The New York Yankees are the Manchester United of Major League Baseball. They dominate the sport like no other franchise. Even when they aren’t winning titles, which is now going on 14 years, the Yankees grab many of the headlines.
With Aaron Judge tucked away for nine more years, and his place in monument park secured, the Yankees are in a phase where the stars are more important than the flags.
But, respect must be given to the Yankees for their 40 American League pennants and 27 World Series titles.
For much of the time the Yankees were winning titles, they had a team captain in their clubhouse.
This article lists all 15 Yankee team captains, and tells you why they were important.
New York was not a charter member of the American League, which was founded in 1900 as the Western League.
No, at that time New York belonged to the mighty Giants, one of the most prominent franchises in the older, venerable National League. The Giants did all they could to keep a competing team out of New York, but by 1903 those efforts were subverted.
The 1903 New York Highlanders were several years away from being called “the Yankees,” and they were only a major league team in name. This was a slipshod club consisting of castoffs from several teams. But the season went much better than anticipated, thanks in part to the deft guidance of Griffith, was also the manager.
Griffith had been one of the most successful pitchers of the 1890s, mostly for Chicago of the NL. He was 33 years old and a senior member of the New Yorkers in 1903.
A scrawny little pipsqueak on the outside, Griffith had a lot of heart and guts. He was called “the Old Fox” because he had white hints in his hair from an early age. He was a fantastic breaking ball pitcher, and he won 14 games with a 2.70 ERA for New York in ’03 when the team surprised many by finishing in third place.
Griffith managed the team into the 1908 season, and he’s far from the worst manager in Yankees history.
As I wrote previously elsewhere, “Elberfeld was one of the dirtiest, nastiest, crotch-kickingest players in baseball. He was so hated by opponents that he reportedly took to wearing a shin guard made from whale bone to protect himself on the diamond.”
In his first season as NY captain, Kid batted .306, which in the deadball era was quite a feat.
“Elberfeld was as tough, physically, as any player in the history of baseball,” teammate Dave Fultz remembered years later. “He was perhaps the toughest little guy the game has ever seen.”
Keeler was at the end of his legendary career when he was elevated to captain status for the 1909 season, his seventh for the “Highlanders.”
Willie famously gave the simple batting advice: “Hit em where they ain’t,” which worked fine for a man of his skill with the lumber. Keeler was most famous for a 44-game hitting streak that Pete Rose matched in 1978.
Like Griffith, Willie is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A nifty defensive first baseman, Chase was celebrated for his play at first base much like Keith Hernandez would be more than 70 years later.
They called him “Prince Hal,” because nicknames were all over the place in those days. But Chase was not a princely person: he was probably the crookedest ballplayer in the sport in his time. He was accused of taking bribes to lose games in as many as four different cities, and eventually Chase was expelled from baseball forever for intentionally losing games in exchange for money.
In the deadball era, it was pretty common for team’s to employ a player/manager. That was Chance’s role in 1913 and 1914. Once a brilliant player and manager, Chance’s best days were behind him when he was on the Yankees payroll.
The best way to become a captain in the old days was to be a pesky middle infielder. That was Rollie Zeider, who only played 50 games in a Yankees uniform. He was named captain of the team by Chance, who knew him from Chicago.
Took over as manager from Chance for the last 20 games of the 1914 season. He was back as just the shortstop in 1915, and remained there as a stalwart defender and key member of the Yankees.
“Peck” was unusual for his time: long-limbed with big hands and also fairly tall for a middle infielder in the deadball era. He was basically a Bucky Dent type of hitter, but he could really get the baseball in the field, and turn the double play as well as anyone in the league.
When you have the personality and appetite that George “Babe” Ruth had, you’re not captain material. But for a few days, Yankees manager Miller Huggins bestowed the honor on his star slugger.
Ruth was suspended for the first six weeks of the 1922 season for having barnstormed in the offseason. When he came back to the Yankees in May, he was named captain, but after five (or maybe six days depending on the reporting), the Babe was removed from the position. There was never a an authority that Ruth didn’t rebel against, and being a team captain (when he famously rarely bothered to learn his teammates names) never suited The Big Fella.
Gehrig was the first Yankee to hold the title of captain when the team won a World Series.
Lou was famously undemonstrative and reticent. He was the opposite of everything Ruth was. While the Babe chased girls, Lou lived with his mom. While Babe ate dozens of hot dogs and guzzled beer, Lou liked a home-cooked meal. While Ruth wanted headlines and as much money as he could make, Gehrig didn’t like the attention his ballplaying abilities brought.
When Joe DiMaggio arrived to the Yankees as a rookie in 1936, he was urged to introduce himself to Gehrig. DiMaggio said he was shocked when he reached out to shake Lou’s hand, but was pulled in for a hug instead. Gehrig reportedly whispered, “You’re one of us.”
When Gehrig died in 1941, manager Joe McCarthy proclaimed that the team shouldn’t have another captain. And that’s what the franchise did out of respect for decades.
George Steinbrenner was a horse’s ass. But he was a winner. He often liked to tell people that football was his first favorite game. In many ways. Big George wanted the Yankees to be run like a football team.
So it’s unsurprising that the team owner broke the tradition and named a tam captain before the 1976 season. For Steinbrenner it was a matter of knowing who was in charge at all times, and he wanted a no-nonsense guy as “the man” among the players.
Munson was already the team leader when he got the “C” as captain. He led by example, he led by deed, he led by his words. He was a man’s man, the type who liked to hunt, fish, and pound beer. He had the respect of every one of his teammates.
When Martin needed to get a message to someone, Munson carried it. When a pitcher was pissed at how Billy was using him, Munson served as the conduit. When someone needed to stand up to management, Thurman did that too.
“I didn’t know how to be a ballplayer when I got to New York,” said Willie Randolph. “[But] The Captain showed me how. I used those lessons the rest of my career.”
With Munson’s death in a plane crash in the middle of the 1979 season, the heart was extracted from the Yankees. It took them nearly two decades to get back to a world championship.
Nettles was an odd choice for team captain considering he always wore shit-colored glasses. He saw his owner as an enemy (which he was correct to do). He saw Billy Martin as the enemy, and he saw the sprots writers as enemies. Nettles had his problems with some teammates too. His tenure as captain came over the last 20 months of his stay with the Yankees. Steinbrenner eventually traded his third baseman to San Diego, Nettles wrote a book that skewered Martin, George, and almost everyone in The Bronx.
Following the shocking death of Thurman Munson, the Yankees shied away from naming a captain. But by the mid-1980s, they needed one.
The Yankees won more games than any other AL franchise in the 1980s. But they only won one division title and one pennant. For much of the decade, the team was top-heavy with superstars and fading stars. The manager’s chair never stopped spinning, as Billy Martin was hired and fired and re-hired, and fired and so on. Heck, Dallas Green even got into the mix. The front office was out of control, as Steinbrenner tried desperately to recapture the magic he had in the 1970s.
Enter Randolph, a smooth fielding second baseman who had many of the traits that made other Yankee captains a success. Willie was quiet like Gehrig. He was a tough competitor like Munson. Those traits and his professionalism made him the perfect choice as the Yankees 11th team captain.
Willie held the role for three seasons, his final three in pinstripes as a player. Later, he was welcomed back as a coach.
Pitchers are weird athletes. Which is why it sort of makes sense to have a captain for the pitching staff. That’s what the Yanks did for a few years in the 1980s with veteran ace Ron Guidry.
The Gator was not a natural leader, nor was he a rah-rah guy, but he had been around for more than a decade and seen it all in the Bronx. His experience helped, but never translated into success on the field.
Given his acrimonious relationship with the team owner, it was surprising when Don Mattingly was asked to be team captain before the 1991 season.
But the timing made sense. The previous year, George Steinbrenner had been banned permanently from day-to-day operations of his team. With Big George in the corner serving his timeout, it was the right time to elevate Mattingly.
Mattingly was arguably the most popular Yankee since Mickey Mantle. The one thing missing was a championship, which with Yankee fans is basically everything. Even so, Mattingly’s success at the plate brought him tremendous adoration from Yankee fans, and if George wanted to get some good vibes from the paying customers, naming Mattingly captain was a smart idea, even if he couldn’t personally be seen as doing it.
Over the last five seasons of his career, Mattingly batted .291 with a total of 53 home runs and 340 RBI. As his back broke down, and he lost his ability to hit for power, Mattingly sort of withered away, and played his final game when he was 34.
Fact is, most team captains get the job after they’ve had their best seasons. At least that’s usually the case. Until…eight years after Mattingly, the Yankees named his successor…
Derek Jeter was the first man to take the team captaincy of the Yankees very, very (and we mean very) seriously.
That approach worked, as the Yankees kept on winning division titles and going to the World Series for a while when Jeter assumed the role at the age of 29.
Jeter understood that his most important duty as team captain was assuring that the team was first, and built on character.
“Your image isn’t your character. Character is what you are as a person,” Jeter said.
This was not the 1970s and 1980s Yankees, where the front office was fucked up and fucking things up all the time. This was not a team where players rolled around on the clubhouse floor fighting each other.
The Jeter Yankees lived under the command of “Win, Be Uncontroversial, Guard the Image.”
It worked, and Jeter’s role as team captain serves to support his place among the legends of the franchise. When he retired, so revered was Jeter, that many fans thought, like they had with Gehrig and Munson, that no one should ever be team captain again.
But, that didn’t last long…
We’re at the point now where players and their agents negotiate a team captaincy as part of a career-defining contract.
When Judge hit the open market after his 62-homer 2022 season, the only way the slugger was going to stay in New York was if the Brinks trucks were backed up to his townhouse and every bag of gold was laid as his feet. Among the honors laid at his feet was to be named team captain and finish his career as a Yankee.
Judge is the first outfielder since Babe Ruth to be named team captain. He’s signed through 2031, when the big guy will turn 39.
All that remains for Judge is to get the franchise back to the World Series. It’s been 14 years since the Yanks won a pennant, the longest drought since 1982-1996.