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Jeter Ties Wagner, Dewey Defeats Truman

Derek Jeter and Honus Wagner played the same position, but not the same game.

by W.M. Akers
Aug 22 2014, 3:45pm

Photos by USA TODAY Sports

On July 28, 2014, Derek Jeter collected his 3,420th hit, tying Honus Wagner for sixth on the all-time hit list.

On August 8, 2014, Derek Jeter collected his 3,430th hit, tying Honus Wagner for sixth on the all-time hit list.

On August 11, 2014, Derek Jeter collected his 3,430th hit again, tying Honus Wagner for sixth on the all-time hit list.

You see, baseball is complicated.

Playing from 1897 to 1917, Honus Wagner was the premier shortstop of the dead-ball era. A burly Pennsylvanian with a squashed nose, soft eyes, and a jaw that could crack ice, Wagner is remembered more fondly than most pre-Ruth greats, if only because he wasn't as racist as Cap Anson or as violent as Ty Cobb. Like few others, the Carnegie Flying Dutchman knew how to hit the rounded, lumpen mass and finished his two decade career with an OPS+ of 151.

Usually known for his hotly fetishized baseball card—new versions of which are still sending newspaper writers into a tizzy—Wagner has been remembered for his ball-playing this season, as the premier shortstop of our own generation climbed the hit list on his way to retirement. An argument has risen up about which shortstop is better, fomented mostly by SB Nation's Steven Goldman, who comes down firmly on the side of the man in pinstripes. 

Whatever, it's a silly thing to argue about. Derek Jeter is, obviously, better than Honus Wagner. And Honus Wagner was, obviously, better than Derek Jeter.

First, the confusion about when Derek tied Honus. On July 28, Jeter's 3,420th hit was enough to bring him level with Wagner according to Baseball Reference, which counts ten fewer hits for Wagner than MLB does. There are complicated reasons for this, but the short version is that they use different record books. That Baseball Reference, which everyone treats as the official record, differs from the harder to use official record is a head-scratcher for another time.

However you count Wagner's hits, Jeter definitely tied him on August 8, beating out an infield single against the Cleveland Indians in true Jeterian style. Three days later, he broke the record, and the whole thing was put to bed forever. Well, at least until two days ago, when the August 8 hit was ruled an error, meaning that Wagner stood alone (as far as Major League Baseball is concerned) for three more days. This kind of stultifying, meaningless confusion is as inside as inside baseball gets, but it's also what makes baseball a funhouse of byzantine piffle. It's fun to argue about stupid shit as long as no one is taking it too seriously. A straight faced proclamation of Jeter's primacy over Wagner is what happens when the line is crossed.

Goldman makes a common sense argument in favor of Jeter. Players were shorter in the dead ball era. They were malnourished. Batters faced pitchers who were drunk, tired, and injured. They never had to contend with a 100 MPH fastball, and they never had to play against anyone who was not lily-white. It was a different game, an inferior game, and if Wagner was the best at it—and for several years, he was—that means nothing now.

However, Derek Jeter is not superior to Honus Wagner because of some innate captainly brilliance. He's better than him because he's spent his life properly nourished, being trained according to modern techniques, watching game tape, reading scouting reports, and being coached by full-time professionals. The point here isn't that Derek Jeter is better than Honus Wagner, but that Jeff Francoeur is better than Honus Wagner. The minor league prospect that your team just promoted to AA is probably bigger, stronger, and faster than the finest player of 1917, and is likely smarter, too.

When you think about it this way, the dead-ball greats stack up so poorly to the modern game that I begin to feel badly for them. It's not their fault that they were short, starving, and poorly coached. They didn't choose to face slow-pitching drunks—although they probably liked it that way—and aside from those of Cap Anson's ilk, they didn't choose to play in a segregated league, although I bet they liked that too. They played the game they were offered, and some were lousy, some were average, and a few were truly great, same as today.

While professional baseball in Wagner's day was indeed played by doughy white dudes with funny gloves and silly nicknames and numbers inflated by inconsistent competition, we don't have a time machine and those imperfect numbers are all we have. The broad attempt to recast the value of those numbers doesn't just mean an easy laugh at the expense of every racist in baggy pants. It also means losing some of our due esteem for Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell, Ted Williams and Willie Mays and Tom Seaver, and any other all-time great who played when training was lax, fastballs were slow, and the game wasn't quite the same.

Derek Jeter is great. Honus Wagner was great too. We can have them both.

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