Review of The New York Yankees in Popular Culture: Critical Essays

Krell, David, editor. The New York Yankees in Popular Culture: Critical Essays. Jefferson, North Carolina. McFarland & Company, 2019. Pp. 239. Index, introduction, notes. $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.

Comedian Joe E. Lewis is generally credited with the quip that “Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.” Gay Talese, writing in The New York Times Magazine on June 29, 1958, parroted the quote, adding Yankees fans are “full of noblesse oblige and the great calm of absolute certainty.”

That makes sense. In 1958, the Yankees were already on the way to their ninth pennant in ten seasons.

McFarland and Company, 2019.

But writing about the Yankees? At times, it seemed some authors believed they were writing for Encyclopedia Britannica — stuffy, stilted excerpts that never captured the effect the Yankees had on baseball and popular culture. David Krell takes a fresher approach, compiling sixteen essays that examine baseball’s most storied franchise and how it impacted popular American culture. In The New York Yankees in Popular Culture: Critical Essays, Krell and fourteen other writers sift through the reasons why — like them or hate them — the Yankees continue to command center stage in baseball. “They dominated the headlines, for better or worse,” Krell told Maryland Today earlier this year.

For the first time in a century, the Yankees failed to win a pennant during a specific decade. Since 1920, New York had advanced to at least one World Series — even in the 1980s, when the Yankees reached the Fall Classic during the strike-marred, 1981 split season. But by now, the Yankees have been ingrained in the American psyche, and Krell and his colleagues tackle the team’s appeal from several angles.

Jeanine Basinger looks at the 1942 film classic, The Pride of the Yankees, calling it “masterful in its ability to tell a true baseball story.” (P. 10). Basinger sets up the plot, the drama behind the scenes and the task of making actor Gary Cooper believable as Lou Gehrig. For even more minutiae, readers should check out Richard Sandimor’s 2017 book, The Pride of the Yankees. In “Of Calzones and Costanza,” Krell dissects the good-natured Yankees-infused banter in the comedy Seinfeld, where perennial complainer and always neurotic George Costanza — portrayed masterfully by actor Jason Alexander — interacts with an equally irascible George Steinbrenner. The Boss was not played by the real Steinbrenner, but sounded equally gruff thanks to Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, whose dialogue was always delivered with his back to the camera or in silhouette. The irony should not be lost that Krell, who grew up in New Jersey, rooted for the Mets while growing up. However, as Richard Pioreck writes in “Mystique and Aura in the Zeitgeist,” the team has enjoyed a national fan base since Babe Ruth joined the in 1920 “particularly because other fans are focused against them.” (P. 183).

Three essayists reference the late Jim Bouton, the pitcher whose 1970 bestseller Ball Four tore the cover off clubhouse sanctity and portrayed baseball players, not as gallant heroes, but as what they really were — men filled with anxiety while playing a game, focused on winning, but also enamored with pranks, obscenity, pettiness, drinking and sexual innuendo. A pair of essays written by trademark lawyer Ron Coleman and Martin S. Lessner, focuses on “the Yankee brand.” Coleman delves into a fascinating look at the trademarks surrounding the Yankees and the team’s interlocking “NY” logo. Lessner, meanwhile, focuses on “That Damn Yankees Cap,” Why do so many people wear the Yankees cap? Because, Lessner writes, people “seek to associate themselves with the perceived power and glory that comes with to its most famous wearers.” (P. 40).

Ron Briley’s essay, “Lost in the Wilderness,” is a nice summation of the Yankees’ decline to also-ran after the 1964 squad lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. It could be a condensed version Philip Bashe’s 1994 retrospective, Dog Days, but gets to the point quicker. In an aside, I have a standing joke with Yankees historian and author Marty Appel, who was the team’s public relations director during Steinbrenner’s early years with the team. We referred to 1965 to 1975 as the “Horace Clarke Era,” a gentle jab at the switch-hitting second baseman who seemed to personify the dog days in Yankees history.

Briley’s essay explains the significance and the aftermath of Bouton’s Ball Four, particularly in his characterization of Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle as a hard drinker and a womanizer. As Briley astutely notes, “by contemporary standards, Bouton’s description is hardly shocking.” (P. 26). Today’s biographies and diaries are more revealing than Bouton’s ever was. While Mantle and the Yankees of the 1950s and ’60s symbolized “the promise of American life,” cracks were beginning to show by the mid-1960s, which are adroitly addressed by Briley. The team would finally re-emerge the late 1970s as a power again, with Reggie Jackson leading the way. Louis Gordon and Paul Hensler address that era, with Gordon’s essay the appropriately named “The Yankees as a Metaphor for the 1970s.”

Erin DiCesare, a Ph.D. from Florida State University whose area of expertise includes popular culture and reality television, weaves a concise, punchy essay about the Yankees’ “Core Four” that came to maturity during the mid-1990s — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada — men who not only excelled on the field, but also made a splash away from it. Jeter happily shed his dignity to play the wife of Alfonso Soriano on the Saturday Night Live sketch “Yankees Wives,” and Posada was featured in an ESPN commercial with Boston Red Sox rival David Ortiz. “The impact that the Core Four had on popular culture is impressive,” DiCesare writes. (P. 53).

Turning back the clock, Duke Goldman — born in the Bronx but a lifelong Yankee hater (P. 217) — examines in two essays the cultural history of Joe DiMaggio and Mantle, two of the team’s “Core Four” of idols (going old school, I would include Babe Ruth and Gehrig in this definition, modern-day “Core Four” notwithstanding). Image building is the thrust of Goldman’s piece, as he examines how the taciturn DiMaggio went from “Deadpan Joe” to “Joltin’ Joe” and eventually, the graceful “Yankee Clipper.” DiMaggio became “a heroic personality symbol” to average Americans during the Great Depression and World War II. (P. 71). Later, he became a symbol to a different generation of Americans as he elegantly hawked Mr. Coffee on television advertisements (P. 79). Mantle, meanwhile, was transformed from the “Commerce Comet” to “Bronx Bomber” after his breakout Triple Crown 1956 season. His image as a pitchman showcased his “one of the guys” persona, an athlete unafraid to cry “I want my Maypo!” in a 1967 commercial. Even as he got older, Mantle remained “telegenic and trusted.” (P. 84).

Jeffrey M. Katz takes a look at the culture surrounding Douglass Wallop’s 1954 book, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, and the Broadway and Hollywood versions of the book, renamed Damn Yankees. Katz writes that Wallop’s long-suffering Joe Boyd, transformed into Washington Senators star Joe Hardy after he made a deal with Satan, “helped refine and expand the mystique” of the team Wallop detested. (P. 123). Another personal note: It’s always a treat to see yourself as a source for a writer in a book or essay, and I appear as footnote No. 56 for Katz, who referenced articles I wrote about the board game “Challenge the Yankees” in 2015 and 2017 for Sports Collectors Daily. P. 129).

The book ends with Matt Rothenberg’s “E-61*,” which is a critical look at Billy Crystal’s 2001 film, 61*, a dramatic look at Mantle and Roger Maris and they dueled to break Ruth’s single-season home run record during the 1961 season. But the theme that comes up often in the movie, Rothenberg writes, is the number of inaccuracies there are. “It is not uncommon in television of motion picture productions based on true events to have some stretching of the truth,” Rothenberg asserts. (P. 198). Rothenberg is as thorough as a librarian, which is natural since he holds a master’s degree in library and information studies from Rutgers University. He subdivides the movie’s “inaccuracies and falsehoods” into several categories — mistaken identities, roster imposters, missed plays, stadium snafus, fake news and “the ever-present miscellany.” (P. 198). Rothenberg uses readily available websites such as Retrosheet (which was founded in 1989) and Baseball-Reference (founded in 2000). While he ticks off the mistakes, Rothenberg admits such trivia might have been unnoticed by casual baseball fans or moviegoers unfamiliar with the 1961 drama in New York. “While not always true to the facts, (the film) provides viewers with a special look into the season,” Rothenberg writes.

There is one error of note in the overall collection of essays. Former Yankees player Jerry Kenney is referred to as “Kinney.” (P. 108). In a point of clarification, a mention from Sparky Lyle’s 1979 book The Bronx Zoo detailed how Davey Lopes pointed his finger skyward after hitting a home run “as if to say, ‘We’re number one.’” (P. 99). Lopes certainly did point to the heavens after hitting two homers and driving in five runs in Game 1 of the 1978 World Series, but he said he was honoring Dodgers coach Jim Gilliam, who died on the eve of the Fall Classic. Whether one believes Lyle or Lopes is a matter of opinion.

The writing for The New York Yankees in Popular Culture is marked by an easy, casual dialogue between essayist and reader. All of the writers are not mentioned here, but as a group they provided interesting, informative takes about the Yankees. Even for Yankee-haters, this collection of writings is certain to provoke debate. Krell’s selection of pieces presents a fully rounded portrait of baseball’s marquee franchise. The pieces are supple and readable, far-removed from the metallic view that inspired Joe E. Lewis’ crack about the Yankees and U.S. Steel more than sixty years ago.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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