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.