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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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; 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.