Classic Yankees: Graig Nettles

If I asked you about a Yankee who once played for Cleveland, who wore #9 for the Yankees, who was brought to the Yankees because he was a dead pull hitter whose swing was perfect for Yankee Stadium, who didn’t hit much for average but instead hit for power, and who led the league in home runs while with the Yankees, who would you think of?

Roger Maris? Good guess, and you would be right on all counts, but that is not the subject of this profile for all of the answers above also apply to Graig Nettles.

Nettles and Billy Martin were quite a pair—for not only did Graig play for Martin while with the Yankees, but he also did so in the minors for Denver and with the 1969 Twins.

Known for his quotes, and for his habit of saying something witty or controversial then disappearing, Nettles acquired the nickname of “Puff” during his playing tenure.

Nettles hit 390 HR in his major league career despite a .248 lifetime B.A. That B.A., it appears, is what will keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Nettles holds the MLB record for home runs by an AL third baseman.

Nettles played some games at left field, first base and right field in his career, but was primarily known as a third baseman.

He went 1 for 3 (double) in 1967, and 17 for 76 (.224-5-8) in 1968 for the Twins. He spent most of 1968 in Denver (AAA) playing for Billy Martin. In 1969, Martin managed the Twins, and he brought Nettles up. Nettles platooned, hitting .222-7-26, OPS+ 91. In his only plate appearance in the 1969 ALCS, Nettles singled.

The Twins got rid of Martin after only one year, and also got rid of Nettles. Nettles was dealt to the Indians with one-time CYA winner Dean Chance, Ted Uhlaender, & Bob Miller for Luis Tiant and Stan Williams. Nettles then became a full-time 3B, and would remain so through 1986.

Nettles spent three years in Cleveland, 1970-1972. In 1970, he hit .235-26-62 with an OPS+ of 101.

In 1971, he hit .261-28-86 and finished 28th for the MVP award, OPS+ 114. In 1972, Nettles hit .253-17-70, OPS+ 111.

After the 1972 season, the Yanks acquired Nettles and Jerry Moses for John Ellis, Charlie Spikes, Jerry Kenney and Rusty Torres. At the time, Spikes and Torres were supposed to be good prospects, and Ellis was Munson’s backup catcher. Nettles, however, proved to be the best Yankees third baseman since Clete Boyer in 1966.

In his first year with the Yanks, Nettles didn’t hit much for average, but tied Bobby Murcer for the team lead in HR with 22. .234-22-81, OPS+ 105.

The move to Shea in 1974 didn’t serve Murcer well as he dropped from 22 HR to 10. Nettles, meanwhile, had one strange year. The stats show .246-22-75. OPS+ 107. What they don’t show is when he got those home runs.

Nettles hit 11 HR in April of that year. From May 1 to Aug. 31, Nettles hit .241-4-35. He then hit 7 HR in September. For the season, .246-22-75, OPS+ 107, but 18 of the 22 HR in April or September. A strange year. When you combine Nettles’ 4 HR May through August with the 10 HR Murcer hit all year long, the Yanks had a serious power outage.
Wikipedia: On September 7, 1974, Nettles was caught using a bat that had six superballs inside it. He said that he had received the bat from a Yankees fan in Chicago and did not know that the bat had been altered.

In 1975, Nettles was named an All-Star for the first of his six times. He hit .267-21-91. He led the league in SF and had an OPS+ of 113.

In 1976, the Yanks moved back into the refurbished Yankee Stadium (Yankee Stadium II). The move, and the short porch, agreed with Nettles. In that pre-steroid era, Nettles became the first Yankee to win the HR title since Maris in 1961. It was ironic, since both wore the #9. Nettles wasn’t close to 61 HR though, when he won his HR title. It only took 32 HR to lead the league. Nettles hit .254-32-93 and even stole a career high eleven bases. He finished 16th in the MVP voting and had an OPS+ of 134.

Nettles hit two homers in Game 4 of the 1976 ALCS, but they came in a Yankees loss. Nettles’ bat wasn’t a good one in his postseason career. He went 4 for 17 in that ALCS, the two HR, and 4 RBI. In the WS against the Reds, Nettles was 3 for 12, all singles, and two RBI.

Nettles also is famous for an incident in a brawl at Yankee Stadium in May 1976 with the Red Sox. The brawl started with Lou Piniella and Carlton Fisk, but ended with Nettles helping to break Bill Lee’s pitching collarbone.
Nettles set career highs in HR and RBI in 1977, when he hit .255-37-107, OPS+ 124. He finished 5th in the MVP voting that year, was an All-Star, and won the Gold Glove. He was 3 for 20 with 1 RBI in the ALCS and 4 for 21 with 2 RBI in the WS.

Nettles, always good with a quip, stated around 1977, “When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees I have accomplished both”  in referring to the Yanks’ “Bronx Zoo” atmosphere.
In 1978, Nettles finished 6th in the MVP voting after a .276-27-93 season with an OPS+ of 128. He was once again an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner. It was in this year when Nettles came up with another quote:  that closer-turned-setup- man Sparky Lyle had gone from Cy Young to Sayonara (upon the signing of Rich “Goose” Gossage).

Once, when fined upon missing a luncheon, Nettles replied, “If they want a third baseman, they’ve got me. If they want somebody to go to luncheons, they should hire George Jessel (a famous luncheon speaker).”

Nettles was the one who caught Carl Yastrzemski’s pop-up, the last out of the “Bucky Dent Game,” Game #163 to win the 1978 A.L. East title. He had a decent ALCS, going 5 for 15, 1 HR, 2 RBI. His second inning HR in Game 4 tied the game at one. Later Roy White’s HR would prove the winner in the 2-1 Yankees win that would give them the pennant.  Once again Nettles’ bat wasn’t too hot in the World Series, as he went 4 for 25 with just one RBI, but oh, his glove.

Nettles put on defensive show for the ages in Game 3 of the 1978 WS to turn that Series around. It was like Brooks Robinson’s 1970 World Series with Baltimore.

Ron Guidry didn’t have it that night, but Nettles saved quite a few runs with his glove work. In the top of the second, he started a 5-4-3 DP. There wasn’t much of a threat then. In the top of the fifth, Nettles made the first of his great plays. Remember that the Yanks lost the first two games of this series, and NEEDED Game 3 at home with Guidry (ending his great 1978 season) on the mound. It was 2-1 Yanks at this point, and the Dodgers had the bases loaded with two out. Nettles made a fine stop on a Garvey smash to save two runs and get the force at second.
In the sixth, still 2-1, bases loaded and two out, Nettles saved two more runs by stopping a Lopes smash and getting the force at second.

Those are two of the plays he made that night. The Yanks won 5-1, and those two plays alone saved four runs. The Yanks then won Games 4, 5 and 6 to repeat as World Series champs.

Nettles was an All-Star again in 1979, hitting .253-20-73, but he saw his OPS+ drop to 97.

In 1980, Nettles contracted hepatitis, and missed about ten weeks of the season. In 89 games, he hit .244-16-45, OPS+ 111. He was once again an All-Star. He came back shortly before the ALCS vs. KC, and in that ALCS he hit .167, going one for six. That one hit was an inside-the-park HR. For someone just recovering from hepatitis, that had to be murder for Nettles when he rounded third and chugged toward home.

In 1981, the strike cost 1/3 of the season. Nettles hit .244-15-46 (pace for .244-22-69) and had an OPS+ of 112. In the ALDS, he was just 1 for 17 with 1 RBI. But his bat woke up vs. Oakland in the ALCS. In the three game sweep of the A’s, Nettles was 6 for 12, 1 HR, 9 RBI. For this, he was named ALCS MVP.

Nettles had some great stops early in the 1981 WS that reminded one of his fabulous Game 3 of the 1978 WS. However in Game 3 out in LA, a great stop led to Nettles spraining his thumb on the play. Nettles missed the last three games of the WS. At the time, he was 4 for 10. Prior to that WS, Nettles and Jackson, never close, got into a scuffle.
Nettles was a Yankee captain in 1982 and 1983.

Now in his late 30’s, Nettles average continued to drop in 1982, down to .232. He had 18 HR, 55 RBI and an OPS+ of 98. He rebounded a bit in 1983, his last Yankees season, to hit .266-20-75, OPS+ 119.

During that season, Nettles noticed that the pine tar on George Brett’s bat was getting high and called Billy Martin’s attention to it. Nettles remembered that Thurman Munson was once called out for too much on his bat. I won’t go into details here, but you know what resulted after Nettles informed Martin. The Pine Tar Incident. Brett was called out, but his out was overruled, the HR stood, etc.

Nettles wrote a book on the 1983 season, called Balls, and was then basically banished from the Yanks by the Boss, George Steinbrenner. A San Diego native, Nettles was dealt to the Padres for a player to be named later and Dennis Rasmussen at the end of spring training 1984. Darin Cloninger (who?) was the PTBNL.

Nettles therefore joined Goose Gossage out in SD. The Goose had left the Yanks himself after 1983, signing a free agent deal with SD. Together they helped bring the Padres their first NL pennant. Nettles hit .228-20-65, OPS+ 108. He started the force for the final out in Game 5 of the NLCS that put the Padres into the WS. In the NLCS, Nettles was 2 for 14 with 2 RBI. In the WS, Nettles went 3 for 12 with 2 RBI.

Nettles played in five WS, winning two. His postseason record was .225-5-27 in 53 games.

In 1985, Nettles, at the age of 40, was once again named to the All-Star team. He hit .261-15-61, OPS+ 120.
His average dipped to .218 in 1986, but he still had a little pop in his bat at the age of 41, as he hit 16 HR, had 55 RBI and had an OPS+ of 88.

He lingered on for two more years, spending 1987 with the Braves as a backup player. He hit .209-5-33 and had an OPS+ of 67.
Nettles ended his career with the 1988 Montreal Expos, hitting .172-1-14, OPS+ 39.

For his career, Nettles hit 390 HR, 333 in the American League. He had a .248 B.A. His 162 g. average was .248-23-79, OPS+ 110. He has the AL record for HR by a 3B with 319.

The most support he got on the HOF ballot was in his first year, 1994, with 8.3%. After four years, he was dropped from the ballot.

Nettles wore different numbers while in the majors. #35, #28, #2, #12, and #19 were worn by Nettles besides #9. While with the Yanks, he only wore #9.

Ironically, in 1984, shortly after Nettles was traded to S.D., the Yanks retired #9 in honor of Roger Maris.
From Wikipedia: As of 2010, Nettles holds the single-season Major League record for assists by a third baseman, and is tied with Brooks Robinson for second-most all-time. His 412 assists in 1971 broke the record of 405 shared by Harlond Clift in 1937 and Robinson in 1967. In 1973, his first year as a New York Yankee, he recorded 410 assists, breaking Clete Boyer’s franchise record of 396 in 1962; Robinson would tie this mark in 1974. To date, Nettles and Robinson have four of the six 400-assist seasons by a third baseman in Major League history.

Again, some from Wikipedia: In the spring of 2008 he announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery at Manhattan’s Sloan Kettering Hospital. Nettles now resides in Lenoir City, Tennessee, a suburb of Knoxville, Tennessee.

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