The New York Yankees are not just the most historic franchise in the history of baseball, but in all of sports, with 27 World Series championships and 40 American League pennants. With that, that they have so many historic and great players and it is hard to keep this list to just four. The tradition, the interlocking “NY” on their pinstriped jerseys, the love for them, the love to hate them mentality, and the success makes them the real “America’s Team” not those certain Jerry Jones-led Cowboys in the National Football League. Anyway, let’s get into the Yankees’ four greatest players of all time with plenty of honorable mentions.
Be sure to check out all of our Mount Rushmore articles here.
Babe Ruth (1920-34)
“The Sultan of Swat! The King of Crash! The Colossus of Clout! The Colossus of Clout! BABE RUTH! THE GREAT BAMBINO!”
Whatever you want to call him, Babe Ruth is undoubtedly the most timeless and famous name in baseball history and is the greatest baseball player of all time. Mike Trout could have something to say about that once his career comes to end. Over the Babe’s 14 years with the Yankees, he slashed an insane .349/.484/.711 and smashed 649 home runs; his 54 homers in 1920 were more than the next three players combined while he outhomered all but one American League team. Ruth doesn’t make just a certain type of fan happy, he makes them all happy.
The traditionalists and the analytic nerds. The old school fans and the new school fans. The millennials and the “boomers”. He had nine seasons with a bWAR in the double digits, including 14.1 in 1923. Oh yeah, that is the greatest bWAR in a season ever by a fairly big margin, and he is second and third on the list with his seasons in 1921 (12.8) and 1927 (12.5). His career fWAR is 168.4 which is also the best of all-time. That year of 1923 was when the Old Yankee Stadium or “The House that Ruth Built” opened up and he hit a massive .393 (you’re welcome traditionalists) with an OPS of 1.309. He also hit 41 dongs and drove in 130 runs on his way to winning his somehow only MVP Award as the Yankees went on to win their first World Series. Oh, and Ruth also famously called his shot in the 1932 World Series.
Ruth was the first player to hit 30, 40, 50, and 60 homers in a season and when he hit his 138th career home runs he was the all-time home run leader. When he got to 700 career homers, no one else even had half as may. His career slugging percentage of .690 is 82 (!) points higher than Reggie Jackson‘s best season. He wasn’t just about the power either, he stole 123 bases and legged out 136 triples in his career.
Ruth is the Yankees’ franchise leader in WAR, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging, runs scored, total bases, walks, OPS+, and at-bats per HR. His career 197 wRC+ is also the most in the history of baseball; Ted Williams is second with a 188 wRC+.
Ruth was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1936 as one of the Hall’s “first five” inaugural members and he passed away in 1948 from cancer at the age of 53.
Mickey Mantle (1951-69)
The Yankees signed Mantle when he was 17 years old in 1949 and it only took him two years to make his debut. That first season he played in 96 games and hit .267 with a .792 OPS and 13 homers. He earned his first All-Star nod in his second season while leading the American League with a .924 OPS. That was his first of twenty All-Star Game appearances over his 18-year career (two All-Star Games were played in each season from 1959-62).
The Mick won three MVP awards in 1956-57 and 1962, leading the league in home runs (52), RBI (130), batting average (.353), slugging (.705), OPS (1.169), and OPS+ (210) in 1956. That of course earned him the Triple Crown which is when a player leads the league in average, RBI, and home runs. He also led the league in OPS two other times and the AL three times, while leading the AL in homers three times and the league in walks five times. Mantle finished in the top five in MVP voting six other times and his 15.1 Ab per HR is 16th all-time. His career WAR was 110.3 which ranks 20th all-time. He is also have believed to hit a home run that was measured at about 565 feet, but it is hard to know for sure how far it went since it was obviously pre-Statcast era.
Mantle played a big role in the Yankees winning seven championships in 1951-53, 1956, 1958, and 1961-62, while appearing in twelve World Series from 1951-64. He holds career World Series records for home runs (18), RBI (40), extra-base hits (26), runs (42), walks (43), and total bases (123).
In 1961, Mantle went up against his teammate Roger Maris in the “Chase for 61” as the “M&M Boys” were born. The home run lead was bounced back and forth between the two several times throughout the season until Maris broke the record on the final day of the season when he hit number 61. Mantle had hit 54 before being taken out of the lineup in September because of an abscessed hip. The home runs chase is, of course, depicted in the 2001 Billy Crystal movie 61* with Thomas Jane depicting Mantle and Barry Pepper taking on the Maris role.
Mantle was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1974 and passed away in 1995.
Lou Gehrig (1923-39)
Gehrig rode the Yankees’ bench for his first two years before Wally Pipp famously (infamously for him) was scratched from a game in 1925 because of a headache, after which Sweet Lou took over and never looked back. He was the Yankees’ starting first baseman for 14 years in which he slashed .340/.448/.634 clip with 493 homers and 1,995 RBIs. He ranks in the top six in career on-base percentage, OPS (1.080), and RBI (1,995). The Yankee Clipper ranks third all-time in wRC+ (173) and wOBA (.477) and he has the highest ratio of runs scored plus runs batted in per 100 plate appearances (35.08) and per 100 games (156.7) among Hall of Fame players.
Gehrig sadly got diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or what is now often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, at the age of 36, which caused his career to come to an end. The disease took his life in June 1941, nearly two years after he gave his famous “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech at Yankee Stadium.
When he left the Earth, he left behind a great legacy, six World Series championships, and a Hall of Fame induction in 1939.
Mariano Rivera (1995-2013)
There are so many options for the fourth and final spot on the Yankees’ Mount Rushmore. But who was unarguably the greatest player at their respective position? Who allowed less earned runs in the postseason (11) than the number of men who have walked on the moon (12)? Who has the most saves in history (652) and just one of two men to have 600 saves? Who holds the greatest ERA+ of all-time at 205? Who did all this while throwing one pitch his whole career with a cutter? Who was the first and only player to be unanimously elected into Cooperstown in 2019?
Mariano Rivera. Mo. The Sandman. That’s right, the pitcher who was nearly automatic when he would enter the game in the ninth inning. The greatest closer of all-time and one of the biggest reasons the Yankees won five World Series, including their three-peat from 1998-2000. He has the second-highest career WAR among relievers at 56.2, and Dennis Eckersley is first who also made 361 starts.
Rivera started his baseball journey using cardboard gloves and tree-branch bats in the small Panamanian village of Puerto Caimito. His live arm and athletic build garnered him the attention of the Yankees and they signed him as an international free agent for $3,000 on Feb. 17, 1990. During his first full-season in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1991, Rivera struggled to learn English and had to push himself to fit in. He was able to find success in the minors with a high-90s fastball and he debuted in the majors as a starter in 1995.
General manager Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter pushed him to become a reliever and in the next season, he became the dominant set-up man to then-closer John Wetteland. He struck out 130 batters over 107.2 innings and helped lead the Yankees to their first World Series title since 1978. After posting eight wins and five saves, he placed third in Cy Young voting. The following season, Rivera was named the closer and Wetteland, the 1996 World Series MVP, left as a free agent. Rivera posted his first of fifteen straight seasons with at least 28 saves, 11 of those seasons in which he had an ERA under 2.00.
He saved 42 games in 96 postseason appearances, allowing only one other home run in 141 innings. He had just five blown saves and one loss – in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series – while posting an ERA of 0.70. Rivera was named the World Series MVP in 1999 and the ALCS MVP in 2003.
In his final season of 2013, he made his 13th and final All-Star Game where he was named MVP after a perfect eighth inning. On September 26 of that year, Rivera made his last appearance for the Yankees – retiring all four batters he faced before he was pulled from the game, with teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte going to the mound for manager Joe Girardi to take the ball from Rivera, who wept into the arms of two of his most beloved teammates to make up three-fourths of the Core Four. 48,675 fans at Yankee Stadium gave him a standing ovation. Exit Sandman.
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