Legendary Yankees past and present sit down with award-winning columnist Bill Madden to offer a captivating portrait of what it's like to play for the Bronx Bombers.
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Pride of OctoberWhat It Was to be Young and a Yankee
By Bill Madden
Warner BooksCopyright © 2003 Bill Madden
All right reserved.
Prologue"Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." -Lou Gehrig, 1939
"I'd like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee." -Joe DiMaggio, 1949
"It's great to be young and a Yankee." -Waite Hoyt, 1927
On a chilly, sun-splashed mid-December afternoon in 2001, almost exactly 100 years from the day American League President Ban Johnson finalized plans to transfer his Baltimore Orioles franchise to New York City, Jason Giambi strode to the microphone at the center of the podium in the Great Moments Room of Yankee Stadium and held aloft the size 50, No. 25 New York Yankees jersey he had just contracted to wear for the next seven seasons. Looking down the dais at his father, John, Giambi was suddenly overcome with emotion and, in a barely audible, choking voice said: "Look, Pop ... pinstripes."
Although he had grown up in Southern California, John Giambi had been a lifelong Yankee fan and, in particular, a devotee of Mickey Mantle. "During the '50s, the only major league baseball we got was the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week on TV," the elder Giambi explained, "and the Yankees, to us, truly were America's team, playing in the World Series just about every year and playing regularly on that Saturday game. I can remember running to the newspaper stand every day and reading about Mickey and the Yankees. If you liked baseball, that's how you grew up then, watching and reading about the Yankees."
After the press conference concluded, the Giambi family-John, Jason, his mother, Jeanne, and his fiancée Kristian Rice-were escorted down the corridor to the Yankee clubhouse. "This is where Mickey walked," said Jeanne Giambi, and now it was her husband whose eyes began welling up. I later said to him: "From everything you've said, it would seem this is even more of a `dream come true' day for you than it is for Jason."
"You'll never know how many times I thought about what it must be like to play for the Yankees," John Giambi replied.
I did not tell him I had already begun a journey around the country, seeking out former Yankees from all different eras and, in particular, asking that very question of them. This was the premise of the book I had wanted to write about the Yankees on the occasion of their 100th anniversary. It was given birth by a conversation I'd had at the 1997 World Series between the Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians, with Charlie Silvera, a seldom-used backup catcher for the Yankees from 1949 to 1956. We were sitting at a poolside table at the World Series gala in Miami and Silvera, who was a scout for the Marlins at the time, was lamenting how much change had come over baseball in the last 40 years with the advent of expansion and free agency.
"Don't get me wrong," Silvera said. "I'm grateful to the Marlins for keeping me in the game and bringing me to this World Series when they didn't have to. But I have a hard time believing there's actually a major league team here in South Florida, playing in the World Series no less. I guess it all goes back to when I was playing. There was a saying then: 'Some guys make the big leagues, and some guys make the Yankees,' and I believe there really was something to that. I know I'll always be a Yankee and I suspect anyone you talk to will tell you the same thing."
Love them or hate them-and the legions of baseball fans in both camps are probably about equal in number-no other professional sports franchise has come close to approaching the success of the New York Yankees, winners of 26 World Series and 38 American League championships in the 99 years following their birth as the transplanted Baltimore Orioles in 1903. As George Steinbrenner put it when he bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973 (a time when they were just emerging from one of their lowest ebbs): "I feel like I've bought the Mona Lisa of sports franchises." By contrast, some 20 years earlier it was the famous stand-up comic Joe E. Lewis who had said: "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel."
In any case, the Yankees, with their unparalleled success and accompanying gallery of legends, have become a proud and distinct part of Americana. It is then perhaps no surprise that they conceived the annual Old-Timers' Day event in which they invited back so many of their star players of the past (at no small expense to the team) for what amounted to little more than a five- to 10-second curtain call. Yet, as I watched these rituals through the years, the parade of legends being introduced in order of importance from the mere fan favorites, Billy Martin, Hank Bauer, Tommy Henrich, Elston Howard, Moose Skowron, Joe Pepitone, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Bobby Murcer et al., to the legitimately great Yankees, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, and finally to the supreme baseball deities, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, my attention was always directed to the visiting team players standing on the top step of the dugout, watching in silence as the applause from 55,000 fans built to a crescendo. "What must they think of this?" I said to myself. "How could they not be at least somewhat awestruck?"
Some guys make the big leagues and some guys make the Yankees.
So after my conversation with Silvera, I determined to explore this proposition. I drew up a list of 18 significant Yankees from all different eras with the idea of having them recount the history of this storied franchise as they saw and helped create it. But more than that, I wanted to know what it meant to them to have been a Yankee and whether they had felt, as Silvera did, they had been part of baseball royalty.
First and foremost, I wanted to talk to Frank Crosetti, who, at 90, was one of the oldest living Yankees and most certainly the one who could provide the most detailed history of their golden era. Crosetti, who lived in Stockton, California, had the distinction of having cashed more World Series checks than any other person in baseball history, as a player for the Yankees from 1932 (the end of Babe Ruth's Yankee time) to 1947, and then as third base coach for all the Casey Stengel-and Ralph Houk-managed championship teams, through 1968. "The Cro," as he was affectionately called, had indeed seen it all, but rarely deemed to talk about it. I knew him casually from seeing him as a visitor to the Yankee clubhouse when the team came into Oakland to play the Athletics over the years. Unfortunately, when I contacted him about sharing his memories of what it was like to be a Yankee and part of all those storied teams of Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, DiMaggio, Mantle and Berra, he put me off.
"Ahhh, I can't tell you anything about those guys," he said. Later, however, he revealed to me he was hoping to write a book of his own. I wished him good luck and proceeded to move on in my interview process, beginning with the two most prominent "locals"-Berra and Rizzuto-with whom I'd developed a warm relationship, traveling with them through the years in my capacity as a reporter and columnist covering the Yankees for the New York Daily News. Both of them lived in New Jersey and were established Yankee legends. Yet, despite having forged Hall of Fame careers, they'd both had their hearts broken by the Yankees, too (in Berra's case twice), and I especially wanted to talk to them about that.
As the months went by and I began traveling around the country-to the Carolinas for Bobby Richardson and Tommy Byrne; to Indiana, where Don Mattingly had gone into self-imposed retreat after his final October disappointment in 1995; to San Francisco to revisit with Silvera and see firsthand those sandlots that had spawned so many talented Yankee players over the first 50 years of this century (DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri et al.)-I would periodically receive letters from Crosetti inquiring about my progress on the book. At one point, he even provided me with some suggestions as to old-time Yankee players I needed to talk to and what questions I should ask them.
"You really need to see Tommy Henrich up in Prescott, Arizona," Crosetti wrote in August of 2001, "and when you do, ask him about the song `Too Much Mustard.' This happened at the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit." He didn't elaborate, but knowing the customarily effusive Henrich as I did, I figured he'd be able to supply the rest of the story in all its color and detail.
I had intended to visit with Henrich while I was at the 2001 World Series in Arizona between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks, but was disheartened to learn he had taken ill and been moved to San Francisco by his daughter, who had put out the word that he was temporarily unable to do interviews. I wrote back to Crosetti, informing him of Henrich's deteriorated state of health and got a reply a week later that seemed to have a tone of urgency to it.
"I may not have enough for a book now," Crosetti said, "and I've been thinking of forgetting it. But I've written a lot of stuff down and I'm sure you could get plenty for your chapter on me. You're welcome to have it. Maybe my grandkids can read what I have written someday. Stay healthy, Cro."
I was naturally encouraged by Crosetti's change of heart, but I still wanted to sit down with him in person and listen to his stories. So instead of telling him to go ahead and send me what he'd written, I made a mental note to call him after the New Year and hopefully arrange a visit to Stockton before the start of spring training. By this time, I was getting nearly a letter a month from him in which he would comment on the most recent developments in baseball or offer a thumbnail critique of the latest baseball book he'd read. I wrote him a letter around Christmas, wishing him well for the holidays while offhandedly mentioning that I'd be giving him a call before heading off to spring training. When, by early February, I hadn't heard back from him, I began to be concerned. Then, one afternoon I got a phone call from Rizzuto, who said he'd just gotten word that Crosetti had taken a fall and was in the hospital in critical condition. "I know you've been wanting to get together with him," Rizzuto said. "That's why I'm calling. I don't think it's good."
The next day word came from Stockton that Crosetti had passed away at age 91.
A few weeks later, at spring training in Florida, I finished up the interviews for the book, visiting with octogenarians Ralph Houk at his home in Winter Haven and Marius Russo in Fort Myers, in between sessions with Reggie Jackson and Bobby Murcer at the Yankee camp in Tampa. Russo, who had inadvertently proved elusive in efforts to locate him, was vital to the book in that he was one of the last remaining links to Gehrig. Meanwhile, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much Houk had mellowed since retiring from the baseball wars and I even detected a trace of remorse (however small) regarding the volcanic and sometimes physical abuse of sportswriters for which he had become notorious.
Murcer, I confirmed, still bears the scars of his unceremonious exile from the Yankees in 1974, but harbors no bitterness at all for the unfair and unrealistic comparisons to Mantle that dogged him throughout his career. Rather-and remarkably-he actually feels honored by them.
In the case of Jackson-who has proclaimed with pride through the years at being "a student of the game" while simultaneously expressing his uncompromising views of race relations in baseball-I was especially curious as to how he viewed himself in the overall context of (mostly white) Yankee history. Humility is not a word generally associated with him, but I nevertheless came away from our time together with a distinct sense of that quality as he began his passage into middle age, comfortable with all he'd achieved.
Upon returning to New York for the final editing process, my thoughts returned to Crosetti. He, after all, had been the link to practically all of them, most notably Ruth. If nothing else, I wished I had taken him up on his offer to send me his writings. Throughout our correspondence, I had tried to convince him how important he was to this project, and in the end he had finally relented. I remembered what he'd said in his last letter about wanting his grandkids to see what he'd written. Through Silvera, I was put in touch with Crosetti's grandson, Jim McCoy.
"I'll see if I can find the stuff," McCoy told me. "Then, after that, it'll be up to my grandmother [Crosetti's widow, Norma] as to whether you can use any of it. But I'll talk to her."
A couple of weeks went by and then, just after the last chapters had been submitted to the publisher, a package arrived in the mail from McCoy. The "Crosetti papers" were a bit disjointed (and, I suspected, a good deal purified), but amid all the banality Cro did manage to dispel one of baseball's longest-enduring myths: Ruth's "called shot" homer against the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series:
"I have been asked this nine million times, if Babe pointed to center field when he hit that home run off Charlie Root. When Mark Koenig was playing shortstop for the Yankees in the '20s, he'd become a good friend of Babe's. The Cubs had bought Mark from the San Francisco Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League in August of '32 and he helped them win a few games down the stretch with his timely hitting. But the Cubs voted him only a half-share of the World Series money and Babe, outspoken as he was, called them all tightwads-along with a few other choice words. All these remarks got written up in the papers and when Babe came to bat, the Cubs players were all razzing him. Root got two quick strikes on him and now the Cubs players were on the top step of the dugout really giving it to him.
"Babe nonchalantly stepped out of the batter's box. He did not point his finger to center field. Looking at the Chicago dugout, with his bat resting on his shoulder and being held by his left hand, he raised his right arm and shook his index finger in front of his face, meaning he had one more strike. On the next pitch he hit a home run. This shut the Cubs players up. The next day I'm sitting next to him in the dugout and he said: `If the writers all want to say I pointed to center field, let 'em. I don't care.' That's the story, right from the horse's mouth."
If only we'd have had that sit-down in Stockton for so many more stories. My solace is the letters and our "pen pal" relationship in his final year. There is no chapter on the Cro here, but his grandkids should know he was one very significant Yankee.
Bill Madden, October 1, 2002
Excerpted from Pride of October by Bill Madden Copyright © 2003 by Bill Madden
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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