As The Bronx is Burning winds down its two-month run on ESPN, it’s time to present the last in our series of three tributes to members of the 1977 Yankees. One of the few criticisms I have of the riveting miniseries is the lack of face time given to the character of Graig Nettles, whose cutting sense of humor and sincere dislike of Reggie Jackson represented two interesting sub-themes in 1977. Nettles might have been the most underrated member of the "Bronx Zoo" Yankees; he was a terrific defender and power source at third baseman, a borderline Hall of Famer who remains underappreciated, especially by those who never saw him play.
When the Cleveland Indians traded Nettles and catcher Jerry Moses to the New York Yankees for a package of four players on November 27, 1972, the Topps Card Company was left with a familiar quandary: how to portray the players on their new 1973 cards? As Topps often did, it resorted to the art of airbrushing, a re-touching method that involves drawing in new colors and logos onto existing photographs. In the case of Nettles’ 1973 Topps card (No. 498), we might call it a case of airbrushing gone mad. After selecting a 1972 action shot of Nettles (playing in a game for the Indians at either Milwaukee’s County Stadium or Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium), the Topps artist decided to brush in the colors of the Yankees’ road uniform, which is gray. Instead, the artist came up with a kind of bluish hue, giving the card somewhat of a surreal look. The blue on the helmet and the socks is also the wrong shade of blue—a light blue, instead of the traditional Navy blue used by the Yankees (a blue so dark that it looks black, especially from a distance). Showing further unawareness of the design of the Yankees’ road uniform, the artist decided to play a game of mix-and-match, drawing the famed interlocking "NY" logo onto the front of the jersey. Of course, the interlocking "NY" is only worn on the home uniform, and not the road jersey, which features the words "New York" spelled out in block print. So what we have is a rather intriguing amalgam of a uniform, one that has never been worn by the Yankees anywhere or anytime in their history. Yet, it’s actually somewhat attractive and might provide a reasonable basis for future changes. Heck, the interlocking "NY" looks better than "New York;" perhaps the Yankees should carry the "NY" both on the road and at home.
Here’s one other trivial note about Nettles: for those wondering why Nettles first name is spelled "GRAIG," instead of the conventional "GREG," here’s the story. According to Wayne Nettles, Graig’s father, it was Nettles’ mother who came up with the idea for the unusual birth name. Mrs. Nettles wanted to name him Greg, but she hated the longer version of that name, which is Gregory. So she found a way around that conventional trap by coming up with the alternate name of Graig, so that once others realized how his name was spelled, they would never try to lengthen it to the more formal version of the name.
Now on to the more important material. The 1972 trade that brought Nettles to the Bronx was one of the most critical of the decade, as general manager Gabe Paul produced one of his classic 1970s specials. The four players that the Yankees surrendered for Nettles produced mostly disappointment for the Indians. Top prospect Charlie Spikes clubbed 45 home runs in his first two seasons in Cleveland before fading into something less than mediocrity. Another prospect, the swift-footed Rusty Torres, didn’t hit at all in two years with the Indians, resulting in a trade to California. Veteran catcher-first baseman John Ellis played decently in Cleveland for two seasons, but eventually continued his journeyman ways in Texas. And veteran infielder Jerry Kenney lasted only five games with the Indians before watching his major league career come to an end. In the meantime, Nettles replaced the light-hitting Celerino Sanchez as the Yankees’ regular third baseman, giving the Bombers solid all-around production at the hot corner for the next decade. Along the way, he won two Gold Gloves and earned five All-Star Game selections.
After Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, Nettles was arguably the most important member of the Yankees’ starting nine in 1977. Overshadowed by the circus-like triumvirate of Jackson, Billy Martin, and George Steinbrenner, Nettles put together what may have been his finest season. Achieving career highs with 37 home runs and 107 RBIs, Nettles also secured the Gold Glove Award for his work on the left side of the infield. In addition, Nettles developed a quick dislike for the Yankees’ high-priced winter acquisition. "The best thing about being a Yankee is getting to watch Reggie Jackson play every day," Nettles said one day. "The worst thing about being a Yankee? Getting to watch Reggie Jackson play every day."
Later on, Nettles couldn’t resist making further cracks about Jackson. On one occasion, he took a shot at Jackson’s propensity for striking out. "If Babe Ruth were alive today, he wouldn’t be able to bat cleanup [for the Yankees]," Nettles said sarcastically. "He didn't strike out enough. I guess I'm not able to bat cleanup because I don't strike out enough." Ouch.
In handing out barbs, Nettles showed little regard for politically correct thought or opinion and sometimes ventured into the realms of race and ethnicity. As the Yankees prepared to play the Indians one day, Nettles took note of one of the Cleveland players. "I never saw a player with his address on his uniform," Nettles said out loud to one of his teammates. Nettles then pointed toward Indians first baseman Wayne Cage, a large African-American first baseman. It was the kind of racially charged jab that would have landed Nettles in hot water in today’s society, but as part of the 1970s culture in the Bronx Zoo, it hardly drew a second thought.
With his tendency for troublemaking, Nettles also enjoyed playing practical jokes on teammates. Typically, Nettles executed the prank (or delivered a wisecrack) and then departed the scene quickly, earning the nickname "Puff" for the way he disappeared—like a puff of smoke.
On a team with larger-than-life personalities like Jackson and Martin, Nettles managed to remain in the background, despite his tendency for causing trouble. That would all change in the spring of 1984, when advance notice of Nettles’ upcoming book, Balls, founds its way onto the desk of George Steinbrenner. "The Boss" soon read excerpts in which Nettles severely criticized his employer. Not taking kindly to the cross words, Steinbrenner ordered that Nettles be traded as soon as possible. Prior to Opening Day, the Yankees sent Nettles to the Padres for about fifty cents on the dollar, which amounted to left-handed starter Dennis Rasmussen and a faceless player to be named later.
Nettles didn’t return to the Yankees’ organization until 1991, when he was named to Stump Merrill’s coaching staff. Nettles had aspirations of succeeding Merrill as Yankee manager, but that would never come to pass. Instead, he was fired by the next manager, Buck Showalter, who felt that Nettles had been disloyal to Merrill by repeatedly badmouthing him.
For the second time in his Yankee career, Nettles’ outspoken tendencies had caught up with him. Just like that, he disappeared—like a puff of smoke. Nettles might not work for the Yankees anymore, but he remains one of the most fascinating pieces of franchise history from the last 35 years.
Bruce Markusen writes Cooperstown Confidential for MLB.com. He has also written eight books on baseball. Bruce, his wife Sue, and their daughter Madeline live in Cooperstown, NY.