GORDON WHITE: Yankee Hit King: Derek Jeter Sets Team Mark
When Derek Jeter singled nine days ago for his 2,722nd hit as a New York Yankee, many baseball fans were surprised to learn that no previous Yankee player had gotten more hits than Jeter while a member of that world famous band of sluggers.
Known as "Murderers' Row" and "The Bronx Bombers" through their long history of beating up on the opposition, the Yankees must have produced at least one player with 3,000 hits. How could they miss with the likes of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and many more?
But no. Of the 27 major league players who had 3,000 or more hits in a career, not one got that many as a New York Yankee. Jeter broke a 70-year-old Yankee hit record set by Lou Gehrig, who stepped down in April of 1939 with 2,721 hits during his glorious, 17-year Yankee career.
Jeter's record single was one of his typical hits slapped just inside the right field foul line by this crafty right-handed hitter against the Baltimore Orioles' starter, Chris Tillman, in the third inning of the game at Yankee Stadium, Sept. 11.
Barring serious injury or illness interrupting his career, the 35-year-old Jeter should easily increase his total to over 3,000 hits before he retires as an active player.
As things now stand on the Yankee hit list, Jeter is No. 1 and increasing his total almost every day as the 2009 season draws to an end with the Yankee captain hitting about .330 for one of the best of his 15 seasons with the team so far.
Gehrig, who was also the team captain in his day, ranks No. 2 at 2,721 Yankee hits followed by Babe Ruth, 2,518; Mickey Mantle, 2,415; Bernie Williams, 2,336 and Joe DiMaggio, 2,214.
Jeter is the Yanks' shortstop. Gehrig was the first baseman while the other four on that top six Yankee hit list were outfielders.
Five of these top half dozen Yankee hit men spent their entire MLB careers as Yankees. The exception was Babe Ruth, who spent his first five full seasons with the Boston Red Sox before being sold to the Yankees after the 1919 campaign in one of the most famous deals in major league history. Red Sox fans think of it as an infamous deal or "The Curse of the Bambino".
Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse because he set the major league record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games. This mark was broken years later by Cal Ripken Jr., who took himself out of the line up one day in September of 1998 after playing in 2,632 consecutive games for the Baltimore Orioles.
Gehrig was 36 years old when he asked his manager, Joe McCarthy, to replace him in the Yankees' ninth game of the 1939 season because he felt he could no longer play. He was suffering the onset of ALS, which is the fatal muscular disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He never played again and died two years later on June 2, 1941.
ALS has since become known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Had this normally husky and very strong native of New York City not been stricken with ALS, it is certain that Gehrig would have amassed well over 3,000 hits before a normal retirement from MLB. He probably could also have played in more consecutive games than Ripken did.
Babe Ruth came up as a pitcher with the Red Sox in 1914 and played in only five games that season. Therefore he was considered a rookie when he played the full 1915 season. He remained primarily a pitcher through 1919 although he played outfield and first base upon occasion in his last three years with Boston.
As a result, Ruth had only 342 hits as a member of the Red Sox. Ruth batted when he pitched which was long before the American League's designated hitter era.
The Yanks turned Ruth into a full time outfielder and thus a day-to-day hitter. In 15 seasons with the Yankees, Ruth had 2,518 of his career total of 2,873 hits. He finished with the Boston Braves in 1935 when he got his last 13 hits.
Had Ruth spent his entire career with the Yankees he probably would have been put in the outfield sooner, batted almost every day of the season and easily collected over 3,000 hits as a Yankee. That is because during those early years of Ruth's career the Yankees played in the Polo Grounds where the right field foul line went only 258 feet from home plate to the right field seats.
With such a tempting target for a left handed slugger such as Ruth, the Yanks would probably have made him an everyday player.
The Yanks moved into the first Yankee Stadium in 1923 where it became known as "The House That Ruth Built" because of the many homers he hit there.
Mickey Mantle, No. 4 on the Yankee hit list, was hampered throughout his 18-year career with the Yankees (1951--1968), by leg, foot and ankle injuries. Much of this resulted from a teen age injury suffered during a high school football game in Oklahoma when Mantle was kicked in a shin.
The bruise became infected. Penicillin saved Mantle from having the leg amputated but did not prevent him from suffering osteomyelitis. This plagued him throughout his life and led to many bone and leg injuries in his MLB days.
Mantle missed 27 games in 1953, 31 games in 1962, 89 games in 1963, 32 games in 1965 and 46 games in 1966.
He might also have lasted in the major leagues for three or four more seasons without that history of osteomyelitis. That would have meant 3,000 hits plus for this greatest of all switch hitting sluggers in Yankee history.
Bernie Williams, also a switch hitter, suffered numerous injuries and thus spent considerable time on the disabled list while playing for the Yanks, 1991--2006. He was a team mate of Jeter's through four World Series victories.
Joe DiMaggio, the "Yankee Clipper" or "Joltin' Joe", came up in 1936, set the 56-game hitting streak record in 1941, played on 13 World Series championship Yankee teams and collected 2,214 hits in only 13 seasons with the Yanks. He and many other major league players had their careers interrupted by World War II. DiMaggio lost the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons to Army Air Force service.
After WW II, the great center fielder began suffering nagging injuries that cut some seasons short. His most troublesome problem was a bone spur in his foot that led to surgery prior to the 1947 season. He missed 76 games in 1949 with injuries and illness. He suffered pneumonia late that season.
The Yankee Clipper furled his sails after the 1951 season, ending a career that could have been much longer. Still, DiMaggio may have set the most enduring record in sports when he hit safely in those 56 consecutive games 68 years ago.
Although no MLB player has gotten 3,000 hits as a Yankee so far, four members of the 3,000-hit club played a portion of their careers as Yankees -- Dave Winfield (3,110), Wade Boggs (3,010), Rickey Henderson (3,055) and Paul Waner (3,152).
Winfield got 1,300 of his hits as a Yankee, 1981-1990; Boggs had 702 hits with the Yankees, 1993-1997; Henderson connected for 663 of his hits with the Yanks, 1984-1989, and Waner got just one hit, a single, for his final MLB safety while playing nine games with the Yanks in 1944.
Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio, Winfield, Boggs, Henderson and Waner are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Williams will not be eligible for the Hall of Fame voting until 2011. Jeter is a sure bet for the hall five years after he retires as, undoubtedly, the first player to get 3,000 or more hits in Yankee pin stripes.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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