The New York Yankees

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The New York Yankees

Like Cadillac or BMW, the New York Yankees' brand name is respected the world over, a badge of excellence in the realm of professional baseball. That a hit Broadway play called Damn Yankees could play off the antipathy generated in rival cities by the franchise's unmatched success is a testament to the powerful associations the team conjures up in the popular mind. Known for its reverence for tradition, the Yankee organization need do little to market itself to prospective ticket buyers. The mere presence of the club's stately eponymous stadium in the South Bronx, with its wall of plaques commemorating some of the game's greatest players, is enough to keep tourists, baseball aficionados, and loyal fans flocking to see the "Bronx Bombers" play.

The team began life as the New York Highlanders in 1903. They were renamed the Yankees in 1913, and began playing in Manhattan's Polo Grounds that same year. Millionaire brewer Jacob Ruppert bought the team with a partner in 1915 for $460,000. His most significant contribution to baseball history was the purchase of Babe Ruth's contract from the Boston Red Sox in 1920, a sale that altered the fortunes of both franchises. The Red Sox became a symbol for futility, beloved by New Englanders but bereft of any luck, common sense, or winning tradition. The Yankees, by contrast, evolved into, well, the Yankees.

With Ruth leading the way, the Yankees won their first World Series in 1923. The team would add two more world championships and six American League pennants in the decade, successes that paved the way for the construction of Yankee Stadium in 1923. The magnificent new ballpark was home to a "Murderer's Row" lineup through the late 1920s and into the 1930s. Feared sluggers Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, and Tony Lazzeri ably complemented the protean Ruth, who swatted 60 home runs in 1927 to lead the team to a 110-win season. Ruth also became America's first national sports icon, a figure so revered he commanded no less than half a dozen nicknames: The Sultan of Swat, The Caliph of Clout, The Wazir of Wallop, and so on. Once, asked what he thought about being paid more than President Herbert Hoover, Ruth cracked: "I had a better year than he did." Tethered to the Babe's balloon, the Yankees rose in prominence to become America's pre-eminent sports franchise.

When the aging of its first generation of stars threatened to end the Yankees' run at the top, the club merely brought in new faces. Joe DiMaggio spearheaded a squad that won six World Series between 1936 and 1943. His 56-game hitting streak in 1941 captured the nation's attention at a time when America stood on the brink of world war. Almost the polar opposite of Ruth in his approach to life and disdain for the limelight, DiMaggio nevertheless became almost as luminous a figure. Certainly his marriage to national sex kitten Marilyn Monroe in 1954 had something to do with that apotheosis as well. Ernest Hemingway immortalized DiMaggio's "grace under pressure" by repeatedly referencing the Yankee Clipper in his 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea.

After DiMaggio retired in 1951, the Yankees filled the void with another altogether different matinee idol. Mickey Mantle, a brawny farm boy from Oklahoma, became the team's new centerfielder. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed "Mick" seemed carved out of someone's Platonic ideal of what a ballplayer should look like. He could run and hit with power from both sides of the plate. And while he was prone to injury over the course of his 17-year career, he would secure a place in the Hall of Fame and a legacy as one of the game's greatest players.

Mantle and his Yankees bestrode the 1950s baseball landscape like a colossus. From 1950 to 1958, the team won six world championships. The 1961 squad led by Mantle and Roger Maris, who broke Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a season, was widely cited as the equal of the 1927 edition. It was during this dynastic period that a vehement hatred of the Yankee organization took hold in a number of cities, as teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians found their championship hopes repeatedly dashed by the free-spending cosmopolites from Gotham.

Those rivals would yet see the tables turned, beginning in 1964 when broadcasting behemoth CBS bought the Yankees for a reported $14 million. It was the beginning of a steep decline for the franchise. The team's best players, most notably Mantle, were past the prime of their careers, and the club was slow to recruit African-American and Latin players to replace them, as many other organizations were doing. The Yankee front office, it seemed to many, was living in a world of the past. The club sank to tenth place in 1966, posting the worst record of any Yankee squad in 53 years. Attendance plummeted. Most galling of all, the Yankees' crosstown rivals, the New York Mets, graduated from bumbling novelties to world champions in 1969.

Slowly, the Yankees began to rebuild. Their new catcher, Thurman Munson, won the Rookie of the Year Award for 1970.Shrewd trades brought them the likes of Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss, infielders who would play a prominent role in the club's resurgence. And CBS, seemingly disinterested in the team's fortunes and the desires of its fans, finally sold out from under its losses in 1973. The Yankees' new principal owner was George M. Steinbrenner III, a shipbuilding magnate from Cleveland. Steinbrenner vowed totake a hands-off approach, leaving the day-to-day operation of the club to his chief lieutenant, Gabe Paul.

Under new leadership, the Yankees returned to the front ranks of the American League. They competed for a division title in 1974, despite playing their home games in the Mets' own Shea Stadium. A two-year renovation of crumbling Yankee Stadium was completed in time for the 1976 opener. That season was to be flush with renewal for the Bronx Bombers, as they surged to their first American League pennant in 12 years. First baseman Chambliss' dramatic ninth-inning home run in the fifth game of the playoff series against the Kansas City Royals sealed the victory. The exultation felt by legions of long-suffering Yankee fans was to be short-lived, however, as the club was trounced in the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds, four games to none.

Over the next five years, the Yankees re-established themselves as baseball's elite team, capturing three pennants and two world championships. Their back-to-back World Series wins in 1977 and 1978 were capped by a thrilling come-from-behind divisional pennant race with the Boston Red Sox in the latter year. Controversy and conflict also marked these years of winning. Outspoken slugger Reggie Jackson was added as a free agent in 1977, to the consternation of the team's cantankerous manager, Billy Martin. Together with the increasingly meddlesome Steinbrenner, the three men formed a veritable death grip of sorts, as their public spats were splashed all over the pages of the New York City tabloids. Reliever Sparky Lyle later labeled the team's poisonous clubhouse "The Bronx Zoo." Nevertheless, the Yankees kept on winning, and the fans loved the roller derby atmosphere.

The Yankees' run of disco-era dominance ended with a 1981 World Series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, an embarrassing coda to a strike-shortened season that prompted Steinbrenner to issue an ostentatious public apology to the citizens of New York. The 1980s saw the imperious owner struggle to cover up the team's deficiencies in player development with his checkbook. Steinbrenner signed high-priced players with seemingly little regard for their adaptability to the pressures of playing in New York. Managers were put under intense pressure to succeed, subject to dismissal at any time according to the owner's whims. Three men were hired and fired during the 1982 season alone. Billy Martin returned for three more engagements as the club's skipper, in 1983, 1985, and 1988. Only the presence of Don Mattingly, the club's dignified captain, prevented Yankee fans from being thoroughly alienated by the whole charade.

Yankee fortunes only improved with Steinbrenner's 1990 exile from baseball following allegations he had hired a professional gambler to spy on one of his players. "The Boss" remained locked away from running team affairs for three years, during which general manager Gene "Stick" Michael effectively ran the club. Freed from Steinbrenner's tyranny, Michael returned the organization to its roots, emphasizing player development at the minor league level. Future stars Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera, who would have been traded away in years past, were nurtured until they were ready to take their places in the starting line-up. A few key trades and the judicious use of free agent signings helped the Yankees recapture first place in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.

By that time, Steinbrenner was back on the job, but in no position to tamper with the interim regime's formula. Some said "The Boss" had mellowed. Certainly he came back from exile with a renewed willingness to let his "baseball people" run the team. Other than pointlessly firing manager Buck Showalter in 1995 after a loss in the playoffs, he did little to slow the development of a new baseball juggernaut. The team capped a stellar 1996 season with a come-from-behind upset victory over the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. Two years later, the Yankees posted the best record in American League history, going 114-48. They then completed an impressive playoff run by sweeping the San Diego Padres in the World Series. Baseball pundits promptly began arguing over whether this was the greatest team of all time. But when the Yankees' record 24th World Championship banner was raised onto the facade at Yankee Stadium on April 9, 1999, there was no doubt which was the most successful franchise in baseball's first full century.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Anderson, Dave, et al. The Yankees: The Four Fabulous Eras of Baseball's Most Famous Team. New York, Random House, 1980.

Chadwin, Dean. Those Damn Yankees: The Secret History of America's Greatest Sports Franchise. New York, Verso, 1999.

Frommer, Harvey. The New York Yankee Encyclopedia. New York, Macmillan, 1997.

Gallagher, Mark. The Yankee Encyclopedia. Champaign, Illinois, Sagamore Publishing, 1996.

Honig, Donald. The New York Yankees: An Illustrated History. Revised edition. New York, Crown, 1987.

Mead, William B. The Official New York Yankees Hater's Handbook. New York, Putnam, 1983.

Sullivan, George, and John Powers. The Yankees: An Illustrated History. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1997.

Weinberger, Miro, and Dan Riley, editors. The Yankees Reader. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.