I have a confession to make: I didn’t attend my first major-league baseball game until college.
Sure, I’d been to plenty of minor-league games growing up in suburban New Jersey, but my family never made the trek to the Bronx or Queens, or even Philadelphia, to witness firsthand baseball’s best.
My wife and I didn’t make my son wait quite so long. He hit the ground running, taking in a game at Wrigley Field last spring when he was eight months old. He’s been to Yankee Stadium three times and Philly once, with plans for visits to Queens and the new Atlanta ballpark later this year.
Yeah, he’s too young to understand, but it doesn’t stop me from explaining to the little guy the pitcher’s options with an 0-2 count or giving him history lessons about Babe Ruth and other greats.
Someday, he’ll be ready to hear more about baseball and hopefully he’ll love it. And when he’s ready, and the family hops on the D train to 161st Street, maybe he’ll ask about all those numbers in Monument Park.
By then, Derek Jeter’s No. 2 will have been removed from circulation for years. But on the weekend the great Yankees shortstop joins the pinstripe pantheon with Sunday’s number retiring ceremony, it seems like a good time to review the accomplishments of the greatest players in franchise history
Of the 22 players whose numbers will adorn the Stadium’s museum by weekend’s end, the following eight are those whose accomplishments while batting or pitching for the Bombers stand out from the venerable pack. No disrespect to those omitted, but these are the men I most want my son to know as the greatest of great Yankees.
2. Derek Jeter
Nobody else filled the role as captain of baseball’s most celebrated franchise longer. Jeter was the most recognizable star on the greatest dynasty of the last 40 years, winning four World Series in five years and adding another late in his career. For a generation of fans, the franchise’s all-time hits leader was the New York Yankees for the bulk of his 20 seasons, the last of which came in 2014.
3. Babe Ruth
The Sultan of Swat. The Colossus of Clout. The King of Crash. If those nicknames for The Great Bambino don’t project the image of power, what does? The Babe earned such monikers with ahead-of-his-time home run prowess — he’d hit nearly double the homers (714, 659 while with the Yanks) of anyone else when he retired in 1935. His personality was as outsized as his blasts at the plate.
4. Lou Gehrig
The Iron Horse carried himself with unparalleled dignity throughout his then-record 2,130 consecutive games played. Even playing in the shadow of Ruth, it was Gehrig who earned more AL MVP awards (two to one) and won more World Series with the franchise (six to four). His 1939 retirement speech while battling ALS — known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — is one of the most beautiful moments in sports.
5. Joe DiMaggio
As Ruth and Gehrig’s time closed, Joltin’ Joe emerged as a star on the field — 13 All-Star teams in 13 seasons — and off, as he later married Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe. His 56-game hitting streak has yet to be seriously threatened over the past 76 years. The Yankee Clipper might have won more than three MVPs if not for three years away during World War II, but he still led the Yanks to nine championships.
7. Mickey Mantle
Without missing a beat, The Mick took over center field from DiMaggio and extended the Yanks’ run of sensational production from the position through 1968. An All-Star in 16 of 18 seasons and the MVP three times, the kid from Oklahoma hit 536 homers despite missing significant time due to injuries. The seven-time World Series champ is on the short list of greatest switch-hitters in history.
8. Yogi Berra
The beloved catcher is the only player in history to have won as many as 10 World Series. His penchant for malapropisms may be what the average Joe remembers him for, but Lawrence Peter Berra was one heck of a player. Like Mantle and DiMaggio, he was a three-time MVP with a career that overlapped both aforementioned stars. His No. 8 is the only digit retired twice — also for his catching predecessor Bill Dickey.
16. Whitey Ford
The greatest starting pitcher in franchise history, Ford won both AL Cy Young and World Series MVP honors in 1961, one of six times he contributed for a championship Yankees ballclub. The Astoria native holds the team records for victories and shutouts during his 16-season career that ended in 1967, marks that may stand the test of time with the rise of specialized pitchers.
42. Mariano Rivera
Most closers burn bright before burning out, often quickly and in spectacular fashion. In 19 seasons, Mo never flamed out as the game’s gold standard for relief pitchers. The mild-mannered closer with an untouchable cutter recorded 652 saves while teaming with Jeter his entire career, a record that might never be approached. The same goes for his postseason saves mark which, like his uniform number, is 42.