In the wake of the Yankees aborting Derek Jeter's already-abbreviated season, speculation has arisen that Jeter's days as a shortstop are over and that he'll have to move to a new position next season. DH is the most obvious alternative, but Jeter may not be content to be just a DH, so other options may be explored. Just what those options are and whether they could work is a topic best left for another day. However, it is interesting to see how position changes have worked in the past for Yankee stars. They Yankees tried it with four stars. Three of the changes worked well and one was a flop (literally).
The most famous was Mickey Mantle's switch to first base in 1967. After a brief fling at shortstop, Mantle had been an outfielder for his entire career. However, he willingly made the switch to first base.
The ostensible reason for the switch was to protect Mantle's fragile legs. His torn ACL and other injuries are well documented. Another reason, left unspoken, was that Mantle could no longer cover centerfield. Centerfield and left center at the Stadium were cavernous: 461 feet in center and 457 in left center (aka Death Valley). It took a remarkable outfielder to cover so much ground and by the mid-1960s, Mantle was no longer a remarkable outfielder. It is no accident that the Yankees' three regular centerfielders from 1925 to 1966 (Earl Combs, Joe DiMaggio and Mantle) all have plaques in Cooperstown.
The switch worked well. In 1966, Mantle's last year in the outfield, he played in only 108 games (97 in the outfield). In 1967, however, he played in 144 games (131 at first base). In 1968, his final year, he also appeared in 144 games (131 at first base). Having Mantle's still-powerful bat in the lineup was a major benefit, although hardly enough to save those poor Yankee teams. Mantle was such a tremendous athlete that despite his bad legs, he became a more-than-adequate defensive first baseman and was frisky enough to steal six bases in 1968. The switch also gave AL hitters the thrill of chatting with the personable Mantle when they reached first base.
The Mantle switch may be the situation most comparable to Jeter's because the Yankees used Mantle's bad legs as an excuse to get him out of a position he could no longer play well. One may wonder if GM Brian Cashman is concerned enough about Jeter's range at shortstop to use the injuries as a way to get him out of the shortstop position.
The other switch that worked was Yogi Berra's switch from catcher to the outfield in 1960. Berra still caught some but by 1961, he played outfield more than he caught. (In 1962, however, he caught an entire 22-inning game at the age of 37). The reasons for this switch were obvious. Yogi was in his mid-30s and Elston Howard, a budding All Star, was ready to take over as catcher, but Berra's bat was still potent. Unfortunately, Berra's most memorable moment in the outfield was watching helplessly as Bill Mazeroski's home run sailed over his head to end the 1960 World Series.
Several years ago, when the Mets played cat and mouse with Mike Piazza over a possible switch to first base, someone asked Berra how manager Casey Stengel had told him he would be playing the outfield. He said that Stengel handed him a fielder's glove and pointed to left field. In those days, egos were checked at the door.
Joe DiMaggio was one player who never checked his ego at the door. In 1950, Stengel wanted to get younger, fresher legs in centerfield and had owner Dan Topping ask DiMaggio to switch to first base. DiMaggio reluctantly agreed and said the right things to the press ("Now if someone will just show me where first base is...") but he seethed inside. In his first game, he handled 13 put-outs without an error but managed to embarrass himself. On a swinging bunt towards first base, the pitcher called him off. DiMaggio put on the brakes and fell on his hands and knees, almost getting spiked as the pitcher made the play. Sure enough, the next day's newspapers carried a picture of him on his hands and knees. His teammates said he was so afraid of embarrassing himself that he came off the field dripping sweat. That experiment ended after one game.
Ironically, DiMaggio's late-career defensive deficiencies (at least his perceived deficiencies) were indirectly responsible for Mantle's catastrophic knee injury in the 1951 World Series. Before the Series, Stengel had told Mantle, who was playing right, to take every ball he could get to because DiMaggio couldn't cover much ground anymore. When Willie Mays hit a short fly to right center in Game 2, Mantle went after it at full speed. "I knew there was no way DiMaggio could get to it so I hauled ass," he said later. DiMaggio, however, got there easily and called for it. Petrified of running over DiMaggio ("Oh, shit...They'll never let me play again"), Mantle put on the brakes, catching his spikes in a rubber drain cover and tearing his knee. As Mantle lay on the ground, he and DiMaggio had their longest conversation of the season. "Don't move. They're bringing a stretcher," DiMaggio told him.
One other position change also deserves mention. It was only a change in outfield positions but it sparked a major controversy.
By 1974, Bobby Murcer had established himself as the Yankee centerfielder and was seen as the man who would lead the Yankees' return to glory. He had been heralded as the next Mantle and while he never lived up to that billing, he became a productive hitter, a good outfielder and a team leader. Manager Bill Virdon, however, thought Elliot Maddox was a better centerfielder. In May, Murcer arrived in the clubhouse to find his name penciled in for right field. He confronted Virdon. The blunt Virdon, who had been an exceptional centerfielder in his day, told him that Maddox was a better centerfielder. Murcer was stunned. "I thought I had enough prestige on the team for the manager to at least talk to me before he made the move...I was pretty shattered inside," Murcer later told writer Bill Madden.
Murcer was a good right fielder and led AL right fielders with nine assists. His problem was with Shea Stadium, where the Yankees played while the Stadium was being renovated. He missed the short right-field porch, his HR total dropped from 22 to 10 and he hit only two HRs at Shea.
Murcer did help the Yankees return to glory, but not in the way he expected. After the 1974 season, the Yankees traded him to the Giants for Bobby Bonds, father of Barry. A year later, they traded Bonds to the Angels for Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa, who became key elements of the Yankees 1977 and 1978 championship teams. Murcer, meanwhile, went into exile before returning to the Yankees in 1979 as a part-time player.
Yankee history can be circular. Virdon was originally a Yankee centerfield prospect but a fellow named Mantle blocked his path to the majors. In 1954, they traded him to St. Louis for Enos Slaughter. Virdon made his name as the Pittsburgh center-fielder and played against the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.