Saturday, January 4, 2014

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame CBS for the 1965-75 Yankee Dark Age

Today is January 3. It is the anniversary of George Steinbrenner and his group buying the Yankees from CBS.

The Columbia Broadcasting System bought the Yankees from co-owners Del Webb and Dan Topping on August 13, 1964, for $11.2 million. That works out to about $84.2 million in 2013 money.

On January 3, 1973, the Steinbrenner-led group bought the team from CBS for $10 million. That works out to about $55.8 million in 2013 money.

So CBS didn't just sell the Yankees at a loss, it was, with inflation factored in, it was a 51 percent loss. This, on the greatest franchise in the history of North American sports.

The CBS years are the Yankees' "Dark Ages" -- with the pre-Ruth years, 1903 to 1919, effectively being prehistory. It was a time when the players got old and/or hurt, the farm system dried up, the ballpark fell into disrepair, the neighborhood even more so, and, worst of all, the Mets not only surpassed the Yankees in popularity but won the 1969 World Series and another Pennant in 1973. It got so bad that, in order to renovate Yankee Stadium and make it a modern ballpark, the Yankees had to spend 2 years sharing Shea Stadium with the Mets. Not a fate worse than contraction, but bad enough.

From 1921 to 1964, here are the Yankees' finishes, out of 8 (1921-60) or 10 (1961-64): 1st, 1st, 1st, a close 2nd, 7th, 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, a close 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, a close 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 1st, a close 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd despite winning 103 games, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st and 1st.

From 1965 to 1975, out of 10 (1965-68) or 6 (1969-75): 6th, 10th, 9th, 5th, 5th, a distant 2nd, 4th, 4th, 4th, a close 2nd, 3rd.

From 1976 to 1981, out of 6 (1976) or 7 (1977-81): 1st, 1st, 1st, 4th, 1st, 1st.

So you can see the difference. They fell apart under CBS, then began to recover under Steinbrenner.

The Yankees weren't just ranging between bad and merely mediocre under CBS, they weren't even all that interesting. From 1946 (the first post-World War II season) to 1964, the Yankees averaged 22,120 fans per home game, about as good as it got in those days. From 1965 to 1975, the Dark Age, it was 14,470 -- they'd lost about 1 out of every 3 fans. They lost a lot to the Mets, some to fear of crime in The Bronx. Some fans simply stopped caring, and some, clearly, were front-runners, only rooting for the Yankees because they won, and were doing so no longer.

From 1976, the reopening of The Stadium and the return to glory, through 1995, the year before the Torre/Jeter/Rivera Era began -- and this includes the successful Reggie Years as well as the far less successful Donnie Baseball Years that followed -- the Yankees averaged 27,369 fans, better than ever.  (Since 1996, it's been 43,265.)

In 1970, the Yankees finished 2nd, winning 93 games -- but that was still 15 games behind the eventual World Champion Baltimore Orioles. In 1972, the Yankees were in the race until September; in 1973, until August; but fell apart both times. In 1974, they were in the race all the way to the end, but fell short; in 1975, again, they fell apart in September and ended up 3rd. It would not be until 1976, with the pitching shored up and with Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph installed to add speed and defense, that the Yankees got back into the postseason, and, along with the revamped Stadium, brought the fans back: Averaging 16,101 fans in '75, they averaged 25,314 in '76, not bad considering the state of the economy at the time, especially in the nearly-bankrupt New York City.

Meanwhile, as I said, the Mets surpassed them both on the field and at the box office. The Jets also won a title. The Knicks won 2, and had 3 other close calls. The Nets were born, and went on to win 2 titles in the ABA. The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Finals and were regular contenders. The Islanders were born, and reached contender status as the end of that era. So the Yankees were not only no longer the best team in town, in any sport, they were 7th in getting, and deserving, attention, ahead of only the woeful football Giants.

So for a decade, the years of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the White House; the years of John Lindsay as Mayor, essentially; the years of psychedelia and soul power... the Yankees weren't just no longer the team to beat in baseball, they were damn near irrelevant.

Naturally, CBS, and the figurehead it hired to be president of the Yankees, Mike Burke, have gone down in history as fools, for ruining the greatest baseball team of them all.

Burke, a genuine American hero for what he did in World War II, and a man who genuinely loved sports, didn't seem to know much about running a team. And, also true, CBS didn't give him a lot of help, even though they were breaking ground with their TV programming: These were the years when they debuted All In the Family, M*A*S*H, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, and modernized police dramas like Kojak, Cannon and Barnaby Jones. With such success, and (then as now) no salary cap in baseball, CBS could have afforded to give Burke a blank check to trade for better players and pay them what they were worth. Instead, in 1972, the last CBS season, the average salary was $23,652. The top salary on the team was the $62,500 paid to Felipe Alou. This was not especially unusual for the era, in the last years before free agency, but this was the Yankees, and this was CBS.

Clearly, Burke and CBS did not make the most of what they had.

But, just as clearly, they got a bum rap from history, because "what they had" was a name and a legacy, and little else. They got a pig in a poke.

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame CBS for the 1965-75 Yankee Dark Age

5. Age and Injuries. In 1965, Tony Kubek hurt his back, and retired at the end of the season. Jim Bouton threw out his elbow, and went from winning 21 games in '63 and 18 in '64 to going 4-15 in '65. Roger Maris had a broken hand -- and the team didn't tell him just how bad it was, so he kept playing and made it worse. Bobby Richardson was also hurt, and had to be talked into playing one more year in '66. Whitey Ford's shoulder was cutting his career short. And, of course, Mickey Mantle's injuries were compounded, by new ones, by his not taking care of himself in his off-hours, and by his dogged determination to play no matter what, even when he could have used some time off.

By the dawn of the '67 season, Mickey, Whitey, Elston Howard and Tom Tresh were the only ones left from the starting lineup that won the '62 Series. Whitey retired early that season, Howard was traded away late that season, and by Opening Day 1968, the only players left from the 1964 World Series were Mickey, Tresh and Joe Pepitone.

To ease the strain on Mickey's legs, they switched him to 1st base and moved Pepitone out to center field. It was a mistake: Mickey wasn't a bad 1st baseman, but Pepi was a really good one, and not so good in center. Mickey said, years later, "I see Horace Clarke at 2nd, Gene Michael at short, Bobby Cox at 3rd, and I say, 'Where did everybody go?'" In 1967, Jerry Izenberg, the great sports columnist for Newark's Star-Ledger, invoked the musical Fiddler On the Roof, saying of the Yankees, "I don't recall growing older. When did they?"

It didn't quite happen all at once; it just seemed that way. And the farm system was dry: There was no one to replace them. I'll get back to that point later.

4. The Amateur Draft. For 40 years, the Yankees could figure out what high school or college player they wanted to sign, go to him, flash some cash, mention the Yankees' legacy and titles, and say, "Whattaya say?" and the kid would sign, unless he was completely committed to his "hometown club."

When the draft was instituted, to be first held in June 1965, it was designed as a way to counteract the Yankees' influence. Now, just as in the other sports, the best amateur players (at least, theoretically) would go to the teams with the worst records. That this happened exactly as the Yankees fell apart is not a coincidence, but it is very interesting.

Equally interesting is that the Draft didn't help the Yankees much. Their first pick in 1965 was Bill Burbach: He would pitch just 37 games in the major leagues. 1966: Jim Lyttle, who ended up playing longer in Japan than he did in the American major leagues. (Richie Hebner and Carlos May went later in that 1st Round.) 1967: Ron Blomberg, a 1st baseman whose lefty swing seemed tailor-made for The Stadium, but was prevented by injuries from reaching his full potential. (Taken later in that 1st Round: Jon Matlack, John Mayberry, Ted Simmons, Bobby Grich -- so even though the Yankees had the 1st pick in the entire draft, and Boomer was hardly a bum, they could have done much better.)

Thurman Munson was their first pick in 1968, and he certainly turned out to be a great choice. In 1969, they chose Charlie Spikes, a decent player, but best known now as one of 4 players the Yankees sent to the Cleveland Indians to get Graig Nettles. (Available later in that round: Don Gullett, Roger Metzger and Gorman Thomas.) 1970: Dave Cheadle, who never pitched for them, got traded to the Atlanta Braves for Pat Dobson in 1973, and ended up pitching 2 innings in the majors. (Not much of a draft: The best players taken in the 1st Round after Cheadle were John D'Acquisto and Dan Ford, and the best ones taken before him were Mike Ivie and Darrell Porter.) 1971: Terry Whitfield, who didn't play much for the Yankees, although he became a good player for the San Francisco Giants later on. (Another bad draft: The best players taken before him were Jim Rice and Frank Tanana, while the best first-rounders after him were Rick Rhoden and Craig Reynolds.)

So while teams like the Baltimore Orioles, the Cincinnati Reds, the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers were able to build strong teams for the 1970s in part because of good drafting, the Draft did little to help the Yankees.

It's also worth noting that, with all their free agent signings in the Steinbrenner Era, the Yankees had no 1st Round pick in 1979, '80, '81, '82, '83, '86, '87, '88 and '89. Of all the 1st Round picks the Yankees have ever made, only 1 is now in Monument Park: Munson. Derek Jeter, taken in 1992, will be the 2nd.

3. Home Field Disadvantage. Hank Aaron has said many times that, although the Milwaukee Braves beat the Yankees in the 1957 World Series, winning Game 7 at Yankee Stadium, he felt intimidated -- not by the team, but by The Stadium.

By 1965, that day was done. Teams were excited to come to Yankee Stadium, because they could beat the now-weakened Yankees at the place where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio once played.

But it was worse than that: When the Mets opened Shea Stadium in 1964, it gave them something the Yankees just didn't have anymore: A state-of-the-art stadium that wasn't in a bad neighborhood. It also gave the Mets something no New York sports team had ever had: A building with lots of parking. Having just 750 parking spaces meant that Ebbets Field was doomed even if Walter O'Malley had gotten the dome he imagined for what became the site of the Barclays Center; Shea had 12,000 spaces.

So the crowds at Yankee Stadium dwindled, and likely would have even if the Yankees had remained a good team in the latter half of the Sixties and the first half of the Seventies. It got to be like the complaints we now see about the new Yankee Stadium: Too many businessmen bringing clients to the home of the Yankees to try to impress them, and not enough "real fans." But as the Mets made their Pennant run in 1969, that made Shea the place to be, the place to take a client -- or a date. (Can you imagine if Tom Seaver were not just as good as he was, but as exciting and as glamorous as Joe Namath of the Jets? Or Walt Frazier of the Knicks?)

With the "Yankee Mystique" firmly in the past at that point, and no intimidating New York crowds, a home game gave the Yankees little help.

2. The Mets, For Once, Were Smart. It wasn't just that they figured out how to win, and that they built Shea. It was how they marketed themselves.

Even in the early Sixties, when the Yankees were still winning Pennants, they weren't reaching out to minority fans. Yes, they had Elston Howard, who was black. Yes, they had Luis Arroyo, a briefly great relief pitcher who was Puerto Rican. Yes, they had Hector Lopez who was black and Hispanic (in his case, Cuban). But general manager George Weiss had long resisted integrating the team at all, thinking that black fans would buy tickets, and that the Yankees' fan base consisted of businessmen from Westchester and Connecticut and blue-collar white ethnic guys from Jersey (at the time, a conceit but a reasonable one), and that they wouldn't want to see "colored" and "Spanish" players.

But the Mets were, in spirit if not in a business sense, the heirs of the Brooklyn Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe; and also of the New York Giants of Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. Since they weren't going to win anyway (at least, not at first), they could afford to sign black and Hispanic players, and go after whatever dollars that minority fans had and were willing to spend.

When the Mets won the Series in 1969, here were their black players: Starting left fielder Cleon Jones, starting center fielder Tommie Agee, platoon 1st baseman and Series MVP Donn Clendenon, and platoon 3rd baseman Ed Charles. Only 5 guys, but very prominent on the team.

The Yankees, at the same time, had the following black players: Pitcher Al Downing, starting left fielder Roy White, starting 2nd baseman Horace Clarke, starting center fielder Ron Woods, starting 3rd baseman Jerry Kenney, outfielder Bill Robinson, outfielder Dick Simpson, and infielder Nate Oliver. That's 8, so that's more; but aside from Downing and White, none of them were especially good (though Robinson would become a very good player... after the Yankees traded him away). Clarke, in particular, because he arrived in '65 when it all fell apart, got seriously booed at The Stadium, which he certainly didn't deserve.

So the Mets seemed like better marketers, because they had a team that seemed more diverse, and they had a new stadium, and they could call upon memories of the Dodgers and Giants, bringing their fans together, so it seemed like Yankee Fans were outnumbered 2-1.

This fed into the media: The newspaper and TV coverage of the Mets, even before they got good, was positive; they were "lovable losers" before the Chicago Cubs were, and they got better press while losing than the Yankees got while winning. Reporters who had once covered the Dodgers and Giants were thrilled when the Mets started winning and the Yankees continued losing. If you watch reruns of The Odd Couple, you'll notice Oscar Madison (played by Jack Klugman) frequently wearing a Mets cap, even though he was already approaching middle age by the time the Mets arrived in 1962. He never wore a Yankee cap. (The 3rd season DVD of the show even has Klugman wearing a Met cap on the cover. The 4th & 5th season openings show him coming out of a graffiti-stained pre-renovation Yankee Stadium, but that could just as easily have been from covering a Giants football game.)

So, as the media has always tended to do, it went with the story it liked: The Mets represent everything that was good about New York City and its baseball today (the late 1960s and early 1970s), while the Yankees are a past we'd like to forget, and a present we'd like to ignore even more so.

You don't believe me? The Mets didn't just get a ticker-tape parade on October 20, 1969 for winning the World Series, they got one on April 12, 1962, the day before their first home game, just for existing. The baseball Giants and the Dodgers had also gotten parades (although, in the Dodgers' case, it was in downtown Brooklyn instead of up Broadway in Lower Manhattan). The Yankees, at that point, had gotten just one parade, after winning the 1947 World Series, and so few people came to see it that they didn't get another -- until 1977, by which point the Mets had almost singlehandedly revived the tradition of ticker-tape parades up Broadway's "Canyon of Heroes."

The Mets were the cool team. Even the New York-based superhero Spider-Man was shown, in comic books and on the PBS kids' show The Electric Company, as a Met fan. (To be fair, his secret identity, Peter Parker, was said to be from the Mets' home Borough of Queens.) The Yankees? That was the team of your father, or your big brother, or the dumb kid down the block who still thought it was cool to limp and talk in an Oklahoma drawl like Mickey Mantle. All the cool kids were chanting, "Let's go Mets!" And this contrast made the Yankees' struggles look even worse than they actually were.

1. Dan Topping and Del Webb. At some point in 1960, the co-owners -- a metal-ore heir playboy and a Mob-connected real estate developer, respectively -- decided they wanted out, and began their preparations for unloading the team.

After the season, they fired manager Casey Stengel, and handled that abominably. (The fact that they installed Ralph Houk, and that Houk turned out to be a very successful choice in his first go-round as Yankee manager, doesn't make it a lot better.) Shortly thereafter, general manager George Weiss read the writing on the wall, and resigned one step ahead of the pitchforks and torches.

And Weiss, who'd gotten his start running a minor league club in New Haven and then running the Yankee farm system before becoming GM, knew what the state of the farm system was. Since becoming GM after Larry MacPhail was bought out in 1947, he'd been continually trading prospects, sometimes multiple prospects, to struggling teams in exchange for a single player (or sometimes more than one) who had previously shown his class and could help the Yankees win the current season's Pennant. Frequently, this worked: Johnny Mize, Johnny Hopp, Johnny Sain, Jim Konstanty, Bobby Shantz, Enos Slaughter, Bob Cerv, Pedro Ramos. (They weren't all Johnnys, and some helped win more than one Pennant.)

But Weiss knew what the farm system had as the Sixties dawned, and knew the same old policy couldn't work forever. He gave it 5 years. The first 4, the Yankees still won the Pennant, although there were signs in year 4, 1964, that it might be the end of the line. The 5th year was 1965, and Weiss was proven right. At that point, the Yankee farm system consisted of a lot of players who would never pan out, and a few who would: Mel Stottlemyre, Bobby Murcer, Roy White. That was about it.

What did Topping and Webb care about what happened after Stengel and Weiss? They weren't going to be the owners anymore. Maybe that's why they accepted CBS' offer in 1964, rather than waiting for a better one the next year: So they could skip town with the loot, and leave Burke and CBS holding the bag.

In other words, it didn't matter who ended up buying the Yankees from Topping and Webb. Even if Donald Trump, then 18, had been able to buy the team, he still wouldn't have been able to spend enough to keep them on top. He, or a Steinbrenner ready to buy the team, might have been able to get them back on top sooner than 1976. But there still would have been some rough times in the late 1960s, because there was precious little to build on. That wasn't CBS' fault: They played the hand they were dealt very badly, but the hand itself was a lousy one.

It's worth noting that, by the time the Yankees began moving their stuff out of Shea and back into the renovated Yankee Stadium in the fall of 1975, Topping, Webb, Stengel and Weiss were all dead. It's also worth noting that, while they oversaw the Yankees through 15 Pennants -- more than any owners in the history of baseball (Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers is the leading sole owner, with 13) -- neither Topping nor Webb has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Stengel has. So has Weiss. So has MacPhail, whom they forced out after his drunken tirade at the victory party following the 1947 World Series. (To be fair, that was the right decision -- and MacPhail is in the Hall for what he did before coming to the Yankees.)

Nor have Topping and Webb received Plaques in Monument Park, either in the old Yankee Stadium or the new one. Neither has Weiss, who, to be fair, was a cheap bastard and a nasty racist. But Stengel has.

Topping and Webb have been all but forgotten.

Is that fair? In a way, yes, since they were little more than check-signers as winning baseball was built by Weiss, guided by Stengel, and played by men like DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Berra, Ford, Mantle, Howard and Maris.

But they should be remembered, because, while they brought the Yankees into the modern era in 1946 and '47 (in some cases, pushed into it by MacPhail), they also sowed the seeds of the Yankees' downfall.

It was a downfall more damaging than the one Steinbrenner would bring about after 1981, and both make what's happened under George's sons, Lonn Trost, Randy Levine and Brian Cashman look pretty good by comparison.

No comments: