Yankees All-Time Most Underrated Players, Part One

When you look at a team like the Yankees and all the championships they have won during their storied franchise, you would expect to find a wealth of perennial All-Stars and members of the Hall Of Fame. 

But as we know, baseball is played as a team sport and seldom do we see, if ever, a winning team that does not have contributions from each player on the 25-man roster. So it is with that in mind that we take a look at some of the underrated players who have ever worn the Yankees pinstripes.

First, let’s establish some ground rules.
1) The player must have played with the Yankees for a minimum of seven years.
2) The player can only have played with the Yankees from 1950-2015.
3) The player cannot be in the Baseball Hall Of Fame.

Although there are undoubtedly much more, in this first installment, I am going to select only two players to profile.

I will be counting on you to send in your selection(s) that will be added in future episodes. Just identify the player you want to include along with a brief explanation as to why you believe he is worthy, and send it to me via Twitter (the button above) or by email to stevecontursi@gmail.com.

Now, what kinds of players are we looking to find? Typically, they are going to be the ones who flew under the radar so to speak. They may or may not have done anything that could be characterized as remarkable. And yet, without their contributions, the Yankees would have been a different team. For example, while other players on the Yankees team may have been up and down from season to season, these players set a tone of consistency to where they could be counted on to produce the same or similar numbers from year to year.

Not to be discounted as well is their prowess in the field. The old saying rings true that pitching and defense win baseball games. Leadership in the clubhouse might be another qualifier, as would almost any intangible that is away from the ordinary judge of players – the numbers.

So, let’s get underway with a selection which is a personal favorite of mine, not only for what he did on the field for the Yankees but also for what he was able to accomplish off the field as well from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

The New York Yankees of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were a rowdy sort. Led by characters like Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, together with players who had nicknames like “Moose” (Skowron), along with a guy in right who was a former marine and wore a crewcut unashamedly (Hank Bauer), and another military type who was known as their “Field General” (manager Ralph Houk) Bobby Richardson would have seemed to be the odd man out with his choir boy looks and bible toting ways.

Except that he fit in perfectly with those Yankee teams. Consistency on the playing field and consistency in life as well, it could easily be argued that Bobby Richardson was the glue that held the team together, despite the fact that nearly everyone else on those winning teams was more gifted than he was.

Yes, he had some decent numbers. Nothing earthshaking (.266 career BA), but if you looked at the non-offensive numbers you could easily spot his value as a five-time Gold Glove winner, seven All-Star appearances, and a second place finish in the MVP voting for 1962.

It was the character of the man himself that separated him from others. You couldn’t say that he wore his religion on his sleeve, but at the same time he got better on other people in such a positive manner that he could command respect without demanding it.

In fact, one of the most telling stories about Richardson is one that came out just recently. It’s about the time when Mickey Mantle was hanging on for dear life in a Dallas hospital bed, and Richardson traveled to pay him a visit. By now, of course, Mantle knew that it was time to pay the piper for all of those carousing and drinking days and nights.

In fact, he said himself at one point, “If I had known I was gonna live this long, I’d a taken better care of myself,” referring to the fact that his dad had died at an early age from what Mantle believed was a hereditary disease.

In any event, it was Mantle’s intention that Richardson would hear his “confession.” But Richardson would have none of it, pretty much telling The Mick that it was too late to be sorry for all the hurt you cause in other people’s lives along the way. But true to form, he also told Mantle that God would forgive him.

Later, however, a SABR biography on Richardson recounts that Mickey Mantle’s widow, Merlyn, asked “the Preacher” to deliver the eulogy at Mickey’s funeral service in 1995. The Mantles were at Roger Maris’ funeral ten years earlier when Bobby recited a poem that a fan sent him, and Mickey made Richardson promise that he would read it at Mickey’s funeral, too.

Bobby Richardson would save his best baseball for the postseason in which he had an overall .302 BA. He is the only player from a losing team to win the World Series MVP award, which occurred in 1960 when the Yankees fell victim to a home run by you know who in the seventh game. Typically, when he got back home to North Carolina Richardson traded in the Corvette he had won as the MVP for a family station wagon.

Following his retirement in 1966, he predictably stayed active as a community and religious leader. Once, he was urged by President Gerald Ford to run for a seat in Congress, which he did losing by only 3,000 votes. It was widely thought at the time that Richardson just didn’t have the “heart” to play in the game of politics.

But in the game of baseball at only 5’9″ and 160 lbs, he was as “tall” as they come and a Hall of Famer in life.

Don “Donnie Baseball” Mattingly played first base for the Yankees for 14 years from 1982 to 1995 compiling a career batting average of .307, which usually would seriously qualify someone for the Baseball Hall Of Fame. Of that, George Steinbrenner once told the New York Times, “If Don Mattingly isn’t a Hall of Famer, then there shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame.”

Don Mattingly was a carry your lunch pail to work type of person and player. He went about his business with little or no flair. Except that is for one occasion in which he refused to get a haircut, causing a fury that lasted far longer in the newspapers that it did in the clubhouse or the front office. But other than that, he was all about baseball – hence his nickname. Besides, he was playing with the greatest of all showmen perhaps, Rickey “I am the Greatest” Henderson, so there was little need for attention-getting moments by Mattingly.

Not everything in Mattingly’s career was smooth sailing, though. At the end of his time with the Yankees, which coincided with ongoing issues with his back and other body parts, he hemmed and hawed about retiring but could never make the leap on his own. Finally, it all caught up to him after the close of the 1995 season when he told the NY Times, “I wasn’t willing to pay the price it was going to take to be able to succeed. At that point, I knew it was time to step away.”

Ironically, 1995 would be the only time in Mattingly’s career that the Yankees would qualify for the playoffs, only to lose to the Seattle Mariners. From there (and without Mattingly), the Yankees would win a World Series in 1996 that marked the beginning of what became known as “The Run” that would add three more titles before ending in 2001.

For the record though, his final numbers show that besides finishing with a batting average over .300, he collected 2153 hits, won a batting title in 1984 with a .343 average, was the AL Most Valuable Player in 1985, appeared in seven All-Star games, and led the American League five times in fielding percentage for a first baseman.

Which may just go to show that Steinbrenner was speaking metaphorically when making his claim about Mattingly and the HOF. He was good, magnificent, but not quite good enough. Perhaps to close the argument himself, Mattingly was quoted at the time saying “It’s all been stated, It’s all out there. The final arguments have been made. As a player, I am what I am. I did what I did. I don’t know if that puts me in the category or not.

Steinbrenner would add, ”They should close the building if he isn’t in it.”

At the ceremony in which his Number 23 was officially retired (Steinbrenner had pronounced it “retired” on the day Mattingly made his retirement announcement), Mattingly would say, perhaps fittingly, “To come from where I came from to this point is a long road for the guy who couldn’t run, who couldn’t throw and who didn’t hit for power, It’s a long ride. It’s been a great ride.”

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Following his retirement, almost immediately there was a clamor about Mattingly becoming the manager of the Yankees. And when Joe Torre stepped down, the din got even louder. But as we know, the job eventually went to Joe Girardi. Eventually, Mattingly would land a job managing the Dodgers and then move on to the Florida Marlins, where he still is today.

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