The Yankee Years
512 pp., $26.95
The Postwar Yankees: Baseball's Golden Age Revisited
David George Surdam
University of Nebraska Press, 2008
438 pp., $45.00
Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty
Daniel R. Levitt
University of Nebraska Press, 2008
456 pp., $29.95
Michael R. Stevens
Kingdoms Rise and Kingdoms Fall
The archetype would thus be the grinder with the even keel, the warrior with the zen persona, and Torre had two such players (who incidentally brought along Hall of Fame talent) in Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, players who bridged the two halves of Torre's run, both the feast and the famine. Verducci sets the table when he says that "Jeter's talent and confidence helped make him a great player right out of the box. It was his humility and desire to win above all else that made him a great teammate and a manager's dream." Indeed, Torre found in Jeter many of the central virtues by which the heart of the warrior might be measured: " 'Jeter was such a big part of what we established,' Torre said. 'I filled him in on what we needed to have done. He would literally commit to it. I wouldn't say buy in. He would commit to do something. He trusted me to the point where he knew what was important." What emerges in Torre's encomium to Jeter is a sketch of the inner quality of the warrior-player, the deep moral quality, if you will. If this is augmented by tremendous ability, it is a unique confluence, but ability alone can never mimic it. Hence, Alex Rodriguez's confusion, mentioned many times in the book, about why Jeter is revered more highly when he, A-Rod, has the superior talent, statistics, and even work-ethic. Torre pinpoints A-Rod's myopia with characteristic bluntness: " 'His goal was to be the best player in baseball,' Torre said. 'He was very much aware of what was going on elsewhere in baseball. He seemed cluttered up with these things." In the hierarchy, such motivational clutter is clearly better than self-serving absenteeism or moody dysfunction, but it can never be enough to make one a warrior, and ultimately a champion. It can never replace heart.
If I've skipped over some of the details of Torre's contract disputes with the Steinbrenner entourage, it is only to avoid tediousness, since there, too, the variations are all on the theme of trust. The same Joe Torre appears to have been at work in all 12 seasons with the Yankees, his approach rooted in a mingling of respect and professional accountability and trust among his players and coaches and with the organizational administrators. The turning of comedy into tragedy would indicate that the offer of trust is not enough—it must be embraced and reciprocated, by the right sort of players, the right sort of owner (yes, even the Boss!), in the right sort of sublimation of parts to the whole, of individual wills to the collective will to win. If the Yankees of the Torre era are a test-case, then we might have to grudgingly and grievingly admit that all of baseball suffers from a breach of trust that will be long-lived and hard to heal. Grinders of the world unite, or at least sign up for tee-ball and Little League—we need you!
By way of clarification, some of the forces that Torre and Verducci identify in their diagnosis of the diseases afflicting baseball are not of recent invention. True, HGH kits in the lockers and $10 million signing bonuses and 24/7 media coverage weren't part of the fabric of the game half a century ago, but David G. Surdam's The Postwar Yankees: Baseball's Golden Age Revisited reveals disconcerting trends afoot five and six decades ago, with ramifications reaching right into the contemporary game. If Torre's narrative of the recent Yankee juggernaut is a roller-coaster of laudatory praise and sharp rebuke, Surdam (a professor of economics at Northern Iowa) offers a sharp downward gaze at the supposed Golden Age of baseball (1946-1964), and the deleterious role of the Yankees in that illusory world. Like A.N. Wilson's deconstruction of the seemingly cohesive Victorian Age in God's Funeral, Surdam's revisionist account reveals in occasionally murky economist's prose that baseball was troubled in its structures and business habits even in the midst of its supposed finest hour. This book is not for the faint of heart; the writing is thick with statistics and particulars, culled in spheres as obscure as average concession incomes at the various stadiums through the era (this and other charts grace the massive statistical appendices). It is a quirky narrative, but the connections between the issues facing baseball now and those of a half century ago are startlingly clear. Surdam outlines the challenges at mid-century, such as competition with the rising NFL for fans, aging stadiums with inadequate parking, the mixed blessings of revenue sharing, the controversy and covetousness involved in franchise relocation, the crap shoot known as the amateur draft, and the cartel philosophy by which baseball owners ruled their unique and politically protected business interests. Not much seems to have changed. Not only have baseball's economic riddles not been solved, but they've escalated and proliferated. One strand of Surdam's copious research that took me—a supposed devotee of baseball history!—totally from the blindside was his account of the attempts by Branch Rickey and William Shea (both of estimable National League fame, before and after this cabal) in the late 1950's to form a "Continental League" as a third wheel on the major league machine, taking advantage of a prospering cities passed over by the tight MLB clique. Though the league never formed (and was indeed blocked by Congressional hearings and MLB harping about a dearth of playing talent), its aspirations to move into cities like St. Paul, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Miami, San Diego, and Toronto proved prescient. The shrewd MLB owners began their expansion into such markets , and managed to find the players whose absence they had lamented in derailing the new league. (Sadly for all Upstate New Yorkers—I am one by birth and upbringing—Buffalo remains to this day among those cities named oft and anon as bridesmaids, never to become the bride of a Major League Baseball franchise.)