A Conversation with Glenn Stout about Yankees Century
Q) There have been dozens, if not hundreds of books written about the New York Yankees. How is your book different?
A) More books have been written about the Yankees than about any other baseball franchise, particularly when you include player biographies, but most just tread the same ground over and over again, focusing primarily on the eras dominated by Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle, or just bouncing from World Series to World Series. Even books that have purported to be complete histories of the team have tended to ignore other eras. I read one that claimed that "Yankee history begins with Babe Ruth." Well, I disagree. I think to really understand the high points in Yankee history one must view them in context. The team's 100th anniversary provided the perfect opportunity to look at the full history. Yankees Century presents the history of the franchise as one big story, a sweeping epic about the city of New York and the team and how each played a role in creating the other. In that way I think the book demonstrates not just the nuts and bolts of what players like Ruth and Mantle did on the field, but why they were important for reasons beyond wins and losses.
Q) Could you give me an example of that?
A) Sure. Take Mantle for instance. He fit the pattern first set by Ruth, as a player that Yankee fans found it easy to identify with and that New York sports writers could elevate. Both Ruth and Mantle, and DiMaggio, too, were beloved not just for their skills, but for their symbolic value in a city like New York Ruth was the street urchin who made good, and New York was a place that appreciated that kind of hardscrabble upbringing. Joe DiMaggio was the child of immigrants, the first-generation American making it in a city of immigrants. Mantle's success was a sort of parable of growing up in the Depression. The writers who covered the team took the backgrounds of these players and turned them into parables that resonated with fans. I think you can see the same thing in Derek Jeter today, the multiracial star in a city that celebrates its diversity.
Q) An excerpt from the book that recently appeared on ESPN.com was called "The Boston Yankees?" In it you revealed that soon after the Yankees bought Ruth from Harry Frazee and the Red Sox, the Yankees almost moved to Boston. I'd never heard that story anywhere before. Where did you get that?
A) Well, in my last book, Red Sox Century (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), I discovered that a great deal of what had been previously written about Harry Frazee was just flat-out wrong, and the whole notion of the so-called Curse was based on falsehoods and lies. Since the Ruth deal is so important to Yankee history, I continued to pursue my research on Frazee and the circumstances surrounding the sale of Ruth in Yankees Century. The story you refer to is a result of that. Frazee was in a pitched political battle against American League president and founder Ban Johnson. Johnson wanted to force Frazee to sell the Red Sox, while Frazee was determined to stay and was trying to oust Johnson. The Yankees and their owner, Jacob Ruppert, were Frazee's allies, so Johnson also took aim at them. In 1920 he talked the New York Giants into canceling the Yankees' lease on the Polo Grounds, which he hoped would force Ruppert to sell the team. But Johnson didn't know that the Yankees held the mortgage on Fenway Park if push came to shove, they had a place to play, in Boston. So Johnson's ploy collapsed. I refer to the "Curse" as a nice hook but not very good history. What really happened, while much more complicated, is a much better story.
Q) Any other revelations in the book?
A) I think so. The story about how the team was created has never been told in its entirety before. After Ban Johnson announced he'd move the remnants of the old Baltimore team to Manhattan, Tammany Hall got involved. The politicians treated Johnson like a naive immigrant and essentially tried to extort the franchise from him, building parks and roads everywhere he wanted to build a ballpark. The story opens a real window into life in New York at the turn of the century. In the end, Tammany did take control. Most people don't realize that the Yankees' first owners, Frank Farrell and William Devery, were among the most notorious and corrupt political figures in the history of the city. They were sordid beyond belief real characters.
I also tell a great story about a signal-tipping scandal not unlike the one Josh Prager wrote about last year concerning Bobby Thomson's home run. In 1910 and 1911 Yankee manager George Stallings employed a signal tipper at Hilltop Park. When he was discovered, it nearly cost Stallings his job. In an effort to keep it, he smeared team captain Hal Chase by charging that he was throwing games. Although Chase did throw games later in his career, I don't think he did so while a member of the Yankees. Chase ended up taking over as manager, but his reputation was ruined forever. I also bring out some new information and stories about DiMaggio, Maris, and other players, and I think I present the history of the team in a perspective that hasn't been explored much before.
Q) So why have the Yankees succeeded?
A) Three words: New York City. From the very beginning, the Yankees weren't just another team. The New York market was important, and the American League needed the Yankees to succeed. It took the team a while to figure out how to do it, but when they put themselves in position to fully exploit the financial advantages of the New York market and put those advantages back into the team, they succeeded. On a few occasions in the 1960s and again for about a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, they failed.
Q) Do you have any favorite portions of the book?
A) I really enjoyed writing about the 1904 pennant race and the incredible performance of pitcher Jack Chesbro, who pitched 450 innings and won 41 games but lost the pennant when he threw a wild pitch against Boston on the final day of the season. It's the Yankees' "Bill Buckner moment." But I also enjoyed writing about the Yankees of my era, which stretch from about 1965 until now. I was a kid who grew up wanting to be Roy White. Even writing about Steinbrenner was fun. Say what you will about him, as a character he is like no one else. This is also the first Yankee book that can begin to sum up the Torre years. And writing about the 2001 postseason, in the context of 9-11, was incredibly difficult and challenging.
Q) I want to ask you a Boston question, but since you mentioned it I do have to ask about 9-11. How did that event factor into the book?
A) The overall theme of the book is that the story of the Yankees is, at its core, a New York story. I don't think one can tell the history of either the city or the team without considering the other; at times they have fed off each other, and after September 11 was one of those times. I was near the end of the book, essentially waiting for the conclusion of the 2001 season to finish it, when that tragedy happened. While I was fortunate enough not to lose anyone I knew, I have a lot of friends in New York I was talking to one of them about the attack when the first tower fell, and there were a few friends in the city whom I couldn't reach for several days.
I found it impossible to write for about a week, because each time I typed or read the words "New York," my head wasn't in the book anymore. When I was able to write again, it was impossible to ignore what had happened, yet I also was careful to be respectful. Given the incredible way the postseason unfolded, I felt I was writing a running story about how the City was responding to what had happened, as played out in their reaction to the Yankees. Baseball did what we needed it to do then. For three weeks the Yankees gave people a chance to focus on something other than 9-11 for a few hours a day. I think that's far more important than the fact that they lost the World Series to Arizona.
Q) Glenn, you are best known for writing about the Red Sox. How can you write a book about the Yankees? Isn't that a contradiction?
A) Not to me. I grew up a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I write about baseball history because I want to know what happened. Books like this one and Red Sox Century comprehensive, exhaustively researched narratives simply didn't exist before. So I had to write the books that I wanted to read.
Most people think that a writer has to be a fan of a team to write about it. But books written by fans usually aren't very good. If you are a fan, I think you have to suspend that feeling to write well about a team. Like an umpire, you have to call what you see, and I think I've done that in each book. Both the Red Sox and the Yankees have incredibly rich histories, and it's impossible to write about one team without also writing about the other there's an awful lot of overlap. It was natural to do the Yankees next, just as it makes sense now to be working on a similar book about the Dodgers. Besides, I had already written two successful books on Yankee figures a biography of DiMaggio and a juvenile biography of Derek Jeter so it's not as if I was a neophyte in regard to the Yankees.
I grew up in central Ohio, one town over from where Paul O'Neill was born, before cable TV. The Reds and Indians were rarely on local television, so when I was a kid the Yankees were major league baseball they were on the "game of the week" all the time. I've followed them for years. When I was a 14- and 15-year-old pitcher, I was scouted pretty closely by a Yankee bird dog. Blew out my arm, though. I went to Bard College upstate and after graduating in the summer of 1981 during the baseball strike, I sold tickets over the phone for the Yankees triple-A team, the Columbus Clippers. And my wife grew up on 14th Street.
Q) Where did you get all the pictures for the book? There are hundreds, most of which I hadn't seen before.
A) Full credit for that goes to Richard Johnson. This is the fifth book we've collaborated on, and I don't think there is anyone better in the country at ferreting out the best photographs from archives and collectors. Richard is curator of the Sports Museum of New England, and he brings the eye of a curator to that process. My favorite is a photograph of Birdie Cree, who was probably the best Yankee player before Babe Ruth. He's an absolute dead ringer for Derek Jeter. Richard was also instrumental in soliciting some of the essays we have throughout the book, work by David Halberstam, Ira Berkow, Molly O'Neill, Howard Bryant, and former player Charlie Devens.
Q) Any regrets now that the book is done?
A) We tried to create an original, definitive, and authoritative history on the team. I think we've come as close as possible. Even the biggest Yankee fan is going to learn a lot in this book. But there was so much to write about that I could have gone on for another 500 pages.