The Yankees’ celebration of Paul O’Neill with the retiring of his No. 21 last week was a response to the overwhelming popularity of one of their most respected players ever and pretty much completed the honored presence of the 1996-2000 Joe Torre dynastic Yankees in Monument Park.
Now it is time for the Yankees to rectify a long overdue — and mysterious — Monument Park omission by honoring the greatest (clean) third baseman in their history, Graig Nettles, with a plaque. And while they’re at it, another plaque for Tony Lazzeri, the greatest second baseman in their history.
The Yankees are one of the most storied sports franchises in the world and it is both incomprehensible and unconscionable that they don’t even understand or acknowledge their own history in ignoring two of their greatest position players ever all these years. It kind of makes Monument Park a bit of a farce when two of the greatest Yankees of all time are nowhere to be found out there.
Lazzeri, the slugging Yankee second baseman from 1926-37 who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991, died in 1946 at age 42 and, as such, was kind of forgotten through the years, with no urgency on the part of the modern day Yankee hierarchy, some of whom probably never even heard of him, to honor him with a place in Monument Park. (Ironically, they unknowingly already retired his No. 6 — for Torre in 2014.)
On the other hand, Nettles, of course, is very much with us, even though for some reason he hasn’t been seen at Yankee Old Timers’ games in years, and was one of the first victims of the budget cuts for the guest spring training instructors a few years back. At least, he’s remained one of Andrew Levy’s most popular celebrity Yankees in the Perfect Suite at Yankee Stadium behind the plate.
Otherwise, Nettles has no idea why he’s never invited back to Old Timers’ Day or, more importantly, never been acknowledged by the Yankees with a plaque in Monument Park. He was a five-time All-Star, led the American League (by a lot) with 32 homers in 1976 and made two of the greatest defensive plays in World Series history in Game 3 against the Dodgers in 1978.
At the time of his retirement, there were only five players in history — Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra — who had more homers as a Yankee than he did.
On top of that, the Yankees have had only seven captains beginning with Lou Gehrig in 1923 and all but one of them have either had their number retired or been honored with a plaque in Monument Park. The one omission: Graig Nettles.
“I have no idea who’s in charge of Monument Park,” Nettles said by phone Friday from his home in Tennessee. “I feel like I had a Yankee career worthy of it but there’s nothing I can do about it. I think I’m still fairly popular with the fans. If I offended someone there, I’m sorry. As for Old Timers’ Day, I don’t know about that either. I turned them down a couple of times because I had a conflict and maybe that was why.”
When I mentioned to him that at least his No. 9 is retired by the Yankees (for Roger Maris in 1984), Nettles laughed.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “that was right after I was traded, and I was in George’s dog house. He refused to say he was retiring it for me too. But for all the things that went on with me and George, we both respected each other — he did make me the captain — and I truly believe if he were alive today I’d be in.”
Mind you, Nettles is in no way bitter. Just perplexed.
As a point of history here, shortly after he retired Billy Martin’s No. 1 in 1986, I had a discussion with the Boss in which I cautioned him about being too hasty in retiring Yankee uniform numbers. “OK,” he said, “so draw me up a criteria,” — which I did:
(1) Player had to be elected to the Hall of Fame as a Yankee. That eliminated Dave Winfield and Wade Boggs among others.
(2) Player had to have been a near-Hall of Famer who played his entire career as a Yankee. That took care of Thurman Munson (15) Don Mattingly (23), and Ron Guidry (49).
(3) Player had to be an iconic, trailblazing Yankee, which accounted for Elston Howard and Maris.
“I like it,” Steinbrenner said, and he honored that criteria until the day he died. And then in 2015 the Yankees broke with it by retiring No. 46 for Andy Pettitte, which made for a nice, money-making one-day promotion for a very popular Yankee and paved the way for the retirement of O’Neill’s No. 21 last weekend.
Unfortunately, in using uniform retirings and plaque presentations (I love Tino Martinez but he spent nine of his 16 big league seasons in the uniforms of teams other than the Yankees), the Yankees have turned Monument Park into a promotional cash cow at the expense of their own glorious history. And OK, I get it. There’s no money to be made honoring long dead players like Lazzeri (or for that matter fellow Hall of Famer Earle Combs, center fielder on the great ‘27 Yankees who hit .325 lifetime and spent his entire 12-year career in pinstripes).
But it is also a degradation of Monument Park that some of the greatest Yankees of all time are nowhere to be found there. Wasn’t that originally the whole purpose of it. To create a space in Yankee Stadium for fans to stroll through — like the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — and learn all about the Yankees’ history?
The Yankees can very easily, with no fanfare, just send a press release and install a plaque for Lazzeri, their greatest of all (again clean) second baseman (and maybe one for Combs as well) out there in Monument Park. As for Nettles, who remains one of the most revered Yankees, the Yankees need to do the right thing and bring him back into the fold, with a day in his honor next year and a place in Monument Park where he rightfully belongs.
IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD
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