There are very few things that frustrate me more than how much baseball historians/nerds hype up how supposedly great the old-timey MLB stars were, mostly due to the fact that the competition back then was far inferior to what it is nowadays. I mean, do you really think that a tubby, out-of-shape boozer like Babe Ruth could really lead the majors in home runs if he played today? Definitely not. He’d probably struggle to hit six home runs, let alone 60.
So it really irritated me this past week, in the buildup to Derek Jeter’s jersey number retirement ceremony, to have to listen to all of the so-called baseball “experts” discuss Jeter’s place in the annals of all-time great shortstops. Most gave Jeter high praise, consistently ranking him in the all-time top five for shortstops and naming him as one of the greatest Yankees ever. But it was exhausting having to hear so many of these baseball geeks list Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop of all time.
To be fair, I don’t necessarily think that Jeter is the greatest shortstop of all time. To be honest, I think he’s a little overrated. But Jeter’s greatness is understandably exaggerated due to the fact that he won a lot with baseball’s most esteemed franchise, the New York Yankees, and also because he was the symbol of everything that baseball represented in a time when the Steroid Era was taking its toll on the sport. So I’m not even willing to say that Jeter’s the greatest Yankee shortstop of all time. But I’m definitely willing to say that he’s better than Honus freaking Wagner. However, none of the self-proclaimed baseball know-it-alls feel that way. Take baseball nerd Keith Olbermann’s rant about Jeter from a few years back, for example.
Wagner, a dude known more for having a ridiculously valuable baseball card with his likeness on it than as an all-time great player, dominated the majors in the early 1900s, for whatever that’s worth. Keep in mind that, at that time, a lot of the players were farmers or blue-collar workers who played baseball in the summer to make some extra money. So the pitchers that Wagner won his eight batting titles by hitting off of weren’t exactly at Clayton Kershaw’s level.
Hell, back then, they used the same baseball for the entirety of a game. The proverbial “live-ball era,” which is said to symbolize the beginning of legitimate, modern-day baseball, didn’t even begin until 1920, three years after Wagner retired. The organization of Major League Baseball wasn’t even established until 1903, six years after Wagner began his professional career. So you can’t honestly say that Wagner was a better player than Jeter. On a proportional scale, what Jeter accomplished playing in the modern day far outweighs what Wagner accomplished in the early 20th century.
For one thing, radios weren’t even commonplace until Wagner was in the twilight years of his career. Television wasn’t even close to being invented. So how do we even know how truly great Wagner was? Because some old newspaper clippings tell us so? One of Wagner’s best seasons occurred in 1900, when he hit a career-best .381. One of Jeter’s best seasons occurred just under a century after that, when hit a career-best .349 in 1999. I would say that hitting .349 when having to face off against Pedro Martinez on a regular basis is far more impressive than hitting .381 when having to face off against some ex-convict cattle farmer trying his hand at a part-time pitching gig in the summertime to make ends meet. Jeter regularly opposed hurlers with a five-pitch arsenal. Wagner regularly opposed hurlers whose arsenals were composed of the spitball and the five-fingered “throw it as hard as you can in the general direction of home plate” pitch.
Tim Wakefield certainly wasn’t on the mound throwing wicked knuckleballs to Wagner. And Jeter certainly wasn’t getting the chance to swing at 60-mile-per-hour palm balls thrown right down the middle. And, as for defense, I bet it was a heck of a lot easier for Wagner to corral a slowly-hit grounder of a ball falling apart at the seams than it was for Jeter to corral a hard-hit screamer of a regulation, factory-made baseball. So it’s totally unfair to say that Wagner was better than Jeter. If anything, Jeter was better than Wagner because his accomplishments far outweigh Wagner’s on a proportional scale.
With all of that being said, baseball geeks should get over their obsession with statistics because they certainly don’t tell the whole story. That’s awesome that Wagner consistently hit over .350 in an era when there were only half the number of MLB teams than there are now and most of the players worked other jobs in the offseason. But it’s simply not meaningful enough to make him the greatest shortstop of all time. The greatest shortstop of his era? Sure. A better shortstop than Derek Jeter? Not even close. And that shouldn’t even be up for debate.