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The Greatest Living Yankee: A Modern History

Legends and greats have earned the mantle of “Greatest Living Yankee.”

Joe Dimaggio & Mickey Mantle Posing
The Yankee Clipper & The Commerce Comet

In the summer of 1969, on the eve of Major League Baseball’s 40th All-Star Game, and amidst baseball’s 100th anniversary, the game decided to honor its greats — current and former — at a centennial dinner that included over 2,300 guests. The dignitaries included a veritable who’s-who of government officials and titanic figures in baseball.

The ultimate honor that night went to Babe Ruth, named “The Greatest Player Ever.” The Bambino, though, was not the only Yankee legend to earn accolades. Joe DiMaggio, who had been retired since 1951, earned the moniker of “Greatest Living Ballplayer.”

In the interests of full disclosure, DiMaggio is perhaps my favorite figure in baseball’s rich history. As an aside, as we endure our current baseball desert, check out Kostya Kennedy’s book 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports (Sports Illustrated, 2011). Nonetheless, his selection as the preeminent living player in 1969 was a curious one.

I won’t go too deep down the rabbit hole of other choices, both retired and still active at the time. I would feel remiss though if I didn’t mention Red Sox legend Ted Williams and Stan “The Man” Musial, both retired, or if I neglected Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both active in 1969 and with plenty of eye-popping numbers and accolades.

Anyway, far be it from me to second-guess (although I guess I just did) the wisdom of those who bestowed The Yankee Clipper with the title that he insisted accompany his introduction throughout his life. But their choice catalyzed for me an interesting thought exercise, considering another Yankee legend who had a credible argument for “Greatest Living Ballplayer” in 1969. Specifically, what does the lineage of “Greatest Living Yankee” look like since that centennial dinner?

I suspect that most fans will probably agree that the inner circle, the Pantheon, the Mount Rushmore, the holiest of holies of Yankees legends consists of Ruth, Lou Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. The former duo had long passed by 1969 — Gehrig in 1941 from the disease that later bore his name, and Ruth from cancer seven years later. That leaves DiMaggio and Mantle. With my apologies to Joltin’ Joe, Mantle should have been the inaugural “Greatest Living Yankee.” DiMaggio will have to console himself with the honor awarded him at that actual dinner.

Mantle’s accolades speak for themselves. The greatest switch-hitter in baseball history, Triple Crown winner in 1956, three-time AL MVP, 536 home runs, and 16 All-Star Game appearances provide a robust body of work. And in another of baseball’s fascinating “what-if’s,” Mantle did all of it after severely injuring his right knee following an ugly stumble over an exposed drainpipe during his rookie season. It is entirely possible that Mantle played the remainder of his career with a torn ACL.

The Commerce Comet carried the — you’ll have to excuse me for this — mantle of “Greatest Living Yankee” until his death in 1995. In the years that preceded his passing, two other all-time great Yankees also died: pitcher Red Ruffing in 1986 and catcher Bill Dickey in 1993. ESPN considered Ruffing the 11th, and Dickey the 10th-greatest Yankees of all-time. Neither, though, held the title of “Greatest Living Yankee.” If Mantle had been given the honor that the deserved, DiMaggio would’ve only inherited the title in 1995 — one that he would’ve held until his passing in 1999.

With Mantle and DiMaggio gone, the nonpareil Yogi Berra became the “Greatest Living Yankee.” The diminutive backstop, like Mantle before him, boasted an eyebrow-raising list of accomplishments: 10 World Series titles, 18 All-Star Games, three AL MVPs (with four other top-four finishes), and 59.7 bWAR in pinstripes. That total was only surpassed by the aforementioned Mount Rushmore of Yankees legends and a fellow named Derek Sanderson Jeter.

Yogi remained the Greatest Living Yankee until his death in September 2015, a crushing and emotional loss. Berra had remained close to the club since his reconciliation with former owner George Steinbrenner in 1999. Berra’s friendship with Jeter late in the former’s life was a touching and vivid example of Yankee tradition and history, spanning generations as two ballplayers perhaps known most for winning forged a close bond.

After Yogi’s passing, our first pitcher likely stepped to the fore as the “Greatest Living Yankee.” Ace southpaw Whitey Ford retired with 236 wins, 6 World Series titles, 10 All-Star Games, a Cy Young Award, a higher winning percentage (.690) than any pitcher who can match his longevity (16 seasons), and workload (3,170.1 IP), and the most bWAR (53.5) of any starting pitcher in the club’s long history. And with Berra gone, he became the preeminent pinstriper until his death barely a year ago, in October 2020.

So where does that leave us now? With my apologies to Andy Pettitte, who boasts the most strikeouts in Yankee history, who is tied with Ford for most games started, and who trails only Ford among Yankees starting pitchers in bWAR, and Ford and Ruffing in wins and innings pitched, this is a two-man race.

Closer Mariano Rivera, the undisputed GOAT at his position, the first-ever unanimous MLB Hall of Famer, and the man with perhaps the coolest statistic in all of baseball – more men have walked on the moon than have scored against Rivera in the postseason — or Jeter, the Captain, the Hall of Famer, the last man likely to ever wear a single-digit, non-zero jersey number as a New York Yankee.

If we want to be boring about it, I guess we can just look at bWAR. Rivera tops all Yankees pitchers with 56.3. Jeter though, accumulated 71.3, even after WAR penalized his defense. If you’re wondering how much that defensive penalty is, consider that if WAR only considered offensive performance, Jeter racked up 96.3 bWAR in his career, fourth in Yankees history, and considerably ahead of DiMaggio (74.5). In a semi-ironic twist, Jeter, far from a sabermetric darling (although PSA’s own Joshua Diemert is pushing back against that), clearly outpaces Rivera.

When we look at Win Probability Added (WPA), however, Rivera re-asserts himself. Rivera ranks fifth all-time in the metric among pitchers (and first among relievers) with 56.6, behind only Lefty Grove, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Warren Spahn. Meanwhile, Jeter ranks 124th among position players with 30.9 WPA.

But numbers don’t tell entire stories. The Captain, with The Flip, Mr. November, The Dive, the five-hit performance on the day he reached 3,000 hits, and countless other Jeterian moments, is veritably surrounded by aura and legend.

But then… so is Rivera. Again: More men have walked on the Moon than have scored a run against Mo in the postseason. Incredible. The most saves in history. His entrance from the bullpen to “Enter Sandman.” The indescribable psychic relief for Yankees fans seeing No. 42 come in to put games to bed. The importance of No. 42. Rivera is the third (after Jackie Robinson and Bruce Sutter) and, barring something unforeseen, final man to go into the Hall of Fame with that number. It is highly unlikely that we ever see another ballplayer wear 42 except on Jackie Robinson Day. If any modern Yankee can match Jeter’s mythos, it is Mariano.

I am going to take the copout exit ramp, and as a wannabe historian, claim I am too close — both temporally and in terms of emotional attachment — to make a definitive choice the way I did with Mantle over DiMaggio half a century ago. I suspect there is no real wrong answer between Jeter and Rivera for “Greatest Living Yankee.”

We are unbelievably fortunate that these two contemporaries played and won together and enable us to debate their titanic merits. We’re also blessed by the next tier of Bronx Bombers who would have a credible claim to Greatest Living Yankee in a timeline where Jeter and Rivera chose other paths in life. Andy Pettitte, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Bernie Williams, Alex Rodriguez, and others all achieved greatness in pinstripes. It is no fault of their own that the stars of Jeter and Rivera burn so brightly, perhaps more than almost any of their Yankee predecessors or teammates.