It seems like a weird undermining of the Great Laws of the Universe that last year’s World Series Champions were the Kansas City Royals. A small market from a midwestern cowtown rising up and beating the world with a young team and and a small ball payroll? How about that! Yeah, the way baseball teams are built is changing, and it says something about the situation that every team is now trying to remake itself in the mold of the Royals – even the mighty New York Yankees, and that’s saying something. The Yankees are baseball’s great glamor team. They’re America’s reigning sports symbol of ostentatious wealth, corporatist dominance, and unquestioning tradition. To play for the Yankees is to willingly cast yourself into a certain mold, and to cheer for them is akin to cheering for McDonald’s or Walmart or whatever your chosen symbol of all that sucks about American corporate dominance is.
To paraphrase Belloq – Indiana Jones’s nemesis in Raiders of the Lost Ark – most teams are just passing through baseball history. The Yankees ARE baseball history. The Yankees are the ubiquitous symbol of everything baseball is, for both good and bad. They’re the world symbol of an entire sport, and one of the symbols of American sports and America itself. Unfortunately, they also know that, and – full disclosure, the Yankees are a team I wholeheartedly root for – that makes them one of the more difficult teams to stay loyal to because they come with an impossible air of pretension.
At the end of 1900, baseball had the National League. Rather, it had the National League inasmuch as major baseball leagues went. There were a ton of minor leagues, though, and one of them – the Western League – had a particularly ambitious President by the name of Ban Johnson. He wanted to go major and fight for supremacy with the National League, so he reorganized the Western League, renamed it the American League, declared the AL a major league, and got eight cities to field teams in 1901. Three of those teams were in cities with NL teams. Another three were in cities that were hurting for Major League teams. One of those cities was Baltimore, whose team – the Orioles – bolted in 1899. The new Baltimore Orioles hired John McGraw to manage, and he also held an ownership stake in the team. But McGraw and Johnson didn’t get along very well, and there were disciplinary issues between them. (This is going somewhere, I promise.) Also, when Johnson reorganized the league, he overlooked one very important market: New York City. Rumors got out that he was regretting that oversight and hell-bent on correcting it by plucking the Orioles out of Baltimore. So presumably out of spite, McGraw left Baltimore and built his legend with one of New York City’s NL clubs, the Giants, and transferred his ownership of the Orioles to the Giants as part of the deal. A bunch of the Orioles’ players followed him to The Big Apple, and the Orioles were forced to forfeit one game due to not having enough players on their roster. Johnson found the solution when he restocked the Orioles with throwaways. The Orioles finished last.
After the AL and NL finally agreed to stop fighting over players, Johnson was finally given permission to place a new team in New York City. Of course, that pissed off Giants owner John Brush, who was connected at Tammany Hall and got together with his fellow political cronies to keep the AL out. That ended with a dissension in Tammany’s ranks. Frank J. Farrell and William Stephen Devery, another pair involved with the Tammany machine, yanked a cool $18,000 from the back of a truck to bring American League baseball to New York City. Although even MLB itself isn’t clear on whether their team was a true expansion franchise or the remains of McGraw’s Orioles, the New York Americans were born.
Yes, the Americans. And the name makes sense. They played in the American League, after all. Slightly less common was another nickname given on a play for the name of team President Joe Gordon and the name of a British Military unit called the Highlanders: The Gordon Highlanders. Featuring Willie Keeler, Jack Chesbro, and manager Clark Griffith, this new AL powerhouse spent its first season storming to a record of 72-62 for… Fourth place! In 1904, Chesbro pitched the Americans to 41 wins, which is still the all-time record. The Americans themselves spent the year slugging out its first Pennant race with the Boston Americans. New York and Boston faced each other in a five-game series to end the season which ultimately gave the Pennant to Boston. And that was the last bit of excitement the Americans would provide for some time, unless you want to count 1910, in which they finished second but still didn’t really compete for the Pennant. The first 20 years of baseball for the New York Americans didn’t brim with promise, and if they had fans, you couldn’t blame them if they kept swearing off them for life. It was New York City, for chrissake, they had TWO teams in the bigger, cooler National League, and the Americans looked like they would forever be the screechy, annoying tagalong little brother while the New York Giants captured Pennants and championships and the Brooklyn Dodgers captured hearts and imaginations. Even the Highlanders nickname wasn’t getting a good reaction, especially from New York City’s large Irish contingent. Also, the press was having trouble fitting “Highlanders” into headlines, and “Yankees” was in popular usage, so the team just went with it.
By 1919, the Yankees had improved substantially, but they weren’t, ahem, GOOD just yet. Their arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, were the class of the American League. They had won five World Series titles – more than any other team at the time – and were led to four of them by the services of a muscular, athletic, and very powerful southpaw by the name of George Herman Ruth. Although Ruth was clearly one of the best pitchers in baseball – he was even capable of out dueling Walter Johnson – he was impatient and bored on days when he wasn’t pitching. So his manager in Boston placed him into the lineup, and Ruth started getting attention for an unusual talent: He could slam the ball out of the park. Yankees manager Miller Huggins decided that Ruth was needed to take the Yankees to the next level, and in December of 1919, the Yankees scrounged together $100,000 to give to the Red Sox so Ruth could be put in Yankee pinstripes.
Ruth turned out to be a fairly decent purchase. The 1921 season brought the first Pennant. Two years later was the opening of Yankee Stadium, and more importantly, the first World Series title. 1925 brought a losing record and a seventh place finish, but that was the last time the Yankees went out on a losing note for the next 40 years. And even that year, the fans still had Babe Ruth to look at, plus the team grabbed the services of a young Manhattan-born first baseman by the name of Lou Gehrig. Although they won another Pennant in 1926, it was the next year that baseball nerds can pinpoint as the moment the Yankees completed their morph from the lovable losers that had Ruth into THE YANKEES. That was the year when Ruth, Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, and Bob Meusel created the Murderer’s Row lineup and bombed the living shit out of everyone and everything in baseball. They won 110 games, took the Pennant by 19 games, and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates right out of the Series. Only four other teams ever hit the 110-win mark: The 1954 Cleveland Indians (111); the 1998 Yankees (114); the 1906 Chicago Cubs (116); and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116). And of those teams, only the 1998 Yankees won the Series. What, did you think it would be the Houston Astros?
Manager Miller Huggins died in 1929, and you know how a sad event like that is won’t to go: Everyone mourning, then the Yankees falling back to rock bottom. There was undoubtedly mourning, but as for the falling? Well, the next Yankees major manager was Joe McCarthy, and the Yankees did suffer a setback. “Setback” in this case means they finished second to the Philadelphia Athletics. Yeah, despite the team being in a transitional period, they still picked up almost right where they left off, returning to the World Series in 1932. In that Series, Babe Ruth faced Chicago Cubs closer Charlie Root and, at one point, pointed toward the stands before proceeding to hit a home run right into the spot he pointed at. When reporters asked Ruth about it after the game, Ruth’s answer was bizarre and wandering, so the media invented some bullshit about Ruth calling his shot, which has since become one of the sport’s most enduring myths. Most people on on the field who saw the incident, though, believe Ruth was doing it as a way of mocking Root. Root himself believed that, saying that if he though Ruth had the audacity to call his shot, he would have drilled Ruth right in the ribs.
Ruth had had it by 1935, and every other team and fan breathed a sigh of relief. That relief didn’t last very long, though, because the Yankees quickly found someone good enough to carry Ruth’s jock. Surely you’ve heard of Mr. Joe DiMaggio? He was signed in 1936, and if anything, the Yankees began a run of dominance which was even more dominant than their last run of unprecedented dominance! In his rookie year, DiMaggio batted .323, hit 29 home runs, and batted in 125 runs. The Yankees, of course, proceeded to win the World Series that year, because the Yankees winning the World Series was starting to really turn into a thing. They won it the next year too. And the year after that. AND the year after that, even with Lou Gehrig benching himself due to sickness. It wasn’t until 1940 that the Yankees were finally left from the World Series again, thanks to the Detroit Tigers. Wartime baseball loomed after that, and even with numerous players on the team – including DiMaggio – signed up to the war effort, the Yankees still won another two titles while World War II raged in Europe.
Integration started in 1947, of course, but the Yankees didn’t integrate until 1954. And they had a valid excuse: At the time, they had just won the World Series every year from 1949 to 1953, so they clearly had a good thing going and didn’t want to fuck up the team chemistry. But they brought in Elston Howard anyway, and had trouble finding a regular role for him until he took over as catcher from Yogi Berra in 1960. It was in the late 40’s to early 60’s that the Yankees employed most of the players who became team signatures: Berra, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Billy Martin, and manager Casey Stengel. As you can imagine, DiMaggio’s 1951 retirement was just a hiccup. The Yankees were at their arguable best during those years. From 1949 to 1962, the Yankees won the World Series nine times. From their first World Series victory in 1923 to their 1947 victory just before the beginning of that era, they won it 11 times. Still a hell of a number, but also split over three decades. When it came to signing new players, the Yankees had the easiest sell in the world: Fame, fortune, living in New York City, and the damn near-certainty of a World Series ring or two… Or seven… And it got even easier as MLB realized it would have to expand its area and the Giants and Dodgers bolted to California, leaving the Yankees as New York City’s one and only team.
In 1964, the Yankees were coming off another one of their multi-Pennant runs. They had been to the World Series five years in a row, including that one, and won it all in 1961 and 1962. The 1961 Yankees are in the conversation with the 1927 and 1998 Yankees as the best Yankee team ever, and maybe the best baseball team ever. Also in 1964: CBS bought the team. Although CBS put one of their executives, Mike Burke, in charge of the Yankees, he wasn’t the only thing affecting the Yankees’ place in the standings. In fact, it was the team’s last President who had curtailed the Yanks’ investment in their minor league system in order to keep the team’s pockets lined. But that didn’t change the fact that as everyone retired, the Yankees couldn’t call up anything more than warm bodies to replace them. And despite their experience with Elston Howard, they didn’t really take to signing black players, and so they fell behind in integration while all their white stars also got old. They couldn’t make heads or tails of an MLB draft which was installed in 1965, which was probably a selling point on its installation – the Yankees wouldn’t be able to just outbid every other team for prime talent anymore. Also, from 1955 to 1960, the Yankees were basically using a weird trading arrangement with the Kansas City Athletics which made the Athletics into little more than a development team for the Yankees: Prospect not working out? Trade them to Kansas City for a year, then trade back for them. It benefitted the Yankees a lot, but when Charley Finley bought the Athletics in 1960, he told the Yankees to go fuck themselves. The team spent the last half of the 60’s being brought down to baseball parity and losing. Now, perhaps that in itself may not have been so bad – every team goes through bad phases – but it became a particular embarrassment by 1969. See, in 1962 the NL had a new team in New York City, the Metropolitans, to replace the Dodgers and Giants. The 1962 team was historically bad, and the Mets proceeded to finish last every year until they somehow won the World Series in 1969.
That all mounted up to CBS somehow managing to lose money running the Yankees, and after eight years, they decided to unload them on a Cleveland shipbuilder named George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner wanted the Yankees to reclaim their place as the Lords of Baseball, so when free agency turned into a thing, it was the Yankees who came out swinging to show the league what it meant. First, the Yankees grabbed Catfish Hunter in 1974 for a record payment. Two years later, they won the Pennant again only to be swept out of the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds during the Big Red Machine era. So the Yankees then went out and bought Reggie Jackson in 1977, who helped bolster the Yanks to their first World Series victory since 1962. The next year, it was closing pitcher Goose Gossage and another World Series title. In 1981 they bought Dave Winfield and grabbed another Pennant, albeit losing the Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The tumultuous atmosphere resulted in closing pitcher Sparky Lyle writing a journal about the 1978 season which later appeared in book form as The Bronx Zoo, an affectionate nickname which was adopted by fans for the teams of this era.
And so began the Yankees’ free agent-spending era. They spent and they bought and they bought and they spent and they spent some more. The Yankees spent money on lots of veteran star free agents. When they weren’t doing that, they traded young players for veterans. This may have been the only period in MLB history that other teams loved the Yankees, because it was so easy to fleece them – even the Mariners managed to pull one over on the Yanks when they sent Ken Phelps to The Bronx in exchange for Jay Buhner. The team even managed to pick up enough of a bad reputation that it became hard for them to sign players. The Yankees changed managers 13 times during the decade, and their list of managers doesn’t include a bunch of secondhand Single A first base water boys, either; the list includes World Series winner Bob Lemon; World Series winner Billy Martin, who did three stints with the Yanks in the 80’s alone; World Series winner Dallas Green; Lou Piniella doing two stints with the Yanks in the 80’s before eventually becoming one of the greatest managers in baseball history; and Yogi Berra, who had previously managed both the Yankees and Mets to Pennants. At least the Yankees had Don Mattingly, who was the AL MVP in 1985. Somehow the Yankees were able to cobble together an all-star offense, but with a pitching lineup that could never hit the sky, they kept missing the playoffs.
The Yankees had fallen to last in the early 90’s, something that only happened to them three times before. So leave it to new manager Buck Showalter to do that grand old Buck Showalter thing he always does, which is to get a bad team functional again before getting fired and watching as the team that just fired him gets taken to the World Series by the next manager. In this case, the next manager was Joe Torre, who paid his respects to the great Yankees managers of the olden days by managing the Yankees – now led by the Core Four of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera – to six Pennants and four titles. In 2000, the Yankees won the World Series against the Mets. Torre left the Yankees in 2007, and the free-spending ways of the team finally started to catch up to them. While they did rally enough talent to win their 27th World Series title in 2009, that felt like a bit of a fluke and a final gasp of air for baseball’s big-spending era. The sabremetrics revolution took hold of MLB by then, and the Yankees were characteristically slow to take note of its reality. Even as their archival Boston Red Sox started applying sabremetric concepts early in the millennium which allowed them to win the World Series in 2004 – snapping an 86-year title drought and, in a total Hollywood ending, even becoming the only baseball team to dig out of an 0-3 hole in an ALCS against the Yankees on the way – the Yankees responded by trying to sign more big players. They’re starting to learn, though, and are visibly starting to trim their big purchases in exchange for small ball, efficiency, and development.
Check out these accolades: The Yankees have won a total of 40 Pennants and 27 World Series titles. With the exceptions of the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies, every National League team that has ever played in the World Series has faced the Yankees at least once in their history – that’s a record no other team is even close to matching. Their all-time roster is a list of transcendent one-name wonders: Ruth. Gehrig. DiMaggio. Berra. Mantle. Jackson. Mattingly. Jeter. Rivera. The Yankees have retired a whopping 22 numbers, including those of Bill Dickey, Roger Maris, Phil Rizzuto, and Thurman Munson. That’s sure to be 23 retired numbers very soon; once Jeter’s number two is retired, the Yankees will have retired every single digit number in the arabic numerology. One odd thing about the all-time Yankees roster that you’ll take note, however, is that they’re not exactly stacked with starting pitchers. Oh, they’re good there – very good. But none of their pitchers go above and beyond the way pitchers like Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens, or Tom Seaver have. Whitey Ford is arguably there, and Ron Guidry had some spectacular seasons in which he put up numbers as good as any of those guys, but he wasn’t consistent enough to be among them. Yankees pitchers have done well because they’ve had stellar support: First, the list of Yankees catchers is a legacy list which includes Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, Jorge Posada, and arguably the greatest catcher of all time, Yogi Berra. Second, the list of closing pitchers who have worn pinstripes includes Mariano Rivera, the common choice for greatest closer of all time; Goose Gossage, the sabremetric fan’s choice for greatest closer of all time; and Sparky Lyle, one of the very few closers who was ever awarded the Cy Young. And some Yankees players have done understated jobs on defense, too: There was a time when Babe Ruth was as fleet and fast in the outfield as he was powerful; Derek Jeter won a couple of Gold Gloves; Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, Roger Maris, and Mickey Mantle have all won Gold Gloves. But the Yanks are nicknamed The Bronx Bombers for a reason: They were responsible for weaponizing the home run, and most of their prominent superstars have built brands on it.
The Yankees are big on tradition. This isn’t necessarily bad in some cases: They’re one of the very few teams in baseball to still only be wearing two uniforms, one for home and one for the road. It’s because of this that the Yankees have become THE team which is identified by their home uniform’s most iconic feature: The pinstripes. They’re not the only team that wears pinstripes, but when baseball fans talk about The Pinstripers, there’s no mistake as to who they mean. I’ve taken to referring to the Yankees in my other writings as The Pinstriped Stormtroopers of the Evil Empire. Let’s face it, though: Some of the team traditions are just stodgy. They still sing “God Bless America” during the Seventh Inning Stretch instead of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” They demand that hair is done in a certain way by their players. Perhaps no manifestation of Yankees tradition is more annoying than usage of the phrase “True Yankee,” one of the most supremely annoying and inconsistently used phrases in sports. Some players are True Yankees. Others are not. It depends entirely on how much the fan base embraces the player. Derek Jeter is a True Yankee. Alex Rodriguez is not. Chuck Knoblauch is a True Yankee. Jason Giambi is not. It’s a stupid, meaningless phrase that has to go. The Yankees did introduce uniform numbers and entrance music to baseball, but their slow adjustments to major changes doesn’t reflect well on them.
This stodgy prevention has a habit of wedging itself into the team’s operative ethos as well. This is a team that seems to be openly waging class warfare against its primary fans the way any NFL team does. The team has a physical barrier around its suites which they admit is to protect the feelings of the premium ticket-buyers from the plebes. They forbid print-at-home tickets, which is a common way for fans to buy secondary tickets. Everything at Yankee Stadium is branded, so little wonder they have such a bad reputation with fan-friendliness. Frankly, they deserve the hatred they’re getting for this.
Naturally, every baseball fan in the United States is either a Yankees fan or they hate the Yankees with an unvarnished furor. Baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, so one of the biggest criticisms of the Yankees is about how they “buy championships.” Going into my defensive mode now, I have to point out that the Yankees buy PLAYERS who are good and can HELP them WIN championships. That isn’t nearly the same thing as buying championships. If the Yankees bought the championships themselves, why even play the games? More importantly, if you’re busy ceding every season to the Yankees because they have a huge payroll, why are you even a baseball fan at all? Most of the screeching about this has come from the Boston Red Sox and their fans. That is REALLY funny because although the Red Sox endured one hell of a title drought, it’s more because the team made a decades-long habit of choking when it really counted. When the Red Sox finally rose up in 2004, a lot of people took it as the little guys coming up and humiliating the bullies, and that wasn’t the case at all. The Red Sox have the second-highest payroll in baseball. The Yankees and Red Sox are the only two baseball teams that have ever had to pay the luxury tax. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, it wasn’t the victory of the underdog – it was the 700-pound gorilla losing a fight to the 699-pound gorilla. What the Yankees did was take advantage of the MLB structure, and they happened to be better at it than anyone else.
The Yankees have one of the great sports rivalries ever with the Boston Red Sox. Now, on one hand, this rivalry looks pretty strikingly one-sided. 27 titles to Boston’s eight? An 86-year drought that popular culture blames on the sale of Babe Ruth? Yeah, there are those. But Boston has spent a lot of great Pennant races not letting the Yankees forget they were right on their heels. The Red Sox have fielded some legends themselves: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez. Games between the Yankees and Red Sox are must-watch baseball because, no matter how good either one of them or both are actually doing, they always seem to bring out each other’s best.
The Yankees are one of the most successful sports teams anywhere in the world, and you know what that means: Bandwagon fans, and lots of ’em! Yes, that’s true – if you’re reading this from outside the United States, you may be getting the impression that the Yankees are America’s response to Manchester United, and that’s basically what they are. They have the titles, they have the legends, they get the attention and all the adoration and enmity that follows. The core Yankees fan base is pretty highly regarded and considered one of the brightest and most passionate in baseball, but it’s the bandwagon fans people tend to notice. As I’ve mentioned, the Yankees don’t make it easy to root for them, and there are a lot of things they do that makes those of us with personal and emotional connections to the team throw our hands up in surrender.
There’s no doubt about the history, influence, and importance of the New York Yankees. But they offer plenty of reasons to both love and hate them. If you’re an aspiring baseball fan looking to adopt a team, think carefully before handing your loyalty to them.
All-time roster of world-beaters; getting to brag about how many titles your team has; being able to go anywhere and find other Yankees fans; they get tons of coverage, which makes it easy to keep up with them
The Yankees hate their primary fans and do little to disguise it or disabuse other fans of that notion; they’re so slow to pick up on major changes in fundamental league and team-building structure that it’s embarrassing; they have a real 50’s mentality and promote themselves as aw-shucks milk-drinkers; even the team’s diehards will admit that a lot of the hate the Yankees face is defensible and even justified
Should you be a fan?
The Yankees are walking proof that a winning team isn’t necessarily easy to root for. Yes, there’s that incredible history, but if you’re being casual about fandom, the enmity you’re going to run into as a Yankees fan might not be worth it – if you’re looking for a team with lots of titles that’s not so hated and is at least respected by those who do hate them, the St. Louis Cardinals are right up your alley. Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones said we should remember what we are and wear it like armor so it can’t hurt us, and that’s the best – and maybe even the only – way to be a Yankees fan: Know people will hate you and OWN it without apology.