'Damn Yankees' Inspire Major League Love And Hate | KUER 90.1

'Damn Yankees' Inspire Major League Love And Hate

Apr 9, 2012
Originally published on April 10, 2012 12:05 pm

The New York Yankees may be the most polarizing team in the U.S. In a new collection, Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team, writers share the stories behind their passions.

In many cases, rooting for or against them has little to do with sports. Two contributors to the collection, journalist Charlie Pierce and writer Daniel Okrent, talk with NPR's Neal Conan about their stories, and why the New York Yankees inspire such strong feelings in so many people, sports fans or not.

Pierce grew up in Red Sox country — Worcester, Mass. But even there, there were patches of Yankees fans. "All the Italian kids that I knew growing up were all Yankees fans because of DiMaggio," he says. Players like DiMaggio "were your purchase on the country," says Pierce. "The country defines itself in a lot of ways by the games it watches ... [and] the entree for a lot of Italian-Americans of a certain generation of this country was Joe DiMaggio."

But back then, he qualifies, "the Yankees were so good, and the Red Sox were so terrible that ... having a rivalry with the Yankees was like having a rivalry with the rain. I mean, it was completely pointless."

Okrent grew up hating the Yankees, a fact he attributes to his hometown, Detroit. "If you grew up in any American League city in the 1950s," he says, "you either loved the Yankees because you were a cowardly front-runner, or you loathed them because you had no chance to win the pennant."

All that changed for a little while in the late 1960s and early '70s, known as the Horace Clarke years. Clarke was a less-than-stellar second baseman who became emblematic of the era. The Yankees "were terrible," says Okrent, and the Tigers went on a hot streak, dominating the Yankees. During that period, "it almost became kind of pointless to hate them anymore. They were just ... not worth hating."

But soon enough, the pendulum swung back the other way, with new owner George Steinbrenner's arrival. Steinbrenner restored the team's fortunes, loudly. "He realized that whatever he said would be repeated by ... the New York press," says Okrent. "So he never shut up for the next 20, next 30 years really."

Okrent makes an exception for at least one Yankee: Babe Ruth, whom he calls the greatest player in baseball, ever. "I don't think there's an argument, because Willie Mays never pitched a game. And you could say the same thing about any other candidate for best player." Ruth was the complete package, a pitcher and a hitter, says Okrent, "and he was a truly great pitcher and hitter, while at the same time he was a truly great eater, drinker and womanizer. So we must admire him deeply."

Pierce also makes exceptions, but for other teams. "I have no problem with ... multi-fanship," he says. Though he was born into "endless Red Sox pathologies," he became a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers when he went to college there.

Okrent agrees — he's also a Chicago Cubs fan. "The Tigers are my team in the American League, but I'm much more of a National League guy now," he says. His son became a "Cubs maniac" when he was about 6 years old, and his enthusiasm was contagious. "And I do love Wrigley Field, and I do love the fact of, you know, the Cubs ... don't seem to even want to win, which is kind of cute."

Tell us: What was the moment that confirmed you as either a Yankees fan or a Yankees hater?

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After the first weekend of the baseball season, Yankee-haters across the land thrilled to see the despised New Yorkers in the basement of the American League East. Fans of the fabled franchise comforted themselves with the knowledge that the last time they started 0 and three, they went on to one of the best seasons in the history of the game and another world's championship.

No sports team inspires so much passion on both ends of the spectrum. A new book collects essays by two-dozen well-known writers from a variety of vantage points. Daniel Okrent and Charlie Pierce join us in just a minute. We want to hear from you. Tell us about the moment that confirmed you as a Yankees fan or a Yankees hater, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, our former colleague Michael Sullivan on a new day in Myanmar. But first, writer Charlie Pierce joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. He's among the contributors to the new book "Damn Yankees." He's also a regular guest on NPR's ONLY A GAME and on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!. Nice to have you with us.

CHARLIE PIERCE: Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: And - good thanks, and writer, editor and sometime puzzle-solver Daniel Okrent joins us from our bureau in New York. His latest book is "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." Dan, nice to have you back.

DANIEL OKRENT: Nice to be here, Neal. Hey, Charlie.

PIERCE: Hey, Dan, how are you?


CONAN: And Dan Okrent, was there a moment when you became a Yankee hater, or was this genetic?

OKRENT: It was geographical. I grew up in Detroit in the 1950s, and if you grew up in any American League city in the 1950s, you either loved the Yankees because you were a cowardly frontrunner, or you loathed them because you had no chance to win the pennant.

CONAN: I remember a player for the Tigers in those years, Don Mossi, fabled as a Yankee killer.

OKRENT: And also fabled by the great baseball expert Bill James as the ugliest man in baseball history.

PIERCE: Once described by Jim Bouton as looking like a cab going down the street with the doors open.


CONAN: A charter member of the all-ugly team. Charlie Pierce, you grew up in Worchester, Massachusetts, Red Sox country for sure. But your piece in the book noted that there were several sub-groups in Worcester who rooted for other clubs.

PIERCE: Yeah, I grew up in a kind of ethnic Dogpatch where we all sort of kept to ourselves and, you know, divided the city up into various parishes from different parts of the world. And all the Italian kids that I knew growing up were all Yankees fans because of DiMaggio.

Now, the one thing you have to remember about when I grew up, the Yankees were so good, and the Red Sox were so terrible that there wasn't - having a rivalry with the Yankees was like having a rivalry with the rain.


PIERCE: I mean, it was completely pointless.

OKRENT: 1961, I think the Tigers won 101 or 102 games. They finished nine games behind the Yankees.

PIERCE: See, that's the difference. See, I'm sure the Red Sox won about 60 games that year.


CONAN: Losing quite a few to both the Tigers and the Yankees. But you said that you realized after a long time that what made those Yankees special to those Italian kids was the same thing that made the, you know, well, a lot of - Mayor Curley and John L. Sullivan special to your forebears.

PIERCE: Sure because they were your purchase on the country. I mean, the country defines itself in a lot of ways by the games it watches, and that - I mean, the entree for a lot of Italian-Americans of a certain generation of this country was Joe DiMaggio.

And that became - you know, that locked them into the Yankees until one day they all woke up, and Joe DiMaggio was selling coffee makers, and they were rooting for Mickey Mantle.


CONAN: Quite a different thing, but nevertheless the tradition continued. And Danny Okrent, your piece was about a moment of the Bronxian dark ages, the Horace Clarke years, when the Yankees were perhaps the worst team in baseball.

OKRENT: They were terrible. They were terrible for a good seven-, eight-, nine-year stretch, and that was really pretty wonderful for a while. Actually, by '68, when the Tigers won the World Series, actually the Tigers had the same - just as Italians were attracted to the Yankees because of DiMaggio, I think that inept athletes like me were attracted to the Tigers because of Ray Oyler, the regular shortstop who batted .135 for the season.

Any case, the Tigers and other teams dominated the Yankees in that period. So it almost became kind of pointless to hate them anymore. They were just, they were not worth hating. But then George Steinbrenner came to town, and that changed everything.

CONAN: Changed everything, the blowhard from Cleveland I think you described him as.

OKRENT: Fat boy from Cleveland.

CONAN: Fat boy from Cleveland, all right, well - and that, he not only restored the fortunes of the team, he did it in rather a - well, blowhard is probably not too strong a word.

OKRENT: No, I don't think so. He realized that whatever he said would be repeated by the Detroit press - excuse me, the New York press. So he never shut up for the next 20, next 30 years really. He also bought the ball club for $8 million, and that really upsets me.


CONAN: Now the most valuable franchise in America.

OKRENT: Well, based on the sale of the Dodgers last week, the Yankees are probably worth $3 to $4 billion now.

CONAN: And still owned by his sons, among others. There are still some limited partners, there was that wonderful phrase, one of them said there's nothing more limited than being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner.

OKRENT: Right, that was John McMullen, later on the Astros.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Was there a moment that confirmed you either as a Yankees fan or a Yankees hater? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Jim(ph), and Jim's on the line with us from Gainesville.

JIM: Well, I've always hated the Yankees, but what really intensified it was in the – I don't remember if it was the pennant or the playoff when Tino Marinez threw I think it was – he was throwing at Kenny Lofton's head down the baseline, and he had to field a bunt and Knoblauch started arguing the call and claiming interference. And two of the runners proceeded to continue to score. And Knoblauch was just standing there arguing with the umpire about an interference, just ignoring the play.

And it was all because, like I said, first baseman, dirty Tino Martinez that, you know, saw he had a free shot to throw it at a runner.

CONAN: Really, you thought he was throwing at Kenny Lofton's head?

JIM: (Unintelligible) the baseline.


JIM: He was trying to make the play at first.

CONAN: He was trying to make the play at first base, yes.

JIM: And he threw it, and he plunked him, figuring that it would be called an interference call, figured he had a free shot. And then Knoblauch was - started trying to argue the call instead of continuing with the play, which it was a live ball. I think two of our other runners continued to score as...

CONAN: Dan Okrent, do you remember the play? And I don't remember that Tino's arm was ever that accurate that he could aim at anything and actually hit it.

OKRENT: Yeah, it's also important to remember that when your own team does something like that, it's competitive baseball, but when the Yankees do it, it's low and it's cheating.

JIM: (Unintelligible) beating the Indians. That's the motality(ph), unfortunately, of the history of the major leagues.

PIERCE: Well, the nickel drops: You're an Indians fan.


JIM: And oh my gosh, it's just - of course now we don't even have to watch baseball because Kentucky won, you know, the Final Four, and so that automatically means the Yankees are going to win this year.

CONAN: So we've heard.

PIERCE: A team only slightly less like General Motors than the New York Yankees, by the way.

CONAN: The University of Kentucky, you mean? Yes, indeed.


CONAN: So - but indeed, the basketball championships are over. I guess we're going to be playing professional basketball until - well, probably mid-summer sometime, but eventually that'll be over, too. The Stanley Cup Finals are just beginning. But Dan Okrent, it's baseball season.

OKRENT: Yeah, it's great, and it'll be particularly great when all those other things are done, when all those other back-and-forth sports, as Red Smith called them, have continued - have run their course. And then we'll have that period for about six weeks between the end of hockey and basketball and the time that the NFL players report to camp, and it will be only baseball, and I'll be a very happy man.

PIERCE: That's what I like to call the Gobi Desert of the American sports year. This is a long-standing argument between Dan and I, by the way.


CONAN: I can understand that.

PIERCE: I'm much more of a baseball agnostic than Dan is.

CONAN: But Dan, you are also known as one of those people who created rotisserie-league baseball, fantasy baseball.

OKRENT: Yes, and I apologize.


CONAN: But in - over the years, you must have had various members of the Yankees on your teams.

OKRENT: Well, I very cleverly only play National League. So I'm not even tempted to have a Yankee on my team. In fact, I don't even like to have ex-Yankees on my team.

CONAN: Former Yankees on the...

PIERCE: Dan, we should also point out that Rob Fleder, who edited the book, is also one of the founders of...

OKRENT: That is true, and I think we need to mention the name of the book, "Damn Yankee," edited by Rob Fleder.

CONAN: "Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team." We're talking to two of the contributors, Charlie Pierce and Daniel Okrent, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's go next to Danielle(ph), Danielle calling us from New York City.

DANIELLE: Thank you, Neal, I'm excited to be on. I am a Yankee fan, and there are two major points in my life where those things kind of came to fruition. I'm - you know, being a New Yorker, the Yankees were always kind of in the background. You always knew of them.

But the point that I really became a fan the first time was viewing the Ken Burns baseball documentary, where throughout all 10 parts, the Yankees were really the mythological heroes of that documentary and kind of American heroes the way they're presented that way. So that was kind of the beginning of my love.

But the thing that really solidified it for me, even though I'm not the biggest sports fan, is the fact that I work for a non-for-profit here in New York, and I don't think everyone realizes that the Yankees are incredibly generous to the New York City community, the Bronx community and to local nonprofits. They're even willing to host our annual walk-a-thon fundraiser at Yankee Stadium this year.

So not only are they wonderful baseball, but they're actually incredibly generous to the people of New York and the country, and they're big fans in my book for their big hearts.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for that, Danielle. And it's fair to say yes, the Yankees, major contributors to charity, but as are other clubs. Charlie Pierce, you think of the Jimmy Fund in Boston.

PIERCE: Yeah, I think that, you know, this is something, to whom much is given, much, you know, is required. And I think that the Yankees contribute to the community. It's only fair, since the community helped build them a wonderful new baseball stadium, among other things.

OKRENT: Many hundreds of millions of dollar. They've done it a couple times now. I'm actually very disappointed to hear that the Yankees are generous to charitable organizations because that kind of deprives the last 64 years of my life of meaning.


OKRENT: I want to think they're terrible.

CONAN: And to see them as the heroes of the Ken Burns documentary...

OKRENT: Yeah, I thought I was the hero of the Ken Burns documentary.


CONAN: I thought you were, too, but it also means accepting...

PIERCE: I thought it was the banjo player, myself.

OKRENT: Oh, he was good, he was good. Yeah, he hasn't gained 40 pounds since then, the way I have.

CONAN: But it does mean accepting some of the myths about players like Babe Ruth, undoubtedly a great player, but certain foibles were overlooked.

OKRENT: Well, I really love Babe Ruth. I do suspend whatever I feel about the Yankees for him. He was the greatest player in baseball history without question. I don't think there's an argument because Willie Mays never pitched a game. And you could say the same thing about any other candidate for best player. But Ruth was a truly great pitcher before he was a truly great hitter, and he was a truly great pitcher and hitter while at the same time he was a truly great eater, drinker and womanizer. So we must admire him deeply.

CONAN: The name of the book is "Damn Yankees." More with Dan Okrent and Charlie Pierce, two of its contributors, in just a moment. And your calls. Tell us about the moment that confirmed you as a Yankee fan or a Yankee hater, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's a TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Everyone has an opinion about the Yankees, more than opinion in most cases, Rob Fleder writes in the introduction to a new collection of essays. And these views are not necessarily rooted in sports.

The Yankees, he explains, symbolize everything good and strong and true about baseball and America and the human race in general, either that or pure evil. The book is titled "Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team."

We're talking with two of those contributors, writer and editor Daniel Okrent, who wrote the essay "The Deal of the Century," and journalist and author Charlie Pierce, who contributed an essay titled "True North." You can read more about how he realized what the Yankees meant to him and to most of his family and to his hometown in an excerpt at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Or you can also tell us about the moment that confirmed you as a Yankees fan or Yankees hater. The phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This from Colleen(ph) in Cincinnati: My husband grew up in New Jersey a lifelong Yankees fan. When we were writing our wedding vows at our traditional Midwestern Catholic church, he wanted to include a promise to raise the children as Yankees fans. I agreed to be a Yankees fan in the American League and Reds in the National League. The kids are diehard fans of both teams. We hope for a repeat matchup in the World Series every season.

This from Ted: The happiest moment of my Yankee-hating life was the game and hit from Gonzo off of Rivera. That was a game hit that won Game 7 of the World Series in 2001. No, I was not a D-backs fan, he writes, I'm a Brewers fan.

And this from Jodi(ph), who wrote: I think it's like citizenship. Being a Yankee fan is a group you are born into. Fortunately, she writes, dual fanship is allowed. Charlie Pierce, dual fanship, is that allowed?

PIERCE: Oh, sure, absolutely, especially today, when, you know, when there are eight, you know, eight bazillion games on television. I for one, I became a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers because I went to college there. And now they've moved to the National League. So they don't interfere with, you know, the endless Red Sox pathologies that I was born – that I was born into. So you know, I mean, I have no problem with, you know, multi-fanship.

CONAN: Dan Okrent?

OKRENT: Well, I'm a Cubs fan.

CONAN: Really?

OKRENT: Which is really difficult.

CONAN: Well, no wonder then.

OKRENT: But at least we can count on certain things if you're a Cubs fan. Yeah, you know, the Tigers are my team in the American League, but I'm much more of a National League guy now. I actually inherited my attachment to the Cubs from my son, who became a Cubs maniac when he was around six years old, and he hasn't shut up in the 25 years since. So I had to go along with the game.

And I do love Wrigley Field, and I do love the fact of, you know, the Cubs are - they don't seem to even want to win, which is kind of cute.

CONAN: There's a wonderful piece in the book called "The Queen's Speech," by Nathanial Rich(ph), who is a die-hard Mets fan and would dispute the notion that any dual nationality is involved. But in any case, at the end of it, he issues a chart which says, explains when, if you became a Yankees fan in that period, are you entitled to your pinstripes.

And it's interesting, from the years 1966 to '75, he writes: Yes, you stood by Mickey Mantle at the end of his career, stayed with the team during the doldrums when the only exciting baseball in town was being played by the Mets. I top my orange and blue cap to you. Dan Okrent, that is the period that you describe in your essay in this book.

OKRENT: Yes, that's the deal of the century. I write about that wonderful moment when pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson traded families. After a party one night, Kekich went home with Mrs. Peterson, and Peterson went home with Mrs. Kekich, and boy, did the newspapers have fun with that one. It was really kind of a great moment in - it was bringing together kind of everything creepy in our culture: public sex, the Yankees, show business attention, tabloid press.

PIERCE: Really bad haircuts and moustaches.

OKRENT: Really bad haircuts and moustaches, but a wonderful time.

CONAN: Let's go next to Paul(ph). Paul's with us from Eugene in Oregon.

PAUL: Hey, what's going on, you guys? Hey, listen, let's talk about Rizzuto. Let's talk about the Scooter here for a second. Hey, holy cow.

OKRENT: Holy cow.

PAUL: Hey, hey, when he retired, as you recall, he took over as one of the announcers for the Yankees, eh?

OKRENT: He did, and let me tell you my favorite Rizzuto-as-announcer story. He was sharing...

PAUL: Well, wait a minute, wait. et me get a word in here.


PAUL: Come on, huh? Anyway, the point I'm going to make is: What would he always go on about? He'd go on about Mickey's knees later in Mickey's career. Oh, Mickey's knees. My old man would go: Look at him, talking about poor Mickey's knees. You know, and here's Mickey leading the league, getting the Triple Crown - well, maybe a year or two before that.

But anyway, it kind of confirmed us in the idea that not only were the Yankees unbreakable, but they were kind of like, you know, we were supposed to pity them at the same time.

CONAN: My recollection is Rizzuto usually talked about cannolis. But Dan Okrent?

OKRENT: Yeah, he talked about cannolis and he - well, he shared the booth with Bill White, and once when he was out for a few innings, and White took over the broadcast, and he had the scorebook in front of him that Scooter had been keeping, and he'd written for one of the batters WW. And White couldn't figure out what does that mean.

We know BB is base on balls. And of course, K is strikeout. What is WW? And Scooter comes back. He says: Scooter, what's WW? And he says: Wasn't watching.


PAUL: Hey, can I say another word?

CONAN: Go ahead.

PAUL: Hey, like - during the bleak years, when they weren't winning, you know the guy I rooted for - I actually did root for this guy, I checked the box score when I was living on the West Coast already - was Mattingly, the great Mattingly, never got to win anything.

CONAN: No, he never did.

PAUL: And now he's - what is he doing now? I think he's managing the Dodgers?

CONAN: And good luck to him.


CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call. And Jane Leavy(ph) is not here, but I will speak up on her behalf that Mickey Mantle's knees were tragically injured, and he suffered greatly from them. He had some other flaws, but that was a true story.

Jim from Fort Mill, South Carolina, writes: Are you trying to make my Monday worse, especially after a three-day weekend? As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I am yelling at the radio: Go Red Sox. Hey, if it weren't for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, there would be no baseball. I would quietly note the Red Sox are also 0-3. And Charlie Pierce, I think there's much gnashing of teeth in New England.

PIERCE: Yeah, that's because the whole team is falling apart. I think everybody in New York figures the Yankees will turn it around. That's less - we're less certain about that up here. Again, though, it's interesting because for long periods of time, the only time the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry really mattered was a few years in the 1940s.

In the early 1960s, the Red Sox were god-awful, worse than the Yankees ever were. And then when the Red Sox turned it around in 1967, that was the beginning of the Yankees slide, you know, so much so that by 1986 we were sort of dragooning the Mets into the Yankees role, which was really kind of silly.

OKRENT: And don't forget 1978.

PIERCE: Yeah, we had the one blip in 1978, that's true, which was an epical year. But after that, I mean it was dump, dump, dump, dump. And then finally in the 2000s, you know, things turned around again. But I never felt growing up, even with, you know, my grandfather, whom I write about in the book, who actually was at the 1918 World Series with his father, I never, you know, I never got a lot of Yankee hatred because the Yankees would just - they were playing in a different universe.

CONAN: This from Craig: Lifetime Sox fan, enough said. But a moment: Bucky Dent off Mike Torres in 1978. Three-run homer that decided that game. Anyway, let's go next to Jim, and Jim with us from Vancouver.

JIM: Hi, I guess I'm maybe on both sides of this divide. I guess I kind of loved the Yankees when I was really young because CBS brought Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese into my home every week. And how could - where else could you find a guy flied out to right and the next guy slide into third? But then - and English teachers hated him, and all of us kids loved him because you could talk horrible English and still have a job.

But then later on, when the Yankees bought Jose Canseco, they didn't want to play him. They just sat him on the bench. They just wanted to make sure Boston didn't get him. I just thought that was money run amok.

CONAN: Well, that is not unknown in the history of the game, Dan Okrent, but yes, an example of buying a player, or I guess buying the rights to a player so - to keep him away from another team.

OKRENT: Well, I was actually thinking just the buying of the player if we go back to - you know, it was Babe Ruth. It was the first big, big sale of a player, and it was because Harry Frazee, who owned the Red Sox, wanted to produce his Broadway show "No, No, Nanette." And he traded away the future of his team for it.

CONAN: And "Two For Tea." Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Email from April: When Clemens beaned Piazza and later threw a bat at him. Hate Clemens, hate Yankees. All right, here's another one, this from Kimberly(ph): April 25, 1972 at 1:40 a.m., when I drew my first breath. I am a Yankees fan out of the womb. I think the epitome of being a Yankees and a Yankees fan is nicely summed up by Curtis Granderson(ph): When you're losing, you see what your team is made of.

The Yankees never give up, which is what sets them apart from many other teams, just as the Yankee fans are eternally hopeful. The character of both speak louder than their records. Boy...

OKRENT: I'm weeping.


PIERCE: It's easy to have hope if you've got your own TV network.

CONAN: Here's another email, this one from Paul in DeWitt, New York: Bucky Blank Dent. So that's the day in '78 when he acquired a new middle name. Let's go next to Sara(ph), Sara with us from Cincinnati.

PIERCE: Same one as Aaron Boone has, by the way.

CONAN: Yeah, I believe so, yes. Yes, go ahead, you're on the air. Sara? Sara?

SARA: Yes, hello, I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's OK. You're on the air.

SARA: I wanted to let you know, as a kid I was not a baseball fan. I mean, I played baseball with the guys in the neighborhood. My brothers were in Little League. But when I was little, girls weren't allowed to play. As an adult, I lived in Cincinnati, which is where I still live, and I became a baseball goer but not a Reds fan.

Lived out East, got my opportunity to go to a Yankees game, and we were sitting in the mezzanine, and when you came up over the rise, even though it was a horrible day, the mist was coming off the bay, the wind was blowing, it was gray, it was ugly - it was the greatest game. It was absolutely - coming over the rise and seeing the outfield when you first went to your seat, that's when I became a Yankees fan. And the writers are right. You're either for them or against them. There is no middle ground.

CONAN: And has this been difficult for you in Cincinnati?

SARAH: Actually, they were here last year for interleague play, and it was amazing to see how many Yankees fans actually turned out.

CONAN: Huh. Interesting. All right, Sarah. Thanks very much for the call.

SARAH: You're welcome.

CONAN: This is from David: I have been a Yankees fan since I was a little boy. I walked around in first or second grade reading a dog-eared autobiography of the recently retired Mickey Mantle.

I'm not sure that Mick actually wrote that book. I fell in...

OKRENT: Or read it.

CONAN: I fell in love with the lore and spectacle I can only imagine in my mind's eye. I also experienced my first existential angst the day the Mets won the Series in '69. Why was everyone else so happy? Don't forget, the Yankees were absolutely terrible then and for quite some time to come.

And that period, Charlie Pierce, Yankees fans explained a lot away by those dog years.

PIERCE: Yes, it is. I think - I'm not sure. I don't - I'm not knowledgeable enough about that period to know whether or not their attendance fell off. I assume it did.

CONAN: Oh, it did.

PIERCE: Because they, you know, they were sold so cheaply. But I think, you know, if you want to make a case for the Yankees fans being front-runners, that's not a bad period to choose.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kim, and Kim is with us from Huntersville, North Carolina.

KIM: Hi.


KIM: I am a Yankees fan because I grew up with Jim Catfish Hunter as my uncle.


PIERCE: Great.

OKRENT: Then you deserve to. That's - I tip my hat to you.

KIM: Yay. It's a good thing when we're playing trivia games.

CONAN: It is. He is - was a great pitcher not just for the Yankees, but before that for the A's, and a pivotal...

KIM: For the A's, correct.

CONAN: ...and a pivotal player in that year of '78.

KIM: Correct.

OKRENT: Did you refer to him as Jim Hunter? Because that, of course, was his name. Catfish was something that was invented by Charlie Finley when he arrived and said we're going to tell this story and you're going to believe it, repeat it after me. You caught a couple of catfish when you ran away from home. That's your nickname.

KIM: Correct. And Jimmy is what they call him or what they did call him down home. When we lived in California, my husband and I went to - actually, we were able to go to an A's-Yankees game. And that night, Jim's photo was featured on the ticket, and I got a ball that night. I caught a ball that night in the stands. So - but, yeah.

It's like one of the previous callers had mentioned: To whom much is given, much is expected. All of the ball players that we have come across in social settings, they're all very generous. It's not just the Yankees. It's any ball players that we've come across. They're all very generous. And I think in general that gives anyone the love of the game.

CONAN: All right, Kim. Thanks very much for the call. And tip the hat to your uncle.

PIERCE: Yeah. I have to confess, I do have a kind of sneaking liking for the Bronx Zoo-era Yankee teams, because of people like Hunter and Chambliss and Reggie Jackson, who I adore and I think is the Casey Stengel of his generation, that bunch. I mean, I do kind of like them.

CONAN: Did you see the film that was made of that - the Bronx Zoo-era Yankees, what, a couple of years ago on ESPN?

PIERCE: No, I didn't.

KIM: Yes.

CONAN: "The Bronx is Burning."

OKRENT: "Bronx is Burning."

CONAN: Yeah. Not too bad. Yeah. Kim, thanks very much for the call.

OKRENT: You know, the caller just mentioned the generosity of ball players. You wouldn't include in that one Yankee outfielder from the '90s, Danny Tartabull, who, with his big contract, would buy a season's worth of clothing, of shirts, and he'd wear each one once and throw it out.


CONAN: The book is "Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team," edited by Rob Fleder. Our guests, Charlie Pierce and Dan Okrent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Ken, Ken with us from Lincoln, Delaware.

KEN: Hey, great show, as usual, you guys.

CONAN: Thanks.

KEN: My time would be September 1964 when the Orioles had a five-game lead on the Yankees and let it slip away. It's a great pennant race that year between the Yankees, the Orioles and the White Sox. They finished one game out and two games out respectively in that season.

CONAN: And am I hearing your accent correctly? You grew up in Baltimore.

OKRENT: You sure did.

KEN: Absolutely.

CONAN: Yeah. So that was, if my memory serves, Dan Okrent, the year Mel Stottlemyre came out.

OKRENT: It was also the year that the Yankees lost in the seventh game of the World Series and fired their manager, Yogi Berra.

CONAN: And hired the other team's manager.

OKRENT: Hired the other guy, hired Johnny Keane, who presided over the...

KEN: They traded managers with the St. Louis Cardinals after the World Series.


CONAN: Ken, thanks very much.

KEN: Well, can I get one more thing in here?

CONAN: Sure.

KEN: The Orioles were in the original A-teams of the American League in 1901. And the most ironic thing for us in Baltimore is that team moved away to New York the next year and became...

OKRENT: And became the Highlanders, yeah.

KEN: ...the Yankees.

CONAN: Well, the Highlanders and later the Yankees, yes. But...

KEN: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...Ken, thanks. And of course there was a team in Baltimore called the Orioles that developed a young kid by the name of Babe Ruth.

KEN: Oh, yeah. My grandfather lived around the corner from the Babe when he was a kid. He was five years older.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

KEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Dan, why do we care so much?

OKRENT: Gosh. You know, I've been trying to figure that out for a very long time. I think that we care about baseball because of its constancy. It's always there, year after year after year after year. It's the long season, the 162-game season, and then all the playoffs that come after it. It just - it's - you know, it's like the seasons themselves. It's been a stable part of American life for more than a century. I can only give you cliches, Neal. I really apologize for it.


OKRENT: I'd like to come up with an original idea, but I don't have any.

CONAN: This is an email from John(ph) in - I'm not sure where - or Cornville, Arizona: My great grandfather always said that damn Yankees was one word.

Charlie Pierce, this is a way of life in New England.

PIERCE: Yeah, to an extent, to a certain generation. As I said, my own generation, we, you know, the rivalry was spotty until it became quite marketable over the last 10 or 15 years. But, you know, I think it's probably back to stay at this point simply because there are so many people making money off of it.

CONAN: And Bobby Valentine is going to make sure that he does everything he possibly can to keep that going.

PIERCE: Oh, Bobby Valentine has to find it closer first, believe me. And right now he doesn't have one.

OKRENT: It will be an interesting thing to watch. I think he's a truly great manager. I think he knows more about baseball than any other five people I've ever encountered in the game. But he does not have the team to do it with this year.

PIERCE: You know, as a friend of mine once - as my friend Tom Keegan, who used to cover the Mets and the Yankees for the New York Post, once wrote: If Bobby Valentine had seen the Mets play baseball like they did last night, he never would have invented the game.


CONAN: Charlie Pierce and Dan Okrent, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

PIERCE: Thank you, Neal.

OKRENT: My pleasure.

CONAN: "Damn Yankees" is the name of the book. "Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.