LADY AT THE BAT: Top 10 Tuesday: Most Memorable Yankees Books

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Top 10 Tuesday: Most Memorable Yankees Books

As part of our celebration of Lady At the Bat's 10th anniversary, here is another piece in our special Top 10 Series. Pete Colgan has read a lot about his favorite team but, somehow, he managed to narrow his list down to 10 books! --BP

I fancy myself as an avid reader of Yankees books, over the many decades I have followed the team. My assignment is to narrow the long list of books I've read into my top ten, which is no easy task.I arrived at this list by selecting the many books which were presented in an historical perspective, or in some way resonated through some of my personal experiences following this team. What were the unforgettable moments? How did I cope in some of the tougher times? And what are some of my favorite moments of glory?

So here is my list of my ten most memorable books, which I would recommend for any Yankees fan to read. I am aware some of them may be out of print and difficult to find, this being my fifty sixth season following these Yankees, which would explain why some of these books are not very recent.   

10. Minnie and the Mick: The Go-Go White Sox Challenge the Fabled Yankee Dynasty 1951-1964, By Bob Vanderberg, Published   1996  
This book is actually written from a Chicago perspective, but I grew up in Illinois, a three hour drive to Comiskey Park. So all my early in person Yankees experiences occurred at Comiskey Park. I was only at Comiskey once during the era the book covers. which was a doubleheader on August 18, 1963, which the Yankees swept, by the way. The highlight of each chapter was the author's picks for "Most Glorious Victory" and "Most Devastating Defeat" written from the Chisox perspective. Suffice it to say, Yankees fans need to gravitate toward the "devastating defeats" while reading this book.

One devastating defeat in the book occurred July 14, 1957 at Comiskey, which was before my recollections of baseball. But my uncle was at that doubleheader, and even spoke to the hero of the day, Moose Skowron many years later.

The Yankees had lost the first game of the twin bill, with Whitey Ford taking an early exit. In game two the Yankees trailed 4-0 going to the 9th inning. The Yankees started a rally and had loaded the bases with one out and their first run on the board. Moose Skowron was on the bench, still recuperating from a severe hamstring injury. Stengel sent up Skowron to pinch hit, but with the following instructions: "Go up there and hit the ball in the air. If you hit it on the ground, just start walking to the dugout. Don't even try to run it out. I don't need you to be out six more weeks."
Skowron hit the first pitch into the upper deck.

The Yankees won 6-4 as Yankees pitcher Tommy Byrne followed Skowron's grand slam with a home run of his own.. And so many years later, my uncle who lived near Chicago, and also a Yankees fan, ran into Skowron at the nearby Arlington Racetrack and asked Moose what Casey Stengel had told him prior to that at bat. Moose and my uncle talked about Casey, and yes, the "walk back to the dugout" story was accurate.  

9. Babe Ruth's America: A Warm, and Rollicking Portrait of the Babe And His Times             Robert Smith, 1974
If you are interested in American History from the 20th Century between the two World Wars, this is a fascinating read. Babe arrives in New York from Boston. thanks to a fellow from my hometown of Peoria IL named Harry Frazee who owned the Red Sox. It is now the Roaring Twenties and America will never be the same. Prohibition has started and the Babe finds himself in the midst of all the craziness  that resulted. By the end of the decade, the Babe and boxer Jack Dempsey were at the top of the sports world. Sure, there was Knute Rockne and the Four Horseman and Red Grange among others, but at the very top  stood the Bambino and boxer Dempsey.

Then the world changed in the 30's. The Great Depression arrived, There were political and social changes in the nation and in New York City, with some ominous political changes overseas. Prohibition was repealed. By 1936 new hero in the Bronx became San Francisco native, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio as Babe had retired. Other heroes emerged in other sports, namely Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, as attitudes toward race relations changed to a degree. The Babe was known in many corners of the globe. During World War II,  it was said, the Japanese captors of American servicemen uttered one simple phrase in English intended to inflict the worst insult to America: "To hell with Babe Ruth"

8.  The Greatest Game: The Yankees and The Red Sox And The Playoff of '78, Richard Bradley, 2008
Before there was Aaron "Bleeping" Boone there was Bucky "Bleeping" Dent. The first time former Yankees coach, Don Zimmer coached in New York, under  manager Billy Martin, Bucky had an empty house in New Jersey in close proximity to Yankee Stadium, across the Hudson River.  Bucky had left the Yankees and Zim took up residence in Bucky's house. Prominently displayed on one of the walls was a picture of Bucky hitting the famous home run at Fenway which dented Boston Manager Don Zimmer's pennant hopes. Zim said he turned the picture toward the wall. Tough memories when you're on the other side.

So it was with the book, which was primarily written about one game, plus all that led up to it. In 1978, the Red Sox had built a 14 game lead over the Yankees into July, and the Yankees had slipped as far as third pace. Billy was forced to resign following his disparaging remarks about Reggie Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner. Recently dismissed White Sox manager Bob Lemon was hired and he brought calm and a "just play your game" attitude to the Bronx and the Yankees rallied to overtake the Red Sox in the race. The Red Sox made a final stand which resulted in a tie for the season at 99-63 between the two clubs and the playoff game followed. The Dent home run did not settle the division title until the very end, when Carl Yastrzemski's pop fly landed in Graig Nettles' glove.

7. They Kept Me Loyal to The Yankees: A Salute to Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Joe Pepitone, Mel Stottlemyre, Roy White and Thurman Munson 65-75, Victor Debs, 1993
How did I stay loyal to the Yankees, living three hours from the home of the St Louis Cardinals? In 1968, I'm at Busch Stadium, watching Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda and my first favorite player as a kid, Roger Maris play for the Cardinals. How could I not switch my allegiances?
I was also watching the scoreboard, especially one Saturday and the Yankees, behind the pitching of Mel Stottlemyre amd a two run home run by Roy White were defeating the Detroit Tigers and Denny McLain (31-6 that year) Pepitone and Mantle were there as well and Murcer would return in  1969 and the Sporting News was already touting the greatness of 1968 draftee, a catcher named Thurman Munson. I was at Yankee stadium in 1979 for the entire home stand following the tragic death of the Yankee Captain. So Munson and Murcer are forever etched in my Yankees memories.
So, that, in a nutshell, is how I stayed loyal to the Yankees, too.

The author, Victor Debs, a schoolteacher by trade, also included in his book a letter to the editor of the Staten Island Advance he wrote which was published June 10, 1990.
The subject was Mickey Mantle.

Ironically, that was the same day I met the Mick at his restaurant on Central Park South in Manhattan. 

6. Damned Yankees:  A No-Holds Barred Account of The Life With "Boss" Steinbrenner,       Bill Maddon and Moss Klein, 1990
This book was timely in it's release. Maddon and Klein followed the Yankees through the Steinbrenner Era. I always think of three distinct eras under King George. Era I was pre-1980 when the Yankees rebuilt a championship. Era III was 1992 to 2010. when the Yankees were either champions or in the playoffs (following a couple of years rebuilding) Both these eras, showed why George Steinbrenner should be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Unfortunately there is also the 80's and the reign of Steinbrenner Era II. And much of the book covers the deeds and misdeeds of Boss Steinbrenner which brought the Yankees to 1990, which was only their second last place finish since 1912, and arguably their worst season since 1912. Talk about timing.

The book is well written and well illustrated with cartoons by artist Ed Murawlaski. In some ways the cartoons which depicted the characters of the 80's including the Boss in a humorous light, is one of  the best parts of the book, at least every bit as good as the writing.   

5. October 1964, David Halberstam, 1994
I decided to choose between the two Halberstam books, the other being The Summer of '49. October 1964 was part of my upbringing as a young Yankees fan. My Dad and brother were Cardinals fans and when the Redbirds met my Yankees in the 1964 World Series it was my first experience at a grueling defeat.  Yes, the Yankees lost the Series in a sweep to the Dodgers the year before. In 1963 the Yankees barely showed up. 1964 was much different  and for awhile, the Yankees seemed to be in control.

But the Cardinals won in seven and there are countless what ifs. What if Whitey Ford didn't get hurt in game one and miss the rest of series? What if Pepitone had been called safe ahead of Tresh's 9th inning home run? What if Richardson had gotten the ball out of his glove to get at least one out ahead of Ken Boyer's home run, which turned out to be a game winning grand slam? The lesson is this is baseball and at age ten I was going to have to learn the ball doesn't always bounce in my favor all the time.  

4. October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and The Yankees Miraculous Finish of 1978, Roger Kahn, 2004
Another great baseball writer weighed in in the 1978 season. Much like "The Greatest Game" this was an account of one of the most amazing seasons in Yankees history which resulted in a championship. "The Greatest Game" focused on Fenway and the game of October 2, 1978. Kahn's book centered on the men, often in conflict, whose not always positive antics, the Yankees managed to weather and still bring home a trophy. Bob Lemon took over for Billy and brought calm for the team and respect for Reggie Jackson, who was, for the remainder of the season, the Yankees cleanup hitter and a large part of the comeback. Of course, Billy made a triumphant return on Old Timer's Day with the promise he  would return to the Yankees dugout. (That is another story which was told in many of the books about Billy I have read)

3. Dynasty: New York Yankees 1949-1964-- When Rooting For The Yankees Was Like Rooting For US Steel,  Peter Golenbock, 1975
I came of age in the final years of this Yankees dynasty. Golenbock told of and often interviewed players of the era, some of whom I knew about and many who were just before my time. The Yankees had been good most of the time from 1921 and through 1964, but Golenbock told of the success of the post war Yankees. Casey Stengel held court for a dozen amazing years and Ralph Houk inherited a solid Yankees team, which experienced their most impressive season since 1927 in the 1961 Yankees.

2. The Bronx is Burning: 1977 Baseball, Politics, And The Battle For The Soul of The City,   Jonathan Mahler,  2005
1977 was my second straight year visiting New York City. I don't know how many people said to me upon learning of my planned trip, "I would NEVER go to New York!" Well, New York in 1977 in many ways was a mess. Most cars in the subway were cover with graffiti. There were daily stories of robberies across the city and the streets were dirty.

 And the "Son of Sam" was on the loose.

I was there in May and I remember a man stopping me on 5th Avenue, saying "You better be careful. There is someone running around the city killing young people like you." That was a bit unnerving, but I knew the M. O, of this killer was to kill a young man  and a young woman together. At the time I was single and didn't even have a girlfriend. So I wasn't all that concerned, but it did occur to me that I could have been talking to the killer himself, When they caught David Berkowitz, later that summer, he was a much younger man than the man who approached me between Rockefeller Center and St Patrick's.

And then there were the Yankees. I stayed in town long enough for the Sport Magazine article with the Reggie Jackson interview and the famous quote (or misquote) "the straw that stirs the drink" I saw the magazine on the newsstand, but Reggie was not on the cover, so I didn't purchase the magazine. The account was well covered in the New York papers, which I would read daily on my trips. Imagine me, not purchasing that piece of Yankees history? I was at the stadium that very night when Reggie homered against the Red Sox and proceeded to enter the dugout on the far end. I was situated in the loge boxes above the Yankees dugout wondering what I had just witnessed. . A few weeks later Reggie and Billy had their famous near fight in the visitor's dugout at Fenway.

So I went home in time to miss the famous blackout of the city. I saw on television in the post season the multiple alarm fire in the South Bronx during a Yankees game, which prompted ABC commentator, Howard Cosell to utter the now famous phrase, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." So in reality it became a metaphor for all the issues of that year in New York and created an unflattering image of the city to the rest of the country.

I, for one will never forget that summer and my visit to see the Yankees.After all these years I still have fond memories of my visit and the team that won it all,  despite all the chaos of that summer.

1. Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig In His Time,  Ray Robinson, 1990
Lou Gehrig in his time was actually second banana to Babe Ruth and then Joe DiMaggio, his teammates for all but one season of his career, Reading this book made me realize Gehrig might have been the most important Yankee of all time and certainly the most tragic. Gehrig seemed to be a small town boy despite living in the largest city in the US. His life before professional baseball was in the neighborhoods of upper Manhattan, Yorkville and Washington Heights. Everything was in the neighborhood, the schools, work and not venturing too far from home, which  was the life of many immigrant families of that era. Gehrig even attended college at the nearby Columbia University.

The only departure for Gehrig in his early life away from his neighborhood was a trip with his high school baseball team by train to Chicago for an exhibition game at Wrigley Field. Lou Gehrig, all of 17 years old proceeded to hit a home run completely out of the stadium with the ball landing on Sheffield Avenue, which ran behind the right field bleachers. Ruth was a larger than life figure wherever he went. DiMaggio dated and married movie stars. Gehrig was all baseball. Much of his private life was personal and had it not been for the movie of his life,  "Pride of the Yankees", we may not know much of his life, There was little controversy about  Gehrig. He was considered a "mama's boy", perhaps and we learned Eleanor was the love of his life. What else was there to know, until he became sick with the illness which took his life at an early age  and now bears his name? Gehrig was the steadiest player in Yankees history, simply by playing every day and putting up his own set of impressive numbers despite playing with the great Ruth and later, the great  DiMaggio. And then tragedy struck and all Gehrig could do was tell the world he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth"

So there you have it. You might ask, what about Mickey Mantle books? Well, by my count I have read at least fifteen  Mantle books, which deserves special mention. From these books I can say I know which of three states the towns of Baxter Springs, Miami and Joplin are located. even though I have never visited that region where Mickey was born and raised. For the record we're speaking of Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, in that order,  all near Mantle's boyhood home of Commerce OK. You don't learn about places like those unless you have read of Mantle extensively, as I have.

Mantle, plus Ruth, DiMaggio, Gehrig, Yogi Berra and Billy Martin all have had multiple books written about them. The list of Yankees books is probably longer than any in sports in the United States and across the globe. The only way I could narrow such a list down to ten books is to find the books which resonated the most for me. Such things a regional rivalries, things which happened of which I experienced at least some of first hand and anything which had historical significance which interested me, were all things which helped to narrow my list to these ten books.

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