As Derek Jeter gains entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame today in Cooperstown, N.Y., there can be only one thought by most.
No, not that he was a great player. That goes without saying.
It’s that the New York Yankees legend has lived a charmed life.
Perfect, if you will.
After all, Jeter was a kid who grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and wound up being the Yankees’ captain during a dynasty run for the ages by the most storied franchise in American sports history.
Jeter’s Yankees won three straight World Series, four out of five, and five total during his 20-year run at shortstop in the Big Apple.
For sure, on the biggest stage in MLB, Jeter owned Da Bronx.
But make no mistake about it. The early going for Jeter, in the sticks of Michigan, wasn’t easy or pleasant. In fact, it was downright ugly.
Because his dad is Black and his mom is white, he faced the wrath of racists growing up as a biracial kid. Without question, it cut him deep.
Jeter, clean-cut and polite, was never loud, outspoken.
But back in 1998, two years after he won the American League Rookie of the Year, Jeter opened up to me. Back then, I was a columnist for New York Newsday. It was the first time he ever shared his personal life with a reporter.
In that wide-ranging interview, Jeter was honest, refreshing and didn’t mince words about what life was like coming from mixed parents.
Jeter had just signed with the Yankees with the sixth pick in the 1992 amateur draft. He was at a restaurant in Kalamazoo. And after eating with a friend, Jeter returned to the brand new Mitsubishi sports car he had bought with his bonus money. Outside the restaurant, he was confronted by a carload of white teenagers, all around the same age as him, 18.
“Take your dad’s car back home, n——r,” one yelled.
In high school, there were also comments from Black students he didn’t know. Some would say, “he thinks he’s white.” Others would just walk up to him and start speaking Spanish.
Confused? Many are, but not Jeter.
Jeter knows exactly what he is. And it isn’t any of the above choices. “I’m bi-racial,” Jeter said. “People ask if I’m Black or white. I’m both. I’m not one race.”
Jeter says the most frequently asked question he gets is not “Can I have your autograph?” Which is what you’d expect fans to ask a major leaguer.
It’s, “What are you?”
“Fans always want to know what I am,” said Jeter, then 24. “I’ve heard everything, even Italian. I don’t have a problem with it. People are curious. If you’re curious, you ask.”
For the record, Jeter’s mom is Irish and his dad is African-American. Jeter’s look is what throws many people off. He’s lighter skinned than an average light-skinned Black person. His hair is wavy, giving some the idea that he’s Hispanic, like Bernie Williams. And others just think he’s an olive-skinned white man.
Still, it was hardly a piece of cake as a kid for Jeter and his younger sister. They had to endure the constant stares and comments directed at their parents.
“Everybody has problems growing up,” Jeter said. “It was tough on my parents.
“You go places and people would look, stare. It bothers you when you’re growing up. You go, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
But it was for many. And one situation really floored him. He later found out that there was some name-calling going on when Jeter wasn’t looking.
When he thinks of it now, it hurts. Some of the abuse came from someone he thought was a friend.
“This was one of my better friends,” Jeter recalls. “And I found out later after I graduated from high school, many years later, that he was a bit of a racist.
“He would never say anything to me in my face. But behind my back, not about me, about other people. If he saw a Black person walking down the street, he would have something to say.”
Jeter survived his upbringing around some racists. Today, he gets enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It’s the ultimate honor. But make no mistake. For Jeter, it was a tough journey on — and especially off the field.