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).