Goldman: Derek Jeter is far better than Honus Wagner, and that’s final

From SABR member Steven Goldman at SB Nation on August 12, 2014:

On Saturday, Derek Jeter recorded the 3,431st hit of his career, passing Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner for sixth place on the all-time career hits list. This was deemed significant given that many would still deem Wagner, who last played nearly 100 years ago, the greatest shortstop of all time. They would be wrong, terribly, terribly wrong, but now we’re back on familiar ground, wrestling with folks who don’t believe in the inexorable force of progress.

When Derek Jeter announced his forthcoming retirement back in February, I compared him to some of the great shortstops in history. There were very quick, light takes — the section on Ernie Banks was all of two-sentences long — and you’d think that assessments in that vein would have provoked argument given that a conclusion without a fully explicated set of reasons by it is just an empty assertion.


In his own time, compared to his contemporaries, Wagner was a better player than Jeter. However, the point of the Jeter comparison exercise was to compare players across time, and there Wagner can and must finish not only second, but a very distant second. To believe Wagner was a better player than Jeter one must also concede that all the best baseball was played prior to 1930 or so and that Wagner, clearly an exceptional athlete, was playing against competition that tested his abilities in the same way that Jeter’s contemporaries tested his. This is flatly impossible for reasons physically specific to the Americans of Wagner’s day and ours as well as the increasing professionalization of baseball over that time.

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Originally published: August 12, 2014. Last Updated: August 12, 2014.