By Jon DeRosa
Yankee Stadium opened in 1923. In that same year, a young first baseman from Columbia University got his first sniff of the big leagues with the Yanks and collected the first 11 hits of his career. That first baseman was Lou Gehrig and of course he hit like crazy from 1923 thru 1939 (a .340 lifetime average). His 1270 hits at the Stadium established a high standard – but not, one would think, an unattainable standard. Especially since Gehrig himself would have bettered that number by hundreds if not for his tragic disease and rapid demise.
Surely the great DiMaggio would eclipse that mark with relative ease just by staying healthy. World War 2 put an end to those thoughts. But even with the War robbing Joe of 3 prime years and possibly 300 hits in the Stadium, he called it quits at the same age as the Iron Horse – 36.
But then Mantle, of the blazing speed, who began roaming the outfield at the ridiculously young age of 19, for certain would have his 1270 hits in the Stadium by the time he was 30, right? Well ironically, his chances took a nosedive in his 19th summer when he tore his knee apart on a drainage cover in right field, skidding to a stop to defer to Joe D on a pop fly. The injury didn’t rob him of an all time great career, but it certainly took away the infield hits that were the birthright of the Commerce Comet. Mantle also took 4 balls far too often and drank far too much to rack up the requisite hit total. He too retired at 36.
How about Berra? A long, fantastic career basically undisturbed by war, major illness or personal vice. No, his position on the field did him in. As a catcher, he had too many days off to mount a serious challenge. Munson, of course, tragically perished in a plane crash, but would have fallen short for the same reason Yogi did (and because he toiled two summers in Queens while they remodeled Yankee Stadium in the mid-70’s).
Ah, but then came Mattingly. All he did was hit. He spat on walks. His nickname was “the Hitman.” He was playing regularly by 22 and, by the time he was 25, was widely considered the best player in baseball. This meant he had his 3 best years ahead of him, right? 26-28, which Bill James has identified and a horde of research has confirmed, is the mashing ground for big hitters. Mattingly picked up a respectable 563 hits over these prime years – but that pales in comparison to the 656 he racked up from 23-25. It’s probable the back ailment that shortened his career, derailed his HOF candidacy, and helped spiral the yanks into the abyss of 1989-91, began to diminish his skills as early as 1987. Mattingly didn’t even make to 36 – he hung up the spikes at 34.
Out of the 1991 abyss, however emerged an unlikely candidate to assault Gehrig’s long standing mark. Bernie Williams struggled thru his first 3 years in the Bronx, but luckily there was uncharacteristic (for the time) patience or prescience within the organization that allowed him to learn, grow, and evolve into a star player. Alas, two strike-shortened seasons and his own slow early progress put him a bit too far behind the curve. And like Mantle, Bernie’s fine batting eye helped the Yankees, but hurt his hit totals. Even in an age of highly conditioned athletes, he played his last game when he was 37.
By then the stadium clock had started ticking. Gehrig’s mark still stood. A war, a drainage cover, a stadium renovation, a balky back and a work stoppage, among countless other things, had conspired to keep his rather modest total at the top of the heap. Think about it – since Gehrig the Yanks have seen 2 of the 5 greatest centerfielders, the greatest catcher, and no fewer than 5 dynasties worth of the best talent in baseball history. But none of the best possessed the longevity necessary to accumulate 1270 hits in Yankee Stadium. (Isn’t that weird – all the Yankee stars were done so early? Maybe because they all won so much, there was no need to stick around when their skills began to go. No ‘Karl Malone’ on the yanks, fishing around for one more shot at the elusive title and racking up some counting stats while he lingered.)
As you know, Derek Jeter finally broke the record two nights ago. He’s 34 and in a decline (though thanks to this last homestand, his final stat line won’t be too far off the usual except for the power). It would seem he is a very safe bet for 3000 hits, but looking at the paragraphs above – well let’s just say I don’t want to be invited to his 36th birthday party for fear of some kind of bizarre champagne cork accident.
Even though I knew nothing about it until very recently, I’ve grown to like this record. Not for the record itself, which is pretty meaningless and kind of stupid, but for all the history, all the circumstance and happenstance – all the Yankees – brushing past it. This isn’t a record anybody cares about or targets. This is just a record that falls in your lap if you’re good enough and the timing is right. And this is SO insular. It’s like a family photo album that would interest no one outside the bloodline, and even most of them might be indifferent. But start with the fact that Gehrig began mounting his total the year the Stadium opened, and Jeter finally surpassed it during the last homestand before it closes. Doesn’t that make you want to look twice? After all the other luminaries came up short (not that they were trying to break this record, but still) the record seems to have existed like an epic butterfly: born in 1923, just floating and fluttering, suspended in history, just out of sight, deciding to set down right now at the exact moment in time that anyone would possibly stop and admire it. The record, the Stadium, the players (the record holders and all of them that came close), they all combine to tell a story that’s worth hearing.
The Stadium will spend October dark. And that is a shame (and unlikely since they’ve made the postseason in 45 out of its 86 years). But this small, weird, circumstantial record has been a strong, unexpected tribute to the personal connection we’ve all had with the team and the place they play. It’s easy (and sometimes necessary) to reduce every season to the result of the postseason – but this record reminds of us of all the greatness on display (then AND now) at Yankee Stadium from April thru Sept and, during a 4th place season, it’s a reminder I sorely needed.
Jon DeRosa is a lifelong Yankee fan and lives in Inwood.