New York Yankee Collectibles/Beckett
By Marty Appel
It begins, of course, with the “Voice of God,” the voice of Bob Sheppard, who has handled the public address assignment at Yankee Stadium since bleacher seats were 50 cents, since Mickey Mantle wore his rookie number 6, and since Casey Stengel wore a long sleeve manager’s uniform as Joe McCarthy had. The Yankee top hat logo was four years old; the Yankees Yearbook, two, and the number 4 elevated train was passing behind the bleachers, over Joe DiMaggio’s shoulders.
And when Bob Sheppard says “Good after-NOON, ladies and gentlemen, and WEL-come to YANK-ee STAD-ium”, you know that the House the Ruth Built in is order, that everything is properly arranged, and that you are in the sacred cutout in the south Bronx that is unlike any sports arena ever known in America.
And that is how it all begins. The number 4 train out there, Bob Sheppard up here, pinstripes down there, and the world’s most celebrated franchise, bringing forth love or hate but always passion, grabbing our attention. These are the New York Yankees.
If you are a fan of the Beatles, and are asked to list your top 50 songs of all time, you know that there is your top 50 list, and your top 50 Beatles list. The two do not blend. “Johnny B Goode” may be the national anthem of rock ‘n roll, but nothing can give you the special feeling that “She Loves You” invokes. It’s apples and oranges.
So to is it with the New York Yankees, that most storied and celebrated sports franchise, which, for all the occasional hoopla about the Atlanta Braves or the Dallas Cowboys, is truly America’s team. It is the team they have heard of in Berlin and Beijing, and the team that, love ‘em or hate ‘em, stands apart from the crowd.
There are nearly 120 pro teams today in the four major sports, and it even tests the best fan’s knowledge when the nicknames flash by on the bottom of the screen reeling off the scores. But there is only one Yankees, and there is no problem identifying them to your 87-year old Ukrainian-born grandmother in her retirement home in California.
Why is this? Why does the collectible bearing the pinstripes or the top hat or the interlocking NY or the vision of Yankee Stadium set hearts racing? Why do we have our sports collectibles here, and our Yankee collectibles there?
The answer is three-fold.
It is first, the cult of personality the team has honed since 1920. It is second the consistency of style anchored by solvent ownership and a dedication to a “look.”
And third, it is the ballpark itself, the majestic Yankee Stadium.
It wasn’t always like this. The team itself was forced onto the American League by Ban Johnson, the founder and first league president, two years after the other teams had made their debut in the “junior circuit.”
The franchise was originally in Baltimore when the league began play in 1901. Johnson knew that he wasn’t truly “big league,” on a par with the National League, until he planted a franchise in New York, the nation’s largest city at just under 3.5 million people. But New York was a problem; the Giants “owned it.” The Giants were politically well connected, and able to block just about any attempt to let competition in. When at last Johnson was successful, he could only manage to put the team in a rickety wooden field called Hilltop Park, well beyond where the subway line ended in upper Manhattan.
This was a sorry franchise, although Johnson, manipulating its creation, got Clark Griffith, the great 19th century pitcher, to become player/manager – and added Wee Willie Keeler, a Brooklyn native of “hit ‘em where they ain’t fame” and Jack Chesbro, a star pitcher from Pittsburgh.
Hilltop Park (best represented today in a 1989 lithograph by William Feldman through the catalogue of Bill Goff Inc.), was no tourist attraction. The so-called “Highlanders” (the park was at Manhattan’s highest elevation), almost won the 1904 pennant (Chesbro, a record-setting 41 wins under his belt, tossed a wild pitch that cost them the flag), but made little impact for the rest of their existence. It wasn’t America’s Team; it was barely on the minds of New Yorkers. It was the Giants of John McGraw and Christy Mathewson who were the darlings of the sporting set in New York, the toast of the Broadway crowd, and the favorites of the political gang from Tammany Hall.
Little of the Highlanders era is favored by collectors, although its antiquity makes it a curiosity at this stage. Its value is in its age, far more than its link to the Yankees. The tobacco cards of Highlanders are no more popular than those of other teams, particularly because there were so few stars during the Highlanders era of 1903-1913.
The era limped to a close with the changing of the team’s name to Yankees (although it had been used in newspaper headlines for years), the move of the team to share the Polo Grounds with the Giants as tenants, and a year later, the purchase of the club by Col. Jacob Ruppert and Captain Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston.
Ruppert and Huston were New York society, not gambling house operators and corrupt police chiefs like the previous ownership. Ruppert had even been a 3-term U.S. Congressman from Manhattan and operated one of the city’s major breweries. Huston was an engineer. It would only be a matter of a few years before they were able to find themselves on equal footing with the lordly Giants, and would, in fact, outdraw them. That insult would lead to the Giants telling Ruppert “find your own place.”
The key to this shift in popularity occurred on January 5, 1920, when the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. It changed baseball. From that moment on, the Yankees would become the most successful sports franchise in all the land, the most star-studded, glamorous team yet conceived, far beyond what the Colonel or the Captain could have ever dreamed. And it is no coincidence that baseball has thrived when the Yankees have been strong.
During a period in the early ‘70s, for example, baseball was said to be out of favor. Attendance was flat. An exciting 1975 World Series was said to have “revived” the game. But it is also hard to overlook that in 1976, the Yankees ended as 12-year draught in the pennant department, returned to a refurbished Yankee Stadium, and all of baseball enjoyed the beginning of a period of great rejuvenation.
Cult of Personality
Ruth to this day remains the best known, best loved, and most collectible athlete in American history, lauded in history books and encyclopedias, known and recognized by every native-born American, more than a half-century after his death.
He was larger than life, a man-child of mischief and achievement, playing with a skill that no one had ever seen before.
Thus began the first of the elements that would make the Yankees the most collectible franchise in sports. The cult of personality. It began with Ruth, and it continued with his star-crossed, handsome teammate Lou Gehrig, and then passed to the flawless Joe DiMaggio, and then on to the golden boy, Mickey Mantle. From 1920 to 1968, (save for the World War II years), there was always the presence of one or more of these heroes, each in turn the most popular player of his day. That there were 29 pennants in a span of 44 seasons during those years added to the mystique.
It is often asked why Mantle collectibles so out-value Willie Mays collectibles. Both began in the same year, in the same town, both were remarkably skilled, and in the end, even Mantle conceded that Mays was the better player and had the better career.
Some are quick to suggest that it could be a racial element, the white player vs. the black player. But when one views the collectible value of a Michael Jordan, a Ken Griffey or a Muhammad Ali, that argument fades.
It was the Yankees. It was that Mantle was in 12 World Series in his first 14 years, to Mays’s two. Mantle enjoyed the national spotlight each fall, the network coverage, the Life magazine covers. Mays’ Giants, by then, had become the number three team in town, before leaving for San Francisco. It was the Yankees.
Bobby Richardson was a heckuva second baseman, as was Junior Gilliam of the Dodgers. Bobby hit a career .266 with 34 homers and topped out at 99 runs scored in his best year. Gilliam hit .265, had 65 homers and surpassed 100 runs 4 times, playing for a well-known and collectible team. According to Beckett’s Almanac of Baseball Cards and Collectibles, a 1960 Topps Richardson, near-mint, is worth $14. Gilliam’s, same year, $6. It’s the Yankees.
The supporting cast – be they Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Henrich, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Graig Nettles, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, and Paul O’Neill, – were all made larger by the wearing of the uniform. Being a Yankee didn’t earn you a free pass to Cooperstown; but it certainly enhanced your national recognition.
The consistency of style
This is the second element of the Yankee lore. The uniform, essentially unchanged over all these years, and the first to bear numbers on its back (1929), was rumored to employ pinstripes to camouflage Ruth’s ample girth. It’s probably not true. Babe’s waistline was not vast, nor problematic when the pinstripes first appeared. But the pinstripes developed into a classic look, one that works for the Yankees, but has never worked quite as well for the imitators, whether they be Mets, Padres, Brewers or Braves. The interlocking NY, seen as early as the Highlander years, is itself a standard. Then you have the top hat logo, designed for its first appearance in the 1947 World Series, commissioned by the promotion-minded owner Larry MacPhail. It’s the style and it’s the standards. It’s a team that knows that its great tradition is best preserved by consistency of look. It’s why the clubhouse man, (Pete Sheehy), and the broadcaster, (Mel Allen), and the general managers (Ed Barrow, George Weiss) and the publicist (Bob Fishel) and the groundskeeper (Jimmy Esposito), and the aforementioned P.A. announcer all became household names to Yankee fans. They maintained a standard of excellence, each in their own field. There was a comfort level for dads, passing on the game to sons, saying “this is how it has always been.”
Finally, there is the Stadium, periodically rumored to be a burden to the team, holding back attendance. In the end, it is the place to go. Few tourists arriving in New York are told that they are “not to miss Shea Stadium.” Yankee Stadium, on the other hand, commands attention, even a subway ride up to the Bronx when the team is off. Visiting National League players have been known to make the excursion when in town to play the Mets, just for a look.
Yankee Stadium was the nation’s first triple-decked ballpark, and was in fact, the first to be called a stadium. Hastily constructed with Ruppert-Huston money it has become the world’s most celebrated sports facility, more than 75 years later. (The Coliseum in Rome is sometimes mentioned in the same breath, but it is a stretch to call lions devouring Christians a sport). The graceful façade, which first encircled the grandstand, and now rests proudly on the bleacher walls, is “the look,” but there is also a haunting majesty found in its odd shape, left field so much deeper than right. And then there is monument park, way out there, home to monuments and plaques for those who exceeded even the honor of the Hall of Fame or of the retired number. (For those who want retired numbers, no team has more – 13 at last count).
For Yankee Stadium, it is about character and majesty and grace and style and beauty. It can be intimidating for the visiting player – it can be intimidating for the home players – but as many have said when first playing on its well-manicured lawn, “NOW, I’m in the big leagues.”
You see that ticket stub from the day Lou Gehrig said he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth?”
It is, at once, both a sports collectible and a slice of American history.
There has never been a team like it. Anything that somehow touches the rich history of this franchise is, to someone, a very special collectible.
Whether it’s a yearbook, a button, a trading card, a photo, a scorecard, a matchbook, a poster, an ashtray, an autograph, a figurine, a book, a seat, a cap, a ticket or Babe Ruth’s camelhair coat – it needs to be displayed over here; apart from all those other things, over there.