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Book Review-The New York Yankees in Popular Culture

A few years ago, I was at a conference in Washington DC that had nothing to do with baseball. As the conference ended and I prepared to make my way back to Union Station and then my home in New York, I said goodbye to a colleague from Georgia-the country not the state-and then, because it was pouring outside, zipped up my slicker and put my San Francisco Giants cap on before heading home (I have always been a fan of both the Giants and the Yankees). My colleague saw my cap and said “Yankees”. I smiled and said “we play baseball everywhere in America,” but in some sense she was right. For many foreigners, Yankee caps are a symbol of America and a great souvenir from a visit to New York, but really to the US in general, so given that, the late hour and her jet lag, my colleague’s mistake was understandable.

I thought of this incident when I read two essays probing the relationship between the Yankee brand generally, and the cap specifically, by Ron Coleman and Martin Lessner respectively, in a new book that should be of great interest to all Yankee fans-and as much they won’t want to admit it-all Yankee haters too. The book, The New York Yankees in Popular Culture, is edited by David Krell, a journalist, author and attorney who currently chairs the Elysian Fields Chapter of SABR, and published by MacFarland.

Krell’s edited volume is constructed around the belief that there is more to the Yankees then just the 40 pennants, 27 World Series victories, numerous famous players, and bloated payrolls. This belief, once stated, is pretty obvious, but this volume does not so much argue that the Yankees have a relevance and importance bigger than what they do, or have done, on the field, but it tells those stories. The topics range from media studies that include a close viewing of “The Pride of the Yankees” by film scholar Jeanine Basinger, to Krell’s essay on the intersection between “Seinfeld” and the Yankees, and Jeffrey Katz’s analysis of the cultural significance of “Damn Yankees,” to architectural critic Rolando Llanes’s exploration of how Babe Ruth and Yankee Stadium “forged a distinct, timeless and almost perfect union of personality, edifice, and monumentality that has never been duplicated in American sports history.”

This book has a strong historical perspective that older fans will enjoy, while younger fans may learn aspects of Yankee, and baseball, history for the first time. For example, Paul Hensler’s essay on Reggie Jackson is a unique retrospective of the great slugger’s career and how he “crammed nearly a lifetime’s worth of experience-for better or for ill-into his five years of employment under George Steinbrenner.” That essay helps the reader understand Jackson’s time with the Yankees and also with the A’s, in the context of the 1970s, which were a tumultuous time in American society and in baseball.

Readers who are not Yankee fans will still enjoy this book, but will not be able to overlook the myopia that is all too common among Yankee fans, and among New Yorkers in general. Some of the more provincial assertions made in this book are nonetheless fodder for good baseball debates. Erin DiCesare’s essay on various core four’s in Yankee history going back to Ruth, Meusel, Gehrig and Hoyt in the 1920s, would have been strengthened by looking at other teams. The Giants core four of Ott, Hubbell, Terry and Lindstrom from 1926-1936 or of Mays, McCovey, Marichal and Perry from 1962-1971, or the Braves quartet of Aaron, Spahn Matthews and Adcock from 1954-1962 were probably as good as any four player nucleus the Yankees ever had. Yankee history is fascinating and important, but so are those of other teams as well.

Similarly, Louis Gordon’s assertion that “no team symbolized the cathartic changes sweeping American society in the ‘me decade’ more than the New York Yankees,” is one that partisans of, for example, the A’s, Dodgers and Pirates, might dispute. That questionable claim does not substantially take away from Gordon’s fun, provocative and fascinating essay. Moreover Gordon’s closing line “(f)or Yankees fans that were kids, the 1970s ended when Thurman Munson died,” brought a tear to the eye of this Yankee fan who was a child during the 1970s.

The New York Yankees in Popular Cultureis, in many respects, what a baseball book should be. It is fun to read while at the same time teaching even a longtime baseball reader and writer like me a few new things about the game’s history. It reminds voters of some of baseball’s great moments, from Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech to Reggie Jackson being showered with Reggie bars at Yankee stadium on Opening Day of 1978, while presenting this history from new and compelling perspectives. Great baseball books also spark discussion and Krell’s volume will do that as well. Fans of other teams might think about the relationship of their team to popular culture, while Yankee fans might think about questions and topics that Krell could not fit into what already feels like pretty widely encompassing survey of the Yankees and the culture. Baseball fans are busy this time of year, but if you are looking for some good reading, maybe over the All Star break, take a look at The New York Yankees in Popular Culture.

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