January 27, 2015
Death of a Dynasty
October 1964, David Halberstam (1994)
The Yankees are embroiled in a tight pennant race in 1964.
The old Yankee magic wasn't working. The other American League teams no longer rolled over and played dead for them. Indeed, the older Yankee players noticed something new: one of the key Yankee weapons - intimidation - no longer worked. Other teams, for instance, the up-and-coming Baltimore Orioles (managed by ex-Yankee Hank Bauer), not only had talented young players such as Boog Powell and Brooks Robinson in their regular lineups, but their pitching staffs might well have been better than that of the Yankees. ... The ownership of other teams was getting better and more professional, their systems were better, with better scouting, while meanwhile the Yankee system was in decline. The old Yankee recruiting pitch - that if you signed with the Yankees you got less money in the short run and more in the long run as well as the chance to play with the best - had less and less appeal. Young men were signing with the team that offered the most money, and after the Yankee scouts made their pitch, rival scouts whispered that if you signed with the Yankees, you remained buried in their farm system.
George Weiss, the unpleasant but skillful creator of the great dynasty, had been aware by the late fifties that Dan Topping, the more involved of the Yankee owners, wanted to get rid of him, so Weiss had begun to cut back on his investment in the farm system and in signing young players. Whether Weiss had cut back to improve his own numbers, for his bonus was based, in part, on the profits each year, or to show two increasingly disenchanted owners who took the team's success for granted that he could still run a professional baseball team, no one was sure, but there was no doubt they had cut back.
Moreover, they were paying much more heavily for Weiss's racism than anyone had realized at the time. That racism was an unfortunate reflection of both snobbery and ignorance: Weiss did not think that his white customers, the upper-middle-class gentry from the suburbs, wanted to sit with black fans, and he did not think his white players wanted to play with blacks, and worst of all, he did not in his heart think that black players were as good as white ones. He did not think that they had as much courage or that they played as hard. That ... was his single biggest mistake. For in the past a key to the Yankee success was that in addition to signing such superstars as DiMaggio and Mantle, they had always been able to sign a prototype player who was at the core of winning baseball - a very tough kid, wildly aggressive, who played hard, and who often signed with the Yankees for less money than he had been offered elsewhere because the Yankees ... always won and these kids wanted to win. They were hungry, and they were driven for success; for them, being in the big leagues was not enough; they wanted to excel once they were there. These were players, Henrich, Bauer, or Kubek, who maximized their ability, who played above their level in pennant races and World Series games, and who helped give the Yankees their special advantage of playing well in tough games. ... Here, more than anywhere else, ... Weiss's racism had egregiously blinded him, for he did not see what was in front of him every day: that young black players coming into the big leagues exemplified the mental and spiritual toughness now that the Yankees once demanded. Their lives had been strewn with far more obstacles than the white players'; since owners monitored how many black players they carried, there were very few black bench warmers or backup players then. Either you were a starter or you did not make it. George Weiss did not understand the rage to succeed that drove so many of these young men, the passion to make up for so many years of racism and segregation and to avenge wrongs inflicted on those who had gone before them and who had been denied the chance. ...
The Yankees were not a team that would have signed a Bob Gibson, for Gibson would have been too threatening to many of the people in management. It was no surprise that when the Yankees had finally brought up a black player, it was Ellie Howard, a talented, immensely hard-working player without the speed that marked the new generation of black stars ... If Vic Power, the great black Puerto Rican player, who had shown a quick bat and a great defensive ability in the Yankee farm system, had been somewhat different in his temperament, he might have been the first black Yankee, but Power did not fit the Yankee mold. ...
L: Yankees principal owner Dan Topping and GM George Weiss; M: Elston Howard
Ellie Howard came up in 1955, two years after Power was traded. He was the perfect player to break the Yankee color line - he had a sweet disposition, and he had the capacity to bury deep within himself the racial wounds inflicted by society. ... He was a man of the older generation, and his strength manifested itself not in rage at the injustices around him, as Bob Gibson's did, but in his ability not to show his rage. ...