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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. Rich Stowe - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    It’s Ruth and not even the close. Before 1920, the Yankees didn’t even have their own ballpark and couldn’t draw fans…with the Giants and Dodgers in town, the Yankees were probably going to be moved (my guess) simply because they couldn’t compete financially in that crowded market.

    Ruth made the Yankees what we know the Yankees to be….without Ruth the Yankees don’t exist and the Yankees we know of probably exist as the Red Sox (if at all – because Ruth doing what he did in New York not only saved the Yankees, it probably saved baseball too after the Black Sox)….

    Jeter is very important as a Yankeee – probably 2nd in terms of importance to saving the franchise etc and I agree, if anyone says number 1 is anyone but Ruth they’re drunk, stoned, both, or simply doesn’t understand baseball

    • jwbiii - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:16 AM

      Right. The next person who calls YS3 The House that Jeter Built will be the first I’ve heard.

    • unclemosesgreen - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:29 AM

      I object to your ending comment on so many levels. I’ve never been drunk or stoned or even drunk and stoned enough to put Jeter or any other baseball player above Babe Ruth. The appropriate saber-stat to measure Ruth would be TAR – Teams Above Replacement. He was more productive than entire teams. Only one modern player has approached Ruthian levels of batting devastation, and that was Barry Bonds.

      Great picture of Jeter. Caption Contest!

      “Who’s next for a gift bag? Hmm – you? Oh yes – you in the front row with the pink Yankees hat. You’re the next contestant! Come on down!”

      • sportsfan18 - Feb 14, 2014 at 12:53 AM

        You’re right when you said Modern players that Bonds was the closest to Ruth.

        But why limit it to modern players? Don’t forget about Lou Gehrig.

        Bonds career on base percentage .444%
        Gehrig career on base percentage .447%

        Bonds career slugging percentage .607%
        Gehrig career slugging percentage .632%

        Bonds career OPS 1.051
        Gehrig career OPS 1.080

        Gehrig was quiet, understated. Ruth occupied the spot light. Gehrig just played (Ruth did too obviously).

        Ruth is #1

        Gehrig is #2

        The highest Jeter may ever climb is #3 on the list of greatest or most important Yanks.

    • schrutebeetfarms - Feb 13, 2014 at 1:49 PM

      He’s no Michael Young.

  2. halladaysbiceps - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    1. Ruth, 2. Gehrig, 3. Mantle, 4. DiMaggio, 5. Jeter

    • shyts7 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:34 AM

      You nailed the correct order! Anyone who thinks Ruth isn’t the biggest name/most important Yankee is a fool!

      • bigharold - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:56 AM

        It’s more like; 1. Ruth, 2. Gehrig/DiMaggio/Mantle/Berra/Jeter.

        It’s Ruth then everybody else. And, that isn’t meant to be a knock on any other after Ruthlook at the headline then consider the source. And, to an extent this is a debate with no end.

      • sportsfan18 - Feb 14, 2014 at 12:56 AM

        Gehrig is much closer to Ruth than anyone else… look at his stats, he has a higher on base percentage, slugging % and OPS than Bonds in each category.

        No, he doesn’t quite equal Ruth, but Gehrig is not far behind Ruth.

        It’s Ruth, then Gehrig and then a distance to whoever is number 3.

        Gehrig is much closer to Ruth at number 2 than the distance between whoever is number 3 to Gehrig.

    • proudlycanadian - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:37 AM

      Well done Ceps!

    • Alex K - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:14 AM

      The only change I would make is swapping DiMaggio and Jeter. Only because the down years before Jeter came along.

  3. Rich Stowe - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:33 AM

    if discussing greatest Yankees solely by what they did on the field, what they meant overall etc,

    it’s Ruth, Gehrig, then probably DiMaggio, Mantle, Rivera, Jeter, Berra…..

  4. tc4306 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:33 AM

    I would have Gehrig/DiMaggio second. The fact that their impacts happened a long time ago should not matter. I’d have Mantle third. “Willie, Micky and the Duke” will live forever. Jeter would come next: in the fourth spot.

  5. elvin2014 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    No!….Lou Gehrig is the most important yankee ever….

  6. angrytwitterguy - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    Reggie Jackson ahead of Joe D?

    And yes I understand the question

    • angrytwitterguy - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:44 AM

      Joe D has mattered more to the Yankees Then and Now than Reggie Jackson.
      Not even up for debate

      • sportsfan18 - Feb 14, 2014 at 12:58 AM

        Exactly. Reggie only played 5 of his 21 seasons with the Yankees.

        Sure, he hit some HR’s in the World Series, but that was it…

        Not his fault, but he wasn’t a Yankee for nearly long enough to get high up on their list…

  7. raysfan1 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:43 AM

    I get what you are saying and would still switch # 4 and #5 on your list. The reason for moving Jackson down one spot–he was indeed in many ways the face of the franchise to many fans; however, he was still overshadowed by Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. Further, Munson’s impact of course was tragically cut off by his death.

    • raysfan1 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:55 AM

      Also, since the topic is how important the player was to the Yankees specifically, it also bears mentioning that when I do think of Reggie Jackson, I am just as likely to think of the early 1970s A’s as I am the Yankees teams from later in the decade.

  8. jfk69 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:44 AM

    Ruth got a stadium built. Never at loss for words like the secretive Jeter.
    Ruth when asked why he made more than the President. Ruth replayed..” I had a better year than him.”

  9. nogoodtomedead - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:50 AM

    No. No he is not.

  10. favrewillplay4ever - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:51 AM

    Ruth … He’s tops for all of baseball and there’s not even a logical debate to be made against it.

  11. barrywhererufrom - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:51 AM

    Number 11′..Ruth..Gehrig..DiMaggio..Mantle..Berra..Ford..Dickey..Mariano..Munson..Howard..then Jeter..not bad considering the history of the greatest franchise in sports.

  12. largebill - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    This speaks to a couple things. First is the New York tendency to over state every thing. Everything is bigger and better there (in their opinion). Couple that with the general mentality of each generation to think history started when they came along and you get headlines like that one.

  13. jfk69 - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    RUTH…. He was Ruthian
    GERHIG…The glue. The real life iron man
    MANTLE…The Mick. Who nearly every kid wanted to be when they stepped to the plate.
    JETER…Jeter..Steady and classy while dealing with crazy George. NO STEROIDS FOR HIM. A ROCK.
    REGGIE BAR… Pure drama and headlines every time he opened his mouth. Then backed it up on the field. At his best when it counted most
    RIVERA…The quiet and best closer of all time.
    That is in my order

    • barrywhererufrom - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:01 AM

      Reggie didn’t play long enough for the Yanks..those three straight homeruns were pretty nice in the World Series..but that was already done by the Iron Horse. I would have Guidry..Pettite and Donnie Baseball in front of Mr. October

    • jfk69 - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:21 AM

      My apologies to Mr Yogi Berra. Before there was a candy bar.. There was YOO HOO.. and I drank it. Yogi 14 WS appearances and ten rings. Greatest quotes. Did I mention Yoo Hoo. Clutch and could handle a pinching staff. Iconic photo after Don Larsen’s Perfect Series game.
      Sorry Reggie

  14. thepancakebandit - Feb 13, 2014 at 9:57 AM

    Yeeeah Jeets

  15. joshfrancis50 - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:00 AM

    Hyperbole sells. Move along; nothing to see here.

  16. NYTolstoy - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:11 AM

    Ruth is deff #1 and Jeter is in the top 5 of all time Yankee greats. Yogi to me is one of the best. His character and playing such a demanding position. I loved him.

    On a separate note. For some horrific reason I laughed pretty hard that the headline under Jeet. That Read. BUSH CRASH DRUNKEN MAYHEM! With a big picture of Jeter smiling…for a second I thought Jeter said “okay reporters you want some news I’ll give you some news!” It made my morning.

    • jwbiii - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:50 AM

      BUS CRASH, NYTolstoy, not BUSH CRASH. My first thought after reading your comment was “Did Jenna do something Very Bad? I thought she had her stuff together now.” But you did make me look.

  17. jm91rs - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:18 AM

    It’s Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, then either Jeter or Scott Brosius

  18. Brian Donohue - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    Fritz Peterson’s wife, Mike Kekich’s wife, Fritz Peterson’s ex-wife, Mike Kekich’s ex-wife, and the mysterious Third Woman of that immortal Yankees pitching staff.

  19. cackalackyank - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    I say Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jeter, Yogi, Jackson, Rivera. I think Joe D comes in higher than some do because of his class and the record he set still stands. The 56 game hit streak is the one record I think will stand, maybe forever. As a kid it wasn’t just that the NYY had won the most Championships, their players also held a lot of the big records until Aaron and Ripken changed that. Yogi before Jackson just because he is Yogi, and Jackson was only with NYY for 5 seasons, albeit two memorable Championship ones. I think it is also important to note that Rivera making the top ten on anyone’s list is huge…not because he is a closer, but because the Yankees are not a pitching team. Yes there is Mo, Whitey Ford, Gator, Clemens, etc, etc, but they are called the Bronx Bombers for a reason.

    • 18thstreet - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:26 AM

      There are plenty of records that will stand forever. DiMaggio’s hit streak has a good chance of that because baseball is better now than it was in 1941. His hit streak would have come to an end against better defenders or a righty reliever out of the bullpen. It was assisted by the absolutely putrid American League in the pre-integration, pre-war years (other than the Yankees, that is). All those games against the St. Louis Browns, the Philadelphia A’s, and the Washington Senators. Same reason Williams could bat .400 back then. They were the best of their era, and their era was not very good.

      But Cy Young’s record is the one that’s actually completely untouchable. And if you say, “Well, that’s because they play the game differently now!” you’re right. And it’s the same reason (as articulated above) for why DiMaggio’s record happened. They play the game differently now. DiMaggio got four at bats against starting pitchers. That never happens any more. He NEVER had to face a closer as good as — heck — John Axford, never mind Koji Uehara. Literally: never.

      DiMaggio was great. Amazing. Mr. Coffee and all that. But the 56-game hit streak is a reflection of the inferiority of his opponents. And THAT is why his record has been so safe.

  20. johnnysoda - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:43 AM

    Can’t get the News today, but I sure would like to read Lupica’s reasoning for making Jeter the most important Yankee ever. It’ll probably be spurious at best.

  21. sdelmonte - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    Ruth first, no further explanation.

    But then Mantle. He was the biggest name player on the biggest name team in the time when baseball was king. In short, he was Baseball in a way that no one ever could be again. Think about the legions of fans who worshiped him then and still do now. Then through in what a star he was in ways that Jeter isn’t. Which is a good thing since the Mick’s legend includes his drinking.

    Then DiMaggio, whose career was similar to Mickey’s in a lot of ways.

    Then Jeter, who simply came along too late to be that sort of legend. And who also just isn’t larger than life. I really don’t see tell-all biopics or hagiographies about him ever being made.

    And I would leave Reggie out. He was a great Yankee, but he wasn’t here long enough.

    Special mention of Yogi for being Yogi.

    • sportsfan18 - Feb 14, 2014 at 1:01 AM

      Nope. Gehrig is a clear #2 to Ruth. Quiet, understated. Lunch pail type. Ruth occupied the spot light.

      Gehrig just played and played and played. Had the consecutive games record until Cal eclipsed him.

      Gehrig’s OBP, Slugging and OPS are ALL higher than Bonds even.

      Gehrig didn’t quite equal Ruth of course stat wise but it wasn’t like Ruth had him lapped either…

      Gehrig, as #2 is closer to Ruth than whoever #3 is to Gehrig.

  22. stex52 - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    I have a tremendous partiality for Berra, but he probably doesn’t belong in the top five. “Only” a great catcher, manager for a million years, and ambassador for baseball. It speaks to the importance of the others. But I’m not quite sold on Reggie as a Yankee being that high. And I think the assessment of Rivera is correct.

  23. johnchesterny - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    Derek Jeter is and always will be a Great Yankee. No doubt, the Greatest Yankee since Mantle. However, when we speak about ‘The Pride Of The Yankees’ we are referring to Lou Gehrig, “The luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Ruth and Gehrig are 1 and 1a, respectively. The discussion is who is 3 through 5 and in what order. 3 through 5 include DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter. A case can also be made for Yogi.

    Also, Whitey Ford deserves more support in these Greatest Yankee discussions. He is the Greatest Yankee pitcher (Sorry, Mo) and while he dosen’t crack the Top 5, he definitely belongs somewhere in the 6-9 range.

    • sportsfan18 - Feb 14, 2014 at 1:03 AM

      Bravo about Gehrig. He is easily #2 to Ruth.

      He’s much closer to Ruth than whoever #3 is to him (Gehrig).

  24. greymares - Feb 13, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    for me doesn’t compare to DiMaggio. Mantle, Berra, Ford, Rizzutto or any number of Yankees when baseball was significant. Baseball was so important to so many people back then. It was the backbone of the american culture. whether a Yankee fan or like me a Yankee hater they were important. not like today when baseball is just a blip on the radar screen.

    • 18thstreet - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:29 AM

      Bull. Go look at the attendance back then. It wasn’t that baseball was more important. It’s that a bunch of old men who grew up in the five boroughs had THEIR teams succeed.

      Baseball is more popular today than it has ever been. Ever.

      Do you know how many people were in the stands when the GIANTS WON THE PENNANT THE GIANTS WON THE PENNANT? Go — look it up.

  25. doctorofsmuganomics - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    You know you’re getting old when someone you’ve watched for their whole career announces their retirement.

    I’m not ready to be an old geezer.

    • johnchesterny - Feb 13, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      No, doc. You’re not officially an “old geezer” until the last ballplayer born before you announces his retirement and you refer to EVERY player as “that kid”.

      Where have you gone Jamie Moyer?!

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