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Commemorating Derek Jeter, Forgetting Bernie Willams

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BERNIE WILLIAMS YANKEES
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Derek Jeter retirement tour began in earnest last week in Houston as Jeter was presented with a pair of cowboy boots that only a Yankee fan, and probably not too many of them, could love. Jeter's retirement has led to a recognition that he is the last of the Yankee core four to retire. Jorge Posada retired a few years ago; and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retired at the end of last season. Every mention of a core four, the alleged true Yankees at the heart of their 1996-2009 run, is a reminder of how another great Yankee, Bernie Williams, has become increasingly overlooked over time.

Williams played for the Yankees for 16 seasons, most of them as their star center fielder. The Yankees have a tradition of great center fielders; and while Williams is obviously not in the same class as Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio, he is clearly the third best center fielder in franchise history. Williams also played more games in centerfield for the Yankees than DiMaggio, Mantle or anybody else. Williams batted cleanup and played a marquee position for a team that won three consecutive World Series, spent his entire career with the Yankees, was very popular with the fans, but the hoopla around the notion of the core four has caused Williams to be almost entirely forgotten less than eight years after he played his last game.

Unlike the rest of the core four, Williams did not play on all five recent Yankee World Series winning teams, but Posada only played in eight games for the Yankees in their 1996 championship season, so was only meaningfully part of four Yankee champion teams. It is now also largely forgotten that Pettitte spent three years of his career with the Houston Astros, thus becoming the only core four member who did not spend his entire career with the Yankees. Rivera and Jeter are players of historic greatness and significance, but Williams' claim to be a central part of four World Champion Yankee teams is at least as strong as that of Posada and Pettitte and only slightly behind Jeter and Rivera. Williams is, in many respects, very comparable to Posada. They were both switch hitters who were very good players for a long period of time, but never quite superstars. Neither Posada or Williams are inner circle all time Yankee greats like Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jeter or Rivera, but in a historical Yankee context, they are only one circle out from those players.

While he was playing, Williams was viewed as a very good player. He made the All-Star Team five times and finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice. He was always a quiet man, but was well-liked by the media and even earned some additional publicity through his guitar playing. Williams was never involved in any scandal or bad news stories, yet for some reason he is all but forgotten in the enduring noise around the core four.

The exclusion from the core four, which should be five, of Bernie Williams is not a big deal, but it raises the question of how players are remembered and forgotten over time. This, of course, has a lot of bearing on Hall of Fame voting as well. Williams does not have Hall of Fame credentials; and dropped off the ballot in 2013, only his second year of eligibility. This ensured that there will be no Hall of Fame debates around Williams and that fans and journalists outside of New York will have little reason to think of Williams even once a year. Moreover, the core four narrative all but ensures that twenty years from now more Yankee fans will remember Posada than Williams. This seems strange given how they were very comparable players with very similar positions in Yankee history.

Williams Hall of Fame vote totals will frame how he is remembered by baseball fans more broadly, but his inexplicable exclusion of the core four is different. The Yankees are a team that takes its history more seriously, and for many more annoyingly, than any team in professional sports. They also spend more effort to create images like that of the "true Yankee" than any other team. The Yankees market themselves, even when they are good, largely through their history drawing lines from Ruth to Gehrig to Mantle to Yogi Berra to Derek Jeter. Leaving Williams out of this history, but not including him as one of the core members, and true Yankees of the greatest dynasty in modern baseball history is a disservice not just to Williams himself, but to Yankee history more generally.

 
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