Name: Mickey Rivers
Position: Center field
Born: October 30, 1948 (Miami, FL)
Yankee Years: 1976-79
Primary number: 17
Yankee statistics: 490 G, .299/.324/.422, 92 2B, 26 3B, 34 HR, 93 SB, 73.8 SB%, 110 wRC+, 15.1 rWAR, 12.6 fWAR
On the field, he was a picture-perfect leadoff hitter. As the Yankees’ primary base-stealing threat for the World Series champion teams of 1977 and 1978, he and Willie Randolph set the table for the big boppers like Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, and Graig Nettles. Every power hitter needs a leadoff man, and Mickey set up his sluggers for success with a high batting average and plenty of stolen bases during his three-plus years in a Yankee uniform. His flamboyant persona captivated audiences and teammates wherever he went, and he engendered himself as a media darling in the Bronx — Rivers had a way of spreading joy to everyone around him through his mere presence.
There will be another center fielder named Mickey a little higher on this list, but for now let’s remember “Mick the Quick” and his indelible contributions toward two consecutive championships in the “Bronx Zoo” era of the late 1970s.
(As an aside, Mickey’s 75th birthday was yesterday! Happy birthday, Mick!)
Asleep in the Florida sun
Rivers had to overcome a rough upbringing in the Miami area, but even early in his life he showed the simple wisdom that he’d become famous for. In his own words, “there was nothing on the streets but trouble,” so he dedicated himself to honing his incredible athletic gifts. Rivers excelled as an amateur athlete for Miami Northwestern High School. He stayed local for college, dominating the JuCo ranks at Miami Dade College for two seasons. His legacy is still felt in the Florida JuCo scene thanks to being named in 1999 to the National Junior College All-Century Team and the Florida Community College All-Time team.
His “Mick the Quick” nickname was more than just a comment on his blazing speed and base-stealing prowess, but his endearing shiftiness as a person too. The origin of the nickname goes back to his days at Miami Dade, where the story goes he was once found sleeping under a tree unbothered after missing the beginning of a game. Some would say flaky, but I prefer eccentric.
It was more common for players to be drafted multiple times back then, and Rivers was actually drafted four separate times as a talented college prospect, and eventually signed as the 40th pick overall in 1969 by the Braves. He wasted no time, flashing the skills that’d make him a formidable big-league spark plug from his first season in pro ball. After hitting .307/.464/.511 with 31 steals in 67 games on the Pioneer League’s Magic Valley Cowboys, Rivers’ prospect pedigree soared and he was traded for the first of three times in his career. The Braves, seeking pitching help, sent the 20-year-old to the West Coast with the California Angels along with pitching prospect Clint Compton in a September 8th deal for veteran knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm and Bob Priddy.
Rivers continued tearing up several levels of the minor leagues with the Angels, and when he proved himself at Double-A El Paso in the Texas League in 1970, the Halos called him up to the show at age 21. As a young player, he was shuttled up and down from the Angels to Triple-A Salt Lake City until he finally won a partial job late in ‘73. He hit .349/.391/.457 in 141 plate appearances with eight stolen bases in 30 games. His initial success led the Angels to pencil him in for 118 games in 1974, and with consistent playing time, Mick began to establish himself as one of baseball’s premier speed threats and defensive center fielders.
Rivers built on his modestly successful ‘74 and vaulted to stardom for California, playing a career-high 155 games in 1975, recording just a 6.3 percent strikeout rate while swiping an eye-popping 70 bases. Yankees general manager Gabe Paul saw a star blossoming on the West Coast and decided to take action.
On December 11, 1975, Paul pulled off two trades that would make a huge impact on Billy Martin’s team and pave the way for two championships. Starter Doc Medich was sent to the Pirates for pitchers Ken Brett and Dock Ellis in addition to diamond-in-the-rough second baseman Willie Randolph, and Bobby Bonds was dealt to the Angels for Rivers and starter Ed Figueroa. And thus, the Zoo was open for business.
The Bronx Zoo
Once assembled prior to 1976, the late 1970s Yankees were stacked with talent and many names we’ll see in this Top 100 list (I promise). A formidable pitching staff including bullpen ace Sparky Lyle, free agent addition Catfish Hunter, and strikeout artist Ron Guidry complemented a powerful lineup anchored by Jackson, Munson, Nettles, and more. And with Rivers, they had their leadoff man.
Rivers was jazzed to be a Yankee, too. “My favorite players (as a youngster) were Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris,” Rivers said. “I’ve always wanted to be up there someday and try to do better than those guys.” From the beginning, he keenly appreciated his responsibility as not only a player, but a Yankee.
Mickey’s first year with the Yankees, 1976, coincided with a huge improvement — the team won 97 games with their new-look roster after just 83 wins the year before. His personal success mirrored the team’s; Rivers’ career best 5.5 fWAR came that year. A strong .310/.322/.448 first half with 20 doubles and 25 stolen bases earned him the only All-Star selection of his career.
The speedy center fielder’s 43 steals in 50 attempts made for a league-best 86 percent stolen base percentage. Rivers also played better defense than he ever had before in his career, leading to a 1.5 dWAR when measured by modern metrics. He finished third in AL MVP voting and the Yankees won the AL East to clinch their first playoff berth in 12 years. Rivers anchored the top of the lineup, leading the way from a dark age to a new beginning in Yankees history. The Yankees actually voted Rivers team MVP over his teammate and captain, Thurman Munson, despite the fact that the latter was the winner of the AL MVP. Rivers was more than a complementary piece — in ‘76, he became an outspoken clubhouse leader in a locker room full of esteemed veterans. The term “glue guy” wasn’t around then, but Mickey certainly fit the description in his own way.
Mickey’s fingerprints were all over the hard-fought ALCS — he had a multi-hit game in the opener, and in the decisive Game 5, Rivers came up big, going 4-for-5 with a triple with three runs scored out of the Yankees’ seven. Now that’s a spark plug.
By the end of that season, Rivers was regarded as a key cog of the Zoo. In the end, ‘76 would turn out badly with the Yankees being swept in the World Series by the Cincinnati “Big Red Machine” team in their last year of dominance, but it was an encouraging year that preceded a historic one for the organization.
During this time, Rivers’ personal demons started to overtake him — he’d gamble away his paycheck almost immediately on horse racing after receiving it, and his wife Mary even requested that George Steinbrenner mail his checks directly to her. They had spats in public, and the second baseman Randolph told a story about Mary playing demolition derby with his car in the players’ parking lot of Yankee Stadium. In the middle of the World Series. Safe to say these incidents didn’t quite vibe with the buttoned-up Yankee way of olden times. Mickey produced on the field, though, and all was forgiven.
After the defeat to the Reds, the Yankees came out firing in 1977 and won 100 games. Rivers’ carefree personality didn’t stop him from locking in when the lights were brightest. During his three years in pinstripes, Rivers hit .308 in 124 postseason plate appearances, including several huge clutch moments in the 1977 ALCS against the Royals, the middle match of an epic three consecutive ALCS matchups between the two teams. Rivers made an impact in all three series, including this Mantle-esque catch in ‘77 on the way to a championship:
In the Fall Classic, Rivers slumped again to a .222/.222/.296 triple slash against the Dodgers, but the Yankees were able to prevail behind World Series MVP Reggie Jackson and Mickey got his first ring.
Mickey had a down year to start 1978, and so did the team, but both had much better second halves and the Yankees roared back to force a one-game playoff at Fenway Park. Here’s Mickey swiping second in that game to give you a sense of his speed:
The Yankees took the momentum of the division title and carried it to another championship. Rivers showed up once again, hitting .379/.419/.379 in nine games, finally complementing another superb ALCS (.455/.538/.455 in four games) with a solid World Series against the Dodgers. For a second year in a row, Rivers and his teammates were world champions.
1979 would mark the end of Rivers’ distinguished Yankees tenure. After a lackluster first half, the Yankees traded him to the Texas Rangers in a big trade for Oscar Gamble. Three days after the trade was announced, Munson tragically perished in a plane crash and the Yankees entered another dark age as Mickey was jettisoned to the Rangers.
Mickey was less than enthused about the Texas weather: “It was so hot today, I saw a dog chasing a cat, and the dog was walkin’.” He also brought his habit of casually ribbing his teammates down South, saying: “These guys are so old, most of them qualify for Meals on Wheels!”
The deal worked out for both teams, as Gamble played five and a half more years in New York with a 143 OPS+ and Rivers set the Rangers’ single-season record for hits in 1980 with 210. Rivers hit .303/.327/.397 over the next five and a half seasons with the Rangers, but injuries caught up with him slowly after his age-32 season in 1981.
After inconsistency and aging, Rivers hung up the cleats at age 35. Rivers retired as a .295/.327/.397 hitter in 1,468 games over 15 seasons with 267 stolen bases and 32.3 rWAR accumulated to go along with two World Series rings. Rivers’ job during his Yankee tenure was to get on base, swipe a bag and let the big boys do their thing, and he filled the role to perfection.
A Way With Words
On a team of distinct personalities, Rivers was perhaps the most distinct. He served as both the steady leadoff man and the primary jokester keeping things light in a pressure-packed clubhouse. A lot of merited seriousness pervaded the culture of the Yankees in the late 1970s — the captain Munson was all leader-of-men business, and Jackson often cultivated an intensely serious demeanor to match his intimidating stature. Reggie was a man who leaned into his own candy-bar-worthy mythology, and Mickey’s biting wit kept Reggie honest time and time again.
The Yankee leadoff man had a way of getting under Mr. October’s skin, and everyone else’s, too. One of his most famous quips concerned Reggie’s full name, Reginald Martinez Jackson: “No wonder you’re so messed up. You got a white man’s first name, a Spanish man’s middle name, and a black man’s last name!” Rivers’ enigmatic manner of speech rivaled Yogi Berra’s, who himself is baseball’s all-time one-liner king. Gems include everything from his assessment of breezy conditions (“The wind was blowing about 100 degrees”) to estimation of behemoth teammate Cliff Johnson (“He’s so ugly he should have to wear an oxygen mask”). About Bucky Dent’s famous home run in that 1978 one-game playoff: “The wind was blowing east to west, so it must have gone backwards in time.”
His first MLB manager with the Angels, Bobby Winkles, put it bluntly and perhaps best: “He’s beyond description.”
He’s been a constant presence at Old Timers’ Day since 1988. Bill James ranked Rivers the 59th-greatest center fielder in MLB history in his 2002 Historical Baseball Abstract. Mick the Quick excelled as a player and a clubhouse leader in his own way, and his contributions proved integral to two of the best Yankees teams of all time.
Staff rank: 93
Community rank: 78
Stats rank: 100
2013 rank: 98
Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.