He grew up in Evansville, Indiana and was one of the nation's top prospects as a high school player at Reitz Memorial High School in 1979, even earning a brief write-up in Sports Illustrated magazine. However, most Major League Baseball teams were sure he was going to college, and didn't draft him. The Yankees took a chance, and were able to sign Mattingly after selecting him in the 19th round of the 1979 amateur draft.
The sweet-swinging lefty immediately proved it was a wise decision, terrorizing pitchers in the Yankee farm system. He batted .349 in 1979, .358 in 1980, .316 in 1981 and made it to the majors late in the 1982 season after batting .315 for Triple-A Columbus.
Mattingly spent his official rookie season of 1983 as a part-time first baseman and outfielder, waiting for a full-time spot in the lineup to open up. Mattingly wore number 46 during his rookie season. He played well, hitting .283, but with little power.
That part of his game arrived in 1984, when he became the Yankees' full time first baseman, switched his uniform number to 23, and was an MVP candidate. He hit .343 and beat out teammate Dave Winfield for the American League batting title by getting 4 hits in 5 at-bats on the last day of the season, while slugging a league-leading 44 doubles to go with 23 home runs and 110 RBI.
He followed that up with a spectacular 1985 season, winning the MVP award in the American League; he batted .324 with 35 home runs and 145 RBI, then the most RBI in a season by a major league batter since Ted Williams hit 159 in 1949. He may have been even better in 1986, when he hit .352 with a league-leading 238 hits and 53 doubles. However, he was beat out in the American League MVP voting by pitcher Roger Clemens, who also won the Cy Young Award that year. (It is somewhat controversial and rare for a pitcher to win the MVP award, with position players often winning the award even when a pitcher has a stand-out spectacular season.)
In 1987, Mattingly tied a major league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games. Also in 1987, he set a major league record by hitting six grand slam home runs in a season. (Curiously, the six grand slams in 1987 were the only grand slams he hit in his entire career.)
Mattingly remained among the game's best first basemen throughout the 1980s, winning the Gold Glove Award for his fielding and a spot on the American League All-Star team each year in the mid to late 1980s. As late as 1989, he seemed to be on pace to shatter several career hitting records.
It all came crashing down in 1990, when Mattingly began to suffer from severe back problems. He tried to play through it, but struggled with the bat and had to go on the disabled list in July. He came back late in the season but was still ineffective. He underwent extensive therapy in the off-season and made it into the lineup in 1991. He was still an above-average hitter, but the injuries had robbed him of much of his power. He played five more seasons, but never again batted higher than .304 (and that was in the strike-shortened 1994 season) or hit more than 17 home runs.
In 1995 Mattingly finally reached the postseason with the Yankees. He proved he was a big time player by providing dramatic hits during the divisional playoffs against the Seattle Mariners and batting .417 in five games; however, the Yankees lost the series in five games after being up two games to none. (Mattingly described the plane ride home after the series as a "flying funeral"; no one on that Yankee team could believe they lost.)
Mattingly retired after that season with 2,153 hits, 222 home runs, 1,099 RBI and a .307 lifetime average, but never winning or playing in a World Series. Most baseball fans and experts agree that he is the best Yankee player to have never played in a World Series with the team. (Ironically, the Yankees won the Series the following year in 1996.)
The Yankees retired his number 23 and dedicated his plaque for Monument Park at Yankee Stadium on August 31, 1997. The plaque calls him "A humble man of grace and dignity, a captain who led by example, proud of the Pinstripe tradition and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, a Yankee forever."
Mattingly is a candidate for election into the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, observers note that his chances are severely hurt by his relatively short career and the fact that his strong seasons were limited to a six year period between 1984 and 1989. Mattingly has never been named on more than 28% of ballots cast for the hall of fame, and most recently in 2005 he was only named on 11% of the ballots. (For election, a player must be mentioned on 75% of the ballots.)
After the 2003 season, he was hired by the Yankees to be their new hitting coach, a post he continues to hold today.
Less widely known than the Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Billy Goat and other baseball jinxes is The Curse of Donnie Baseball. The Yankees won the American League pennant in 1981. Mattingly's first season with the Yankees was 1982. He last season as an active player was 1995. The Yankees won the World Series in 1996. Mattingly's number retirement and Monument Park plaque dedication came in 1997, the last season (through 2005) in which the Yankees did not win the American League Eastern Division title. The next season, 1998, the Yankees began a run of five American League pennants in six seasons. Then came 2004, Mattingly's first season as the team's hitting instructor. In his first two seasons on the job, the Yankees failed to win the pennant despite winning their division and having the highest payroll in baseball. This has led to the suggestion that the Yankees will never win a pennant as long as Mattingly is in uniform.
- The official website of Don Mattingly
- Un-Official Don Mattingly Tribute Site
- Don Mattingly Fans' Website