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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #21 Graig Nettles

A golden defender at the hot corner, “Puff” was a catalyst for the Yankees’ long-awaited return to glory and remains one of the great underrated players in MLB history.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees

Full Name: Graig Nettles
Position: Third baseman
Born: August 20, 1944 (San Diego, CA)
Yankee Years: 1973-83
Primary number: 9
Yankee statistics: 1,535 games, 6,248 PA, .253/.329/.433, 250 HR, 750 R, 834 RBI, 115 wRC+, 44.4 rWAR, 43.6 fWAR

Biography

The Bronx Zoo era of the Yankees boasted a colorful cast of characters, and while he may never have played the lead role, Graig Nettles was nonetheless integral to returning the franchise to its former glory. An exemplar of defense at the hot corner and with a powerful left-handed swing to boot, Nettles’ performances on the biggest stage ushered in a new era in the Bronx and captured an eternal spot in fans’ hearts.

Upbringing in San Diego

Graig Nettles was born the second of three sons to Wayne Nettles, a former police officer and high school teacher. Nettles was destined for notability from the minute his name was chosen, his mother settling on Graig due to her dislike of the names Greg and Craig. With his father away on active duty in World War II, his mother would face no opposition in the unique choice of name.

“My dad was away at the war, so he didn’t have any say.”

Nettles attended San Diego High School, where he was a standout dual athlete in basketball and baseball, earning a scholarship to play the former at San Diego State University. As he put on muscle, he realized he had lost a step on the basketball court, but also discovered added power on the baseball diamond and so made the switch by his upperclassman years.

It was while playing semi-pro baseball for the Alaska Goldpanners in Fairbanks over the summers that he attracted the attention of scout Pete Coscarart, who impressed by Nettles’ power recommended the young infielder to the Twins, who drafted him in the fourth round of the inaugural 1965 amateur draft.

Quick rise through the minors

Nettles hit the ground running in the Twins’ minor league system, clubbing 28 home runs in his first taste of pro ball in 1966. This earned him a call-up to the Double-A squad where his bat a glove continued to play, culminating in his big league debut on September 6, 1967, though he would only log three pinch-hit appearances.

He opened the 1968 season with the Triple-A Denver Bears, where he’d meet future manager, mentor, and friend Billy Martin, himself appointed manager of the minor league squad in May. In truth, the relationship got off to a rocky start not at all prophetic of the bond they’d share later with the Yankees.

“The first month or so, I didn’t like Billy. To be more precise; I hated him. He didn’t think much of me on the field, and he would take me out for defense. He jumped all over me. He would yell and scream at me. He’d scream right in the dugout in front of the other players after you came in from the field. ‘What the hell is wrong with your brain? Are you a dummy? Damn it, why didn’t you take the extra base?’ I never had a manager do that.”

It was only after witnessing Martin’s genius managing from the dugout that Nettles discovered a newfound respect and admiration for his manager’s knack of winning baseball games. Under Martin’s tutelage, Nettles earned Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year honors while also being named to the league’s All-Star team. This would again earn him a September call-up during which he’d record his first big league hit as part of a seven game hitting streak that included five home runs. His performances dried up as big league pitchers adjusted how they were attacking him.

“The pitchers started curving me and letting up and getting me off stride. I’m a fastball hitter and now I am going to have to learn to hit the curve. It’s something you can’t learn in the batting cage when you know what’s coming.”

However, despite finishing the season batting .224 in 22 games, Nettles had done more than enough to ensure he would never play a minor league game again.

Early years in Minnesota and Cleveland

With Martin’s promotion to big league manager in 1969, he brought his promising youngster with him. Nettles saw most of his time roaming the outfield, only occasionally giving eventual AL MVP Harmon Killebrew the day off at third. The team would capture the pennant in the newly-formed AL West by nine games over the A’s, only to be swept by the Orioles in the very first American League Championship Series. Nettles finished the season batting .222 in 96 games, recording a hit in his only at-bat of the postseason, a pinch-hit single off Jim Palmer in the ninth inning of the Twins’ 11-2 Game 3 loss.

With Killebrew still firmly entrenched at third, the Twins deemed Nettles surplus to requirements and dealt him to Cleveland alongside Dean Chance, Ted Uhlaender, and a player to be named later for Luis Tiant and Stan Williams on December 10, 1969. Curiously, rumors that he could not field third followed Nettles to Cleveland, but manager Alvin Dark proclaimed his confidence in his new third baseman.

“Those were only unfounded rumors I heard during the winter meetings. They were passed along by guys who never saw Nettles get a full chance to play. I am convinced he can play, he is our third baseman. Not only can Graig make all the plays, he throws strikes to first base.”

To Nettles, the faith shown by his new manager despite never playing a game under him allowed him to flourish in his now full-time role.

“When I got here and Alvin said he was going to stick with me no matter what happened, I stopped fighting the ball so much and now I’m able to relax and play what I believe is my normal game.”

Indeed, Nettled would prove his doubters wrong, leading the AL with a .967 fielding percentage in his debut season in Cleveland while also leading the team with 26 home runs. He’d follow it up by again leading the team with 28 home runs and 86 RBI in 1971, only for the team to finish in last, 43 games out of first place.

All-world defender

Over the next few seasons, Nettles would firmly entrench himself as one of the best defenders — not only active but in history — at third base. During this time, his name would become inextricably linked with Brooks Robinson, a player Nettles idolized. Nettles’ exploits at the hot corner could not escape Mr. Hoover himself, Robinson declaring that Nettles had a case as the greatest fielding third baseman of all time.

In 1971, Nettles set the MLB record for most assists by a third baseman in a single season, his mark of 412 besting the previous record of 405 held jointly by Robinson and Harland Clift. He’d also break Clete Boyer’s Yankees franchise record of 396 assists by a third baseman by converting 410 in 1973. As if preordained, Nettles and Robinson would finish tied for the second-most assists by any defender in MLB history.

Trade to the Yankees

Playing under new Cleveland manager Ken Aspromonte in 1972, things soured for Nettles as he was often pinch-hit for facing left-handed pitchers.

“I can hit lefties, but suddenly he doesn’t believe it. I’ve hit them for two years. My records prove that. I thought I established that under Al Dark for two years. This is ruining my confidence. Ken tells me in meetings that he has confidence in me. But every time it’s a crucial situation and a lefty is pitching, I’m out of there. I’m supposed to be cleanup, the fourth hitter. I might as well be ninth, if I’m gonna be yanked every time we need a big hit.”

This along with Cleveland’s perennial position as bottom-dwellers in the AL East led Nettles to push for a trade, and though Cleveland general manager Gabe Paul was reluctant at first, he ultimately dealt the third baseman alongside Jerry Moses for Charlie Spikes, John Ellis, Jerry Kenney, and Rusty Torres following the conclusion of the 1972 season.

At the time of Nettles’ trade to the Yankees, the once-proud organization was mired in a decade of mediocrity under CBS ownership. His arrival alongside the arrival of a new ownership group led by George Steinbrenner ushered in the start of a new era in the Bronx, the latter providing the investment and must-win mindset that indelibly changed the course of the franchise. Despite Steinbrenner bringing in Paul — who had just traded away Nettles months earlier — as his general manger, Nettles could not have been more thrilled about the move.

“If I could have picked the spot I wanted to go, it would have been the Yankees. I always wanted to play for New York and for Ralph Houk. I hope I’ll satisfy the team and be here for ten years or so.”

The Bronx Zoo and back-to-back championships

New York Yankees Graig Nettles, 1978 World Series Set Number: X22789 TK2

Nettles’ career would reach new heights in the Bronx. He finished 1973 batting .234/.334/.386 with 22 home runs and 81 RBI in 160 games, but a fun ongoing story was his personal mission to dominate his previous club. In early 1974, he crushed four home runs and drove in seven during a doubleheader in Cleveland on April 14th. In fact, Nettles’ first six home runs of the season would come against his former employers as part of an 11-homer binge in his first 22 games. He’d only hit 11 more the rest of the way out, finishing the year with a .246/.316/.403 triple slash, again tallying 22 bombs.

The Yankees had improved their fortunes in ‘74, though would miss out on the playoffs finishing two games behind the Orioles. A rather unsavory episode occurred toward the end of the year, Nettles getting called out after a broken-bat single revealed an altered bat. Accounts differ as to what was in the bat, varying from a garden-variety corked bat to one that contained six superballs that came bouncing out, though Nettles maintained his ignorance of how he came to use the bat.

“I didn’t know there was anything wrong with the bat. That was the first time I used it. Some Yankees fan in Chicago gave it to me and said it would bring me good luck. There’s no brand name on it or anything. Maybe the guy made it himself. It had been in the bat rack, and I picked it up by mistake, because it looked like the bat I had been using the last few days.”

Nettles even got the last laugh, his solo home run earlier in the game being upheld and proving the difference in a 1-0 victory over the Tigers.

1975 saw a relative repeat performance in the power department though he did mange to push his average up over 20 points from the season prior en route to the first of six All-Star selections.

Never a high average guy, Nettles provided a justification that would foretell a shift in the way we understand value in baseball many years later.

“I am convinced that batting averages are the most overrated statistics in baseball. Many people say fielding averages are meaningless primarily because they award the fielder who neither covers ground nor takes chances. I’ll exchange a hit any time for driving in a run with either a sacrifice fly or an infield grounder. A player who scores runs and drives them home is the type of player who helps his club. Who would you rather have, a .300 hitter with 45 ribbies or a .250 hitter with 75?”

More importantly, that season inaugurated the free agent era, allowing Steinbrenner to begin assembling his championship roster by gradually bringing in the likes of Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Goose Gossage on lucrative contracts while also adding Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa, and Bucky Dent via savvy deals by Paul and company. They joined captain Thurman Munson, closer Sparky Lyle, ascendant southpaw Ron Guidry, and Nettles’ fellow trade acquisitions Lou Piniella and Chris Chambliss to give New York a true contender.

The following season would be Nettles’ most productive in the bigs, his 32 home runs leading the AL in ‘76. He finished the year batting .254/.327/.475 with a career-high 136 wRC+, his 8.1 fWAR the highest ever mark for a Yankees third baseman until Alex Rodriguez put up 9.1 in 2005. The season culminated in the Yankees’ first World Series appearance since 1964, though they would be summarily swept by the Reds.

All of this provided the perfect lead up to a 1977 season which saw Nettles slug a career-best 37 home runs and 107 RBI, securing his second All-Star nod, first Gold Glove, and a fifth-place finish in MVP balloting. The Yankees would again meet the Royals in the ALCS, winning a tightly contested series three games to two, New York scoring three runs in the top of the ninth to complete the Game 5 comeback victory. Though Nettles was largely invisible at the plate that postseason — batting .171 with no home runs and three RBI in 43 plate appearances — the Yankees would capture their first title in 15 years. He at least got to turn the twin killing that clinched the pennant in Kansas City.

1978 saw some slight regression in the slugging department for Nettles, but he did make up for it by getting on base more frequently. He finished with a .276/.343/.460 triple slash line — the highest average of his career — to go along with 27 home runs and 93 RBI. He secured consecutive All-Star and Gold Glove nods and would finish sixth in the AL MVP race. Nettles caught the popup from Carl Yastrzemski at sunny Fenway Park that ended the incredible Game 163 between the Yankees and Red Sox, and he went yard as New York again dispatched KC in the ALCS.

That World Series, however, would see his legend as a defender immortalized. Trailing the Dodgers two games to none, Nettles almost single-handedly prevented the Dodgers from scoring on a night when the ace and eventual Cy Young winner Guidry did not have his best stuff.

Trailing 2-1 in the top of the third inning with a runner on first, the Dodgers’ Reggie Smith hit a missile down the third-base line that Nettles snagged on a dive to his right before throwing Smith out at first base. In the fifth inning Smith came up again, this time with runners on first and second and two out. He lined a rocket at Nettles, but the third baseman managed to knock it down, holding Smith to a single and loading the bases. The next batter Steve Garvey hit another smash at Nettles, who gloved it from his knees before spinning and throwing to second for the force out. The Dodgers loaded the bases one final time in the sixth inning but again Nettles played stopper, throwing to second for a force out to strand all three ducks on the pond.

It was one of the all-time great defensive performances in the Fall Classic, Guidry and Smith showering praise on their third baseman. “I had to go with something else tonight. I picked on a man who is dependable,” said Guidry, while the losing Smith declared, “It’s Dodgers 2, Nettles 1. If we hadn’t been losing, I may have applauded myself.” New York went on to win the next three games to secure back-to-back titles.

Duality of Personality

Over the course of his career, Nettles earned a reputation for his acerbic wit which helped produce some of the most memorable one-liners in Yankees history. In his debut season in Cleveland, he humorously wrote “E-5” on his glove in reference to the doubters. He earned the nickname “Puff” in reference to the way he would disappear after playing a practical joke on a teammate.

A lot of his most famous lines came from the thorny relationship he had with Steinbrenner by the end of his Yankees tenure. In one instance, Steinbrenner criticized Nettles for gaining weight, to which Nettles replied in the media, “It’s a good thing Babe Ruth still isn’t here. If he was, George would have him hit seventh and say he’s overweight.” Later in his book, Nettles would comment, “The more we lose, the more Steinbrenner will fly in. And the more he flies, the better the chance there will be a plane crash.” Perhaps most famous of all, in describing his time with the Yankees, Nettles declared, “When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees I have accomplished both.”

Despite this acrimony between player and owner, Nettles’ teammates never lost sight of the value he brought to the clubhouse.

“Graig Nettles was great with the one-liners, the zingers...He was the team’s pressure valve...Every clubhouse needs a guy like that, the guy with the acerbic wit who can take your mind off a bad situation.”

It is therefore fascinating that the team’s practical joker was also one of its fiercest combatants. Never one to shy away from a fight, Nettles was center stage in a handful of the most memorable brawls in MLB history. In a May 20, 1976 game against the Red Sox, Carlton Fisk ignited a brawl after he swung at Piniella following a collision at the plate. Both benches cleared, and in the melee, Nettles body slammed Bill “Spaceman” Lee and ground his pitching arm into the dirt, breaking Lee’s collarbone.

“If it was just a fight, then that would be okay,” Lee said. “I don’t mind the jolt on the back of the neck and the black eye. But Nettles shouldn’t have been grinding my shoulder like that – that’s what I don’t like. I’m not the kind of guy to hold a grudge. But I’m going to rest for six weeks and drill Nettles and drill Rivers,” to which Nettles responded, “That was an accident and in a mob scene. Besides, he shouldn’t complain. I hurt his shoulder. He earns his living with his mouth. It would have been worse if I had broken his jaw and it had to be wired shut for a few days.”

A year later came one of the most famous postseason brawls in history. In the first inning of Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS, George Brett slid hard into Nettles at third on a triple, prompting Nettles to kick the future Hall of Famer in the face. Brett would note later on that the two were normally friends, but in the heat of the moment, both players proceeded to unleash haymakers at each other before being tackled to the ground in a brawl that somehow ended in no players getting ejected.

Nettles would get his revenge on Brett six years later in the infamous Pine Tar game. Remembering an incident from 1975 when the Twins invoked the obscure rule — that bats could not be treated with a sticky substance past eighteen inches from their base — against Munson, Nettles urged Martin to notify the umpires of the illegality of Brett’s bat following his game winning home run in the ninth.

Brett’s home run was ruled an out, giving the Yankees the victory and causing Brett to come chasing out of the dugout at umpire Tim McClelland (Brett would get the last laugh in this instance as AL president Lee MacPhail upheld the Royals’ protest and ordered the game be resumed from the point following Brett’s home run, resulting in a 5-4 Kansas City victory).

A final incident saw Nettles involved in the notorious “Padres-Braves Beanball Game” of 1984 in which multiple players were plunked. Three separate brawls occurred during the game, one ignited by Nettles when he charged the mound after Donnie Moore beaned him, only to be tackled and sat upon by former teammate Chambliss. A total of 17 players and both managers were fined and five players were suspended.

Final years in pinstripes

1979 saw the tragic passing of Thurman Munson in a plane crash, and Nettles was never the same player after.

“It was the first real tragedy that I had had in my life, and I didn’t accept it well. I broke down and cried like a baby. I thought we would be friends forever. When his plane crashed, so did our season. We didn’t feel much like playing the rest of the year.”

Missing half the 1980 season with hepatitis followed by the strike-shortened 1981 season robbed Nettles of the final years of his prime, though he did earn ALCS MVP honors in ‘81 by batting .500 with nine RBI in a sweep of Oakland.

The Yankees met the Dodgers again for the Fall Classic, but there would be no Nettles heroics this time. He broke his thumb diving for a ball in Game 2, failing to make it back until the series got back to the Bronx. In his absence, the Yankees lost all three games in LA, blowing a 2-0 series lead. Somehow, Nettles went 2-for-3 with a double despite the injury, but New York lost Game 6 anyway. He would never play in another Yankees postseason game.

Meanwhile, things continued to sour between him and Steinbrenner. Though the owner did name Nettles Munson’s successor as captain, he followed it with a backhand compliment stating “Nettles is in the twilight of his career, and if he never plays another game for me, he has earned more than what I have paid him.”

Nettles’ disillusionment grew, exacerbated by disagreements in contract talks and getting platooned at third, until the release of his infamous book Balls, which like Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo called a swift end to Nettles’ tenure in pinstripes, Steinbrenner sending him to his hometown Padres for Dennis Rasmussen and a PTBNL.

“I was happy to get away from New York. The owner said things about me being a destructive force on the club, so why play for a guy who keeps sniping at you? I finally had enough of him. I’ll always be a Yankee. I love those guys. I love the team, and I’ll always root for them.”

Nettles hit at least 20 homers for the 11th time in his career, helping Tony Gwynn and the ‘84 Padres on a surprising run to the National League pennant — the first in San Diego history. They were no match for the mighty 104-win Tigers in the World Series though, and the Padres’ magic was gone by ‘85.

Nettles bounced between the Padres, Braves, and Expos in his final five seasons before retiring in 1988 at the age of 43. During this time, he found brief renewed popularity after being mentioned at the end of the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”

Nettles is likely one of the biggest Hall of Fame snubs of the last half-century, his 67.9 rWAR the highest mark for a third baseman not enshrined in Cooperstown. His 390 home runs ranked 24th in MLB history at the time of his retirement, trailing only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, and Darrell Evans among regular third basemen. Nettles still sits in the top-15 in Yankees history in both iterations of position player WAR, and he’s one of just 11 Bombers to hit at least 250 homers with the team. He was removed from the BBWAA ballot after earning just 4.7 percent of the vote in 1996, and has fallen short of consideration on multiple Veterans Committees.

Regardless, thanks to his sparkling play with the glove, leadership on the field, and postseason heroics, Nettles remains a staunch fan-favorite among the generation lucky enough to watch the Yankees teams of the Bronx Zoo era. You’ll have to ask the Yankees why he hasn’t been honored in Monument Park because he’s not sure, either. It’s a shame, but it won’t stop the fans from appreciating everything Nettles did for those excellent ballclubs.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Staff rank: 21
Community rank: 28
Stats rank: 18
2013 rank: 20

References

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

ESPN. “Biggest Cheaters in Baseball,” May 12, 2002.

FanGraphs

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Stewart, Wayne. Wits, Flakes, and Clowns: The Colorful Characters of Baseball. March 11, 2020.

Wancho, Joseph. SABR Bio

Wishnow, Matty. “Graig Nettles ‘Vigilante,’” Past Prime. https://www.pastpri.me/home/graig-nettles-vigilante

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