A great baseball team had better have a lot of truly great stories in its history, and with the New York Yankees, there are just tons. With the new book Pinstripe Empire, Marty Appel makes a concentrated, herculean effort to compile them all. I haven't seen such an effort at a chronology of the Yankees since I read - but didn't finish - I'd Rather be a Yankee, by John Tullius. That book was an oral history. Appel's book is a narrative, and it's lock, stock and barrel with not only the big stories Yankees fans have memorized into their computer brains as part of their beloved team's lore, but little obscure trivias many of us don't know, and some thing we thought we knew but really didn't. There were things in Pinstripe Empire which totally floored me.
The thing that floored me the most was a bunch of little details about George Steinbrenner. I always was grateful to Steinbrenner for the success he brought to the Yankees, but I've also long thought my devotion to this juggernaut of uniformity was absurd and out of character. Steinbrenner's method of operating and secrecy played a huge role in the way I see my own fandom. (In person, I've often referred to myself as a Mets fan who just happens to root for the Yankees.) I believed Steinbrenner was an enforcer of the old ways, a pompous One Percenter who always backed political candidates I would have hated and lacked a real sense of fairness, which is why baseball doesn't have a salary cap. Well, here's the truth according to Appel, who has worked for the Yankees for decades: First, Steinbrenner was famously caught making campaign donations to Richard Nixon.... But he also made a ton of contributions to Ted Kennedy. Second, Steinbrenner was in favor of revenue sharing, and also in favor of the luxury tax which cost his big-spending ways over $100 million extra. Basically, it looks like every assumption I ever made about The Boss was wrong.
With Appel having been in the employ of the team for so long, he of course looks at them through rose-clored goggles. Sometimes this is effective; when he writes about how Yankees players have to follow a certain dress code, he says they enforce it because it's a way the Yankees try to stand out from the rest of the pack. The Yankees are expected to carry themselves with dignity and a sense of real professionalism, and at one point, one of the team managers actually made the players change uniforms between innings if the uniforms got ripped. Other times, his rose tint just comes off as excuses. The fact that the team took so long to integrate is the prime example of this. According to Appel, it took a long time because the Yankees weren't able to find the right player who had both the talent and the attitude to conduct himself in the way that was expected of the Yankees. (Of course, when they did integrate, they scored big when their first black player, Elston Howard, became a major piece of the team's incomparable legacy of great catchers. His performances in the ten World Series he played in rank him among the World Series best players, and no conversation about great Yankee catchers is complete without him. He went to twelve All-Star games, won two Gold Gloves, was the AL MVP in 1963, and the Yankees retired his number.)
There are a lot of little details Appel mentions which have been lost to many baseball fans. These are helpful because they add a little bit of color to the game's history, and they'll definitely be appreciated by Yankees fans who will now know just how enormous the impact of our beloved team has been. The practice of wearing numbers on players' backs began with the Yankees, who did it so fans would know a players' spot in the batting order. (Names didn't start until much later, when the Chicago White Sox started doing it.) The Yankees are also responsible for the practice of entrance music, when they began playing the classical music piece "Pomp and Circumstance" (better known as the graduation theme) in the 70's to signify the entrance of their great closer, Sparky Lyle. Appel also mentions that for all the great pitchers who wore pinstripes, the Yankees never really had a pitcher who was particularly transcendent. With the exception of Whitey Ford, the Yankees never had a dominating starting rotation with a Grover Cleveland Alexander, a Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, or Tom Seaver. But he also mentions the team's catchers' legacy with Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada. (What he doesn't point out is the team's legacy of dominant closers: Mariano Rivera is generally considered the greatest closer ever; Goose Gossage is often considered the sabremetric-heads' thinking choice for greatest closer ever. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Sparky Lyle is one of the very few closers to ever win the Cy Young.)
Of course, the bigger myths are also covered. The Called Shot has always been a big one, and Appel actually brings us brief coverage of both sides. It seems like a few people who were there believe Ruth called his shot because they saw him do it, and then when they asked him about his gesture, he gave a vague answer which they misinterpreted. The way Appel writes about it, most people who saw what happened believe Ruth was calling the strikes Cubs pitcher Charlie Root had on him. Root himself believes that, and said that had he thought Ruth was calling his shot, his next pitch would have drilled Ruth.
There are points, especially in the front of the book, where Appel debunks some of the team's misunderstood history. The team's first ballpark, which is frequently called Hilltop Park, was never officially called Hilltop Park, and the Yankees weren't officially called the Highlanders. Since the Yankees were the only American League team in New York City, for a long time, they were simply called the New York Americans and their park was just the New York American Baseball Park. Appel even provides the photos. He also explains the ways numbers came about, mentioning that other teams had tried shoulder numbers in the past, and the origins of the stripes which, despite being worn by so many other baseball teams, have become so synonymous with the Yankees that one of their nicknames is "The Pinstripers."
Pinstripe Empire is a straight, cold narrative, but one mistake Appel avoids making is getting caught up describing too many games and plays. Sure, he has to describe some of the plays - this is the Yankees, after all, and they've had a ton of weird and unusual and famous moments that happened to them on the diamond. But Appel requires only a handful of sentences to describe them, so he can get right back to the big picture as soon as possible.
The result of that is a narrative that is always interesting and compelling. Appel covers every era of Yankees baseball with equal depth and detail, giving us everything he knows about the team. The dynasty eras receive as much coverage as the darkest days of the 60's and early 90's.
Since Appel works for the Yankees, yes, this sucker is totally biased. But still, the fact that he knows so much also lends a lot of details he might not of otherwise been able to give us. There aren't a lot of straight team chronologies out there, certainly not many of teams as rich and important as the Yankees. This book is a must for any Yankees fan, and it's also important for anyone curious about why the team is so important for baseball. (Appel argues that baseball was usually at its most profitable whenever the Yankees are doing well.) One thing stands true: No matter where your loyalties lie, you'll at least walk away with a greater understanding of the mystique of the New York Yankees, and why the true fans of the Yankees feel such strong passion and loyalty for them.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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