In celebration of Black History Month, let’s look back on the best African-American players to ever don a New York Yankees uniform.
The New York Yankees were a little bit late to the integration party.
As a lifelong fan of the team, I feel comfortable saying there was no excuse for why. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for the rival Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and led them to the World Series, but the Yankees defeated them in a tough seven-game series.
Even so, the Yankees caught up a few years later when they signed their first Black player from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950. Surely, they would soon join baseball in embracing progress, right?
Wrong. We’ll get to who that player was in a bit, but here’s an idea of how far behind the Yankees were with integration. One year after that signature signing, one Willie Mays debuted for the rival New York Giants. Of course, the Yankees beat him and his teammates in the World Series.
No, the Yankees didn’t see their first Black player debut until 1955, five years after initially signing him. They made the World Series, and lost to Robinson’s Dodgers. Karma, perhaps?
Imagine being invited to watch The Godfather with a bunch of friends at someone’s house, but you don’t arrive until when (SPOILER ALERT!) Sonny Corleone gets shot. That was the New York Yankees as it came to integrating the team.
Seeing as how it’s Black History Month, let’s make up for lost time and jump in the DeLorean so we can answer one question.
If the Yankees put together an All-Time African American team, who would make the cut?
C: Elston Howard, 1955-1967
You never forget your first, so Elston Howard is the perfect man to kick us off here. The Yankees signed him away from the Negro Leagues team of great lore, the Kansas City Monarchs, when he was just 21 years old. Though most of his stats from then are lost, Howard eventually made a grand impact in the minors. He hit .330 with 22 homers and 109 RBI for Triple-A Toronto in 1954, and debuted for New York a year later.
It took him a couple of years, but Howard eventually settled in as the Yankees’ everyday catcher as an aging Yogi Berra moved to the outfield. All in all, he spent 12-and-a-half years in the Bronx and hit .279 as a Yankee. In an era when there were two All-Star Games per year, Howard was honored an eye-popping 12 times in 14 seasons.
As a player, Howard aged like a fine wine. Even while dealing with some bumps and bruises, he always managed to play at a high level. In 1963, at 34 years old, he hit 28 home runs en route to being named AL MVP. Howard also won four World Series rings and two Gold Gloves before being traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1967, and then retiring after the 1968 season.
He later returned to the Yankees as a coach and won two additional World Series rings, but was taken from us way too soon. In 1980, he succumbed to a heart ailment at just 51 years old. Elston Howard’s time on earth was short, but he made the most of it. To this day, the Yankees have yet to have an African-American catcher who performed as well as he did.
1B: Chris Chambliss, 1974-1979
Most New York Yankees fans remember Chris Chambliss for what happened in the video above. In the fifth and decisive game of the 1976 ALCS, his walk-off homer against the Kansas City Royals sent the Yankees to their first World Series in over a decade.
Yet, Chambliss was so much more as a Yankees staple, and we don’t do revisionist history at ESNY. The lefty-swinging first baseman came up with the Cleveland Indians and was traded to the Yankees in April 1974. Taking advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch, his power numbers went up as he hit 79 home runs in seven years. Chambliss also made his sole All-Star team as a Yankee in 1976, and won a Gold Glove in 1978 as well as a pair of World Series rings.
And though the Yankees dealt Chambliss to the Toronto Blue Jays (who soon sent him to the Atlanta Braves) after the 1979 season, he wasn’t done in pinstripes. He returned as New York’s hitting coach under Joe Torre in 1996 and won four more World Series rings.
Chambliss was a very good player and not necessarily great, but he was consistent. Even with limited power, he managed to bat .279 for his career and .282 as a Yankee. Were it not for the Yankees having Don Mattingly, maybe he would have even retired in pinstripes.
2B: Willie Randolph, 1976-1988
Willie Randolph was designed to be a Yankee, even though he grew up in the shadow of Jackie Robinson and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Like the fellow second baseman, Randolph was a solid fielder and contact hitter with respectable speed. The Pittsburgh Pirates dealt him to the New York Yankees in the 1975 offseason in a deal that would prove to be Randolph’s homecoming.
The rest, as they say, is history. Randolph spent the next 13 years in pinstripes and became the epitome of consistency. He posted a line of .275/.374/.357 as a Yankee and won two World Series rings as a player. Randolph also played in five All-Star Games before leaving in free agency in 1989.
Like his former teammate Chambliss, Randolph also returned to the Yankees as a coach. He was the third base and later bench coach, wearing the uniform from 1994-2004 and taking home four more rings. He then left to manage the crosstown rival New York Mets, with whom he finished his career in 1992.
Willie Randolph may not have been an all-time great, but he was the Yankees’ most serviceable second baseman for years. Being a Brooklyn native who played the same position as Robinson, his Bronx tenure looks all the more meaningful through that lens.
SS: Derek Jeter, 1995-2014
Are we really surprised? No disrespect to the Bobby Meacham stans, but the Captain’s legacy really needs no summarizing.
Five World Series rings. A .310 lifetime batting average. Ranking sixth on MLB’s all-time hits list with 3,465, not to mention he’s the only Yankee to ever reach the 3,000-hit plateau.
There has never been a better New York Yankees shortstop than Derek Jeter. Gleyber Torres is young enough that he could theoretically match or even exceed these numbers in his career.
And even then, he would always be compared side-by-side with Jeter.
3B: Charlie Hayes, 1992, 1996-97
Like Chris Chambliss, Charlie Hayes is known for one signature moment with the New York Yankees: he caught the final out of the 1996 World Series.
But what many don’t know is that Hayes made the catch during his second stint in the Bronx. The Philadelphia Phillies sent him to the Yankees to complete a trade prior to the 1992 season, and Hayes set then-career highs with 18 home runs and 66 RBI in pinstripes. New York left him unprotected in the expansion draft and Hayes was selected by the Colorado Rockies, for whom he had a career year in ’93.
Hayes returned to the Yankees via a trade in late 1996 and left his mark again. His series-clinching catch aside, his bunt in Game 2 of the ALDS helped New York even the series against a tough Texas Rangers squad. He spent one more season with the Yankees, who then traded him to San Francisco.
He wasn’t a great player, maybe not even a good one. But as far as African American Yankees third basemen go, Hayes just might stand alone.
LF: Oscar Gamble, 1976, 1979-1984
Unlike his teammate Willie Randolph, Oscar Gamble was not designed to be a Yankee. The veteran lefty-swinging outfielder marched to the beat of his own drum and gave owner George Steinbrenner fits with his large-looming Afro haircut. In fact, Steinbrenner forced him to trim his hair, given the Yankees’ well-known grooming policy.
Even so, Gamble became a cult hero in New York. He proved a reliable lefty bat who could thrive both as a starter and coming off the bench. In 1976, his first year with the Yankees, he hit 17 home runs en route to the team making the World Series.
The honeymoon proved a short one, as Gamble was sent to the Chicago White Sox in April 1977 for Bucky Dent. Two years later, the romance was back on as the Yankees dealt Mickey Rivers for the Texas Rangers for Gamble. He spent the next five years with the Yankees before retiring with the White Sox.
Was Oscar Gamble an all-time great? Far from it but every once in a while, there comes a player the fans just love unconditionally. Gamble was the living embodiment of that.
CF: Mickey Rivers
Mickey Rivers wasn’t with the New York Yankees for a long time, but he certainly had a good time wearing the pinstripes. The then-California Angels sent him to the Yankees as part of the Bobby Bonds trade in late 1975. That season, Rivers led the AL in triples and stolen bases.
He never led in any major offensive category as a Yankee, but “Mick the Quick” still endeared himself to fans. He finished third in MVP voting in 1976 and also played in his only All-Star Game. In each of his three full seasons in New York, the Yankees made the World Series and won twice.
The Yankees wanted to up their pop in the lineup in 1979, so Rivers was traded away for Gamble. Even still, he hit .299 as a Yankee and stole 93 of his 267 career stolen bases in pinstripes. To this day, he is a fixture at Old-Timers’ Day.
Baseball is all about power now, so it’s easy for Rivers’ career to fly under the radar. Even so, he was a special player in his prime and was a key cog in the New York Yankees machine.
RF: Reggie Jackson
“I’m the straw that stirs the drink,” Reggie Jackson infamously said in 1977, taking a jab at his new teammate and New York Yankees captain Thurman Munson. The comment ruffled feathers, and Jackson was far from an ideal teammate despite his near-$3 million contract. Fast forward to that year’s World Series and Jackson’s three home runs in the clinching Game 6, and all was forgotten.
But even though he was his generation’s Rod Tidwell, Reggie Jackson left his mark with the Yankees. In his five years with the team, the Yankees played in three World Series. He hit .281 in pinstripes and was an All-Star each of those five seasons. 144 of his 563 career home runs came as a Yankee.
Even if Reggie Jackson wasn’t a homegrown talent, he made the most of his time here. The Yankees contended every year and were responsible for two of his five career World Series rings. Needless to say, Mr. October’s contributions to the team’s history will never be forgotten.
DH: Dave Winfield, 1981-1990
Before there was Aaron Judge, there was Dave Winfield. At a strong and powerful 6-foo-6, 220 pounds, he was someone who had been drafted by the NBA and ABA. Even though he never played college football, he was drafted into the NFL too.
The Yankees made him a blockbuster free agent signee before the 1981 season, when he inked a then-record-setting 10-year, $23 million deal. Unfortunately, Winfield’s New York tenure is better known for his long feud with Steinbrenner rather than his on-field accomplishments.
It’s a shame because even though the Yankees only got to the playoffs once with Winfield, he lived up to his contract. Nearly half of his 465 career homers were as a Yankee. He made eight All-Star teams and took home five Gold Gloves. In 1984, he just barely lost to teammate Don Mattingly in the AL batting race.
Sadly, the feud with Steinbrenner continued and Winfield was traded to the Angels for pitcher Mike Witt. Winfield retired five years later with a World Series ring and over 3,000 hits, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
Even if his time with the Yankees was marred by drama with Steinbrenner, the true fans remember all the good things about Dave Winfield.
SP: CC Sabathia, 2009-2019
CC Sabathia didn’t come up with the New York Yankees, but was the epitome of what it means to put on the pinstripes. He arrived on a $161 million contract ahead of the 2009 season and performed as advertised, posting a 1.99 postseason ERA as the Yankees won the World Series.
And though the Yankees continually came up short in the playoffs the rest of Sabathia’s career, he never made it an issue. The team always came first for him. He signed two more one-year deals just so he could retire with the team that worked so hard to sign him that one offseason.
CC Sabathia was a champion as a New York Yankee. He notched his 3,000th strikeout as a New York Yankee. He got sober as a New York Yankee. Upon his retirement after the 2019 season, he ensured he would enter Cooperstown as a New York Yankee.
134 wins, a 3.81 ERA, and 1,700 strikeouts all while wearing a Yankees uniform. Not since Al Downing had the Bronx had such a dominant African-American pitcher. CC Sabathia is beloved by the New York Yankees for these very reasons and more, and will continue to be for the rest of his life.
RP: Tom “Flash” Gordon, 2004-2005
The New York Yankees have not had many dominant African-American relief pitchers, but Tom “Flash” Gordon stands out in particular. He was already well into his MLB career when he signed with the Yankees in 2004, and the 36-year-old was expected to be part of the bridge to closer Mariano Rivera.
What took several by surprise was just how durable Gordon still was at his age. Even in just two short years with the Yankees, he left a significant mark coming out of the bullpen. Not only did he post a 2.38 ERA and win 14 games out of the bullpen, but Gordon appeared in an astounding 159 games with New York.
Gordon performed at such a high level that the Phillies gave him a multiyear deal after 2005, and he registered 34 saves for them in 2006— as a 38-year-old veteran!
He was a hard worker who never complained, even if he never won a World Series ring. Even so, being a key figure in a Stephen King book is a nice consolation prize, no?