Earning a plaque in Monument Park has always been an esteemed honor for people associated with the Yankees, from players to managers and even broadcasters. After the Yankees honored Hall of Famer Red Ruffing with a plaque in late 2004 though, the metaphorical doors to enshrinement were basically closed for a decade. The only people receiving recognition between 2005 and 2014 were George Steinbrenner with the infamous Steinbrenner Face monument in 2010 and Mariano Rivera with the dual-retired number 42 in 2013.
However, 2014 witnessed a flurry of inductions which will be followed by even more in 2015. While most of these plaques were dedicated to Yankee greats from the '90s and 2000s who were basically just waiting for inevitable enshrinement (the only real surprise in there was Tino Martinez), the team also made efforts to honor older players who had been waiting quite awhile for their plaques. Flamethrowing closer Goose Gossage was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008, but his plaque in Monument Park did not arrive until 2014. Willie Randolph had a hell of a career which is borderline Hall of Fame-caliber, but he spent 13 seasons with the team as a player (three years as co-captain) before serving as a coach on the team for 11 more, collecting six World Series rings in total. Taking time to recognize Randolph's contributions was long overdue, and Randolph will finally get his day on Old Timers' Day 2015.
The Yankees' work recognizing older players is not done though. There are still several Yankees who should be given plaques in Monument Park. The ones below in particular have waited far too long.
This isn't the first time I've written about why Nettles needs to be in Monument Park. I don't really understand why the Yankees have been so slow in honoring Nettles, and I'm not only person covering the Yankees who feels that way. Nettles was absolutely pivotal to the Yankees' success from 1976-81, a very successful period that included five AL East titles, four AL pennants, and two World Series crowns. The big names in the lineup were obviously Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson, but Nettles was always a threat. People forget that he once led the league in homers; 32 bombs in '76 were enough to secure the crown during the more pitcher-friendly '70s. Only nine Yankees have ever hit more homers than his 250 dingers
It's no coincidence that his arrival in a trade with the Indians during the 1972-73 off-season happened just as the Yankees began to burst with talent. In his prime, he was sensational, hitting .263/.332/.465 with a 125 OPS+, 99 doubles, 117 homers, and 23.8 WAR between 1975-78. Fans shouldn't be fooled by his career .253 average in pinstripes--his plate discipline and power more than made up for it. Take all that offensive prowess and combine it with one of the best gloves baseball has ever seen at third base, and Nettles becomes a borderline Hall of Fame player. Had he not played at the same time as Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, people would know a lot more about Nettles's defense. It was never better than in the '78 World Series against the Dodgers, when he flat-out robbed Tommy Lasorda's crew of hits left and right:
Now that's defense. So Nettles was consistently the second or third-best hitter in the lineup, he provided outstanding defense, he was a team captain for two years, and the Yankees found great success with him on the team. It's time to give Nettles his own plaque in Monument Park, so here's hoping that they'll follow in the tradition of the past couple years and honor him on Old TImers' Day 2016.
For all the hubbub surrounding Randolph and the sadly since-departed awesomeness of Robinson Cano, there's still a good case that Lazzeri was in fact the best second baseman in franchise history. He was also a fan favorite and helped to make the Yankees a popular team in Italian households, as he earned the nickname "Poosh 'em up Tony" for his uncanny ability to drive in runs and for how it sounded when Italian fans cheered him on. Ten years before Joe DiMaggio made a splash with the Yankees, Lazzeri was the Pacific Coast League import arriving in the Bronx with some serious hype. After all, he had hit .355 with a .721 slugging percentage the year before with the Salt Lake City Bees, smashing 60 homers in 197 games. There were questions about how well he could play though, since the PCL even then was known for notoriously inflated power numbers, and the fact that Lazzeri was epileptic scared some scouts away.
Fortunately for the Yankees, Lazzeri met the challenge and then some. He slotted nicely into the legendary lineup which would be called "Murderers' Row" for its domination. The Yankees won the pennant in each of his first three years, as he hit .302/.370/.488 with 87 doubles, 33 triples, 46 homers, a 124 OPS+, and 13.6 WAR. The Yankees won back-to-back titles in '27 and '28, and Lazzeri was still around when they returned to the Fall Classic in '32 after a few years away. He was just as good then, batting .300/.399/.506 with a 138 OPS+ in the championship campaign. Hell, Lazzeri remained at second base long enough to play with DiMaggio and the Yankee Clipper's first two teams. By the time he called it quits, Lazzeri had five World Series rings, 169 career homers, and 48.3 WAR in pinstripes, 11th-best all-time.
Lazzeri was enshrined in Cooperstown by the Veterans' Committee in 1991. So if he had a Hall of Fame career while persevering through a difficult disease that affected him off the field, what's the holdup? I don't know if Lazzeri even has family who would be present for a Monument Park induction ceremony, but it's kind of silly that he's not out there yet.
I'll admit that Murcer is more of a sentimental pick, but given his years of service to the organization, I don't think anybody would pitch a fit if the Yankees decided to honor "Bobby Ray." As a prospect in the '60s, Murcer was given a truly impossible task: Replace Mickey Mantle. Now Mantle was able to succeed to replacing Joe DiMaggio because he was one the greatest natural talents to ever play the game, but understandably, Murcer wasn't quite at that level. Nonetheless, when he returned to the Yankees in 1969 after two years of military service, he did a pretty damn good job. He hit 49 homers over two seasons (including a record-tying four bombs in a row during a doubleheader in '70) before exploding in 1971. That was the season Murcer was named to the first of five straight All-Star teams. He led the AL with a .427 on-base percentage and a 181 OPS+. He fully took advantage of the short porch in right field at the original Yankee Stadium during its final three seasons, as he hit .308/.381/.513 with 80 homers, a 160 OPS+, and 19.7 WAR from 1971-73.
It was too bad that the Yankees decided the next two years would be focused on remodeling the old Yankee Stadium, as the next year at pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium hurt Murcer's numbers, even though he remained productive. He was dealt from the Yankees after that year in a trade for Bobby Bonds, and by the time he returned for about three and a half more years in midseason of '79, he was more of a reserve outfielder and DH. (At least he finally got to experience some playoff baseball.) Murcer's lifetime of service to the Yankees continued in 1983, his final year as a player--he immediately moved to the broadcast booth after retirement and spent the next 24 years calling games for whatever TV network the Yankees were on. His brain tumor diagnosis in 2006 sent shockwaves through the fanbase, and after one more season behind the mic, Bobby Murcer passed away on the eve of the 2008 All-Star Game, which happened to be held at Yankee Stadium. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single Yankees fan who wasn't heartbroken by the news.
Murcer was, by all accounts, one of the most genuinely nice guys in the game, and the YES Network still misses his voice. He was an excellent player too, and his near-50 years with the Yankees should grant him a plaque in Monument Park. Make no mistake--Bobby Murcer was the man.
These are just three players who could stand to improve Monument Park. Just because it's a little silly that they've retired so many numbers doesn't mean that they need to be stingy about plaques. There are certainly more people who probably deserve recognition as well. Joe Gordon, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Earle Combs are all in the Hall of Fame with Yankees hats, but they don't have Monument Park plaques. Going beyond them, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Roy White, Mel Stottlemyre, and Mike Mussina all have fine cases as well. Hell, I don't think anyone would be upset if the organization gave plaques to longtime trainer Gene Monahan and super-scout/GM Gene Michael, either.
As far as honoring the team's history with plaques in Monument Park goes, the more the merrier. The first steps should be honoring Nettles, Lazzeri, and Murcer. It's time.