Friday, April 17, 2009

Quote of the Day (Reggie Jackson, on the Bronx Bombers’ New/Old Digs)

“It’s the House that George Built.”—Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, on the new Yankee Stadium, the product of two decades of wheeling and dealing by principal owner George Steinbrenner, quoted in Pete Caldera, “Upbeat Yankees Ready to Open Stadium,” The Record (Bergen County, NJ), April 15, 2009

Considering the off-field people who have made the greatest impact on the history of baseball, it’s dismaying how many have been severely deficient as human beings:

* Charles Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox was such a skinflint that he made the “Black Sox” World Series gambling scandal virtually inevitable by underpaying players.
* As I observed in a post last year, Walter O’Malley not only devastated a whole area of Brooklyn with his decision to relocate the Dodgers out west, but also destroyed a Hispanic community in his attempt to obtain Chavez Ravine for Dodger Stadium.
* Even Branch Rickey, rightly celebrated for signing Jackie Robinson to break the color line, was regarded as arrogant and abrasive by other baseball execs—and, as a consultant to the St. Louis Cardinals, undercut GM Bing Devine while the latter was building one of the great teams of the Sixties.

Which brings me to George Steinbrenner. The growing frailty of the Yankees’ principal owner has led many of the team’s fans to an outpouring of affection for him.

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. The fans’ generosity of spirit is to be applauded, but I well remember his bullying of players and managers for the first two decades he ran the team. And, as long as we’re railing against government bailouts of banks, let’s not forget that he essentially blackmailed the city of New York into tampering with a magnificent cathedral of sports—not once, but twice—and all for a pretty penny.

And yet, at the same time, the fans are onto something about The Boss. Steinbrenner’s desire to win was insane, but it was also an outgrowth of a man who couldn’t control himself. He could be powerfully sentimental, too, blubbering like a baby when the Yankees won again in the 1990s—and ensuring that the grave injustice done to Roger Maris by the previous ownership was rectified by honoring him with his plaque and retiring his number.

Like FDR, I side with Dante, who “tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales.” I hate $72 average ticket prices as much as the next man, but for sheer cold-bloodedness, The Boss doesn’t even hold a candle to these other Yankee executives:

* George Weiss, who built the great Yankee teams of the Forties and Fifties by paying his players so little money that their whole mindset from spring training was on winning the World Series.

* Jacob Ruppert, the owner who built the original Yankee Stadium, was connected to the Tammany Hall political machine, and would hire manager Miller Huggins while his partner Col. Tillinghast Huston was away in Europe serving in WWI.
* Ed Barrow, the Bronx Bombers’ general manager from the Twenties well into the Forties, might have been the worst of the lot. He embittered Joe DiMaggio in a salary dispute by leaking to the papers the slugger’s request for a raise at a time when American servicemen were going off to war. Worse, when Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS, Barrow told the slugger’s wife that Lou “should look for another line of work” because he was no longer of any use to the team.

Yet, if you go by the inscription for architect Christopher Wren in London’s St. Paul’s—“if you seek his monument, look around you”—then Barrow was the man who made the Yankees what they are today.

Yes, the stadium was the “House That Ruth Built,” but he also built a supporting cast for the larger-than-life slugger: not only signing Gehrig, but making trades for the comparatively unsung pitchers who truly made the Bronx Bombers more than merely an offensive threat: Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Red Ruffing. He also ensured a constant influx of new players to replace stars by organizing the Yankees’ farm system.

Think of this another way: Before Ed Barrow, the Yankees had never won a pennant. In the quarter-century he was associated with them, the team won 14 pennants and 10 World Series, even sweeping five of them. He built them into such a power that other teams were reluctant even to trade with them

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