New York Yankees Legends: Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles

Mick the Quick the Yankees base stealer

Micky Rivers had a fifteen-year baseball career for three teams, the California Angels, the New York Yankees, and the Texas Rangers. Known to Yankees fans as “Mick the Quick” because of his baserunning speed, he had his best years with the Yankees. While with the Yankees, he was an All-Star and three-time Yankee MVP.

Mickey was born in Miami, Florida, and attended Miami Dade Community College, where he played baseball. He emerged as one of the team stars for his fast base running, ability to steal bases, and his high hitting contact. Being a team star, his teammates were surprised on the day when he didn’t come to base when called. He was found under a nearby tree fast asleep. Mickey was a fun guy and always appreciated by his fellow players.

He was selected by the Braves but started his major league career with the Angels, where he played center field and at times handled the hot corner. As a center fielder, he was praised with this speed and ability to cover a great range. Also, this wasn’t the best. In 1974 and 1975, He led the American League in triples both years and stole a career-high 70 bases in 1975, tops in the American League. In the offseason of 1975-6, he was traded to the Yankees for Bobby Bonds. Rivers had a career year in 1975. Rivers was named to the All-Star team, batted .312, stole 43 bases and posted then-career highs in home runs.

Rivers contributed to two World Series teams for the Yankees in 1977 and 1978. In 1977 he hit to a batting average of .326. Just before the trade deadline in 1979 he was traded to the Texas Rangers. In 1980 he set a single-season hitting a record for the Rangers with 210 hits. Rivers had amazing strike zone recognition and was a great contact leadoff hitter while with the Yankees. Because of his buoyant personality, he was a real Yankee fan favorite during his time with the team. He still attends the Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium.

New York Yankees #1 Third baseman Graig Nettles

For eleven New York Yankee seasons, Graig Nettles graced the hot corner at 3rd base. With unequaled range, cat-like reflexes, and an accurate throwing arm, he was one of the best third basemen in the business for an unbelievable twenty-three years.

Graig Nettles was born on August 20, 1944, in San Diego, His father, who worked as a San Diego police officer for ten years, then became a high-school teacher, was away on active duty in World War II when he was born. He was the second of three sons. His mother, who did not like the names Craig or Greg, combined them to form Graig. He attended San Diego High School, where he played baseball and basketball, excelling in the latter sport and earning a scholarship to San Diego State University. He continued to play both basketball and baseball for the Aztecs, but as he grew and his body filled out, baseball took over as he found power in baseball.

Nettles blossomed into a power hitter while playing semipro ball for the Alaska Goldpanners in Fairbanks in the summer. On the advice of a bird-dog scout, Pete Coscarart, the Minnesota Twins selected Nettles in the fourth round of the June 1965 amateur draft. The following Thanksgiving, he would marry the love of his life, Virginia Mechling, whom he had met while in college at San Diego State. They would eventually have four children, three sons, and a daughter.

A twenty-year love, hate relationship would start between Graig and Billy Martin when he played for the Denver Bears 7-22. Billy Martin was the new manager of the Bears and would frequently yell and scream at Nettles, and it didn’t matter if it was in private, on the field or in the dugout in front of other players. He called Nettles a dummy, among other things.

Nettles had never experienced that type of behavior from a Manager. He outright hated Martin for the first couple of months. But slowly, all that changed when Martin, with his rough treatment of players, turned the Bears into a winning team. Martin was aggressive and had players bunt, steal bases, and perform squeeze plays. Nettle soon saw Martin as a great team leader.

Nettles played solidly all year and was named the Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year and played on the All-Star team. In his three years in the minors, Nettles had hit 69 home runs and had 169 RBIs. Billy Martin also played Nettles in the outfield, insisting that a player should be able to handle two positions to make it in the majors. Nettles earned a call-up to the Twins in September 1968, and never returned to the minors. He hit a hit in each of his first seven games, five of them for home runs. Nettles was a fastball hitter, but soon learned he would have to learn to hit curves too to be successful. There were only 22 games left in the season, and Nettles ended up hitting a .224 average.

Before the beginning of the 1969 season began, Billy Martin was named manager of the Twins, and Graig and Billy were back together again. 1969 under Martin would see the Twins win the American League West Championship. Nettles played mostly in the outfield, and on occasion, backed up Harmon Killebrew at third base. At the end of the season, the Twins decided that Killebrew was their man and traded Nettles and three other players to the Indians for pitcher Luis Tiant and Stan Williams. Nettles would again be traded this time, to the New York Yankees in 1973.

Manger RalphHouk was pleased with the move and made Nettles the Yankees’ third baseman. Soon after the trade, George Steinbrenner’s group bought the Yankees. Nettles was to become a star in New York. Nettles made his presence felt early in the 1973 season. He clubbed four home runs and drove in seven runs in an Easter Sunday doubleheader at Cleveland. He finished the season with a team-leading 22 home runs. In the first three years of Steinbrenner’s ownership, while the team improved, they didn’t reach the World Series. During the time they picked up the likes of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and others.

In 1977 the New York Yankees repeated, defeating the Royals again in the ALCS and this time winning the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. Nettles was selected to play in the All-Star Game, was named the top third baseman in the American League, and won a Gold Glove. (He won all three honors again in 1978.) In 1977 and ’78, Nettles had a total of 64 homers, drove in 200 runs, and scored 180 runs. During the 78 season Billy Martin was fired.

The players went on strike over free-agency issues on June 12, 1981, and 713 games across MLB were canceled. Play resumed in August, and a split-season format was adopted, with the first-half division winners playing the second-half victors. The Yankees dispatched Milwaukee in the first round and swept Oakland, managed by Billy Martin, in the League Championship Series. Nettles was named MVP of the LCS after batting .500 with one homer and nine RBIs.

In the World Series, the Yankees won the first two games at home. But Nettles broke his thumb diving for a ball in Game Two and did not play when the series shifted to Los Angeles. The Yankees lost three straight at Dodger Stadium, in LA, all by one run. Nettles came back in Game Six, but the Dodgers thrashed the Yankees and won the Series. The Yankees didn’t get back into the World Series until 1996.

Before the 1982 season, George Steinbrenner named Nettles Captain of the Yankees. The title would be short-lived because Nettles had co-authored a book criticizing the New York Yankee owner for recent losses. Nettles was traded to the Padres. Nettles said after the move that he loved that team and would always be a Yankee.

William Parlee is a member of The Society for American Baseball Research. Follow me on Twitter @parleewilliam

The accompanying photo is of Mickey Rivers, my Nephew Charles Parlee, and Graig Nettles at Yankee Stadium.

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