Excerpt 2 - The 100 Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
September 30, 2023
I am very pleased to tell you that today my newest book The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History has been published by Artemesia Press. The book looks at the history and impact of baseball through one hundred players, some well known and some more obscure, who had unique and significant roles in the development of baseball, and, in many cases history more broadly. The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History offers a new and captivating look at baseball’s complex racial history, labor struggles and relationship to American culture and history through these players.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be providing excerpts from this book for our readers.
Note - The original concept for this work, was a series of articles I wrote here at Start Spreading the News a few years ago.
Derek Jeter was the most famous player on the most famous team in baseball for about twenty years. During that time, he led the Yankees to five World Series championships and eventually fell one vote short of unanimous election to the Hall of Fame. Because he played in New York, Jeter was an extremely visible player and a face of the game type for much of his career. He was seen as a bit of a throwback to another era. He did not use PEDs, referred to his manager as Mr. Torre and was way too media savvy to ever say much to the media other than platitudes about winning.
Jeter was also a fascinatingly polarizing player. The New York media, and a big segment of the national media loved him. He was portrayed as baseball’s golden boy-respectful, hard-working, a team player and an elite talent. Jeter was the kind of player older fans and older reporters loved. Off the field, the worst thing that people said about Jeter was that he canoodled with too many models, starlets and other women. On the field, he did the kinds of things that old school baseball people like. He got a lot of hits-the sixth most ever and eight seasons with 200 or more, regularly hit over .300 and played every day. Jeter also had a way of coming up with big plays at big moments. For example, the 2001 flip play in the ALDS remains one of the most famous defensive plays of the century.
The other side of Jeter’s image was that for some fans the worshipful media coverage of Jeter engendered resentment and the view that Jeter was overrated. His defense was the focal point of this as his four Gold Gloves told a very different story than advanced metrics. According to the latter, Jeter was, beyond not being a Gold Glover, but an historically bad defender, costing his team 185 more runs than the average defensive shortstop over the course of his career.
By the time Jeter’s star was rising, around the turn of the century, and he was supplanting Ken Griffey Jr. as the face of the game, it seemed as if it was no longer popular for baseball fans, let alone the culture more broadly, to feel so positively about one player. Dodgers fans never loved Willie Mays, for example, but other than that he was broadly beloved and respected in baseball and, outside of the most racist corners, the US generally. That was never the case with Jeter. The merchandize branded with his number 2 and the word “respect” seemed, and was, over the top and a bit forced by MLB. The comedian Will Farrell satirized this in a video clip that went somewhat viral during Jeter’s last season. By the time Jeter was in his last season he was being called the greatest Yankees player ever, the greatest shortstop ever and even the greatest player ever. None of those assertions were true; and all reflected the cloyingly positive media that followed Jeter, and annoyed so many fans. Although the attention Jeter got from fans and the media was never simple or all positive, he was a larger-than-life figure in a way that is increasingly unusual in 21st century baseball.
Ironically, although many who believed in advanced metrics were generally among Jeter’s critics, his numbers are also the kind that should resonate with people who have a sophisticated understanding of baseball data. Jeter was never, other than in the minds of the most loyal Yankees fans, a slick fielding defensive whiz. Nor was he ever a true power hitter, but Jeter had a skill set that was unusual and very valuable. He played a demanding position at an average or slightly below average defensive level for many years while getting on base all the time.
The two greatest shortstops ever were Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken Jr., but after that it is complicated because so few shortstops have long careers at that position. Alex Rodriguez, Robin Yount and Ernie Banks were, at their best, better all around shortstops than Jeter, but they all moved off of the position in mid-career. Jeter played more games at the position, 2747, than all but one other shortstop. Among the 19 players with 2,000 or more games at shortstop, only Barry Larkin, by one point, had a higher OPS+ and only Luke Appling had a higher on base percentage. Jeter was never truly a power hitter, but of those 19 shortstops only Larkin and Ripken had a higher slugging percentage. There is value in longevity and consistency and Jeter provided that to the Yankees for almost two decades.
Jeter spent his entire career with the Yankees, baseball’s most successful, visible, storied and controversial franchise. He was not the greatest Yankee ever-Babe Ruth was, but nobody ever played more games for the Yankees. No team pays more attention to its history than the Yankees and Jeter became an important part of that history joining Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and followed by his teammate Mariano Rivera as Yankees Hall of Famers who spent their entire career with just that one franchise. Jeter was alternately, one of the greatest players ever, beloved by some, hated and resented by many, the divisive face of an increasingly divisive sport and the best and most famous Yankee since Mickey Mantle.