Whether one adores or despises the New York Yankees (and it is usually one or the other), one must concede that they are baseball’s, if not all of professional sports’, most storied franchise. Their rich history of success in the greatest sports metropolis on the planet makes any other viewpoint almost impossible to defend.
At the same time, though, the Yankees’ claim to being sports’ most celebrated team has as much to do with the remarkable collection of men who have donned the famed pinstripes as it does with their tradition of success in the regular and postseasons.
2014 will mark the final season that Derek Sanderson Jeter, a certified member of the Yankees’ Pantheon, will grace a major league ballpark as a player. Much has already been said and written about the impact that Jeter’s career has had on the game, and no doubt much more will be offered about his enduring legacy as the coming season unfolds.
Because Jeter is the last man standing of the Yankees’ fabled “Core Four” (Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite, and Jeter), it would only make sense that Jeter’s passing into immortality at the end of the season would be perceived as the end of an era for the Yankees. However, from a broader historical perspective, the Captain’s departure might also be viewed as the end of an extraordinary 90-year succession of Yankee “foundational” players, each of whom was the heart and soul of his respective Yankees era.
This Yankee streak of having at least one all-time great player present on the team at any one time for such a prolonged period is truly unique. While many franchises can boast of a colorful history loaded with memorable players, each has had at least some brief stretches in its history when the player roster was devoid of any “legacy” players who represented the “essence” of that team. In the case of the Yankees, while the team itself meandered through extended stretches of mediocrity (most notably 1965 – 1975 and 1982 – 1993), there was always at least one legendary player (or someone who would shortly evolve into that kind of player) on the roster at any given time.
Here is that succession. Each player in the succession was not only a Yankee from the outset, but played his entire career with the Bronx Bombers.
1. Lou Gehrig 1923 – 1939
2. Joe DiMaggio 1936 – 1942, 1946 – 1951
3. Mickey Mantle 1951 – 1968
4. Thurman Munson 1969 – 1979
5. Don Mattingly 1982 – 1995
6. Derek Jeter 1995 – 2014
Of course, one will immediately notice a glaring omission from this list. Babe Ruth (1920 – 1934), could have been regarded as the first player in the succession, part of a legend combination with Gehrig, but he was not a Yankee originally (Red Sox), and did finish his career back in Boston with the Braves (1935). Suffice it to say that Ruth will always be the Atlas of Yankee mythology, but he does not qualify for this particular list.
Amazingly, other than two brief interruptions, 1943 – 1945 (due obviously to World War II; otherwise DiMaggio would have been playing) and 1980 – 1981, the succession is unbroken. One might even argue that for the 1980 and 1981 seasons, there was, in fact, a legacy player present on the team in the form of Bobby Murcer, who was originally a Yankee, but had stints with the Giants and Cubs before returning to New York and retiring as a Bomber in 1983. While Murcer does not carry the statistical weight of the other six, he was a greatly beloved Yankee who will always be most identified with the franchise. What fan of any team could forget Murcer’s moving and compelling performance in a game versus the Orioles right after the funeral of his good friend Thurman Munson in August, 1979?
The fundamental question that arises now, as Derek Jeter embarks on his final campaign, is whether this amazing succession is truly at the end of its line. There does not appear to be anyone on the roster who is an established “home-grown” player who has the stature to assume the role of the next great Yankees legacy player. The only viable candidates who come to mind are David Robertson (whose only “sin” is that he must try to make Yankee fans forget Mariano Rivera), Ivan Nova, Eduardo Nunez, and Brett Gardner. While all are fine players, none would appear to have the type of transcendent personality or skills inherent in a legend of the Yankee variety.
Interestingly, if Robinson Cano had remained in New York, might he have been the continuation of this succession? While certainly possessing the level of physical skill and the statistical body of work to qualify, Cano exuded at times a seeming indifference in his play that his predecessors never would have tolerated. Also, the very fact that Cano chose to chase dollar signs to the equivalent of baseball Siberia, the Pacific Northwest, and turn his back on all of the benefits of finishing his career in New York, seems to bear out the notion that he was not true Yankee legacy material. Sadly, the decision to go to the Mariners is one that Cano will likely come to regret in the years to follow.
While one cannot say for sure that Derek Jeter’s exit stage right will be the final chapter in an ongoing saga of Yankee greatness, the possibility should at least be considered. The Yankees will no doubt continue to feature prominent, exciting players brought in through free agency for years to come, but there is just something special about having that home-grown player or players who maintain a thread of historical consistency and standard of excellence that a team like the Yankees has always embodied.
Derek Jeter will no doubt be remembered in many and various wonderful ways once he returns to the dugout for the final time, as he has always been a player who profoundly understands his obligation to the integrity of the game of baseball. Only time will tell, however, whether the final memory of him will be as the last of the true Yankee greats.
Yankee fans surely hope not.
Some material courtesy of: Yankees Essential by Howie Karpin; Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007.