Sixth Best?

Quick: Tell me who was our nation’s sixth best president. You probably have to really think about that response and might not feel very confident in your answer. The first two or three names come to mind pretty quickly, but a thoughtful ranking after that only comes after some difficulty.

Who is the sixth best position player to every play baseball? Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, and Ty Cobb generally rank ahead of this spot. I personally have Rogers Hornsby ranked 6th, but that is just splitting hairs with the almost equally ranked Honus Wagner, Hank Aaron, and Tris Speaker. The point of this exercise isn’t to actually identify the sixth best player, it is to think about how the second tier of an all-time ranking looks.

With that in mind, who is the sixth best non-pitcher New York Yankee in team history? Ruth and Gehrig universally run away with first and second place, but some dissension enters the conversation as the discussion pushes lower in the rankings.

Bernie Williams Has Entered the Chat

While I don’t think this mainstay of the 1990s Yankees is the sixth best player to ever wear pinstripes, he is close enough to at least be in the conversation. I would hear someone out who tries to make this case. After all, only five other Yankees ever scored more runs than he did for the team. He is 7th in home runs and RBIs. He got on base, finishing 5th in Yankee hits and walks. Only three Yankees ever had as many at-bats and only two hit as many doubles.

Individual stats may count for something on most teams, but championships are how Yankee players are measured. Williams was an integral part of the team returning to the top of the game in the late 1990s after a couple decades of Steinbrenner-induced ineffectiveness. Williams performed well in the postseason, and to this day he still holds the career playoff record for RBIs. He ranks second in all-time postseason hits, runs, doubles, and total bases. His third place position in playoff homeruns puts him several ahead of Yankee favorites like Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle.

Bernie was a bit of an odd player. He was extremely fast, as evidenced by multiple gold medals at pre-baseball career track meets. He had an uninspiring arm in the outfield, but he covered so much ground with his legs that it made up for it. This speed helped him leg out more doubles than Don Mattingly, yet he barely averaged more than 10 stolen bases per season. He could be classified as a power hitter given his extra base hits, but was never considered a threat for a homerun crown. He still managed to win a batting title while slugging .575 in 1998.

Perhaps most perplexing of all is the fact that he played his last game in 2006 but did not officially retire until April 24, 2015.

A Fun Bernie Williams Card

Bernie has some interesting hobbies. For one, some of the text appearing on the back of early cards indicate he is an active collector of game used baseball bats. His cardboard biographical entries begin to make mention in the early 1990s of an interest in playing guitar. In 1994 Donruss issued a card in its regular set that featured the centerfielder playing guitar in the dugout and in uniform.

Williams would go on to further develop this interest, building from a nascent hobby to a second career as a professional jazz musician. He released a pair of albums in the early 2000s, reaching #2 on the US jazz charts in 2009 and earning a Latin Grammy nomination the same year.

Sixth Best Refractor?

Ask anyone chasing the 1993 Refractor set what the top cards are and they will begin with a similar list. Cards of Nolan Ryan, Ivan Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, and Ken Griffey, Jr. are immediately labeled as must-haves. Each presents a challenge to locate alongside a considerable financial hit. Ask to round out the top five and you may get a momentary pause before the person being interviewed responds with the name of whatever common or minor star happens to temporarily be in short supply. At present Orel Hershiser is the lock for this position, thought that has not always been the case.

Solicit opinions about the sixth best card in the set and the answers might coalesce around Bernie Williams. The card is somewhat elusive and seems to have been a challenge for collectors ever since its introduction 30 years ago. It’s not that it is any scarcer than others in the set, it just doesn’t seem to change hands as often as the others. I have only seen six sales in over 2 years, one of which was me adding it to my collection. Only two players (Kevin Brown and Alex Cole) have fewer public sales in the same period, and both of which have another half dozen copies being actively advertised on major trading sites at this moment.

Centering issues plague the set’s Williams cards, resulting in a different population distribution than peers among third party graders. Unlike most cards that exhibit a plethora of Mint 9 grades, Williams cards are most often found as 8s and below. There are zero Gem Mint 10s known to exist. Those few 9s generate substantial collector interest.

I picked up my copy at the same time as my Jeff Bagwell card. Early on in chasing this set I was advised to be aggressive when certain cards were available, as the act of locating an available copy is in itself a challenge. This one has some T/B centering issues and is a solid NM-MT.