The Yankees of the late 1970s were an absolutely fascinating group to watch play the game with each other. Off the field, they seemed dysfunctional and almost at each other's throats, but when they stepped on the field they became a dynamic force that won the American League East division title five times in six years, three straight AL pennants, and most famously, back-to-back World Series titles.
There were so many unique personalities that it was difficult to keep track of them. There was the cocky slugger, Reggie Jackson. There was the no-nonsense catcher and captain, Thurman Munson (my father's favorite). There was clubhouse jester and shutdown closer Sparky Lyle. There was young, up-and-coming second baseman, Willie Randolph. There was the volatile manager/owner combination of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. And of course, there was slugging defensive whiz Graig Nettles at third.
A fourth round pick by the Twins out of San Diego State in the inaugural 1965 MLB Draft, Nettles spent his first six major league seasons with the Twins and Indians. In Cleveland, he flashed his potential with 71 homers over three years, a very impressive total for a young third baseman. Buoyed by the California kid's talent, Hall of Fame general manager Lee MacPhail brought Nettles to the Yankees on November 27, 1972 in a six-player swing. It was one of the most underrated trades in Yankees history, as they did not really give up much talent and in exchange received arguably the generation's best AL third baseman outside of George Brett.
It did not take Nettles long to make a noticeable impact on his new club. He posted six straight seasons of at least 4.0 WAR, quickly winning over fans as the Yankees began to rise from mediocrity to prominence. He became very popular in the clubhouse, made his first of six All-Star teams in 1975, and then really broke out in 1976.
That year, Nettles led the league in homers with 32, hit .254/.327/.475 with a 136 wRC+, and through his phenomenal defense at third, also paced the AL in rWAR with a remarkable 7.9. Although Munson won the MVP, Nettles had a very strong case as well. In the five-game ALCS victory over the Royals, Nettles slugged .647 with a pair of homers as the Yankees won their first pennant in 14 years.
Although the Yankees were swept, it was clear that they were back to glory. Nettles continued to excel over the next couple seasons as the Yankees won the World Series both years. Nettles slugged a career-high 37 homers in '77, averaged a 126 wRC+ and 5.6 rWAR, and incredibly missed just eight games despite playing a physically demanding position. His skills at third base were on full display in the '78 Fall Classic against the Dodgers, when he astounded fans with numerous defensive gems:
The Yankees slipped in '79, but won back-to-back AL East titles the next two years as well as the '81 AL pennant. Nettles remained a productive player and defender even as he entered his late thirties, and he achieved a highlight by hitting .500/.571/.917 in a three-game ALCS sweep of former manager Martin's Athletics to go to the World Series, earning the ALCS MVP. Although the Yankees lost that Fall Classic, Nettles was named team captain the following season, the first to hold the position since the tragic passing of his friend Munson in '79. Nettles played two more years in the Bronx, then parted ways with them in spring training of '84 after a dispute with Steinbrenner led to him being traded to the Padres. Nettles made one more World Series appearance and one more All-Star team at age 41 before calling it a career in 1988.
Nettles has a strong Hall of Fame case, but the most surprising part of his post-playing career is that he has yet to be honored in any way by the Yankees. Somehow, the Yankees have never honored a third baseman in Monument Park. That's because in their long history, they have never had a Hall of Fame third baseman. They have had some noticeable names, but currently, Alex Rodriguez is the franchise leader for WAR at third base. The only player close to him is Nettles, who hit .253/.329/.433 in his Yankees career with 202 doubles, 250 homers, a 114 OPS+, and 44.3 rWAR over 11 seasons. He won a pair of World Series, served as captain, and was quite popular with the fans for his outstanding play and quick wit. So what's the problem, Yankees? He was their best third baseman over the course of their first century of history. They should have honored Nettles years ago, so here's hoping that the Yankees do the right thing and give him a plaque. They just gave Goose a plaque this year, so maybe there is hope yet for a Nettles (and Randolph) one as well. A highly talented near-Hall of Famer like Nettles deserves it.
Happy birthday, Graig Nettles!