Where Have You Gone, Derek Jeter?

September 19, 2014
 
 
1.
 
Carlos Beltran is Joe DiMaggio.
 
I was thinking that the other day: how similar they are as players. There are the obvious parallels: centerfielders, good, graceful defensive centerfielders. Good hitters: excellent on-base percentages, excellent power. Beltran, at his peak, was probably faster than DiMaggio was, but DiMaggio wasn’t slow. Both men played in New York. Both men had extremely brilliant postseason resumes.
 
Beyond that, DiMaggio and Beltran share a certain style of play; an ease with the game of baseball. As Casey Stengel said of DiMaggio: "Joe did everything so naturally that half the time he gave the impression he wasn’t trying." The same is true of Beltran.
 
Here’s another parallel: the most frequently cited statistic about Joe DiMaggio, the statistic that captures the kind of player he was, is that he hit 369 homeruns, and struck out just 361 times.
 
The most cited statistic about Carlos Beltran? 311 stolen bases, 49 times caught stealing.
 
Those statistics parallel: if DiMaggio wasn’t the most prolific slugger of his time, he was certainly the most efficient slugger; his power hitting didn’t come at a cost of a high number of strikeouts. Same thing with Beltran: he stole bases, but unlike most base stealers, he wasn’t caught often.
 
Beltran is not equal to Joe DiMaggio: I’m not trying to argue that. But Beltran is the closest version of Joe D. that the current generation of baseball players has, the player who is the most like DiMaggio.  
 
So how come Carlos Beltran isn’t famous the way that DiMaggio was?
 
 
2.
 
Derek Jeter is the most iconic player of his generation.  It is safe to say that words have been written about Jeter than about any of his peers, including Alex Rodriguez. Many more words have been written about Jeter than Albert Pujols, though Pujols has been the better player.  
 
Why?
 
That’s what this article is getting at: that’s our subject.  
 
 
 
3.
 
In an old article for this site, I made a brief aside about Warren Spahn:
 
 
…Warren Spahn was a reflection of his time, wasn’t he? I mean, weren’t the 1950’s in America a hard fight for consistency, for a kind of impossible permanence?
 
 
I suppose that each generation carries a specific number of wants or desires, wants that are shaped by external forces and experiences. Spahn’s generation bore witness to the terrors of the Second World War, and suffered the subsequent anxieties of the nuclear age. It is unsurprising that when they returned home, they sought stability over all else. It’s a generalization, of course, but I think that the desires of that era were stable desires: a family and a house in the suburbs and a job to work for forty years. They didn’t come back from the Second World War intent on changing the country. No: they just wanted to keep things together as best they could, for as long as they could.
 
 
4.
 
Paul Simon said it better: "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts."
 
 
5.a.
 
Let’s run down the heroes of each generation, the players who were clearly on the top of their respective pop charts. The icons.
 
Ty Cobb.
Then Babe Ruth.
Then Dizzy Dean, during the Gashouse years.
Then DiMaggio.
Jackie.
Mantle and Mays.
Koufax.
Then Aaron.
Maybe Rose? Or Reggie!
Then Strawberry or Canseco.
Ripken, for a year.
Then Mac and Sammy and chicks digging the long ball.
Which morphed into Barry Bonds.
And then Jeter.
 
I’m sure I’m missing someone…it doesn’t really matter. There’s no ‘science’ about who counts as iconic, no metrics to look into. We’re just spit-balling, as the kids say.
 
Sometimes the most iconic players of an age are the best players….Cobb, Ruth, Mays. Sometimes, though, the most iconic players aren’t the best players. Reggie and Rose weren’t the best player of their era….they just fit the times. The big, transcendent moment in Aaron’s career happened near the end of it, when he was just a good player. Jeter hasn’t been the best player of his era, either.
 
 
5.b.

Going into this list further:
 
I started with Cobb, which sort of ignores the long history of baseball that existed before Tyrus entered the game. I just don’t have as clear a sense of who the big stars of pre-1900 baseball were…King Kelly, obviously, but I’m not sure who else. I’m not sure who best fits that time, so we’re starting with Cobb.
 
What’s your sense of pre-World War I America? My sense, gleaned entirely from movies and books, is that it was a rough time; a transitional time. Americans and immigrants from Europe were crowding into cities, where they lived and worked in conditions that would horrify our modern sensibilities. I think that the first two decades were a time when people took risks; maybe I’m wrong about this, but I imagine the pre-war years as a time when ambition was rewarded. The people who rose to prominence were risk takers; people who pushed boundaries. Jack London was the great writer of this generation: Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), White Fang (1906).
 
The defining characteristic of Ty Cobb, again gleaned from books and accounts, was his absolute determination. In this regard, I think that Cobb echoed the value of his time and place better than Wagner or Lajoie.  Determination was the aspiration of the land: four decades removed from the Civil War, America was focused on seeing its grand experiment through. Skyscrapers were going up in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia; California and Alaska (or ‘Russian America,’ as it was called prior to 1867) were being civilized. It was an era of pushing, of striving.
 
At least that’s how I’d phrase it if this was a Ken Burns documentary. Maybe we can have him do the audio.
 
 
Ty Cobb was a dirt-poor kid who just pushed: trying to reach the big leagues, he’d send anonymous letters to Grantland Rice, talking up some kid named Cobb, trying to get Rice to put his name in the papers. He didn’t quit; he couldn’t be at ease.   
 
The other icon of that era was Christy Mathewson: just hazarding a guess, but I’d be surprised if Mathewson engendered a tenth of the passion that Cobb did. People liked Mathewson, and I’m sure all of the moms wanted their sons to emulate Mathewson. But….I’d bet that most of the kids playing ball imitated Ty Cobb.
 
Or….Hal Chase. Hal Chase was very representative of his era: he was a corrupt, manipulative SOB, at a time when corrupt SOB’s were getting ahead in America. Chase was famous…he was far more famous than his statistical record suggests he should be. He was famous because he touched a nerve of that time.
 
Chase was famous in part because he was a first baseman who made an effort trying to play defense there. All of the people who observed him were agog about his defense. To modern fans who know 1B to be the position of rotund behemoths, it’s an odd thing: one hundred years ago there was a defensive 1B people wrote poetry about.
 
Well…Chase was a smart guy: decades on, it’s possible to conjecture that that was part of his plan: that he picked a position that a) was actively involved in a lot of plays, and b) required less skill, because a large part of the job is responding to someone else’s effort. Perhaps he thought that if he played the position with enough panache, show enough of something ‘new’ (if not particularly helpful), he could stick in the majors.
 
Babe Ruth was a fit for the Roaring 20’s….he was obviously perfect for that time; perfect for that moment. Babe Ruth might be the athlete most perfect for his era…counting just American athletes, it’s him or Ali. Ruth was ebullient at a time when America was ebullient. Ruth crossed boundaries; as a player he challenged a basic philosophy of the game and changed the game. As a man, he broke every rule every manager made for him. He was an orphan of low birth and questionable ethics, and he ascended to become the most famous man in America. He was a Horatio Alger character brought to life, at a time when post-War America was changing its rules.
 
I’d pick Dizzy Dean as the icon of the Depression. Dean was a fantastically popular player in his prime. The Cardinals, during the Depression, were the southern- and western-most team in baseball, and they had an ethos that seemed to fit those hard-scrabble times. He was cocky and funny and he couldn’t be bothered to learn the Queen’s English... he fit that time.
 
Lou Gehrig didn’t fit that time…Gehrig was a quiet, hard-working, shy. He didn’t fit the Twenties because he wasn’t nearly joyous enough, and he didn’t fit the thirties because no one had jobs to be hard working in. I love Lou Gehrig....when I was a kid I’d scour old baseball books for references to Gehrig. His story seems richer than any era…it has echoes of Greek tragedy. But he wasn’t the iconic player of his own era. 
 
Joe DiMaggio was the next big star. Maybe he wasn’t quite the player that Williams or Musial were, but he absolutely lapped them in terms of stardom. Why?
 
I don’t think it’s merely numbers. A 56-game hit streak is impressive, but so is hitting .400, or winning a Triple Crown. Winning the World Series helps, and playing in New York helps, but I think DiMaggio’s status as the guy that my grandfather’s generation picked as their representative goes beyond World Series rings and a hitting streak.
 
I think….and this here is some broad speculating, because that’s what you get if I can’t use WAR…. I think DiMaggio became famous because he embodied the hopes that immigrant families had for their kids in next generation: a dream of fitting into the fabric of America, conforming to some mode of being America. DiMaggio was, of course, a great success on a successful team. But I think a central characteristic to DiMaggio’s icon status was the ease of his play, how seamlessly he fit into the game. Every account of him uses words like ‘grace’ and ‘finesse.’ No one looked the part of a ballplayer like DiMaggio. Off the field, he looked like a movie star, and then, when his career ended, he married a movie star. He married the movie star: he married Marilynn Monroe.
 
Why is all of this important? Because America was shifting towards assimilation; towards a sense of broader nationhood. The old divisions in American cities that had Italian and Irish neighborhoods were breaking down; the notion of ‘us’ was starting to take hold. Italian Americans weren’t Italians first; they started to have generations in the States, started to transition to a sense of ‘American-ness.’ No one made that transition look smoother than Joe DiMaggio.
 
In terms of cultural impact, the closest player to DiMaggio wasn’t Williams or Musial, but Hank Greenberg, the first great Jewish player.
 
Which paved the way for Jackie, of course.
 
It was Mantle and Mays next, both of them together…let the good times roll.
 
Koufax….Koufax was a counterculture’s kind of ballplayer: a skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn who didn’t even try pitching until he was seventeen. As a young pitcher he had obvious talent and little success. Then, like he had flicked a switch, he dominated the game: 111-34, 1.95 ERA, 33 shutouts. He was a star in L.A. when L.A. was the new land; the place that the rest of the country dreamed about. Then he went away; like a lot of the music icons of that era, he disappeared from the scene at the height of his talents. 
 
I don’t know that Aaron symbolized the tensions of the Vietnam era, so much as he happened into a moment when the social discourse was strained…the war in Vietnam was coming to an unsatisfying end, the Civil Rights movement had gained ground, the Watergate scandal was coming down around Nixon, and ABBA was winning the Eurovision song contest…it was a stressful time. The response to Aaron, the death-threats, the overt racism….it was a sign of the fracturing times.
 
The 1970’s are tough to pick out….I think that Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose were the next iconic players, the next players who everyone had an opinion about. Jackson was a talker, a braggart who had the abilities to back up his boasts. He was ‘me, first,’ at a time when self-aggrandizement was in vogue, a time when the fashion was to stand out. Reggie stood out: he was the man for that time. He wasn’t as good as, say, Mike Schmidt, but he was twice as famous as the Phillies third baseman. Rose had a similar egotism, but he matched it with a style of play that was anything-but-complacent. Whatever you think of Rose now, he worked to be a ballplayer.
 
Jumping into the 1980’s… I started following baseball in the mid-1980’s. From what I remember about that time, Strawberry and Canseco were the big names in the game. There were others: Gooden and Clemens, Eric Davis, Puckett, Mattingly….but my sense was Strawberry and Canseco were the biggest stars.
 
 
5.c.
 
(This is a long aside. Feel free to skip it.)
 
The change that occurred in baseball in the 1980’s is a microcosm of a change in American life that was taking place then, one that has culminated, I think, in the Occupy movements being pepper-sprayed by overzealous cops in America. I’m talking about the disparity in wealth.
 
In 1980, Nolan Ryan signed the first $1 million dollar contract. At the time, the average income for a household in America was approximately $18,000 dollars. So Ryan’s income was equivalent to the incomes of 56 average households in America.
 
Salaries for professional athletes had been going up steadily before then, but I’d hazard that the 1980’s were when the salaries for star athletes crossed over a weird line: making ten times what an average family makes is one thing….you can still have neighbors if you’re making $180,000, and the average stiff is making $18,000. You don’t stand out; you are understood as a part of a larger society.
 
Making fifty, one hundred, five hundred times what an average family makes….that becomes another thing. Most of you know that the quality of life for winners of big lotteries typically decreases when they get their big checks. Most of you, if you thought about it for an instant, would be able to figure out why: having vast sums of money fosters isolation.
 
Think about going out to dinner with friends, one of those small rituals in life that makes it satisfying. If you’re like me, you probably end up splitting the bill most of the time, or you have some way of taking turns paying. Some sort of ‘I’ll shout this round/I’ll get next’ sort of thing.
 
If you went ahead and won the lottery, if you were suddenly $50 million dollars richer, do you suppose that you would continue doing that? Would that small ritual continue?
 
No. It would change. It would start gradually…you’d probably start picking up the bill. After all, you’re suddenly staggeringly wealthy, and you want to share your great good fortune.
 
Gradually, your friends would start expecting you to pick up the bill. You wouldn’t notice, and then you’d start to notice. Then, one day, you wouldn’t pick up the bill, and your friends wouldn’t either. Or…they’d take their time offering. You’d drive home wondering if your friends actually liked you, or if they were just coming around for a free meal.
 
Let’s say that your small ritual was going to some chain restaurant. Flush with new cash, going to Applebee’sisn’t going to cut it. With $50 million generating interest, you’d probably try to branch out a bit. Your friends, if they’re suddenly being asked to pay their tabs, would probably hem-and-haw about going to a place where the menu doesn’t have prices next to the entrees. And pretty quickly you’re eating alone.
 
This would be true for just about all the small things in your life that give you joy: all of them would be altered, in ways that you could not predict. This is true if you win the lottery, and it is true if you work really hard and contribute meaningfully to society and earn a huge salary for your work. Too much money isolates.
 
It’s just my opinion that baseball stars of the 1980’s crossed over a line; they reached a point of gross excess, where there were no more checks. Just looking at the highest salaries in baseball since 1980, and the average annual income in the US:
 
 
Year
 
Avg. Income
 
Highest MLB Salary
 
Player
 
# of Households that represents
1980
$18,000
$1,000,000
Ryan
56
1985
$24,000
$2,100,000
Schmidt
88
1990
$30,000
$3,200,000
Yount
107
1995
$34,000
$9,200,000
Fielder
271
2000
$42,000
$12,900,000
Belle
307
2005
$48,000
$26,000,000
A-Rod
542
 
Just my sense, but I think the stars of the 1980’s were the generation that crossed a line and just couldn’t figure it out. That’s the story of Gooden and Straw and Canseco: they passed a point where there was any way to understand their lives by setting themselves against ordinary lives; against the lives that they knew or recognized.
 
Which morphed, of course, into the whole steroid thing: if the 1980’s were about setting up new standards for excess, the 1990’s were about everyone wanting that excess; everyone expecting it. This was not merely true of ballplayers; that decade, which was the first decade I remember fully, was a decade of high optimism
 
Robin Yount was the highest paid player in 1990…he was paid the equivalent income for of one hundred households. Five years later, that number jumps to almost three hundred households. That’s crazy…that’s an exponential jump.
 
People blame steroids on salaries all the time: salaries make it worth the risk of using steroids. I wonder if the spike in salaries also had players think they were just not like everyone else: that they were magically exempt from the rules that guide the lives of you and me. I think they really thought that: I’d hazard that guys like Bonds, and Palmeiro and Sosa and McGwire really thought that using steroids was okay, that it wasn’t actually cheating. That’s why it’s taken them so long to come out and talk openly about what went on: they don’t see it as a problem. 
 
Anyway…we’ve veered a little off course….let’s get back to Jeter.
 
 
6.
 
Derek Jeter’s career Triple Crown line currently stands at 259 home runs, 1301 RBI’s, and a .310 batting average.
 
Chuck Klein retired with 300 homeruns, 1201 RBI’s, and a .320 batting average. He died in 1958, and was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1980. Goose Goslin retired with a 248/1609/.316 line…he retired in 1938 and was elected in 1968. Edgar Martinez sits at 309/1261/.312 and is still waiting. All of them were great players. None of them enjoyed a fraction of the adoration that Jeter received.
 
Among iconic players, Jeter’s statistics aren’t particularly impressive….he’s just halfway to 500 homeruns, a mark reached by generational players Ruth, Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Reggie!, Mac and Sammy. He’s won no MVP trophies. He’s won zero batting titles, and has only led the league in runs (once), hits (once) and the always-talked about category of plate appearances (four times). He does have a lot of hits….that’s the one counting stat where he stands out the most.
 
I don’t say any of this to belittle Jeter’s career: he’s clearer a Hall-of-Fame player, and I’ll be happy when he gets in on his first year of eligibility.
 
What I’m trying to understand isn’t Jeter-the-player, but Jeter-the-icon. Jeter as the player towards whom a nation has turned its lonely eyes towards. Why was it Jeter, instead of the superior Pujols? Why was it Jeter instead of the DiMaggio-esque Carlos Beltran?
 
I think it’s the same generation thing…I think that Derek Jeter was just right for these times.
 
 
 
7.
 
Sooner or later, textbook writers and bloggers and historians and novelists will try to capture what it was like to live in America during the first decade-and-a-half of this century. What the ‘sense’ of that time was like.
 
I think it’s safe to say that it’s been an anxious period, a time when division has become our default mode of contemplating our world. That’s certainly been the mode of our politics, and it’s been the common tenor of our attitudes towards each other. There had been a strong pressure to divide: to choose up sides, establishing an ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Red state or blue state. Religious or secular. DH or no DH. Pick your side, and defend it until the other side walks away in a huff.
 
I think….and this is more speculation….but I think that in a strange way, Derek Jeter has come to exemplify that conflict. Not intentionally, of course: I don’t think Jeter had any specific intention to be the baseball representative of our national mood. It just happened that way.
 
The ‘sides’ to interpreting Jeter are pretty plain. On the one hand you have individuals who are spending this last month of the season finishing off a hagiography of ‘True Yankee’ Derek Jeter. These are folks who take any criticism of Jeter as a personal affront. This side has as members the last gasps of old-school sportswriters, clinging to the notion that sports are some kind of morality play.
 
On the other side, you have people eager to diminish Jeter’s career in any way possible. If someone mentions Jeter’s postseason successes, the folks on this side will happily point out that Jeter’s postseason batting line almost exactly mirrors his regular season batting line. And it’s not enough to say that Jeter is a bad defensive shortstop: he has to be the worst defensive shortstop in history. His career WAR is barely higher than the career WAR’s of Trammell and Larkin, and his season-by-season WAR is less than both of those shortstops. He should’ve moved off shortstop when the Yankees got A-Rod. This side claims as their own the brilliantly sardonic wit of the Fire Joe Morgan writers.
 
This is the echo chamber that Jeter’s career has existed within: just about every article written about Jeter over the bulk of his career can be slotted into one of those two sides. Jeter landed in the middle, and both sides took aim.
 
What is remarkable about Jeter….what is potentially singular about Jeter’s status as the iconic player of his era, is how littlehis icon-ness relates to anything he’s done. A significant part of his resonance is based on coincidence. It’s a coincidence, for instance, that Jeter happened to start his career as the steroid scandal came to light, at a moment when sportswriters in America were desperately seeking a star who was beyond reproach.
 
It’s a coincidence, too, that his career has unfolded in an era where there is a split between traditional measures of a baseball player’s greatness, and new measures of greatness. Ten years earlier, no one batted an eye about good-hitting middle-infielders winning Gold Gloves, but by the time Jeter was winning his Gold Gloves, people were noticing, and they weren’t happy about it. 
 
It was a fluke that Jeter was a Yankee: he was the sixth pick in the 1992 draft, which means that he could’ve been drafted by Houston or Cleveland or Montreal or Baltimore or Cincinnati. One of the Houston scouts stronglyadvocated for the team to pick Jeter, but they passed on him. He just happenedto fall to the Yankees.
 
It’s a fluke, too, that he joined the Yankees at the exact moment the franchise was getting its act together, after a decade of ineptitude. Jeter arrived just Steinbrenner and Co. were realizing the monumental advantages they had in revenue sources over every other team in baseball, just as their farm system was pouring out a deep base of talented players.
 
It was a fluke that he was one of a triad of super-famous shortstops in the American League, alongside A-Rod and Nomar. This grouping, in a sense, tripled Jeter’s fame: it was hard, in the heady days of the late 1990’s, to mention Nomar or A-Rod without mentioning Jeter. A lot of conversations spiraled into debates about which one was the best shortstop.
 
All of the attention and praise and criticism have come to Jeter: he has made almost no effort to cultivate good press, nor has he done anything to draw the critical ire of the sabermetric community. He is not eminently quotable, or particularly personable: his public image is team-focused and pretty bland. He doesn’t have a wife or kids, and he keeps his personal life very much out of the public eye. His charitable work, while admirable, is no more generous than what hundreds of players do. He doesn’t trumpet his greatness or complain about award votes or scoring decisions. He’s never, to my knowledge, disparaged WAR. In the small controversies that have come in his career (contract talks with the Yanks, all the stuff with A-Rod), Jeter’s default response has been to keep quiet and let everyone else talk. It’s worked brilliantly: he’s a master of professionalism.
 
This is the extraordinary thing about Jeter’s status as baseball’s icon: almost none of his fame has had much to do with anything he’s done….he’s mostly famous because he was the right guy for the moment: the player who best fit our age of division and anxiety.
 
 
8.
 
So who comes next? Who will be the next iconic player?
 
I don’t think it’ll be Mike Trout. I love Mike Trout, but he doesn’t seem to generate any particular heat. He’s very easy to love, and just about impossible to dislike. He plays on a ‘nice’ team: I don’t know that there’s a big population of fans who actively dislike the Angels. Who are their rivals? Oakland? Meh.
 
Bryce Harper has a better chance of being iconic: though his performance on the diamond is maybe 30% of what Mike Trout’s done, he engenders a lot more controversy. He’s a hard-nosed player in a way that Trout isn’t: you have a sense, with Harper, that he really wants to win. Or not win, actually….he wants to succeed. I don’t know if there’s another player in baseball who looks more pissed off when he makes an out than Harper.
 
Harper has a nice sense of theater: he seems to play to the moment in a way that Trout doesn’t. He plays in Washington, which is a big East Coast city. He’s cultivates a satisfying rivalry with the Atlanta Braves, baseball’s current guardians of morality. He’s arrogant and talented, in the vein of Reggie or Cobb. He’s quotable: "That’s a clown question, bro" is the best line from a baseball player this decade. While Harper trails Trout in career accomplishments, he seems to draw attention to himself in a way that Trout doesn’t. If I had to pick anyone, I’d go with Harper.
 
Yasiel Puig is another contender: as a player he’s as brilliant as Trout, but he takes more risks than Trout does: if there’s a chance to throw out a runner, Puig’ll take a shot. Half the time he’ll nail the runner and half the time he’ll airmail the throw, but he takes risks. He’s the same on the bases: just the other week he tried to score on a double-play grounder. It was a bad decision, but it was entertaining, too. He keeps opponents on their feet.
 
Jose Fernandez has a shot. The most endearing quality about Fernandez is the joy he takes at playing the game. He just loves it….he loves playing baseball. That seems a ‘light’ thing to build icon-ness around, but there’s always a possibility. The last iconic pitcher was Pedro Martinez, who was cut from the same cloth as Cobb: smart and gifted and profoundly competitive. The difference was that Pedro possessed a humor that Cobb or Hornsby or Ted Williams utterly lacked: there was a sense of mischief with Pedro. Fernandez is like that.
 
And maybe it’ll be Trout after all. Maybe, after twenty years of arguing about Derek Jeter, we’ll all come to a consensus on the next guy.
 
Ah, I wouldn’t bet on it.
 
David Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com
 
 
 

COMMENTS (60 Comments, most recent shown first)

Allen Schade
Back in the 90's I remember an article in some sport's mag on the 4 young, good hitting shortstops in the game.

Jeter, Garciaparra, Arod and Tejada.

Given the BENEFIT of hindsight which of the 4 would you, in 1995, want on your team for the next 20 years?

As a die hard Yankee fan I chose Jeter back in 1995 BECAUSE I was a Yankee fan.

Now,,,again given the benefit of hindsight, I'd pick Jeter BECAUSE I don't think the Yankees would have won as many titles with any of the others as they did with Jeter.

In fact there are precious few players at any position that I would have traded Jeter for in the mid 90's, with the benefit of hindsight.​
12:21 PM Oct 4th
 
MarisFan61
@Hank: People criticize defensive WAR for much more than that. I criticize it altogether.
But, to be fair, I ought to talk not just about the "WAR" system, and to figure that you're talking about any evaluative system. But there's plenty of opinion -- PLENTY -- that all the systems undervalue defense. Just on the Reader Posts section of this site, there's been a fair amount of opinion in that direction.

But moreover: Part of what I meant in that post was that we're far more uncertain about Williams's defense than about the others. It's not just a thing of the imprecision of defensive metrics, or how much to count defense; it's that we don't know very well how good or bad Williams was in the field. If he was (let's say) far below average, which is very possible, that's a huge gap from DiMaggio.

Plus, as I noted, it's not that fully clear how much of an advantage Williams has over DiMaggio on offense anyway. I feel comfortable saying that in the least, it's not as great as usually presumed.
Like, here's the ROAD B.A./on-base/SLG for each of them:
.328 .467 .615
.333 .405 .610

It's not hard to guess which is which (for people like us; for people 'out there,' it wouldn't be easy). But there isn't anywhere near the kind of separation that is usually presumed for them as hitters -- and I would offer that it absolutely isn't enough for anyone reasonably to say that once you add in defense, baserunning, and all else, Williams "clearly" was the better player.
It's a debate.
9:18 PM Sep 30th
 
hankgillette
@MarisFan61: I'd say people often pretend that they know pretty exactly what Williams was, but that they don't -- because our ways of evaluating the parts of the game besides hitting aren't accurate enough.

I will concede that defensive metrics are not as accurate as offensive metrics. It’s conceivable that DiMaggio made up defensively the difference between him and Williams offensively.

I think it’s unlikely, though. The people who criticize defensive WAR, for example, say that it is counted too highly, not that it doesn’t give defense enough credit. So, for DiMaggio to be more valuable, all of those people would have to be wrong, plus all the people who think that defensive WAR isn’t perfect, but it is somewhere in the ballpark as far as evaluating defense.
10:15 AM Sep 29th
 
flyingfish
Nice comment about race, Dave Fleming. As for the differences between the number 5 and the number 8 all-time best CF not representing a smooth continuum, well, you're talking about things that average people do not notice, and they do not notice them because they cannot see them. When Carlos Bletran is in the field or at the plate, you cannot see career-long differences in WAR between him and Di Maggio. You cannot see differences even in peak performance, because both of them had streaks were they were just very hot hitters. Those differences become visible only in retrospect. So the discussion of rankings of these two players is academic. It has little to do with what makes someone an icon.
4:39 PM Sep 25th
 
OldBackstop
ahh...Jeter's iconery sparked from New York City, and I don't think anyone but John Rocker is impressed by race here. The city had african-american heroes since Jackie R...Reggie, Doc, Strawberry right in the time preceding Jeter.

I don't think the downtrodden demographic of guys with one white parent and one black parent rose with a roar and bought season tickets.

Frankly, I've had his life shoved in my face as much as anyone, and I didn't even recall the black/white parent thing. Who cares? Admittedly, maybe some old guy picking camera shots or cereal spokesmen. But Jackie Robinson fought the color thing...the mixed race thing is a non-existent echo, in my mind. New York is a melting pot.


11:59 AM Sep 25th
 
DaveFleming
The championship count is hugely important to whether or not someone becomes the iconic player of their generation (there are a few exceptions, starting with Ken Griffey Jr.).

Another factor is the 'Is There Anyone Like Me' factor. I was thinking about this with Lou Gehrig. The most obvious comparable to Lou Gehrig (or: the guy I think of first when I think 'who is like Gehrig?') was Jimmie Foxx, a player whose career almost entirely overlapped Gehrig's.

On Jeter's bi-racial parentage: a question that popped into my mind is who does that matter to?

It certainly matters to the generation ahead of Jeter...to his parent's generation. They see it (as they should) as a triumph over older, awful prejudices. That's great, and I think Jeter's absolutely important for that reason.

But....I'm thirty-five, and I've hardly ever thought about Jeter's racial background. It's not that I wasn't aware of it, but it just didn't click as something I had to notice as a particular triumph.

Again: I don't mean it isn't a triumph...I think it's absolutely wonderful that a bi-racial baseball player can be so celebrated. But...I've never really thought about Jeter in those terms.

A comparable scenario is when Michael Sam kissed his partner on ESPN, during the draft. For a lot of people, that was a big deal....for generations of people who have pushed for gay rights, that meant a lot. And it obviously pissed off a lot of people, too.

But for people of Michael Sam's generation? I'd bet that for a lot of them, it didn't register as anything particularly momentous. Some guy kissed his boyfriend...how is that news? We're really still supposed to be shocked by that? Really?

That's not to say it wasn't a big (and, in my view, a wonderful) moment...it's just to say that how the thirty- and forty- and fifty-year olds saw that moment was different than how the younger generations saw it.

The same is true for Jeter. I didn't talk about his bi-racial paternity because it is something I barely thought about. We should think about it, and I think that the people who have pointed it out are exactly right that it's a BIG part of why Jeter is so famous, but I think it's remarkable, too, that his was a career where his racial identity didn't need to matter. We could all just bitch about his defense or rave about his clutch hitting. Progress.
2:46 AM Sep 25th
 
MarisFan61
Brian referred to the nice dilemma of choosing between having Mantle and DiMaggio in your lineup, or Mays and Williams. He think he'd probably rather have the latter.
What an interesting question that is -- and, besides that the answer isn't clear, I'd say it depend almost completely on what we think of Williams as an all-around player and how important we think that is, as compared to being a more outstanding hitter. (BTW I ought to mention, on Williams vs. DiMaggio, as is sometimes noted, it's not that clear a win for Williams even just on hitting, if you look at their road records, but forget that; I don't want to start a new argument.) :-) I think we 'know' much more clearly what Mantle, Mays, and DiMaggio were. I'd say people often pretend that they know pretty exactly what Williams was, but that they don't -- because our ways of evaluating the parts of the game besides hitting aren't accurate enough.
Me, I'm biased toward all-around players, and so I'd take Mantle and DiMaggio in a second.
1:07 PM Sep 24th
 
hankgillette
BrianFleming, Mantle’s Yankees also lost in the World Series in 1960, 1963, and 1964.
11:38 AM Sep 24th
 
garywmaloney
I think wovenstrap hit it -- Jeter is especially right for this time, as an uncommonly handsome man of mixed race and calm demeanor, more a gentleman than most of his peers. Many of the men on the icon list - DiMaggio, Mays, Aaron, Koufax, Ripken if you will -- were among the best-mannered ballplayers of their day.

And it seems to me the mixed-race part is CRUCIAL -- an absolute sea-change in American social attitudes. Dating another race just wasn't a serious option for most whites (and blacks) before the 90s -- today, for most, it is not a big deal (or, at least, few speak against it or prevent it) . Jeter's rise was 12 years before Obama's election -- does anyone remember all those crowd shots of Derek's parents during the Yankee dynasty years? A subtle message beamed into people's heads -- this is America NOW, get used to it, nothing to be afraid of, look at this guy and his folks.

Tiger was . . . different. (What did he call himself once -- "Calibasian"?) Derek was the real mixed-race pioneer, in my opinion -- no small thing in this country. His personal success and iconic stature was ratified by the Yankees' ongoing victories on the ballfield. And, he came immediately after Ken Burns spent a dozen hours on public television telling us how race was the real story behind baseball. My, things HAVE changed.
6:18 AM Sep 24th
 
BrianFleming
Dave,
I think you skipped the main reason Derek Jeter is considered an icon; in sports icons are key players on teams that win championships. Also icons typically stay and perform in one city.

DiMaggio’s Yankees won the World Series in ’36, ’37, ’38, ’39, ’41, ’47, ’49, ’50 and ’51 and lost one World Series in 1942. Ted Williams played in only one World Series and lost. Mickey Mantle’s Yankees won the World Series in ’51, ’52, ’53, ’56, ’58, ’61, ’62 and lost in ‘55 and ‘57. Willie Mays’s teams won the World Series in ’54 and lost in ’51, ’62, and ’73.

As a manager I would probably prefer to have Williams and Mays in my lineup every day instead of DiMaggio and Mantle but statistics are a poor measure of the criteria that makes someone an icon.

Both Derek Jeter (World Series wins in ’96, ’98, ’99, ’00, ’09 and lost in ’01 and ’03) and David Ortiz (World Series Wins in ’04, ’07, ’13) are icons because they were key elements of some great Red Sox and Yankee teams.

Carlos Beltran has been a heck of a player, but he bounced around teams and played in only one World Series, which his team lost. Albert Pujols I think would have become an icon if he decided to stay in St. Louis, but by moving to LA his iconic status is doubtful because he now plays behind someone who could be making his way to icon status if the Angels win the World Series this year.

The reason you struggle to come up with an icon from the 1980’s is because that was a decade with amazing parity in the sport. The best players of the 1980’s Mike Schmidt (1 World Series win, 1 loss), Eddie Murray (1 win, 2 losses), Don Mattingly (no World Series) and Dale Murphy (no World Series), simply didn’t excel in multiple post seasons in front of a national audience.

This effect (the Winners are Iconic Effect) also works in other sports; Montana (4 Super Bowl wins), Brady (3 wins, 2 loses) and Manning (1 win, 2 losses) are football icons (despite Manning and Montana playing for other teams), Jordan (6 time champion) and Bill Russell (11 time champion) are basketball icons, Dale Earnhardt (7 Cups) and Richard Petty (7 Cups) are NASCAR icons still decades after their careers ended.

Bottom line, the best players are not always icons but icons are usually players who win championships.

10:52 PM Sep 23rd
 
MarisFan61
"There you go again." :-)

For me, a big part of the problem with your material -- and I do think it undermines what would otherwise be much more appealing, to a wider audience -- is that you assume very questionable things to be certain, and then you go on building your edifice from there. "Safely say" that Beltran is better than Dale Murphy and Larry Doby? LARRY DOBY?? What you have at best on both of those, especially Doby, is a debate, and in fact I'd say it's a losing one -- but in any event, it sure isn't any "safely say" kind of thing.

Plus, besides that Bill's ranking of DiMaggio as #5 would probably be viewed by most as being a little on the low side, you're again making the mistake of not recognizing the importance (to most people's minds) of differences in magnitude. You seem to think there's a smooth continuity to it -- so, for example, that #8 (which Beltran isn't anyway) isn't that far from #5. It doesn't necessarily work that way, at all -- and this is a case where it absolutely wouldn't, But I'm probably sort of talking to the wall in trying to convey any of this to you....
5:15 PM Sep 23rd
 
DaveFleming
Trying to think about Beltran/DiMaggio thing a bit differently, though I don't imagine I'll convince the skeptics, and I'm worried we're spinning wheels here....

Bill ranked DiMaggio 5th among CF's in his last Historical Abstract. Here are numbers 6-12:

6 - Snider
7 - Griffey, Jr.
8 - Puckett
9 - Hamilton
10 - Wynn
11 - Doby
12 - D. Murphy

Where would Beltran rank on this list?

I think we can safely say that Beltran rates ahead of Dale Murphy, Larry Doby, and Jimmy Wynn. Billy Hamilton? Not sure, but Hamilton a) had a short career (1591 games) and b) played more than a century ago. If I was a GM and could take either player, I'm not sure that I'd take Hamilton over Beltran.

Kirby? Beltran has the edge in longevity, and his peak seasons were a tick better than Puckett's. Even giving Puckett something for his eye problems, Beltran was a slightly better player.

Jimmy Wynn is very close to Beltran...a slightly better peak in all likelihood, but less longevity. I'd rate Wynn ahead of Puckett.

I think Griffey's probably ahead of Snider on the all-time rankings, but it doesn't matter. Both players are comfortable ahead of Beltran.

Three contemprary centerfielders are worth mentioning: Edmonds Lofton, and Andruw Jones. I don't think Edmonds can be rated ahead of Beltran, and I wouldn't take Jones ahead of him, either. Lofton? Lofton is a helluva player, but I'd take the power.

Putting things together, I'd say the CF list would read:

5. Joe D.
6. Griffey
7. Snider
8. Beltran
9. Lofton
10. Puckett
11. Billy Hamilton
12. Jimmy Wynn (I'd flip him with Puckett, actually).
13. Andruw Jones
14. Larry Doby
15. Jim Edmonds
16. Dale Murphy

So we're talking about the #5 CF and the #8 CF of all-time. Or the #5 and #10, if you prefer Hamilton or Wynn or Puckett. There's certainly a gap between Betran and DiMaggio, but I don't think it's a canyon.
4:33 PM Sep 23rd
 
those
Right. And asking why Giambi isn't as famous as Ruth would be about the same as asking why Beltran isn't as famous as DiMaggio.
2:23 PM Sep 23rd
 
abiggoof
The guy who made me think of Babe Ruth was Jason Giambi when he first came to the Yankees. Big guy, big swing, lefty with great power, league-high type in walks, league-high type in average, wearing pinstripes. Acquired just at what appeared to be the blossoming of his career from a strong team that was losing top players. Big, goofy grin. Sometimes, after seeing him swing, I had goosebumps from thinking of the Ruth clips.
12:25 PM Sep 23rd
 
OldBackstop
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Dr. Foreman on House. Such dead ringers there was even a subtle joke about it on the TV show.

anyhooo....great article, Dave! Did I mention that?
9:36 AM Sep 23rd
 
evanecurb
Craig Kimbrel and the Hunchback of Notre Dame
11:15 PM Sep 22nd
 
evanecurb
Kevin Youklis reminds me of...Dick McAuliffe? Actually, Kevin Youklis reminds me of absolutely no one except Kevin Youklis. Dick McAuliffe reminds me of the guy who played Frank Nitti on The Untouchables (the TV show, not the movie).

Everyone thinks of Ripken and Ruth when Lou Gehrig is mentioned, but the guy who I think was most like Gehrig is Hank Aaron. Mr. Consistency.

Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. That one's pretty easy, although Rose apparently was a much nicer fella (which says more about Cobb than it does about Rose).


11:11 PM Sep 22nd
 
DaveFleming
Sure...that makes sense. Ortiz is the closest thing we have to a Ruth-like figure. 'Ebullient' is the exact right word: there's a joy to how Ortiz carries himself that is contagious.

There's no right-or-wrong, of course....it's just a method of organizing our thinking in a slightly different way. It works for me. Both men were shipped off by their first major league teams. Both have vaguely ethnic family nicknames ('Bambino', 'Papi').


9:41 PM Sep 22nd
 
flyingfish
OK, so let me ask if it's crazy to think of Babe Ruth when I watch David Ortiz. They are (were, I'm just going to use present) ebullient men; both left-handed sluggers; both well aware of their own prowess ("I had a better year than the president," "People need to respect me for what I've done"); both able to carry a team for a while; both did well in post-season play, Ruth especially after 1922; and so on. Clearly Ruth was a greater player than Ortiz, both peak and career, but that doesn't stop me from thinking of him when I watch Ortiz.
9:21 PM Sep 22nd
 
MarisFan61
OBS: It's great if you and some others find such a comparison meaningful and even inspiring. But it surprises me that you do, I think by far most people would see it otherwise, and I think it is perhaps useful to point out these reasons why that could be so -- and I think it could be helpful to Dave to realize them more fully.
2:30 PM Sep 22nd
 
OldBackstop
Stop it, Maris. Great article, Dave, seriously one of the best I've seen.

Sometimes in life one overstates things....but...I feel secure saying that your analogy of Beltran to DiMaggio, in the context of what you were cleverly utilizing it here to accomplish...changed my life. Certainly my baseball-thunking life. Brilliant. A great wielding of a analytical tool.

The Bobby Thimpson of BJOL article analogies.

God bless you, Dave Fleming.
2:04 PM Sep 22nd
 
MarisFan61
More on that comp:

The way people think of a player, and much of whether he has a chance to be an "icon," is how he stands among his contemporaries, including how much he's the leader in things or at least way toward the top.

Player A on "Black Ink": 34
Player B on "Black Ink": 1
Player A on "Gray Ink": 226
Player B on "Gray Ink": 76

It is folly to think that anything you'll see in comparing those two players besides their sheer performance will tell you anything about their relative icon-dom.

BTW, Win Shares by age
21: D 25, B 2
22: D 39, B 18
23: D 30, B 5
24: D 34, B 27
25: D 31, B 20
26: D 41, B 28
27: D 32, B 29
28: D --, B 21
29: D --, B 34
30: D --, B 25
31: D 24, B 29
32: D 30, B 14
33: D 34, B 8
34: D 21, B 27
35: D 29, B 18
36: D 17, B 22
37: D --, B 7 (so far)
2:02 PM Sep 22nd
 
MarisFan61
Dave: Yes indeed, there are "parallels between them," as you said. To me the problem is that you think that's enough to make them a meaningful example for what you're talking about. Look back to those other "parallels" example that I gave.
12:59 PM Sep 22nd
 
OldBackstop
PS: This crosses all the arguments on issues of fame, including Beltran/DiMaggio, but the old school media center of New York vs. the internet and national cable and MLB and general culture of fame debate is an interesting one.

The paths to fame now are diverse. We could have "families" of sports fame. The OJ crime family. The Barry Bond STD Family. The Derek Jeter Heartthrob Family. The Shaq Holy Shit Look At That Guy Family. The Dennis Rodman Scares-Your-Mom Family. The Roberto Clemente Martyrdom Family. The Ichi Hero To a Nation Family. The Endy Chavez That One Play Family.
12:28 PM Sep 22nd
 
337
And Dimaggio in no way compares to Jeter in terms of clutchiness, intangibles and all-important Captainness. He wasn't even captain of the Yankees--how important a ballplayer could he have been?
12:17 PM Sep 22nd
 
OldBackstop
Who will be the next iconic player? If you want to paint the recirpe as follows:

1. a day-in-day out player in a major media market.
2. leader in the infield
3. Team captain
4. solid performer but not necessarily MVP years
5. a string of championships
6. Incredible teflon media instincts
7. Nationally recognized as a high school player
8. Gaggle of franchise records
9. 300 BA, okay power, okay glove, okay speed
10. Dates models around the Big Apple

Judging by his team's young pitching....fast forwarding nine years?

David Wright.

Only 31.

Nickname Captain America.

Mets franchise leader in runs batted in, doubles, total bases, runs scored, walks, sacrifice flies, times on base, extra base hits, strikeouts, and hits. Will catch Straw for HRs ion a year or so, plus most others.

Behind Harvey, DeGrom, and Wheeler, Metsies could get a little dynasty going. Wright would be the next Jeter. Most similar icon to age 30.

12:12 PM Sep 22nd
 
jdrb
The Dimaggio vrs Beltran is an interesting problem in objective/subjective.

Think of two women you might see on the street, no numbers to reference here, at least not in any useful way, and you realize that every adjective, every description you might apply to one applies equally to the other-- yet they really don't look that much alike. Dimaggio and Beltran feel a little like that to me.

On the other hand, Beltran and Dimaggio are probably closer in value than I would guess at first-- if Dimaggio is pretty clearly in the top 5 all time of center fielders, Beltran is clearly top 20, with a case for top 10.

In speculating why Dimaggio is immeasurbly more famous, Dave goes for the "fits the times" argument. I might go for the concentration effect that Bill James has mentioned a few times. Beltran's fine career has been played in several cities, his great post seasons come quite far apart in his career. Dimaggio, much like Jeter, played his whole career with one team (and it's New York, our media center). Like Jeter he joined the Yankees just as they were emerging from a down period into one of the great all-time teams (the 36-39 Yankees are pretty parallel to the 96-2000 Yankees). Dimaggio and Jeter were both among the biggest stars on one of the greatest teams, Dimaggio even moreso than Jeter, and both had the knack for the memorable-- I don't think it's that's surprising that both reached icon status while fine players like Beltan have not.


10:54 AM Sep 22nd
 
DaveFleming
I don't feel like I'm pressing a point....I just don't understand how they aren't 'alike' as players.

The characteristics that my grandfather's generation mentions about Joe DiMaggio are, almost point-by-point, the same characteristics that Beltran possesses. Both players were graceful center fielders. Both players were five-tool talents who made few mistakes on the diamond. Both men played in big markets, and shined in the postseason. Both men were quiet.

While I am fully aware that Carlos Beltran, on his best day, wasn't as great a player as Joe D., I think it's an interesting question to ask why a certain set of characteristics would lead someone to be a tad overrated in one generation, and pretty underrated for another generation.

Certainly, the degree of talent is a factor. So, too, is the more diluted nature of sports today...the greater number of teams and stars. There are plenty of other factors: Mets/Yankees, strikeouts, the 56-game streak, the 'rivalry' that DiMaggio had with Williams....there are plenty of other factors.

And...I think we miss an interesting conversation if we just post a list of WAR or Win Share counts and say: "These players aren't similar because 40 is greater than 32." I don't think that's interesting....I think it's the kind of thing that closes off the conversation.

(And it's worth noting that that list usefully omits the best, second-best, and fifth-best seasons of Carlos Beltran's career...)

Is it really so outlandish to think someone who saw DiMaggio and Beltran play might see a parallel between them?

I remain unconvinced that in the wide range of players that exist, among fat sluggers and quick infielders and sidearm pitchers and designated runners, that an observer would look at DiMaggio and Beltran and find them so vastly different in raw talent that they couldn't see parallels in how both men played the game.
4:56 AM Sep 22nd
 
MarisFan61
Dave: I think you undermine your great material and risk losing a lot of your potential audience by pressing any points such as about DiMaggio and Beltran being "quite obviously 'alike'" and that "they're useful in starting a conversation about which players capture the attentions of their age, and which players are forgotten about." It seems extremely tunnel-visioned, and failing in what I call the "Emperor's Clothes" test, to not see how the differences in magnitude prevent such things from being even nearly so, at least to most people's minds. It's not nearly sufficient in such comparisons that the players are of similar descriptive types if there's such difference in magnitude. I don't think DiMaggio and Beltran are particularly more in any such useful discussion than, say Ozzie Smith and Rey Ordonez, or Ted Williams and Harold Baines....or, perhaps, George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant. I realize that Beltran and DiMaggio are probably closer than Ozzie and Ordonez, but not nearly enough to be useful for that conversation.
2:10 AM Sep 22nd
 
MarisFan61
To Hank: You're right.
I'm glad I only said I could "almost" promise that I was "faithfully describing what I meant," because I wasn't. (Sorry!!!)
What I was remembering was in the second edition of the Historical Abstract (not the first), and what Bill was talking about was indeed Peak Value, explaining why he had Mick 1st and Willie 2nd among CF's. So, you're right also that there isn't anything there that Bill later changed his mind about. He's always had Mick ahead on Peak, Willie on Career.
1:55 AM Sep 22nd
 
hankgillette
MarisFan61: Hank: I was talking about rankings among CF's.

Why do you think his relative ranking for center fielders would be different than his relative ranking for all players?

I’m pretty sure I know what you are remembering; Bill said that Mantle was the greatest player of the fifties. But they both played into the 1960s, only Mays played longer and at a higher value. Bill said that while it was clear that Mantle had the higher peak, that it was equally clear that Mays was the greater player over their respective careers.
9:28 PM Sep 21st
 
DaveFleming
Oh...Ken Griffey Jr. I totally missed him. I knew I'd miss someone.
8:47 PM Sep 21st
 
DaveFleming
There's a difference between 'alike' and 'being of equal value.'

DiMaggio and Beltran are not of equal value....no one's making that claim.

But they're quite obviously 'alike.' Both men were elite defensive center fielders who played for New York teams. Both men were talented hitters: power and average. Both were excellent base runners. DiMaggio had a big reputation for clutch hitting in the postseason, just like Beltran does. Even their personalities have some overlap....DiMaggio was intense and moody, while Beltran is intense but quiet.

They're not a perfect match, of course. Beltran, in his peak, was probably faster than DiMaggio, and he walks more. DiMaggio was the better hitter. DiMaggio played his career for the Yanks, while Beltran was a Met for only a portion of his career. DiMaggio spoke Italian at home; Beltran spoke Spanish. None of Carlos' brothers (if he has brothers) had careers in the majors.

They're not a perfect match, but their useful in starting a conversation about which players capture the attentions of their age, and which players are forgotten about.

8:46 PM Sep 21st
 
colinb
In your list of icons, I think you missed Ken Jr.

The home run derbys, the video games, he was on Fresh Prince of Bel air, that swing was and is an icon.
7:51 PM Sep 21st
 
flyingfish
MarisFan61: Thanks, I appreciate your comments about Ortiz (and your other posts).

FF
7:45 PM Sep 21st
 
MarisFan61
Hank: I was talking about rankings among CF's.

When I get back to where I have my stuff, I'll check on it -- but I can almost promise you that I was faithfully describing what I meant. (I'll do an additional post when I can refer to those books.)

About CWright's post on Beltran vs. DiMaggio: Yes indeed.

To me, this article is unusual in how good it is despite its mistakes, including "wrong mistakes." :-)
But while it's still beautiful and it survives, it would do a lot better if not for flaws like what you pointed out. A lot of people -- I think most -- would just stop reading when they came across such things about Beltran/DiMaggio, because they'd feel that there won't be anything they can gain from the thinking of a person who would state such a likeness.
6:35 PM Sep 21st
 
hankgillette
MarisFan61: In (I think) the first edition of the Historical Abstract, Bill went to some length to explain why he ranked Mantle ahead of Mays.

Not sure exactly what you are remembering. In the first Historical Abstract, Bill pointed out that Mantle had a higher peak than Mays, something that I don’t think was generally realized at the time. He had two greatest ever lists, one for peak value and one for career value. In the peak list, he had Mantle 3rd and Mays 11th. In the career list, he had Mays 8th and Mantle 20th.

In the New Historical Abstract, he had a single list that combined peak and career in some undefined way. In this list, he had Mays 3rd and Mantle 6th.

I can’t see that he changed his position on Mays and Mantle in any significant way, at least in relation to each other. He did rank Mays higher in the later list than he did in either of the older lists.
1:38 PM Sep 21st
 
CWright
You wonder "So how come Carlos Beltran isn't famous the way that DiMaggio was?" I would answer that it is because they really aren't as similar as you seem to think, even while you acknowledge "Beltran is not equal to Joe DiMaggio." That's certainly true but you are not grasping that they are also are not remotely close. Joe was such an immensely more valuable player in his era than Beltran has been in his era, that what would really be amazing is if Beltran were near as famous as Joe D.

Don't bother to adjust the differences in the length of the schedules they played, just take away Beltran's seasons at ages 28, 29, and 30 - the years Joe D was serving his country in a time of war - and now list each players ten best Win Share seasons.

Joe Carlos
41.4 29.0
38.0 27.8
34.1 24.7
34.0 22.8
32.2 21.4
31.1 18.9
30.0 15.2
29.3 15.0
29.2 7.9
24.9 7.9
---- ----
324.2 190.6

Joe doesn't just beat him in every slot, he crushes him in every slot.

1:05 PM Sep 21st
 
MarisFan61
More about certainty and lack thereof, particularly about fielding and its value:

The main thing that bothers me about sabermetrics -- much of it, fortunately not all -- is the sureness with which so many of the supposed conclusions are expressed. The best sabermetric work, IMO, recognizes the tentativeness of most findings, and the best sabermetricians retain an open mind of whatever they've said and written. It is sometimes said that what differentiates Bill from many other excellent people in the field is his "writing." I've mentioned that this way understates it. It's his thinking, plus, I would suggest, his willingness to change conclusions.

In (I think) the first edition of the Historical Abstract, Bill went to some length to explain why he ranked Mantle ahead of Mays. There were two main parts to it: Mantle's advantage in Peak Value, and the extreme unlikelihood of Mays' fielding advantage outweighing Mick's greater offensive value. He talked about the latter in some detail.

If I remember right (I don't have my books right here), by the time of the last edition of the Historical Abstract, Bill had changed his mind, and put Mays ahead, perhaps because of what he had seen from Win Shares -- and I assume that at least in part, the change in his view resulted from what he felt he had learned in the interim about the degree of difference that defense can make -- even in these players of the same position, both of whom were good out there.

With Williams and DiMaggio, we're talking about two guys of different outfield positions, and one of whom was outstanding and the other of whom was perhaps adequate at best. I don't at all mean to be slamming on Hank; what he said reflects a quite settled view within sabermetrics. What I am slamming on is the firmness with which views like it are so often expressed. You can't be sure, people could reasonably disagree, and you might find yourself changing your mind in 20 years, or in 1 year.
12:48 PM Sep 21st
 
MarisFan61
(Clarifying my post below: Bill's comment in that old Abstract about it being absurd to liken Ripken to Williams was in regard to them as hitters.)
12:12 PM Sep 21st
 
MarisFan61
Williams was 'clearly' better only if you're absolutely sure that you're valuing defense correctly, which I don't think anyone can rightly be.

In one of the old Abstracts, Bill wrote -- and maybe he didn't much mean it -- it was a very parenthetical thing -- .....Bill wrote that he might consider the idea that Cal Ripken was a better player than Williams. I should emphasize, not only was it parenthetical, it was also perhaps in the service of being kind to Ripken in a piece that was mostly about it being absurd to liken him to Ted Williams, as had been done in a comment that was the springboard for Bill's piece. But in any event, I assume that the basis for what he said was a recognition of two things:
-- The greater value of some positions than others, and....
-- Defense matters.

The same things apply to DiMaggio and Williams.
And BTW, the reasoning behind Bill's comment (recognizing that he might now look at it and say "wtf") is what makes me regard the ratings and rankings of players like Williams as being at least somewhat too favorable.​
12:10 PM Sep 21st
 
hankgillette
I would say that Derek Jeter is Joe DiMaggio. Both were icons that were no-doubt Hall of Famers, among the best all-time, yet still over-rated and with contemporaries that were clearly better (Rodríguez, Williams).

The analogy does break down: DiMaggio won a couple of MVPs that should have gone to Williams, while Jeter never won an MVP. DiMaggio was an excellent center-fielder, while Williams was an indifferent left-fielder, whereas Rodríguez was obviously better offensively and defensively than Jeter.
11:46 AM Sep 21st
 
MarisFan61
re Flyingfish, "I don't know about the rest of you, and maybe it's because I'm a Red Sox fan, but I'm going to remember Big Papi for a long time (if my brain cells hold up)." -- Speaking as a Yankee fan, I feel the same way, and honestly, from everything I could ever tell (maybe until seeing this year's love fest), I had always thought David Ortiz was every bit as much of an "icon" as Jeter. The only thing I can think of that separates them is the 'milk shake' thing, but even with me being an anti-PED activist, somehow my emotions mostly ignore that on Papi. Just as I'm dumbfounded by the doubtings of Jeter's specialness, I've been puzzled at the doubts of Ortiz's HOF-ness. Besides the "DH"-related doubts, a lot of people seem to think he needs to reach some cliche landmark like 500 HR's. Of course he has a great chance to reach that anyway, but.....to me, it's total nonsense that he needs anything more. He's been one of the biggest stars of the era, he has often done it when it counted most, and yes, he's an icon.

9:54 PM Sep 20th
 
OldBackstop
Yeah....being in the NY market...I had to listen to a very extended disertation from Sterling about why HoF votes should be instant for someone of Jeter's caliber. I wanted to tweet him a link to Craig Biggio's stats.

I give Jeter credit for NY. Under the spotlight and the temptation, he led an active single life for twenty years without scandal in the tabloid capitol of the world. Count up all the careers of greater talents that hit the Hudson shoals.

But, numbers? shrug. Let's have another Mariano Day.
5:36 PM Sep 20th
 
flyingfish
Very enjoyable read, Dave. I wonder what Bill thinks of it; Bill has spent more time thinking and writing about baseball history than any other baseball writer I know.

Part of it has to be that Jeter plays for the Yankees. I think you underestimated the importance of that. I was listening to the game on the radio last night and Jeter made a play and Yankees announcer John Sterling went into a rant about sabermetricians and how Jeter just gets to the ball, knows what he's doing, and just makes the plays. Sigh.

I don't know about the rest of you, and maybe it's because I'm a Red Sox fan, but I'm going to remember Big Papi for a long time (if my brain cells hold up).
2:29 PM Sep 20th
 
OldBackstop
Cobb's family was above average affluent for extremely rural Narrows, Georgia, which, park-adjusted, is still a bit above dirt poor.

Childhood ended abruptly at 19 when Ma kilt Pa.
1:58 PM Sep 20th
 
pbspelly
Not to nitpick, but I don't believe Ty Cobb was dirt poor. His father was some sort of senator, no?
8:44 AM Sep 20th
 
OldBackstop
One of the best reads I have seen on the site. Great article, Dave. Will pick your assertions apart another time :-)

But two thoughts I have to this are longevity and keeping a clean nose. Jeter was a 4 iron to the driver's window away from being Tiger Wood's second act...that headline never came. As sick as I am of Jeter, as sick as a New York Mets fan can be, he carried himself well on and off the field. David Wright is his legacy, hopefully many others to foillow.

The second is longevity...with it comes the counting stats, the growing recognition, and the nostalgia effect. Aaron, Rose, Jeter...they are done at 35-36, eh, not so much.

I disagree totally with the class warrior income stuff. Ruth's 80k in the early Depression years was no more of an outrage to Americans than the $100 million dollar guys. That's America, mate. Go look at what any country western star or NASCAR driver or a Kardashian makes...I don't think it is a factor at all.

If there is a icon tipping point I would reach for, it was the coming of Marvin Miller. The kimono dropped...it wasn't a game, it was a business, all about the bucks, your hero leaving town for the shekels. In the eyes of fans, baseball lost its cherry.

Great article.
1:48 AM Sep 20th
 
masoo
I may be missing something because I'm on the West Coast. But, without denying his Hall of Fame career, I have never thought of Derek Jeter as The Icon. Who, exactly, are these people who see Jeter this way? Yankee fans, sure, but who else? And again, my intention is not to belittle his very real accomplishments. I just admit I scratch my head when I see him talked about in this way.
1:28 AM Sep 20th
 
wovenstrap
Very good article, but in a way it misses a few big things about Jeter. If Jeter is a player for our times, one big reason why is that he's a light-skinned star of mixed race -- just like our president. His humility and respect for the past is evident and a big part of his appeal, the Yankees media crew always talks about how he called Torre "Mr. Torre" all the time. sure its PR hokum but I watched Jeter for years and years, I think he was actually like that, to a great extent, Ripkien had a similar quality.... that's a strong, uncommon trait that people like hearing about. Not being an obvious steroid offender during the steroid era helps him a lot. And finally, for the first five years his team was uncommonly successful -- the team of that era -- and he was a big part of that success. I agree that he has become polarizing. Even if he was not a good shortstop, he was a shortstop and that gave his numbers much added value. He was a very effective player indeed with a knack for hitting the right note.
1:26 AM Sep 20th
 
MarisFan61
Beautiful, beautiful piece -- but I think there some of what we might call 'mistakes' in it. They don't matter, but, here are perhaps a couple of them.

You say that "the most cited statistic about Carlos Beltran" is his 311 stolen bases and 49 times caught stealing. If it's "most cited" anywhere, those places are relatively few and far. I've never come across it except to the extent that my eyes have perhaps glanced across them on stat pages, and I've never heard it highlighted.

And, I'm not sure what you were thinking when you compared Jeter's triple-crown stats to those of Chuck Klein, Goose Goslin, and Edgar Martinez and thought you were leading into anything meaningful. If Edgar Martinez had been a shortstop who played for 20 years and wound up with those numbers.....well, then you've got something to talk about. If you wanted to go somewhere with an analogy to older-time players like Klein and Goslin, you would have needed to pick shortstops who had consistent, productive 20-year careers and wound up with numbers similar to Jeter's -- not just triple-crown stats but other things like hits also.....OOPS there aren't any except maybe Honus Wagner. :-)
12:18 AM Sep 20th
 
Fireball Wenz
I think what Bill would say is that in several of these cases, New York City and its NYC-centric press corps is what put the spotlight on these players. I lived through the Hank Aaron era and it took his march to Ruth's record to put him in the spotlight. I'm not sure how well publicized the racist response was at the time. But Aaron never had the same mystique as the others you mention. He was in Mays's shadow, and was competing with Clemente and Robinson.

I'd put Aaron in a category with Maddux and Musial and a few others - unquestioned brilliance but without the personality to capture the public imagination.
8:37 PM Sep 19th
 
337
And "And it’s not enough to say that Jeter is a bad defensive shortstop: he has to be the worst defensive shortstop in history" is a terrible, misleading distortion. That's NOT what his detractors claim, isn't even close. Every one of Jeter's detractors can tick off dozens of worse fielding shortstops than him--what we DO claim, and accurately, is that he is "the worst defensive shortstop in history" to have won multiple Gold Gloves, and to be praised for his defense in seasons when he has played poorly on defense, and that he has been playing shortstop for the past few seasons when any other shortstop would have been moved to a position more in line with his reduced mobility and poor throwing arm. If you're going to set up his detractors with a strawman argument, of course they're going to look foolish when they're actually being sensible and accurate.
5:35 PM Sep 19th
 
337
Too dismissive of the degree that Jeter is detested, which is rare among the other popular players you cite, simply because his fans have canonized him. See Posnanski's excellent essay on the term "Jeterate," in which he gives him his due for his achievements on the field but notes how his followers refuse to limit the "Jeteration" to his accomplishments but have instead made him out to be better than he was, and credit him with doing things (like making all his teammates better players) that he simply hasn't done. The example Posnanski gives is of Jeter getting into a run-down, basically a brainfart for most players, that turns into reverent praise from the Yankee announcers.
5:26 PM Sep 19th
 
evanecurb
Saw Mathewson and Wagner references. Got to wait till the end to post. Apologies. Great article. ​
4:29 PM Sep 19th
 
evanecurb
Good list of icons. Should have included Wagner and Mathewson as Cobb's predecessors.
4:27 PM Sep 19th
 
evanecurb
Where have you gone, Carols Beltran?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Woo woo woo.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Cool man Carl has left and gone away
Hey hey hey

From The Graduate II

4:24 PM Sep 19th
 
FrankD
Interesting article. I think you are incorrect with Cobb and turn of the last century US. The biggest thing then was the 'closing of the frontier'. Prior to Cobb's time a person could go out west and homestead and 'make his own way'. By 1910 or so that was done. But the US still believed that man could carve his own destiny. In that sense Cobb was a throwback. In the same vein, Ruth and Dizzy Dean were rubes who made good - also fighting against the grain of their times. In the '20s and '30s it was the Urbanization of America, and the rube beating the city slicker was nostalgia. Maybe (?) I'm carrying this thread too far but even Rose ('he played the game the right way') fits this theme. Jeter is also of this ilk. He hasn't jumped teams, is perceived as a team player when nowadays everybody else is out for number one. Is it that the player who gets the most praise in his generation is the player who the public thinks most resembles the public's perceived past?
4:20 PM Sep 19th
 
clayyearsley
As a Rangers fan, I HATE HATE HATE the Angels. That includes Trout, though he's so great and carries himself so well that it's harder to hate him than Scioscia, Weaver, Aybar, Pujols, or former Ranger Hamilton, or former Ranger and permanent douchebag C.J. Wilson.
2:02 PM Sep 19th
 
chuck
Fine article, Dave. Very enjoyable reading. It's an interesting question who the next icon will be. Is it possible that if we hit on who it is we'll be seeing into the future- the canary in the coal mine thing?...That that player, possibly playing already, will encapsule many of the things about the next 15-20 years that have yet to take shape?
Reminds me of a t-shirt I saw once that had a photo of Larry from the 3 stooges, with the message: I've seen the future, and it's Fein.
10:38 AM Sep 19th
 
 
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