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'Damn Yankees' Inspire Major League Love And Hate

A New York Yankees hat and glove rest in the dugout before a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Rob Carr
Getty Images
A New York Yankees hat and glove rest in the dugout before a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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?

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