Sports Collectors Digest: Milton Gross/Yankee Doodles

By Marty Appel

In preparing a forthcoming volume on the history of the Yankees, I recently stumbled on a fairly obscure book published in 1948, which, it turns out, was a little gem of a book!

The reason for it’s high rating is that the author, Milton Gross, was a top rate journalist, part of a hustling team of New York Post sportswriters who would come into their own in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, but by 1948 was already taking shape.

Gross’s book had the unserious title of Yankee Doodles, and included a foreword by the Yankee manager, Bucky Harris. Harris had no way of knowing of course, that his third place finish that season (just 2 ½ games out of first), would seal his doom. He’d be swept out and replaced by Casey Stengel, who would proceed to reel off five straight world championships.

Fantasize with me for a moment here: Harris won the world championship in ’47. Had he repeated in ’48 – and he didn’t miss by much – he almost certainly doesn’t get fired. And then, perhaps he wins those five that Casey won, and emerges with seven straight world championships of his own, and perhaps – perhaps! – recognition as the greatest manager in baseball history. After all, seven straight world championships!

But, he was 2 ½ games out in ’48, and finished with the Yanks. How history can turn on a few games. The Yanks that year were not eliminated until the next to last day of the season.

Well, enough on Bucky, whose foreword was all of four paragraphs, but it was a good moment to make that observation.

Gross’s book includes 19 chapters with line drawings by Dinty Dugan (a great name for a newspaperman, although he was an illustrator), most of them profiles of the Yankees of that era. DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Henrich, Keller, et al, were presented for readers while at the top of their games, not a revisionist look. They are both well-planned mini-biographies as well as anecdotally fun.

For example, in the DiMaggio chapter: “Because of these inconveniences, which still can rub like a burr despite Joe’s salary, DiMag lives a most peculiar life. For one thing, he takes most of his meals in Toots Shor’s Restaurant in New York. Shor is a celebrity in his own right and loves Joe like a brother. Toots’ place is a celebrity haven. They bump into each other on the way to their tables.

“There’s no autographing in Shor’s. You get good food, good conversation, amiable lying and a friendly greeting without having to reach for somebody’s pen. It’s one of the few places in town Joe or many of his Broadway friends can relax and be themselves. DiMag often has his most restful evenings sitting around a friendly table with Shor and such as Joe E. Lewis, the comedian, Eddie Duchin, the piano-playing millionaire, and others whose names make up the fodder for Broadway columnists.”

It’s a nice look at Joe’s New York life in the late ‘40s, when he was divorced and living in hotels.

Of Joe Page, the relief star of the late ‘40s: “Joe has 18 suits, most of which are stylishly cut double-breasted patterns made by J.B. Simpson. He has four sports coats of the latest design and styling and owns 11 pairs of shoes. His shirts are made to order, all white on white. His ties are manifold, usually of California style. His rayon undershorts are loud. He has five wristwatches. He is always immaculately groomed. Except for the fact that he never wears an undershirt or hat, even in dead of winter, Page can pass for a man of distinction.”

Gross himself could pass that test. A distinguished looking pipe smoker, (when he wasn’t chain smoking cigarettes), he was a product of Fordham, with an M.A. from Columbia and was working on a doctorate in economics when he aborted that and went into the newspaper business. His career began prior to the war, and after service with the Coast Guard, he returned to the Yankees’ beat, where he had been since 1938.

Gross remained on the writing scene until his death in 1972. His was loosely portrayed as “Milton Kahn” in Billy Crystal’s “61*”, (acted by Richard Masur), the sportswriter who was stood up by Roger Maris for an interview apopintment. He had a son, Michael, an author, and a daughter, Jane, who wrote for the New York Times.

“Yankee Doodles” was perhaps too trivial a title for a book that provided great insight into the Yanks of the late ‘40s, much as Tom Meany’s “The Magnificent Yankees” took up where that one left off.