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NEW YORK YANKEES


Jim Colyer

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The Yankees began as the New York Highlanders in 1903. Cy Young threw a no-hitter against them in 1908. The Highlanders became the Yankees in 1913. "Yankees" was an Indian word for the English in the early days of America. When the Indians tried to say "English," it came out, "Yankees."

 

Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 in the Bronx. It is a wonder of the modern world. The short porch in right field was designed for Babe Ruth and the Yankees' lefthanded hitters. Ruth homered in the first game played at the Stadium. The mythical Curse of the Bambino began when Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to Jacob Ruppert's Yankees before the 1920 season for $100,000. It was 86 years before Boston won another World Series. In that span, the Yankees won 26 championships. The Curse ended in 2004.

 

The New York Yankees dominated baseball for 40 years. Yankee history can be divided into 5 eras, those of (1) Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig, (2) Joe DiMaggio, (3) Mickey Mantle, (4) George Steinbrenner and (5) Joe Torre.

 

Babe Ruth was a god. He won 96 games as a pitcher with a 2.28 Earned Run Average before moving to the outfield. He hit more home runs in a season than other teams. For the steroids generation to match that, a player would have to hit 200 home runs in one year. Ruth did not look like an athlete. He loved to party. His 60 home runs in 1927 and 714 total were records that stood through baseball's golden age. Ruth's home runs to at bats ratio stands to this day.

 

Lou Gehrig, for all his greatness, played in the shadow of Ruth. Gehrig fell short of the 500 home run club with 493. He finished with 1,995 RBIs. Had he not become ill, his numbers would have been greater. Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, a record which stood until Cal Ripken. Lou Gehrig demonstrated his courage when he called himself the luckiest man alive.

 

The Yankees won the World Series 5 years in a row between 1949 and 1953 under manager Casey Stengel. I have no memory of it. It was my dad's era. My dad named Lou Gehrig as his favorite player but spoke more of Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games in 1941, the same year Ted Williams batted .406. Williams missed 3 years of his prime because of World War II, then served in Korea. He was the third greatest hitter of all time after Ruth and Gehrig. Guys like Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, and Hank Bauer, who was on Okinawa, saved our country. They saved the world.

 

Chester Colyer was my dad. He became a Yankee fan during the 1936 World Series. He picked the Yankees. His brother, Leo, picked the New York Giants. The Yankees won the Series 4 games to 2. My dad followed them the rest of his life.

 

The first World Series I remember was 1954. It was the Cleveland Indians versus the Giants. My dad was for the Indians because they were in the American League. For no apparent reason, I was for the Giants. The Giants swept the Series.

 

By 1956, I was firmly with the Yankees. 1956 was the year of Mickey Mantle. Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, October 20, 1931. His father, Mutt Mantle, taught him to switch hit and groomed him for a major league career. Mickey grew up working in the mines. He was gifted with exceptional speed and athletic prowess. He sustained an injury playing high school football, then stepped on a drain in centerfield in the 1951 World Series. Injuries sapped his talents by age 36. Mantle replaced the beloved DiMaggio in centerfield, no easy task. He was booed incessantly through the 1950s, even in Yankee Stadium. It made no sense. I was 10 years old. The boos were indicative of the coming generation gap of the 1960s. Mantle was the hero of baby boomers. The boos came from fans who remembered Gehrig and DiMaggio and resented Mantle's advance publicity and perhaps his humble beginnings. They insisted he hit a home run everytime.

 

Mickey Mantle broke through in 1956. He won the Triple Crown, leading the American League with 52 home runs, 130 runs batted in and a batting average of .353. His home runs were Gargantuan. It seemed like everyday that summer, the sports page showed his latest tape-measure shot. I was collecting baseball cards. My prize was my 1956 Mickey Mantle, the only one I ever saw. When my black sheep cousin stole it from my room, I cried unconsolably. Mantle went on to hit .365 in 1957.

 

I started playing baseball in 1956. I played second base and wore Mantle's number 7. My dad and his brother, Buck, sponsered a team made up of Colyer cousins. Our team was called C&R Colyer after the trucking business my dad and uncle owned. Cousin Larry was on first. I was on second. Duke (Jerry) played third. Bobby caught. Ronnie was in the outfield. We played behind Middletown Elementary school east of Louisville. We won, and the league resented us. We were champions in 1958 and 1959. I was small and liked to bunt. Being on the family team, I played to win.

 

I took the Yankees' loss to Pittsburgh in the 1960 World Series hard. I was in the 9th grade and in health class. I laid my head on the desk to hide the tears. I would rather lose with the Yankees than win with anyone else. Once you root for the Yankees, you can never root for another team. Like Billy Martin said, "I am a Yankee!" It is not the city. It is the great tradition of the only team in sports that matters.

 

The New York Yankees came back with a vengeance in 1961. The 1961 Yankees rank with 1927's Murderer's Row and the 1998 team as the 3 greatest. The 1961 team beat the Cinncinati Reds in the World Series four games to one. Bill Skowron was at first, Bobby Richardson at second, Tony Kubek at shortstop. Elston Howard caught as Berra moved to left field. Whitey Ford went 25-4 with an E.R.A. of 3.21 and got the Cy Young Award. Ford had a great curve ball and was one of the coolest pitchers to play the game.

 

All pitchers are measured against Cy Young. Cy won 511 games between 1890 and 1911. In those years, a team had only 2 or 3 starting pitchers, and they were expected to complete games. Relief pitching is a modern specialty.

 

1961 featured the home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and their attempt to break Babe Ruth's record of 60. By then, Mantle was accepted in New York. Maris was the outsider. Mantle was sidelined and in the hospital as the season drew to a close. He finished with 54 homers. Maris kept hitting them. The commissioner of baseball issued a statement that if Maris broke Ruth's record after 154 games, the new record would have an asterisk beside it. This was the year of expansion, and 8 games had been added to the schedule. It happened. Maris finished 154 games with 59 homers, one shy of the Babe. He hit numbers 60 and 61 in the extra games. His record of 61 was tarnished by an asterisk. Maris grew sullen. He was a introvert who hated being harassed by the press. Nonetheless, Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs stood until Mark McGuire hit 70 in 1998.

 

Baseball records are subject to scrutiny, certainly home run records. Over the decades, fences have been moved in. Balls have gotten livelier. Pitchers mounds have been lowered. Baseball does what it has to, to keep the game interesting. After Barry Bonds hit 73, it came out that he was using steroids, a performance-enhancing drug. The criticism was, "The balls are juiced, the bats are juiced and the players are juiced." Congress, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, cracked down on baseball's illegal use of steroids.

 

Mickey Mantle's abilities eroded in the mid-1960s. Injuries took their toll. He played in pain, taping his legs before every game. He retired after 1968 as the Yankees collapsed. With Mantle, it will always be what might have been. He hit 536 home runs but could have hit 700. He and Ford went into the Hall of Fame together. In recent years, 500 home runs is the standard for power hitters as 3,000 hits is the goal of players who hit for average. Longevity is a must. Mantle had a drinking problem and died in 1995 after a failed liver transplant. He was courageous to the end.

 

George Steinbrenner, a wealthy ship-builder from Cleveland, bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973 and set out to rebuild them. The Steinbrenner era has been turbulent. He speaks his mind and attracts players who do the same. He has made 21 managerial changes. He hired and fired Billy Martin 5 times. Money is not an issue when it comes to "The Boss" and his Yankees. Free agency changed the game. Players go on the market when their contracts expire. Steinbrenner's money allows him to sign the top free agents. Modern players play for themselves, money and their current teams in that order.

 

Graig Nettles made breath-taking plays at third base for The Yankees in the 1970s. He was known for his wit as much as his glove. Nettles coined the phrase, "Bronx Zoo." Sparky Lyle used it as the title of his book. Nettles wrote one called, "Balls." When Cy Young winner Lyle was traded, Nettles said it was "Cy Young and Sayonara."

 

Cajun Ron Guidry was the Yankee pitcher of his generation. in 1978, Guidry went 25-3 with an ERA of 1.74. He was known for his slider.

 

Goose Gossage came to the Yankees as their closer. He intimidated with his Fu Manchu and blazing fastball.

 

Bucky Dent fueled The Yankees/Red Sox rivalry with his 1978 home run that put the Bronx Bombers in their second consecutive World Series with the Dodgers.

 

The Dodgers have been the Yankees' great National League rival. They have met in the World Series 11 times. The Yankees are 8-3.

 

Thurman Munson named Reggie Jackson, "Mr. October," after Reggie hit 3 home runs in game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers. Broadcaster Howard Cosell called Munson, "Old Scrapiron." Munson was the most reliable catcher since Berra. He died when his private plane crashed in 1979. The Yankees were not the same after his death.

 

Baseball is not as simple as it was in the 1950s. There were 16 teams, 8 in each league. After 154 games, the team with the best record in the American League played the team with the best record in the National League in the World Series.

 

Today, there are 30 teams, one winner and 29 losers. It is harder to win a World Series. There are the American League Division Series (ALDS) and the American League Championship Series (ALCS). There are the NLDS and NLCS. The playoffs took something away from the World Series. Theoretically, a team could go 162-0 and not go to the World Series while a team playing under .500 could win it. The Series became a tournament.

 

The 30 teams are affected equally. It is harder for everyone. The wild cards give lesser teams a chance. Over time, any team will be helped and hurt by the wild card. Baseball is complicated and no longer our national past time. Salaries are unreasonable. Derek Jeter signed a 10-year deal with the Yankees in 2001 for $189 million. Rediculous! People are working for minimum wage. Working men struggle to feed their families and make ends meet. Sports figures are paid millions for playing a game. A game is a game. Something is wrong.

 

I noticed a change while in Las Vegas in 1993. The Yankees were again rising from the ashes. I watched them on big screens in the Vegas hotels. They had Wade Boggs who would spend 5 years at third base. Someone told me they got Jimmy Key. I had not heard of Key, but he was a good pitcher. Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams were the backbone of this new dynasty. O'Neill won the batting title in the strike-shortened season of 1994. He played with an intensity that bordered on rage. He loved to win and hated to lose, the kind of guy you want on your team. Williams became The Yankees' best centerfielder since Mantle.

 

Don Mattingly was replaced at first base by Tino Martinez. Ironically, Mattingly never appeared in a World Series, coming in 1982 and leaving after 1995.

 

Derek Jeter came in 1995. He is the best shortstop in Yankee history, a fan favorite and headed for the Hall of Fame.

 

Steinbrenner hired Joe Torre as his manager for 1996. Torre was born to manage the Yankees. He is a New Yorker with the patience of Job. He understands baseball and its players. He can talk to the press, explain things in calm detail. Torre brought a stability to the Yankees which had been absent for years.

 

The Yankees went to their first World Series in 15 years under Joe Torre. They went up against the Atlanta Braves, the self-proclaimed "team of the '90s." David Cone, now a Yankee, came on television and made the statement, "We're not afraid of the Atlanta Braves!" I felt a rush! That is what I wanted to hear. I hated the Braves although not as much as the Cubs. Both Braves and Cubs were overexposed by cable TV in the 1980s. The tomahawk chop from Atlanta fans was annoying. I wanted the Yankees to kick their butts, and they did.

 

The Yankees had a catcher named Jim Leyritz. He had a wierd stance and a cocky attitude. He could play any position. He was used sparingly but when he was on the field, there was an aura. Leyritz' home run in game 4 against Atlanta in the 1996 World Series not only turned the Series around but started the Yankees on the road to 4 Championships in 5 years, 1996-2000. Leyritz was Andy Pettitte's regular catcher.

 

Andy Pettitte was a true Yankee. He came to the team in 1995. In 9 years with the club, he posted 149 regular season victories. He was the stopper, especially effective in October. Pettitte was a left-hander with a great pick-off move to first base. At 6"5', he was an imposing figure. I never understood why they let him go to Houston.

 

Roger Clemens pitched with the Yankees 5 years and picked up 2 World Series rings. Clemens, like Wade Boggs, spent his young days with the Boston Red Sox. He built a reputation as a fierce competitor, emotional and willing to throw inside. The beaning of Mike Piazza caused bad blood between the Yankees and New York Mets. The situation was made worse when Clemens later threw the top half of Piazza's broken bat at him. It was in 2001 that Roger Clemens endeared himself to Yankee fans. He went 20-3 and got the Cy Young Award. Clemens won his 300th game as a Yankee. He got his 4000th strikeout in the same game. He retired after the 2003 season only to sign with the Astros when Pettitte went to Houston. Houston is Clemens' home town. Amazingly, he won his 7th Cy Young at age 42. Clemens finished the 2005 season with 341 career wins and 4,502 strikeouts, second to Nolan Ryan. Clemens may pitch in 2006.

 

Somewhere in middle age, I became a connaisseur of pitching. They say good pitching beats good hitting, and it is certainly difficult to win without a strong starting rotation. Baseball today has a 5-man rotation. In the days of Whitey Ford, it was a 4-man rotation. Mel Stottlemeyer has been the Yankee pitching coach under Joe Torre. Through the late 1990s and into the 21st century, Torre, Stottlemeyer and Don Zimmer (bench coach) sat next to one another in the dugout like peas in a pod. Zimmer will be remembered for his run-in with Boston pitcher, Pedro Martinez. The 70-something Zimmer charged Pedro after Pedro threatened a bean ball. The incident was played and replayed. Zimmer left the Yankees at the end of the year.

 

David Wells brought excitement to the pitching staff. A hulk of a man, Wells spoke his mind and seemed a throwback to the "Bronx Zoo." His teammates called him Boomer. Wells had his moment when he pitched a perfect game on May 17, 1998. I caught the tail end of it at a tacho place in Nashville. It was the first perfect game by a Yankee since Don Larsen in 1956. Wells and Larsen went to the same high school in San Diego, although years apart. Larsen was in attendance when Wells pitched his perfect game. He had come to Yankee Stadium because it was "Yogi Berra day." The 1998 New York Yankees were a magical team. They won 125 games while losing only 50. There were no superstars but there were no weak spots.

 

The following year, 1999, David Cone pitched a perfect game. From that game, his career went into a tailspin. I felt it had something to do with giving out gold watches after the game. Gold watches are associated with retirement.

 

I thought third baseman, Scott Brosius, looked like my sister's husband. My dad and I watched Yankee games on TV in the late 1990s. "There's Steve!" I would say when Brosius came to the plate. My dad passed away, September 6, 2002 in Louisville. He and my mother watched a Yankee game the night he had a stroke. Pettitte pitched. I was watching the game in Nashville.

 

The Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves 4-2 in the 1996 World Series. They swept The San Diego Padres in the 1998 Series and swept Atlanta in 1999. 2000 saw the Subway Series between the Yankees and the New York Mets. The Yankees bested the Mets 4-1 to win their 26th World Series.

 

Since blowing the 2001 World Series, the Yankees have wilted in postseason. What good is it to win 100 games and lose the World Series? Joe Torre remains a rock. He has taken the Yankees to the playoffs 10 straight years.

 

There are not many players from the 1990s. Things change quickly. Bernie, Jeter, catcher Jorge Pasada, and Rivera and are it. Tino Martinez returned to finish his career in pinstripes. There is something about putting on a Yankee uniform. Over-the-hill players reach back to find something extra when joining the Yankees. It has always been that way. George Steinbrenner is a generous man despite his critics. He helps veterans.

 

Joe Torre has returned to manage the Yankees in 2006. His contract is good through 2007. Torre should be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee at the end of his tenure. Getting into the Hall of Fame is hard to do. There are 260 members, about 1% of all who have played Major League Baseball. Players are eligible 5 years after retirement. Their names may remain on the ballot for 15 years. They must receive 75% of the votes. Votes are cast by the Baseball Writers' Association. There are players in the Hall who are unfamiliar to modern fans. There are plyers who may deserve to be in who are not. The Hall of Fame sets its own guidelines. It exists for its own sake and the players enshrined. Wade Boggs was chosen on the first ballot. Boggs achieved baseball immortality after the 1996 Series when he rode around Yankee Stadium on a horse behind a mounted policeman. He went on to kiss home plate when he became the only player to hit a home run for his 3,000th hit. The Baseball Hall Of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York, the place where the game was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday.

 

Michael and I flew to New York and saw a game at Yankee Stadium. It was a day game with the Chicago White Sox, Wednesday, August 10, 2005. We were in the third tier down the third base line. The Yankees lost 2-1 in 10 innings, but we got to see some leftovers from the great team of the 1990s. It was my first and only time at Yankee Stadium. It was like I had to wait to take my son. We made our way to the Bronx and back to Manhattan by subway.

 

The 2006 Yankees feature high-profile players. Johnny Damon is in center field. Damon's father was an American soldier in southeast Asia. His mother was from Thailand. Randy Johnson is pitching another year. Mike Mussina is back. Alex Rodriguez is at third. Hideki Matsui is in left, Gary Sheffield in right. Giambi is on first. The line-up is being called the new Murderer's Row. With young pitchers like Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang, the Yankees might erase the humiliation of the previous 5 years.

 

Construction on the new Stadium begins in 2006. It will be ready for the 2009 season. It will be in the Bronx, close to the old stadium. It makes me wonder how long baseball will go on. Will baseball be around another hundred years? Will the Yankees still be the greatest team? What will a superstar's salary be in the 22nd century?

 

 

Bibliography

 

1 Anderson, Dave, Murray Chass, Robert Creamer and Harold Rosenthal. The Yankees: The Four Fabulous Eras of Baseball's Most Famous Team. New York. Random House, 1979

 

2 Frommer, Harvey. A Yankee Century. New York, Berkley Books, 2002

 

3 Hageman, William and Warren Wilbert. New York Yankees: Seasons of Glory. Middle Village, Jonathan David, 1999

 

4 Honig, Donald. The New York Yankees: An Illustrated History. New York, Crown, 1981

 

5 Mahoney, Jeff. Subway Series: Yankees vs. Mets. Middletown, CT, CheckerBee, 2000

 

6 Mantle, Mickey and Herb Gluck. The Mick. New York, Doubleday, 1985

 

7 Mantle, Mickey with Mickey Herskowitz. All My Octobers: My Memories of Twelve World Series When the Yankees Ruled Baseball. New York, HarperCollins, 1994

 

8 Robinson, Ray and Christopher Jennison. Yankee Stadium: 75 Years of Drama, Glamor and Glory. New York, Penguin, 1998

 

9 ________. Pennants and Pinstripes: The New York Yankees 1903-2002. New York, Viking, 2002

 

10 Stout, Glenn and Richard A. Johnson. Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankee Baseball. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2002

 

Jim Colyer

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