After becoming a regular in 1984, Mattingly established himself as one of the preeminent stars of the 1980s. He hit for average and power, fielded his position at first base with brilliance, and displayed a work ethic and charisma reminiscent of Yankee greats of the past. Actually, his home run power developed after his arrival in the majors, but he went on to set a couple impressive HR records in 1986.
In 1982 Mattingly joined a Yankee team that was reluctant to play kids from its farm system, preferring to trade them for proven players or let them languish on the bench as insurance against injury to regulars. Mattingly saw limited action through 1983, playing primarily in the outfield, the position at which the Yankees originally drafted him. Although his career minor league batting average was .332, there was little in Mattingly’s minor league performance to indicate that he might emerge as a power hitter. However, Mattingly used those first two years in the majors to become a smart two strike hitter and learned to look for the inside pitch that he might drive into Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. The result was his fine 1984 season, in which he took over the first-base job and hit 23 homers en route to capturing the batting title on the last day of the season with a .343 average that edged teammate Dave Winfield’s .340. He became the first Yankee lefthanded hitter to bat over .340 since Lou Gehrig hit .351 in 1937.
Despite often starting the season abysmally, Mattingly established himself as a dominant hitter from 1984 through 1989. In each of those seasons, he hit over .300, collected more than 186 hits, and, except for 1988, drove in 100 or more runs. During that period, no major league player had more RBI than his 684, and only Wade Boggs (1,269) had more hits than Matingly’s 1,219. Mattingly displayed his power in 1985 when, batting third in the Yankee lineup, he amassed career highs of 35 home runs and a league-leading 145 RBI en route to being named AL MVP.
In 1986 Mattingly set new Yankees marks for doubles (53) and hits (238) in a season, becoming the first Yankee since Lou Gehrig with three consecutive 200 hit seasons. During the 1987 season, Mattingly set or tied five remarkable major league records. He hit six grand slams to set a new single-season mark. (He had never hit one prior to 1987.) He tied Dale Long’s 1956 record by homering in eight consecutive games from July 8 through July 18. His 10 homers during that period were a major league record for total homers in an eight game streak, and his concurrent streak of 10 games with at least one extra base hit broke Babe Ruth‘s 1921 AL record. The power streak ended on July 20, the night Mattingly tied the major league record of 22 putouts by a first baseman in a nine inning game.
Mattingly matched his hitting with outstanding defense. From 1985 through 1989, he won five consecutive Gold Glove awards at first base. Along with Chick Gandil (1916-1919), Mattingly (1984-1987) holds the record of leading AL first basemen in fielding percentage for four consecutive years. On his retirement his .996 lifetime fielding percentage at first base tied him for the all-time lead. His skills allowed him to play second base and third base on a few occasions despite throwing lefthanded.
From 1990 on, back problems led to a decline in Mattingly’s batting performance as he adjusted his stance to compensate. His season HR high in the ’90s was 17 in 1993, one of only two seasons in double figures in that time, and only in the 1994 strike season did he top .300 in batting average. His fielding prowess usually did not suffer, however; his fielding percentages actually got higher, and he led the AL three straight years (1992-94). He spent time on the DL in 1990, ’93, and ’94, but was so firmly ensconced as a team leader that it was not until after the 1995 season that he was replaced at first base by the Yankees’ acquisition of Tino Martinez, whereupon Mattingly unofficially retired. He had, at least, finally reached postseason play, hitting well in the Yankees’ losing effort that year against Seattle in the division playoffs.
In January 1997 Mattingly officially announced his retirement from baseball, having decided that his back problems would not let him make a comeback. At that time the Yankees announced that his number 23 would be retired, with a ceremony to take place during the 1997 season. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner called vociferously for Mattingly’s election to the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible, a move widely perceived as an attempt to deflect criticism for the way the team handled the ending of Mattingly’s career.