What better time, here in the midst of this glorious Natitudinal season of 2012, to read a book about the dreaded New York Yankees? Our team has done well, so we can afford to be large-hearted and give them their due. And what a due it is, historically speaking. Let’s be honest: No team in the annals of baseball has as storied a history as the New York Yankees.
Certainly, no other team’s name brings quite the same visceral reaction as does “the Yankees.” As Rob Fleder, former executive editor of Sports Illustrated and the editor of Sports Illustrated Books, says in his introduction, “In the matter of the Yankees, there is no neutral ground. No Switzerland. Extreme, even fanatical views are the norm.” To prove his point, he invited two dozen fine writers, some of whom, such as the novelist Pete Dexter, are better known for writing non-sports books, to expound on what the concept known as the Yankees means to them. They are not, to put it mildly, all fans.
His murderers’ row of writers includes, among others, Jane Leavy, James Surowiecki, Roy Blount Jr., Bill Nack, J.R. Moehringer (author of the fine novel “The Tender Bar”) and Colum McCann. Their viewpoints are as varied as their backgrounds, but what they have in common is their ability to pull the reader into the story with style and grace.
While I enjoyed every single entry, even that of Bill James (the now famous baseball statistician — excuse me, sabermetrician — whose story is featured in the movie “Moneyball”), my hands-down favorite is clearly Pete Dexter’s “The Error of Our Ways.” In this longish essay, he recalls the strange malady that doomed the career of the Yankees‘ former star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.
In addition to learning that what happened to the fictional hero of Chad Harbach’s recent and much ballyhooed novel “The Art of Fielding,” happened in real life to a very real player, I learned that Knoblauch’s epically errant throw did not hit just any old fan. It skipped off the top of the Yankee dugout and into Box 47E where it “hit the 71-year old mother of Keith Olbermann right between the eyes… . Mrs. Olbermann, you will notice, was not sitting in the cheap seats, which only goes to show that money can’t buy happiness. Or maybe it can. The story of her plunking, along with her picture, appeared in newspapers, making her an instant celebrity, and as her son, Keith Olbermann, who, being a celebrity himself, knows what he is talking about, said, ‘She couldn’t have been happier if they had let her pinch hit.’ “
Jane Leavy’s entry recounts the relationship between Mickey Mantle and Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan, who had the best line ever, says Ms. Leavy, about how to pitch to Mantle: “With tears in my eyes.” In her Mantle biography (“The Last Boy”), she had referred to Mr. Sullivan as “the late.” First her publisher got a note from Mrs. Sullivan inquiring as to how Jane Leavy might “declare him undead,” and then, after her profuse apology, Ms. Leavy received a charming email from the man himself. “Dear Jane, It would distress me big time if you were to lose a minute’s sleep over this. I know I haven’t. And besides, you’re probably not off by much.” That’s Leavy’s takeoff point, and the rest of her article (“Sully and the Mick”) is every bit as interesting.
Among the other fascinating contributions are those of: J.R. Moehringer (on the day he and his grandfather went to a Yankee game and his grandfather sat next to a man who turned out to be “The Oldest Living Yankee”); Nathaniel Rich (“The Queens Speech,” a deconstruction of a true Yankees fan by a self-confessed Mets’ fan: “Let’s get one thing out of the way: there is no such thing as a person who is a fan of both the Yankees and the Mets. Anyone who identifies himself in this way is, in actuality, a fan of neither team.”); Rick Telander, who engagingly recalls his Sports Illustrated story about the great Jim Abbott that should have run (but didn’t) and a mind-numbing 39-page last section titled “Yankees By the Numbers” which will appeal to world-class statisticians, and, after the first 10 pages, not all that many other readers.
Most collections, whether by baseball fans or lepidopterists, contain a few clinkers. “Damn Yankees” is a notable exception. This book has something for everyone, even if you’re just a fan of good writing. For example, columnist Dan Barry writes, “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.”
This thoroughly captivating book has a special distinction: It contains only one statement (see page 199) allegedly made by Yogi Berra.
• John Greenya is a Washinton-area writer.