Deadspin recently released a not-so-scientific two-part list of the 100 worst Major League baseball players of all time. This inspired me to take a break from my usual beat of prospects, parentheticals, and rhetorical questions. Not surprisingly, several guys on this list spent time in a Yankee uniform at some point. I thought it would be fun to take a look at the players who were distinguished enough to make the list, and reminisce about some other awful Yankees from past year. Feel free to discuss your picks for the worst Yankees ever in the comment section, with statistical backing if you dare. This post will take a look at the first half of the list.
3. Fred “Bonehead” Merkle (career WAR 30.7): Merkle checked in at #3 on the list, which is probably not entirely fair since Merkle was actually a decent ballplayer. He put together a solid 19-year career in the bigs, debuting at the tender age of 18 with the New York Giants in 1907, and spending time with the Cubs and the Yankees (in his last 2 seasons, 1925-26). His overall value was brought down by being -9 runs above replacement (RAR) in the field (how anyone can measure a player’s fielding prowess from over 100 years ago is beyond me, but we’ll humor Fangraphs here). He put together some solid offensive seasons by the low standards of the Dead Ball Era (the period just proceeding Babe Ruth), with his best being a .398 WOBA season (.309/.374/.409) with 11 homers, 84 RBI, and 34 steals. He finished 7th in the MVP voting. So why did a decent player like Merkle make this list? Because of a baserunning gaffe that has continued to live in infamy over a century later, and make even Jorge Posada proud. I am talking, of course, about the infamous “Merkle’s Boner” (no, not like that you perverts).
Merkle, 19 at the time and the Giants were facing off against the Chicago Cubs in the final game of the 1908 season (the teams were tied with 98 wins, and the team with the best record will win the pennant). The game was deadlocked 1-1 with 2 outs in the 9th. Merkle was on first base after singling the winning run over to third. The next batter, Al Bridwell, singled in the winning run. As the crowd stormed the field in celebration (as they did in the good old days before tazers), Merkle, thinking the game was over, ran back to the dugout without touching second base. Cagey second baseman Johnny Evers (of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame) realized Merkle’s mistake, retrieved the ball (or a ball, it was never clear that he actually found the game ball) and tagged second, forcing out Merkle and preventing the game from being over. They were forced to play a rematch (since it had gotten too dark to start a new game) and the Cubs ended up victorious. They went on to win the World Series for the last time. Merkle later ended up with the Yankees, where he played a total of 8 games before retiring in 1926.
4. ”Marvelous” Marv Throneberry (2.1): Throneberry primarily earned his fame by being one of the worst players on one of the worst teams of all time (the 1962 Mets, who lost 120 games), though he was signed as an amateur free agent by the Yankees in 1955. He played with the Yankees’ minor league system and showed great power, leading the league in home runs and RBI’s 3 times. In 1958, he came up to New York for good, and put up a .330 WOBA in limited work, and .308 in 1959. In 1960, he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics along with Don Larsen, Norm Siebern, and Hank Bauer for Roger Maris and two other players. He was eventually traded to the Orioles and then the Mets, where he made his reputation as an incompetent fielder and a bit of a buffoon. A famous story of Marv’s ineptitude occurred in a 1962 game when he surprisingly hit a triple against the Cubs, but was called out for missing second base. When manager Casey Stengel came out to argue, the umpire reportedly told the Old Professor “Don’t bother arguing Casey, he missed first base too.”
Billy Martin (7.0): Martin put together a 12-year big league career beginning in 1950 with the Yankees as their second baseman. He peaked with a .321 WOBA, but was held back by his poor fieldign (-19 RAR). Deadspin ranked Martin on the list not because of his performance (which was mediocre) but because of his effect on teammates. He was reportedly a heavy drinker with a very active nightlife. Martin became involved in a brawl at the Copacabana on his 29th birthday (with Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Mickey Mantle also dragged into the fray). The Yankees traded Martin a month later, reportedly because Yankee GM George Weiss believed that Martin was becoming a bad influence on his teammates, especially Mantle and Whitey Ford. He of course returned to the Yankees later for a long and eventful managing career, and became famous for his repeated quarrels with (and firing by) George Steinbrenner.
15. Curt Blefary (16.9): Blefary spent only 1 of his 8 big league seasons in Pinstripes, but overall, he proved to be a strong offensive player but a horrible defender. He posted a career-high .379 WOBA in his rookie year, 1965, where he was worth 5 WAR, slugged 22 home runs, and was named Rookie of the Year. Despite his offensive prowess, Blefary’s horrible defense (-18) led him to be nicknamed “Clank” by manager Frank Robinson, and shuffled between several positions. His inability to succeed at a defensive position (and his declining offensive production) led him to be dealt to the Astros for Mike Cuellar. He was traded after the 1969 season to the Yankees for Joe Pepitone. In 1970, as a Yankee, Blefary posted a -0.9 WAR and a .300 WOBA, horrible in every sense of the word.
20. Butch Hobson (2.9): As bad a fielder as Blefary was, Hobson was even worse. He played most of his career at third base with Boston (from 1975-1980), posting a career-high .344 WOBA in 1979 with 28 homers. He was -52 defensively for his career, which subtracted substantially from his offensive prowess. He made 43 errors in 1978, posting an atrocious .899 fielding percentage. He was eventually traded to the Angels and then made his way to the Yankees, where he posted a .176 WOBA season before retiring in 1982.
21. Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni (5.0): Finally, a player who played in my lifetime (though just barely). Balboni was drafted by the Yankees in the second round of the 1978 draft, primarily for his prodigious power. He debuted in 1981, and saw part-time action with the Yankees for 3 seasons before being traded to the Royals. Given regular playing time, Balboni thrived, posting a career high 36 home runs in a .341 WOBA 1985, though he struck out 166 times. Balboni struck out over 20 percent of his at bats for his entire career, and never was able to walk consistently enough to be valuable. He was released and re-signed several times before rejoining the Yankees in 1989 for two mediocre seasons (.330 and .312 WOBA respectively). After eventually being let go by the Yankees, he toiled in the minors for a few more seasons before rejoining the Rangers briefly in 1993. After a 2-game stint, Balboni’s big league career was finished.
All this mediocrity is getting hard to bear, but I’ll continue on with more of the worst players to wear Yankee pinstripes in another post (maybe tomorrow?).
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