Over the course of their history, the Yankees have had tremendous variation in the quality of first basemen. Offensive production at first base has gone through peaks and valleys, from the pinnacle of MLB players, to a black hole in the lineup. The following five men represent the former. While there are certainly some obvious names, you may be surprised by several inclusions and omissions.
For this article, I will be referencing FanGraphs’ calculation of WAR instead of Baseball- Reference. The main difference between the two is that FanGraphs employs Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) while Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Let’s see who makes the list:
Lou Gehrig: 116.3 fWAR
The inclusion of this legend should come to the surprise of no one. The Iron Horse accumulated the most WAR of any first baseman in history (Stan Musial totaled 126.8 fWAR, but spent considerable time in the outfield). Gehrig was the twin behemoth of Murderers’ Row; the quiet foil to the brash and boisterous Babe Ruth.
Gehrig’s finest season came in 1927, when he mashed 47 home runs and 52 doubles and drove in 175 runs. His 1.239 OPS and 209 wRC+ rank among the greatest single seasons in MLB history. Far more impressive than any numbers he compiled was the strength of his character.
He displayed unfathomable fortitude not only to continue playing through the pain caused by ALS, but also to voluntarily end that 2,130 consecutive game streak by requesting to be left out of the lineup to better his team’s chances. It is this courage that set Gehrig apart as Yankee captain and ensured that for almost the next forty years, no Yankee would replace him as captain.
Gehrig’s name has since become inextricably linked with the disease that tragically claimed his life. The awareness he helped bring to his affliction helped spark scientific inquiry which would eventually save countless lives. It is for all of these immeasurable values that Gehrig’s was the first number retired in MLB history and that he is forever cemented at the heart of baseball history.
Don Mattingly: 40.7 fWAR
Donnie Baseball is certainly the second name that jumps to mind in any discussion of Yankees first basemen. He routinely topped baseball in various offensive categories. During his MVP-winning 1985 season, Mattingly led all of baseball in doubles (48), RBI (145), and total bases (370). In addition to being a prolific hitter, Mattingly was a stellar defender collecting an AL-record nine Gold Glove Awards as a first baseman.
Mattingly had the misfortune of playing during the Yankees’ longest postseason drought, with the team making a World Series appearance in the seasons that immediately precede and follow his playing tenure. If not for chronic back issues in the second half of his career, he may have stuck around long enough to win a title with the Core Four, and strengthened his case for the Hall of Fame.
Regardless of the team’s lack of achievement during his career, Don Mattingly is still an all-time Yankee great in the eyes of many fans. In recognition of his accomplishments and meaning to the Yankees Organization, Mattingly is the only non-World Series winning Yankee to have his number retired by the club.
Wally Pipp: 28.4 fWAR
Perhaps best known as the man whom Gehrig replaced to start his consecutive game streak, Wally Pipp was nonetheless a quality first baseman for the Yankees. Pipp joined the Yankees from the Tigers in 1915 and would play 11 seasons with the team. He was an important member of the 1923 World Series-winning squad, and earned down-ballot MVP votes three times in his career.
If not for a fateful day in 1925, we may not have witnessed the player who tops this list. In an account of the story corroborated by Pipp, he showed up to the ballpark with a throbbing headache and requested aspirin from the Yankees trainer. Manager Miller Huggins noticed this and gave Pipp the day off, opting instead to play the 22-year-old Lou Gehrig. Thus began the historic streak, causing Pipp to lament “I took the two most expensive aspirin in history.”
Bill Skowron: 25.3 fWAR
Moose Skowron was a key cog in the second half of the Yankees’ halcyon days. Playing for the Bombers from 1954 to 1962, Skowron won four World Series and was named an All-Star four times. His best season with the team came in 1960, when he swatted 26 home runs and 34 doubles and drove in 91 runs, good for a 141 OPS+ and 139 wRC+.
Skowron is one of six players in MLB history to have won consecutive World Series with different teams, having done so in 1962 with the Yankees and 1963 with the Dodgers. In fact, Skowron was instrumental in winning the title over his former employers. He exacted his revenge to the tune of a .385 average in the Fall Classic, en route to a series sweep.
Jason Giambi: 21.9 fWAR
The only player on this list I remember watching, the Giambino was the gold standard in plate discipline and getting on base. Acquired in free agency after two straight top-two finishes in MVP voting with the Athletics, he never quite reached the same lofty heights he achieved in Oakland. Regardless, Giambi put up some monstrous production in the early-2000s.
He continued to be an on-base machine in the Bronx, collecting at least 100 walks in four of his first five seasons with the club. His first season with the team was also his best, blending his control of the zone with prodigious slugging. In that 2002 season, he clubbed 41 homers and plated 122 runs, accompanying a ridiculous slash line of .314/.435/.598. He would never top that 172 OPS+ and 175 wRC+ as a Yankee.
Much like Mattingly, Giambi never won a World Series in his time with the Yankees. However, he was still the team’s premier hitter for much of his tenure and bridged the gap between Yankees World Series titles.
Honorable mentions: Mark Teixeira (18.1 fWAR) and Tino Martinez (16.0 fWAR)