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Jeter or Wagner? Debate about greatest shortstop continues

Updated on August 24, 2014

When Derek Jeter passed Honus Wagner on the all-time hits list*, a debate was renewed whether Jeter also passed Wagner as the greatest shortstop of all time.

* Jeter passed Wagner with either his 3,421st or 3,431st hit, depending which source you use. Elias Sports Bureau lists Wagner at 3,430, which is the official source of Major League Baseball. However, Baseball Reference reportedly re-examined the old records and found that some of Wagner’s hits had been counted twice, leaving his total at 3,420.

There is an assumption that Jeter now holds the record for the most hits while playing shortstop. The fact is, he held that record long before he passed Wagner.


Wagner played many games at other positions

I always thought, as I’m sure that most people have, that since Wagner has been credited as the greatest shortstop of all time that he played his entire career at that position, like Jeter has. Jeter has played 2,715 Major League games (through Aug. 23), 2,650 at shortstop and 65 as a designated hitter. He has never played any other defensive position during his career.

Wagner, meanwhile, played a third of his games at positions other than shortstop. He played 373 games in the outfield, 248 at first base, 210 at third, 57 at second and actually took the mound for two games, for a total of 890 defensive games away from shortstop. He played 1,887 games at shortstop (that totals 2,777 defensive games, although he is listed as having appeared in 2,794 games, so he must have been strictly a pinch hitter 17 times).

Wagner a late bloomer at shortstop

A shortstop playing another position is not unusual – shortstop is a complex, physically-demanding position. Many players later in their careers move to other positions – Cal Ripken Jr. slid over to third base, Ernie Banks to first base and Robin Yount to centerfield. Ripken played 23 percent of his defensive games away from short, Yount played only 54 percent of his games at shortstop and Banks played more games at first than at short.

What makes Wagner unusual, though, is that he moved to shortstop later in his career. Wagner didn’t play his first game at shortstop until 1901, when he was 27 and in his fifth season. By that age, Jeter had already played 785 games at that position.

Shortstop didn’t become Wagner’s primary position until two years later, at age 29. In his first year at short, 1901, Wagner played only 61 games there and 79 at other positions, primarily outfield and first. The next year he played only 44 games there, with 61 in the outfield and 32 at first base.

In 1903 the position was finally his main post. He played 111 games there and only 18 at other positions. But he didn’t play what amounted to a full season at shortstop until 1905, when at age 31 he played 145 games at short.

He then continued to primarily play shortstop until 1917, when at age 43 the Pirates finally moved him back to first base.

Derek Jeter
Honus Wagner
Cal Ripken Jr.
Robin Yount
Alex Rodriguez
Ernie Banks
Omar Vizquel
*Through Aug. 22, 2014

Wagner's early career at other positions

From all accounts, Wagner was a gifted athlete and given his prowess at short at an age when most players’ skills begin to falter, I’m curious about why it took so long to put him there. For most of baseball history, from Little League to the majors, the most athletically-gifted players – at least defensively – have been placed at shortstop.

Wagner started his career with Louisville, which was a Major League team until the National League decided to consolidate from 12 teams to eight teams for the 1900 season. Louisville was odd-man out and folded. Wagner went to Pittsburgh, one of the NL’s powerhouse teams.

In Louisville, Wagner had played mostly third and first, with some time in the outfield. Perhaps once he got to the Pirates they would recognize his defensive gifts for shortstop.

Pittsburgh preferred Wagner at other spots

Nope. They put him in the outfield for 118 games, with a few games at third, first and second and even a three-inning stint on the mound.

It wasn’t until their starting shortstop defected to the upstart American League in 1903 that the Pirates considered moving Wagner to short permanently, and then only apparently because the backup shortstop proved ineffective. Even then, according to one biography, Wagner had to be sweet-talked into playing the position.

I don’t know why Wagner was reluctant to play there. The Pirates also seemed to prefer Wagner in the outfield, and had their regular shortstop stayed, Wagner might have remained there.

Baseball in those days was, of course, played in quite different conditions. Major League parks were mammoth – the Pirates home field at the time was 400 feet down the leftfield line and nearly 500 feet to center. Hitters used a more slashing stroke designed to hit the gaps. Wagner reportedly was a fast runner and had a cannon arm, so it could be that the Pirates saw more value in him being able to run down balls in the gap and throw 350 feet than to knock down grounders in the infield.

Wagner far from a role model

As an aside, I had always thought that Wagner was Jeter-esque in his demeanor, which was purely based on the story of his baseball card. As you may know, a particular Wagner card is one of the most valuable in the world because of its rarity. A cigarette company printed and issued the cards with each pack of smokes. Wagner didn’t want his name associated with cigarettes so his card was pulled after only a few were distributed. The card is now worth millions – Wayne Gretzky once owned one.

So Wagner must have been an upstanding, clean-living, level-headed player like Jeter, right? Not according to his biography. Wagner chewed tobacco and smoked cigars – he just didn’t like cigarettes. He was also a hard drinker, which led to reduced playing time some seasons. And he was known for his fiery temper that led to a number of ejections from umpires.

Wagner a great hitter but was he the greatest?

But Wagner could hit (despite swinging a 40-ounce bat that looked like it had started life as a table leg) and in today’s world probably would have been a power-hitting shortstop in the Ripken mold. He only had 101 career homers, and only had as many as 10 in a season twice, but with the giant ball parks he played in and the hitting style, that’s not surprising. He did hit a lot of doubles – 643, ninth all-time – and triples – 252, third all-time – many of them probably in the seats in modern parks.

It’s hard to judge how good Wagner was in the field since we only have the memories and impressions of people at the time. He did commit six errors in the first World Series ever played.

It is hard to compare players over the course of time, especially when they played 100 years apart the way Wagner and Jeter did (Wagner was born in 1874, Jeter in 1974). It would be hard to say that Jeter is greater than Wagner, or that Wagner was greater than Jeter; I don’t even know if you could say either of them was the greatest ever. That would require some definition of how you’re going to rate greatness. But both of them are unquestionably among the greatest shortstops ever.

What I do know is that Jeter indisputably has the most hits by a shortstop, and has held that distinction for several seasons.

The Greatest

Who do you consider the greatest shortstop of all time?

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    • Richard Paul profile image

      Richard Paul 

      4 years ago from Olathe, KS

      I do think its hard to compare Wagner and Jeter not just because of the eras they played in, but also because there are probably very few people still alive who could say they've seen both of them play and offer that unique perspective.

      With that perspective missing, the only thing that's left is the look at the numbers and stats, but again the eras are so far apart its not fair to either player to attempt a comparison between the two. Great article.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great article, Gary. Although I think Jeter is one of the best ever at the position, I'm not sure he was the greatest. I'm sure there are a multitude better than Jeter. But he did it in NY. Guys like Mark Belanger or Ozzie Smith were better defensively. I don't like to compare eras. Baseball changed every ten years or so over the past 80 years. But your analysis of Wagner was great. Voted up and shared.


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