The Yanks are Gotham’s forever team
With apologies to fans of the New York Knicks and Rangers and those of the ’ets (Mets, Jets and Brooklyn Nets), no team has defined and in turn been defined by New York the way the Yankees have.
“The larger point is that sports are part of American culture,” says Marty Appel, the Yanks’ onetime public relations director and author of the new “Pinstripe Empire” (Bloomsbury, 620 pages, $28). “No team in sports has dominated New York and the nation the way the Yankees have. There is the legacy of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. …The stadium is part of it, even if it’s not the original. It’s still Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. …Today the Yankees are an international brand. People wear Yankee caps in Paris.”
And they do so because the crisp, classic navy and white with the interlocking “NY” – a Tiffany design – says something about the team, the city it calls home and thus, the wearer: It says that they’re the pride of their class.
Or as Appel puts it, “There’s an excellence that surrounds the Yankees.”
Not everyone, however, loves a winner.
“People tend not to like success if you have it and I don’t,” says Appel, a Larchmont resident-turned-Manhattanite, who did public relations for the Bronx Bombers from 1968 to 1977 before moving on to WPIX, where he was the Emmy Award-winning executive producer of their telecasts.
For proof, one need read no further than the delicious “Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World’s Most Loved (and Hated) Team” (Ecco/Harper Collins, 290 pages, $27.99), edited by former Sports Illustrated executive editor Rob Fleder, a Hudson Valley resident.
From Nathaniel Rich’s essay, “The Queens Speech,” here’s a juicy sample of the kind of great writing real Yankee angst can produce:
“As a Mets fanatic, I am often asked why Mets fans hate the Yankees. I don’t think that ‘hate’ is the right word. Do Jainists hate Christians? Do Stoics hate the Epicurians? Do masochists hate sadists? There is not an animosity between Mets and Yankees fans so much as a profound philosophical abyss. (I’m speaking of real fans here not the dilettantes who will vanish the second Derek Jeter retires and/or the team has a losing season.)”
The reasoning behind this amusing envy-barely-disguised-as scorn is as follows: The Yankees are richer than Trump thanks to their location in the nation’s largest city – “They’re the money team in the money town,” New York historian and Chappaqua resident Kenneth T. Jackson once told me – and a succession of robber baron owners ranging from Garrison beer king Col. Jacob T. Ruppert to transcendent Cleveland shipbuilder George M. Steinbrenner. Ergo, they can indulge a team of pampered, preening prima donnas, who, like their obnoxious, front-running fan base, will tolerate nothing less than the perfection of a World Series title.
OK, so there is some truth to that. With 27 World Series titles and a value of more than $2 billion – due to a lucrative cable deal struck in the 1980s and their own YES Network, started by Steinbrenner in ’92 – the Yankees are the richest, most successful American sports franchise. They not only can afford the Alex Rodriguezes, Appel says, they need them to keep their off-off-Broadway hit running. And the fans (this writer included) can veer from smug satisfaction, particularly when the Bombers bash the archenemy Bosox – Bucky Dent, anyone? – to existential despair whenever a first-place lead dwindles.
“I don’t know what’s happening to the Yankees,” my uncle, John Roque, will say, phoning me in exasperation. “They’ve lost two in a row.”
Yet if you look at the team’s history, as Appel has done in several books – he’s written 18 in all – you’ll see that the truth of the Yankees is more compelling and more poignant. Like all real New Yorkers, some historians say, the Yankees came from somewhere else, that somewhere being in this case Baltimore. That’s just an urban legend, Appel says.
“There’s nothing to connect the Baltimore team with the New York team.”
Instead, in 1903, a New York club replaced one from Baltimore in the American League. Hence the confusion. The new team was called the Americans or sometimes the Highlanders, owing to their playing in Hilltop Park, now the site of New York-Presbyterian Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Highlanders played there until 1912 when they moved to the Polo Grounds, home of the far more successful Giants. Renamed the Yankees by the press – the term originally comes from the Dutch for “young man” – the team played there through 1922. A year later, it would have a home of its own across the Harlem River, Yankee Stadium.
Appel credits Ruppert – who was sole or co-owner of the team from 1915 to ’39 and whose Garrison estate is now Saint Basil Academy – with what became the Yankee juggernaut.
“All he did was buy Babe Ruth, build the stadium and build a dynasty that continues today. He was the first team owner to insist the players wore fresh uniforms for the second game. He made baseball a big business.”
From then on, the Yankees would serve as a mirror and a counterpoint to the city and the country. The freewheeling Bambino and the 1927 “Murderer’s Row,” perhaps the greatest baseball team ever, typified the sky’s-the-limit ’20s. And while the Yankees wafted through the Great Depression, with their private Pullman cars and secure paychecks, the Babe’s shy, diligent teammate, Lou Gehrig, exemplified the decent working man.
As America won the war and the peace in the ’40s, Joe DiMaggio became the classy man-about-town, elevating the status of Italian-Americans. A decade later, his young teammate Mickey Mantle would be baseball’s first TV star, Appel says, as the Yanks’ World Series appearances became part of the fall lineup.
The Bombers’ dipping fortunes in the ’60s paralleled a nation’s turbulence and a city’s decline, but they and the city bounced back in the late ’70s with a “Bronx Zoo” of Billy, Reggie, Thurman, Catfish, Graig, Gator, Sparky and Goose that was sheer magic. Though the Yanks would make only one World Series appearance in the next decade (1981), they were the winningest team of the Reagan years, anchored by Don “Donnie Baseball” Mattingly.
In the fat-times, feel-good Clinton days, a more corporate yet captivating team emerged, led by the poised Derek Jeter.
The luckiest men
And then came 9/11, and the Yankees found themselves in an unusual position. They were greatly loved. Did it matter that they lost the World Series? Not really. The Yankees have always been about the dance between success and failure, love and hate. Like the city they represent, they offer a lesson in endurance. Their greatest stars haven’t been American aristocracy, but country boys (Mantle, Catfish Hunter) and immigrant sons (Gehrig, DiMaggio), often-tragic figures (Gehrig, Mantle, Hunter, Roger Maris, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson) but always men with an eye to the main chance. And having found it, they pass into Hemingway novels, Simon and Garfunkel songs, Broadway musicals, TV soaps and celluloid myths.
Whenever Gary Cooper, who played Gehrig in “Pride of the Yankees,” visited soldiers during World War II, they would always ask him to recite the closing speech, in which the dying Gehrig pronounces himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. The men would then weep. And after a while, Cooper said, he would, too.
Love them or hate them, there will never be another team like the Yankees, for the world that created them is gone.
To their enemies, that should come as a relief.
To their admirers, well, we know we’re the luckiest fans on the face of the earth.