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My uncle Danny lived to be 77 years old, and he had an opinion for every minute of those 77 years. And though he spent half his life in the Bronx, his opinion of the New York Yankees remained unchanged: He didn't care for them. Particularly the 1961 team. "They're Roman Yankee imperialists," Uncle Danny complained. "They only have three honorable men." He refused to reveal their names, possibly to protect them from the dishonorable ones.
But to my nine-year-old eyes, the Roman Yanks of '61 seemed to have descended from the gods. And I worshiped them accordingly: Mars Maris, Mercury Mantle, Bacchus Berra, Somnus Skowron, Apollo Arroyo. I'd listen raptly to victory after glorious victory issuing from my radio, like news from some ancient oracle. I composed a paean called Mick and Maris, to be sung to the tune of Love and Marriage. I wore my hair in a Roger Maris-like butch, bandaged my knees in tribute to Mickey Mantle and erected an altar to them on my desk next to my Clete Boyer autographed baseball. Along about September I offered up a mason jar filled with lightning bugs, adding a new firefly every time an M&M boy hit one out. By Oct. 1, when Maris took Boston's Tracy Stallard deep for No. 61 (to go with Mantle's 54), that jar glowed and shimmered.
Those Roman Yankees were triumphal, imperial in a way no team may ever be again. Eight were All-Stars. Six hit more than 20 homers. So murderous was this Murderers Row that first baseman Moose Skowron (28 dingers) batted seventh. Whitey Ford went 25-4; Ralph Terry, 16-3; Luis Arroyo, 15-5 with 29 saves. New York amassed 240 home runs and 109 victories and sacked the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. "Some say the Yanks of 30 years ago were the greatest team ever," says Ralph Houk, who was their manager.
This Yankee juggernaut had not one but two Babe Ruths, and the drama of the home run derby staged by Maris and Mantle held the entire nation in sway. Stadiums were jammed wherever they played. Film crews tracked them. Newspapers trumpeted their feats. Magazines heralded their heroics. The Game of the Week, NBC's Saturday showcase, became, in effect, the Yankee Game of the Week. The Yanks' domain extended beyond the Empire State to the far corners of the Empire. Factory workers in Japan made book on them. Israeli newscasters ran nightly updates. Yet, through it all, Uncle Danny remained unswayed. "Remember the Roman Empire," he intoned darkly. "Remember its decline and fall."
Uncle Danny was right, of course. Within a few years the Yankee Empire had collapsed. The Yanks limped on like defeated centurions through Mesopotamia. Their collection of fading stars and failed journeymen (see Tresh, T. and Womack, D.) sank dismally into last place in 1966. Two years later they batted a collective .214 (see Clarke, H. and Kosco, A.). Management, grown fat and arrogant from winning so long, fiddled while every team that came into the Bronx burned them. It was only after a Visigoth from Cleveland seized control (see Steinbrenner, G.) and started enlisting legionnaires from the outer provinces that the Yanks rose anew.
George Steinbrenner's hire-and-fire tactics afforded him early victories. But eventually Yankee Stadium became the House That Ruthlessness Tore Down, and Steinbrenner was driven into exile last year, retaining his ownership but being excluded from baseball operations. His 1990 Yanks were the worst team in the American League, and this season New York is battling the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians for last place in the AL East. Last week the Yankees went 32 innings without a run, their worst string of futility in 22 years.
Even confirmed Yankee haters sympathize. "The current team is not even worthy of my contempt," laments Jeff Wernick, a Los Angeles businessman who has detested the Yankees since he was born, in Brooklyn, when there was still an Ebbets Field. "With Steinbrenner gone, there's nothing left to despise."
Whom can we compare Emperor Steinbrenner to? Maybe Nero. Or maybe Caligula, whose reign began peacefully enough but became increasingly despotic, grotesque in its excesses. Caligula, too, spent money extravagantly, banished many of his subjects, became convinced he was a god and demanded to be worshiped that way. And just as Steinbrenner once claimed to have punched out a fan in an elevator, Caligula insisted he had defeated Neptune one-on-one.
But Steinbrenner may be closer to Diocletian, the fourth-century general who briefly restored the empire to preeminence. Diocletian proclaimed himself Jupiter on earth and took the title Jovius, which is Latin for "the Boss." His reign was one of intense persecution: He expected total obedience under penalty of death. When he finally abdicated, Rome was in even worse shape than before.
"George's legacy is not the World Series winners of '77 and '78 or having the best record of any team in the '80s," says Tony Kubek, the noble shortstop of that 1961 team and a linchpin of that Yankee era, who speaks his mind even though he's now a broadcaster for the team. "His legacy is these past five seasons—teams with worse and worse records culminating in last year's last-place finish."