A Look Back

From Griffith to Jeter: The Yankees captains

Most Yankees fans know that Derek Jeter, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson, and Lou Gehrig were captains of the team. But, many fans and followers don’t know that there have 15 Yankees captains since 1903.  There have been a number of characters that captained the Yankees, especially those that held the position prior to Gehrig’s captaincy. The Yankees are in no hurry to name a new captain to succeed Jeter, who held the title from 2003 until his retirement in 2014.

In reality, baseball is a sport that has little need for an official captain. It makes much more sense for football, ice hockey, basketball, and soccer. And, unlike hockey, baseball players don’t need to adorn the letter “C” on their jersey. The Red Sox’ Jason Varitek looked silly with it sewn into the front of his uniform.

You often hear that Jeter was the 10th Yankees captain. In actuality, there have been 15 captains if you include when the Yankees were the Highlanders. The following is a look at the players that paved the way for “El Capitan”.

Captain #1

The very first captain for the franchise had a long and storied career in baseball. Clark Griffith became the player-manager for the 1903 New York Highlanders. He began his career pitching in the American Association and then for the predecessors to the Chicago Cubs – the Colts and Orphans (1893-1900) –  in the National League.

Griffith jumped to the White Sox after he helped form the American League in 1901. He continued his playing career through the 1906 season and made a handful of appearances the following year before he retired. The Yankees fired Griffith during the 1908 season. He compiled a 419-370 managerial record in five-plus seasons with a pair of 90+ win, second place finishes.

Griffith went on to become the manager and then owner of the Washington Senators. That very same year, the Senators’ home stadium, National Park, became Clark Griffith Stadium in his honor.

The patriarch of the Griffith baseball family knew how to save a buck, a quality that continued with his descendants (Google Calvin Griffith). The Old Timers Committee elected Griffith as a “Pioneer/Executive” to the Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF) in 1946.

Captain #2

Shortstop Kid Elberfeld replaced Griffith for the 1906 and 1907 seasons and is the least-known captain. The Detroit Tigers shipped Elberfeld to the Yankees for a pair of players prior to the 1903 season. The 30-year old didn’t have much pop in his bat, but hardly ever struck out, and he got hit by a lot of pitches.

Captain #3

Known as “Wee Willie” due to his 5’4″, 140 lb frame, Willie Keeler could flat-out hit. A .341 lifetime hitter, he held the longest hitting streak record (44) until Joe DiMaggio topped it in 1941.

His 1897 season with the National League’s Baltimore Orioles was one for the ages. He batted .424 with 239 hits and picked up a hit in 44 straight games. Keeler joined the Highlanders in 1903 after playing for the Brooklyn Superbas. He hit .343 in his second season for the future Yankees and topped .300 in half of his eight seasons in New York.

His two years as captain (1908-1909) came at the end of his playing career when he was a shell of his former self. The BBWAA voted Keeler into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Captain #4

Rookie Hal Chase joined the Highlanders as their first baseman in 1905. For many years, he held a number of the franchise’s stolen base records and is still fourth all-time in career steals with 248. He was also considered one of the best defensive players in the game. He served as team captain from 1910-1912.

In addition to his playing duties, Chase managed the team for the last 14 games of the 1910 season and the entire 1911 campaign. He was also one of the first players to battle with management over his contract and beat the reserve clause.

Throughout his career and after his retirement as a player, Chase was accused of having a shady reputation There were accusations of throwing games and gambling. Nothing was ever proven until the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Though no longer an active player, a jury found Chase guilty of being a go-between in the scheme. However, the state of California would not extradite him.

Captain #5

Frank Chance is best known for being the end piece in the famous Chicago Cubs’ Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play combo. He also managed the team for seven-plus seasons and was at the helm the last time the Cubs won their last championships (1907-1908) prior to this past season.

He became a player-manager for the Yankees from 1913 through 1914.  He did much more managing for the Yankees than playing. Chance appeared in only 12 games in ’13 and one game the following season. Despite playing in a single game, he named himself captain of the squad. He was posthumously elected to the HoF by the Old Timers Committee in 1946.

Captain #6

Roger Peckinpaugh was a 17-year baseball veteran who spent the 1913-1921 seasons with New York. He became the captain in 1914 and held the honor for eight seasons. In his first year as captain, he unexpectedly managed the team for the last 20 games of the season after Chance resigned.

Lauded for his defense and his leadership, Peckinpaugh had a slow-rising baseball career. A .220 hitter in his early years with the Highlanders, Peckinpaugh won the AL MVP Award with Washington in 1925. Peckinpaugh was a member of the Yankees first pennant-winning team in 1921, his final season with the team.

Captain #7

“The Bambino”, Babe Ruth himself, had the captaincy bestowed upon him in 1922. Well, briefly anyway. Just five days into his reign, Ruth had a bad day at the office. He threw dirt in the face of umpire George Hildebrand and went after a fan in the stands.

AL President Ban Johnson fined and suspended Ruth. Needless to say, Ruth lost his captaincy, too.

Captain #8

Everett Scott replaced Ruth as captain and remained in that capacity through 1925. Scott held the Iron Man record until Gehrig broke his record.

Scott played in 1,307 consecutive games from 1916 to 1925. He wore the Red Sox uniform when the streak began and became a Yankee in 1922. The streak ended when manager Miller Huggins benched Scott, who was in the midst of a slump. A little over a month later, the Yankees dealt him to the Washington Senators.

Captain #9

Lou Gehrig is the most celebrated Yankees captain other than Jeter and Mattingly. Though the circumstances may not be completely accurate, the story goes that Gehrig replaced first baseman Wally Pipp, who was having dizzy spells, in mid-game on June 1, 1925. With Pipp in a slump, Huggins stuck with Gehrig. 2,130 games and 14 years later, Gehrig finally sat out a game.

It would be easy to write 10,000 words on the Yankees’ “Iron Horse”, but let’s leave it at this: He’s arguably one of the five best players to ever wear a Major League uniform.

Captain #10

The organization felt Gehrig’s impact for decades. It wasn’t until 1976 that the Yankees decided to name a new captain. Catcher Thurman Munson was the right man at the right time.

Munson was beloved by his teammates. He was a fiery competitor and a team leader. The Yankees were building towards success in the mid-to-late 1970’s and Munson led the way. Thurman played a complete game with his bat, his mitt, and his brain. He was a warrior before Paul O’Neill, playing with myriad injuries and pain. Late in his career, he began to play outfield and first base to take the stress off of his knees.

Munson loved baseball, but he loved his wife Diane and their three children even more. It’s the reason he took up flying…so that he could head back to Ohio when he had time off. Like Gehrig, Munson’s life ended too soon. On August 2, 1979, Munson crashed his plane and it burst into flames. The 32-year old perished when he couldn’t get out of his seat.

Yankees baseball was never the same.

Captain #11

According to lore, the Yankees were not going to name another captain, thinking that Gehrig and Munson had been the only captains in franchise history. But, in 1982 they learned about Ruth and Scott. The Yankees then named 37-year old Graig Nettles as the new captain.

Nettles always had a great sense of humor and that remained true when he was captain. “I don’t even know what a captain is supposed to do”, is what Nettles told the media after the captaincy was made official.

The veteran third baseman had no problem getting in a teammate’s face if he felt they were dogging it on the field. He also wasn’t afraid to mix it up with an opponent as he did with Boston’s Bill Lee and the Royals’ George Brett. Nettles spoke his mind to another George, the team owner, as well.

A dispute over playing time and his alleged negativity in the clubhouse pushed the Yankees to trade Nettles to the Padres as the 1984 season was about to start. “Puff” helped the Padres win their first pennant that season.

Captains #12 and 13

For the first time in history, the Yankees decided to name co-captains in 1986. Veterans Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph, who became full-time teammates in 1977, shared the honor.

Guidry had one of the finest seasons in baseball history when he finished 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA in 1978. His season included a team-record 18 strikeouts against the California Angels, and starting the one-game playoff with the Red Sox that determined the AL East winner. He also struck out 248 batters and led the league with nine complete-game shutouts.

Speed, good hands, quick feet, and consistency made up Randolph’s game. The Yankees acquired the 20-year old in a 1975 trade with the Pirates. Randolph became the team’s regular second baseman for the next 13 seasons. He was an All-Star in his first year in the Bronx and an integral part of the team’s success. An underrated defender, Randolph played in the shadow of fellow American Leaguer Frank White of the Royals.

To this day, Randolph is considered one of the classiest and nicest guys around. The six-time All-Star has always been a fan favorite.

Captain #14

The story goes that George Steinbrenner drafted Don Mattingly after he saw his picture and a blurb in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd”, a section devoted to amateur athletes.

Mattingly, 18, an outfielder-pitcher, batted .500 and .552 over the past two seasons to lead Reitz Memorial High to a 59-1 record. He had 140 RBIs in four years for the Tigers, equaling the highest total ever in scholastic baseball.

No matter the reason, the Yankees will always be grateful that the 19th round pick had an excellent career. Mattingly became a New York institution whose popularity rivals that of Jeter’s. Though he appeared in the postseason only once, Mattingly was a winner through and through. It was a no-brainer when he was named team captain in 1991.

“Donnie Baseball” inspired teammates and opponents with his work ethic and approach to the game. It’s no surprise that he became a Major League coach and manager. A back injury late in his career took away his power and a possible entry to the HoF.

Captain #15

George Steinbrenner and Joe Torre were in the midst of some hard feelings in 2003 when Derek Jeter became the Yankees last captain to date. Steinbrenner made the move without consulting his manager. Torre certainly would have approved of the idea, but didn’t appreciate being cut out of the conversation.

Jeter was never the most publicly boisterous player, but he was a clubhouse leader behind the scenes. And you would be hard-pressed to find a player that set a better example on the field.   Dubbed “El Capitan” by Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, Jeter never let up whether the game was on the line or not. It’s one of the things that made him a great ambassador for the sport.

Jeter accomplished so many things on the field that his leadership skills never factored into conversations. But, when it came to the game of baseball, winning was the only thing that mattered to him. It didn’t matter if he went 5-5 at the plate or took an oh-fer as long as the Yankees won. His five World Series rings and seven AL pennants are the career accomplishments of which Jeter is most proud.

Captain #16 ?

Who will be the next player to have the honor of being the Yankees captain? Good question. It may be a player that has not yet donned a Major League uniform. It could be two captains again. Whoever it is, they will have a grand tradition to follow.

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