By some measures, Bill Dickey was just as valuable to the Yankees as Yogi Berra. Over 17 seasons, the catcher had a higher batting average than Mr. Berra, drove in nearly as many runs per season and performed better against the hated Boston Red Sox. But beyond the box scores, there’s no comparison. Mr. Berra won 10 World Series titles, the most for any player in history. There are almost as many books featuring Mr. Berra as there are news articles about Mr. Dickey. A mitt used by Mr. Berra during a game sells for 2½ times what Mr. Dickey’s leather fetches at auction. Mr. Berra has his own museum. Mr. Dickey doesn’t even have a “Yankeeography” on the team’s TV network.
On almost every other sports team, players are judged by their play. On the Yankees, greatness also is a measure of a player’s ability to inspire myths, generate revenue, curse entire cities and compel otherwise rational people to do crazy things—like spend $23,000 on a catcher’s mitt.
For these reasons, among others, Mr. Berra is No. 5 on our list of the greatest Yankee position players of all time, while Mr. Dickey doesn’t cut it.
With that in mind, The Wall Street Journal developed a comprehensive set of criteria to determine which 10 Yankee position players were the greatest of all-time. The categories included postseason batting, fielding range, on-base plus slugging percentage and wins above replacement player. We also included the player’s impact on team attendance and his effect on the value of the franchise. To give a more rounded portrait, we scored each candidate by their relevance in popular culture, upstandingness and earning power in the collectibles market.
The totals were compiled by giving each player a score (1 to 10) in each of 11 categories and tabulating the results. To keep things simple, we decided to save pitchers for another day.
The overall winner, with a score of 96.4, is the obvious choice—Babe Ruth. On the simplest statistical level, the Babe was the first ballplayer to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 home runs. The 54 he hit in 1920 in his first season with the Yankees surpassed the total for every other American League team.
He also had a seismic impact on the team’s bottom line. The Yankees drew 619,164 fans in 1919, the year before they acquired Ruth. In 1920, that number more than doubled. When Ruth missed much of the 1925 season, the team plummeted to seventh place, and attendance fell by more than 350,000.
Ruth’s impact on the bottom line was equally dramatic. In 1915, Tillinghast Huston paid some $230,000 for half the Yankees franchise. In 1922, just seven years later, he sold his stake for $1.5 million, or 6 ½ times what he paid for it. At no other time has the team’s value increased so much—even when compared with the past decade, when the team added a new stadium and a TV network.
There was no more confounding figure than Joe DiMaggio. His cultural cachet is off the charts. He’s been mentioned in songs by Madonna, John Fogerty and Billy Joel, was married to Marilyn Monroe and popped up in everything from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” to “The Simpsons.” Nearly four decades after he retired, DiMaggio was earning $40,000 to $50,000 a day at autograph shows and memorabilia sales, according to Richard Ben Cramer’s biography.
But in the end, DiMaggio fell to third in our rankings, behind Lou Gehrig, for another reason: likability. At the Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day celebrations, the famously petty DiMaggio insisted on being introduced last, according to long-time team PR man Marty Appel.
With a score of 73.7, which reflects his huge impact on the team’s winning percentage since his arrival, Derek Jeter took the No. 4 spot, just ahead of Mr. Berra and—in a sure surprise to many—Mickey Mantle.
Despite his many accomplishments, Mantle also benefitted from dumb luck. The kid from Oklahoma joined the Yankees in 1951, the same year major-league games were first broadcast in color and nationally. The telegenic Mantle became the face of a loaded team that reached 12 World Series in 14 years. His smile came to symbolize “post-war American optimism,” said Jane Leavy, author of a coming biography. At the start of his career, Topps launched the first modern-day trading cards, and Mantle’s 1952 card came to embody the hobby. By the early 1980s, when the sports collectibles market began to soar, the boys who grew up idolizing Mantle were running corporations and spending huge sums on anything associated with the Mick.
Nos. 7 and 8 spots are Reggie Jackson and Alex Rodriguez—both of whom made the list largely on the strength of their offensive statistics—n the regular season and the playoffs.
The biggest surprises came in the final two spots, where second-baseman Joe Gordon and outfielder Tommy Henrich edged out more-familiar players like Thurman Munson, Phil Rizzuto and Bernie Williams.
Gordon’s great strength was defense—his range was the best of any of the 30 candidates we studied. Henrich, a teammate of DiMaggio’s, was no matinee idol, but he was the best in one crucial respect: The team’s winning percentage during his career was the highest for any player.
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