Thursday, July 12, 2018

Books: The Origins Of The Yankees

A Franchise On The Rise: The First Twenty Years Of The New York Yankees
By Don Amore, Foreword by John Sterling
Sports Publishing, $27.99

The New York Yankees are the most successful franchise in American sports with 27 world championships.

In A Franchise on the Rise, veteran sportswriter Dom Amore looks at the origins of the franchise, and takes readers back in time to the first twenty years of the team's existence, from 1903 to 1923. 

Amore focuses on the major figures that helped shape the team, including owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert, players like Jack Chesbro, Wee Willie Keeler, and the biggest of all, Babe Ruth; and events, including their first ten years as the Highlanders, their move to Yankee Stadium in 1923, the same year they won their first World Series.

On Chesbro and his great performance in 1904, Amore writes, "The who, where, and how of baseball's creation has been argued by scholars for a century and a half, but what set it apart from all other sports was apparent from the beginning. It would be a team game, yet at its core, its very core, stands one man, holding the ball and the destiny of that team in its hands - and losing much of that control whenever the ball leaves his grip.

"The heartache felt for that pitcher who leaves his heart and sould on the mound and 'deserved a better fate' plays on the heartstrings of fans to this day, right up to Matt Harvey in the 2015 World Series, and no other sport has anything quite like that.

"And for that man in the center, the pitcher, there remains the never-ending search for the secret pitch that makes him the best, giving the ball a life of its own as it hurtles toward the batter and all but eliminates random results. Hollywood conceived of it in 1949, the wood-repellant substance chemist Ray Milland invented in It Happens Every Spring.

"But 45 years before the film, on a spring day in 1904, the Highlanders' Jack Chesbro believed he had found the magic elixir. Arriving in New Orleans to join the team as it prepared for its second season, he watched a young pitcher named Elmer Stricklett throw for the hometown Pelicans. Chesbro, then thirty, was primed for a big season with New York, weighing 20 to 30 pounds lighter than the year before and in the best shape of his life after spending two months coaching and working out with the collegiate pitchers in 'the cage' at Harvard.

"Now, he watched as Stricklett's pitches squirted out of his hand and darted this way and that, seeming to change speed and course in midflight.

"'He'd let it go when he had two strikes on a player,' Chesbro recalled, for a syndicated newspaper series in 1924, 'and they'd miss it by a bat length. Wee Willie Keeler, who, as you know, could hit, was completely puzzled. He came to the bench after missing one so badly it was laughable and says, 'never saw anything like that. The ball just comes right up to you and dives.' That's what it did. Well, sire, I began to watch him, watched him a long time.'

"And so launched the most interesting, dramatic, best-remembered, and, despite the painful finish, successful season the franchise would have before Babe Ruth's arrival, still 16 years away. This also helped launch the chain of events that would ignite the sport's most enduring rivalry, the Yankees and Red Sox, though both went by different names at the time.

"Jack Chesbro had discovered a potion - the art of applying saliva, maybe with a little tobacco juice, on the baseball. Such a potion would lead him to set still-unreachable records and a trip to the Hall of Fame, albeit 15 years after he died, still lamenting the spitball that slipped away and took the 1904 championship away with it.

"No pitcher ever poured out more blood, sweat, and, finally, tears for his team than Chesbro did that year. Perhaps the passage of 11 decades should offer this much in the way of perspective. To simply say the 1904 Highlanders lost the American League pennant on Chesbro's wild pitch is wildly unfair. The pitch allowed the deciding run to score in the deciding game, but as things played out, there would be plenty of blame to go around, from the owners on down to the fielders, and Chesbro's greater error was demanding to pitch, running his right arm ragged in the final days of the season, until such a meltdown was inevitable.

"But there is no denying that 1904 was The Season of Jack Chesbro, the good, the bad, and the slippery."

Amore finds the characters' own voices and thereby vividly reconstructs events of more than a 
century ago. He recounts the snowy night Honus Wagner was offered twenty crisp $1,000 bills to join the new franchise in New York; the story behind the holes punched in the outfield fence that facilitated the stealing of signs in 1909; and why the team thought it may have had the next big superstar in a college football end named George Halas.

This is a tale about the business of baseball as it was done at the time and, in many ways, as it still must be done. There was no secret to building a winning organization. It took money and luck, but it also took a group of people working as a team, each allowed to do his job and each doing it superbly.

One of the biggest moves the Yankees made came in the fall of 1917 when Miller Huggins was named manager.

Amore writes of how Huggins found his way to New York, "The unmistakable aroma of yeast, hops, and mass beer producing was always in the air at Lexington and 93rd Street, but visually the office where Jacob Ruppert conducted business hardly reflected a brwery, with marble and mahogany everywhere once visitors made their way past the copper vats.

"The new owners had established midtown Yankees offices on 42nd Street in 1916, but the brewery was where the big deals closed. On October 25, 1917, the Colonel had called New York's sportswriters to his inner sanctum for an important announcement at 5 p.m.

"'All during the summer, various persons have been appointing new managers for my baseball club,'  Ruppert began. 'I personally preferred to wait until the season was over before I did anything in the matter. Then I decided I would select a man of my own choosing. There were many candidates in the field and I considered each one carefully. Only this morning did I arrive at a final conclusion...'

"Reporters had been certain for days and weeks who would manage the Yankees in 1918. So they probably had to work to pretend to be in suspense as Ruppert made an awkward stab at theatrics.

"'I decided on Miller Huggins. I have not signed him to a contract yet, but I propose to sign him now. The contract has been drawn up during the day, and here is Mr. Huggins.'

"With that, a door opened, and out from an inner office stepped Miller James Huggins, maybe 5-foot-5, more likely 5-foot-1 or -2, and maybe 125 pounds, wearing a dark business suit, starched collar, and a businesslike expression. Ruppert had been taken aback by Huggins's appearance when they first met, as he'd been wearing a wool cap and smoking a pipe. This was more like it.

"Nevertheless, Ruppert had been impressed with Huggins's obvious baseball I.Q., and his all-business approach in handling players, and made an offer. It probably didn't hurt that John McGraw, one whose opinion Ruppert so respected, had once said, 'there is no smarter man in baseball today than Miller Huggins.'

"Reporters began to make their circle around the new manager for questioning when Ruppert noted that he had not signed yet. Ruppert sat, left elbow on his desk, left hand pressed against his cheek with an almost dreamy expression. Huggins leaned over, fountain pen in right hand, half a cigar protruding from the fingers of his left, and as flash bulbs popped he signed the contract, in triplicate, that would make him one of the most revered names in the history of the profession.

"Huggins's first move as Yankees manager, characteristically, was to contradict the press, denying that he had, in fact, reached an agreement with (American League President) Ban Johnson a month earlier.

"I did visit Col. Ruppert once last season,' Huggins told the newspapermen, 'and asked him to consider me if he contemplated changing managers this fall. He told me at that time he did not know whether he would retain (Bill) Donovan.'

"One can only imagine the furor that would result today if a manager, under contract with one major league club, applied to the owner of another for a not-yet-vacant position in the middle of a season, but this was the way baseball business was done in 1917, especially when it involved expiring contracts and changing leagues."

The Yankees' first three World Championships came with Huggins at the helm, the start of a run that would see them win twenty titles over the next forty years.

This is a run of success that we may never see again in baseball history, and would not have been possible without the work done the twenty years that preceded it.

To put it in perspective, the work done in the first twenty years of the franchise was equivalent to the work Gene Michael did in the early 1990s restoring the team to glory, and five championships followed.

Amore does an amazing job giving light to a part of Yankees history that is not as known as the glitzy years and all the dynasties that followed.

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