The former New York Yankees’ great seemed to be well on his way to earning a place in Cooperstown in the late 1980s before a back injury ended his career and ultimately cast doubt over his candidacy. Although Mattingly was once again up for consideration for the National Baseball Hall of Fame as one of 10 finalists for induction on the 2020 Modern Baseball Era ballot, Mattingly failed again.
Most in baseball think of “Donny baseball” as one of the best Yankee hitters of all time, which he probably was. But what most miss is that he was perhaps the most excellent defender at first base, or any base ever, not just as a Yankee, but as a baseball player. In his fourteen years, his fielding percentage was .9959. That’s four misplayed balls out of 1000 sent his way. His offensive career ended up with an average of .307 with 222 home runs and three consecutive seasons of over 200 hits.
Mattingly the early years
Donald Arthur Mattingly was born on April 20, 1961, in Evansville, Indiana, the youngest of five children of Bill and Mary Mattingly in Evansville, Indiana. Mattingly’s introduction to baseball included backyard Wiffle ball. Because he was the youngest in the family, his brothers let him tag along to their neighborhood baseball games. Being the youngest, he would have to try harder than the other boys, and at his young age, he found that he could hold his own against the older players.
As a teenager, he attended Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville. He would excel in baseball, football, and basketball. He was the team’s starting quarterback. In basketball, he was the team’s point guard. But it was one American Legion baseball game that convinced Don that he was a baseball player. In a 1976 game against the neighboring town of Owensboro, Kentucky, he faced a pitcher who was the Cincinnati Reds’ top draft pick that year. Don, a freshman, hit two doubles off the star. From then on, people knew who Don Mattingly was. At one point, Mattingly helped Reitz Memorial to a 59-game winning streak, with one of those wins coming in the Indiana state championship game in his junior season. After that, he started getting letters offering scholarships.
Don credits his high school baseball coach to instilling a strong work ethic and always getting better. His coach would say to him, if you are the best on the team, you need to be best in the region; if you’re the best in the region, you need to be the best in the state, and then you start to think about the best in the country. Mattingly would recall that ethics helped him in minor leagues when he fought for jobs. Because he got so many scholarship offers, most scouts thought he would attend college. But the Yankees took a chance and drafted him in the 1979 draft at the age of 18, Mattingly accepted, and the Yankees signed him to a minor league contract.
Donnie Baseball in the minors and his Major League debut
Mattingly enjoyed almost instant success in the minor leagues, hitting .349 with the Oneonta Yankees of the Class-A (short season) New York-Penn League in 53 games in 1979. In 1980 he moved up to Greensboro, then on to AA Nashville. In 1981 he was promoted to AAA Columbus. There he hit .315 with 98 RBI’s. The performance was good enough to get him called up to the stadium when the roster expanded in September. He flopped miserably in seven games with the big club, hitting .167. As the 1983 season started, he made the team and appeared in seven at-bats before being sent back down to Columbus. After 43 games at Columbus, he was hitting .340, and when Bobby Mercer retired, he was called up to fill the position for the New York Yankees. He spent the rest of the year as a spot hitter, left and right fielder, and at first base.
In 1984, Yogi Berra was the new Yankee manager, and he would say that Donnie would be on the team, much to Donnie’s relief, as he wouldn’t have to wonder if he would make it. Berra believed he would best be used as a reserve player and a pinch-hitter because “he has the kind of stroke that enables him to sit for three weeks and still hit,” as Berra said. It took only a few weeks of spring training to change Berra’s mind. After a March in which Mattingly hit well and continued to show off his slick glove at first base, Berra announced that Mattingly would start the season as the regular first baseman. Donnie would never see the minor leagues again. In 1984 Mattingly would hit .343 with 207 hits with 23 home runs. He would be an All-Star. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the best season of his career.
Mattingly becomes a baseball star:
For the next five years, he would hit over .300 and establish himself as one of the game’s best first basemen. In 1985 he would have 147 RBI’s. As the season was coming to an end and the Yankees out of reach of the postseason, the media’s big New York Yankees story was the batting title race between him and Dave Winfield. With four games remaining and four right-handed pitchers to face, Lou Pinella gave the advantage to Mattingly. But for Mattingly, he would go only 1 for 7, and Winfield went upon him. But in the last game of the year, Mattingly would hit four hits in the game, winning the race. After the game, Winfield and Mattingly walked to first base and shook hands before a wildly cheering Yankee crowd.
Mattingly’s 1986 season was even more dominant than his MVP campaign the year before. He hit .352, with 238 hits, 53 doubles, 31 home runs, and 113 RBIs. He finished second to Roger Clemens that year in MVP voting. All in all, Mattingly would go on to play in six All-Star games, be nominated for the MVP seven times, winning it once, and would receive an unprecedented nine Gold Glove Awards. He would also win three Silver Slugger Awards. In the five years.
After 1990 his performance would fall off considerably due to the injured discs in the back. However, most say he was still one of the best players in either league. Donnie would spend his entire 14-year career with the Yankees. He finished his career with 2,153 hits, 222 home runs, 1,007 runs scored, 1,099 RBI, and a .307-lifetime average. After he retired as a player, he would manage the Dodgers for five above .500 seasons. He then managed the lowly Florida Marlins, never having a winning season. He still works as the Marlins manager with the owner, fellow Yankee Derek Jeter.
He will always be “Donnie Baseball,” an all-time fan favorite of the Yankee faithful for Yankee fans. Many fans wanted him to replace Joe Girardi as Yankee manager. He got 28% of the vote in his first year of eligibility, failing to get enough votes, but it was enough to keep him on the ballot until 2015. After that, he never approached 28% again. Nevertheless, New York Yankees fans believe he should be enshrined.
Below are some video highlights of his illustrious career.
EmpireSportsMedia.com’s columnist William Parlee is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Follow me on Twitter @parleewilliam.