These players exhibited sustained excellence. They were perennial winners, not flashes in pans with one series, hit, or punch-out.
These are the guys who really made the difference, who would not tolerate anything but winning. Leading by word and deed, encouragement, excoriation, and example, they elevated everyone around them.
A few caveats. First, we realize that it doesn’t hurt to play on championship-level teams. After all, a player sees better pitches, has guys around to pick him up in a slump, enjoys positive organizational attitude.
Put another way, there’s no telling what Ernie Banks, say, would have done with all the money on the table. Playing from 1953-71, Mr. Cub, an 11-time All-Star and two-time MVP, hit 512 home runs. All for the Cubs. All at a time when there wasn't any money on the table.
During his entire career, in fact, save for the '59 Go-Go White Sox, there wasn’t any money for the entire state of Illinois.
Rod Carew and his seven batting titles never had to face a bullpen fireballer with the entire season on the line.
Nor did Gaylord Perry with his Carolina drawl, spitball, and 314 wins.
Neither Frank Thomas. Nor George Sisler. And so on.
Caveat number two reminds us to ask if Yogi Berra, say, would have been as great had he not been surrounded by great Yankee teammates and managers?
Sure, Joe Morgan helped the Big Red Machine, but how much did the Big Red Machine help him?
Hard to say.
Caveat number three reminds us that winning is different than playing. All-time all-around greatest hitter Ted Williams went to the Fall Classic once, 1946, and hit a puny .200 with one RBI and zero extra-base hits.
Willie Howard Mays, arguably (well, at least argued by Jesse; Abby will have none of it) the last century's greatest all-around ballplayer, does not make the cut. Indeed, he hardly rates consideration. Why? In four World Series appearances (1951, '54, '62, and the truly disastrous last hurrah with the '73 Mets,) he hit a dismal .239, with neither the towering home runs nor the celebrated joie de vivre that made him such a standout for so many years. (Not to rub it in, but in 71 at bats—78 plate appearances—he eked out a measly three doubles and six RBIs. Add those numbers together and they total his strikeouts in '51, '54, '62 and '73. Hardly the stuff of legend. Say Hey! indeed.)
Barry Bonds (save 2002). Bill Buckner. Mickey Owen. Fred Snodgrass. All notable Series failures. Why? Could they not take the heat? Were they not money players? We leave such philosophical considerations aside. Put simply, they didn't git'r done.
So, our team:
Catcher: Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra
While we had originally tapped Johnny Bench (13-time All-Star, two-time MVP, 389 home runs; an infielder behind the plate), we now, ah, bench him in favor of Yogi, who often gets overlooked in computations such as these because he was neither flashy nor a star. (Popular, yes, but never a star.)
Mr. Yoo-Hoo, by contrast, played in a jaw-dropping 14 Fall Classics, 10 times a winner. Over the years 1947-63, he hit .274 with 12 home runs and a healthy 39 RBIs. Aside from the fact that his mind-bending 75 World Series games will never be eclipsed (teammate Mickey Mantle is a full ten games behind him), Berra leads in plate appearances, at bats, hits (71), doubles (10), and is near the top in virtually every other category.
A 15-time All-Star, and three-time MVP (during baseball's Golden 1950s, no less), Yogi was the real straw that stirred the Yankees’ victory drink. As solid a hitting catcher as there ever was, his 1,430 career RBIs, including topping the 90 mark nine times, mark him as one of the most productive hitters in the game's history.
Berra also edges out his opposite number in Brooklyn, Roy Campanella, similarly a fine fielder, deadly hitter, and three-time MVP. But in five Series, Campy only clouted at a .237 clip, hardly comparable.
Heroic handler of pitchers, solid presence on and off the field, when the game, and the season, and all the money, were on the line, Berra’s the dumpy little guy you want to see ambling up to the dish.
First Base: Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig
Yes, it's beginning to seem as if this list is All Yankees All the Time, but, no, it isn't, and even if it is, the Bombers stockpiled the most talent by far, and cashed the most World Series checks (27; the Cardinals are a distant second with 11) in baseball history. You may despise the Pinstripes, but you can't argue with their success.
From Murderers’ Row in the '20s (six World Series visits, three wins) to the great Yankee teams of the late '30s (four straight W's, 1936-39), Gehrig was captain, leader, RBI man without equal. As the Iron Horse played his 2,130 consecutive games, 1925-39, he did so with 17 broken bones in his hands and fingers. (Every finger was broken at least once.) Gehrig still drove in nearly 2,000 runs (including leading the Junior Circuit five times) and retired with a .340 batting average and an otherworldly on base percentage of .447.
As the first Mr. October, in seven Classics, 1926-28, ’32, ’36-38, he hit .361 with 10 taters, 35 RBIs, and a 1.214 OPS.
Put another way, when you look at Gehrig, then look at every other first baseman in the hundred-year history of the Classic, no one, comes close, not Willie Stargell (two Series, .315, three home runs), Hank Greenberg (four Series, .318, five home runs), David Ortiz (three Series, .455, three home runs), not Willie Aikens (one Series, .400, four home runs).
Second Base: Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson
Jackie would find—invent, manufacture, spin out of whole cloth—a way to beat you. Glove, feet, hands, bat, he was going to win the ballgame, regardless.
Arguably the most electric player in baseball history, Robinson could change a game in a moment—key play, key hit, key stolen base.
We grant that Robinson did not fare all that well in his six contretemps with the loud and lordly New York Yankees, ’47, ’49, ’52, ’53, ’55, ’56. But this is one where statistics don’t tell nearly the whole story. His puny .234 batting average, dozen RBIs, and single World title belie his status as the winner nonpareil. (We could argue that he faced the buoyant, buzzsaw Bombers, arguably the greatest team of all-time, but this is baseball and there are no excuses.)
In his decade in Dodger blue, 1947-56, the Dodgers went to six Classics. And Robinson, a perennial MVP candidate, not only won that prestigious award, but also Rookie of the Year, a batting title, two stolen base crowns, and made six All-Star appearances.
Despite moderately fizzling in October, Jackie was the unquestioned sparkplug that drove a nascent Brooklyn team from underdogs and also-rans into contenders. Without Jackie’s continued attack, his talent, brains, and sheer leadership, there'd be no 1955 ring. Simple as that.
In 1955, as but one example, he stole home. By that time, Robinson was older, slower, heavier; but he still had that desire, that famous drive. Jackie and The Lords of Flatbush, having been denied a title for so long, were not going to lose this one.
Third Base: Brooks Calbert Robinson
Aside from the 16 straight Gold Glove awards, and the highest defensive WAR of any third baseman by 12 runs (359.8), and the 18 All-Star games, and the 1964 AL MVP award, Brooksy won World Series rings in ’66 and ’70 (including that contest's MVP). Across six post-seasons, including five ALCS (’69, ’70, ’71, ’73, ’74) and four World Series appearances (’66, ’69, ’70, ’71), Brooks batted .303 (a 36-point improvement over his lifetime average) with five home runs, 22 RBI, and an OPS of .795—60 points higher than his lifetime number.
That’s all well and good, worthy of inclusion here. But 1970 stands alone. In the ALCS, he hit .583 (yes, you read that right) with a 1.288 OPS; and then for an encore batted .429 with a 1.238 OPS in the Series. All told, he had 16 hits in 33 at bats. Then the man they dubbed Mr. Hoover made a seemingly endless array of jaw-dropping plays at third base.
Doubt us? Run, don’t walk, to YouTube now.
Then pencil him in your lineup card.
Shortstop: Derek Sanderson Jeter
We originally had the first great Pirate at short, the astounding Honus Wagner, with his eight batting titles (when it was the measure of hitting greatness), five stolen base titles, four National League pennants (when it was the measure of baseball success), and one World Title. But looking him over, and comparing him with Derek Jeter, well, we found no comparison.
Playing nearly a century later, when the game and its conversant pressures had changed, the Yankee shortstop faced conditions unimaginable in the pre-broadcast trolley era. After all, it's hard to argue against Jeter's captaincy and five World titles. Perhaps they weren't five or even four in a row, as previous Yankee teams had achieved, but still, at best three straight, 1998-2000, four out of five from ’96-’00, and another in '09 for good measure. Who else these days enjoys that rate of success?
And Jeter’s numbers just glitter. In 16 (!) ALDS across 20 seasons, he hit an eye-popping .343, with a .916 OPS. Across seven World Series hit a robust .321 with an .832 OPS. Mr. November also hit 20 post-season taters, a nice round number if there ever were one.
But such numbers measure neither his head nor his heart. As a living highlight film, his list of legendary plays would take more space than we have, none more astounding than his 2001 ALDS race across the infield to snag an errant outfield throw and shovel it home to rob Jeremy Giambi of a sure—and game-tying—run.
It's effort like that that wins ballgames, big or small, and secures titles.
It's effort like that that puts on our all-time World Series team.
Left Field: Mickey Charles Mantle
Yes, Casey Stengel complained bitterly that The Mick didn't work hard enough, that he relied too much on that prodigious natural talent, and there’s truth in that. A legendary dissipater, Ol' Number Seven did not pursue his knee rehabs, generally took the easy way out, and too often left his game in a bottle.
That may be one reason why we originally left him off the list.
Until we took a second look at those numbers, especially his World Series numbers.
First, regular season. Although his last four years, 1965-68, when he should have been retired, dragged down his prodigious lifetime batting average to .298, for most of his 18 years, 1951-68, Mantle was the model of the high-average, hard-slugging hitter. He won the Triple Crown in ’56 and belted a lifetime 536 home runs, many of the tape-measure variety. Collecting four home run titles, he barely missed a fifth, to the new single-season leader, Roger Maris, in ’61. A 16-time All-Star, Mantle was also a three-time MVP.
In a dozen World Series he frequently took center stage. While only hitting .257 lifetime, he cr-ushed 18 home runs, drove in 40, scored 42 more, and walked away with seven rings.
A player who could run, throw, field, and hit with the best of them—when you say Yankee Dynasty, including 12 Series visits in 14 years, 1951-64, you're saying Mickey Mantle.
Center Field: Joseph Paul DiMaggio
Let us ask the question plainly: was there ever a better ballplayer than Joe D?
(Yes, says Jesse: his name was Willie Mays.)
(Abby is strongly considering taking Jesse out of his will, but that’s an argument for another time.)
Coming to the pinstripes as a 21-year-old rookie in 1936, he became the very definition of the impact player, immediately leading the team to its first Fall Classic in four years, and keeping them there for three more, 1936-39. (No telling what he could have done were there not the World War II interregnum which wreaked havoc with his career.)
In 13 years from 1936 through 1951, he hit in 56 straight games, clouted some 361 homers in cavernous Yankee Stadium to go along with just 369 strikeouts and a lifetime OPS of .977. In that time, he finished his career with a full nine rings, arguably the greatest success rate in baseball history.
A graceful centerfielder par excellence, skilled and canny baserunner, .325 lifetime hitter, 13-time All Star, three-time MVP, DiMaggio performed admirably in 10 World Series. Belting eight home runs, notching 30 RBIs, hitting over .300 four times, he led the team to four straight victories, 1936-39, three straight in ’49-’51 (after which he retired), and two more in between.
Yankee Clipper indeed!
Right Field: Roberto Walker Clemente
No Babe Ruth? With his .326 World Series batting average, 15 home runs, and 33 RBIs in 10 Series? His 1932 Called Shot (which we dispute, by the way, but no matter.) His team’s ability to destroy opponents—sweeps of the ’27 Pirates, ’28 Cardinals, and ’32 Cubs.
Then there are Ruth’s career stats: 714 home runs (including 60 in 1927), .342 batting average, more than 2,200 RBIs.
Are we serious?
Sure, Ruth could kill the ball. Just kill it. But he also could strike out a lot.
And although he won a lot, it never seemed as if winning meant anything to him.
So ’fess up. When you have to win that game, when everything’s riding on it, is this the guy you want up at the plate?
We didn't think so.
Roberto Clemente? Now there’s a different story.
“Playing,” Roger Angell so memorably wrote, “as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field,” Clemente, like Jackie Robinson, was going to win the game, one way or another. Throwing out runners with that cannon arm. Taking the extra base (or first base, for that matter, by forcing Mike Cuellar into a horrible overthrow in ’71). Getting the key hit, whether one base or four, he was going to do it.
A 12-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glover, The Great One collected 3,000 hits over 18 seasons that featured four batting titles, one MVP, and a .317 lifetime BA.
When he got to the Classic, he was determined to make it his showcase. Playing in two, 1960 and ’71, he collected 21 hits, one or more in every game he played, for a .362 batting average. In ’71 alone, he hit .414.
And these weren’t just any hits, or any Series. In both, the Pirates were the definitive underdogs. Facing the ’60 Yankees, which included four future Hall of Famers in Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and manager Casey Stengel; and the ’71Orioles, also featuring four future enshrines, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, and manager Earl Weaver.
Clemente, more than anyone else on both World Series teams, was determined to win. Playing at a level rarely, if ever, seen, in '71's Game Six, for example, he picked up a ball in the right field corner and fired a one-hop strike to home. Mark Belanger, on third, never moved.
The guy who made that throw, that’s the guy you want on your team.
Pinch Hitter: Joe Leonard Morgan
Somebody has to represent the Big Red Machine, the powerhouse of the 1970s, and who better than Joe Morgan?
After toiling in relative obscurity in Houston for the first nine seasons of his career, a shift to Cincinnati gave him stardom and Cooperstown. A man who brought winning to three of his next four franchises, Morgan personifies our dictum that baseball is a game about hitting and running. Sparking the Big Red Machine to five post-season appearances in eight years, including back-to-back World Titles in 1975-76, when Morgan was also NL MVP. Leading the league in runs, walks, and on-base percentage at numerous times in a career that spanned 21 years from 1963 to ’84, he also finished with nearly 700 stolen bases.
As with all our players, though, numbers alone hardly tell the story, particularly since he didn’t perform exceptionally well in the postseason. With a world-class can do attitude, Morgan jump-started team after team of Queen City All-Stars throughout the 1970s, one which contained three other future Hall of Famers in Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and manager Sparky Anderson. (Make that four if you include Pete Rose, and we do.) Then, returning to Houston for a season, 1980, Morgan propelled that franchise to its first-ever post-season appearance. Three years later, in Philadelphia, he helped the Phillies win their first-ever World Series.
One of baseball’s great winners, he was the man who could get on base and make it happen. That's why we want him as our late-inning bat coming off the bench.
Pitcher: Sanford Koufax
This is perhaps our most difficult call.
Go back 100 years, and we could fill this entire magazine with worthy candidates for starting pitcher. There's Christy Mathewson, one of the original 1936 Hall inductees. Over the course of 17 seasons (15, really, if you drop his shortened first and last campaigns), he won 373 games, leading the National League in wins and shut-outs four times, ERA and strike-outs five times. Playing in four World Series, 1905, ’11, ’12, ’13, he’s first in complete games with 10, second in total innings pitched to Whitey Ford. Mathewson may have finished only 5-5, but accomplished an ERA of 0.97, lowest all-time of any pitcher throwing 100 innings or more.
His big killing, though, was in '05, when he pitched three complete game shut-outs—with but one walk—for an all-time record and a performance as close to perfect as a starting pitcher has ever notched in the Fall Classic.
Another shutout in 1913 cements his record in the whitewash department.
Indeed, it's hard to say not to give the ball to Matty on his best day.
Then there’s Edward Charles “Whitey” Ford, who over 16 seasons for the ’50-’60s Yanks pitched in 11 World Series, six of them winners. Hurling a record 146 innings, winning a record 10 games, he was Series MVP in ’61 when he won two games and had a 0.00 ERA. Holding the record for starts (22) and K's (94), Ford was one of only four pitchers to throw three Fall Classic shutouts.
Hard to argue against the Chairman of the Board, too.
Then there’s the newbie, Madison Bumgarner, post-season ace in 2010, ’12, and ’14, who has a perfect 4-0 record, plus the clinching save, and microscopic 0.25 ERA. Who ever heard of such a thing?
There are others, too, including Walter Johnson, the Big Unit, Catfish Hunter, Orel Hershiser, and so on.
But for sustained excellence, dominance, intestinal fortitude, and flat-out skill, we're giving the ball to Sandy Koufax.
There are the three regular-season no-hitters, one perfect game, five consecutive ERA titles, six All-Star appearances, one National League MVP, and two Cy Young awards.
Sure, his record was only 4-3 across four World Series (1959, ’63, ’65, ’66), and had an ERA a sliver higher than Matty’s at 0.95, but with a microscopic WHIP (0.83), more than a strikeout per inning, and virtually no walks, no one, no one, was better—velocity, location, movement—when Mr. Koufax threw that blazing fastball or absolutely devastating, knee-buckling curve.
Go ahead. Dig in against him!
Long Reliever: Robert Gibson
Forgive us for fudging, but just in case Sandy has a twinge of the arthritis that knocked him out of the game early, we want to call on Bob Gibson in long relief.
Pick your adjective. Fierce. Determined. Relentless. Mean.
We like intimidating. Playing for 17 years, 1959-75, Gibson threw as if he had an unshakable animosity for every other player. Racking up 251 lifetime wins, he was so dominant in ’68, with that 1.12 ERA, 13 shutouts, and 268 strikeouts, they lowered the pitchers' mound in retaliation.
In three Series appearances, 1964, '67, '68, Gibson won two MVP awards and started nine games—completing eight of them, and winning seven (second all-time), including a pair of shutouts. A perfect 3-0 in ’67, tied for most all-time in a single series, Gibson also ranks sixth all-time with 81 innings pitched.
Yep, a good relief option.
Short Reliever: Mariano Rivera
Nobody can touch The Sandman. Nobody.
Sure, when the leaves turn brown many players have turned in great World Series short relief performances—from John Wetteland's four saves ('96) to Pirates Roy Face and Kent Tekulve, three each in '60 and '79, respectively, to Rollie Fingers' six lifetime.
All good. But Mo was great.
Consider: in seven World Series, his 11 saves top the all-time list. Even more impressive: across 16 seasons and 32 postseason series, he threw 141 postseason innings, and allowed a grand total of 11 earned runs. He finished 78 postseason games, and lost exactly one of them. He has 42 postseason saves, to go along with eight wins, a 0.99 ERA and tiny 0.76 WHIP. He won five rings (1996, 1998-00, ’09), and held a 0.00 ERA in three of those postseasons—1998, 1999 (when he was also Series MVP), and 2009. (Throw in his ’03 ALCS MVP to boot, when the Pinstripes lost the Classic to the Marlins.)
You want the door slammed shut? Pick up that bullpen phone.
Manager: Charles Dillon Stengel
It could be argued that such a team doesn't need a manager, that they were so good, played so well, knew game so profoundly, that anyone managing would simply get in the way.
We don't agree with that kind of thinking. Even the ’27 Yankees needed somebody to sit in Heaven, or at least the dugout, and hold the strings.
First, a few deserved Hall of Famers whom we considered. Ned Hanlon, who, with his great Baltimore team of the 1890s, more or less invented baseball as we know it—a 20-year manager whose Baltimore Orioles won three National League pennants (1894-96) and Brooklyn Superbas won two more (1899-1900), when that was all that counted.
Then there was Hanlon's prime pupil, John “Muggsy” McGraw. Merciless, a martinet, he ruled his Giants with the proverbial iron hand for 33 seasons, and steered them to 10 pennants, plus championships in '05, '21, and '22.
(One of his more advanced acolytes was a young Kansas City dentist named Charles Dillon Stengel, but more of him anon.)
Then there was Marse Joe McCarthy, whose ’29 Cubs won a pennant. His Depression-era Yankees won eight more, seven of which they converted into World Championships, none more impressive than four straight, 1936-39. (There was ’32, ’41, and ’43 for good measure.) You want a steady hand? Joseph Vincent McCarthy.
We also considered such stellar skippers as Walter Alston (1954-76, winning seven pennants and four World titles, all in Dodger blue), Sparky Anderson (winning four pennants and two World Series as skipper of the Big Red Machine, 1970-78, and another World title with the legendary ’84 Tigers, the team that started an all-time best 35-5 en route to 104 wins), and Joe Torre, whose handling of the latter day Bronx Zoo, and its notoriously difficult owner, is the stuff of legend. His 15 playoff appearances, six AL pennants, and four World titles, the latter bunched in a five-year span (1996-2000) speak to a dominance rarely witnessed in the free agency era.
But over and over we kept coming back to Casey. OK, he may have underestimated the ’60 Pirates, thereby blowing the pitching rotation and probably costing the Bronx another title, but no matter. And he may have had oodles of top talent on the team, but no matter. First, it's noticeably hard to focus talent, especially those notoriously carousing Yankees. Second, Stengel's keen baseball intelligence was flawless, and his platoon system even better.
For all his clowning, for all his doubletalk (aka Stengelese), for all his wasted1 years with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1934-36), Boston Braves (1938-43), and New York Mets (1962-65), his stay as Yankee skipper was stratospheric. In 12 years in the Bronx, 1949-60, the pinstripes did nothing but win. Ten pennants, seven Championships, including the never-to-be-equaled five straight, 1949-53.
Plaque in the Hall of Fame? Stengel needs his own wing.
While his loss to the Bucs in 1960 led to an ill-advised and swift dismissal, Stengel-built Yankee teams went on to win four consecutive pennants, 1961-64, and two Series, '61-'62.
A .623 regular-season winning percentage with the Yankees and .587 in October? No question.
None at all.
Abby Mendelson is a writer and educator in Pittsburgh whose books include histories of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh neighborhoods and houses of worship, among others.
Jesse Mendelson, his son, is an executive in Washington, D.C., skilled baseball historian like his dad, and highly successful fantasy baseball player.