No team in sports talks more about their history than the New York Yankees and that is why the decision to honor Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill with plaques in Yankee Stadium is so puzzling. Honoring Martinez and O'Neill is an affront to Yankee history for two reasons. First, the absence of Bernie Williams' name in that group is a noticeable slight. Wiliams will get a plaque next year, but making him wait a year while two inferior players who spent less time on the Yankees get their plaques this year is, at best, puzzling.
The snubbing, yet again, of Bernie Williams is striking. Williams, of course, played alongside O'Neill and Martinez. The main differences between these three players are that Williams was better, played with the Yankees longer and spent his whole career with the team. Those are usually things that would place Williams ahead of his two longtime teammates in the Yankee collective memory, but for some reason he has to wait an additional year before being honored with a Yankee Stadium plaque. Williams has already been completely left out of the core four narrative, but the treatment of Williams here may be worse, particularly as Williams, unlike his two former teammates actually was good enough and played long enough for the team that an argument could be made that he deserves a plaque in Yankee Stadium. That is a much harder case to make for O'Neill or Martinez.
The second reason the plaques for Martinez and O'Neill are out of place in the broader sweep of Yankee is because of people like Bob Meusel, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, Hank Bauer, Roy White and Moose Skowron, These players are not well known to Yankee fans, particularly those under 40, but they were all outfielders or first baseman, like Martinez and O'Neill. They all played at least nine years with the Yankees as O'Neill did; Martinez was only a Yankee for seven seasons. They all also posted as much or more WAR as either Martinez and O'Neill. In some cases like that of Keller, White or Henirch by a significant amount. The exception is Skowron whose 23.6 Yankee WAR is more than Martinez's 16.6 and less than O'Neill's 26.6. WAR may not be everybody's favorite metric, but it is a good estimation of what these various players contributed to the team. Moreover, like O'Neill and Martinez, they were all important members of numerous Yankee championship teams.
Honoring Martinez and O'Neill is not a gesture aimed at celebrating Yankee history, but at the opposite. Martinez and O'Neill are part of a long tradition of very good Yankee players who have been instrumental to their success, but at least a tier, and in the case of Martinez several tiers, below the Mantles, Ruths, Berras, Jeters and others who have been true superstars. Until recently, the Yankees did not honor these types of players with plaques. The Yankees are now changing this because, consciously or not, they are less interested in a history that few fans remember seeing, and want to sell the recent past more aggressively. The result is that great players like Keller or Heinrich who were understood to be central to Yankee success when they were playing, will become even more forgotten.
Martinez, and particularly O'Neill, contributed a great deal to four Yankee championships, had some great moments, and deserve to be remembered for that, but they are not unique in this. Henrich for example was a consistent slugger and five time all-star who missed three years in the heart of his 11 year career serving in the military during World War II. He was a part of one of the most famous moments in Yankee history when he scampered to first base after Brooklyn Dodger catcher Mickey Owen dropped the third strike with two outs in the top of the 9th inning of game four of the 1941 World Series. The Yankees went on to score four runs that inning winning the game and, the next day, the World Series. Keller, Henrich's longtime teammate, was one of the best and most underrated hitter of his time, posting an OPS+ of 152, much higher than Martinez or O'Neill, during his 11 years in pinstripes. Most Yankee fans probably have not heard much about players like Henrich, Keller, Bauer or others, but that is the point.
As great as they were, Henrich, Keller, Skowron, White and others never got plaques because they were not as good as Ruth, Gehrig, Berra, DiMaggio and the like. Honoring, Martinez and O'Neill changes that because it indicates that playing in the television era, being around to accept the honor, and being remembered by young fans buying jerseys and other memorabilia trumps ability on the field and contributions to championships, and for good measure it is yet another example of the Yankees treating Bernie Williams poorly.
Follow Lincoln Mitchell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LincolnMitchell