In 1968, I was a 19-year old fan mail clerk for the New York Yankees, assigned to spend my summer answering Mickey Mantle’s fan mail.
It was the final season of Mick’s 18-year career, although no one knew it at the time.
But Mickey probably did.
One day I was at his locker with a stack of mail that I “urgently needed to discuss with him.” (I would make this up in order to get quality time with my boyhood hero).
I found him opening a box of new baseball spikes. He twisted and bent them prior to putting them on. They felt right. He then picked up his old, worn pair, and tossed it six feet into the nearby garbage receptacle.
“This’ll be my last pair of these,” he said.
He was giving me a news bulletin, but I was not journalistically smart enough to pick up on it. Had he said it to Dick Young, the back page of the Daily News would have been announcing his retirement the next morning. But I didn’t know how long baseball shoes lasted – they might have taken him through the ’69 season for all I knew. Such details wouldn’t have stopped Young from scoring an exclusive.
And me? Did I think for a minute to retrieve the worn shoes from the garbage, and walk out of the clubhouse with a prize that would one day be worth thousands?
I, of course, did not. None of us would have. The idea of Yankees as collectibles, when there was not yet a collectibles “industry” was farthest from my mind.
I stayed another eight seasons. I became the team’s public relations director. I wrote and edited the Yankee Yearbook and scorecards and media guides and Old Timers Day programs and post-season programs, and I always took one home with me as a remembrance. More than one? Why? Why in the world would I need a box of fifty 1973 Yearbooks, the one with the 36 page commemorative section on the history of Yankee Stadium? Why would I need more than one copy of the Mickey Mantle Day retirement program? More than one copy of the press release in which we announced the signings of Catfish Hunter or Reggie Jackson.
We were all dumb then. We didn’t see what was coming.
With the birth of the memorabilia and collectibles crazes that emerged in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the Yankees, as a franchise, soon emerged, predictably, as the most coveted of all teams to collect, and their star players, the most coveted of individuals to collect.
The mid to late ‘70s was a time when the franchise itself was being reborn. After the 1964 season, the team had collapsed into mediocrity. Under CBS ownership, the farm system was found to be devoid of talent, and the June draft of amateur players took from the Yankees the ability to sign anyone they wanted. As the years in the desert piled on, it became clear that kids growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s would no longer view the Yankees as the glamour franchise in sports, and might not be inclined to sign with them when they grew up.
But fortunately, the arrival of George M. Steinbrenner III as the team’s principal owner in 1973, helped turn the fortunes of the team around, so that by 1976, when they moved into a newly refurbished Yankee Stadium, they were able to return to the World Series, draw two million fans, and take their place at the summit. Just in time for the collectibles industry, about to be born, to discover them.
The first indicator would be not Babe Ruth, not Lou Gehrig, not Joe DiMaggio, but Mickey. There was the sale of a rookie Topps card of Mantle for a few thousand dollars that happened to be reported by the Associated Press. The sale was a landmark for the industry, for its coverage sent thousands of fans scrambling into their old shoeboxes looking for buried treasure. From this came the birth of the weekend baseball card shows, so plentiful, that by the mid-‘80s, every community’s Friday newspaper would list all the shows in the area for the weekend – and there were plenty.
“Mantle cards were “chase cards” before anyone knew that word,” says Sy Berger, the father of the modern day trading card during his long career with Topps. “Everyone chased Mantle cards in the fifties, because he was the matinee idol. And the Yankees? They were America’s team – not the Dallas Cowboys, and surely not the Atlanta Braves. It was, and probably always will be the Yankees.”
Eventually baseball card shows, the focal point being the cards, had to be embellished. So old advertising posters emerged, along with old toys, old magazines and programs, and occasionally, old equipment.
And before long came the call for actual “game used” equipment, then autographed memorabilia, and eventually, a baseball card show had as many aisles and as many categories as a K-Mart.
But always the hot merchandise was Yankee merchandise, whether the show was in the northeast or the southwest; the heartland or the Sunbelt, the great northwest or the Great Plains.
The Yankees, it seemed, had touched every sports fan, because love ‘em or hate ‘em, there they were every October, parading the pinstripes in the World Series, when all of America stopped whatever they were doing and watched. The World Series was a week of Super Bowls. They were day games, but no one missed them. And everyone came to know the Yankees.
It was why Yankee players had a greater collectible value than comparable players wearing other uniforms, why Moose Skowron in a Yankee uniform is far more collectible than Bill White or Dick Stuart. It is why the Japanese hosts for this season’s Yankees-Devil Rays series requested that the Yankees, the visiting team, wear their pinstriped uniforms.
When you examine the humble, even humiliating origins of this proud franchise, it is remarkable how they became what they became. It is like imagining a boy of floundering parents, born in Hope, Arkansas, becoming President of the United States. Or a squatty catcher from “Dago Hill” in St. Louis, dropping out of school in 5th grade – and one day having his own museum on a college campus. Can’t happen.
The Yankees were originally the Baltimore Orioles when the American League was born in 1901, and there was no team in New York. Ban Johnson, founder of the league, knew his team would not truly be viewed as “big league” without a team in the nation’s largest city. After the 1902 season, he arranged for the Baltimore team to be transferred to New York, although in actuality, it was hardly a “franchise move.” Nothing of the franchise really moved. There were new owners, new players, new uniforms, and nary a remembrance of any connection with the Orioles at all. It was, essentially, a wholly new team.
The new owners were Frank Farrell and “Big Bill” Devery. Farrell operated pool halls and gambling parlors in the city, and one can only imagine what went on in the back rooms. Devery, later famous as the most corrupt police chief in New York history, was Farrell’s buddy, the guy who made sure his payoffs came on time in exchange for having his force “look the other way.”
The New York Giants, kings of the National League, “owned” the town. The owners had strong political connections, and were able to prevent the American League from putting a ballpark anywhere near a subway station. In the end, the “Highlanders” had to construct a shabby wooden park, Hilltop Park, at the highest point of Manhattan, far from “civilization.” It was a miracle they could survive at all.
Johnson tried to stock the team with good players – Wee Willie Keeler, Jack Chesbro, and Clark Griffith were future Hall of Famers – and the team almost won in 1904, losing to Boston of all things, and on a Chesbro wild pitch at that! (Happy Jack won a record 41 games that year but would be remembered for the errant pitch).
But from 1903-1920, the team never won a pennant. A generation thought of them as a joke. They let the rest of the league lap them by 18 seasons before they got their act together. They gave 15 other Major League teams an 18 year head-start, and still wound up winning 25 world championships in the 20th Century, far more than anyone.
The act unfolded with the entrance of Babe Ruth, purchased from the Red Sox after the 1919 season in what remains the greatest single acquisition by a sports team in history. It set the fates in motion for both franchises to this day, immortalized in the ‘80s by the term “Curse of the Bambino.”
If any single player was ever “bigger than the game,” it was Ruth, whose image and name were known to every American, even to this day. He and Jackie Robinson remain the only baseball players who continue to be included in American history books. There can be no minimizing the impact Ruth brought to baseball and to the Yankees (renamed in 1915 when they departed Hilltop to share the Polo Grounds for eight years).
“If you are producing a collectibles product using retired players, and not concerned about getting it autographed, you start with Babe Ruth,” notes Brandon Steiner, founder of Steiner Sports. “If you are starting an autograph collection, and the Yankee lineage of greatness is your foundation, you have to find Ruth. Fortunately, he was a willing signer, had a beautiful signature, and was much in demand to people with handy fountain pens.”
Ah, the lineage of greatness begun by Ruth. What a gift the franchise had for perpetuating it.
Ruth came along in 1920, and was joined by Lou Gehrig, out of Columbia University, in 1923. That was the year that magnificent Yankee Stadium opened in the Bronx, the nation’s first triple-decked stadium, and in fact, the first ballpark to be called a “stadium.” It was the masterpiece of Col. Jacob Ruppert, a former New York Congressman, son of a beer baron, who had bought the team with a partner in 1915. The partner, Til Huston, an engineer, was instrumental in the design and construction of what would become the most famous sports arena in the world.
So Ruth and Gehrig were the centerpieces of “Murderer’s Row,” a team that would win pennants throughout the ‘20s under Miller Huggins, and then keep it going in the ‘30s when Joe McCarthy became the skipper. Ruth’s Yankee stay would last through 1934; Gehrig continued on into early 1939 when he was felled by the horrid disease, ALS. By then, the third figure of the Yankees own Mt. Rushmore was in town, Joe DiMaggio, who came up in 1936 and who would set the standard for grace on the diamond until his retirement in 1951.
1951 would be, coincidentally, the rookie season of Mantle. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle, would be the focal point of the nation’s attention from 1920 through Mantle’s retirement in 1968. Baseball would have hundreds of great stars in this time, but the glamour of Yankee Stadium, the Yankee pinstriped uniform, the Ruth heritage, the many championships, the many records, and the brilliant supporting cast, made this all blend into a team so steeped in pride, tradition and history, that even the greatest Yankee “haters,” and they were legion, had to grudgingly admit that the Yankees set the standard for excellence.
It is hard to put post-1968 Yankees into the same pantheon as were Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio-Mantle, if only because they were so clearly the most admired players in all of baseball. But Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and now, perhaps Alex Rodriguez, can rightfully take their place among the cast as beloved Yankee greats, each coming along for a new generation to connect with.
Much credit for the Yankees remaining at the top of the collectible chain must go to Steinbrenner, who has owned the team longer than anyone – CBS, Topping and Webb, Ruppert or Farrell and Devery. Although a native of Cleveland, Steinbrenner grew up with an admiring appreciation of the Yankees, and throughout his more than 30 years of ownership, he has not only preserved the richness of the Yankee lore – he has embellished it mightily.
He never changed the uniforms, never changed the logo, never changed the public address announcer, Bob Sheppard. (He changed managers – a lot – but when he had the best one in the franchise’s history in Joe Torre, he knew enough to keep him).
He enriched the tradition by creating “Monument Park” in deep left center field, adding with care selected players to have numbers retired, or plaques and monuments added.
He constructed the Tampa spring training site as an extension of the Bronx tradition and architecture.
And he lured to the Bronx a lot of players who took deep pride in the Yankee lore, and appreciated what it meant to play for the franchise. When a David Wells, a Roger Clemens, an A-Rod, a Paul O’Neill, or a Hideki Matsui would come to town and speak of the meaning of wearing the Yankee uniform, the message was heard loud and clear, and it served to reinforce the aura and mystique of the franchise.
“This current era coincided perfectly with the growth of our business,” said Steiner. “Not only did our association with Derek Jeter and many of the players send people to our website and retail outlets, but the Yankees have never experienced such a period of ‘likeability’ in their history. They were always a team you admired and respected, but if you weren’t a fan of theirs, they were easy to dislike. Now, this batch of players under Torre’s leadership has been almost unimaginably good; impossible to root against. And we have certainly benefited from that as a business. People love to obtain Yankee merchandise, Yankee collectibles. And people love to collect items from dominant team.”
The late Lawrence Ritter, the author of “Glory of Their Times,” (which in many ways kick-started our cravings for old time baseball), was a lifelong National League fan who saw his first Yankee game in 1933, but never developed a rooting interest in them – only an appreciation for their accomplishments.
But in his final years, he gave in. “This is such a gifted and likeable bunch, how can anyone root against them?” he asked. “How can you not like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada? I give up! They’ve got me!”
Torre has been the constant throughout this recent era, and claiming he has been the best manager is not a reach. Consider him against the other three candidates – Huggins, McCarthy and Casey Stengel.
None of those three had to manage a roster of multi-national, multi-racial millionaires, on long term, no-trade contracts, each with his own entourage, each rightfully worthy of a major ego. None of the three had such a demanding boss. None had to do live press conferences on television after each game, or listen to talk radio second-guessers. None had to beat 13 league opponents, and win three rounds of playoffs.
The mystique goes on. Whoever follows Torre will have big shoes to fill, but the franchise has proven that it has the capacity to continuously regenerate itself. Somewhere out there in the world is a 10-year old Little League star who will play for the Yankees in 15 years and carry on the tradition. In the meantime, he is probably collecting Yankee memorabilia, decorating his room with Yankee licensed merchandise, and watching the men in pinstripes perform heroically on SportsCenter.
“I’m a 64 year old man who spent 4 of those years as a Yankee infielder,” says Phil Linz, a reserve in the early ‘60s who homered off Bob Gibson in the ’64 World Series. “But I still sign autographs, I still get invited places, I still get interviewed, and strangers still care about me. And it’s all because I was a Yankee. It was the biggest thing in my life, and the fans don’t let you forget it.”
Step aside, folks, the new A-Rod jerseys have arrived. Line forms to the right, please.
The legend continues.
Yankee Retired Numbers
1 Billy Martin
3 Babe Ruth
4 Lou Gehrig
5 Joe DiMaggio
7 Mickey Mantle
8 Bill Dickey/Yogi Berra
9 Roger Maris
10 Phil Rizzuto
15 Thurman Munson
16 Whitey Ford
23 Don Mattingly
32 Elston Howard
37 Casey Stengel
44 Reggie Jackson
49 Ron Guidry
Top 10 Yankee HR Hitters
1. Babe Ruth 659
2. Mickey Mantle 536
3. Lou Gehrig 493
4. Joe DiMaggio 361
5. Yogi Berra 358
6. Graig Nettles 250
7. Bernie Williams 241*
8. Don Mattingly 222
9. Dave Winfield 205
10. Roger Maris 203
* Through 2003 season
Author’s List of Amazing Yankee Collectibles
1. 500-pound clubhouse safe, with names of original 1903 Highlanders painted on individual draws for safekeeping of valuables. Safe lasted until 1973, vanished during refurbishing of Yankee Stadium.
2. Sale agreement document sending Babe Ruth to the Yankees
3. Bat and ball from Opening Day, Yankee Stadium, 1923, with which Ruth homered to “christen” the magnificent new ballpark.
4. Notes prepared by Lou Gehrig on “Gehrig Appreciation Day” in 1939 when he delivered “baseball’s Gettysburg Address,” his “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. He did not hold them on the field, perhaps he never wrote anything down. But what a find that would be.
5. Scouting report by Tom Greenwade on 17-year old Mickey Mantle
6. Baseball from 97th and last pitch of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series
7. Ballpoint pen with which Catfish Hunter signed his contract in 1974, bringing in the era of free agency baseball.
8. Sale agreement document sending Joe DiMaggio to the Yankees.
9. Catcher’s mitt worn by Joe Girardi to catch David Cone’s perfect game in 1999. Glove was borrowed by Yogi Berra in pre-game ceremony to catch ceremonial first pitch from Don Larsen, recreating their 1956 perfect game battery.
10. Copacobana nightclub check the from 1957 when Mantle, Ford, Bauer, Berra and Kucks celebrated Billy Martin’s birthday, which wound up in a brawl and soon saw Martin exiled to Kansas City. (His first of many Yankee exiles).
Brandon Steiner’s All-Yankee Collectibles All-Star Team
C – Berra (but Dickey and Munson are good ones to have)
1B – Gehrig (and everyone loves Mattingly)
2B – Randolph (obtainable, and from great ‘70s teams)
SS – Jeter (but hard to ignore Rizzuto)
3B – Nettles for now, wait and see with A-Rod
OF – Ruth
OF – DiMaggio
OF – Mantle
P – Ford
P – Clemens (his lifetime stats make him very collectible)
RP – Rivera (Gossage is a good ‘get’).