There will come a time when Derek Jeter leaves the Yankees. His injuries and his play this year have shown that he is human. While no one should ever underestimate Jeter or count him out, Father Time is still batting 1.000 and Jeter is showing signs of mortality. Most of us hope Jeter's time to leave doesn't come for another five years. Whenever it comes, however, let's hope he leaves in the dignified manner of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Don Mattingly and not in the bizarre manner of Babe Ruth.
Babe Ruth was one for superlatives so it should be no surprise that his departure was the weirdest in Yankee history.
Ruth put the Yankees on the map. Before his arrival in 1920, the Yankees had never even sniffed a World Series. With his arrival, Murderers' Row was born. In his 15 years in the Bronx, the Yankees won the World Series in 1923, 1927, 1928 and 1932. He was the most popular athlete in the world, a huge drawing card and it is no accident that the old Stadium was called the House That Ruth Built. His lifetime statistics are staggering: .342/.474/.690 with 714 HRs.
By 1934, however, things had changed. Ruth was 39 and had had his worst year: .288/.448/.537 with 22 HRs and 84 RBIs. He had slowed down in the outfield and was a defensive liability. Moreover, he had become a cancer in the clubhouse.
The rambunctious Ruth never took kindly to authority and he definitely did not take kindly to the coldly efficient Joe McCarthy, who became manager in 1931. The feeling was mutual. Ruth had wanted the manager's job but was never seriously considered. Owner Jacob Ruppert had asked him rhetorically, "How can you manage the team when you can't manage yourself?" In 1934, Ruth still wanted the job, even though McCarthy was firmly entrenched.
The Yankees tried to ease Ruth out. They offered him the job of manager of the Triple A Newark Bears but Ruth did not want to go to the minors. On a barnstorming tour in Japan after the 1934 season, Connie Mack, owner of the Philadelphia A's, eyed Ruth as a possible successor but concluded he wasn't worthy. "I couldn't have made Babe manager. His wife would have been running the club in a month," he said.
The Yankees couldn't simply release Ruth. The backlash with fans and the press would have been intolerable. After all, he was still the most popular athlete in the world.
Ruppert and GM Ed Barrow got out of the Ruth mess with a move worthy of Houdini. For those who admire Machiavelli, it is a thing of beauty.
Before the 1935 season, Ruppert worked out a deal with Boston Braves' owner Emil Fuchs to send Ruth to the Braves but he wanted to make it appear that it was Ruth's idea. Fuchs sprung the trap by calling Ruth to propose making him a player, vice president and assistant manager with the Braves. Ruth called Ruppert, who acted as if he knew nothing. Ruppert reeled Ruth in by telling him what a great opportunity it was, and Ruth accepted. The Yankees put a positive spin on it by saying they were just helping Ruth become a manager/executive. Ruppert told the press it would have been "unsportsmanlike" to block Ruth from pursuing this great opportunity. In reality, Fuchs wanted Ruth only to sell tickets and the Yankees just wanted him gone. The deal was a scam, Ruth's executive/assistant manager duties were non-existent and he lasted less than a season in Boston. He never managed and was never on the Yankees' payroll again.
Lou Gehrig left the Yankees voluntarily, with the kind of courage and dignity that earned him the name "The Pride of the Yankees."
Gehrig was the other Yankee star of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Overshadowed by Ruth for most of his career, he was a superstar in his own right. He hit .340/.447/.632 with 493 HRs and led the league in RBIs five times. Beginning in 1925, he played in 2,130 consecutive games.
In 1938, Gehrig's play slipped a notch. At first, it was attributed to age because he was 35. The next spring, there was little doubt that something was seriously wrong. Gehrig's coordination, speed and power were gone. Teammates patted him on the back for routine plays. He started the season but couldn't get untracked. He was meeting the ball (only one strikeout in 28 at-bats) but had no power, hitting only four singles. On May 2, 1939 in Detroit, Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy that he was benching himself for the good of the team. The Tiger fans gave him a standing ovation while he sat in the dugout with tears in his eyes. Pitcher Lefty Gomez consoled him, ""Hell, Lou, it took 15 years to get you out of a game. Sometimes I'm out in 15 minutes."
Several weeks later, the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Gehrig with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a death sentence. On July 4th, the Yankees honored him at the Stadium with Lou Gehrig Day, surrounded by Ruth and his teammates from the ‘20s, and he delivered his famous speech, calling himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." This was the forerunner of the Yankees' annual old-timers day.
Gehrig finished the 1939 season on the bench. After the season, however, the Yankees let him go, never offering him a job as a coach or in the front office. Instead, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia hired him as a city parole commissioner. It wasn't a no-show patronage job. Gehrig worked hard at it until a month before his death on June 2, 1941. He was 38.
The 1939 Yankees were one of the best teams in Yankee history, right up there with the teams of 1927, 1961 and 1998. It is frightening to think how good they would have been with a healthy Gehrig.
Joe DiMaggio was an unstoppable force in the late ‘30s and ‘40s, leading the Yankees to world championships in 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1950 and 1951. He hit .325/.398/.579 with 361 home runs. His home-run total is impressive because he lost three prime years to World War II. He led the league in HRs twice and was a three-time MVP.
By 1951, he had slowed down. He hit .263/.365/.422 with 12 HRs and 71 RBIs. DiMaggio, always a perfectionist, knew he was no longer the same player he had been. Too many of his home runs went to right field, which DiMaggio called "piss homers...I could piss ‘em over that wall."
After the Yankees beat the Giants in the World Series, it was uncertain if DiMaggio would return in 1952. The Yankees wanted him back and GM George Weiss drew up another $100,000 contract. Ownership offered to let him play when he wanted to or play only home games and not have to travel with the team.
An article in Look magazine a week after the Series dashed all hope. The article contained a World Series scouting report prepared by Dodger scout Andy High when the Dodgers thought they had the pennant wrapped up. It contained a devastating but accurate assessment of DiMaggio: "He can't stop quickly and throw hard. You can take the extra base on him...He can't run and won't bunt...His reflexes are very slow, and he can't pull a good fastball at all." That was enough for the prideful DiMaggio and he retired.
Mickey Mantle reached the majors in 1951, DiMaggio's last year, as a 19-year-old country boy with ungodly talent and high expectations. As Stengel told the writers, "He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster, and nobody has ever had more of both of ‘em together." Stengel said Mantle hit balls as far as Ruth and was faster than Ty Cobb. The bar had been set very high. Even grizzled veterans like coach Bill Dickey, who had played with Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio, marveled at his talent.
Mantle had a remarkable career. Over 18 seasons, he hit .298/.421/.557. He was a three-time MVP and led his team to World Series victories in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1960, 1961 and 1962, just missing in 1960 and 1964. His Triple Crown year in 1956 - .353/52/130 - was one for the ages. But for an infection late in the season, he might have beaten Ruth's single-season HR record in 1961. He hit as high as .365 (1957), hit as many HRs as 54 (1961) and drove in as many as 130 runs (1956). Perhaps most remarkable of all, he did this while playing on a torn ACL that he had suffered in the 1951 World Series.
After 1964, the Yankees became second-division also-rans and Mantle declined, too. Part of it was age, part was chronic injuries and part was that with the departure of so many stalwarts from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, he had little protection in the lineup. In 1968, he hit .237/.385/.398 with 18 HRs and 54 RBIs. It was unclear if he would return in 1969. The previous September, he had hit his 536th HR (off Denny McLain), putting him in second place on the all-time list. The Yankees had little talent and appeared destined for another second-division season.
He arrived in Fort Lauderdale for spring training in 1969, but told manager Ralph Houk he intended to retire. Houk tried to talk him out of it. After all, Mantle was still the best hitter on the roster and a tremendous drawing card. Mantle, however, told Houk, "I can't do it anymore. My body doesn't respond." On March 1st, he formally announced his retirement, telling the press, "I don't hit the ball when I need to. I can't score from second when I need to. I can't steal when I need to."
To a generation of fans, Mantle's departure was jarring. This generation grew up adoring Mantle, fighting for No. 7 when Little League uniforms were handed out and trying to make themselves into switch-hitters (even if they couldn't hit from either side). Mantle was the last man standing from the great teams of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. No matter how bad the team's record, they were still the Yankees when he was in the lineup. There was no one on the roster to replace him. The Yankees hyped Bobby Murcer with Mantle comparisons (both from Oklahoma, both signed by scout Tom Greenwade, both shortstops converted to the outfield) but Murcer was just back from a two-year hitch in the Army, and no one know what kind of player he would be.
Don Mattingly was the surprising superstar, the greatest Yankee to never play in a World Series. He was drafted in the 19th round and his arrival was met with few expectations, yet he became his generation's Lou Gehrig, a quiet star who let his bat do his talking.
He had an excellent 14-year career, hitting .307/.358/.471 with 222 HRs. He was the MVP in 1985 and led the league in hitting in 1984 (.343). His four-year run from 1984-87 was comparable to the best seasons of Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. Only a chronic back condition kept him from a Hall-of-Fame career. As he told CBS Sports recently:
It kind of robbed me of some things, things I wasn't able to do after that...For me, it was hard just to stay on the field. I was on the DL once a year, maybe twice, for the last five years. When you do that, it's really frustrating because you start rolling a little bit and the next thing you know, you're on the shelf.
He also suffered from bad luck. Perhaps his best chance at a World Series was 1994, but a players' strike canceled the rest of the season and the post-season with the Yankees holding a 6½-game lead in their division.
He was an excellent defensive first-baseman. Yankee and Met fans argued over who was the better first baseman: Mattingly or Keith Hernandez. These arguments were reminiscent of the arguments of the 1950s over who was New York's best centerfielder: Mantle, Willie Mays or Duke Snider.
Mattingly's retirement after the 1995 season was greeted with sadness, mostly for him. Yankee fans were happy because the team was on the way up, with the farm system producing exciting young players like Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. But they were sad for Mattingly, who had reached the post-season only once, and deserved much better.
His one playoff appearance - against Seattle in 1995 - was one to remember. In that five-game series, he batted .417/.440/.708 with one HR and six RBIs.
Retirement gave him more time to spend at home with his sons. "That part was easy," he said. "I don't have any regrets about that."