The Yankees franchise is one that actually started in Baltimore. In 1901, when the American League played its first professional season, the Baltimore Orioles were one of the charter franchises. The American League had originally tried to put a team in New York, but the National League’s Giants had enough political clout to prevent it. Halfway through their second season in Baltimore, the Orioles’ manager (and part owner), John McGraw, began feuding with American League President, Ban Johnson. McGraw secretly jumped to the Giants organization, and helped the Giants gain a controlling interest in the Orioles team. So, the Giants began raiding the Orioles of their best players (which apparently didn’t help them too much, because they still finished in last place). But, the American League stepped in to put a stop to it all, and in the offseason, a conference was held to try and come to a compromise. Johnson petitioned for an American League team to be allowed to play in New York. Of the 16 Major League presidents, only Giants president, John T. Bush, voted against the proposal. So, the new Orioles owners found a site for their stadium (one that wasn’t blocked by the Giants), and moved their team to New York.
Hilltop Park was built in Manhattan, at one of the island’s highest points, between 165th & 168th streets. The New York Highlanders played there for 10 seasons – taking their nickname both from their elevated location, and a connection between their president, Joseph Gordon, and the British military unit – The Gordon Highlanders. In 1911, the Polo Grounds (home of the Giants) burned to the ground. The Highlanders allowed the Giants to play home games at Hilltop Park, while reconstruction was taking place. Relationships between the two teams warmed, and when the new Polo Grounds was completed, the Highlanders began playing their home games at the newer, larger stadium. Except, now that they were playing on the banks of the Harlem River, the nickname Highlanders didn’t seem to apply. As early as 1904, the New York Press had referred to the team as the Yankees (or Yanks), because it was easier to fit on headlines. And, while many had referred to the team as such, they never adopted the nickname officially until the 1913 season, when they began play at the Polo Grounds, where they played until 1923.
By 1915, the Yankees owners were estranged and in need of money, so they decided it was time to sell the team. One of the principal buyers was Colonel Jacob Ruppert. Ruppert had inherited a brewery fortune, and he was ready to spend his money. Ruppert paid large sums of money for players from the Red Sox and White Sox, in order to try and build a championship team (and you though only George Steinbrenner was willing to “buy a World Series”!). And, it paid off. After purchasing you-know-who after the 1919 season, the team’s attendance, and winning, skyrocketed. Having just 2 winning seasons in the previous 9 years (from 1911-1919), they enjoyed immediate success with 5 consecutive winning seasons, and they appeared in 3 consecutive World Series from 1921-1923, winning their first championship in ’23. The team moved into Yankee Stadium for the 1923 season – the first ever triple-decker stadium, which seated an unheard of 58,000 people. It was appropriately nicknamed “The House That Ruth Built”, since it was Ruth’s prowess that drew in the fans and revenue that had allowed Ruppert to pay for such a large stadium. And, from there, you likely know the rest of the story.
In trying to come up with a list of the top 5 Yankees of all time, I ran into a numbers problem. 27 – the number of championships the Yankees have won in the last 91 seasons (better than 1 every 4 years). 18 – Hall of Fame members who spent their primary careers in New York. 13 – players’ jerseys that have been retired by the Yankees. For pretty much every other team in baseball, I think I can make a strong argument for my top-5. You might disagree a little on the order, or you might have one guy that you believe was snubbed. But, if you asked 10 people to come up with the top-5 Yankees of all time . . . you could have 10 very different looking lists. So, I am going to give you my top 5, and fully expect you to disagree with every one of them.
5. Joe DiMaggio (’36-’42, ’46-’51) – I have yet to face a more difficult decision in writing these posts, than trying to rank Mantle & DiMaggio. The statistics where they both excelled are nearly identical. Mantle possessed more raw power, and greater speed. DiMaggio was a hits machine, and drove in runs at an incredible rate. DiMaggio’s accumulated stats are often lower than Mantle’s, but that’s because he missed 3 prime years due to military service. So, how do you compare two of the greatest centerfielders of all time? I’m sure there will be many who disagree, but here was where I found enough of a difference to make a choice: Black Ink & OPS+. If you aren’t familiar with the first term, it’s a reference to a player’s ability to lead the league in a particular category. DiMaggio was great – but, he only led the league in runs once, triples once, HR twice, RBI twice, batting twice, and SLG twice. He never won a triple crown, in spite of his 3 MVP’s (two of which very arguably belong to Ted Williams, but we won’t get into that). And, then there’s OPS+ – this is a stat that compares how a player’s OPS compares to other players in the league, and is adjusted by the player’s ballpark. While DiMaggio and Mantle have a nearly identical career OPS (.9771 & .9773, respectively), there’s nearly a 20-point difference between their career OPS+ scores. It’s one of the few ways in which we can attempt to compare players from different eras. So, DiMaggio and his unbreakable 56-game hitting streak, and his 13 All-Star games (never played a season that he wasn’t voted in!), and his ridiculously low average of just 28 K’s per season, rank fifth on my list of the greatest Yankees. On the Yankees’ all-time lists, he ranks 3rd in batting (.325), 7th in OBP (.398), 3rd in SLG (.579), 4th in OPS (.9771), 5th in runs (1390), 6th in hits (2214), 5th in total bases (3948), 6th in doubles (389), 3rd in triples (131), 4th in HR (361), 3rd in RBI (1537), 4th in OPS+ (155), and 5th in runs created (1569).
4. Mickey Mantle (’51-’68) – Mantle also won 3 MVP’s, but only one of his could have arguably belonged to Ted Williams (who was 38 at the time!!), and he did win the Triple Crown in ’56. And, he appeared in 16 All-Star games. But, like I’ve already said, what really separates Mantle from DiMaggio is the Black Ink and OPS+. Mantle led the league in runs 5 times, triples once, HR four times, RBI once, walks 5 times, batting once, OBP 3 times, SLG 4 times, and OPS 6 times. And, when it comes to OPS+, Mantle really surges ahead of DiMaggio. In my opinion, while Mantle and DiMaggio’s numbers are very similar, Mantle played in the more difficult era, when it comes to pitching. The ’50’s and especially the ’60’s were rife with dominant pitchers. Yet, in Mantle’s 3rd MVP season (1962), he possessed an incredible 1.091 OPS. And, I believe the OPS+ statistic bears out this otherwise anecdotal claim: Mantle’s 172 is 17 points (or about 11%) higher than DiMaggio’s. Oh, and Mantle did all of this while being a switch-hitter! So, I give the slightest of edge to Mantle on this list. Mantle also ranks 3rd on the Yankees’ all-time OBP list (.421), 4th in SLG (.557), 3rd in OPS (.9773), 4th in runs (1676), 4th in hits (2415), 4th in total bases (4511), 9th in doubles (344), 2nd in HR (536), 4th in RBI (1509), 10th in stolen bases (153), 3rd in OPS+ (172), and 3rd in runs created (2038).
3. Mariano Rivera (’95-’13) – Don’t shoot! I know just seeing Rivera this high on the list is probably going to make a lot of Yankees fans mad. But, hear me out. First of all, I don’t think closers get enough respect (which is born out by the fact that only 4 true closers are in the HOF – a travesty, especially considering who is and who isn’t). Part of the reason is that there are too many Eric Gagnes out there, who had an amazing 3-year stretch where he averaged more than 50 saves per season, won a Cy Young . . . and then did basically nothing the rest of his career. Then, there are the Ryan Dempsters of the world, who are decent starting pitchers (though, not great), who move to the closer roll out of a team need, and perform well there for a period of time, saving 25-30 games per season. It almost gives us the impression that any halfway decent pitcher can be a closer – which is far from the truth. Getting the last 3 outs of the game are often the most stressful 3 outs to be made – especially when you’re called into a situation in which a save can be awarded, because it doesn’t take much for your opponent to suddenly have the tying or winning run at the plate. So, for a guy to be considered not only one of the best ever, but the greatest closer in the history of the game (not to mention the greatest closer the postseason has ever seen), he deserves some serious respect. Of the 16 seasons he was the Yankees’ closer (his first two years, he was a set-up man, and in 2012, he missed nearly the entire year to an injury), he ranked in the top 4 in the league in saves 11 times (and ranked in the top 10, every time). He also wasn’t one of those closers that makes you nervous by putting a couple guys on every time he went out. He finished the season with a WHIP below 1.00, 9 times. His career WHIP is 1.00! And, in addition to possessing the all-time record for career saves (652), he also possesses the all-time record for career ERA+ (205 – which is a stat calculated for pitchers similar to the OPS+ stat for batters). And, in the postseason, he was even more unhittable. In the 32 postseason series in which he appeared, his ERA was 0.00 in 22 of them – resulting in a career 0.70 postseason ERA! His career postseason WHIP is 0.76. He was flat out incredible, which is why I have him ranked this high. On the Yankees’ all-time pitching lists, among pitchers with at least 1,000 IP, he ranks 1st in ERA (2.21), 1st in WHIP (1.00), 2nd only to Clemens in K/9 (8.22), 1st in saves (652 – and 2nd place is over 400 behind!), 8th in K’s (1173 – and everyone else in the top 10 has at least 300 more IP), 1st in K/BB ratio (4.10), and 1st in ERA+ (205 – and 2nd place is nearly 30 points behind).
2. Lou Gehrig (’23-’39) – if there was no Ruth, what might people say about Gehrig? Since their careers overlapped, Gehrig played second fiddle to Ruth for the majority of his career. If there were no ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), what might his career have looked like? Because if he could have played 4 or 5 more seasons, he most likely would have approached 600 HR. He almost definitely would be the all-time RBI king (he ranks 5th all-time as it is!). The Iron Horse didn’t just play every day. He played excellent baseball. He surpassed 200 hits 8 times in 13 full seasons. He hit 30+ HR 10 times. He drove in 150+ RBI’s seven times! His career stat line is: .340/.447/.632/1.080 (a career OPS that actually ranks higher than even all the juicers – 3rd all time). And, even while playing on the same team as Ruth, he won two MVP’s (including a Triple Crown year in ’34), finished runner-up twice, and in the top-5 another four times. On the Yankees’ all-time lists, he pretty much ranks 2nd in everything (batting; OBP; SLG; OPS; runs – 1888; hits – 2721; total bases – 5060; OPS+ – 179; and runs created – 2233). Though, he also ranks 1st in doubles (534), triples (163) and RBI (1992), and 3rd in HR (493).
1. Babe Ruth (’20-’34) – there’s really almost nothing that I could ever say about Ruth that you haven’t already heard. But, since I’m such a numbers guy, I’ll try to show you some numbers that you might not have known. For the first 12 seasons Ruth was in New York, he led the league in HR, SLG and OPS 11 times (the only exception being the ’25 season, in which he only played 98 games due to an illness). And, just so you know, he did the same the previous two seasons when he was in Boston – giving him 13 of 14 consecutive seasons. When he retired after the 1935 season, he was the all-time leader in HR, RBI, walks, SLG and OPS. To this day, he is still the all-time career leader in SLG, OPS and OPS+ (205). His career stat line is .342/.474/.690/1.164. Just to give you an idea of what that means – in the last 50 years, only Bonds (in obvious PED years), Larry Walker (playing in the thin air), McGwire (in ’98, which was another obvious PED year), Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell (both in the strike-shortened ’94 season), have had a single season with an OPS as high as Ruth’s career OPS. On the Yankees’ all-time lists, he is the leader in batting, OBP, SLG, OPS, runs (1959), total bases (5131), HR (659), walks (1852), OPS+ (209), and runs created (2446).