The summer of 2008 was the last for old Yankee Stadium. The baseball cathedral stood majestically in the Bronx since 1923. That last summer gave fans an intimate look inside the big ballpark’s history and unearthed hidden treasures.
There were stained-glass windows that stretched the length of a wall. There was the Columbus Room. And there were the bullpen doodles.
The little details made for a more personal goodbye. Fans could see what the players saw and lived for years in the clubhouse, batting cages, and bullpen. Some stories made for laughs. Some were just pretty cool.
But others were reminders that Yankee Stadium was sacred. They caused fans to stop and reflect and soak in the history.
None caused such a reaction more than a storage room a few feet away from the Columbus Room. The room was used to repair the blue stadium seats. Players rarely ventured through its door.
One player did visit often. Lou Gehrig used the room as his personal sanctuary, a place to think and hide as his body deteriorated at the end of his career. It was referred to as the Gehrig Room.
It was also a “holy place.”
Gehrig’s spiritual presence was enough to make the walls special. A mural made them holy. The mural, done by baseball artist James Fiorentino, illustrated three Yankees captains – Gehrig, Thurman Munson, and Derek Jeter – on a pillar. The room and the painting and the history showed how special it was to be a member of the New York Yankees.
And though there were 13 Yankees captains, the mural only features three. The painting separated them from the group. Those three were special. They were the Yankees captains.
Gehrig served as the captain from 1935 to 1939. Some accounts of Yankees history remember Gehrig as the “man who was the first Yankees’ captain.” Others go as far back to pitcher Clark Griffith from 1903 to 1907. And still others remember Babe Ruth as the first captain. Ruth held the honor in 1922, but was stripped of the captaincy by Miller Huggins after he went into the stands after a fan taunted him.
The differing accounts continue throughout the Yankees captain history. But it is believed the Yankees went from 1922 to 1935 without naming another captain. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy wanted to erase the Ruth debacle from memory after the Bambino left the organization for the Boston Braves. McCarthy left it up to the players and they picked Gehrig.
Gehrig was the perfect choice. He embodied everything a captain should. And McCarthy loved him. Gehrig was a role model and leader for the other players. Ruth was none of that despite being the star for so many years. McCarthy often had to bend the rules for the Babe. Gehrig served as the outline for the rules – he was the definition of a Yankee ballplayer.
When Gehrig retired, McCarthy said there would never be another Yankees captain.
And there wasn’t until Thurman Munson was given the title in 1976. Munson was beloved. He was the heart and soul of the Yankees, a no-nonsense, gritty catcher that cared about one thing on the diamond: winning. That gruff attitude made him the perfect successor to Gehrig as the next Yankees captain. And he lived up to the title until his tragic death in 1979.
Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, and Don Mattingly are all listed as captains from 1982 to 1995.
But another captain worthy of Gehrig and Munson’s company wouldn’t arrive in the majors full-time until 1996. His name is well-known today. His name is Derek Jeter and he has officially been the Yankee captain since 2003.
Jeter has also been the bright face of baseball in its darkest days. Whether you’re a Red Sox fan or a casual baseball fan, it’s hard to find a flaw in the shortstop. He commands the sporting world’s respect.
Jeter is perfect just as Gehrig was in his day. His intensity and clutch play have been hallmarks of the latest Yankees dynasty. From blasting Bernie Williams before a World Series game to “The Flip,” his career is the stuff of legends.
And it’s all been defined by pinstripes.
But it goes far beyond the pinstripes. This is different. It’s deeper. Derek Jeter isn’t just a New York Yankee.
Derek Jeter is the New York Yankees captain.
It all goes back to old Yankee Stadium and the Gehrig Room. And the pillar with the mural. The mural that celebrates the three Yankees captains
Three captains – Gehrig sitting on a bench crying, Munson posing with a bat, and Jeter finishing off another swing – and three words – “Yankee Captains Forever!” – say it all.
The Gehrig room is so special because only three players in the Yankees rich history are honored.
When new Yankee Stadium opened, there were 24 plaques in Monument Park. There were six monuments. Sixteen players have their numbers retired by the team.
Babe Ruth is seen by many as the greatest who ever lived, a larger-than-life character who was bigger than the game too. Yogi Berra won 10 World Series rings and he’s loved in the baseball community. Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, is revered as a mysterious god. Mickey Mantle was the ultimate baseball superhero, a true natural with a sweet swing from both sides of the plate.
None of them are included in the mural. None of them are seen as Yankee captains. Just Yankee greats. And there’s a difference.
Jeter cannot be compared to others who left the Yankees to finish their careers elsewhere.
He is not Babe Ruth. Though old Yankee Stadium was called the “House that Ruth Built,” the Babe caused problems and because of it, he wasn’t a Yankee captain. Plus, he started his career with the Boston Red Sox and though it made for some great stories over the years, it also made it impossible for him to be a Yankee through and through.
He is not Roger Maris who was simply good, but not even a Hall of Famer. He is not Elston Howard who warranted a Yankeeography but isn’t on the same level as the other Yankee legends. Billy Martin, Willie Randolph, and Graig Nettles were a big part of the Yankee tradition.
But they didn’t define it. The captain defines the team. The Yankee captain defines the organization. Jeter has been the unquestioned leader of the Bronx Bombers since his arrival.
Like Gehrig and Munson before him, he should only ever wear Yankees pinstripes.
Munson considered leaving New York for Cleveland during the intense days of the Bronx Zoo when he felt he was underappreciated. But Munson stayed in New York and proved his worth. He won the MVP in 1976, his first season as captain, after having a brilliant all-around year at the plate, behind the plate, and in the clubhouse.
Jeter feels he is being slighted by the Yankees in contract negotiations. The team has offered a three-year deal worth $45 million. Jeter wants more. It’s expected in business these days. No one signs on the dotted line after the first offer. Unfortunately, not even Jeter.
Jeter could be considering other places as Munson once did.
The St. Louis Cardinals have been rumored as a possible landing spot. Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune lists St. Louis as a fit if Jeter does leave the Big Apple. The Cards want a shortstop to replace Brendan Ryan after a down year. And more importantly, he believes Jeter would be valuable in the Albert Pujols negotiations. If the team can’t afford Pujols, Jeter would be a nice consolation prize to help the team post-Pujols and even replace him at first base.
I don’t share the same vision. Jeter hit .270 in his worst offensive year ever in 2010. He may bounce back next year, but is best days are behind him. Despite his Gold Glove at short, he would be a downgrade from Ryan defensively. And nothing will ease the pain of losing Pujols. Definitely not a 37-year-old shortstop.
Sure, Jeter would be treated like a god in St. Louis. The baseball town would certainly recognize his place in history as an all-time great. But he would never be a St. Louis god. He would never be a St. Louis Cardinal. Or San Francisco Giant. Or Minnesota Twin. And he should never wear another uniform either.
Derek Jeter will only ever be a New York Yankee. He should only ever be a New York Yankee. No matter how tense negotiations get, he needs to find a way to stay in New York.
And when times do get tough at the bargaining table, Jeter should stop, take a deep breath, and think. When he does, he should follow in Gehrig’s footsteps again. Jeter should imagine he is back in old Yankee Stadium. Back in the Gehrig Room.
And he should just think for a while.
Eventually, the answer will become clear. It’s been there all along. On the pillar in the mural.
“Yankee Captains Forever!”
(Sources: Baseball Almanac, Baseball-Reference, Chicago Tribune, NY Post (Kevin Kernan), NY Times, USA Today)