Sunday, September 27, 1998 promised to be a hot summer day. Since Autumn had technically been with us for about five days, this was unusual enough, but the weatherman’s forecast of a day in the high 80’s had me looking forward to a few hours on the tennis courts. As I lazed over breakfast, an article caught my eye in “Sports of the Times.” Unbeknownst to me, the Yankees were capping their last day of the season with a special tribute to Joe DiMaggio. I had been feeling vaguely guilty all season for not having attended a single Yankee game in this, their winningest year. This clinched it. I decided to call Bill Glynn (a Yankee fan of long standing and deep devotion) and see if I could coax him into joining me at the Yankee game. All it took was a phone call. An hour or so later, we were on the subway heading up to the Stadium. This was my chance to say thank you to the wonderful Yankees of 1998 and to the man who epitomized the Yankees of yesteryear, way back when first I started rooting for the team.I can’t remember ever not being a Yankee fan. I suppose there must have been some sort of decision involved at some level. Back in my formative years, there were three major league teams from which to choose. For the most part, these broke up along borough lines. Living in Manhattan, the logical team was the New York Giants, a formidable franchise with a formidable name. This was the team of the legendary Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott, managed for over thirty years by the scrappy and magnetic John McGraw. McGraw, by the way, chose to retire on the very day in which Lou Gehrig hit four consecutive home runs. After a career of playing second fiddle to Babe Ruth, not even four homers in a row could get Lou the headlines on the sports pages. No sooner did Ruth move on when the young Joe DiMaggio came along to steal Gehrig’s thunder. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Polo Grounds was the most unusually configured stadium you could imagine. The locker rooms were accessed not through the dugouts, but through a door in straightaway center field, some 483 feet from home plate. Yes, you read right; 483 feet. One trivia question sure to stump anyone born after, say, 1948 is to ask them what was the greatest distance from the foul lines to center field in any major league stadium. When you say it was 226 feet at the Polo Grounds, they do a little quick computation, and tell you “impossible.” Not so. The very left field patrolled by Monte Irvin was a mere 257 feet down the line. That ball hauled in by the great Willie Mays off Vic Wertz in the ’54 series had traveled about 470 feet, and still wouldn’t have gone into the seats. Needless to say, the graveyard in straightaway center was the site of many an inside the park home run.
In addition to Irvin and Mays, the Giants of my youth included such stalwarts as Alvin Dark, Whitey Lockman, Wes Westrum (a great defensive catcher), Don Mueller and Johnny Mize (later of the Yanks). They had some pretty nifty pitching in Sal “the barber” Maglie, Johnny Antonelli, and that great (and enduring) knuckleballer, Hoyt Wilhelm. The “Jints” of 1951 were also single-handedly responsible for breaking the heart of an entire borough.
The Brooklyn Dodgers had held a 13 and 1/2 game lead into July, only to be tied by the Giants, who beat them in a regular season two out of three game playoff. The Dodgers had been so confident of victory that they had special uniforms made with their numbers embroidered on the left front of their jerseys, which remain unchanged to this day. The once sacred “B” on their hats, however, is just a memory.
The final playoff game was ended by a 9th inning three run homer by Bobby Thompson off the hapless Ralph Branca, who instantly became the Bill Buckner of his day. That comeback by the Giants was called “the little miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” and Thompson’s smash was the “home run heard round the world.” That game, and Thompson’s home-run ball became the leitmotif for a best selling 1997 novel by Don Delillo.
They were hardly done. The Giants of 1954 were so good that, with the help of an old journeyman named Dusty Rhodes, they swept the Cleveland Indians in four games straight. These were the same Indians who at 111 and 53 bettered the â€˜27 Yanks’ record of 110 wins, and beat out the very Yankees who had won the past five World Series. But the Giants were not for me. Apart from Willie Mays, I found them unexciting.
The other team was the aforementioned Brooklyn Dodgers. Ah, fair Brooklyn, borough of my birth and now my residence. Would that we still had the Bums playing in Ebbetts Field, I’d have probably become a converted member of the faithful. While neither my parents nor sister cared much for baseball, my mother would dutifully accompany me to the Stadium when I was too young to go on my own. My late cousin Marty was a loyal Dodger fan, and lived in Washington Heights, which was true Giants territory. My wife and both brothers-in law (Dick and Jerry) were Dodger fans and so, of course, was my late father-in-law, Izzy. When the Dodgers moved to L.A., it broke their hearts. To ask or expect any of them to have become Yankee fans would be like asking an unreconstructed southerner to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. For them, the gap was not filled until the then lowly Mets set up shop in Flushing Meadow.
The one time I actively (and successfully) rooted for the Mets was in 1986, something I have since had second thoughts about. I believe I was rooting more against the Boston Red Sox than for the Mets, and that is nothing to be proud of. The Sox are a noble team, who came tantalizingly close to beating the invincible Reds in â€˜75 and were shamed by the â€˜78 Yankees in a virtual replay of the ’51 Giants comeback over the Dodgers. Only more so. The same kind of curse which had haunted the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1955 has bedeviled the Sox since 1918. Hell, that was the year of the armistice of the First World War! As the song says, “it’s been a long, long time.”
There is a German expression schadenfreud. It means taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. It is just to the emotional left of sadism, and I regret the times I have reveled in it. I hereby renounce it going forward, and promise to root for the Red Sox if, as and when they next win their Division. Bear in mind, they’ll have to get by the Yanks in order to do so, and even then we’ll get a second chance by way of that ridiculous wild card format. (“What do you mean, â€˜ridiculous?,'” I hear you say. I mean there’s no way a team that winds up 23 games behind in its division should get another shot at the first place team. In lesser developed sports such as football and basketball, sure. The seasons there don’t really mean anything. But the national pastime deserves better. However, as the late Max Schulman used to say, I digress.)
But those were some Dodgers! Even as I rooted for the Yankees, I liked and admired the star-crossed Bums. Always bridesmaids, but never brides, they had a great and colorful team that you couldn’t help but admire. And what an array of stars. Gil Hodges (a great first baseman who went on to manage the Mets), Carl “Skoonj” Furillo (a solid .299 lifetime batting average, and a league leading .344 in 1953), with one of the greatest arms in the game); Pee Wee Reese (named for his skill at marbles, not his size); Jackie Robinson, (the most electrifying baseball player I ever had the privilege of seeing play); Duke Snider (a class act all the way); Roy Campanella, (the greatest catcher, both offensively and defensively that I ever saw); Billy Cox (one of the great infield arms; a slingshot from third); and Andy Pafko (brought over from the Cubs). On the mound, Erskine, Newcombe, Podres (Oh, how that last game of the ’55 series broke my heart), Maglie (traded from the Giants just to torment us), Clem Labine, and, lest we forget, the young Koufax, This was close to a team of all-stars, better man-for-man than the Yanks, but not as well oiled a machine.
The breaking of the color barrier meant a lot to me as a kid, certainly more than the breaking of the sound barrier, which occurred about the same time. I can’t swear I actually remember when Jackie came up in 1947, but I can recall when you could count the number of black (then colored, maybe Negro) major league ballplayers on one hand. The Dodgers had Robinson (’47),and the Indians had Larry Doby and Satchel Paige (both 1948). The fleet Sam Jethroe joined the old Boston Braves in 1950, and Monte Irvin was signed by the Giants that same year. Those five were the first, soon to be joined by Campy, and Newk. Happily, the numbers quickly became more than you could count on your hands and feet. But my Yankees, sadly, were a holdout; passing on Vic Power before finally bringing up Elston Howard in 1955 to back up the aging Yogi Berra. As a kid, I thought the fact that it took that long was just coincidence. Now I know better.
Ebbets Field was one of the great old ballparks, as idiosyncratic in its dimensions as the Polo Grounds. With a seating capacity in the low 30’s, the Flatbush faithful broke attendance records year after year. Imagine a mirror image of Fenway Park, and you get a good sense of what it looked like. Switch the “Green Monster” in left field to right and you’ll see the high wall off which Furillo played the caroms as if it were his own private billiard table. Located in the heart of Flatbush (ten minutes from where I now live), it was an urban ball park, much as Fenway is in Boston. As suggested above, the similarities between the Red Sox and the Brooklyn Dodgers are many. While the Boston “curse” (i.e. the punishment for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees) dates back to 1918, and continues to this day, the Brooklyn Dodgers at least had one series win in the borough which gave birth to them and mourns them still.
Ah well, so much for the Giants and the Dodgers. When the Giants announced their move to California, it was adding insult to injury. Almost an afterthought. Once the beloved Bums said they were going Hollywood, it was a case of apres moi, le deluge.
So why the Yankees? If there is such a thing as the collective unconscious, I was born with the Yankees in my blood. Names like Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio were well known to me (it seems) from birth, as were their seemingly unbreakable records. Ruth 60’s home runs (only one ahead of the man in second place, but that was him, too) and 714 lifetime home runs were so far ahead of the man in second place until the â€˜60’s (Mel Ott with 511) that I, as a kid, was understandably impressed.
Even today, with McGwire and Sosa’s astonishing season just behind us, the mind still boggles at Ruth’s achievements. Take, for example, his performance in 1921, his second as a Yankee. Forget that his 59 home runs were more than any other team’s that year. In addition to that, he batted .371, had an .846 slugging average, with 44 doubles, 16 triples, 150 runs scored, 144 walks and 171 R.B.I.’s. Although his batting average was not good enough for the triple crown that year (Harry Heilman’s .394 and Ty Cobb’s .389 beat him out), 1921 remains a year that no one has ever come close to. No one. I suppose it’s the 16 triples that stays with me. That’s a tough hit to leg out; surely the rarest hit in baseball. Especially for a big man, who abused his body with regularity and aplomb.
While his pitching talents were rarely on display as a Yankee (just 5-0, from 1921-34), it is easy to forget that, from 1914-1919, he was one of the premier pitchers in the majors. He held the World Series record for scoreless innings pitched in a World Series (29 and 2/3â€”that’s over three full games!) for over 25 years. Daniel Okrent observed that it was like having Beethoven and Cezanne combined in one man. There have of course, been other good hitting pitchers (Tommy Byrne of the Yanks was one, and Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe was even occasionally used as a pinch-hitter), but Ruth was another tale. I tried to think of current players who might fit the mold, but there really is no one with whom to compare him. Getting back to McGwire and Sosa, bear in mind that neither of them has ever really hit for average. Besides, neither is much in the pitching department. In 1918, for example, the Babe led the league in home runs and pitched two shutouts in the World Series. So maybe we’ll stick with Beethoven and Cezanne as our comparison.
As for Gehrig, his 2,130 games amply earned his “iron man” sobriquet. Great as Cal Ripkin’s achievement was in bettering that mark, the comparisons end there. Gehrig’s .340 lifetime batting average was higher than Cal’s best year. Even more impressive were his R.B.I. figures. Batting cleanup behind first Ruth, then DiMaggio doesn’t leave that many men on base. Taken in that context, his multiple seasons of 160 plus R.B.I.’s are mind-boggling. Yes, the man “who hit all those home runs the year Ruth broke the record” was the kind of quiet hero a kid could look up to. He died the year I was born; the same year, by the way, in which DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games. It is the only one of these individual records which still stands, but all these achievements remain etched in my subconscious. Even, no, especially the circumstances of Gehrig’s death underscored his quiet greatness. For a man of such uncommon natural strength to be cut down by such an insidious diseaseâ€”which he bore with such uncomplaining dignity-is a reminder of how arbitrary life’s misfortunes can be. Maybe not all ballplayers were role models, but Gehrig certainly was. I believe I knew his words “today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” before I learned the Pledge of Allegiance. So why the Yankees? Was there ever any real choice?
I attended my first Yankee game in 1951. It was truly the changing of the guard. The great DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, was playing his last season. Even then it was with a grace that appeared to be effortless. He got a marvelous jump on the ball and never had to leap for a catch. His swing, even at the end, was as elegant as any I’ve ever witnessed.
I clearly remember when Mickey Mantle came up. Just twenty, movie star handsome, strong as an ox and fleet as the wind, Mickey seemed a likely candidate to fill DiMaggio’s shoes. He arrived amidst as much hype as any rookie has ever received. I believe the term “phenom” (first used for the Giants’ forgettable Clint Hartung), really blossomed when Mantle came upon the scene. So great were the expectations, that he was initially given uniform number 6, as in 3,4, 5 and. For reasons unknown (at least to me), this was soon exchanged for his now famous number 7, with uniform number 6 being given over to the sound, if unremarkable third baseman, Andy Carey. Number 6 is still in use, and worn, I believe, by Joe Torre. If Shane Spencer keeps it up, he might be a likely candidate for that number. But that’s going to take more than 67 at bats.
If Mickey never fulfilled the impossible expectations generated by his very real potential, he was nonetheless a worthy hero to my generation of Yankee fans. Watching his decline, and premature demise, was a painful reminder to those of us with ordinary endowments about the transitory nature of our existence. In this sense, he was an all too real inheritor of the Yankee tradition of dying before one’s time, unfortunately, in Mickey’s case, brought on by his drinking problem. Only the great DiMaggio continues into his eighties as a living reminder of the depth of the Yankee tradition of excellence. But for me and other New Yorkers in the early 50’s, the debate over Willie, Mickey, or the Duke was a real one, with each side having legitimate arguments in favor of its home team hero.
Mantle was initially put in right field. To have supplanted DiMaggio in center would have been an insult. Ironically, the fact that they were playing side-by-side caused Mantle to step in a drain to avoid a collision over a fly ball. The resulting injury caused him to spend the ’51 World Series in a hospital bed. This injury haunted him throughout his career. While overall, the achievements of Ruth Gehrig and DiMaggio dwarf those of Mantle, only the Babe could be said to have been clearly better than Mantle at his best. A switch-hitter (the first, I think) of unprecedented power off both sides, he could run down the first base line as fast as an olympic sprinter (3.1 seconds when batting lefty). He could bunt for a base hit as well as anyone, and could have batted .400 if he had done so more often. He could probably have stolen bases at will, resisting out of concern for his delicate legs. If not a great center fielder, he was certainly well above average, with great range, and an accurate and powerful arm.
If Mickey lacked the grace of DiMaggio, he was surely the ultimate tape measure slugger, coming closer to hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium than anyone in history. Even the awesome power of Reggie Jackson was second to that of Mantle. Mickey’s triple crown in 1956 (52 homers, .354 batting average and 130 R.B.I.’s) gives you some idea of his potential. Consider the rarity of that most awesome of batting achievements. Going back to 1876, fewer than 10 men in each league have ever won the triple crown The only other Yankee to have done so was Lou Gehrig. (Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby did it twice, but they were not mere mortals.) Equally impressive was the consistency with which Mickey scored over 100 runs per season (e.g., nine years in a row, six of which led the league). Runs scored (which, after all, win ball games), is an undervalued statistic. In order to score a run, you have to get on base and, presumably, be a good baserunner. With two sound legs (which we never got to see after the injury in ’51), there is no telling what Mickey Mantle would have accomplished.
But Mantle, great as he was and might have been, was just one member of a team. Old-timers still rave about the Yankee teams of the â€˜20’s, and, to be sure, the 1927-28 Yankees were probably as awesome a team as ever wore the uniform. But between 1936 and 1964, the Yankees won four pennants in a row twice, and five pennants in a row twice. We won’t even bother citing such piddling Yankee achievements in between where they only won two or three consecutive pennants. As for the years when I began following the team (i.e. 1949-’64) the Yankees were a dynasty even greater than their superb teams of the twenties and thirties.
The highest compliment I could give the Yankees of ’98 is how much they remind me of their counterparts of â€˜49-â€˜53, teams that won an unimaginable five consecutive World Championships. Sure, other teams have won four in a row (other Yankee teams, that is), but the closest we have to the Yankees is Oakland in the early 70’s, with an impressive three consecutive World Championships. But three is a far cry from four, not to mention five. That was then. Now, in the wild card era, the Braves have made the post season for something like the last seven out of eight years, but let’s recognize that coming in first or second in your division is not quite the same thing as winning a pennant. While its team batting average was never outstanding, the â€˜49-53 Yankees jelled as only a finely honed unit could. It was said then, as now, that the Yankees could always find a way to beat you. If it wasn’t one of their sluggers, someone at the tail end of the order would come up with a key hit. While man for man, I don’t think the Yankees of the early-mid â€˜50s were as good as the Dodgers (their perennial adversary), as a team, they were nonpareil.
Consider the nicknames of two of their outfielders. Tommy Henreich was called “old reliable” and Gene Woodling “old faithful.” This gives you some idea of their ability in the clutch. Let me not forget the doughty ex-marine Hank Bauer, who I once saw fill in as a catcher in an emergencyâ€”a position he’d never played before. Phil Rizzuto was a terrific defensive shortstop who could turn the double play as well as anybody. He won the MVP in 1950, batting .324. The underrated Roger Maris won it twice, in ’60 and in his 61-homer year in 1961. Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle were each three time winners of that most prestigious award. Yogi was a great defensive catcher and a terrific clutch hitter. If I could have one batter come to the plate for me in a pressure situation, it would be Yogi.
Talk about depth, Yogi was backed by Charlie Silvera and Ralph Houk (and, later, Elston Howard), who could have been starting catchers on many other big league teams. Bill “Moose” Skowron and Joe Collins platooned at first base. Skowron was a good hitter who used to have great springs which would taper off into good, but not great, years. He was batting over .500 well into one May that I can remember. Another ex-marine, Jerry Coleman was the second baseman, followed by 1952 Rookie of the Year Gil MacDougald (who later switched to third when Billy Martin came along). Martin was a scrapper, and the hero of the 1953 World Series. He got 12 hits, and made a great catch on a bases loaded pop-up that nobody else was going for. He really exemplified the spirit of the old Yankees. Bobby Brown, a licensed physician, played third base, followed by Andy Carey. I liked the idea of having a doctor on the team, you know, someone who could back up team physician Dr. Sidney Gaynor in a pinch. Talk about depth, indeed!
When the Scooter was unceremoniously retired to the broadcasting booth in August of ’56, he was replaced by Tony Kubek. That was my first real glimpse of the heartlessness of the men who manage baseball, although I guess the first great example was when Col. Ruppert traded the Babe to the Boston Braves in 1935. Walter O’Malley outdid then Yankee G.M. George Weiss’s slight to Rizzuto by trading Jackie Robinson to the Giants. Thanks for making history, Jackie. Have a nice life! O’Malley and Horace Stoneham really showed us the size of their hearts were dwarfed by their pocketbooks when they doublehandedly made New York a one-team town. Are you listening, GeorgeBut back to the Yankees. Did somebody mention pitching? The Yankee starting rotation of Reynolds, Raschi, and Lopat, and the young Whitey Ford, could (along with the Cleveland Indians’ rotation of Lemon, Garcia, Wynn and Feller) rival anything the current Atlanta Braves can muster. Reynolds, an Indian cleverly nicknamed “the Big Chief,” was a perennial 17-20 game winner, as were his two colleagues. Reynolds pitched two no-hitters in 1952. For those who haven’t noticed, no-hitters are pretty rare for Yankees. I don’t remember any before Reynolds, and since then, you can count them on one hand. Two of them of course are the perfect games of Larsen and Wells, both, amazingly from alumni of the same California High School. Figure the odds on that one! Other than that, what do you have? Dave Righetti and-also amazingly- the one handed Jim Abbott.
Vic Raschi was sufficiently powerful to be nicknamed “the Springfield rifle.” “Steady” Eddie Lopat was, as the name implies, a consistent “money” pitcher who, like Whitey Ford after him, threw a mixed bag of stuff with pinpoint accuracy. In the mid-50’s, they were joined by “Bullet” Bob Turley, a strikeout pitcher of great speed, who was a 20 game winner in 1958.
Turley’s only competition in the league was formidable. Cleveland had a fireballer named Herb Score, who was nothing short of great. He led the league in strikeouts in 1955 and ’56. His career was cut short in a terrible accident which I had the misfortune of witnessing. Gil MacDougald hit a screaming liner back to the mound, which hit Score in the left eye. Just to show you the focus of Major league ballplayers, second baseman Bobby Avila threw MacDougald out at first on the carom. (for those of you with a macabre penchant for keeping score, it was 1-4-3). MacDougald, to his credit, quickly rushed to Score’s side. A 20 game winner the year before, Score recovered enough to pitch again, but was never the same. In the next 6 years, he won a total of 19 games. He is now a play-by-play announcer, and we’ll never know how great he might have been.
Speaking of announcers, the New York teams had great ones. The Giants had Russ Hodges ( he of “the Giants won the pennant” repeated five times fame), and the Dodgers had Red Barber, Connie Desmond, and Vin Scully. The Yankees had three. First and foremost was Mel Allen, the “Voice of the Yankees.” Frankly describing himself as “partisan,” Mel’s deep southern accent and equally deep knowledge of the game and its players contributed to make him a wonderful, if loquacious announcer. I had the privilege of meeting him at the baseball writers dinner in 1991, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of DiMaggio’s hitting streak. There was a line of fans waiting for Mel’s autograph. When my turn came, I told him that I wanted only to shake his hand and thank him for the many years of pleasure he had given me as a fan. He took my hand warmly, smiled and said, “thank you sir, you are most kind.” I was most touched.
Allen’s style was balanced by the intellectual, unexcitable, yet colorful, Red Barber. Brought over from the Brooklyn Dodgers, Barber was as low key as Allen was garrulous. The old redhead (as he was known) gave us the expressions “rhubarb” and “sitting in the catbird seat,” among others. They were a perfect counterpoint for each other, backed up by Jim Woods. Woods was a Mel Allen sound-alike, who as luck, or fate, would have it, would be a Red Sox broadcaster in the ’78 playoff game. Mel’s trademarked expressions “how about that,” “Ballentine blast” (a homer named in honor of the Yankees longtime beer and ale sponsor, P. Ballentine & Sons, of Newark, New Jersey), and “going, going, gone” were legendary. (Trivia question: Who was the Yankee’s other sponsor in the early-mid â€˜50’s? Why, “White Owl” cigars, of course.)
After the Scooter’s abrupt removal from the game, he was put into the announcer’s booth as a consolation prize. His first few weeks were a bumpy baptism under fire. He had a tough time adapting to the rhythms of broadcasting, and rooted even more blatantly than Mel Allen. Rizzuto was a great guy, however, quick with a word and an autograph. His “holy cow” exclamation (borrowed from the Cub’s late announcer, Harry Caray) eventually rivaled Mel’s “how about that,” and the Scooter was soon as popular behind the microphone as he had been on the field. Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting him as well, and he was just as gracious as you would expect.
The Stadium. There is only one Stadium, and it is upper case all the way. Constructed in 1923, it has been home to more than twice the world championships of any other franchise, let alone ballpark. Before its reconstruction in 1972, it had a capacity of 67,000 seats, some obstructed by ugly pillars which, I suppose, helped support the upper decks. It was almost as oddly shaped as its long dead neighbor, the Polo Grounds. The Stadium was 301 and 296 to left and right, respectively. The right field fence, such as it was, was little more than waist high. Many’s the time Hank Bauer literally took the ball out of the lap of a first row fan. The fence rose as you moved out to straightaway center, which was 461 feet away from home plate. It was sufficiently deep that the Yankees were able to have their monuments of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Miller Huggins on the playing field. No, I can’t recall an outfielder ever running into a monument.
In the new Stadium, the expanded “monuments park” is safely ensconced behind the (shortened) fence in left center. In the remodeled Stadium, there is an abbreviated version of the facade which once grandly encircled the Stadium. It is now a faux facade, but a nice touch of nostalgia. The foul lines are still quite close in, but at least 15-20 feet further back. Center field is a shadow of its former self. Many former long outs are now home runs, and the inside the park home run has, sadly, all but disappeared.
The fans. Once mostly white, suburban and middle-class, they are now more reflective of the community as a whole and the changed composition of the team for which they root. Just as Italian-Americans flocked to the Stadium with special pride to root for the Lazerri’s, DiMaggio’s, Crosetti’s and Rizzuto’s of their day, so now African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubanos, and even Japanese have their own heroes. While the players are richer now (even allowing for inflation) and far more separates their income from that of their fans, somehow the relationship between players and fans seems closer. In my day, fans never painted their bedsheets or faces with supportive slogans. On the eve of Darryl Strawberry’s undergoing colon cancer surgery, fans draped replicas of Darryl’s jersey over the stands each time David Wells got a strikeout. It costs a lot more to get into the Stadium now, and fans act as if there is more at stake. The level of civility among the fans may have declined, but the warmth and camaraderie among them has risen. It’s just more fun going to the game now.
As for its hallowed location, what can one say? Let’s face it, the south Bronx is not very likely to attract visitors other than for the Stadium, but without it, the Yankees wouldn’t be the Bronx Bombers anymore, would they? I think the congestion around a West Side stadium could be horrendous. I suppose it’s doable, but it would be a tough row to hoe both politically and structurally. Could the area around the Stadium benefit from enhanced surroundings such as restaurants, waterfront development etc.? Sure. I still don’t think it would attract any visitors during the off-season, but it would make the going there a lot more pleasant. A Metro-North stop and increased parking would be definite plusses. If George wants more luxury boxes (and who can blame him), he should be able to build them. Build it and they will come. Bottom line: do I mind travelling up to the Stadium? No, not really. Riding the D or the Lex is like a trip down (geographically “up”) memory lane. It’s like going home in a way. Would the West Side be easier? Yeah, but…
How about the intervening years? What happened to that 14-year old who wept when the Yankees finally succumbed to the Dodgers in ’55? By the time I went away to college in 1959, the bloom was off the rose. As the bible says, I put away children’s garments and dressed as an adult. While I still followed the game very closely in ’61 as Mantle and Maris launched their assault on Ruth’s record, by 1963 I had become more concerned with my military obligation and what was going to come of my life than I was with men playing a boy’s game. It wasn’t until the early 70’s that the Game started drawing me back like a magnet. The players looked ridiculous in their tight, elastic uniforms (whatever happened to good old heavy flannel?) and their long hair spilling out from under their caps. The pastel colored uniforms of many teams looked like flashbacks from bad LSD trips. (Fortunately, Yankee pinstripes remained intact throughout the insanity.) There were more handlebar mustaches in the major leagues than at a convention of barbershop quartets.
The talent pool had already been diluted by the first wave of expansion teams, and we now had a league championship series to determine whether or not the best team in the league could claim the pennant. The American League had adopted the (preposterous) designated-hitter rule, extending the careers of many veterans who no longer were physically able to play the field. But the game was still (mostly) the same. The Yankees, now integrated, were coming out of the doldrums of what is (unfairly) referred to as the “Horace Clark years.” George Steinbrenner had taken over the Yankees, and was committed to do all he could to bring a winner back to the Bronx. Early on, my older son Jason became a dedicated Yankee fan. He is astute about the game and its players. While he was away at camp in the mid-to late â€˜70’s, his younger brother Larry would accompany me to Old Timer’s day and watch me make a fool of myself. (Larry, who was once called “the littlest Yankee of them all,” is now my height, and possesses a black belt in jiu-jitsu.)
There are two schools of thought on “the George,” and both of them are probably right. He is obviously difficult to work for; vain, egotistical, authoritarian, meddling etc., but his hard work built us a winner. He has been a tough loving parent of the team he became the principal owner of back in the early 70’s. Many of the same men who suffered under his tongue-lashings later benefited from his private (and unpublicized) generosity and support.I loved the Yankees of 1976, and was in the stands when Chris Chambliss brought home their first pennant in 13 years. Now that may not seem like a long time for the average team, but for the Yankees, it was an eternity. From 1921 to 1964, I don’t think the Yanks ever went more than three years between pennants. That pennant clinching game in ’76 was more thrilling to me than all those consecutive World Series we seemed to win as a matter of course back in the 50’s. While the four-zip loss to the big red machine was painful, the back to back World Series Championships in â€˜77-â€˜78 made clear that the Yankees were back! Those teams were ego-heavy and larger than life, but what fun to watch. Along with Chambliss, we had the hard hitting and incredible fielding Graig Nettles; “Sweet” Lou Piniela (an old-fashioned “money” player, and scrapper in the Hank Bauer tradition); the classy Brooklyn-born second baseman (and now coach) Willie Randolph; “Mick the Quick” Rivers (a great lead-off hitter); Thurman Munson (one of the all-time great Yankee catchers, whose life was tragically cut short); and, of course, the eponymous namesake of the short lived Reggie-bar, Mr. October himself, Reginald Martinez Jackson. On the mound we had Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, and Louisiana Lightning, Ron Guidry. Gator was the most exciting pitcher I ever saw. In relief, we had the Count, Sparky Lyle, who was piped to the mound to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Sparky was replaced by the fearsome “Goose” Gossage.
The Yankee’s World Series victory in 1978 was preceded by a one-game regular season playoff game between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. This was the first dead heat since the Giants’ miraculous comeback over the Dodgers in ’51. The last playoff in the American League (we are talking about those halcyon days of pre-Wild Card yore) had been in 1948, when those same Red Sox came up short against player-manager Lou Boudreau’s Cleveland Indians. In the A.L., such playoffs were one game, winner take all. Well, here it was, 1978, and history was repeating itself. As with the Dodgers of 1951, the Red Sox had been safely ensconced in first place at the All-Star break They were 14 games in front of the Yanks in mid-July. What followed was a tailspin, culminating in the loss of a four-game series in September to their arch-rival Yankees. Miraculously, the Sox closed out the season on a tear, winning their last 8 games. A Yankee loss to the Cleveland Indians and a Red Sox victory on the last day of the season forced a tie and a playoff.
As a further demonstration that baseball, like life, is a series of interconnected ironies, consider the following three events over the last 50 years. In 1948, after the Yanks finished just behind the Indians and the Red Sox, the Sox lost to Cleveland in a playoff. In 1978, Cleveland beat New York to force a Yankee-Red Sox playoff which the Sox lost to the Yanks. In 1998, Cleveland beat Boston in the Division Series, only to lose to the Yankees in the ALCS. Plus ca change, plus c’est meme chose.
The 1978 Yankee-Red Sox playoff game took place during the Jewish High Holy Days. I am not proud of this fact, but those days historically coincided with many a fall classic, providing me (and other youthful co-religionists) with the opportunity of missing school so that we might worship our favorite teams. On this particular Day of Atonement, I sincerely hoped I would not be punished with a Yankee defeat for the sin of so secular an activity as watching a ballgame. Broadcasting continuity had Rizzuto for the Yanks and the Bosox had Jim Woods, both men with long Yankee memories.
The game certainly went down in the history books as another in a seemingly unending series of near misses for the Red Sox. Incidentally, I take no great pleasure in saying that (well, maybe a little), just reporting an historical fact. While Bucky Dent’s home run was not quite as dramatic as Bobby Thompson’s, it certainly sufficed.*** The Red Sox had carried a 2-0 lead into the 7th inning. Ron Guidry, working for his 25th victory on only three days rest, was far from his usual overpowering self. He was, like the Yanks, struggling. With two outs in the 7th, the Sox were up by two runs and were just seven outs away from the pennant. It reminded me of the ’51 playoffs 27 years before. The Dodgers, of course were deep into the Giant’s 9th so the shock had more finality to it. The pain, however, went just as deep, for the Red Sox never recovered from Bucky Dent’s home run over Fenway’s “Green Monster.” When I say “never,” I mean to this day.
While both teams scored after Dent’s homer, the one run lead he gave the Yanks was never closed. The Yanks went on to beat the Dodgers for a second straight Series. If there were no longer any cries of “break up the Yankees,” the Yankee haters were back in full bloom. This is always a good sign.
I have to admit that the players’ strike of 1981 nearly lost me as a fan. Between the DH rule, expansion teams, free agency and the resulting bidding war on salaries, the strike was the final straw. The Yanks may have won that pennant race (such as it was), but it hardly mattered. It was several years before I was able to muster the interest needed to be a fan. I have always maintained that the nicest thing about being a sports fan is that you can choose whether or not to care. The reason is simple. Sports really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Therein, I believe, lies its appeal. Because the decision to care rests with the fan, once made, it becomes all the more important. Worrying about the Yankees, the Mets, the Knicks or the Rangers is something we do to take our minds off truly weighty matters. Fandom is an escape hatch through which the pressures of adulthood can be set aside, at least for short periods of time. And thank goodness such diversions exist.
Let’s flash forward to 1996, for that year truly marked the Yankees’ return to greatness after an extended dry spell. The Yanks swept the seemingly invincible Atlanta Braves (who keep falling short of being designated “the team of the 90’s”) after the Braves had torn through their Division Series, the NLCS and the first two games of the World Series. The ’96 Series had everything. Joe Torre did a great job as manager. The fact that he did so while his brother Frank was undergoing (successful) heart transplant surgery, gave the Series a real “win one for the Gipper” feeling. Torre had patented an unusual pitching approach in the regular season that worked like a charm in post-season play. He would look to his starter for six good innings, have Mariano Rivera come in for the 7th and 8th, and call in John Wetteland as closer. And did his formula ever work!
1996 was a very special post-season. My job at Merrill Lynch had enabled me to work with the Yankees as part of our engagement to represent them as investment banker. A particularly nice perk of this assignment was being invited to sit in the Yankee’s luxury box for one game each of the division championships, the ALCS, and the Series. Even though I’ve met and worked with many prominent people, there’s nothing like being an “insider” at a post-season game to bring out the kid in you. When the Braves trounced the Yankees in the first two games (at the Stadium no less), the conspicuously critical New York sports press had written the Yankees off as being on the receiving end of a force of nature. This tended to make the ensuing four game sweep all the more sweet. As I watched the victory parade, my heart was full. Baseball, of course, can do that to you.
Moving to the present, I enjoy rooting for the 1998 Yankees as much as any of its past teams, and more than most. They are a diverse lot, reflecting the city in which they play. Although they lack superstars like Reggie, Mickey, Joe, Lou and the Babe, they are a cohesive team of excellent ballplayers, who work together like a finely oiled machine whose separate interlocking parts mesh together beautifully. A high performance engine.
Coming full circle, it is the last day of the 1998 regular season, and Bill and I are sitting in a loge level box behind home plate. It is a beautiful, sunny day, and the Yanks are in rare form. DiMaggio arrives from the bullpen in a 1956 white Ford -T-bird convertible. In a touching moment, his old team-mate Phil Rizzuto comes out to congratulate him. Joe is then presented with a framed replica of all his World Series rings, the originals of which had been stolen from his hotel room some years ago. My mind wanders back.
I had the privilege of meeting the Yankee Clipper on two occasions, separated by over forty five years. The first time, strange to say, both Joe and I were in the nude. There was an old bath-house called the Luxor Baths, located, I believe, somewhere in the east 40’s off 5th Avenue. Shortly after Joe’s retirement, I was there with my father, who pointed out that Joe was getting a rather bizarre treatment that subjected him to a high pressure hose being sprayed on him down a narrow hallway. I suppose it was meant to stimulate the muscles. When the hosing stopped, he walked down the hall where my father and I greeted him. The contrast between my still pre-adolescent body and Joe’s lanky, muscled physique could not have been more striking. He was very polite, and did not act at all imposed upon.
The second time was just last year, when I was representing Merrill Lynch at a Police Athletic League dinner honoring George Steinbrenner. I was looking for a place to leave my briefcase, when I saw Joe sitting at a table, surrounded by a retinue of protectors. After swearing an oath that I did not want his autograph, I was permitted to greet our greatest living ballplayer. The old expression that “time is a thief ” was certainly in evidence, but such has to be the case for a man over 80. Besides, I’m sure I had changed far more than he in the intervening years. It was nice to greet him once again. He spoke at the dinner, and was relaxed, humorous, and even voluble. He talked of his early contractual disputes with Col. Ruppert, and with great affection for the Yankee legacy he so proudly personifies. And now, on that unseasonably hot day in late September, I came to my feet along with 50,000 other fans, and gave the great “Joltin'” Joe DiMaggio yet another standing ovation. I wondered if this would be my last chance to do so. As I write this, Joe is hospitalized in Florida with pneumonia. I hope he pulls through, but I am even happier that I followed my instincts by going to that last game of the season.
As is now well known, the Yankees won their 114th easily, adding to their own record for most wins in a season by an American League team. (I know there’s an asterisk! Big deal; everything’s got an asterisk these days.*) It was quite a game. Ramiro Mendoza (who would pitch magnificently in relief of the flagging Davey Cone in the 6th game of the ALCS) was near perfect as a middle reliever, before handing the ball over to our magnificent closer, Mariano Rivera.
I was witness to the breaking of another unusual record that day; one almost as astonishing as winning 114 games. 26 year-old Shane Spencer, who had knocked around the minor leagues for 8 years before being called up at the tail end of August, hit his 10th home run in 67 at bats, and, yes, his third grand slam in the last 9 days. Shane would stay aflame through the Division Championships, contributing a home run in each of the two games in which he played. Although he finally cooled off in the ALCS, the best may be yet to come.
So where do we end up after the better part of fifty years (gasp!) of being a sentient Yankee fan? Something about the team is clearly pulsing around in my bloodstream. While I can ignore them, sometimes do for years at a time, they are like an old lover who can draw me back into her arms with all the fervor of a youthful passion.
I have watched these particular boys of summer work their magic across the league. When there is no hitting, they get great pitching, and squeak out a run or two through walks, errors, stolen bases, sacrifices, and hit batsmen. When the pitchers can’t find the plate, they erupt in a barrage of runs that is reminiscent of the old Yankees of murderers’ row. When the meat of the order slumps, the bottom third become sluggers. And so forth and so on. Never were these situational tactics more evident than in the first two games of the post-season series. What happens in the World Series remains to be seen.* What they are (and were not 20 years ago) is a team.
Consider Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Here is a man who fled communist Cuba on a raft less than a year before evening up the ALCS for the Yanks.* David Wells, as colorful a player as has ever worn pinstripes, just put the Yanks up 3-2 for his second ALCS victory.* Derek Jeter, in just his third full season, has become a (low-key) superstar. Contract disputes apart, Bernie Williams (a man whom New York would have elected mayor in ’96) led the league in batting. The last Yankee to do that was Don Mattingly, 18 years ago. (Okay, I know Paul O’Neill led the league in hitting in the strike-ridden, truncated “season” of 1994, but someone had to remind me of that after reading a first draft of this piece. While I think the world of O’Neill, it shows what I think of the so-called season of â€˜94. It just doesn’t count.) Before Mattingly, you have to go back to 1956 to Mantle’s league leading .354. Paul O’Neill, by the way, has become one of the greatest clutch hitters in the game, a quality which has (happily) extended through the post-season. Post-seasons apart,* Tino Martinez has just about made us to forget Donnie Baseball. New acquisition Scott Brosius has not only patrolled the hot corner with his fine fielding and powerful arm, but surprised us with his timely hitting and 98 R.B.I.’s, which contributed significantly to that championship season.** Last of all, let’s not forget the contributions made by Darryl Strawberry, the real “Straw” that stirs the drink. He is in our prayers as he battles colon cancer. Pitching? In addition to the above, we’ve got Coney, Pettitte, Irabu, and a bullpen of short and long relievers that can carry us to the 9th inning, which belongs to the astonishing Mariano Rivera.
All in all, this is an extraordinary team. I’m prouder than ever to be a Yankee fan. As for the Series, bring on those Padres. The only thing better would have been the Brooklyn Dodgers.
*While I planned on completing this admittedly rambling piece by the start of the World Series, I was unable to do so. As such, I can’t resist making some running observations about the Series, which the Yanks now lead 2-0. As mentioned above, one of the remarkable things I have noticed about the team is their ability to do whatever it takes to beat the opponent. For much of the post-season (excepting Paul O’Neill), the meat of their batting order has been strangely silent. Game one turned that around in a hurry. The usually unflappable David Wells was shaky, blowing both a 2-0 lead and a 2-2 tie as the great Tony Gwynn homered in between two blasts by (almost-Yankee) Greg Vaughn.
Down 5-2 in the 7th, two Yankees redeemed themselves with a vengeance. Chuck Knoblach, the goat in the second game ALCS loss to Cleveland, erased that stain forever with a game tying home run to left field. Later that inning, the deeply slumping Tino Martinez came up with the bases loaded. Something told me his time was at hand. At 2 and 2, he took a fastball for a ball that truly could have gone either way. It looked a touch low to me, but too close not to swing at. Umpire Rich Garcia (mercifully) called it a ball. On the next pitch, Tino hit a towering grand slam into the upper deck in right field. He was back in a big way, and so were the Yankees. The Padres managed another run, but it hardly mattered. It was 9-6 Yankees, and David Wells (amidst struggle) won yet another post-season victory.
I was happily jealous when I learned that my son Jason had a ticket for Sunday night’s game. When his friend Darren called at four o’clock to say he had an extra two tickets, my prayers were answered. Somehow, I felt it was going to happen. My wife Riki was too tired from a hard day’s work to go, so I tried Bill again. It was really too short notice for him, so Jason and I headed up for the stadium. I told him there was no one with whom I’d rather see a Yankee game. He is a true fan; much more patient with the Yankees (and the game that major league baseball has evolved into) than I could ever be. The seats were in nosebleed territory: Section 28, row S. I looked directly down on the left field foul pole.
The game reminded me of what had been described by the late Col. Jacob Ruppert as his idea of a perfect afternoon (now night) at the ballpark. It is a game in which the Yankees score 8 runs in the first inning, and then “slowly pull away.” Well, the Yanks didn’t quite do that, but it was hardly a pitcher’s duel. They scored 3 in the first, 3, in the second, and 1 in the third. By the end of five, it was 9 to 1. I could see the good colonel smiling down from on high, sipping on the heavenly brew that bears his name. For Jason and me, it was an easy game to watch. Final score, Yankees 9, Padres 3.
The fickle New York press (most particularly The New York Times) is now falling over itself in praise of the 1998 Yankees and the inevitability of its triumph. Even George “Boss” Steinbrenner has received (moderately) favorable treatment of late, so you know the mood has shifted from a “your record means nothing unless you win it all,” to a recognition of the special quality this team has demonstrated. While a poor post-season would have been unfortunate, it wouldn’t have undone the greatness of the Yankees’ achievements this season. As indicated above, there is something absurd about a team that has so decisively led its league to have to play two sets of playoffs to get to a World Series that should be its place by right. But okay, the format is the format, and the Yankees have proved they really were the best team in the league three different times.
This was meant to be a short post-script, but events are outpacing my edits. The main point I must reiterate is that the things the Yankees have done so far in the Series are the same things they did in order to get to the Series. While individual players have slumped (and will slump as the Series unfolds), others will be there to pick up the slack. What is most important, is not to gloat. Atlanta did that after winning the first two games in ’96, and the papers were falling over themselves in praise of the Braves. The Yankee victory I so fervently root for this year can only be won one game at a time. True Yankee fans appreciate what the first two games mean. It’s a great start. On to San Diego!
**Although this document was “complete” once before, the exploits of Mr. Brosius (rhymes with “Nacadoces”) necessitates this 10/21 addendum in honor of the Yankee’s come from behind victory in the crucial (for the Padres) 3rd game. Through 5 innings, starters Hitchcock and Cone stymied their respective oppositions (Coney actually had a no-hitter going). In the top of the 6th, Cone led off with a solid line drive base hit (he’s 3 for 8 in Series competition). A frustrating inning that ended with the bases loaded and no runs scored left Cone tired and distracted. Hitchcock, to his great credit, retired Williams and Martinez; no mean feat with the bases loaded and your team down 2-0 in the World Series. When the Pods came up in the bottom of the 6th, it was clear that Cone had lost it. Hitchcock immediately returned the favor by opening the inning with a base hit. A couple of hits (and an uncharacteristic run producing throwing error by O’Neill) later, and the Padres were up 3-0. Before Hitchcock and the Padres had time to enjoy their lead, it was gone.Scott Brosius smacked a solo home run to make it 3-1. San Diego native Shane Spencer followed with a long double off the left-center field fence. By the time the inning was over, the Yanks had narrowed the Padres’ lead to one run. With both starters gone, Ramiro Mendoza put the Pods away in the 7th . When the Yankees came to bat in the 8th, Padres reliever Randy Meyers walked O’Neill. The crowed roared with approval when Meyers was yanked in favor of their ace closer Trevor Hoffman. I had never seen him pitch before, but he was preceded by a reputation of near Papal infallibility. Bernie Williams almost took him downtown with a very long out to straightaway center-field. Pitching unassertively (or perhaps too carefully), Hoffman walked Martinez.
***As you can probably tell, I find it hard to resist seeing parallels in baseball games. Although this was not quite the one game playoff the Yanks won in ’78, the rhythm of game 3 bore a striking resemblance to that historic event. For the Padres, last night’s game was almost the do-or-die situation for the Pods as was the Yankee-Red Sox playoff 20 years ago. As with Boston, when Bucky came to the plate, the Yankees had two men on base. Chris Chambliss (who had been one of those men on base back in ’78), now, as batting coach, briefed Brosius. As with Dent, Brosius had two strikes on him when he, too, hit a three run homer putting the Yanks up by the same score of 5-3. And just as Boston did 20 years ago, the Padres came back with a run in the bottom of the 8th to narrow it to 5-4.
Oh yeah. In the 9th, just like the Sox, the Padres had men on first and third with two out. Just like then, with the tying run on third the Yankee closer, then Gossage, now Rivera, closed the door on them. Prior to joining the Yanks, Brosius was your basic “good field, no hit” infielder. In fairness, Brosius had a solid regular season (including 98 ,R.B.I.’s), but as with Dent, nothing prepared us for the post-season. Brosius, however, clearly did Bucky one better. Sort of a Bucky Dent squared. The results for the Padres, while not fatal (as they were for the Bosox), were still life threatening. The phrase, “all over but the shouting” can’t help but come to mind. But stay tuned. It aint over till its over.
Now it is. It is Thursday, October 22nd, endgame time. The World Series and “That Championship Season” (may it henceforth always appear in upper case), came to its fitting conclusion last night in San Diego’s “Qualcomm Stadium.” I cannot resist observing that this is, to my knowledge, the first ballpark named after, not merely the founder of the corporate owner of the team, but an incorporeal corporation itself. Is this not a fitting, but unpleasant harbinger of the post-millenial world to come? Turner Field, like Forbes, Comiskey, Wrigley, and the overwhelming majority before them are just harmless ego trips by the owners. Qualcomm Stadium, named as a sort of living advertisement for what is, I believe, a digital phone system, is too lifelessly post modern for my taste. Will ballparks of the future ever again get names like “Sportsman’s Park,” and “The Polo Grounds?” This is yet another reason why the name “Yankee Stadium” must be preserved inviolate. “Cablevision Field” just doesn’t cut it! But back to the Yankees.
The fourth and deciding game was a classic pitcher’s duel, with the Yankees producing the game’s first (and ultimately winning) run in the 6th. Two innings later, they added two more insurance runs, one courtesy of the redoubtable Mr. Brosius. The Yankees survived a threat in the bottom of the 8th, after Pettitte gave up a walk and a single with one out. When the dangerous Greg Vaughn came to the plate, the shouting of the of the San Diego fans (the very shouting I said the Series was all over but for) made me thankful for the volume control on my remote. (It is a sobering thought that Vaughn’s 50 home runs this season, ranked 16 and 20 behind the league leaders!) Reliever Jeff Nelson delivered a clutch strikeout to Vaughn, but was taken out after going 2 and 0 to Caminiti, who promptly hit a line drive single off closer Rivera, loading the bases. For those who thrive on late inning drama, a stage was set for a play I had no desire to see unfold. Former Yankee, and post season superstar, Jim Leyritz came to the plate. The announcer’s superfluous observation that Leyritz represented the go ahead run was something of which I was all too painfully aware. Fortunately, Leyritz flied out, and that was all she wrote. The 9th inning came and went without event, save the sweet thrill of victory that came as Brosius fittingly threw out the final Padre.Earlier in this piece, I wrote that the great thing about being a fan is that you can choose whether or not the game matters to you. There are many other optional aspects of life one can choose to ignore. One could, of course, live without “distractions” such as music and art also, I suppose, but that’s not really living. Think how drab it would be without such things to care about. I’m glad I made the choice to care about baseball.
So here we are. The season has ended, and so has this retrospective. The greatest team I’ve ever seen finally, at 125 and 50, matched the regular season winning percentage of .714 set by the legendary ’27 Yankees. It’s true that the ’27 Yankees’ four games sweep against the Pirates increased their winning percentage too, but let’s not be picky. Despite all my protests about the bells and whistles modern baseball has added to a perfect game (including the latest, inter-league play), the old Yankees did not have to worry about two levels of playoffs and eight more games in the regular season. It is clearly more of a physical ordeal to endure 162 games and face the possibility of not just seven more, but nineteen. My only point is that comparisons are a little bit like apples and oranges. Let’s simply concede that the 1998 squad is among the greatest two or three teams in the history of the franchise. As to which one was the best, it really doesn’t matter much to me. After all, they are all members of the same team.