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The PSA Top 100 Yankees: One writer’s reflections, methods, and choices

What decisions go into distilling a famous Yankee career into a couple thousand words?

Bob Meusel with Babe Ruth and Earle Combs

This week, we finally finished our ongoing Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees series. It was an intellectually fascinating exercise on my end, not least for the challenge of ranking players across position, tenure length, and era of baseball, among other factors. As the comments section made regularly clear, there was no pleasing everyone, and the top five got particularly contentious except for the literal GOAT at No. 1.

With the series completed, I wanted to circle around and explain my research and writing process. On the writing side, we had a word limit to work with throughout that affected what we included in articles and what got omitted. In some cases, Dellin Betances’ for example (my first write-up), it was not overly onerous to distill his career into around 2,000 words.

But when I reached the end and stared at the daunting task of writing Joe DiMaggio, I realized immediately my fool’s errand of having to decide what to include and what to exclude. And that was with me getting Andrew to allow me 3,500 words.

From a research standpoint, some of our players had SABR bios written and others didn’t. And for the inner circle, entire books have been written. For example, go read Richard Ben Cramer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Joltin’ Joe, if you haven’t already. Or, if you prefer, head to PBS and watch the “American Experience” documentary from 2000.

Finally, there were the players, and I had one, who was so controversial that there was no choice but to spend time on the elephant in the room. In that case, the trade-off became giving proper credit to their Yankee career while adequately addressing any glaring historical shortcomings.

Researching the Top 100

To start, I found myself cursing my lack of foresight for, long before I started writing at PSA, leaving most of my Yankee library 1,000 miles north in Canada. That said, there was no shortage of secondary source research material. My first stop was the Society of American Baseball Researchers’ biographies of select players. This was its own problem, though. It was entirely too easy to fall into a trap of unconsciously mirroring SABR biographies’ rhythm. Same problem for the numerous monographs written on Yankee subjects.

Former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre at Barnes and Nobl Photo by Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

I’m certain my primary research process is different from at least some of our other writers. I’m an historian by trade, a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. Primary sources are my jam. So, for all these players, my first stop was the New York Times. I pay semi-good money annually for access not just to the Times, but also to its archives.

Heading there was never a poor decision when it came time for the PSA Top 100. It’s one thing to know that Joe DiMaggio was facing a foot issue that might delay his rookie season. It’s another to know the name of the doctor who was treating him and the page and placement of that article. And on other occasions, an article on one player served double duty, discussing a history of trade talks involving multiple players who ended up on the countdown.

And sometimes you think you’ve found a great primary source, which is one of the great thrills of archival research. When I ran across the “FEDS AFTER PECKINPAUGH” headline in the Times, I excitedly wondered what skullduggery I’d run across and how I could incorporate it. Alas, “Feds” in this context meant the Federal League trying to poach Peck, not that he had run afoul of Washington, D.C. Good for Roger, disappointing for my inner researcher.

Baseball Magazine Cover With Bancroft & Peckinpaugh

Writing the Top 100

What goes into a Top-100 piece? What do you leave out? These are the decisions you make while mapping out a plan. In some cases, it’s relatively easy. Dellin Betances didn’t feel like I omitted much. Ditto for Ben Chapman. Higher on the rankings, I felt like I did Brett Gardner justice. But Jorge? Guidry? Dear Lord… DiMaggio. A lot of these pieces could have gone on forever (RIP Andrew, Jake, and Madison if they hadn’t kept us under control).

The longest, and most recent, piece I wrote was on the Clipper. And that’s what inspired me to write this post-mortem. DiMaggio is an infinitely more complex human being than anyone can present in one article. But without going extremely long-form (again, Cramer won a Pulitzer for his biography and there are numerous other monographs on Joltin’ Joe), it’s impossible to delve into everything. And I didn’t want to pay lip service to the complexities of DiMaggio, while for all intents and purposes glossing over them. There are other pieces that delve into, for example, his turbulent relationship with Marilyn Monroe.

So, the DiMaggio piece probably reads like a hagiography (Posada’s too, because I didn’t want to constantly harp on his defense or dedicate precious words to the tumultuous final year of his career). But for the overwhelming majority of the players we were discussing, we were almost exclusively celebrating their Yankee careers and their importance to the organization and its history. Occasionally, someone cropped up whose dark side demanded adequate attention.

The (Ben) Chapman Dilemma

I wasn’t originally signed up for Chapman, if memory serves. I traded into that slot and only remembered Chapman’s ignominious history with Jackie Robinson after doing so. Moreover, I had no idea about the petition signed by roughly 15,000 New Yorkers in the mid-’30s to get rid of him for anti-Semitic remarks while a Yankee.

As one PSA commenter opined in the comments on my write-up: “You have to be a real scumbag to get 15,000 fans back then to sign an actual petition.”

Jackie Robinson Ben Chapman 1947

As a result, a considerable amount of the Chapman piece (22 percent of the word count) deals with his appalling history of racism, both during and after his Yankee tenure. I don’t feel like I short-changed him elsewhere. If anything, I inflated what would have been a shorter article. But there’s no way to write about Ben Chapman without addressing the Jackie Robinson incident, both in isolation and in a longer history of bad behavior.

Placement Thoughts

I already released my top-20 in an AMA in the FanPosts the other night, so there’s no reason not to let everyone have a look at my Best of the Best, after ranking them and re-ranking them too many times to count (though I never hesitated over my top-5).

1. Ruth. 2. Gehrig 3. Mantle 4. DiMaggio 5. Berra

6. Ford 7. Jeter 8. Rivera 9. Dickey 10. Bernie

11. Posada 12. Rodriguez 13. Pettitte 14. Ruffing 15. Guidry

16. Judge 17. Gomez 18. Mattingly 19. Randolph 20. Keller

Biggest regret (inside the Top 20): If I could do it over, I’d have Guidry placed at 11 and Jorge and 12. I was too low on Gator, and I admit it. Although, there’s probably a case to be made that the marginal difference between 11 and 15 on a list like this isn’t that significant. But still.

Biggest regret (outside the Top 20): I was too low on Reggie. I was too focused on numbers and length of tenure and not mindful enough of his historical importance. If I could do this again, I’d move him up about 20 spots from where I had him.

I stand by it: Placing Posada at 11. The consistent, long-term production from a switch-hitter at a position that’s historically not one that anchors a lineup, and his presence on several World Champion teams combined to make me very high on Posada. Probably higher than anyone else was.

By the time the Top 100 ended, I had penned 11 of the write-ups, starting with Dellin Betances at 84, and finishing (controversially in terms of ranking) with Joltin’ Joe at 5. It was a fun and invigorating learning experience, though also challenging at times for a myriad of reasons.

Twenty years from now when PSA does another Top 100, I’m overwhelmingly certain I won’t be one of the scribes. But I hope whoever does put (metaphorical) pen to paper next time finds it similarly rewarding.