Derek Jeter is one of the reasons I am as big of a baseball fan as I am. The shortstop played his first full year when I was six, the first year I started paying attention to baseball. He won Rookie of the Year and helped lead the Yankees to their 23rd World Championship and has become a linchpin for the Yankee dynasty ever since. He was one of my heroes growing up, and still, even with him at the age of 37 and I being 22, is my favorite player.
I know I’m not the only kid that went through this. In fact, there are even several players in the Majors who have said Derek Jeter was their hero growing up, most notably, Colorado Rockies shortstop, Troy Tulowiski. He wears number two on the back of his jersey because Jeter does.
Jeter’s accomplishments do not need refreshing, and yesterday, he surpassed Mickey Mantle for most games played in Yankee history.
But for as great as Derek Jeter is, I think people have lost sight of the past. Today, I saw a poll on Facebook conducted by SportsCenter asking if Derek Jeter is the greatest Yankee of all-time. Even I can not agree with that statement.
I will not try to rank where Jeter stands as the greatest Yankee. That is a futile effort and, because of the vast number of great players that the franchise produced and the different era that all of them played in, is an argument that can just keep going around and around.
I will make a case for where he shouldn’t rank, and that is number one. That spot will always belong to Babe Ruth.
Babe Ruth, even ninety years after his prime and sixty years after his death, is a household name. He revolutionized the sport in the way that no one else ever will. For the nearly forty years he was the single-season home run champion, belting 60 home runs in 1927. At 714 career home runs, he was the all-time record holder until Hank Aaron surpassed him in April of 1974. Ruth accomplishments are, well, Ruthian.
Babe Ruth was the ultimate baseball player. He could pitch, and he could hit. He stole more bases than he is ever given credit for. In 22 seasons, six of which were spent as a pitcher, he stole over 120 bases. His fielding, or lack thereof, is perhaps the only aspect of his game that was missing. But even the Babe didn’t need that.
Babe Ruth started out as a pitcher, and it is often overlooked how great of a pitcher he was. In 1916 and 1917, Ruth was 47-25 with a league leading 1.75 ERA in ’16 and a 2.01 ERA in ’17. Most baseball historians say that if there had been a Cy Young Award in those years, Ruth would have won at least in one of those years, if not both. In 3 World Series starts, Ruth was 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA in 31 IP. In other words, even Josh Beckett would be jealous of his World Series ERA.
But Ruth’s true legacy lay in his bat. Ruth home runs are legendary, but his entire offensive game is often overlooked compared to his home run prowess. Ruth’s life time batting average was .342, roughly 25 points higher than Jeter’s. There were only two full seasons in which Ruth failed to hit .300. He won a batting title in 1924 with an average of .378, which wasn’t even his highest career average. Ruth batted .393 in ’23, and six times he had an average higher than .370. In addition, compared to today’s sluggers who strike out well more than 100 times a year even in their best years, Ruth never once struck out more than 100 times, his highest amount being a league leading 93 in ’23.
Now, in defense of Jeter lovers, because baseball was so much of a contact hitter’s game in the Ruth’s era, Ruth did lead the league in strikeouts on five occasions. But Ruth has the ultimate trump card. He revolutionized his sport.
Baseball was in its Dead Ball Era. No one was hitting home runs. When Ruth broke the single-season home run record with 29 dingers in 1919, he passed Buck Freeman, who held the record with 24 in 1899. Comparatively speaking, Derek Jeter’s career high in home runs was 24 in 1999. A year later, Ruth obliterated his own record by belting 54 in 1920. And that was even before Yankee Stadium and its short rightfield porch opened, which didn’t occur until 1923. All in all, Ruth led the Majors in home runs in 12 seasons, including six straight seasons from ’26-’31.
And then there were the championships. Four of them, and it could have been even more. In the 1921 World Series, Ruth dominated the first two games (which the Yankees won) of the best-of nine game series before an elbow injury limited his production for the rest of the series. The New York Giants would defeat the Yankees in eight games. Yes, Ruth did play on some of the greatest baseball teams off all time, and had some of the games best players with him. He had Murderer’s Row, the greatest and most feared line-up in the history of the sport.
But Derek Jeter has had the help of the greatest closer in baseball history, some of the best pitchers of the recent generation, and a seemingly limitless amount of financial aid from the Yankee front office. The pitching staff of the late-’90s Yankees featured David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and the best bullpen in the game. Jeter has played alongside one of the greatest home run hitters, Alex Rodriguez, since 2004. In 2009, when Jeter won his fifth championship, the Yankees had just signed three players to astronomically high salaries amidst one of the worst economic recessions in the nation’s history. All three, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, made significant contributions on the way to the championship.
But few athletes have ever had the swagger that Ruth carried. He was charismatic, outspoken and a playboy. He starred in early movies, appeared in vaudeville acts throughout the Roaring Twenties and fit the persona of a nation that was going through its greatest party years. While prohibition and bootlegging were the “in” thing to do, Ruth’s drinking and womanizing fit right in with the culture of the times. Along with Ali, Jordan and (pre-scandal) Woods, Ruth is in the rare category of sports stars that are widely known throughout the world. Not only that, but he was the original athlete that gained worldwide fame. Baseball used his worldwide fame to spread the sport to Japan, where mainly because of Ruth, an all-star barnstorming tour was met with remarkable success in 1934. Two years later, Japan’s first professional baseball league was organized.
Babe Ruth is the most important player in baseball history. His sale from the Red Sox to the Yankees after the 1919 season is perhaps the most second-guessed decision in the history of American sports. In all due respect to Derek Jeter, he will never hold a candle to the legacy that Ruth left behind.
Derek Jeter will always be remembered for his intangibles, his knack of picking up clutch hits and his year-in year-out consistency. But Babe Ruth will be remembered as being the face of the sport and the sport’s first ambassador of the game. He saved baseball from the Black Sox scandal that left the sport in ruins after 1919 and launched it into the nation’s past time. No athlete will ever do more for his sport than what the Babe did for Baseball.