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|A big Bronx birthday
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04/29/2003 7:15 PM ET
A big Bronx birthday
America's most storied sports franchise celebrates
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- Happy 100th, Yankees. How does the saying go? You're not getting older, you're getting better?
Yeah, that's it.
America's most storied sports franchise has a past the rest of Major League Baseball envies, and a present it fears. As rich as is their history, in individual and team glory, the Yankees have embarked on The Second Century winning and Bronx Bombing home runs at a greater getaway rate than ever before.
The First Century was matchless. "So what are you going to do for an encore?" Don't bother asking the Yankees that.
Compose a succinct History of the Yankees? (Shudder) Define succinct. So many men, moments and seminal events comprise the quilt of their legacy, even the concept sounds like a put-on. An undertaking reminiscent of a Mel Brooks film, "The History of the World, Part I."
Yet, it is possible to trace that history through its signposts, the people and phenomena which have thrilled generations, the memories that continue to gently lull fans to sleep on summer nights. When their heads hit the pillows, the Yankee life that flashes in front of their eyes:
The birth ...
New York was already a National League stronghold by the time a rival American League was conceived in 1901, so there was no initial effort to infringe on the territory of the Dodgers and Giants. Instead, a franchise was awarded to Baltimore.
But the original Baltimore Orioles were a scandalously run club, and by the middle of its second season the roster was depleted by dubious transactions. On July 17, 1902, a week after manager John McGraw had jumped to the Giants and was followed by the meat of the Baltimore squad, only five Orioles remained in uniform, forcing forfeiture of that day's game to the St. Louis Browns.
The AL's response strikes an eerie historical echo, especially in Montreal: It assumed operation of the team which, with players borrowed from other teams, played out the season going 19-47.
Quickly, the AL unloaded the team on New York impresarios Frank Farrell and Bill Devery. They moved the franchise into a wooden ballpark hastily constructed at 168th street. Since the park sat on a hill overlooking the Bronx, it was christened Hilltop Park and its tenants were called the Highlanders.
The AL came to New York in an immediate cloud of fairy dust. In their two seasons, the Baltimore Orioles had gone 118-153, but in their first season of reincarnation, the Highlanders were winners (72-62) and the following year they went 92-59 and chased the Boston Red Sox to the wire, finishing 1 1/2 games out.
It would be 52 years before the American League returned to Baltimore.
The maturation ...
The flush of that early success faded quickly. From 1905 to 1919, the club was a regular inhabitant of the second division, seldom posted a winning record, lost 100-plus games twice. The depression continued right through the adoption of uniform pinstripes (1912) and "Yankees" (1913) and Farrell-Devery's 1915 sale of the franchise -- for $460,000, or a 2,500 percent profit of their $18,000 purchase price -- to Jacob Ruppert.
And then, New Year's Day 1920 was quickly followed by New Era's Day. On January 3, the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from Boston. They are said to have owned the Red Sox ever since, and through that transaction they did own them -- part of the purchase agreement was a $350,000 second mortgage on Fenway Park.
Of course, this was the most consequential move in sports history, for a number of reasons. The Yankees were already on the rise; in 1919, they had gone 80-59, their best showing in a decade. Ruth was already an established superstar, albeit one miscast by the Red Sox, who continued to pitch him, even though he had piled up an unheard of total of 40 homers in 1918-19. And the Yankees by now were the Giants' tenants in the Polo Grounds, whose capacity was double that of Hilltop.
It was a divine convergence. Ruth, as the everyday right-fielder, got a hundred more plate appearances than he ever had in Boston and cranked 54 homers, nearly double his previous record (29) and more than the total of 14 of the other 15 Major League teams.
The power fueled the Yankees to 95 wins (though still good for only a third-place finish) and made them magnetic.They drew 1,289,422 into the Polo Grounds -- MLB's first million-plus gate, and double what the Yankees had drawn in their final pre-Babe season. Most significantly, they out-drew the boss Giants by more than 300,000 while beating them to that first million gate the Jints had always craved.
When the Yankees surfaced in 1921 with their first A.L. pennant and challenged the Giants in (though lost) the World Series, the resentful landlords had enough. The Yankees were told to get off the Grounds.
Seven months later, construction began on a triple-decked ballpark projected to seat 70,000 and to be the first baseball yard majestic enough to be called a "stadium." By Opening Day 1923, Yankee Stadium was ready for its unveiling, and 74,217 people elbowed their way into the House That Ruth Built to see the Yankees take on the Red Sox.
Coincidence or not, when Yankee Stadium's doors parted, they also opened on a dynasty. As Jacob Ruppert said, "Yankee Stadium was a mistake. Not mine, but the Giants."
On cue, the Yankees ended that 1923 season with their first World Series victory over, yes, the Giants, embarking on a marvelous ride that firmly established them as the epitome of sports excellence. With Ruth and ruthless at the same time.
They claimed three World Series and three other AL pennants in the '20s, and got real busy in the middle of the '30s. In the 28 seasons from 1936 through 1964, the Yankees swaggered into 22 World Series and won 16 of them.
This was the Damn Yankees era. The era of "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel." They were resented, but also admired. An enire nation did indeed turn its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio and his predecessors and successors, moved to cheers and, occasionally, tears.
The renaissance ...
Affected by dramatic shifts in the playing field -- the 1965 advent of an amateur draft, multiple expansions, the creation of divisions -- the dynasty slumbered from 1965 through 1993. With the exception of a brief, but unforgettably electric, flashback reign of five postseason teams, including consecutive World Series titles In 1977 and '78, the Yankees got lost in the crowd.
Yet, the next layer of the dynasty had long been in the works, since the 1973 purchase of the team by a group fronted by George Steinbrenner. The Yankees were merely accustoming themselves to the game's new ground rules, through trial-and-(a lot of) error.
Steinbrenner became infamous for frequent managerial changes. But all the maneuvers -- 17 changes in a 17-year span -- weren't made just for the heck of it. The Boss kept looking for the right man, and finally got him in 1996.
Say it is so, Joe. Joe Torre inherited another team on the cusp -- the 1995 Yankees had entered the playoffs as the AL's first Wild Card -- and his quiet, reassuring, resolved leadership coalesced the clubhouse.
Torre came bathed in nostalgia and karma. He was so little regarded as a manager, he'd spent the first half of the '80s in the TV booth of the California Angels, unable to land a gig. In 14 previous seasons managing three different NL clubs, he'd had 10 losers and never won more than 89 games. But the last man with such a sorry resume hired to manage the Yankees was Casey Stengel, who did all right, with 10 pennants and seven World Series titles in a 12-year run.
Under Torre, history has been repeated, the glory revived. Blessed with one of the standards of past dynasties -- a stable core of players -- he guided the Yankees to four World Series titles, including consecutive crowns from 1998-2000, and is seven-for-seven in postseason teams.
Then, the Bombers were Ruth-Gehrig-Dickey-Reynolds, and Mantle-Maris-Berra-Ford. Now they are Jeter-Williams-Posada-Pettitte.
And speaking of stability ... George Steinbrenner, that purported purveyor of chaos, himself is observing his 30th season of ownership. No one has charted the course of sports' most fabled team longer.
The legacy ...
It is a century of snapshots and sound bites, of words and deeds that still echo and continue to haunt, of great men doing great feats at times of greatest need.
1923 ... Babe Ruth anticipated Yankee Stadium's opening with a wish: "I'd give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in the first game in this new park." With two on in the third inning, he gets his wish against Howard Ehmke, in the 4-1 win over the Red Sox. ...
2001 ... Tino Martinez ties up Game 4 of the World Series with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth off Byung-Hyun Kim, a singular feat that won't be repeated ... until the next night, when Scott Brosius does it again against Arizona's stunned closer. ...
Casey Stengel: "If I'da known I was going to live this long, I woulda taken better care of myself." ...
1961 ... Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle wage a resented race to Ruth's homer record, with a total of 31,000 on hand to witness The Rajah's 60th and 61st homers at Yankee Stadium. ...
Maris, whose final two homers exceeded the 154-game season to which The Babe was bound: "If all I am entitled to is an asterisk -- that will be all right with me." ...
1984 ... Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield swing off for the batting title, won on the last day of the season by Mattingly, .343 to .340. ...
Lou Gehrig: "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." ...
The booming collective voice of the Yankee Stadium right-field bleachers, calling off the names of the starters who have taken the field. ...
1990 ... Andy Hawkins pitches a no-hitter at Chicago -- and loses 4-0 to the White Sox. ...
Monument Park, a shrine adorned by busts and plaques and inhabited by ghosts of greatness. ...
Bucky Dent finds the Fenway nets on October 2, 1978, and all of New England groans. ...
1928 ... A Hall of Fame team, as Miller Huggins (inducted 1964) manages Tony Lazzeri (1939), Earle Combs (1970), Waite Hoyt (1969), Herb Pennock (1948) and Ruth (1936), Gehrig (1939) and Dickey (1954). ...
1941 ... Joe DiMaggio takes off on a two-month hitting streak, 56 games that captivate the nation. ...
1949 ... Joe D.'s mad-dash shoestring catch in Fenway Park puts an end to brother Dom D's 34-game hitting streak. ...
George Brett bolts off the visitors bench in Yankee Stadium, frothing for a piece of umpire Tim McClelland, who voided his go-ahead ninth-inning homer based on the amound of pine tar on the bat with which he hit it. ...
1977 ... Reggie Jackson arrives for a five-year tour, at the end of which New York will feel like a Martini: well-shaken and stirred. ...
1998 ... 114 wins, remaining focused for 11 more in October. ...
Mickey Mantle rattles old Griffith Stadium with a 565-foot homer ... At the end of an imperfect life, Don Larsen finds World Series perfection ... Jeffrey Maier and Jim Leyritz find immortality in the same postseason ...
Roger Clemens leaves the Yankee Stadium bullpen with reverence, and a stroke of a plaque. ... Allie Reynolds fires two no-hitters (1951) ... Already elder MLB statesmen, Dwight Gooden (1996), David Wells (1998) and David Cone (1999) find no-hitters at the end of their Yankees rainbows, the latter two in perfect fashion. ...
The firsts ... Gehrig's No. 4 retired ... Numbers on the back of uniforms (1929) ... Six-figure contract, to Joe DiMaggio (1949) ... Televising the bulk (140 games) of the schedule (1958) ... Adding "SI jinx" to the sports lexicon, after the June 21, 1965 issue features a Mantle cover under the headline, "End of an era?" ... Free agent, as Catfish Hunter is signed (1974) upon his release from his Oakland contract. ...
The nicknames ... The Bambino, Murderers' Row, 5 O'Clock Lightning, Louisiana Lightning, The Iron Horse, The Yankee Clipper, The Scooter, Donnie Baseball, Sultan of Swat, Mr. October, Pepi, Sweet Lou and The Mick. ...
The wonder of it all ... to be continued ...
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.