Every Friday, we will be taking a look back at the career of a critical player in New York Yankees history that doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve. When looking at the storied history of the Yankees names like BabeRuth, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter quickly come to mind. Today, we will be looking at those players who played a critical role. Simply put, without these individuals, the Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees.
Today we will be taking a look at the hot corner. Third base has been an interesting position for the Yankees, usually filled by a veteran like Scott Brosius or Wade Boggs. Statistically, no one comes close to matching A-Rod’s production while recent years saw stop gaps from Chase Headley and Todd Frazier. When looking at the third base position, one former captain stands out for his performance in the 70s into the 80s; Graig Nettles.
Graig Nettles was born on Aug. 20, 1944, as the United States was occupied with the liberation of France. Like many Americans, Graig’s father, Wayne, was overseas fighting for his country. Meanwhile, his mother was in a hospital room struggling to decide on a name for her second son. Stuck between Greg and Craig, she decided to simply combine the two and settled on Graig. Eventually, Wayne returned home and the Nettles’ family lived in San Diego where Nettles would become a standout on the baseball field and basketball court. His success landed him a baseball scholarship at San Diego State University, where a late growth spurt helped to increase his power. Nettles would catch the eye of the Minnesota Twins and he would be selected in the fourth round of the 1965 MLB Draft.
Nettles would rocket through the minors by hitting 28 home runs in 1966 and leading the league in assists in 1967. After three end of the season plate appearances, Nettles was quickly making a name for himself in the Twins’ farm system. 1968 saw Nettles head to the Pacific Coast League where he would play for a manager he would credit for shaping his career; Billy Martin. Martin was hard on Nettles and would scream at him for defensive lapses. At first, Nettles hated Martin but would quickly come to respect him as a leader. Nettles would win the Pacific Coast League’s Rookie of the Year and would punch his ticket to the majors.
Minnesota and Cleveland
Nettles first appeared in Minnesota at the end of the 1968 season. He recorded a hit in his first seven games; including five homers. In 1969, he would appear in 98 games with the ball club, primarily in the outfield. While the Twins thought highly of Nettles, he was blocked at third by Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. Needing to bolster their rotation, the Twins would send Nettles to Cleveland for a package led by Luis Tiant.
As Nettles made his way to Cleveland, he was surrounded by rumors that he was unable to field the position. However, Cleveland’s manager, Alvin Dark, committed to playing Nettles at third. Nettles responded by having the highest fielding percentage for all MLB third basemen in 1970 while leading the team in home runs. The next season, Nettles would set MLB records for most double plays and assists by a third baseman while again leading the team in homers.
Despite Nettles’ success, the team was struggling. After finishing 41 games behind first place, Cleveland brought in Ken Aspromonte to lead the club. Suddenly, Nettles was in a platoon, finding himself on the bench when a lefty was pitching. His confidence dropped and he made it known he would prefer to play elsewhere. Following the 1972 season, Nettles was sent to the Bronx.
New York Yankees
Shortly after Nettles was sent to the Yankees, the team was purchased by George Steinbrenner. After struggling at the end of the 60s, Steinbrenner was looking to turn the ball club back into a winner. The Yankees steadily improved in 1973 and 74 but the manager position became something of a revolving door. 1975 would see Nettles reunited with Billy Martin and earn his first All-Star game selection. The following season would see a new era of Yankees baseball begin. The Yankees would win the division by over 10 games before being swept by the Big Red Machine in the World Series. Meanwhile, Nettles led baseball with 32 home runs. Despite a disappointing end, the Yankees were finally back.
1977 saw new energy running through the Bronx. The Yankees were finally back and Nettles was just entering his prime. Nettles returned to the All-Star game, won his first Gold Glove and the Yankees would defeat the Dodgers in 6 games in the World Series. Nettles would continue his dominant play again in 1978, winning another Gold Glove while the Yankees would again beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classic. Unfortunately, 1979 was a rough year for the Yankees and Nettles with the passing of captain Thurman Munson. The Yankees would struggle down the stretch and eventually slide to fourth place.
The 1981 season saw the Yankees bounce back and led by Nettles’ MVP efforts in the ALCS saw them return to the World Series. After winning the first game at home, the Yankees looked well on their way to another World Series win against the Dodgers. However, disaster struck in game two as Nettles broke his thumb sliding into home plate. Despite winning game two, Nettles would miss the next three games in Los Angeles. Despite returning in game six, the Dodgers would win the Series.
Late and Post Career
The 1982 season would see Nettles named the eleventh captain of the Yankees. However, Nettles, now 37, started to see a steep decline in his play. Following the 1983 season, the Yankees would send Nettles to San Diego. After a few years in San Diego, Nettles would briefly play for the Braves and Expos before calling it a career at the age of 43.
Nettles would coach for the Yankees in 1991 and the Padres in 1996. In 2007, he served as a technical advisor on ESPN’s the Bronx is Burning, which detailed the 1977 Yankees.
Nettles was a critical piece in Yankees history and is still regarded as one of the best fielding third basemen not named Brooks Robinson. Known for always trying to stop every ball hit his way and for doing everything he could to win; Graig Nettles is a Yankees legend.