Even with the fate of the 2020 season unknown, the present Yankees roster appears poised to embark on a new era of success. Their young, talented nucleus, supported by a smart and well-heeled organization, offers an opportunity for title contention in the coming seasons.
The leadership of a captain has often contributed to such an era, though not all Yankees greats have been suited to the job. Babe Ruth captained the 1922 squad, only to be stripped of the responsibility after just six days, when he climbed on the dugout roof and confronted a heckler in the stands. He was replaced by shortstop Everett Scott.
Gehrig eventually took over as captain in 1935 and held the title until 1939, when he was forced to retire due to his rapidly deteriorating health. After Gehrig’s time as captain drew to a close, manager Joe McCarthy declined to name another, and declared the position should never be occupied again in honor of the first baseman.
McCarthy’s wishes were met for nearly 40 years. Then in 1976, three years after he bought the Yankees, George Steinbrenner revived the tradition by naming Thurman Munson as captain. But Munson’s tragic death in 1979 led to turnover in the role through the ensuing decades, including a stint for the great Don Mattingly from 1991-1995.
Most recently, Derek Jeter was captain from 2003 until his retirement in 2014, the longest tenure of any Yankee. His beloved status among the Yankees faithful sets a high bar for captains of future generations.
So as we look ahead to a new era, which candidates on the current roster seem most fit to take on the mantle of the Yankees’ captaincy?
Let’s get the most talked-about candidate out of the way first. Judge’s one-two punch of talent on the field and leadership off it have long made him an attractive choice to fans.
Judge’s in-game production, especially when injury-free, enables him to lead by example, and his poise and thoughtfulness in front of the microphone make him an ideal point man with the media. He constructs careful responses that deflect controversy, a skill that has been described as Jeteresque. But in other ways a comparison to the Hall-of-Fame shortstop might be premature.
By the time Jeter was named captain in 2003, he’d already played in five World Series and won four of them. Not every captain has to meet that standard of team success, but it’s an important reminder that Judge’s career at the MLB level is still young.
His case for the captaincy would be strengthened by a dominant stretch of healthy play, and a few sparkling postseason runs wouldn’t hurt either.
At 23 years old, the new starting shortstop for the Bombers has plenty of time to make his mark. To return to the previous comparison, Jeter ascended to the captaincy at age 29. If the Yankees were to make a sustained push for World Series titles in the next few years, Torres’ individual and team achievements by the same age could be comparable.
Torres as captain offers some narrative satisfaction as well. There’s something fitting about passing the torch from one great shortstop to another, especially since Torres has shown an early knack for coming through in the postseason pressure cooker, much in the same way Jeter burnished his own reputation. He’s certainly provided some significant moments in his short career already.
Teammates have raved about his maturity and attitude, and his comfort in interviews suggests he has the communication skills to blossom as a leader within the club. The early respect he’s won will likely grow into impressive stature among peers as he enters his prime.
Naming a pitcher as captain would certainly be unorthodox, but it’s not without precedent. From 1986 to 1988, Ron Guidry served as co-captain with Willie Randolph. And a Cole captaincy might offer good reasons to stray from the beaten path.
Signed through 2028, Cole will likely be with the team for the long haul. His recent dominance and his reputation for intensity, preparation, and devotion to detail would help set a lasting standard for professionalism that has been a hallmark of recent Yankees champions.
Although he is the new man in town, Cole has thrived on engaging teammates. Much digital ink was devoted this spring training to the in-depth discussions he held with both pitchers and position players. And his interaction with the press has been comfortable and savvy.
For example, when asked about his performances this spring, Cole described the pitches that “we” — as in he and Gary Sanchez — were executing. It was a small gesture, but a meaningful one.
Sanchez has at times come under fire for his defense, and his work with Cole will be highly scrutinized. One little word in the preseason helped preempt criticism, by defining every pitch as a joint venture with shared responsibility.
Ultimately, the Yankees don’t need a captain to succeed. Some of the greatest teams ever to don pinstripes did so without a player in that official capacity, including the dynasties of the 1950s and 1990s. Leaders will lead, with or without a formal title.
But the urge among some fans to anoint a new captain persists. In the absence of a recent World Series breakthrough, it feels like a desire to draw on the Yankees’ rich history to help push the team over the top.
Whether a new captain does the trick remains to be seen. But if any Yankee plays well enough to earn the honor, it could mean good things for the team’s title aspirations.