It’s marvelous how stories connect when you would least expect it. The first player inducted into our All-Supernova team was a center fielder for the best period of his career and our next nominee was one of the top first basemen in the history of this organization; yet in 1983, their careers overlapped.
When Bobby Murcer announced his retirement in the middle of the ‘83 campaign, it was because the Yankees needed someone to more capably fill in at that corner outfield spot. The ballclub announced that it was calling up a lefty-swinging Indiana native who was tearing through the minors in Triple-A Columbus with a .340 batting average and 37 runs batted in.
In no more than a year, a six-foot tall young hitter by the name of Don Mattingly had already established himself as one of the premier hitters in the game and fine defenders as well at first base. Donnie Baseball is the second selection to our All-Supernova squad.
Career NYY stats: 1,785 G, .307/.358/.471, 442 2B, 222 HR, 1,099 RBI, 127 OPS+, 42.4 rWAR
A career Yankee through and through, Mattingly was born in Evansville, Indiana on April 20th, 1961. The youngest of five, he tragically lost his oldest brother Jerry when the latter was 23 in a construction accident.
Later known for his hitting prowess, Mattingly credited his many hours playing Wiffle ball in the backyard and a conscious attempt to try and hit the ball the other way as a part of his skill with the bat in his hands. He was selected by the Yankees in the 19th round of the 1979 draft and exceeded expectations by crushing his way through the minors, debuting in late 1982 and earning a big-league spot for good the following year.
While Murcer’s demise was a little more murky, it is pretty well-established that the late ’80s/early ’90s back issues ultimately did Mattingly in, cutting short what was primed to be a Hall of Fame career. But through the period in which he was able to perform to the best of his abilities, Mattingly was a force to be reckoned with.
Between 1984, Mattingly’s first full season, and 1987, the first baseman made all four All-Star games, won three Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves each, one batting crown in 1984, one MVP award in 1985, and had another couple of top-five finishes. In 1986, he set Yankees franchise records for hits (238) and doubles (53), besting marks set by Hall of Famers Earle Combs and Lou Gehrig, respectively.
Here is Mattingly’s stat line throughout that period:
.337/.381/.560, 119 HR, 443 RBI, 201 BB, 147 K
Donnie Baseball led all of baseball in SLG, OPS, OPS+, and doubles. His 1,400 total bases are comfortably number one ahead of George Bell’s 1,303. During the last year of that stretch, Mattingly stamped his place in the big league record books with a couple unusual marks, too. First, he homered in eight consecutive games from July 8th through the 18th, tying a record set by Pittsburgh’s Dale Long in 1956. In the 35 years since then, only Ken Griffey Jr. has matched it.
By season’s end, Mattingly had racked up his grand slam total too. Although he’d never hit one before 1987 and would never hit one again, he’d belted five slams through September 25th, tying the record shared by Ernie Banks and Jim Gentile. Four days later, he got the opportunity to set a new plateau with six, and he did just that:
Cleveland’s Travis Hafner tied Mattingly with six slams of his own in 2006, but no one has passed them.
Mattingly was the best first baseman in the sport and likely the best hitter overall in baseball through a four-year run. The Yankees had two successful seasons in ‘85 and ‘86 sandwiched in between two mediocre years (for Yankees standards), but ran into elite competition with the Blue Jays and Red Sox winning the AL East with 99 and 95 wins respectively.
Such as it was with Murcer, under the prime of Mattingly’s career, the Yankees couldn’t achieve the pinnacle of success. However, a large part of why they were even competitive in that period was because of Mattingly.
A nine-time Gold Glove winner, three-time Silver Slugger, and former MVP, Donnie Baseball battled chronic back issues to play until he was 34, but it began to affect him much earlier than expected. By 1990, his play on the field was impacted as well, and while he bounced back to above-league-average production over the next few years, he never came close to those ‘80s years of excellence. Playing through pain, he finally reached the postseason in 1995 and hit .417/.440/.708 during his only playoff series, a heartbreaking loss to the Mariners.
Mattingly retired afterward, but he at least got to hear the Yankee Stadium crowd roar once more watching him go deep during his final game in the Bronx:
Mattingly was one of the Yankees’ all-time greats and even though his peak didn’t last long, he proved his talent while he could. His counting stats took a hit with a performance that didn’t reflect his full capabilities, but still managed to retire as a career .307 hitter and a .9959 fielding percentage, basically immune to errors.
Mattingly may not have had the premier slugging numbers of some other high-profile first basemen, outside of that four-year peak, but his strikeout numbers are a mockery to almost all other hitters. Mattingly never whiffed more than 43 times in a single season. He only had one campaign in which he had more strikeouts than walks.
Donnie Baseball was truly a savant with the bat in his hands. We can only wonder what could have been under better circumstances, but we should never lose sight and appreciation of what he was able to accomplish.