Assuming the Position: Will Jeter’s Career End More Like Mantle’s or DiMaggio’s?

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

As is often its custom, the New York Post took a rather innocuous comment and turned it into a blaring headline. Although there really is no reason to suggest that Derek Jeter will be doing his best Robin Yount impersonation anytime soon, that didn’t stop the city’s most creative tabloid from naming him the heir apparent to Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

If Jeter does eventually move off his current position, he wouldn’t be the first Yankees’ Hall of Famer to make such a concession to age later in his career. In fact, two of the team’s most decorated legends, Mantle and Yogi Berra, played several years toward the end of their careers in unfamiliar territory.

In 1965, Mantle made his first move over to left field, which allowed Tom Tresh to take over in center. Then, after slipping back into CF for the 1966 season, Mantle closed out his career manning first base for two years. This time, it was Joe Pepitone who took over center field for the Mick.

Yogi’s transition from catcher to the outfield came much earlier in his career. In 1958, at the age of 33, Berra first saw significant playing time outside of the catcher’s box when he started 21 games in right field. Gradually, Berra made a more permanent transition and wound up playing mostly left field in the team’s championship 1961 season. Interestingly, a year earlier, one of the more indelible images of Berra occurred in left field at Forbes Field, where the former catcher had a bird’s eye view of Bill Mazeroski’s series winning homer.

Although Mantle’s and Berra’s position switches were effected without much controversy, the same can’t be said about Joe DiMaggio’s one game stint at first base. With the Yankees struggling against lefties, and DiMaggio showing noticeable signs of slowing down in center, in the summer of 1950, Stengel decided that it would be best for the team if the lineup could squeeze in another right handed bat. The only problem, however, was convincing DiMaggio.

This is strictly my idea. I’ve asked Joe to try first base to help the team. That position has been a sore spot for us all season.” – Yankees’ manager Casey Stengel, quoted by AP, July 2, 1950

It may have been Stengel’s decision, but the Old Perfessor actually had owner Dan Topping deliver the news to DiMaggio, according to UP. Never a big fan of Stengel to begin with, the Yankee Clipper wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but eventually relented to Topping’s request. So, on July 3 against the Senators, DiMaggio took his position at first base after only one afternoon of practice. Lined up behind him in center was Cliff Mapes, whose vacated right field was now left open for Hank Bauer.                                                                                                        

Naturally, I don’t like the idea of changing my position after so many years, but I’ll play wherever they want me.” – Joe DiMaggio, quoted by UP sportswriter Oscar Fraley, July 7, 1950

Despite recording 13 putouts without error, DiMaggio wasn’t exactly comfortable at his new position. “I just wasn’t sure where to make the play,” the former centerfielder told reporters after the game, “I felt as if I was always one play ahead or behind”.

Luckily for DiMaggio, or really Stengel, Bauer sprained his ankle in the July 3 game, which meant the Yankee Clipper was back in his old haunts after only one game at first base. Whether Joltin’ Joe would have remained in the infield had Bauer not been injured is hard to say, but in comments after the game, DiMaggio strongly suggested that a more permanent switch would be more acceptable after a full Spring Training to adjust. In 1950, DiMaggio was not only a revered figure, but also still the team’s best hitter, so it’s hard to imagine Stengel pressing forward with his grand design if his star wasn’t fully on board.

Not surprisingly, there was little talk about DiMaggio moving to first base the following spring. Instead, the big news was the March announcement that 1951 would most likely be his last season. “I may change my mind,” Joe DiMaggio told the assembled hordes, “but the way I feel now I want to have one more good year, and then quit on top”. So much for the Yankees plan of prolonging DiMaggio’s career by moving him to an easier position.

Early in that spring, just days after making his announcement, DiMaggio injured his ankle, forcing a young short stop named Mickey Mantle to take his place in center. Mantle’s raw athletic ability in the outfield, not to mention his explosive bat, opened several eyes and eventually led to the 19-year old going north with the team. Stengel initially expressed the desire to have Mantle spend 1951 in the minors learning how to play center field, but he couldn’t resist adding his bat to the roster. As a result, the rookie learned on the fly by playing right field in the major leagues, even though more than a few observers wondered why the younger, more athletic Mantle hadn’t already been promoted to play center.

In a final twist to the story, Mantle was still playing right field in Game 1 of the 1951 World Series against the Giants, when fellow rookie Willie Mays lined a ball toward him. With Mantle in hot pursuit, legend has it that DiMaggio called for the catch at the last second, causing the 19-year old to pull up short in one of the drain holes in the outfield. Destined to be DiMaggio’s replacement, Mantle’s accident would wind up causing him to endure a career filled with pain and injury, just like the Yankee Clipper.

It was a strange accident with Mantle, striding toward a fly ball that Joe DiMaggio eventually caught in right center, falling flat on his face when the knee gave way.” – AP sportswriter Jack Hand, October 8, 1951  

Derek Jeter has always been compared to Joe DiMaggio, especially because of his elegance, dignity, and preference for maintaining a very private inner circle. Pride is another common bond that seems to exist between the two men, so it’s not hard to imagine an eventual position shift for Jeter proceeding along the same lines as DiMaggio’s. Of course, Jeter could surprise us all and take to a new spot on the field with the same acceptance as Berra and Mantle. Regardless of the Post’s recent headline, however, that’s a story for another day.

2 thoughts on “Assuming the Position: Will Jeter’s Career End More Like Mantle’s or DiMaggio’s?

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  2. Steve S.

    Terrific stuff, William. I would only add that in both instances, the Yanks moved a great player off centerfield as they aged, as opposed to moving someone to the position. That’s why the whole thing is just silly on its face.

    I don’t even remember Brian actually saying the word “centerfield” except in passing. He certainly didn’t say anything definitive, as I explained in my morning piece today.

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