Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera: best teammate tandem ever

28 09 2014

As Derek Jeter takes his final curtain call today (in Fenway Park), one more observation about a way in which he leaves as one of baseball’s best ever: He was half of baseball’s longest-running greatest-ever teammate tandem.

Jeter, baseball’s greatest-ever post-season hitter, and Mariano Rivera, baseball’s greatest-ever reliever and post-season pitcher, played together for an incredible 19 seasons, both coming up in the 1995 season and playing together as Yankees until Rivera’s retirement last year.

Their results were unmatched since the Yankee dynasty of 1949-64: They won five World Series together, two more American League championships and missed the post-season together only in 2008 and 2013, Rivera’s last season. Thursday night, Jeter played only the second game in which his team was eliminated from post-season play. Neither man ever played on a team with a losing record.

Who are the other longest-running teammate pairs who were the very best ever (not just among the best ever) at something (or at least the best ever when they retired)?

Some of their closest competitors would be Yankee tandems:

Ruth and Gehrig

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig might be the most famous teammate tandem ever: The greatest home run hitter of all-time (certainly when he retired, maybe still) and the most durable player and the grand-slam record holder. Eventually others broke Ruth’s homer records: Others eventually broke Ruth’s records for homers in a single season, a career and a World Series. But no one still has approached his record of leading his league in homers 12 times. Gehrig eventually lost his record for consecutive games played and shares the record for grand slam homers but he held both records alone for decades.

The results were similar: four World Series titles for Ruth-Gehrig and a fifth American League championship. Of course, you couldn’t make post-season play in their day without winning the league title.

I could argue either side of an argument over whether the Jeter-Rivera or Ruth Gehrig tandem was greater. But Jeter-Rivera played together longer: 19 years to 12.

Joe DiMaggio and Gehrig overlapped only four years. Great as they both were, they can’t merit consideration in the discussion of long-running tandems.

Mantle, Yogi, Whitey, Maris

That Yankee dynasty from 1949 to 1964 had multiple tandems you could consider here:

Mickey Mantle broke (and still holds) Ruth’s record for World Series homers and also still holds the records for most runs, RBI and total bases in World Series play (strikeouts, too). And he’s probably still be the all-time king of tape-measure homers.

Yogi Berra holds even more World Series records than Mantle: most games, at-bats, plate appearances, hits, doubles, singles, championships.

Whitey Ford still holds the records for World Series wins (10) and scoreless innings (33 2/3). His post-season scoreless-innings record was broken by Rivera.

Roger Maris broke Ruth’s single-season record in 1961.

Any tandem from that dynasty would be a worthy match with Jeter-Rivera, but none could match their 19 years:

  • Mantle and Ford played together 15 years.
  • Mantle and Berra played together 13 years (and Berra managed Mantle in their 14th year together).
  • Ford and Berra played together 12, plus Berra’s year as manager.
  • Maris played seven years with Mantle and Ford, just four with Berra, plus the manager year.

Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz

Some might argue that Greg Maddux was the greatest righthander, or even the greatest pitcher, of all-time. John Smoltz might edge Dennis Eckersley as the greatest-ever starter and reliever. I could argue that either way, but Smoltz was much better than Eck as a starter and not far behind him as a reliever in dominance, though Eck relieved much longer. I can’t think of a greatest-ever claim for Tom Glavine, but as a 300-game winner, he’s certainly an all-time great. As a threesome pitching together for a long time, they were unmatched.

They pitched together for a decade: 1993, when Maddux joined the other two, to 2002, the last season before Glavine became a Met. That counts the 2000 season when Smoltz was injured all year. Jeter (17 games last year) and Rivera (nine games in 2012) each missed nearly a full year, but I count a year if you were a member of the team, so I give the Braves trio a full decade.

Smoltz and Glavine had five more years together before Maddux arrived, so give them 15. And Smoltz and Maddux played together in 2003 before Maddux returned to the Cubs, so they got 11 years together. No Braves combo approached Jeter-Rivera, though.

Aaron, Spahn and Mathews

Let’s look back at some other Braves combos:

Hank Aaron, who broke Aaron’s career homer record,  and Eddie Mathews, a Hall of Famer with a claim as the greatest power-hitting third baseman (but I’d give that not to Mike Schmidt), played together 13 years, 1954 to 1966. Warren Spahn, maybe the best left-handed pitcher ever, with 13 20-win seasons, overlapped 11 years with Aaron and 13 with Mathews.

Mays, McCovey, Marichal

Willie Mays, regarded by many as the best all-around baseball player, played 14 years on the San Francisco Giants with Willie McCovey, who’s kind of in the Glavine-Mathews category of Hall of Famers, but not the greatest ever at anything. Mays and Juan Marichal, perhaps the greatest Latino pitcher ever, played together 13 seasons.

Gibson and Brock

Bob Gibson, probably the most feared pitcher ever and the greatest major league African American pitcher, played 12 years with Cardinal teammate Lou Brock, who retired with the single-season and career stolen base records.

Bench, Rose and Morgan

The Big Red Machine of the 1970s included baseball’s all-time hit king, Pete Rose, and contenders for the titles of best catcher and best second baseman ever, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan. Morgan spent eight years with the Reds, overlapping seven years with Rose and all eight years with Bench. Bench and Rose played together for 12 years.

Schmidt and Carlton

Thanks to Brian Cubbison for suggesting this pair in a comment: Mike Schmidt, the best third baseman of all-time, played 14 years with Steve Carlton, the best last-place pitcher ever and a contender for best lefthander ever.

Who else?

There have been lots of other great teammate combos: Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella; Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson; David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez; Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray; Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer; Eck, Mark McGwire and Rickey Henderson; Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. But I can’t think of another combo who played together as long and have as strong claims at being the very best at something. Am I overlooking someone?

Information on players’ careers came from Baseball-Reference.com

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13 responses

28 09 2014
Brian Cubbison

19 years is tough to beat, especially with all the post-season performances, but Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton of the Phillies deserve honorable mention.

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28 09 2014
Steve Buttry

They do indeed! Thanks, Brian!

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