You beat me to the post. I too was that kid in the bedroom looking over his baseball card collection and listening to the mediocre Yanks on WMCA. Well written essay, it brought back some warm memories of the good old days.
I am a few years younger than the writer, but remember the Yankees being a 4th place team so many times. Thats why I find it so amusing when so many posters here freak out about a 3 game losing streak or a slow start to a season. I, like many others here do not take a 1st place finish for granted. We are so blessed to root for a team that is always the favorite or 1 of the favorites to win it all.
Thanks for posting the link. This was an entertaining walk down amnesia lane.
John 3:16 * Ephesians 2:8-9 * Romans 10:9-10 * John 14:3-6 * Romans 5:8
Somewhere amid the endless Long Island sprawl of aspiration, a father sits in his living-room chamber, sipping from his beer chalice as he considers the various financial threats to his split-level castle. Meanwhile, upstairs, his oldest child ponders more urgent matters as he lies on his bedroom floor, oblivious to the boyhood squalor that envelops him:
The dirt-stiffened blue jeans; the grayish balls of formerly white socks; the ripped Hawkman comic books; the scattering of carefully collected wheat-ear pennies, some already worth twice their face value. Even the close air, redolent of a bologna sandwich misplaced and long forgotten, goes unnoticed.
Scrawny, bucktoothed, conditioned by bullies to greet each day with an anticipatory wince, the boy is poring over piles of small, rectangular documents spread out before him, searching for answers to why he has been denied his rightful place among the wreathed champions. He is confused beyond the confusion that is part of being 11 years old.
You see, thanks to an inheritance from his brooding father downstairs, he roots with every ounce of his body for a perennial baseball underdog: the New York Yankees.
As I write this, I hear the hue and cry of outrage from across the continent, the angry dissent loudest in certain long-suffering precincts: the rain-wet hills of Seattle, the landmark-cluttered District of Columbia, the north side of Chicago, the lakefront of Cleveland. Even Boston, forced by two recent World Series victories to shed the lovable-loser status so meticulously cultivated over several generations, takes wicked umbrage.
The New York Yankees? As underdogs? No ___ way! (Insert regional epithet of choice.)
Ah, but the indisputable documentation was laid out upon that bedroom floor back in the summer of 1969, and the boy has it still. That is, I have it still, stored in a Rockport shoebox whose location will remain classified: hundreds of old baseball cards, courageously saved from the sporadic cleaning frenzies that disrupted our home’s natural disorder.
Most of the cards are worth less than the face value of those wheat-ear pennies; some even bear the singe of fire damage. (Strange how I don’t even remember burning out the eyes of California Angels outfielder Rick Reichardt with a magnifying glass.) I keep them all as evidence, along with well-thumbed Yankees yearbooks that feature the mostly forgotten pre-Steinbrenner, Mike Burke, and a few crumbling newspaper clippings from early 1969, when Mickey Mantle, my broken idol, announced that he just could not play anymore, and I sensed, even then, that the Mick would never quite adapt to a work world without grass.
The Yankee cards among my tired collection are like mug-shot exhibits, prepared for presentation to the Court of the Beleaguered. From Jake Gibbs, catcher without bat, to Walt Williams, outfielder without neck, they confirm my childhood status as underdog. Here is Bill Robinson, one would-be phenom, batting .196; here is Steve Whitaker, another, batting little better. Here is first baseman Joe Pepitone, sporting his game-day toupee. Here is second baseman Horace Clarke, who so disliked body contact that he often failed to make the relay to first on potential double plays.
Here are Roger Repoz and Ruben Amaro, Andy Kosco and Charley Smith, Fred Talbot and Hal Reniff, Frank Tepedino and Gene Michael and Joe Verbanic and Thad Tillotson and Johnny Callison and Danny Cater and Curt Blefary and Jerry Kenney and Jimmy Lyttle and Celerino Sanchez, poor Celerino Sanchez, and so many others you do not remember, probably by choice.
As hollow as it might sound, though, these were my heroes. I ached and rooted for every one of them as they failed daily on baseball’s Broadway stage, Yankee Stadium, facing two opponents every time they stepped onto the field: the American League team of the moment and the Yankees teams of the past. My father’s Yankees.
Who knows when a child first becomes baseball-aware? I fell under the game’s spell at age 7, in the upside-down year of 1965. My mother came from rural Ireland, where sport meant soccer, rugby, hurling and blood; she found baseball to be pastoral — almost like turf-cutting, only with uniforms. Still, she became conversant in the exploits of our central, post-Mantle heroes — Bobby Murcer, Mel Stottlemyre, Roy White and Steve Hamilton — because she was a wife and mother, resolved to maintain the domestic peace that she occasionally managed to achieve.
My father, though, was a New Yorker to his marrow, no matter how many times Gotham turned its concrete back to him. Raised in the belly of the Depression, he moved to or was evicted from one borough after another, never enrolled in one school long enough to develop friendships, never finding urban roots. He finished high school at night, found his higher education in the Army during the Korean War, and returned to work on Wall Street — literally, on the street — as a cold-call salesman.
But he flashed his New York Yankees allegiance like a diamond-studded tie clasp. It granted a measure of elegance to his sweat-stained shirts, his sole-worn shoes, his striving. A child of flawed, alcoholic parents, whose baby-sitting options included leashing him to a post, he now rooted for baseball’s best by day and vicariously socialized with them by night, sharing highballs at Toots Shor’s or the Copa with that Rat Pack of baseball — Billy Martin, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. Winners, all.
By the time I was 7, then, I knew that Mickey Mantle was born on Oct. 20, 1931, 10 days after my father. That my father saw Don Larsen throw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. That Ruth called a home run in the 1932 World Series; that Gehrig was the luckiest man on the face of this earth, but not really; that DiMaggio once hit in 56 consecutive games; that Berra was the best and Maris was the best and Mantle was the best, always, even with his damaged legs.
And Son, the Yankees lost the 1964 World Series in seven games. They’ll be back, though, Son, because they’re the top dogs, not the underdogs. The best, the best, the absolute best.
But just as I came of baseball age, in the spring of 1965, my precious inheritance broke apart like a tin toy from some discount store on Montauk Highway: the vaunted and suddenly lousy New York Yankees.
The statistics, including those contained on the backs of those baseball cards, tell the damning tale.
In 1965, when I was 7, the Yankees finished under .500 for the first time since 1925 — years before my father’s birth.
In 1966, when I was 8, they came to a thud in last place for the first time since 1912 — so deep in the past that they were known then as the Highlanders, fielding a team with names like Hippo Vaughn, Cozy Dolan and Klondike Smith.
And in 1967, when I was — you guessed it— 9, they again lost far more than they won to complete a hat trick of failure not known to the organization since the administration of Woodrow Wilson.
In fact, the New York Yankees of my formative years were mired in failure and mediocrity, with occasional competitive flashes, for 11 consecutive seasons. This fallow period was so startling, so un-Yankee-like, that you had to reach back to prehistoric times to see its like; that is, to those dark years before the purchase of Babe Ruth in 1919 — two decades that are generally dismissed in the ball club’s hagiographic narrative as a kind of protracted spring training.
It is true that the Yankees would soon endure an even longer drought: the Mattingly Era, you might call it, when the impressive career of the lionhearted Don Mattingly, the Sisyphus of the Bronx, coincided with 13 years of futility, from 1982 to 1994, that did not end until the team at least made the playoffs in 1995. But the earlier decade of failure, my decade, was still fresh in the collective Yankees memory. In many ways, it prepared the team’s fans for their descent into sustained humiliation.
As with the collapse of other empires before it, the fall of the Yankees has been subjected to intense academic scrutiny — though, in the end, the reasons are effectively the same: age, self-satisfaction, the failure to anticipate. In 1965, the Yankees acquired a good-glove, no-hit catcher named Doc Edwards, who regarded his new teammates with unabashed awe, but instantly recognized that these bandaged men beside him were no longer the famously dominant Yankees of years past.
“They were not the Mickey Mantle and the Whitey Ford and the Roger Maris that we knew,” Edwards said. “They had reached a point in their lives where they were all hurt. You just don’t take that many thoroughbreds and replace them with ponies — and, in my case, a draft horse — and win races. You just don’t do it.”
You just don’t. But I didn’t understand this. Weren’t many of the surnames in the box scores the same as when the team owned October? Didn’t the mere donning of pinstripes imbue a ballplayer with Ruthian power and DiMaggio’s grace? I did not know, for example, that Mantle was paying the physical price for years of alcohol abuse, or that Ford and catcher Elston Howard, at 36, were baseball Methuselahs.
Because of curious timing, then, and inherited allegiances, I became an underdog. And I am so grateful.
Otherwise, I would not have so keenly appreciated the need to find balance when the world turns upside down, as when a giddy nun wheeled a television into a sixth-grade classroom at SS. Cyril and Methodius School so that we could watch an event even more spiritually rewarding than the papal visit of 1965: the 1969 World Series, about to be won by New York’s other team.
The once-hapless Mets were up, the once-invincible Yankees were down, and the sons and daughters of those abandoned a decade earlier by the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants wept and rejoiced. Razzed then as a Yankees loser, I learned how to be a good sport; how to see the wonders of baseball beyond the sometimes confining bars of Yankees pinstripes.
Nor would I have fully comprehended the restorative powers inherent in loss, or the deep resonance in the clichéd vow to wait till next year. While other families bonded over victory, my family bonded over failure — a pervasive sense of inadequacy made more acute by the knowledge of the greatness that once had been.
Let those in New England remember where they were when their beloved Red Sox clinched the 1967 pennant. I, though, have never forgotten a Sunday earlier that season, in June, when the Yankees won the first game of a doubleheader at home against the Detroit Tigers, and were now trying for the sweep.
Imagine! Winning both ends of a doubleheader to come that much closer to .500, where official mediocrity resides! And then? Think of the possibilities!
My younger brother and I darted in and out of the house in boyish blurs, watching an inning on television, then playing an inning on the front lawn, watching an inning in black and white, playing an inning in color, pestering our father all the while about what we had missed. Yankees pitcher Fritz Peterson gave up six runs early in the game, but the team scrapped back — until, with one out in the ninth inning, Jake Gibbs stepped out of character to hit a pinch home run and tie the game.
Our Bobby Thomson moment: a shot heard ’round the living room!
Now our team’s modest fortunes rested with Yankees relief pitcher Dooley Womack, whose name never struck us as silly; he was just — Dooley Womack. He held his own through the 10, 11th and 12th innings, as the late-afternoon shadows encroached deeper upon the Stadium grass, as our telepathically delivered pleas failed once again to alter the standard performances of the likes of Bill Robinson (groundout) and Steve Whitaker (double-play groundout).
Then, in the top of the 13th, the Tigers loaded the bases, and stepping up to the plate with two out was their second baseman, **** McAuliffe, to adopt that wide-open, gloriously eccentric batting stance we all mimicked when playing Wiffle Ball. **** McAuliffe. Not what you would call a threat. Certainly not an Al Kaline or a Norm Cash. Just a **** McAuliffe.
Well, batting left-handed, Just **** McAuliffe drove a Dooley Womack pitch into the right-field bleachers for a grand slam.
Nearly 45 years later, I still remember the hurt contained in the loss of that inconsequential game: the deflating moment of McAuliffe’s contact; the final score, 11-7, numbers that in other contexts are considered lucky; the sense of a small, sudden death in our living room; and the growing realization that my boyhood team simply was not good enough, and never would be. And I am grateful.
The seasonal failure of the Yankees made the game of baseball somehow sweeter. It became a kind of binding agent for a suburban family in need of one: a shared distraction; an ever-ready conversation changer. When my father lost his job, or temper; when our home’s domestic quarrels became loud enough for the entire neighborhood to enjoy (Mets fans, all of them); when the three dogs slipped under the fence and ran away again, there was always this:
Dad, didja see that the Yankees are gonna get Rocky Colavito? Rocky Colavito?!?
Dad, watch me do a high-kicking windup, just like Lindy McDaniel!
Dad, guess what? Bobby Murcer is an All-Star!
Dad, it says here that Mickey is going to play in the Old-Timers’ Game. Can we watch that together? Can we?
By the time Chris Chambliss ended the decade of Yankees failure with a walk-off home run that sent the team to the 1976 World Series, I was an 18-year-old college freshman — a man, technically — who erupted from my Rathskeller seat with an 11-year-old’s abandon the instant the ball cleared the wall.
But in the years to come, as the Yankees returned to collecting World Series championships the way I once collected wheat-ear pennies, my Yankees blood struggled with my underdog nature for dominance. I had been conditioned by bullies and baseball to wince, not gloat. I found myself rooting at times for small-market teams, like the Minnesota Twins, and Rust Belt teams, like the Tigers, as a way, quite frankly, of honoring my father: lifelong Yankees fan, lifelong underdog.
The family is long gone from those cheap seats on Long Island. The Irish mother is gone, and the Yankees father, too. So, every now and then, I open an old shoebox, grab a few dog-eared rectangles of cardboard, and lay out my proud inheritance before me.