I've recently become obsessed with the notion that every major league franchise's history can be divided (and I should grant, somewhat messily) into specific "eras" that correspond with particular players. I'm not talking about identifying each franchise's best player over a number of years; that's easy and doesn't tell us much that we don't already know. Characterizing an era is less about statistics than about organizational momentum, historical significance, and a half-dozen other things that don't necessarily show up in The Baseball Encyclopedia. It's also a bottomless subject because there a million ways to answer the same questions.
With the Yankees battling the Red Sox this week in the Ultimate Rivalry, we'll start with those two franchises.
And today, the 12 players who personify the 108 seasons of Yankees history, beginning in the beginning ...
1903-1905: The Jack Chesbro Era
In 1903, the American League's Baltimore Orioles jumped to New York and soon became known as "Yankees"; at the same time a number of Pittsburgh Pirates jumped to the American League, and Happy Jack Chesbro (pronounced CHEEZ-bro) chose New York as his new employers. Chesbro had led the National League with 28 wins in 1902. In 1903, he won 21 games for the fourth-place Highlanders ... but Gotham had seen nothing yet. In 1904, throwing maybe the greatest spitball that anyone's ever seen, Chesbro went 41-12 and completed 48 of his 51 starts. But one of Chesbro's 12 losses came on the last day of the season, when the Yankees lost the American League pennant. Pitching for the third time in four days, Chesbro ultimately threw the most famous wild pitch in major league history, giving Boston a 3-2 victory and the American League pennant.
Chesbro spent a few more years with the Yankees and enjoyed some good seasons, but between the 454 innings he'd pitched in 1904 and his unwillingness to stay in top condition, he faded quickly and was mostly washed up by 1908. In 1946, Happy Jack was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Old Timers Committee, almost entirely because of that one great season.
1906-1914: The Hal Chase Era
As Glenn Stout writes in The Yankee Century, "Hal Chase, at various times in his career, was many things: a genuine phenom, a superstar, a revolutionary who literally changed the way the game was played -- and an ingrate, an embarrassment, and a crook. Sometimes he was all of this at once. He would prove to be the club's dominant personality -- for better or worse -- for much of the next decade."
A weak-hitting rookie in 1905, Chase ranked as one of the league's best hitters in 1906. And in the field, he played first base like nobody had ever played it. Played the field so well, in fact, that despite throwing left-handed, Chase occasionally was asked to play second base. Chase could also hit, and he could run, and in 1910 he was named team captain and, late in the season, manager (a position he would hold through 1911). Just one problem, though: In an era of crookedness, Hal Chase just might have been the crookedest ballplayer of all. Finally, amidst charges in the spring of 1913 that Chase was making errors on purpose to make new manager Frank Chance look bad, Chase -- still considered a star -- was traded to the White Sox for two no-names.
1915-1919: The Home Run Baker Era
Frank Baker didn't join the Yankees until 1916, but he was perhaps the most notable acquisition by owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston, who took over the franchise in 1915 and immediately opened their wallets. To get Baker, the American League's top third basemen before sitting out the '15 season, Ruppert and Huston paid the Athletics $25,000 for Baker's rights and gave the rusty star a three-year deal for $24,000 (a hefty sum at the time). Baker played well for the Yankees through 1922, and made it clear to everyone that the Yankees would now spend whatever it took to acquire the best available players. This would, of course, become even more obvious four years later ...
1920-1935: The Babe Ruth Era
Upon joining the Yankees, Ruth's impact wasn't immediately Ruthian in the standings; while he destroyed (his own) record by hitting 54 home runs, the Yankees finished in third place, just as they had in 1919. In the stands, though? The Yankees immediately jumped from fourth in American League attendance to first, and of course everybody wanted to see the Babe in his road games, too. The next decade-and-a-half wouldn't just be the Babe Ruth Era in Manhattan; it was the Babe Ruth Era in Baseball.
1936-1942: The Joe DiMaggio Era
With the Babe actually leaving the Yankees after the 1934 season and DiMaggio not joining the franchise until 1936, it's tempting to give Lou Gehrig his due. But neither Gehrig's personality nor his game inspired the high passions that Ruth's had or DiMaggio's would. The Yankees had already purchased DiMaggio from the San Francisco Seals, but had to wait a year to take actual possession. When DiMaggio did arrive in '36, he was immediately brilliant, starting in the All-Star game and starring in the Yankees' first World Series since 1932. And of course DiMaggio would only get better, acquiring nicknames and MVP Awards and World Series rings like they were nothing.
1943-1945: The Snuffy Stirnweiss Era
A second baseman who stood just 5'8", George Stirnweiss joined the Yankees in 1943 and batted .219 in 83 games. In 1944, though, even more major leaguers went into the service. Coincidentally or not, Stirnweiss proceeded to post two of the better seasons in franchise history. In '44, Stirnweiss led the American League in runs, hits, triples, and steals (with 55). In '45, he again led the league in each of those categories ... and also won the batting and slugging titles. In 1946, with DiMaggio and all the rest of the pre-war stars back in action, Stirnweiss held on as a major leaguer but wasn't anything like a star.
(An odd coda: Six weeks shy of his 40th birthday and having been out of the game for a few years, Stirnweiss was killed when his train ran through several signals and plunged into Newark Bay. Among those present at his funeral were ex-teammates Phil Rizzuto and Jerry Coleman.)
1946-1951: The Joe DiMaggio Era (II)
DiMaggio didn't see combat duty -- very few baseball stars did -- so there wasn't much doubt that he'd return to center field for the Yankees after the war. And with stars like Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg returning to the majors late in the '45 season and doing well, DiMaggio figured to retake his place among the game's best players. But nobody knew, and DiMaggio wasn't quite himself in his first season back. But in 1947 he won the MVP Award, in 1948 he led the American League with 39 homers and 155 RBI, and in 1949 he returned in late June from a long stint on the disabled list and hit four home runs in a four-game sweep of the Red Sox in Fenway Park.
1952-1964: The Mickey Mantle Era
With DiMaggio retiring after the 1951 World Series and Mantle taking over in center field in '52, the Yankees would be personified by their superstar center fielders for roughly 30 years. In Mantle's first 14 seasons, the Yankees won 12 American League championships and seven World Series. But that string was broken in 1965 when Mantle -- racked by injuries -- shifted to left field and the Yankees tumbled from first place to sixth. The franchise would languish for the rest of the decade, and Mantle would finish his career as a gimpy first baseman in 1968.
1965-1969: The Horace Clarke Era
Is it fair that second baseman Horace Clarke first comes to mind when we think of the Yankees' sudden fall from perennial pennant-winners to also-rans. No. At his best, Clarke was actually a pretty good player, with great range at second base and the wheels to steal 20-30 bases per season. But he couldn't turn the double play like predecessor Bobby Richardson, and the New York writers -- who specialized in snark before that word existed -- hated him for it; they're the ones who dubbed the late '60s "the Horace Clarke era," and all the retroactive scholarship in the world can't change that.
1970-1976: The Thurman Munson Era
In 1969, the Yankees finished under .500 for the fourth time in five seasons. In 1970, with Thurman Munson installed behind the plate -- and ultimately winning Rookie of the Year honors -- the Yankees went 93-69 and finished second in the American League East. Munson, who in 1976 became the Yankees' first captain since Lou Gehrig, was the franchise's one constant throughout the turbulent decade. If the Bronx Zoo had a keeper, it was Munson until he perished halfway into the '79 season.
1977-1981: The Reggie Jackson Era
As strong a personality as Munson was, the Yankees became Reggie's team in the public mind the moment he arrived after signing as a free agent. He might not have been "the straw that stirs the drink" -- as Jackson suggested, much to Munson's annoyance -- but he was definitely the superstar who drew all the spotlights, particularly when stirred together with the tempestuous Billy Martin.
1982-1992: The Dave Collins Era
What, you were expecting someone else? Yes, Don Mattingly was the Yankees' best player during most of these years. But do you really want to yoke Donnie Baseball to all those pennant-free seasons? This wasn't a good time for the franchise, but it wasn't Mattingly's fault. The biggest problem was feckless management, characterized by George Steinbrenner. After the 1981 season -- a season that ended with the Yankees in (but losing) the World Series -- The Boss decided that power was passé, let Reggie Jackson walk, and signed speedy outfielders Ken Griffey (Sr.) and Dave Collins. Unfortunately, the Yankees were already loaded with outfielders, which led to the bright idea of turning Dave Collins into a first baseman.
Collins lasted just one year in New York. Shortly after the season, the Yankees traded him to the Blue Jays for reliever Dale Murray ... and in the same deal, the Yankees gave up Fred McGriff and Mike Morgan, both of whom would spend many years in the majors (Dale Murray: not so much). Meanwhile, though Steinbrenner would quickly recover from his unhealthy obsession with speed, he did spend the rest of the decade chasing after ill-fitting free agents and formulating five-year plans that lasted one year.
1993-2010: The Derek Jeter Era
Derek Jeter was an accident of history. These are the New York Yankees, destroyer of souls and crusher of American League foes. Even in those championship-free 1980s, the Yankees won more games than any other franchise in the majors. For just a brief moment, though, the Yankees were actually a bad team. In 1990, they finished with the worst record in the American League, which gave them the No. 1 pick in the draft. They used that pick on Brien Taylor, who would become one of the biggest busts ever. In 1991, the Yankees lost 91 games to earn the sixth pick in the draft.
They used that pick on a high-school shortstop from Kalamazoo named Derek Jeter. He struggled in his first pro season, batting .210 and made 21 errors in 57 games. But in 1993 he started hitting, in 1994 he started fielding, in 1995 he reached the majors, and in 1996 he was Rookie of the Year. And since 1996 ... Well, you know that part already.