Known as “Donnie Baseball” and the “Hit Man,” Don Mattingly was one of baseball’s best players in the 1980s with the New York Yankees.
After tearing through the minor leagues in just three years, Mattingly made an instant impact on the Yankees and the city of New York.
Combining intense concentration, slick defense, and an ability to hit for both average and power, Mattingly was among the most respected and admired players in the game for over a decade.
— 🅃🄷🄴 🄱🅁🄾🄽🅇 🅉🄾🄾 (@BronxZooNYY) August 5, 2022
Donald Arthur Mattingly was born on April 20, 1961, in Evansville, Indiana to parents Bill and Mary Mattingly.
He was the youngest of five total children.
Growing up in Indiana, Mattingly was exposed to athletics by his older siblings, who would often drag him along to neighborhood games of basketball, football, and, of course, baseball.
Despite being younger than everyone else, he adapted quickly to these sports and developed his athletic skills early.
As his interest in baseball continued to grow, his father took him out back and taught him how to hit using Wiffle balls.
Mattingly’s family was incredibly supportive and instilled a strong work ethic in him, a value he exhibited throughout his entire baseball career.
Attending Reitz Memorial High School, Mattingly was perhaps the best athlete in the entire school.
He was the starting quarterback on the football team, a point guard on the basketball team, and a feared hitter on the baseball team.
He quickly realized that baseball was his best sport after helping to lead Reitz to the Indiana State championship in his 1978 junior season.
He still retains many records at Reitz, including hits, RBI, and doubles.
Mattingly has credited his high school baseball coach, Quentin Merkel, as one of his biggest influences, noting his constant encouragement to be the best player possible. He said,
“Coach would say to me, if you are the best player in the region, you should try to become the best player in the state. If you are the best in the state, then you start thinking about being the best in the country. That ethic, to always get better, helped me in the minor leagues when I was fighting for jobs.”
After establishing himself as one of Indiana’s best players, Mattingly began receiving a lot of attention from collegiate and Major League scouts.
Mattingly was drafted in the 19th round of the 1979 amateur draft by the New York Yankees. Many teams decided not to draft Mattingly due to the overwhelming belief that he would refuse to sign and attend college instead.
However, Mattingly did sign. As an 18-year-old, Mattingly found almost instant success playing in the Yankees’ farm system.
He hit .349 for the Oneonta Yankees in 1979 and the next year led the Class A South Atlantic League with a .358 batting average while playing for the Greensboro Hornets.
Winning the league’s MVP, Mattingly was soon promoted to AA Nashville and made the All-Star team.
After just three seasons in the minor leagues, Mattingly quickly made his way to the top of prospect lists.
After another stellar season in 1982 with the AAA Columbus Clippers, the Yankees called Mattingly up to the big leagues as a September call-up.
He made his debut in left field as a defensive replacement and recorded his first hit against the Boston Red Sox on October 1.
1983 was Mattingly’s first full year in the Major Leagues, playing a combination of the outfield and first base as needed.
While he was an excellent defender and could hit for average, there were concerns about his lack of power and speed, splitting time between New York and Columbus.
In a part-time role, Mattingly finished 1983 appearing in 91 games and batting .283.
In 1983-84, Don Mattingly played in Puerto Rico with Caguas and won batting crown with .368. pic.twitter.com/RJAV3SwtR2
— Jorge Colón Delgado (@JColonDelgado) October 23, 2015
Mattingly’s first season as the Yankees’ starting first baseman came in 1984.
After initially being designated as a bench player by manager Yogi Berra, Mattingly impressed in spring training and won the starting job.
Mattingly had been working on improving his power during the winter playing in Puerto Rico and worked with Yankees’ hitting coach Lou Piniella to maintain that power through the season.
His hard work paid off, as he finished the year with 23 home runs and was selected to his first Major League All-Star game as the American League’s reserve first baseman.
As the season was winding down, the Yankees found themselves out of contention in the AL East as the Detroit Tigers were running away with it.
Despite the disappointing season, Mattingly and teammate Dave Winfield were in a heated race for the AL batting title, an award that Mattingly would win on the last day of the season.
After just one full year in pinstripes, Mattingly had cemented himself as a fan favorite.
The 1985 campaign picked up right where 1984 left off.
Mattingly took the American League by storm with his exceptional hitting and slick defense at first base.
He hit .324 with 35 home runs and 145 RBI, the most by a left-handed batter since Ted Williams in 1949.
Mattingly’s stellar season resulted in him winning the AL MVP, his first Gold Glove, and another trip to the All-Star game, this time as the starting first baseman for the AL.
The decision by the Yankees front office to acquire speedster Rickey Henderson before the season was widely praised, as Henderson provided Mattingly plenty of RBI opportunities hitting in front of him.
The Yankees won 97 games in 1985 off the back of the Mattingly-Henderson duo, but finished in second place in the division, trailing the Toronto Blue Jays by two games.
Coming off his MVP season, Mattingly was viewed as one of the best hitters and defenders in all of baseball.
He had perhaps an even better season in 1986, leading the AL in hits and doubles, as well as setting the Yankees’ franchise record for hits in a season with 238.
Playing in all 162 games, Mattingly hit 31 home runs, batted .352, and drove in 113 runs.
The only player standing in the way of Mattingly taking home back-to-back MVPs was Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens, who was so dominant as a starting pitcher that season that he won both the MVP and Cy Young Award.
Despite Mattingly’s continued success in the batter’s box and on the field, the Yankees again failed to make the postseason, finishing behind Clemens’ Red Sox.
Mattingly’s 1987 season was one of ups and downs.
After starting the season in a horrific slump that saw his batting average dip down into the .240s, Mattingly began a hot streak into the early summer and seemed to be returning to form.
As he was finally becoming comfortable and had raised his average back over .300, Mattingly suffered a low-back injury that derailed much of his season.
The cause of the injury is disputed, but it kept Mattingly out of the Yankees’ lineup for nearly a month.
Upon returning, Mattingly was back to his old self. In July of that year, Mattingly hit a home run in eight consecutive games, breaking the AL record.
In those eight games, he hit 10 home runs, two of them being grand slams.
Mattingly also broke the AL record for grand slams in a single season with six.
He finished 1987 batting .327 with 30 home runs and 115 RBI.
The Yankees again failed to reach the postseason, finishing in fourth place with an 89-73 record.
With five full seasons in the Major Leagues, Mattingly had proven himself to be one of baseball’s great hitters and personalities.
He struggled offensively in 1988 by his standards, batting .311 with just 18 home runs and 88 RBI, all career worsts up to that point.
Despite his struggles, Mattingly was named to his fifth career All-Star game and won his fourth Gold Glove.
In 1989, Mattingly had a bounce-back season that saw him hit 23 home runs and 113 RBI.
He had yet to taste postseason play, and the Yankees would end the decade without a playoff appearance since they had lost the World Series one year before Mattingly debuted.
Entering a new decade, Mattingly and the Yankees agreed on a five-year contract extension that made him the highest-paid player in all of baseball.
George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees, had always supported Mattingly and wanted to ensure he remained a Yankee for the rest of his career.
The start of the new contract became a struggle for both Mattingly and the Yankees, as he struggled mightily to begin the 1990 season.
As the year went on, it became clear that something wasn’t right with the star first baseman.
His power was almost completely gone and his batting average never came close to touching .300.
It was by far the worst season of his career up to this point.
In July, Mattingly was placed on the disabled list and did not return until mid-September.
The culprit turned out to be the previous back injury, which had forced Mattingly to tweak his swing.
Before the 1991 season, Mattingly had undergone intense physical therapy and was determined to get back to his old self.
In spring training, he was named the team’s captain, a move that was widely celebrated by teammates and the coaching staff.
After a long offseason and newfound motivation, Mattingly and the Yankees were optimistic about the upcoming season.
On February 28, 1991, Don Mattingly was named the tenth captain in team history. He won nine Gold Glove awards from 1982-1995. He was AL batting champ in 1984 and MVP in 1985.#Yankees #TheBronxZoo pic.twitter.com/yHOZAwaQOY
— 🅃🄷🄴 🄱🅁🄾🄽🅇 🅉🄾🄾 (@BronxZooNYY) April 15, 2022
1991 turned out to be a struggle in more ways than one.
After becoming frustrated with the Yankees’ consistent underperformance and tension with the front office, Mattingly requested a trade.
The Yankees refused to grant Mattingly’s wish and instead told him he had to cut his hair, which had grown longer than the Yankees’ long-standing policy allowed.
As the tension was reaching a boiling point, the Yankees completely fell apart down the stretch and finished the season with a dismal 71-91 record while Mattingly had just 9 home runs and a .288 batting average.
In 1992, the feud between Mattingly and the Yankees seemed to have cooled off, and relations within the clubhouse were good.
Mattingly, now 31, was one of the team’s veteran players and was very well respected.
He had a better season than in 1991, hitting 17 home runs and batting .288 again.
The injuries to his back had turned him into more of a singles hitter than a home run hitter, but he was still productive and important to the team.
The Yankees won 76 games, a five-game improvement over 1991. 1993 was another productive season for Mattingly, as he raised his average to .291 and hit 17 home runs again.
His defense was rewarded with his eighth career Gold Glove.
While they once again failed to reach the postseason, the Yankees won 88 games, the most since 1987.
Mattingly’s final two seasons came in 1994 and 1995.
Playing in just 97 games before the player’s strike that ended the season in August and canceled the postseason, Mattingly hit six home runs with a .304 batting average and 51 RBI.
In 1995, Mattingly finally reached the postseason after 12 seasons being a full-time Major League player.
The Yankees faced off against the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS, a series that would end in five games after the infamous Edgar Martinez double that scored Ken Griffey Jr. from first base, ending the Yankees’ and Mattingly’s World Series hopes.
In the regular season, Mattingly finished his career with seven home runs, 49 RBI, and a .288 batting average.
Life After Baseball
Mattingly completed his contract after the 1995 season and was not sure if he wanted to continue playing for the Yankees or continue playing at all.
He was not satisfied with the consistent underperformance of the Yankees during his tenure and did not want to commit to playing with New York again despite being offered a contract.
“I am proud to be associated with and referred to as a New York Yankee. I appreciate Mr. Steinbrenner’s intent to keep me in pinstripes for the rest of my career in baseball.”
There would be no baseball for Mattingly, as he decided to sit out the 1996 season to spend time with his family and decide if he wanted to continue playing or retire.
He opted for the latter.
After the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, Mattingly announced his retirement in early 1997.
He finished his 13-year career with the Yankees with 42 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a .307 batting average, over 2,000 hits, and 222 home runs.
He is a one-time MVP, was selected to six All-Star teams, and won nine Gold Glove Awards.
After his official retirement, the Yankees retired Mattingly’s number 23 in a ceremony at Yankee Stadium that August.
Mattingly exited baseball altogether for the next few years, opting instead to raise his children in Indiana, sparingly visiting Yankees’ spring training.
In 2003, the Yankees hired Mattingly full-time as their new hitting coach under manager Joe Torre, a role in which he excelled.
During his time as the Yankees’ hitting coach, the team was one of baseball’s most potent offenses and Mattingly received rave reviews from players and other coaches for his expertise and the way he relayed that information to the hitters.
When Joe Torre left New York to become the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, Mattingly followed.
Mattingly served as the Dodgers’ hitting coach for two seasons until Torre retired after the 2010 campaign.
Los Angeles was so impressed by Mattingly’s stints as a coach with the Yankees and Dodgers under Torre that they chose him to become the team’s new manager.
Mattingly managed the Dodgers from 2011 to 2015, making the postseason from 2013 to 2015.
Under Mattingly, the Dodgers won the NL West three times and made the NLCS once.
In three postseason appearances, the Dodgers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2014 NLCS and 2015 NLDS and lost to the New York Mets in the NLDS in 2015.
After failing to make the World Series, the Dodgers and Mattingly agreed to part ways, opening the door for Mattingly to accept a position as the Miami Marlins’ new manager.
Mattingly took over the Marlins for the 2016 season and remains their manager in 2022.
In parts of seven seasons in Miami, Mattingly has won 424 games and made one postseason appearance during the Covid-19 pandemic shortened 2020 season.
Mattingly was named the 2020 NL Manager of the Year after taking the Marlins to the postseason for the first time since 2003.
There is no debating Don Mattingly’s prolific status in Major League Baseball.
After a 13-season Major League career and a nearly 20-year coaching and managerial career, Mattingly’s impact on the game of baseball is difficult to measure.
An icon in New York during the 1980s and 1990s, Mattingly never experienced postseason success but was lauded as a great leader and captain of the team.
Despite a lack of postseason success as a player, Mattingly has led his teams to four postseason appearances as a manager and has won a Manager of the Year Award.
While he is not enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Don Mattingly will forever be remembered for his impact on the game of baseball and the New York Yankees.