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Is Derek Jeter the Most Important Yankee Ever?

Feb 13, 2014, 9:23 AM EDT

The frustrating thing about the whole Derek Jeter conversation is that even if you — as I do — acknowledge him as an all-time great, inner-circle Hall of Famer and can’t find a bad thing to say about his professionalism, character or overall significance as a figure in the game, there are still people who will overstate the case for the guy. Example:


Really? Because I sort of think that maybe Babe Ruth mattered more than Jeter did, historically speaking. I hope that’s not construed as a slam on Jeter or anything controversial. He merely redefined the game as it was played, saved baseball from the gambling scandals, put the Yankees on the map after two decades of them being a laughingstock and was the best player in the history of the game. You have to say that Babe Ruth mattered more, right?

But that’s how it’s always gone with Jeter. Through no fault of his own he gets lionized in some quarters to a degree that is preposterous, even if lionizing him in a slightly more reasonable way is totally valid. Maybe it is kind of his own fault, though. Since he never overstated his own importance or had a public me-first attitude, people feel the need to make up for him. I dunno.

But the question raised by that headline — which Yankees mattered most? — is an interesting one. And one completely separate and apart, in my mind at least, from who is the best player in team history, most famous, most admirable, etc. In terms of who mattered, where does Jeter rank?

My totally made-up criteria for that revolves mostly about who can be said to have lifted up the Yankees and brought them or restored them to greatness. Who the “face” of one of their multiple dynasties is. Who thrust the Yankees into the national conversation and who, in the course of that conversation, was the most important subject. Based on that, here’s my list:

1. Babe Ruth: He literally changed the way baseball was played. He literally saved baseball from ruin in the wake of the gambling scandals of the Dead Ball Era. He transformed the Yankees from a laughingstock in their first two decades into a baseball’s flagship franchise, which is a position they’re likely never to relinquish. And, as an afterthought, he was the best player in baseball history. If you say any Yankee — indeed, any player — “mattered more” than Babe Ruth, I’d like some of what you’re smoking.

2. Derek Jeter: Yes, second. I thought of putting Mantle here but changed my mind. My argument for Jeter: He is the face of a Yankees team that rose from the madness of Steinbrenner excess of the 80s and early 90s. People forget how far the Yankees as a brand had faltered by 1991 or 1992 or so, and Jeter represented its restoration. Baseball had reached a crazy parity before Jeter came along and the Yankees were not thought of as anything particularly special. Top-flight free agents signed with the Royals and Blue Jays on a pretty regular basis. When the Yankees won in 1996, the conversation and habits of this team changed, and in so changing, changed baseball. Obviously there were many contributors to this dynasty, but these have been “the Jeter Yankees” for the past 20 years. The decisions the Yankees made since 1996 have all been premised, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea of building around the core led by the star shortstop.

3. Mickey Mantle: Unlike Jeter and Ruth, Mantle did not represent a time when the Yankees were built up from nothing — he took over DiMaggio’s role as caretaker of the dynasty — but he did ensure that it would last for a couple more decades. For better or worse, the living memory of all of the elder statesmen sportswriters and commentators is dominated by Mantle, to the point where, when these folks talk about what the Yankees are and should be, they’re channeling their memories of the 1950s and 60s Yankees. Also: his rise and ultimate fall pretty neatly tracks the line of demarcation between so-called Golden Age Baseball and the next generation of free agents, free spirits, longhairs and all of the wonderfulness that came into the game in the 1970s. Just a historical touchstone and historical keystone.

4. Reggie Jackson: Emblematic of the Steinbrenner Yankees and emblematic of the notion that the Yankees could compete just fine, thank you, in that era of free agents, free spirits, longhairs and all of that. Yes, the Yankees came back to respectability after years in the post-Mantle wilderness thanks in large part to Thurman Munson, but those late 70s teams were, culturally speaking, Reggie’s teams to the bulk of the nation.

5. Gehrig/DiMaggio: When I floated this on Twitter people complained that I had them too low, but remember: this is not a list of “Greatest Yankees” or “Most Inspirational Yankees” or anything like that. It’s “Yankees who mattered” and I’m defining that in terms of guys who put their stamp on the team in some way. I have Gehrig and DiMaggio marked down a peg because (a) in many ways they merely perpetuated, rather than built, Yankee dynasties; and (b) Unlike Mantle, we’ve more or less lost their significance in terms of their living memory (people who were impacted by their exploits are mostly dead). Gehrig came up and spent his first several seasons as second banana to Ruth. He was the main show for really only a few years before DiMaggio came along. Same with DiMaggio bridging the gap between Ruth/Gehrig and Mantle. And his reign was interrupted by war years. It also “hurts” them that neither was a big personality in the way their predecessors or successors was. Not that that is a bad thing in actual terms. I will accept arguments, however, that Gehrig’s unfortunate sickness and the manner in which he left the game — the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech — shoots him up the list because he came to personify a Yankees class that many still like to point to today. I just personally feel that that was more about Gehrig’s class than a general Yankees class than a lot of people think.

Others: Yogi, for all of his character and importance, was always second banana to DiMaggio and Mantle. Rivera was just a closer. I’m sorry. Yes, he was the best ever and there’s a certain drama that goes with closing, but there’s no way a closer is as important either culturally or in a baseball sense as an everyday player is. I mentioned Munson above. I’m choosing not to include owners, GMs and managers, so Rupert, Steinbrenner, Stengel, Cashman and all of them are part of another conversation. I don’t think I’m leaving anyone else out.

What say you?

  1. 461deep - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    Yankees won 9 WS titles with DiMaggio yet for some reason he gets less credit than the others. Jeter is a HOF player but c’mon he could not match DiMaggio’s fielding, power, and his BA is 13 points lower. The only 5 tool player that can match DiMaggio is Willie Mays who was not better but did last longer.

    • aceshigh11 - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:33 PM

      Willie Mays was not better than DiMaggio?? Are you kidding?

      • bigharold - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:54 PM

        Willie Mays WAS NOT better than DiMaggio.

      • aceshigh11 - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:16 PM

        Maybe only because Mays played 8 years longer and dragged his stats down, and because DiMaggio lost 3 peak years to the war.

    • sportsfan18 - Feb 14, 2014 at 12:41 AM

      Yogi won 10 WS titles…

      But maybe he doesn’t get the respect he’s due because he PLAYED in 21 World Series which means he lost 11 to the 10 he won…

      21 World Series folks… Just another reason why Jeter is not the most important Yankee ever.

      The Yankee brand had long been set as the best (I’m NOT a Yankee fan, sadly am a long time Cubs fan).

      Now if Jeter had played the past 18 yrs with the Cubs and had won 5 WS titles with them, he’d be the most important Cub ever. But the Yankees had been a major brand for a long time before Jeter. He just continued carrying the torch from the many others before him.

      He didn’t have to build up a franchise. He came to a top performing company and fit in and kept them at the top. There is a difference in helping to maintain vs. putting a franchise on the map…

      • phantomspaceman - Feb 14, 2014 at 11:11 AM

        Wow, Yogi really was amazing. 21 World Series appearances in 18 Major League seasons. A feat that will never be topped, surely.

      • tmktwo - Feb 14, 2014 at 6:55 PM

        please don’t bring the cubs into the conversation! the cubs have not been in the major league in a century or more.100 years and counting of loser ball kind of sets your record strait doesn’t it.and it is not going to get any better.if you think otherwise you are delusional at best.take another hit of your pipe buddy.

      • buddaley - Feb 15, 2014 at 2:03 AM

        What? He was 10-4 in the World Series. He was also 0-2 as a manager, once with the Mets.

  2. Jason @ IIATMS - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    WE ARE TALKING ABOUT MIKE LUPICA, RIGHT? For the love of all things good and holy, move it along. Lupica and Shaughnessy and the rest of the bunch of drama queens and muckrakers can be stuffed in a hole and filled with cement with only their noses sticking out so we can rub s__t in their noses for once for all of eternity.

    I might have issues, sorry.

    • yankeesfanlen - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:06 PM

      Exactly! Mike Lupica is THE FAT TOAD of sports (and other) reporting.
      Oh, and BTW, it’s Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Yogi, Casey, then maybe Beep-beep.

    • chinahand11 - Feb 16, 2014 at 10:49 PM

      Don’t forget to take the naysayer Rick Riley.

  3. wpjohnson - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    Can you imagine the stature of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, et als if they had the suffocating media coverage of today? Jeter is a beneficiary of modern publicity. To put him in a group with the true all time Yankee greats is pushing it a bit. Of course, he would be number one in contemporary publicity and hype.

    • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:49 AM

      And not a speck of homophobia today. May it be for a blessing.

      • vivabear - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:36 PM

        Old Felcher – no racist comments from you as of yet.

      • raysfan1 - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:25 PM

        Geez, Craig, what’s it going to take to get “vivabear” banned from this site? He never, ever makes any baseball comments. He only comes onto this site to make personal attacks on Old Gator, and they are always with filthy gutter language that no decent person would use.

        If he commented like this about a racial or ethnic group, he would have been banned already. Why is it any different for this offensive personal campaign of obscenity-laden animosity?

    • buddaley - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:07 PM

      Perhaps that is why Jeter deserves to be placed #2. His every move, on and off the field, was subject to inspection every day, all day. He had to navigate the media crush, and a media far more prone to negative stories than in years past, and maintain his dignity and poise. Yes, many reporters fawned over him, but it takes great skill to acquire such respect, and if the criteria is as Craig suggests, not greatest, but most important, then being so adroit within this environment may support his ranking of Jeter.

      The Yankees might have won just as much with Mays in place of Mantle, and they might have won as much with Hanley Ramirez as with Jeter, but in which case, considering era and media crush, would the Yankee image have been burnished more brightly?

  4. sportsfan18 - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    No, he isn’t. Why? No one would be even asking if he was the most important Yankee ever if the Yankee’s weren’t something special.

    They are special (I’m NOT a Yankee fan either) due to their long, rich and storied history.

    The Yankees were the Yankees BEFORE Jeter got there.

    Had Jeter gone to play for the Cubs, no titles since the stone age, and he lead them to multiple titles etc… then one could say Jeter is the Greatest Cub ever…

    Ruth was the original. He started it all and start it did he ever. He was far and away better than others.

    Had no one followed the Babe and the Yankees turned into the Cubs after he retired… well there would be NO Yankee mystique right now.

    Jeter was one in a LONG line of Yankee greats that KEPT them at the top etc… Jeter simply followed in line after Ruth, Gehrig, Yogi, DiMaggio, Mantle, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson etc…

    • buddaley - Feb 15, 2014 at 2:17 AM

      You are not responding to Craig. He is not talking about the “greatest” ever; he is discussing who is the most important, a question that goes beyond being a great player. On that basis, you could make a case for Elston Howard being on the list. But Jeter certainly has a case, after Ruth, for that title. The combination of success, image and publicity in combination is unparalleled in Yankee history if you consider the sheer magnitude of the media presence.

  5. Fantasy Football Consultant - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:27 AM

    Maris and the 61 should be close behind the top 5 at the least

    • Old Gator - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:50 AM

      You’re comparing a single episode to an entire career – like comparing apples with jackfruit. ’61 was wonderful, for one season. Jeter’s been at it for 20 years. Come on now.

  6. jolink653 - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:39 AM

    I would move Gehrig up because he brought that working man, blue collar effort and appeal to the team. Ruth is by far #1 and he defined the Yankees, but Gehrig was such a huge part of how the Yankees went about their business on the field. He was the portrait of consistency and hard work, something the Yankees have striven for and prided themselves on ever since.

    Another thing I would say about Jeter is that in some ways, he has maintained fans’ belief in the game during the steroid era. That it could be done honestly and cleanly. That a player could be great without sticking a needle in his body. Jeter gave the Yankees back their winning swagger while staying professional and he has provided a whole generation of fans with so many memories of greatness. He never made headlines with his words, never was involved in a scandal, never made the wrong move once in 20 years, which is insane to think about in this day of social media and especially the media coverage here

  7. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:06 PM

    I think you underestimate Yogi here. He may have been second fiddle at the plate to Dimaggio and Mantle, but he was catching all of those pitching staffs while being second fiddle at the dish. You could argue (as ARod famously did) that Jeter was also second (or third or fourth) at the plate on many of the great Yankees yeams of his era.

    Add in the fact that Yogi has as many rings as he has fingers, and he has to be at the very least #3. Certainly ahead of Reggie.

  8. aceshigh11 - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:34 PM

    I’d say that Jeter deserves to be on that list, but not even close to #1. C’mon…

    Lupica is such a hack.

  9. 4cornersfan - Feb 13, 2014 at 12:51 PM

    .474/690/1.164. Ruth’s lifetime OPS and Slugging Percentage are the highest in the game. As the game’s greatest player the top sports media star of the era he brought the Yankees from obscurity to the pinnacle. I think you underestimate DiMaggio’s status. Remember that after his hitting streak of 1941, he and other MLB players came back from WWII and gave Americans a sense of normalcy and pride after the darkest days the world has ever seen.

  10. eatitfanboy - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    I hope Mike Francesa doesn’t read this post. If he does, he might have a stroke. *In my best Francesa voice* “Dawg, Reggie Jackson does not belong on this list. I mean, Dawg, the man was in the majors for 21 yeahs and only 5 with the Yankees. Did the man play a prominent role on several World Series teams? Absolutely. But an all-time Yankee great? Ahead of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio? There’s no way, Dawg. The man played heah five yeahs Dawg. Get out of here with that”.

  11. ctony1216 - Feb 13, 2014 at 2:50 PM

    How can you say DiMaggio was not a big personality? I think his wife, Marilyn Monroe, would disagree. Ernest Hemingway would argue with you, too,* as would Simon & Garfunkel (Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio …?). Joe D. was a national icon, for Jete’s sake.

    In terms of players who mattered, here’s how the ranking should go …

    1. Babe Ruth
    2. Joe DiMaggio (he was the original “Jeter” — all class, all about winning, united the country during hard times of the Depression and the war. DiMaggio was the guy who created the template for what it meant to be a Yankee.)
    3. Derek Jeter
    4. Mickey Mantle (for many baby boomers, the Mick was baseball)
    5. Yogi Berra (how many rings? 10?)

    • 18thstreet - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:13 PM

      Joe DiMaggio got America through the Depression? If he actually did that, he’d deserve the No. 1 spot.

      • ctony1216 - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:29 PM

        Actually, when Columbia University awarded DiMaggio an honorary Doctor of Laws in 1990, the citation stated that DiMaggio “helped lift America out of the gloom of the Great Depression.” So, maybe that’s a little more accurate, but you get the idea.

    • sportsfan18 - Feb 14, 2014 at 12:47 AM


      WHERE is Gehrig? Gehrig was the original Jeter, long before DiMaggio.

      Gehrig was a working man, never took a day off (consecutive games played record til Ripken eclipsed it).

      Gehrig was damn near Ruth’s equal in production and he was quiet, understated etc… NOT that DiMaggio wasn’t… Now DiMaggio was like Jeter in that he got the women and was married to Marilyn Monroe… Maybe Jeter got the gift basket idea from DiMaggio…

      1) Ruth
      2) Gehrig
      3) DiMaggio
      4) Jeter
      5) Yogi
      6) Mantle

      • ctony1216 - Feb 14, 2014 at 7:35 AM

        I left out Gehrig because he played in Ruth’s shadow for most of his career. He was one of the top 4 players in Yankee history, better than Jeter, but in terms of guys who mattered to the franchise when they were playing, I think other guys ranked a little higher. No disrespect to Gehrig. It’s just that the other guys, I felt, were a little more important.

        But I can see your point — the Ruth era Yankees might not have won championships without Gehrig. The Gehrig legend became a huge part of Yankees lore and tradition. I get it. That said, when I think which Yankees were irreplaceable, I move Gehrig down to number 6.

  12. jkcalhoun - Feb 13, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    Whatever the bulk of the nation thinks, it’s hard to me to think of those teams as Reggie’s teams, after the public feuding with Munson and Martin.

    So I’m surprised to see him on this list; he was often the center of attention, but he was never at the center of those teams.

    • eatitfanboy - Feb 13, 2014 at 4:37 PM

      See my widely thumbs-downed post above. Most die hard life long Yankee fans would never, ever put Jackson on this list. He spent 5 of his 21 MLB seasons there and while he had some big October moments, was never the leader or heart and soul of any of Yankee squads he was a member of. I may be biased because I was a huge Munson supporter (maybe because I was a 10 year old little league catcher at the time), but Jackson’s popularity as a Yankee is highly revisionist. And the fact that he lingers around the club to this day is not exactly endearing to all Yankee fans.

      • jkcalhoun - Feb 13, 2014 at 5:34 PM

        I’m very definitely not a Yankees fan, and I can’t find fault with anything you said.

    • thedoubleentandres - Feb 14, 2014 at 9:10 AM

      I just finished readin Bronx Zoo the other day and I must say Jackson comes accross as the most overrated, arrogant, locker room cancer imagineable.
      I’d have guys like Gehrig, Yogi and Munson way ahead of him on that list

  13. mikhelb - Feb 13, 2014 at 7:35 PM

    Well Ruth had Gehrig and if ‘the babe’ had a rough couple of weeks Gehrig picked up the team. Then it was Gehrig and DiMaggio, same thing for the DiMaggio/Mantle duo. Jeter like Munson were basically alone, a few great players at their side but most of the time they were heading their team, Munson had Randolph and Reggie but Jeter spent a lot of time without the likes of O’Neill and Bernie who were the 2nd and 3rd bats that carried the team along Jeter in the season before Derek exploded offensively in the postseason… Rivera could be named too but he mostly played in games where the yanks had a lead and others have done it (Trevor Hoffman).

    I dont think it is far fetched to say that Jeter has been more important because he has been a glue-like presence on the field carrying his team even when he is a leadoff or 2nd bat and not a power hitter like the others.

  14. musketmaniac - Feb 13, 2014 at 8:07 PM

    Man n.y fan must be racist scum. Reggie Jackson didn’t make many lists. Didn’t Reggie complain about being called a N….. he said he never expected it from his hometown team, but they were worse.

  15. phillysports1 - Feb 14, 2014 at 2:07 PM

    Can’t believe someone said David Wells ….

  16. phillysports1 - Feb 14, 2014 at 2:13 PM


    Yogi has 13 World Series rings . Not 10

    • ctony1216 - Feb 14, 2014 at 4:27 PM

      Yogi has 10 rings as a player. He has 2 others as a coach of the 1977-78 Yankees and one more as coach of the ’69 Mets.

  17. evanhartford - Feb 14, 2014 at 3:47 PM

    Jeter is clearly the most important Yankee, and possibly player, of this generation. He’s the quintessential all-star player, marketing powerhouse and media/public darling. He’s like a cross between Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan while being “only” one of the best at his position instead of being regarded as one of the best ever.

    You could argue that he is the most successful athlete of all time next to Jordan.

  18. gritzblitz66 - Feb 14, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    There’s only one player in all of baseball who comes close to being as important as Babe, and that’s Jackie Robinson. Even just talking about Yankees Jeter doesn’t come close.

  19. phillysports1 - Feb 14, 2014 at 8:17 PM

    Oh if you wanna go by that then that’s perfectly fine . But I was referring as in total

  20. ti6er - Feb 15, 2014 at 1:59 AM

    I don’t think Jeter is even in the top 10 of greatest Yankee ever let alone the most important Yankee ever. I don’t believe he redefined the game like Ruth. Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mattingly (if he never gotten injured). Jeter is just an above average player, much like Biggio, because of longevity he was able to get 3k hits. Please stop this nonsense that he’s the most important Yankee ever.

  21. ndrick731 - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:37 AM

    Jeter over Ruth is just plain stupid

  22. psychologyofsports - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:40 PM

    He is the most important in the modern era that is for sure—

  23. psychologyofsports - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:41 PM–He is the most important Yankee in the modern era for sure.

  24. psychologyofsports - Feb 17, 2014 at 12:42 PM–

  25. reasonableperson1 - Feb 17, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    Since everyone loves talking about Mt. Rushmore these days I’d have to say Jeter doesn’t make the list. Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, Mantle, Jeter, and Rivera all are all time greats. Jeter never won an MVP or was the most dominant player in baseball (yes, I understand he was a SS).

    I’d have to put Ruth, Dimaggio, Mantle, and Rivera on there. Jeter was great but gotta make a cut somewhere.

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