickey Henderson, Roger Peckinpaugh, Joe Gordon, Tommy Henrich, Gil McDougald, Charlie Keller, Graig Nettles, Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, Roy White, and Willie Randolph. All of those players, save for Henderson and Peckinpaugh, were multiple time World Series winners with the Yankees. Many of them (nine in total) were also outfielders. There are also a few players, Robinson Cano, A-Rod, and Brett Gardner, to name three, who are of too recent vintage to be considered for this honor. (There are also numerous pitchers, including Herb Pennock., Mel Stottlemyre, and Mike Mussina whose WAR ranks above O'Neill's who also don't have their uniform numbers retired.)
But, O'Neill will get this honor soon.
He was a Yankees star, he was a leader, he was a World Champion... whether that translates to having a number retired isn't the purpose here. It seems, to this writer, at least, a bit too much. O'Neill was a very good Yankee. Others were greatest. Why he gets this honor before them is something I don't understand. But...
The question here, for the purposes of this series, is "Who was the greatest Yankee in uniform #21?"
38 different Yankees have worn #21. Most of these players weren't all that memorable. Most didn't even wear the uniform for very long.
Paul O'Neill wore #21 from 1993 to 2001. No one wore the number longer.
Scott Sanderson wore the number in 1991 and 1992. He was the ace of some poor teams back then.
Ken Phelps wore #21 in 1988 and 1989. (Maybe by retiring the number for O'Neill, everyone will forget the Ken Phelps for Jay Buhner trade.)
Dan Pasqua was #21 from 1985 to 1987.
Steve Kemp wore the number in 1983 and 1984.
The list goes on... Rusty Torres, Frank Tepedino, Ralph Terry (at the start of his career), Sal Magile (at the end of his career), Jim Konstanty, Bob Kuzava, Fred Sanford, Bill Bevens, Pat Malone, Joe Sewell, and Gordon Rhodes. They all wore uniform number 21 in more than one season. None of those players challenges Paul O'Neill for the honor.
But there was one player, forgotten by many, who just might be able to challenge O'Neill - Spurgeon Ferdinand "Spud" Chandler.
Let me try to make a case:
Paul O'Neill never won an MVP. Spud Chandler did, in 1943.
Paul O'Neill was a four time All-Star as a Yankee. So was Spud Chandler.
O'Neill was on five World Series winning teams, Chandler was on seven.
Paul O'Neill once led the league in batting, Chandler led the league in ERA twice and wins once
Paul O'Neill was a Yankee for 9 seasons, Chandler was a Yankee for 11 seasons.
The biggest statistic that would go in Chandler's favor is the fact that among all pitchers in the entire history of the Yankees (minimum 100 games), Spud Chandler holds the team record for the highest winning percentage (.717). No other Yankees pitcher, not Whitey Ford, not Waite Hoyt, not Ron Guidry, Roger Clemens, Allie Reynolds.... none won at a higher rate than Spud Chandler. As a Yankee, Spud Chandler went 103-43.
Chandler spent his entire career with the Yankees, He won 20-games two times. Spud Chandler is often forgotten. People will discount some of his numbers because he played during the war years when the level of play was diminished. But, we can only look at what he did - and what he did was pretty darn good. No pitcher won games at a higher rate over a career as a Yankee than did Spud Chandler. That's something.
But was Spud Chandler as good as Paul O'Neill?
As a Yankee, Paul O'Neill batted .300 or better for six consecutive years. O'Neill hit 20 or more homers six times. O'Neill drove in at least 70 runs in every season he played for the Yankees, driving home 100 or more for four consecutive seasons. Paul O'Neill was also an every day player. He was out there game-after-game. He was a leader.
For his career as a Yankee, Paul O'Neill hit .303/185/858. Yeah, he was good. Real good. Like Jimmy Key, Paul O'Neill was one of the players who came to the Yankees before they were champions and helped them go from the bottom of the division to the top. He was a champion. Paul O'Neill was a star on those great teams of the 1990s.
Spud Chandler earned 22.9 WAR in his career. Paul O'Neill was somewhat better - 26.7.
Paul O'Neill played in 1,254 games as a Yankee. Chandler pitched in 211. In other words, Paul O'Neill played in 1,043 more games than Spud Chandler. 1,043. That's a number that just can't be ignored.
I like to remember the oft-forgotten or overlooked Yankees. Spud Chandler doesn't get the recognition he deserves. (And from that list above, people probably also forget that Jim Konstantly won an MVP with the Phillies in 1950 and was an excellent relief pitcher for the Yankees or that Joe Sewell ended his Hall of Fame career on the Yankees, or how much of a big-time pitcher Sal Maglie was for the Giants and the Dodgers, or that Bill Bevens almost threw a no-hitter in the World Series....)
But, in the end, the greatest Yankee to wear uniform #21 was, without a doubt, Paul O'Neill.
Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.
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