Friday, November 12, 2010

Top 10 Best Days In Yankee History

A few weeks ago, I did the top 10 worst. This time, the best. As with the worst, these will be in chronological order, and will not necessarily involve actual games.

Top 10 Best Days In Yankee History

1. January 9, 1903. This was the day American League founder and President Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson approved the move of the AL's Baltimore Orioles to New York, where they would take on the name "Highlanders" until officially being renamed the "Yankees" in 1913, though the name had been around nearly from the start. So this day is as close to an official "birthday" as the Yankees have. Naturally, it is a great day, as the founding day is for all 30 MLB teams.
For the record, the Mets were granted National League membership on March 6, 1961. Which means, although the 50th Anniversary of their first game isn't until April 11, 1962, their 50th Birthday is less than 4 months away.

2. January 11, 1915. The Yankees' 1st owners, Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery are sick of losing, sick of the baseball business, and sick of each other. So they sell the team to Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston.

Ruppert, son of a German immigrant, was a brewer (the Ruppert Houses project now stands on the site of the Ruppert Brewery at 92nd Street & 2nd Avenue on the Upper East Side), and had served 2 terms as a Democratic Congressman from New York. Due to his political connections, he had been named an honorary colonel in the New York National Guard.

Huston was an engineer, who had made his name and fortune helping the U.S. Army out during the Spanish-American War in 1898, rising to the rank of Captain. So Ruppert was nicknamed "Colonel" (you didn't dare call him "Jake"), and Huston was nicknamed "Cap" (which he still answered to even after he went off to World War I and was promoted to an actual Colonel, though he also answered to "Til").
Ruppert and Huston, flanking
Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Ruppert was a lot like George Steinbrenner: He was not willing to pay for mediocrity, but he was willing to spend to build a champion. He and Huston did so, although by the time the Yankees won their 1st World Series in 1923, they, like the men from whom they purchased the franchise, had had enough of each other (Huston never liked Miller Huggins, Ruppert's choice for manager), and Ruppert bought out Huston's half-share.

Ruppert's heirs dedicated a plaque in his memory that graced the outfield wall of the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium from 1940 to 1973, and hung on the wall in the old Stadium's Monument Park from 1976 to 2008 and is now in the new Stadium's Monument Park. And the street connecting 157th and 161st Streets on the 3rd-base side of the old Stadium was named Ruppert Place. But Huston has been virtually forgotten. There is no memorial to him at the new Stadium. Nor was there at the old one.

When Ruppert died in 1939, he was still the sole owner of the Yankees, and had been around the team nearly every day until his final illness, so there were big headlines; when Huston died the year before, it hardly made the papers, no current member of the team had even met him.

Nevertheless, when "the Colonels" bought the Yankees, they set an ambitious course that intended championships -- if not a gigantic new stadium -- from the start. In 1915, the Yankees were New York's 3rd-most-popular team, and it wasn't even close.

By 1923, and the Yanks' defeat of the Giants in the World Series after losing the last 2 to them, they were not only the most popular team in New York, but, thanks to someone I'm about to mention, they were the most popular sports team in the world.

3. December 26, 1919. Let's clear some things up right now. Harry Frazee, owner of the Boston Red Sox from 1916 to 1923, is not to blame for selling George Herman "Babe" Ruth to the Yankees. Ruth himself is. Ruth, about to turn 25 years old, was still very much a juvenile delinquent -- perhaps not a malicious sort, but he was, in the word he had hated since he was sent off to a combination orphanage/reform school in Baltimore at age 7, "incorrigible." He had openly defied his manager and his team owner, was making unreasonable demands, and was one of the champion carousers of that ear. He made today's star athletes and music stars look like rank amateurs.

Frazee had no choice: He had to get rid of the Babe, just to restore order at Fenway Park. And with a dispute cutting the AL in half, there were only 2 teams willing to make deals with him: The Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. And the White Sox were owned by Charlie Comiskey. There are 2 things everyone not a White Sox fan remembers about Comiskey today: He was cheap, and that caused the Black Sox Scandal that was then about to break. Comiskey was willing to make a deal with Frazee, but he wasn't willing to pay what he considered an exorbitant sum for Ruth.

Ruppert and Huston were. So they bought Ruth's contract for $125,000, by far the biggest sum ever spent on a player transfer in North American sports. (I seriously doubt that any soccer club -- in Europe, South America or anywhere else -- had yet reached that figure on a player transfer.) The deal was announced a few days later, on January 5, 1920. The rest is history.
Well, history and myth. Let me make a point that others have made: Frazee was hurting, all right, but it was because Ruth was giving him headaches and ulcers. He was not hurting for cash. He didn't need the money to finance a new Broadway play: The plays he was producing, mostly musical comedies, were doing well. And the play most often cited as the reason for the Ruth sale, No, No, Nanette, didn't debut until 1925.

Say what you want about Harry Harrison Frazee, but he didn't sell Ruth because he was greedy, and he didn't sell Ruth so he could sacrifice the Red Sox on the altar of Broadway.

Funny thing: When the Yankees played the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, I couldn't get in, so I went from bar to bar in Manhattan looking for a good place to watch it, until finally deciding I had to go up to The Stadium to be there for the result, whatever it turned out to be. But because it was now after midnight, the trains were on a different schedule. So I got off at 50th Street, and soon found myself at 220 West 48th Street, outside the Longacre Theatre, which had once been owned by... Harry Frazee. Once I realized the significance of where I was and what it represented (where Frazee staged the plays that he supposedly needed to sell Ruth to finance), I heard a tremendous sound on my Walkman: Aaron Boone hitting the Pennant-winning home run, giving the supposed Curse of the Bambino one last extension. Tell me God isn't a Yankee Fan!

4. April 18, 1923. Opening Day of the original Yankee Stadium. The biggest ballpark yet built, and although it wouldn't stay that way (Cleveland Municipal Stadium would seat more), The Stadium, as much as anything else, became part of the Yankees' identity and mystique. Ruth hit the park's first home run, and the Yankees beat (who else?) the Red Sox, 4-1.
5. November 21, 1934. The Yankees purchase the contract of an outfielder, who had just turned 21 years old, from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. No other big-league team seemed to want him. Why not? Knee injury. The Yankees took a chance, giving the Seals $25,000, 5 players, and the right to hang onto the kid for the 1935 season before sending him east for 1936. His name? Joseph Paul DiMaggio.

Ruth had played his last game for the Yankees, although the general public didn't know that yet. Gehrig was just 31 and still at his peak -- in fact, he'd just won the Triple Crown. But with DiMaggio, the Yankees had secured their future, all the way through the 1940s and into the early 1950s.
Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Tony Lazzeri.
This has to be from either 1936 (Joe's 1st season with the Yankees)
or 1937 (Tony's last with the Yankees).

This made what we now think of as "The Yankee Mystique" possible -- including the scoutings and signings of the cornerstones of their 1950s dynasty: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. They no longer needed Ruth to promote themselves. Purchasing DiMaggio turned the Yankees from a team that had a great generation into a team for all generations. In essence, they went from being what the New York Islanders became from 1975 to 1987 to being... the New York Yankees.

Neat little footnote: DiMaggio's 1st pro game was for the Seals on October 1, 1932 -- the very day Ruth called his shot against the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

6. October 12, 1948. The Yankees take the next step in their future-securing by hiring Charles Dillon "Casey" Stengel as manager. He'd gotten a reputation, both as a player and as a manager, for being a "clown."
As Jim Ogle, the Newark Star-Ledger reporter who later ran the Yankee Alumni Association (making him responsible for putting together Old-Timers' Day), put it, "Well, the clown did pretty well. He won 10 Pennants in 12 years, and made the Yankee legend and mystique grow volumes." As Casey himself would have put it, "And you can look it up."

7. April 14, 1955. This the only date on this list to involve an actual game. And it was a loss, to the Red Sox of all teams, 8-4 at Fenway Park. So had could this have been one of the best days in Yankee history?

Because Elston Howard played left field at the end of the game. The Yankees had finally put a black player on the field in a game that counted. It had been 8 years since Jackie Robinson had done the same for all of baseball.
It should be noted that the Red Sox were then managed by Pinky Higgins, who allegedly said, "There'll never be a (N-word) on the Red Sox as long as I'm the manager." In 1959, he was fired, and Pumpsie Green was promoted from the minors, making the Sox the last MLB team to integrate.

Oddly, no one blames Sox general manager (and former shortstop and field manager) Joe Cronin for the color bar at Fenway, yet 1959 was the year he was named AL President and the year the Sox integrated. Coincidence? That's what the incurious believe in.

For the record, Higgins returned as manager a year later, and had more black players on the field than the man in between his tours of duty, Billy Jurges. Not that I'm blaming Jurges or exonerating Higgins, but it is interesting that for years, no one dared blame Cronin.

8. January 3, 1973. George Steinbrenner and his group buy the Yankees from CBS. The era of Yankee management tolerating mediocrity was over. The Boss Years were about to begin.
George and Joan Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium, 1973

When George bought the Yankees, the purchase price was $8.8 million, about $45.2 million in today's money. When he died earlier this year, the team and all its assets were said to be worth $1.6 billion. About 35 times what he paid.

9. July 30, 1990. Commissioner Francis T. "Fay" Vincent permanently bans Steinbrenner from the day-to-day management (although not the actual ownership, and financial responsibilities and receipt of income thereof) of the team. This was because George had hired Howie Spira, a private investigator and compulsive gambler, to find damaging information about Yankee star Dave Winfield and his charitable foundation, in order to discredit Winfield.

If Spira ever found anything, it has never been publicly revealed. For that reason, Dave, in the exact opposite of what George intended, was the only one of the three who came out looking good. Spira turned to Vincent, and George was banned. George was, however, permitted to apply for reinstatement after 2 years, and in 1993 reinstatement was granted.

The Yankees were already in last place at the time -- 1908, 1912, 1966 and 1990 remain the only last-place finishes in the team's history -- and I actually went to the game that night, against the Detroit Tigers. The Yankees won, 6-2. Only 24,037 attended, and what a relief there was in the crowd. I'm not ashamed to admit it: I took part in the "Steinbrenner sucks!" chant.

If you had told us that night that, as a result of the banning order, Gene Michael (whose initials, appropriately, are GM) would rebuild the organization, top to bottom, and within 6 years we'd be World Champions again, I think we would have taken it. But if you had told us then that, 6 years later, we'd be chanting, "Thank you, George!" at the ticker-tape parade following said World Series win, we'd have wondered what you were smoking.
Jennifer, George and Joan Steinbrenner
at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, 2008

And yet, both came true: Both the Yankees and their Boss were rehabilitated, restored and redeemed. In order for both the team and Steinbrenner to be redeemed, George had to go. As Richie Ashburn would've said to his broadcast partner, "Hard to believe, Harry."

10. July 30, 2009. If you're a Red Sox fan, and you're intellectually honest, this was The Day the Music Died. This was the day it was revealed that both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez flunked steroid tests in 2003 -- meaning the team's 2004 and 2007 World Championships were illegitimate.

Maybe Manny was already a great hitter without steroids, but there's no way the Sox would've won either title with the David Ortiz who averaged 14 homers and 59 RBIs a year for the Minnesota Twins from 1997 to 2002. Big Papi was a big fat fraud.

To this day, Sox fans chant "Sterrrr-oids!" at the Yankees, especially Alex Rodriguez, who was never caught AS a Yankee, and whose first World Championship game 6 years -- not 1 year -- after he was caught. Since 1918, Yankees 27, Red Sox 0*. The Curse of the Bambino could not be broken without the Sox cheating. So if it ever actually existed, then... it still does.

And the collapse of October 17-20, 2004 counts for nothing. The Yankees didn't choke, the Sox fucking cheated.

And July 30, 2009 was the day that confirmed that we never deserved such ignominy. And the Sox did. In other words, the Curse of the Mitchell Report was dead.

And any Sox fan who says those 2004 and 2007 titles are real, whether I know you or not, you can kiss my ring. Take your pick: There's 27 of them. All real.

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