New York Times: Whitey Ford now 'Greatest living Yankee'
With the death of Yogi Berra on Tuesday, the honor -- according to the paper of record -- passes to Berra's battery mate, Ford, one of the great left-handed pitchers in the Hall of Fame.
If they ever introduced Yogi Berra as "The Greatest Living Yankee" at Yankee Stadium, they didn't do it on the regular. It wasn't his style, anyway. No matter, Berra was widely regarded by many as the greatest living Yankee, especially toward the end of his life, and those who questioned or objected did so quietly. It was that way until Berra's death Tuesday at age 90.
The New York Times asks and answers "Who is the greatest living Yankee?" on Thursday morning. To the "Paper of Record" (and others, surely), the greatest living Yankee is Hall of Fame left-hander Whitey Ford, Berra's battery mate in the 1950s.
Why does it matter? Well, it all started with Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio. He wasn't the best Yankees player ever, but Joltin' Joe might have been the most popular. Whenever he was introduced, DiMaggio insisted on being called the "greatest living player." It sounds apocryphal, or at least exaggerated, but it's no myth.
In 1969, as part of the centennial celebration of professional baseball, sportswriters had picked an all-time team, along with a team of the greatest living players -- and included a "greatest living player" as well. They picked DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle had just retired; Willie Mays was still playing but nearing the end. Ted Williams was managing the Washington Senators. But, it was a popularity contest and they picked DiMaggio. Romantically, it made every bit of sense.
DiMaggio, by default, also became the "greatest living Yankee," a distinction he enjoyed until his death in 1999. The title has been bandied about since then, mostly in sportswriter columns and fan posts, surely with veneration but less enthusiasm, probably. Berra had been called the team's greatest living player, even if it was super unofficial, but his death leaves us with this void.
Is the New York Times right about Ford? Because of Ford's age (nearly 87), his relationship to Yogi and his contributions to a golden era of Yankees baseball (he was on six World Series winners), Ford is a natural choice. He is the greatest living Yankee of a certain age for sure. Taking a slightly sabermetric look at who actually was the most productive player in a Yankees uniform who happens to still be alive, you'll find that Ford is up there. Going by wins above replacement at Baseball Reference, he's second (53.9) to Mariano Rivera (56.6 -- which is kind of amazing that a relief pitcher accumulated more bWAR than any other pitcher in Yankees history).
A couple of things about WAR. Scholars don't think it's necessarily the best way to grade pitchers. It also doesn't take into account postseason contributions. Ford -- like Jeter and Rivera -- was about as good in the postseason as he was in the regular season. Which is to say, he was great.
It's OK to call Whitey Ford the "greatest living Yankee," even if he isn't the best living Yankee. It's like with DiMaggio. Mantle was a better player -- by a lot. And, even though DiMaggio had a substantial advantage in WAR, a good argument could have been made for Berra in 1969. He was coaching first base for the Mets at the time, though, so that wasn't happening. Besides, the title really suited DiMaggio.
Check out this story Billy Crystal tells in a book of working out with the team (presumably during spring training) not long after Mickey Mantle died.
"We were standing just outside of the Yankees clubhouse when the door opened and Joe DiMaggio came out. He stepped toward me and, without warning, punched me in the stomach. Hard. I wasn't ready for it. He put his face inches from mine. 'Greatest living player!' he hissed, and stormed off."
Say it ain't so, Mr. Coffee! Crystal apparently had forgotten the proper introduction for DiMaggio. This "greatest living" deal is serious to some. Well, to Joe.
The best living Yankees player, probably, is Jeter or Rivera -- if you count only what the player did with the Yankees. Expanding the universe, you've got to consider A-Rod, or Rickey Henderson or even Reggie Jackson. Willie Randolph is underrated by the way, but he wasn't better than Jeter. Andy Pettitte actually accumulated nearly as much WAR (and has lots of postseason success, too) as Ford. But was he better than Whitey Ford? C'mon. Was he better than Rivera, even if Mariano pitched only an inning or two at a time?
So, if anything, it's important to have this silly argument. It's a bar argument, or a rec room argument, or a ballpark argument. It doesn't really matter, except that it reminds us how much we enjoy baseball. And that has some value.
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