Babe Dahlgren followed Gehrig at first base for the New York Yankees, but certainly did not replace him. Cal Ripken Jr. broke Gehrig's consecutive games played record of 2,130, but even he could not replace Gehrig. Now, Jeter has equaled Gehrig's franchise record of 2,721 hits.
Jeter is the preeminent Yankee of the current generation. There are a few other players who have been at the core of the Yankees' success since the mid-'90s -- Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, most of the time. But Jeter is the captain of the Yankees, the face of the Yankees.
The hits, the tangible part of Jeter's work, offer evidence of value, of consistency, and, by now, of durability. Rumors of Jeter's decline coming into this season were not only exaggerated, they were slanderous, libelous and completely erroneous. At age 35, Jeter is putting together one of the best seasons of his career. That is saying a lot. And it is no coincidence that the Yankees have the best record in baseball while Jeter is at the top of his game.
Jeter's career doesn't require any validation at this point, but it will receive some when he reaches the lofty level that has typically meant Hall of Fame. That would be 3,000 hits, apparently a matter of when, not if, for Jeter. When looks like 2011, relatively early in the season.
Jeter's reliability, his consistency, have been trademarks of the best of the New York Yankees. His effort and his modesty have been prominent in the mix, as well. He is an example of what can still be called worthwhile in professional sports.
All-time Yankees hit leaders
|Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig and now has the most hits by a Yankee. Here are the top 10 Yankees leaders in hits.|
Jeter's career, his body of work, separates him from the vast majority of Major League players. But one play puts him another step beyond the exceptional.
July 1, 2004, Yankee Stadium, a game against -- who else? -- the Red Sox. Tied up, 12th inning, two outs, Boston runners on second and third. Trot Nixon hits a pop up down the left-field line. There is only one way, given Jeter's angle of pursuit as he races after the ball, that he can make the play. He can't hold up, he can't slide. He has to dive face-first into the stands. And he does.
Jeter emerged from that play bruised, bloody and battered, but with the third out of the inning. It was a play that required, of course, physical courage. But it also required a completely selfless player, someone who reflexively put the needs of the team above his own needs, and for that matter, his own personal safety.
Jeter is as fitting as any player could be to take over a Yankees record from Gehrig, although Gehrig remains incomparable.
Team-by-team hit leaders
|Here is a look at the hit leaders for all 30 Major League clubs, through games of Sept. 11, 2009:|
|Red Sox||Carl Yastrzemski*||3,419|
|Orioles||Cal Ripken Jr.*||3,184|
|White Sox||Luke Appling*||2,749|
|Blue Jays||Tony Fernandez||1,583|
|* Member of the Hall of Fame|
Gehrig was the "Iron Horse," a seemingly indestructible player. His offensive statistics were no less remarkable than his consecutive game streak. He scored 115 or more runs for 13 seasons in a row, and in 12 of those seasons, he scored at least 125. He had 12 seasons with more than 100 RBIs, three times driving in more than 170. His lifetime batting average was .340, his lifetime on-base percentage was.447 and his lifetime slugging percentage was .632. Jeter is not this sort of player, but then, neither, at this moment, is anybody else. Even the greatest hitter of the present generation, Albert Pujols, comes up a little short when measured against Gehrig.
But it is even bigger than that with Gehrig and it is also even larger than playing a leading role in seven World Series championships. The lasting image that separates Gehrig from everyone else who played the game, comes from July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, "Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day."
It is an image of a man in the grip of a disease that will end his life, but first will steadily, cruelly rob him of his physical abilities, not simply to play baseball but to function, in a normal, human manner.
But it is also an image of a man displaying incredible courage and dignity in the face of terrible adversity. It is an image of a man standing at home plate and speaking what would become the most famous words, the most touching words, in the history of baseball:
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth ... ."
This is what separates Gehrig from the rest of baseball humanity. While Jeter will not have a Gehrig-type legacy, he is doing an extremely fine job in creating his own legacy, his own Yankee legacy. In this matter of the most hits as a Yankee, there could be no more appropriate successor to the Iron Horse than Jeter.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less