Charles P. Pierce
I grew up watching baseball with old men. Sometimes, I watched it on a little aquarium-size Motorola that was in the backroom of the barbershop where my father and I would go once a week to get our hair buzzed down to our scalps. Of course, that backroom was also where the barber used to keep all his copies of Argosy and the other "men's magazines," which, as the years went by, became vastly more interesting than the ball games were. One whiff of Wildroot today, and my mind is transported either to a waterlogged Fenway Park, where Jim Gosger is meandering toward the batter's box, or to some tropical island where a downed American pilot has happened upon a tribe of wild cannibal women who've discovered a technique for making skimpy lingerie out of palm fronds. Proust can have his doughnuts. I know which way I'm going.
Or I was at my grandfather's house. Charlie Gibbons was a sign-painting man after whom my parents named me. On Sundays ,he would sit in a bilious-green leather recliner, accompanied by a box of unfiltered Camels and a quart bottle of Narragansett Lager beer. And by me. I would sit next to him and try to figure out what about the game was making him so agitated. One memorable Sunday, a Red Sox third baseman named Frank Malzone booted an easy grounder. As I recall, the Red Sox were about 297 games behind the Yankees at this point, so I didn't know what all the commotion was about, but my grandfather exploded and called Malzone an ethnic slur and a profanity, which, in combination, rhymed with "plucking finny." My grandmother, showing impressive lateral movement for an old gal, hustled me out into the yard, where I threw a baseball against the side of the house and contemplated all I'd learned.
I guess you could say things were a little tribal back in the day.
In every empirical sense, the great Yankee–Red Sox rivalry is a myth, and not merely because the historical box score is so dreadfully lopsided, the wonders of 2004 notwithstanding. I was too young to remember the battles of the late 1940s, when Williams came back, and the Red Sox bungled their way out of a couple of pennants. By the time I became aware of baseball — and of unfiltered Camels and Narragansett Lager — the Yankees were a dynasty and the Red Sox were a landfill. In 1967, the Red Sox turned the franchise around for good but, by then, the Yankees were in the middle of the long, slow slide that devalued the franchise to the point where it was easy pickings for that brig and ship builder from Cleveland. Then, for a while, both teams were pretty terrible. They had the great 1978 drama. That was true. Then, for a spell, the Yankees got better and the Red Sox got worse and then it happened in reverse to the point where, in 1986, the keepers of the myth were forced to dragoon the Mets into the legend despite the fact that replacing the Yankees with the Mets as the villain in a historical epic is like rewriting the Iliad so that Achilles chases Scrooge McDuck three times around the walls of Troy.
What I knew about the Red Sox and the Yankees was purely ethnic. Because of DiMaggio, the Italian kids I knew were Yankee fans, almost all of them. Their fathers and grandfathers had been Yankee fans, and they were Yankee fans. There was nothing wrong with this, of course, any more than it was wrong for my Irish friends to attach themselves to the University of Notre Dame, or for the African-American students at the school where my father taught to wear L.A. Dodgers caps because their fathers and grandfathers taught them about what Jackie Robinson had meant to them when he came up to that team in Brooklyn that didn't even play there anymore.
Years later, believing himself to be clever, that smug fathead Jerry Seinfeld made a big deal out of what he called "rooting for laundry," the basic conceit being that the rise of free-agency in sports and the fluidity of the modern roster had reduced fans to rooting for the team itself, no matter who played for it. That this is a modern concept is transparently ludicrous. So much of what baseball romantics claim is the sport's unique generational continuity is purely a function of rooting for laundry. The entire United States west of Pittsburgh and south of Chicago became fans of the laundry of the St. Louis Cardinals because KMOX threw the team's name across the landscape with 50,000 watts behind it. So much of what its most fervent acolytes claim as baseball's ineffable place in the American story depended on the simple fact that, reserve clause or no, players come and go, but that the team is the same, even when it packs up and moves to Los Angeles, because what it came to represent remains behind. That truth has managed to survive even the era of the gypsy owner ,and expansion, and the fact that, for the third time, there is a fitful baseball team in Washington for everyone to ignore. For my Italian friends, growing up at half-past Mantle, for whom Joe DiMaggio was a spokesman for modern kitchen appliances, being a Yankee fan was more than just rooting for a winner, although it was that, damn their black souls. It was a way of speaking to the past in the modern syntax of the present. After all, Spike Lee doesn't wear his Dodgers jersey because he's such a big fan of Andre Ethier. He wears it because of what that jersey came to represent at a moment of national moral crisis. It represented a claim on the promise of the country — the redeeming of that unpaid promissory note that Dr. King talked about on the Mall in 1963before he wound into his big finish.
It took me a long time to realize what DiMaggio — and, through him, the Yankees — had come to mean to all the grandfathers of all my Italian friends. Sometimes, it is important not to lose your grip on those things that gave your family a purchase on a place in the new country. It turned out that it was not as simple as tribalism. It was something as real and solid as the immigration papers tucked away in a locked drawer, or the first time your family's name appeared on a census form, or on the roll of eligible voters. DiMaggio and LaGuardia meant to them what James Michael Curley and John L. Sullivan once meant to my family. That the Yankees succeeded, wildly, down through the generations — and that the old fellas found themselves grudgingly admitting that the Mantle kid was pretty good, too — was the most unlikely historical bonus of all. It was about those parts of assimilation that counted as triumph.
That's what all the old teams were, when they played in the old ballparks tucked into the clamorous and narrow streets between the tenements, with people's actual laundry hung out on the back porches, and flapping in the summer breeze. It was a statement of who you were, and where you'd come from, and where you intended to make your stand. Rooting for laundry was your purchase on America.
From Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team edited by Rob Fleder. Copyright 2012 by Rob Fleder. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.