Saturday, May 13th, year of our Lord 2017, is Jeter Day. No, this is the first of its kind. I can see how you could think it might be an annual holiday, what with the many frills and rejoicing that carried on the day he recorded his 3,000th hit, or the day he played his final game, or the day that ridiculous Gatorade promo hit the airwaves. The day he gets voted into the Hall of Fame will feel similar, too, as will the day he actually gets inducted. Don’t be fooled, though. This, the day that the Yankees are retiring his famous number 2, is the only one that the city of New York and, inexplicably, the rest of the country, has chosen as Jeter Day.
Jeter, you’ll remember, was a very good shortstop for the New York Yankees for some 20 years. He amassed the sixth-most hits in history, was an All-Star 14 times, and was part of five World Series-winning clubs, winning Series MVP for one of them. Contrary to the sentiment of many this weekend, he wasn’t the greatest shortstop of all time, his career wins above replacement virtually interchangeable with Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell and Bobby Wallace, according to Baseball-Reference. But thanks to many other factors, Jeter was the game’s biggest superstar for most of his career – and, quite possibly, its last.
There are lots of debates over the kind of player who has what it takes to be baseball’s *next* superstar shortstop, from Houston’s Carlos Correa to Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor to Yankees prospect Gleyber Torres. But perhaps just as interesting, who was its first? The answer to that question, according to Cooperstown itself, is former Cincinnati Red Stockings shortstop George Wright.
Wright was born on January 28th, 1847 into a family who had immigrated to the United States from England, and a father who tried to help cricket gain the national popularity in the U.S that it had in his native country. Wright was a cricket pro at the young age of 16, but in the mid-1860’s, he decided to break into baseball. Traveling with amateur teams, he was soon popularly regarded as the best player in the country.
Following an 1868 season that saw him get recognized as the country’s top shortstop by the New York Clipper, Wright accepted an offer from his older brother Harry to join what was to be the world’s first professional baseball team – the Cincinnati Red Stockings. That first season predates Baseball-Reference data, but according to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website, the numbers he put up for that undefeated and undeniably nice 1869 team are absolutely bonkers: a .663 batting average, 49 home runs and 339 runs scored in just 57 games. He was far-and-away the best player on what was, at the time, an unstoppable collection of talent, the very first of its kind.
Other pro teams formed, however, and with increasing parity catching up to the success and, therefore, interest in Cincinnati’s club, the nation’s first pro team returned to amateurism in 1870. With that, the Wright brothers formed the Boston Red Stockings, where George would play out most of the remainder of his career. He remained a cornerstone for years in Boston, amassing a 154 OPS+ between 1871 and 1876. He couldn’t quite replicate that over the second half of his pro career, however, and in 1882, Wright played his final season at age 35.
At his best, it’s said that nobody was better than Wright in any phase of the game, offensively or defensively. But because of the way his competition eventually caught up to him, his BB-Ref page doesn’t glow the way it does for any other superstar shortstop of the past, and his JAWs score – a system developed by Baseball Prospectus that attempts to quantify Hall of Fame candidacy – ranks 96th all-time among shortstops, below the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera, Erick Aybar and Yunel Escobar.
But that doesn’t take away what Wright meant for baseball in his career. He was the centerpiece of two of the game’s first franchises, and the stardom he found is something rivaled by few in all of sports in the 1800’s. In fact, it was significant enough for the Baseball Hall of Fame to select him as its first “pioneer” inductee in 1937.
Neither Wright nor Jeter will go down as the best shortstops to ever play the game. But for now, they represent bookends for professional baseball, the shortstop position’s alpha and omega.
Baseball’s first real superstar, and its last.