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?