When The Yankees Won Their First Flag

ALSO: WILL A DUSTY BAKER TEAM EVER WIN A WORLD SERIES RING?

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Pre-Game Pepper

Did You Know?

Game 1 of the last NLDS (Atlanta vs. Cincinnati) on Sept. 30, 2020, was the first postseason game that went into the 12th inning without a run being scored. Atlanta eventually won, 1-0, in 13 innings, on an RBI single by MVP Freddie Freeman . . .

Freeman hit 232 home runs before hitting his first grand-slam in 2020, the 11th year of his career. Only Sammy Sosa (246) had more homers before hitting one with the bases filled . . .

Reggie Jackson’s second stint with the Oakland Athletics lasted one year before he hung up his spikes. The A’s, Jackson’s original team, signed him as a free agent on Christmas Eve of 1986.

The only pitchers with at least 3,000 strikeouts but less than 1,000 walks were Greg Maddux, Fergie Jenkins, Curt Schilling, and Pedro Martinez.

Leading Off

A Not-Necessarily-Beloved Centenary:

100 Years Ago, The Yankees Prepared To Win Their First Pennant

By Jeff Kallman

Everyone loves anniversaries, whether weddings or certain historical events, the latter in customary increments of five, ten, twenty, twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, one hundred. But not everyone loves one of this year's baseball centenaries.

A full century ago, a certain baseball team prepared for the season that ended in the first of 37 pennants and 26 World Series triumphs in the 20th century, if you count a century as being from the '01 year through the next '00. Continuing the same counting criteria, they have won three pennants and one World Series in the still-young 21st century.

One hundred years ago, Warren G. Harding became the nation’s 29th president, Marie Stopes opened England’s first birth control clinic, Hitler became der Fuehrer of the Nazi Party, Coco Chanel brewed No. 5, White Castle sold its first square, bite-size hamburger (in Kansas), Bessie Coleman became the first African-American to earn an international pilot’s license, and baseball continued recovering when not reeling from the Black Sox Scandal.

Oh, yes. The New York Giants continued being seen as the city’s baseball elite. But their Polo Grounds tenants prepared to win their first American League pennant ever, following two straight third-place finishes, only to lose the World Series in eight to those same Giants. Today it's impossible to think of any edition of the Yankees as upstarts. But upstarts they were when winning that first flag.

Their cerebral, far-sighted manager, Miller Huggins, found his hands runneth over building a consistent winner while trying to keep enough miscreants in line. That Included his biggest star, a fellow named Ruth.

As authors Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg wrote in 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, the team might have become lethal at the plate but they were slow in the field and on the bases entering that season.

They might win that pennant and the two to follow, but it took them two more tries---and the birth of their own cathedral across from the horseshoe-shaped playpen they shared with the Giants---before they finally beat the Giants in the Series. Thus was born a baseball empire as imperial as ancient Rome and about as popular outside their home territory as the Spanish flu.

That was then; this is now: they aren't that imperial anymore, despite 10 division titles in two decades. And outside their home territory, they're often as popular as the coronavirus.

"After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same," sang Simon & Garfunkel in one of their signature 1960s hits, "The Boxer." After changes upon changes, the Yankees are more or less the same themselves. At least, they are in the eyes of those who would rather root for a plague than the midnight-blue pinstripers from the south Bronx.

They are more or less the same today as in my own New York boyhood, my having been born in the Bronx but expatriated by somewhat upwardly-mobile parents to the shores of Long Island. Individual Yankees are admired as greatly as the team—and, more precisely, to many of their fans—are despised.

It's not entirely fair to blame the Yankees themselves for the “entitlement” attitude of their least likable fans. Once upon a time, the Yankees were the parents of means who were somewhat as Don Corleone in The Godfather: "I have a sentimental weakness for my children, and I have spoiled them as you can see. They talk when they should listen."

From such spoilage do empires from nation-states and crime families to baseball teams crumble? One of Don Corleone's spoiled sons nearly brought his own family down from hubris and nearsightedness. (And got himself assassinated on the Jones Beach Causeway for his trouble.) The Yankees were brought down too (age and injuries helped; nobody had to be whacked) after they lost the 1964 World Series.

Once upon a time, memory had no room for days, never mind years, when the Yankees were only human. From their relocation to New York (they were born as a very different franchise of Baltimore Orioles) through Year One A.R. (After Ruth), the Yankees were as human as the day was long. From the end of the 1964 World Series until spring training 1976, the Yankees became human again. To everyone else, it served them right. To Yankee fans, it was a Biblical plague pouring forth from Denial River.

Hadn't the Yankees blessed us all, everyone, with the Babe, the Iron Horse, the Yankee Clipper, Yogi, the Chairman of the Board, and the Commerce Comet? Hadn't Ruth set the record to be broken only by a future Yankee named Maris? Hadn't the Clipper established the hitting streak unlikely to be broken in the full life of this solar system? Hadn’t Yogi, the Chairman, the Comet, and the Ol’ Perfesser owned the World Series?

Wasn't brewmeister Jacob Ruppert the original imperial overlord? Weren't Dan Topping and Del Webb the buyers who enabled George Weiss to cobble the new foundation upon which Casey Stengel built that which made the Ruthian Bronx Bombers resemble pea shooters? (The Ruth-Gehrig Yankees: four World Series triumphs in 14 years; the Gehrig-DiMaggio Yankees: four straight Series triumphs; the Stengel-Berra-Ford-Mantle Yankees: five straight Series right out of the chute and seven in 12 years.)

Wha'happened?

Wha'happened first was a broadcast empire named CBS, which preferred blue-chip acquisitions when made, but which bought an elephant none could see was white just yet. CBS knew as much about operating a baseball franchise as the Beverly Hillbillies knew about neurosurgery. The network bought the Yankees anyway. The Yankees suffered accordingly.

Few outside their own dumbstruck fan base sympathized. Few within that fanbase could live except with their own and the game's reminders of the transcendental past. Continuing Hall of Fame inductions—Huggins (their first pennant-winning manager), Stengel, Red Ruffing, Waite Hoyt, Earle Combs, Weiss, Yogi Berra, Lefty Gomez, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Bucky Harris—allowed them to strut again, for single summer afternoons.

It took a newfangled Yankee owner buying the team from the Tiffany Network and recovering from a subsequent suspension to show that the end of the reserve era under which the Bronx Empire prospered (quick—tell me there was "competitive balance" in the Yankees winning 29 pennants between the birth of Rudolph Valentino’s international fame and the year the Beatles conquered about seven-eighths of the earth) didn’t have to mean the permanence of Yankee futility.

George Steinbrenner proceeded to teach the world about the impermanence of Yankee resurrection and to re-teach it about high finance. "His swashbuckling impatience seemed validated by spending . . . that helped produce the 1977 and 1978 Series winners," George F. Will once wrote. "But baseball is a great leveler, punishing the impatient who throw money rather than intelligence at problems."

From 1976-81: four pennants, two World Series triumphs, in six seasons, not quite the Bronx Zoo's approximation of the Fabulous Fifties, but within a reasonable distance. From 1982 until he was suspended for consorting with a cheap street gambler to discredit a Hall of Fame outfielder (Dave Winfield), The Boss embarked on a course that exposed him as a perpetual scorched earthmover, a King of Hearts who inspired a cinematic taunt ("Fort Apache, Yankee Stadium," a Mets general manager once described the Steinbrenner mayhem), reducing the Yankees to living, breathing evidence that all that glitters often proves pyrite.

Something happened while Steinbrenner sat in his second dry-dock, however. Just when you thought you were secure knowing the Yankees no longer meant perpetual conquest, again, the Yankees absent Steinbrenner's hands-on hamfists rebuilt from the foundation up.

The last truly great uprising of Yankee greatness, anchored by the Core Five (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams), got as close as any Yankees (four straight pennants, three straight World Series triumphs; five pennants and four Series rings in six years) to their greatest peak. (The Stengel Yankees: five straight pennants and World Series, 1947-53.)

The 20th century ended with the world safe for Yankee greatness again. Before the 21st Century was four years old, alas, the Yankees and their fans would re-learn humbling works two ways. In 2003, Aaron Boone hit the eleventh-hour (and eleventh inning) home run that carried a pennant out of the hands of the rival Red Sox. In 2004, the Red Sox went from down to their potential final out in a humiliating American League Championship Series to winning four straight and the pennant — plus the World Series.

It also humbled the humble-as-a-howitzer Steinbrenner enough that, when his Yankee Stadium security people agreed with fans and urged him to purge the Red Sox fans after that ALCS Game Seven, he's said to have replied, "No. They earned it. Let them have their fun."

Since the end of 2007, the Yankees have won four division titles, one pennant, and one World Series—in 12 years. Every team not named the Yankees would kill for that kind of modest success. The Yankees even engaged a manager who could do what no Yankee manager—not even Stengel or Joe McCarthy—ever did before: manage 100-win seasons in each of his first two years on the bridge. With no pennant or World Series ring to show for it.

They're only human, after all.

So is the incumbent owner, Hal Steinbrenner, who has all of his father’s will to win, little of his father’s once-infamous haphazardness, and precious little of his father’s bluster.

One team not named the Yankees but renowned as their most bitter rivals has a 21st-century record of making damn sure they win the World Series when they win the pennant: the Red Sox have four each. They're also rivaling the Yankees for being baseball's most despised team (this side of the Astros, anyway, these days) outside their home territory.

A hundred years ago, the Yankees began their first imperial march. Today, the Yankees themselves prepare for a new season with enough burden of history, even if most of the weight reaches from the last century. Today, enough Yankee fans still behave as though the glory that was 161st Street and River Avenue never died, and that everyone else reaching the Promised Land otherwise are marauding bandits stealing what's rightfully theirs.

Today, too, those who plight their baseball troth, not to the Empire Emeritus remain as ever they were—despising the Yankees as a team, admiring and even adoring particular Yankees for their own sake. After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.

IBWAA life member Jeff Kallman writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports Central, and other publications. He has also been a Mets fan since the day they were born. Reach him at easyace1955@outlook.com.


Cleaning Up

Feeling Sorry For Dusty Baker

By Dan Schlossberg

Dusty Baker is living proof that bad things happen to good people.

The oldest manager in the majors, he’s in the last year of his contract with the Houston Astros, the fifth team he’s piloted.

But Baker, 72, is beset by more problems than the lingering resentment by fans and opponents over the team’s 2017 World Series sign-stealing scandal.

Dusty Baker’s best year as a manager was his first year: 1993. Now in his second year with the Houston Astros, he is the only manager to take five different teams into the postseason. He is also the oldest manager in the majors.

All-Star center-fielder George Springer, a 31-year-old slugger who had 39 home runs as recently as two years ago, jumped to the Toronto Blue Jays via free agency. That leaves Baker fumbling for a lead-off man (likely to be Jose Altuve) and writing a lineup with somebody named (Myles) Straw in center field. Grasping at straws, Baker will get speed but not power from the kid.

Justin Verlander, Baker’s best pitcher, is out for the season after Tommy John surgery and Zack Greinke, who succeeded him as the ace of the staff, is 37 and not likely to duplicate his 18-5 record and 2.93 ERA of 2019, the last full season.

Just when he’s showing signs of taking a leading role, up-and-coming southpaw Framber Valdez suffered a fractured finger that might keep him sidelined for the entire season. A curveball specialist, he had a 1.88 ERA and struck out 29 percent of the men he faced during four playoff appearances last year – after a 5-3 season and 3.57 ERA during the shortened regular season.

Backed into a corner, the Astros signed Jake Odorizzi, a 31-year-old right-hander who had no wins last year. Zero. Okay, the guy had injuries and was 15-7 in 2019. He got a two-year, $20.25 million deal with a club option for 2023 and plenty of incentives.

Even if Odorizzi recaptures his former form, Baker’s headaches are far from over.

Eight Houston pitchers – count ‘em, eight – were kept out of camp this week because of Covid exposure.

In addition, Verlander, Greinke, fellow starter Lance McCullers Jr., relievers Steve Cishek and Joe Smith, and key position players Carlos Correa, Martin Maldonado, and Steven Souza Jr. are all eligible for free agency this fall.

While the Astros would be thrilled to shed the combined $68 million salaries of their two senior starters, both seem to have the ability to pitch well at an advanced athletic age. Both are 200-game winners with faint but not impossible hopes of joining the elite 300 Club, which has 24 members but no new ones since Randy Johnson joined the group in 2009.

Adding Odorizzi pushed the Astros’ payroll dangerously close to the $210 million luxury tax threshold they hoped to avoid. But cuts will be hard to make.

Baker has a strong, veteran infield with Alex Bregman, Correa, Altuve, and Yuli Gurriel from third to first and a solid left-handed bat in left fielder Michael Brantley. Another strong lefty swinger, Yordan Alvarez, hopes to return to the 27-homer form that earned him a Rookie of the Year award in 2019. Injuries idled him most of last season.

Kyle Tucker, a rookie last year, led the American League with six triples and also stole eight bases in the shortened season. He’s the favorite for right field.

Jason Castro, a strong defender signed as a free agent, will share the catching with Maldonado.

Baker will also benefit from the continued presence of Ryan Pressly, a right-handed workhorse who succeeded Roberto Osuna as closer last summer, and young starting pitchers Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy.

But having his team booed whenever it goes on the road could rattle the young players, who were fortunate that fans were barred from ballparks as a coronavirus precaution last season. There was even a poster held aloft at a spring training game that said “BET YOU CAN’T STEAL THIS SIGN !!”

As for Baker, presumably hired as a caretaker manager mandated to restore calm after AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were fired last January, he’s unquestionably the nicest man in his 30-man fraternity. But he’s also the personification of frustration: he’s won 1,892 games in 23 seasons as a manager but his lone World Series ring came as a player with the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers.

Teams managed by Baker won seven division titles and reached the postseason ten times but were often subject to quick exits.

The first manager to take five different teams into the postseason, Baker could be on the fast track to Cooperstown – especially if he manages to lead the bedraggled Astros into the 2021 playoffs.

His first year as a manager was his best year. The 1993 San Francisco Giants won 103 games but lost badly on the last day of the season, allowing the Atlanta Braves to win the National League West title by one game. The wild-card system was quickly instigated to negate such outcomes in the future but it didn’t help Baker until 2002 when the Giants met the Angels in the first World Series match of two non-champions. The Angels won when Baker pulled his starter with a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game 6 and the bullpen blew the game. The next day, the Giants lost again.

It was Baker’s only World Series appearance as a manager, even though he also took the Cubs, Reds, Nationals, and Astros into postseason play. Not surprisingly, his teams have posted a postseason record of 31-37.

Leo Durocher didn’t exactly say “Nice guys finish last” but the misconstrued quote certainly fits Dusty Baker. He was in the on-deck circle when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record and had fine careers as both a player (242 home runs) and manager.

As an Old School guy, he’s done a good job relating to players young enough to be his grandchildren. All he has to do now is get them to play as well as he did.

Here’s The Pitch weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ wrote the first full-length magazine feature about Dusty Baker when the outfielder was brought to the majors by the Atlanta Braves in 1972. Dan also writes baseball for forbes.com, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Latino Sports, Ball Nine, and Sports Collectors Digest. Reach him by e.mail at ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Pete Alonso and Mark McGwire were the only rookies to lead the majors in homers . . .

Mighty Mite Mookie Betts, who stands just 5'9" tall, may soon join Frank Robinson as the only players to win MVPs in both leagues . . .

The major-league leader in home runs by a player with the initials H.R. is Hanley Ramirez (sorry, Harold Reynolds) . . .

Phil Niekro pitched 5,404 innings – fourth on the lifetime list – without ever getting a sore arm . . .

“All I try to do is make the ball do nothing.” – Phil Niekro


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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