The 10 Greatest Yankees Ever – by Cary Greene
The 10 Greatest Yankees
by Cary Greene
January 9, 2022
In order to answer the question: Who Were the Ten Greatest Yankees of All Time? – I took a stroll into the annals of baseball history and came away feeling as if I had just stepped onto the street after a visit to the baseball hall of fame. This question gets to the heart of any true Yankee fan and I often think about the greatest players from every team because my broad love of baseball is not solely focused on only the Yankees. Having said that, it was a delight to peek back into the pages of Yankee lore and craft my answer.
Forgive me for subtracting out and not including any players who knowingly used PED’s. I know it’s a highly controversial subject. In my humble opinion, a list of all-time Yankee greats has no room for players who knowingly used PED’s, cheating in the process and or – who have clearly lied about doing so. Therefore, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Robinson Canoe, Andy Pettitie, Rickey Henderson, Jason Giambi and Pudge Rodriguez won’t be appearing in this article other than here, in this single sentence.
Also grant me the right to consider the entire playing careers of each player I”ve selected, allow me rank the players based on their total playing career, not just their time with the Yankees. In exchange for this consideration, I’ll only consider players who spent significant chunks of time in pinstripes, but my list will look quite different than you might be expecting because of me doing this.
Also permit me to factor in World War 2 interruptions to any players affected and grant me the right to project what their careers might have looked like had they not been interrupted significantly.
Now for my list! It was a blast compiling this article and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.
At the top of the list is of course Babe Ruth. Imagine what the Yankee lineup would be like today with a powerful, left-handed home run swatter and RBI machine nestled into the cleanup spot? How many baseball player’s last names become words? The term “Ruthian,” from the Wiktionary means: Ruthian (comparative more Ruthian, superlative most Ruthian) (baseball) Prodigiously accomplished with respect to batting, typically describing the flight of a long home run. Indeed Ruth was a slugging machine and a far greater athlete than many realize. Ruth logged 1,221.1 innings as a pitcher and had a career ERA of 2.28, an FIP of 2.81 and a WHIP of 1.159. He would have made the Hall of Fame as a pitcher, had the Yankees chose to go that route with him and all are glad they didn’t because he’s obviously and clearly the greatest all time slugger to ever play the game.
When we think of the impact Ruth made in the Yankee lineup, the home runs are of course amazing but Ruth was an RBI juggernaut. His single season career high was 168 and he eclipsed 150 RBI’s 5 times in his 21 year career. In fact, he topped 100 RBI’s 13 times. That kind of production is just unthinkable and its no wonder that fans flocked to Yankee stadium to watch him play. Imagine what it might have been like to see him in person. His personality was larger than life. 714 career home runs. 2,214 RBI’s. A career slash line of .342/.474/.690 with an OPS of 1.164 – folks, there will never, ever, ever be another player even close to Babe Ruth. He’s the best to ever play the game. Lifetime WAR of 125.3 (highest in baseball history)
The second greatest Yankee is of course Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse himself. Gehrig is my personal favorite all time Yankee and his heroism is widely recognized by all baseball fans. Gehrig’s career high for RBI’s was 185 and he also exceeded 100 RBI’s 13 times in his 16 year career. 493 career home runs. 1.995 RBI’s. 23 Career Grand Slams. A career slash line of .340/.447/.632 with an OPS of 1.080! – Oh, and Gehrig played 2,130 straight games, which was a record that stood for 56 years. Lifetime WAR 113.7
The third greatest Yankee would have to be Joe DiMaggio. Joltin-Joe, also nicknamed the Yankee Clipper, was a stately leader who played in the hey-days of Yankee glory. Over his 13-year career, which spanned from 1936 to 1951, DiMaggio roamed centerfield and led the Bronx Bombers to nine World-Series championships. A career slash line of .325/.398/.579 with an OPS of .977 – with 3 MVP awards, 13 All-Star appearances, it is noted that DiMaggio never won a Gold Glove award! (that’s because the Gold Glove award wasn’t established until 1957).
DiMaggio was the best to ever play centerfield in Yankee stadium. He had amazing range and a smoothness that made everything he did look easy. He also had a rifle for a throwing arm as well. The reason I rank DiMaggio ahead of Mantle is because World War 2 interrupted his career right in the midst of his prime years. If he had played for those 4 years, he would have put up even more impressive numbers. DiMaggio and Mantle had the exact same career OPS so offensively, both players were actually equal, though their value was expressed a bit differently with DiMaggio making more effective contact and Mantle hitting more bombs.
I give DiMaggio a slight nod because of what he did defensively. He was able to maintain supreme defensive abilities over the course of his playing career. DiMaggio’s career was highlighted by his .381 average in ‘39, his 46 home runs in ‘37 and his 155 RBI in ‘55
Joe DiMaggio actually traded a $43,750 Yankees salary for a payment of $50 each month when he chose to enlist in the army on February 17th, 1943. It was reported that Joe requested he receive no special treatment, yet he spent most of his time in the Army playing baseball, as did many other big league stars during World War 2. Lifetime WAR of 79.2* (*career interrupted by World War 2)
**Had DiMaggio’s career not been interrupted by the Second World War, he would have easily had a much higher WAR, probably well over 100.
The fourth greatest Yankee was Mickey Mantle. Mantle was an all-Star for 18 consecutive years. From 1953-1955, Mantle, who was a switch hitter, averaged 28 home runs, 98 RBIs and 118 runs per season. He led the AL in 1954 with 129 runs and in 1955 he topped the AL with 37 homers, a .431 on-base percentage and a .611 slugging percentage. A career slash line of .298/.421/.557 with an OPS of .977 – but what stands out most about Mantle to me was how good of a center fielder he was in his prime (1956). In 1962 he won his only Gold Glove award, but could have won plenty more if his knees didn’t get the best of him.Mantle had gap-to-gap speed, tracking down any ball hit in his direction.
Though his hitting abilities will always overshadow his work with the glove, Mantle was a tremendous, two way player. Mantle all but lost his mobility due to the many injuries he suffered, yet as a center fielder, he recorded a lifetime .986 fielding percentage. At his best, Mantle ran like the wind and had a cannon for the throwing arm. Mantle played centerfield for the Yankees for 10 years, from ‘56 to ‘66. Mantle won seven World Series titles with the Yankees. Mantle oozed talent and his raw power was off the charts.
Many rank Mantle ahead of DiMaggio based on the power and I suppose it’s certainly debatable. Mantle’s career highs were 52 home runs in ‘56, 130 RBI also in ‘56 and a .353 average again, in ‘56. A healthy Mickey Mantle was otherworldly but injuries are part of the game and personally, I feel DiMaggio had more defensive value than Mantle did. Because WAR is a cumulative stat and because DiMaggio’s career was interrupted by World War 2, we’d have to add approximately 21 WAR to the back of his baseball card and if we did that, surprise, surprise, DiMaggio and Mantle are again dead even.
It does come down to what you prefer. Do you want the lighting quick, switch hitter with ridiculous natural power or do you want the natural centerfielder with pure hitting ability? Mantle’s lifetime WAR was 110.2
The fifth greatest Yankee ever was Yogi Berra. His 10 World Series championships are a record in professional sports. Berra was clutch in the postseason with a .274 average to go along with 71 hits, 12 home runs, 39 RBIs and 41 runs scored in 75 playoff games. Berra was an 18 time All-Star and a 3 time MVP. Over the course of his 19 year career, Yogi slashed .285/.348/.482 with an OPS of .830.
The single greatest moment in Yankee history was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series and Berra, who was one of the best at calling and framing pitches, was behind the plate. Larsen threw exactly what Berra called on every single pitch that day, and the image of Berra leaping into the pitcher’s arms is one of the most famous in baseball history. Two days later, Berra hit two homers to lead the Yankees to a 9-0 rout in Game 7. Berra later said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Berra is a winner and his place on my list reflects this fact. Berra’s Career WAR is 59.6
The sixth greatest Yankee ever was Mike Mussina. “Moose” was a model of consistency for 18 seasons, eight of which were with the Yankees. Mussina is a 5 time All-Star with 270 career wins on his resume. HIs stat line is .368 ERA/.357 FIP/1.192 WHIP. He is one of seven pitchers since 1969 to put together nine seasons of at least 200 innings and a 125 ERA+, and he did so during one of the most hitter-dominant eras in baseball history. Mussina’s career WAR is 82.8
The seventh greatest Yankee ever was Reggie Jackson. “Mr. October” himself, a two time World Series MVP and five time World Series Champion, Reggie’s defining Yankee moment was Game 6 of the 1977 World Series when he hit three home runs on three pitches and he had a postseason average of .278 with 78 hits, 18 homers, 48 RBIs and 41 runs scored in 77 games in the postseason in his career.
Reggie came to the Yankees on November 29th, 1076 and was the prize catch in the first-ever batch of MLB free agents. He signed a five year, $35 million contract with the Yankees. Before coming to New York, Reggie was the heart of Dick Williams’ Oakland Athletics dynasty. The acquisition of Reggie made the defending American League Champion Yankees even better and George Steinbrenner implemented his plan to bring the Yankees back to the top of the baseball world – a feat many Yankee fans wish his son Hal would attempt one day (dig/ding)
I’m obviously counting Reggie’s entire career as I rank him ahead of Jeter, Rivera, and Whitey and I think doing this brings complete recognition to Reggie for the player he truly was. Reggie’s Career WAR is 73.9
The eighth greatest Yankee ever was Derek Jeter. A clutch performer, Jeter led the Yankees by example and like Joe DiMaggio, was a very private person. A 14-time All-Star with five world series championships to his credit, Jeter also won five gold glove awards over his 20 year playing career. Jeter slashed .310/.377/.440 with an .817 OPS – and will forever be remembered for his many clutch defensive plays and hits. An exemplary person off the field and business like one on it, Jeter was not only able to handle the pressure of New York, but thrive in it. Over 158 postseason games, Jeter hit .308 with 111 runs, 200 hits, 32 doubles, 20 homers, 61 RBIs and 66 walks. Jeter’s Career WAR is 71.3
The ninth greatest Yankee ever was Dave Winfield. Winfield played 22 seasons total and nine of them were in pinstripes. He was a 12 time All-Star and he won a world series in ‘92, unfortunately with the Blue Jays. Winfield’s seven gold gloves are proof positive that he was one of the greatest defensive left fielders to ever play the game. His range and strong throwing arm made him a terrific fit in left field at Yankee stadium. Winfield’s athleticism and 6’6” height made him an imposing figure both in the field and at the plate. All told, Winfield hit 465 home runs coupled with 1,833 RBI and he slashed .283/.353/.475 with an .827 OPS for his career. Winfield’s Career WAR is 64.2
The tenth greatest Yankee ever was Thurman Munson. On Aug 2, 1979, New York Yankees captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash near the airport in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. During my lifetime and Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech aside, Munson’s passing was the most somber moment in Yankee history. Munson played for only 11 years but there is no telling what he would have done if he had not died prematurely. Munson was a seven time All-Star, a league MVP, a three time Gold Glove winner, a Rookie of the Year and a two time World Series Champion. His slash line was .292/.346/ with a .756 OPS.
Munson’s quiet leadership in the clubhouse and his gritty, consistent play on the field won him the 1976 MVP. He led the Yankees to the American League championship and its first World Series appearance in over a decade. While they lost that series to “The Big Red Machine”, the team’s success would only continue to grow over the next three seasons. Thurman Munson would captain the Yankees to the 1977 and 1978 World Championships. He hit .308 in ’76 and .297 in ’77 including .320 in both World Series.
As captain of the New York Yankees, Munson established himself as the heart and soul of one of the franchise’s most successful eras. Fans readily identified with his down-to-earth, blue-collar style of play. Munson’s career WAR was 46.1 and if we add another seven to ten years to Munson’s great Yankee career, his WAR would easily have been in the 60 to 65 range.
The eleventh greatest Yankee is Mariano Rivera. Known as “Mo,” Rivera is the greatest closer in baseball history. Granted, the game evolved over the years and closers were only relevant in the latter half of the modern era, but Rivera’s accomplishments speak volumes about his impact on the field and his leadership in the clubhouse is well chronicled. Rivera was a 13 time All-Star, a World Series MVP and a 5 time World Series champion. His 652 saves is the most in baseball history and his pitching line was .221 ERA/1.000 WHIP/.276 FIP. Rivera’s career WAR is 56.3, which is remarkable considering he was a closer.
The twelfth greatest Yankee ever is Red Ruffing. Charles Herbert Ruffing pitched for the Yankees for 15 of his 22 MLB seasons, pitching from 1924 to 1947. All told, Ruffing was a six time All-Star who won six World-series championships. Ruffing won 273 career games and pitched to a stat line of 3.80 ERA/3.77 FIP/1.341 WHIP. Ruffing’s career WAR is 55.4
The thirteenth greatest Yankee is Whitey Ford. “the Chairman of the Board,” Edward Charles Ford was a six time World Series champion with 10 World Series Wins to his credit. He was a 10 time All-Star and a Cy Young award winner. Ford’s stat line was .275 ERA/1.215 WHIP/3.26 FIP. He tallied 24 wins in 1963 but In 1961, Ford led not only the American League but the entire major league in wins (25), win-loss percentage (.862), games finished (39), innings pitched (283), and batters faced (1159). In 1961, the Yankees won the World Series, and Ford was also named the Most Valuable Player. That same year, he also won the Cy Young Award. Ford’s career WAR is 53.5.
It should be noted that I didn’t include Hall of Famers Wade Boggs, Randy Johnson, Phil Niekro or Gaylord Perry on my list. If we’re going on WAR alone, Johnson would be the fifth greatest Yankee ever. Alas, “the Big Unit” only spent two of his 22 seasons with the Yankees.
Meanwhile, Niekro, who also pitched a couple of seasons for the Yankees and Perry, who only pitched half a year for NY, would be the fourth and fifth greatest Yankees ever, with Boggs easily becoming the sixth greatest. Boggs only played for the Yankees for five seasons from 1993 to 1997 and that span was at the end of his 18 year career. While he did win a World Series with the Yankees. Obviously none of these Hall of Famers played for the Yankees long enough to supplant anyone on my list, whereas Dave Winfield, who spent 9 years with the Yankees and who had a falling out with the volatile George Steinbrenner arguably did.
Honorable mention would go to David Cone, Jimmy Key, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage, Phil Rizzuto, Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Roy White and Catfish Hunter