Over the years fans have debated who they considered to be the greatest baseball player by position, by decade, offensively, defensively, etc. But, what about who is best by the numbers on the back of their jerseys? Here’s what you (might) have been waiting for (note – some numbers were left out due to no one deserving the honor):
Yankees by the numbers
Obviously, there is no reason to discuss some of the numbers worn by Yankees…2, 3, 4, 5, 7, etc…but not everything is that cut and dried, so here we go.
The Single Digits
While every number from one to nine has been retired, two of them, numbers one and six, were done so for managing, especially number six.
The candidates are three B’s…Billy Martin, Bobby Murcer, and Bobby Richardson. Martin, one of the most outstanding managers in the game, was a pretty good player as well. He spent six-plus seasons in Pinstripes, including in 1953 when he established personal bests in most offensive categories and finished in the top-25 in the AL MVP vote. He was even better in the World Series. Martin hit .333 with five HR and 19 RBI in 99 post-season at-bats and won four World Series rings in five tries.
Martin was wearing #1 as the Yankees manager in 1979 when the Yankees reacquired Murcer from the Chicago Cubs. Murcer donned #2 in his second stint with the team who originally signed him in 1964. Murcer came up as an infielder, but was quickly moved to the outfield and became the Yankees regular centerfielder in 1969.
In the six years he spent in the Bronx, prior to his trade to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds, Murcer averaged 23 HR, 89 RBI, 26 doubles, and 88 runs scored. He recorded a .285/.357/.464 split, was a five-time All-Star, and a Gold Glove winner. Murcer was a platoon player for much of his second stint with the Yankees, which ended during the 1983 season. But, after all those years of playing on rebuilding teams in his youth, he finally made it to the World Series in 1981.
Bobby Richardson had more than his share of World Series appearances. Richardson replaced Martin as the Yankees regular second baseman once Martin was dealt during the 1957 season. He spent his entire 12-year career with the Yankees, retiring at just 30 years of age. He was as slick of a second baseman as there and took home five Gold Glove Awards as proof.
In 1962, Richardson finished second (to Mickey Mantle) in the AL MVP voting after he stroked 209 hits, scored 99 runs, hit eight home runs, drove in 59 runs and hit .302, all of which were career highs. Like Martin, Richardson upped his game in October. In the heartbreaking 1960 World Series loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Richardson recorded a 1.054 OPS and set a Major League record with 12 RBI. To this day, he is the only player to win the Series MVP Award from the losing team. He also set the record for total hits in the 1964 Series, with 13. Overall, he was a member of seven AL pennant-winning teams and is the owner of three World Series rings.
While the Yankees retired #6 in honor of manager Joe Torre, there were some pretty impressive ballplayers that donned the number. Mantle wore it when he was called up in 1950 before switching to #7. Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, Clete Boyer, and Roy White are among those sandwiched between Dimaggio and Mantle.
Lazzeri was part of the 1927 “Murderer’s Row” lineup that included Ruth and Gehrig. The second baseman was no slouch, either. He still shares the AL record for most RBI in a single game with 11. Long before the Rookie of the Year Award existed, he drove in 117 runs in his debut season in 1926. Lazzeri averaged 14 HR, 96 RBI, and 89 runs scored in his 12 seasons (1926-1937) with the Yankees. He also hit .293 and slugged .467. Lazzeri was a member of the AL team in the first All-Star game in 1933 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.
Gordon spent seven years with the Yankees, with seasons six and seven separated by two years due to World War II. As a rookie, he had 25 home runs and 97 RBI, and finished 12th in the AL MVP voting. He averaged nearly 24 home runs and 96 RBI over the first four seasons of his career. In 1942, he captured the AL MVP Award after he hit .322 with 18 RBI, 103 RBI, and compiled a .900 OPS.
Gordon was a six-time All-Star, including his final season (1946) in the Bronx, when torn muscles in both legs led to a below-average season for him. Prior to the ’47 season, Gordon was dealt to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Allie Reynolds. It was a trade that worked out well for both teams. Gordon got healthy and had two more top-1o AL MVP seasons. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
The winner – Tony Lazzeri. This was a tough one, but Lazzeri managed to put up tremendous numbers, hitting behind Ruth and Gehrig. And, if the All-Star game had existed prior to 1933, he would have been at least an eight-time All-Star.
Roger Maris and Graig Nettles were two of the best of their era. Both had great power and their defense was superb. Maris won back-to-back AL MVP Awards and, of course, broke Babe Ruth‘s single-season home run record. That same season, he drove in 141 runs and scored 132. In his seven seasons in New York, he averaged nearly 34 home runs, but that figure is skewed by the 61 home runs in ’61. Maris was a four-time All-Star, four-time pennant winner (two championships), and a Gold Glove winner.
Nettles joined the Yankees in 1973, after three years as a prospect with the Twins and three seasons as a regular for the Indians. It was one of the first and best trades in the George Steinbrenner era. Nettles spent 11 years in the Bronx, winning two Gold Glove Awards and two World Series, putting on a defensive show in the 1977 and 1978 championships. He was a five-time All-Star whose best seasons came in ’76 and ’77 when he averaged 34 home runs and 100 RBI.
The Yankees’ career top-20 lists are filled with Nettles’ name, including 16th in games played, 19th in at-bats and plate appearances, and 10th in home runs.
No. 11 – Lefty Gomez played all but the final season of his 14-year career with the Yankees and is one of the franchise’s top-3 left-handed starters. He went 21-9 with a 2.67 ERA in 1931, his first full season in the Major Leagues. From there, Gomez put together a Hall of Fame career (1972 honoree) that saw him honored seven times as an All-Star. He pitched one of the best seasons in Major League history in 1934, when he led the league in wins (26), winning percentage (.839), complete games (25), shutouts (6), innings pitched (281.2), WHIP (1.133), and strikeouts (158). He came out the victor in 65.2% of his decisions as a Yankee. Gomez pitched in five World Series and won a ring each time.
No. 12 – Gil McDougald won the 1951 AL Rookie of the Year Award. In doing so, he beat out his teammate Mickey Mantle. He also finished 9th in the AL MVP voting. McDougald was a fabulously versatile infielder. He was the primary second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman depending on the year, He was part of eight AL pennant winners and five title teams.
Bill Skowron vs Lou Piniella. This is a tough one. Skowron played nine seasons in New York, seven of them on AL Pennant winners. His career splits as a Yankee were .294/.346/.496, with 165 HR and 672 RBI in 1,087 games. Skowron’s post-season splits were very similar, and he was a five-time All-Star. As a right-handed hitter, he lost home runs in the cavernous left- and center- fields.
Piniella joined the Yankees in 1974 and quickly became a fan favorite with his fiery competitiveness. He played 11 seasons in the Big Apple with a .295/.338/.413 career batting split, drove in 417 runs, and scored 392 runs. With the game on the line, “Sweet Lou” was one of the guys you wanted batting. He may not have been the fastest baserunner or the slickest outfielder, but he had a very high baseball IQ and always hustled.
The winner – Moose Skowron
No. 15 – Thurman Munson had to be the choice here. The love and admiration his teammates and the fans had for him was immeasurable. He was one of the purest hitters in the game and until injuries took their toll on his knees and right shoulder, he was one of the best catchers of his era. Red Ruffing and Tommy Henrich get honorable mentions. Ruffing earned six World Series rings and entered the Hall of Fame in 1967. “Ol’ Reliable” Henrich spent 13 seasons as a Yankees great.
No. 16 – Whitey Ford, aka “The Chairman of the Board”, was the greatest lefty starter in Yankees history and a member of the Hall of Fame.
No. 17 – Mickey Rivers, incredibly, only spent 3+ seasons with the Yankees. But, he made a huge impact after his acquisition from the Angels following the 1975 season. He was the leadoff hitter and main table-setter for the Yankees’ pennant teams from 1976-1978. Rivers walked like an old man but ran like Secretariat. He stole 90 bases in his three full seasons in New York and gets extra credit for picking out the bat that Bucky Dent used to hit the go-ahead home run in the 1978 one-game playoff with Boston.
You can’t bypass #17 though without mentioning two great losses to the Yankees’ family. Gene Michael was a light hitting, stellar defensive shortstop who later became the Yankees manager, general manager, and front-office guru. “Stick” passed away on September 7th of last year. And, just two days ago, the “Big O”, Oscar Gamble died after a battle with cancer. He had a big heart and a sweet left-handed swing that was made for Yankee Stadium’s right field. And, of course, there was that giant afro. It was a wonder he could keep a helmet on his head.
No. 18– Scott Brosius…that is until Didi Gregorius surpasses him. The November 1997 Kenny Rogers-for-Brosius deal worked out fabulously for the Yankees. Brosius provided top-notch defense at third base (1999 Gold Glove Award), made the 1998 All-Star team and was the MVP of that season’s World Series. And, one night after Tino Martinez‘ 9th inning home run in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series, Brosius repeated the feat.
No. 19 – Dave Righettiwas an 11-year Yankee, who went from phenom starter to reliable closer. “Rags” no-hit the Red Sox in 1983, set the then-AL saves record (46) in 1986, and his 224 career saves as a Yankee are the second-highest total in franchise history.
Honorable mention goes to pitcher Bob Turley, whose 1958 season was one for the ages. Turley won the Cy Young Award and finished second in the MVP voting after he went 21-9 with a league-high 19 complete games and a league-best 6.5 hits / 9 IP. Then, with the Yankees down 3-1 to the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series, Turley threw a complete-game shutout in Game 5. Two days later, he recorded the final out in Game 6 for a save, and then the next day threw 6.2 innings of relief in Game 7 for the victory in the Yankees’ 6-2 championship win.
No. 22 – Allie Reynolds spent eight seasons in the Bronx and was the team’s ace from 1946-1952. He was a five-time All-Star, threw a pair of no-hitters, and went 7-2 in the World Series with six championship rings in a seven-year span (1947-1953).
No. 24 – Tino Martinez and Robinson Cano share the honor. Martinez was more of a power hitter, while Cano was a better pure hitter. Both were outstanding with the glove, and Cano’s arm strength and range were a rarity. Martinez’s best year came in 1997, when he hit 44 HR, drove in 147 runs, and won the HR Derby at the All-Star game. He also had huge home runs in the 1998 and 2001 World Series. Cano finished in the top-6 in MVP voting in five straight seasons.
No. 28 – Sparky Lyle could always be counted on in the clutch and to sit his naked butt on a birthday cake. You can’t beat that. Honorable mention to Tommy Byrne.
No. 29 – Catfish Hunter‘s aging right arm wasn’t what it was in his younger days. But, when he joined the Yankees in 1975, the team had an instant ace, a big game pitcher, and a winner that helped to make the Yankees winners.
No. 30 – Mel Stottlemyre and Willie Randolph are impossible to choose between. They were two of the best guys in the game and two of the best people to represent the Yankees. “Stot” had the misfortune of beginning his career at the end of the Mantle-Ford dynasty. He made it to the post-season in the 1964 World Series, but never again. Willie had the great fortune of starting his Yankees career just as the team began to win again. He played on the 1977-1978 World Series champions, the first winners since 1964. And, a special honorable mention goes to one of today’s good guys, David Robertson.
No. 31 – Dave Winfieldspent parts of nine of his 22 years in baseball as a member of the Yankees. The Hall of Fame inductee’s best career numbers occurred while he called the Bronx his baseball home. He was one of the best all-around athletes the game has ever seen.
No. 32 – Elston Howard was one of the more underrated catchers in baseball history. In addition to his superb defense, he handled the bat well. He was a nine-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner, and the 1963 AL MVP. He was also one of the nicest guys in the game.
No. 33 – David Wells pitched for the Yankees for four seasons, in two different stints – 1997-1998 and 2002-2003. “Boomer” won 70% of his decisions, threw a perfect game in 1998, and averaged over 210 innings per season.
No. 34 – Brian McCann had only a brief Yankees career, but he had some pop in his bat, excelled on defense, and helped mentor Gary Sanchez.
No. 35 – Mike Mussinawas a great pitcher whose timing just wasn’t quite lucky enough. The Yankees won three World Series in the years up to the 2001 season, when he joined the Bronx Bombers. They lost in the World Series that season and again in 2003. And, they won again one year after he retired following the 2008 season. Mussina was one of the most consistent pitchers among his peers. “Moose” was an intelligent pitcher, who had an arsenal of weapons to use and fought off arm trouble and age to win 20 games (for the first time) in his final season. He won the Gold Glove Award three times in New York and seven times overall. He also didn’t commit a single error in seven seasons, two of them with the Yankees. The Baseball Hall of Fame should be calling him in within the next two years.
No. 36 – DavidCone,like Hunter years earlier, helped the Yankees to turn their fortunes around. He arrived in a trade during the 1995 season, and the next year the Yankees had their first championship in 18 years.
No. 37 is worth a special mention. Only two players wore the number – Herb Karpel and Gus Niarhos – both in 1946, but the digits are of course retired for longtime manager Casey Stengel.
No. 42 – Mariano Rivera was simply the greatest closer of any era. I know Goose Gossage and others will argue that they pitched one to five innings if needed. But, everyone knew what pitch Mo was throwing and they still couldn’t hit it. Will join the Hall of Fame in 2019. A special honorable mention to second baseman Jerry Coleman. He made up for a weak bat with defense, served his country admirably, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster.
No. 43 – Scott Proctor would have had a longer career had he not appeared in a ridiculous 83 games in 2006-2007 (31 of the ’07 games were after he was traded to the Dodgers). He also notably set his uniform on fire after a particularly bad performance.
No. 44 – Reggie Jackson, aka Mr. October, wore the Pinstripes for just five seasons…but it felt like 15. His three-home run performance in Game 6 of the ’77 World Series was one of the greatest individual feats in baseball history. And, another Hall of Fame member.
No. 46 – Andy Pettitte should never have left New York. One of the all-time fan favorites of the last 30 years, his second time back was as memorable as the first. He ranks as the third-best lefty in franchise history.
No. 47 – Shane Spencer had one of the greatest rookie months in September 1998.
No. 49 – Ron Guidry was the fourth-best left-hander in franchise history. His 25-3 season in 1978 was one for the ages. Fans clapping with two strikes on a batter began when Guidry struck out 18 California Angels in a ’78 game.
No. 51 – Bernie Williams was considered to be too passive when he was a young prospect, but Gene Michael and others rightly saw something special. Bernie, another fan favorite, started out on the struggling Yankees teams and ended up with four World Series rings by the time his career was over.
No. 54 – Rich Gossagewas one of the most intimidating pitchers the game has ever witnessed. All arms and legs and walrus mustache, Gossage was just wild enough with his mid-90’s fastball to unnerve the opposition. He had a 22-year career, seven of which were with the Yankees, that culminated in induction into the Hall of Fame.
No. 55 – Hideki Matsui was going to hit 5o home runs, after coming over from his All-Star days in Japan. At least according to some experts. While he never reached those heights, “Godzilla” was one of the steadiest Yankees during his tenure. Beloved by his fans and teammates, his final game as a Yankee came in the 6th game of the 2009 World Series, for which he was named MVP. An honorable mention for Ramiro Mendozawho performed admirably as a reliever and spot starter.