The Magazine

Yanks Are Coming

Two ways of looking at our most successful baseball club.

Jul 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 42 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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New York Yankees

AP

Damn Yankees is a bathroom book, which I mean in the nicest way: short, generally entertaining, with essays from authors often better known as writers than as sportswriters. Most would engage a nonfan and none presupposes warm feelings for the Yankee imperium.  

The essays are performances, and the editor has assembled considerable variety in subject and tone. There is one comic rant of loathing for everything Yankee—but only one. Some may be too self-consciously “on,” and occasional lapses occur into the overripe prose and questionable sociology that can get sportswriting sent to the children’s table. How often, after all, do strong men truly hush in awe when a phenom strides to the plate for his batting practice swings? How exactly does a writer “burnish” a story in his “gut”? (Would you touch the result with tongs?) And what could it mean to be a city’s “best baseball restaurant”? (Evidently, it includes naming menu items after players.) These are cavils; there is much to enjoy. 

Colum McCann, an Irish novelist living in New York, takes his children to games at Yankee Stadium; his thoughts transport him to his Dublin boyhood and “the reckless joy of the past.” A memoir by J. R. Moehringer reads like a short story: On a visit to the stadium with his moody grandfather (a man soured by failing to make the majors), they encounter a sort of Ancient Mariner who claims to be the oldest living Yankee. 

At the geek extreme, Bill James ranks the 100 best seasons by a Yankee catcher (admitting that more thought could have been given to the last 50). He alternates baseball talk with riffs that show his magpie delight in factual oddity, such as the fact there had never been a Kevin in the major leagues until 1965, but in the 1980s there occurred a veritable explosion of Kevins, coinciding with an explosion of Jeffs.  

The novelist Pete Dexter traces the downward spiral of Chuck Knoblauch, a star second baseman who developed a psychological tic that left him unable to make routine throws to first. (One misfire skipped off the roof of the Yankees’ dugout into the stands and hit Keith Olbermann’s mother between the eyes.) Much of the telling is very funny, but the laughter begins to feel heartless. Unable to field his position, Knoblauch was moved to the outfield, at which point his offense also disappeared—as, soon thereafter, did he. He tries now to lead an anonymous life, and has surfaced only through some run‑ins with the law.

The final chapter is a catalogue of team records—some straightforward, some curious—such as: The worst attendance at Yankee Stadium was 413, on September 25, 1966, leaving some 65,000 seats vacant. And who knew that Babe Ruth leads all Yankees in the number of times caught stealing? 

Pinstripe Empire is a book for fans, a year-by-year chronicle of the Yankees from their origins in 1903 as the Highlanders (a.k.a. New York Americans) through 2011. It includes cameos of trainers, groundskeepers, clubhouse men, and white-collar staff, and traces the sometimes labyrinthine financial dealings of the owners.

Marty Appel joined the Yankees at age 19 to answer Mickey Mantle’s fanmail and became, at 24, their director of public relations. Now the head of his own PR firm, he has done some diligent research—for example, reconstructing from archival scraps the most accurate version he can of Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech. He gives his story texture by tracing small threads that bind the history of the game. Wally Pipp, whom Gehrig replaced at the start of his seemingly unsurpassable stretch of 2,130 consecutive games played, was in the stands when Gehrig benched himself to end the streak. And when Cal Ripken broke that record 56 years later, Joe DiMaggio, who’d been a teammate of Gehrig, was present to offer congratulations.

This is a friendly history, which I also mean in a nice way. Unedifying data—a list of steroids‑tainted players, acknowledgment that Mantle’s public persona of clean-living wholesomeness was “not quite the case”—are duly noted but not dwelt on, though Appel is too easy on the Yankees’ slowness to sign their first black player, Elston Howard. He seems to accept, as did Arthur Daley of the New York Times, the official line that management was simply waiting for a player to come along who was up to their standard and of “the Yankee type.” A memoir by Howard’s widow (in coauthored prose that erased any sign of human handiwork) notes that a standard excluding Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Ernie Banks is a remarkable one. Her book also quotes, without citing sources, adamant private declarations by Yankee management of their wish to keep the team white.

According to Forbes, the Yankees—estimated value, $1.7 billion—are the third most valuable sports franchise in the world. It might therefore be forgotten that, after dominating the game from 1920 to 1964 (with 29 pennants and 19 championships), they collapsed. They were still lousy in 1973, when they were bought by a syndicate headed by George Steinbrenner (known in my household as The Great Satan). They won the World Series in 1977 and 1978; but then, leaving aside the freak split season of 1981, couldn’t win a pennant for nearly 20 years.

As noted in Damn Yankees, Steinbrenner’s talent was marketing and monetizing every conceivable Yankee asset. And he deserves credit for pouring the great bulk of the resulting revenue back into the team, however much was then wasted by his meddling. As the head of baseball’s most conspicuous franchise for 37 years, Steinbrenner had an outsized influence on the game, for good and ill, beginning with his aggressive bidding for free agents: Why risk the expense of developing players who might not pan out when he could buy proven stars?  Though “proven celebrities” might be more accurate, he resisted the rational, empirical methods for evaluating talent that have acquired the dopey name of “sabermetrics” (one of Bill James’s less felicitous coinages).

Appel’s summation of the Steinbrenner era is generous to a fault. The players, he says, loved Steinbrenner for paying big salaries and for surrounding them with talented teammates; fans liked winners; the media liked good copy, the soap opera of hirings and firings and feuds; and other teams weren’t about to turn down the revenues his methods helped to generate. On the other hand, Steinbrenner was “a very demanding boss, and compliments weren’t his strong suit.” And Mrs. Lincoln had had better nights at the theater. Many of his players and managers loathed him (Appel quotes some), and after particularly shabby treatment, Yogi Berra, one of nature’s noblemen, vowed never to set foot in Yankee Stadium while Steinbrenner remained in charge. Reconciliations occurred when Steinbrenner’s health began to decline, which is natural and decent—and by then, of course, he had stopped meddling. Steinbrenner-in-a-nutshell: He berated the Yankees’ president for losing a coin toss to decide home field for a playoff game with, “You [expletive] idiot! Everyone knows it comes up tails 70 percent
of the time!”  

With so much time spent center stage, the Yankees inevitably play a role in many famous baseball stories/urban legends. Appel puts on his historian’s hat to retell them, including the called shot (doubtful), No, No, Nanette (nope), and Wally Pipp’s headache (a muddled account that tries to merge two conflicting stories; snopes.com is more persuasive). One correction: Appel repeats the legend of the line drive that would have beaten the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1962 World Series if Willie McCovey had pulled it by just “a foot.” Make that “five feet.” You can watch the play on YouTube.

A lengthy, nearly-every-day baseball season evolves like some stately historical process—in contrast, for example, to football’s handful of intense pitched battles. The action is linear, which lends itself to narration—a game on the radio is a savory experience—and to keeping records that allow meaningful comparisons across generations of players. 

So its past is very much present, and a real baseball fan must, I think, love the game’s history. As one imprinted in childhood as a Yankees fan, and therefore destined to be stigmatized among baseball’s 1 percenters, I found it a pleasure to fill in blank spaces and freshen old memories with Appel’s labor of love.

David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca, New York.