Tonawanda News

October 8, 2012

BOOK NOOK: Love the Yankees? Hate the Yankees?

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — In the late 1970s the gone and sorely missed Buffalo Courier-Express offered its sports section readers a survey: Name the baseball team and we’ll assign a reporter to cover it. The result wasn’t even close: The New York Yankees’ name was chosen on 75 percent of the ballots, and even today, Western New York baseball discourse is typically circumscribed by how one stands on the Yankees.

The book “Damn Yankees” offers short and excellent essays from 24 writers — some sports specialists, most not — on the topic of that team whose very name has a psychic punch to it. Those who care at all tend to line up on one side or the other; love 'em, hate 'em. The team somehow is emblematic of everything one values about America and everything wrong with it.

That’s a lot of freight for a baseball team, or a book, to carry, but “Damn Yankees” pulls it off admirably. Jane Leavy, Pete Dexter, Rot Blount Jr., Bill Nack and others offer glimpses of what it’s like to have the Yankees follow you around. 

A New York baseball fan, for example, evidently has a more complex relationship with his or her favorite team than, say, a fan in Cleveland or Minnesota. Like the city, the team has a gritty center wrapped around a patina of sophistication, or perhaps it’s the other way around. 

The Yankees’ solution to every problem is to throw massive amounts of cubic dollars at it, and yes, there was a time, in the early 1970s, this team was awful. 

I learned that New York bank robbers tend to wear Yankees caps while committing stickups at a ten-to-one rate over caps expressing their crosstown counterparts, the Mets (the phrase “crosstown rivals” is hardly appropriate). 

Player and manager Billy Martin gets called “rat-faced” by two different authors. Dexter’s essay recounts the Sisyphean burden of infielder Chuck Knoblach, who one day suddenly could not accurately throw a ball to first base, leading to the celebrated, and here splendidly told story, of how an errant throw by Knoblach ended up in the seats along the first-base line, squarely hitting Keith Olbermann’s mother between the eyes (after the blurring stopped, she seemed thrilled with her involvement in the play).

There are few old Yankee wisecracks here, those worn stories about Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra (baseball men on either end of the loquacious index but each a font of profundity). 

Instead, we get personal stories: what the Yankees mean as an ideal or as an evil empire, what it’s like growing up in a furiously busy city of hustlers and dealers and how the Yankees became emblematic of everything we like/don’t like about New York, and touching stories like that of Jim Abbott, Yankee pitcher with one arm, literally, and the no-hitter he threw.

Indeed, it is a book about relationships. The writer and the Yankees. The writer against the Yankees. New York City vs. everybody. 

Leavy’s touching essay includes Mickey Mantle and Frank Sullivan, who gave the best advice on how to pitch to Mantle. “With tears in my eyes.”

It is a splendid book, by knowledgeable writers who can truly express the hold this baseball team has on them. The only quibble involves an index of statistics running 39 pages at the end; it is unnecessary, available elsewhere to those who care about who did what in the Yankee pantheon and the space could have been used for one or two more essays.

This reviewer considers the New York Yankees to be the Darth Vader of sport and wouldn’t last ten minutes in the employment of someone like George Steinbrenner, the team’s longtime (and deceased, in 2010) principal owner attempting to portray himself a businessman simply looking for quality talent when, in fact, he was a stubborn and dictatorial martinet of a boss. The book left me with reinforcement of why I’m right, as well as an appreciation of why this team is so important to so many people.

As informed and readable opinion, something that has been eagerly awaited, it does not disappoint.

• WHAT: "Damn Yankees" • BY: Rob Fleder, editor, and 24 others • GRADE: A

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.