In crafting this week’s edition of “Card Corner,” I wanted to come up with a player common to the two franchises facing each other in this week’s Division Series. I thought about picking Chuck Knoblauch, but his career-altering battles with the yips and his recent marital and legal problems have left a bad taste on the tongue. I thought about Luis Tiant and Jim Kaat, but their Yankee careers were simply too short. Ultimately, the choice of Graig Nettles feels like the right one. A supreme defender and infield acrobat, a clutch power hitter, and a wit of champion proportions, Nettles remains one of my favorite old Yankees and a clear-cut link to the two earliest world championship teams of the Steinbrenner regime.
It’s easy to forget that Nettles began his career with the Twins, and not the Yankees or the Indians, the team that handed him off to New York during the winter of 1972. The Twins originally drafted Nettles during the summer of 1965, the first year of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, but he did not make his professional debut until the following season. Playing as a third baseman for Single-A Wisconsin Rapids, Nettles showed a powerful touch from the start, hitting 28 home runs. That performance earned him a promotion to Double-A in 1967, where he struggled against more advanced pitching and saw his slugging percentage fall under .400. Yet, the Twins saw enough to give him a late-season audition in Minnesota before bumping him to Triple-A Denver in 1968. Starring for the minor league Bears, Nettles slugged .534, batted a career-high .297, and showed himself ready for another mid-season call up.
The Twins liked Nettles’ left-handed bat, but they had enough questions about his glove work to move him to the outfield during his lone season in Denver. So when Nettles arrived at the Twins’ spring training site in 1969, he was listed as an “outfielder/infielder.” Yes, one of the finest fielding third basemen in the game’s history was originally billed as some kind of utility player. (Note that Nettles 1969 Topps rookie card lists him strictly as an outfielder.) It was reminiscent of the career of Brooks Robinson, who had started his professional career as a second baseman before the Orioles made the sage decision to slide him to the hot corner.
Nettles played well enough in the spring of 1970 to earn himself a spot on the Twins’ Opening Day roster. His manager, Billy Martin, saw him as a backup to veteran sluggers Bob Allison in left field and Harmon Killebrew at third base. (Nettles even played one game in center field, as hard as that scenario might be to imagine.) The struggles of the 34-year-old Allison resulted in more playing time for Nettles, but he failed to take full advantage. Nettles batted .222, slugged .373, and played only a complementary role in the Twins’ Western Division title. Even Martin’s efforts to protect Nettles by sitting him against left-handers did little to help his offensive production.
Given his struggles, the Twins decided that Nettles no longer merited being an untouchable in trade talks. Nettles also lost an ally in Martin, who was fired in response to disputes with pitcher Dave Boswell and owner Calvin Griffith. That winter, the Twins saw an opportunity to improve their pitching by making a trade with the Indians for Tiant and reliever Stan Williams. They packaged Nettles with starting center fielder Ted Uhlaender and pitchers Dean Chance and Bob Miller in the deal; the trade would cost the Twins their eventual successor to Killebrew at third base.
The trade denied Nettles the opportunity to play with his younger brother, Jim Nettles, who would make his big league debut for the Twins in 1970. But on every other front, the trade would be a boon for the older Nettles. The Indians had no one like Killebrew at third base, blocking the path of a younger player. From the start, manager Alvin Dark installed Nettles as his starting third baseman, against both right and left-handed pitching. Nettles did not disappoint Dark; he hit 26 home runs, drew 81 walks (against only 77 strikeouts), and played the best third base the Indians had seen since the days of Ken Keltner. At 25 years of age, Nettles looked like one of the building blocks to a franchise desperately seeking to rekindle its glory years of the 1950s.
Or so it seemed. After hitting a career-high 28 home runs and slugging .435 for the Indians in 1971, Nettles regressed the following summer. After the ‘72 season, Indians general manager Gabe Paul made the decision to send Nettles to the Yankees for a package of four players that included young catcher Johnny Ellis and top outfield prospect Charlie Spikes. Some historians have called it one of Paul’s worst moves, while others said Paul intentionally made an unfavorable trade because he knew he would soon be taking over the front office controls of the Yankees. Whatever the real reason behind the trade, the Yankees would benefit–over and over again.
By the end of his 11-year career with the Yankees, Nettles would hit .250 home runs, accumulate a .433 slugging percentage, and play third base with the range and flexibility of a shortstop. Until the arrival of a fellow named Alex Rodriguez, Nettles had earned the title of the best third baseman in Yankee franchise history.
So here we have come full circle, from Nettles to A-Rod, with the Yankees now facing Nettles’ original team, the Twins. Pardon the strange logic, but maybe that’s why I have a feeling Rodriguez will be the man to carry the Yankees over the next five games.
Bruce Markusen writes articles and collects cards in Cooperstown, NY.