DEREK JETERThe coverage this week of Derek Jeter receiving the Roberto Clemente Award got me to wondering again about how he will be regarded a few decades from now. I’m not questioning Jeter’s qualifications; the performance and the stats are there. But baseball immortality, if that’s the right word, comes in more than one form. Many players of at least Jeter’s ability are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and their statistics are indelibly spread upon the record book, but they are largely forgotten except by people like me who have nothing better to occupy their minds.

Jeter isn’t done, and his career base-hits total promises that his name will come up again and again when that category is open for discussion. But whether he will take on a more transcendent presence in the baseball conversation of the future — especially outside the New York area — is not at all certain.

JOE SEWELLA player who comes to mind in this regard is Joe Sewell, who was a starting infielder in the American League from 1920 to 1933, the last three years with the Yankees and the rest with the Cleveland Indians. Sewell got into the Indians’ everyday lineup as a replacement for Ray Chapman, who was killed by a pitch thrown by the Yankees’ Carl Mays. A couple of Sewell’s batting statistics compare favorably to Jeter’s. His lifetime batting average was .312 compared to Jeter’s .317, and his on-base percentage was .391 compared to Jeter’s .388. But hidden in that on-base percentage was a factor that made Sewell one of the most remarkable players in history.

plaque_122023Sewell was the hardest man to strike out in the history of the game. Not by a little bit, by a lot. No one else comes close. He came to bat 7,132 times, and he struck out 114 times. Nick Swisher, to pick a convenient example, strikes out more than  that every year — 129 times in 2009, for instance. There were four seasons in which Sewell played every day and struck out only four times — only three times in 1932, which is the all-time record. He once went 115 consecutive at-bats without a strikeout — also the record. Over his career, he averaged one strikeout per 63 at-bats. The closest challenger is George Stone who, over seven years in the early 20th century, struck out once in every 50 at-bats.

It’s always risky to talk about sports records that will never be broken, but it’s safe to say that I’ll be shagging flies with Shoeless Joe and “Moonlight” Graham long before anyone makes contact better than Old Whatshisname.

Talkin’ baseball

September 3, 2009

DEREK JETER

DEREK JETER

Derek Jeter is on the verge of accumulating the most hits by any member of the New York Yankees – surpassing the record of 2,720 held since 1939 by Lou Gehrig. Gehrig would have had more, of course, had he not come down with ALS and died before he was 37 years old. That’s not Jeter’s fault; he got his hits one at a time like everybody else, and he deserves whatever recognition comes with them.

This not the kind of record that is subject to rationalization by people who don’t like the player — like those who say that Alex Rodriguez built up his records by driving in runs when his team didn’t need them. When a man gets 2,700 hits, there’s only one reason for it. He’s damn good.

LOU GEHRIG

LOU GEHRIG

Still, there will be some hint of melancholy around the hit that breaks Lou’s record. Maybe this is a generational thing. I don’t remember Gehrig, but I didn’t miss him by much, and my father — who saw him play scores of times throughout his career — kept the memory alive in our house. Younger people may not feel the regret that someone my age will feel when Lou is no longer Number One on that list.

One of the charms of baseball has always been that everyone who has ever played is still in the game. Today’s players compete against yesterday’s players in statistics and in memory. I wonder, though, if that is waning. I notice, for instance, that the frame of reference for the play-by-play and color announcers usually extends back only as far as they can remember. References to people like Gehrig are rare, and they often sound like references to fictional characters.

BILL DICKEY

BILL DICKEY

I was in the Yankee clubhouse with Ed Lucas one day about 15 years ago, and Ed was talking to a young player who had come up from the farm for a cup of coffee. In the conversation, Ed mentioned Yogi Berra. Ed is blind, but I noticed the blank look on the player’s face, and I said, “You know who Yogi Berra is, don’t you?” The guy said: “I’ve heard of the gentleman.” I guess there would have been no point in asking the young man if he knew who Bill Dickey was — the Hall of Fame catcher who preceded Berra on the Yankees.

People of my generation lived through the phenomenon of grieving a record when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to break the mark set by Babe Ruth in 1927. I was rooting for Maris, partly, I suppose, because Ruth’s transcendent place in the game doesn’t depend on any of his individual records. But a lot of people resented Maris and said so. If anyone broke that record, it should have been Mickey Mantle, a legitimate power hitter year after year and a lifetime Yankee. That was the feeling. We were at Yankee Stadium the day Maris broke that record; the excitement was muted, to put it mildly, Phil Rizzuto notwithstanding. Henry Aaron went through something similar when he broke Ruth’s lifetime home run mark — and there was a strong racial ingredient in that — but Aaron was such a great all-around player for so many years, that only cranks were against him.

CARL HUBBELL

CARL HUBBELL

Speaking of Bill Dickey, he came to mind the other day when a friend of mine mentioned Carl Hubbell’s well-known feat in the 1933 All-Star Game, striking out in succession Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, and Al Simmons — all future Hall of Famers. Hubbell, a Hall of Fame pitcher himself, was a screwball-throwing left-hander and one of the best of his time — many would say all time.

It doesn’t come up often, but the batter who followed Simmons was Bill Dickey, who got a hit to break Hubbell’s streak. The next batter was Lefty Gomez, a pitcher with the Yankees and one of the great humorists of the game, and a notoriously bad hitter in the days when American League pitchers were fully employed and took their turn at bat.

LEFTY GOMEZ

LEFTY GOMEZ

Gomez struck out, and when he went back to the dugout, he was ripping mad at Dickey.

“What did I do?” asked Dickey, who was flabbergasted. “It’s going to go down in history,” Gomez told him, “that Hubbell struck out five of the greatest hitters in baseball. If you had had the decency to strike out, it would have been seven, and I would have been one of them!”

The Times has a story about Jeter’s achievement in the context of the end of Gehrig’s career. It’s at this link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/sports/baseball/04gehrig.html?hp