September 3, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: