The question of who the most underrated Yankees player ever was is not an easy one to answer. In general, most baseball fans think Yankees players are understood to be overrated even when they are not. Few would argue that recent Yankees greats like Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter, or stars from earlier eras like Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth have not received their due. Similarly, Aaron Judge, the marquee player on today’s Yankees has not exactly escaped national notice. Nonetheless, there have been many Yankees who have contributed a lot to the team while somehow not getting quite the attention they deserved. For example, inexplicably, even the Yankees have been slow to recognize contributions to the team that Bernie Williams made.
The most underrated player in Yankees history cannot simply be somebody like Graig Nettles or Willie Randolph was valued while playing but overlooked and underappreciated by Hall of Fame voters. Nor can it be somebody who is largely forgotten now, but was appreciated while they were playing like Tony Lazzeri or Charlie Keller. The most underrated Yankees player ever should be somebody who was very good, but not given his due while active and who is now largely forgotten.
One way the answer reveals itself is by thinking about the five best outfielders in Yankees history. The first three players should come to mind very quickly-Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, three of the greatest ever. After that it is a little tougher, but it is clear that the answer is Bernie Williams, a great player who played his entire career with the Yankees. The next player on the list might be a little tougher to determine. Some players like Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Paul O’Neill or Dave Winfield did not play enough of their career with the Yankees. Others, like Charlie Keller, Brett Gardner Bob Meusel and Hank Bauer were very good players, but not quite good enough to make the top five. The fifth best outfielder in team history played his entire career with the Yankees finishing 1, 625 games in the outfield and 46.8 WAR, only 196 and 2.8 fewer than Williams.
Roy White, a switch hitter who played a few games at second base, some in center, but mostly left field, enjoyed a career spanned two very different periods in Yankees history. He began his time in pinstripes playing alongside Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and finished it when his teammates included Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage. He joined the Yankees in 1965, the first year they finished below .500 in 40 years, became a full time player in 1966 and left for Japan after the 1979 season. In between he was a very good player for a very long time. White was not entirely ignored by the national press in his career. In 1969 and 1970 he was selected for the American League All Star Team and even finished 12th in the MVP voting in 1968, but he was nonetheless never viewed as a big star.
White was underrated during his career and almost entirely unrecognized since retiring for a few reasons. First, most of White’s best years came when the Yankees were not a contending team. Although he was a very valuable part of the Yankees pennant winning teams in the 1970s, he was never a front line star. Even in 1976, when he slashed .286/.365/.409, stole 31 bases and played solid defense in left field for a pennant winning team, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers and Catfish Hunter were all much bigger names on that team.
Second, White had the kind of skill set that is often underrated. He was good at many things, not great at any. White is one of four Yankees, along with Mantle, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, to hit 150 home runs and steal 150 bases, but he never hit more than 22 home runs or stole more than 31 bases in a season. Although he batted cleanup at times, he was never really a power hitter. Playing in an era when leadoff hitters were supposed to be base stealers, White was never quite fast enough to bat leadoff, so he ended up batting second more than anywhere else, but only about a quarter of the time. In those days of more stable lineups, this made it difficult for an image of him to form in the minds of fans.
White had a skill set that was not appreciated so much at the time he was playing, but would be more valued now. His lifetime batting average was only .270, but he had a very good batting eye and thus drew a lot of walks. He led the league in that category in 1972 and finished in the top ten six more times. This contributed to his .360 career on base percentage.
Another reason White never became a big star is that his best years, came at a time, 1968- 1972, that was a pitcher’s era. During that five year span, White hit .280/.343/.432, for an OPS+ of 139 and 27.5 WAR, good enough for 19th and 9th respectively among all hitters for those years. However, the conventional numbers 75 home runs 368 RBI and 99 stolen bases do not seem very impressive a few decades later. It doesn’t help that the Yankees were still not a contending team for most of this period. Even at the time, almost nobody during those years would have listed White among the 20 best non-pitchers in the game, but he probably was.
White ended up having a very good career with the Yankees, playing on three pennant winning teams and two World Series winners. He got many key hits in those championship seasons including a single two batters before Bucky Dent’s home run in the one game playoff against the Red Sox in 1978. Nonetheless, today he is remembered mostly as a useful player on those late 1970s teams while best years are part of an era in Yankees history that many older fans have chosen to forget. Players like White who have no standout statistical accomplishments or great moments are too easily forgotten, but White as one of the twenty best players and five top outfielders ever to wear the pinstripes, he deserves a better place in our collective Yankees memory.