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Books | Sports

June 21, 2012

A Murderers' Row of Yankees Sportswriters

For a new collection of essays, former SI executive editor Rob Fleder assembled a literary team to rival the Yanks' legendary status.

Michael Gluckstadt

Over the years, the Yankees have acquired a reputation for acquiring reputations. Since Babe Ruth was purchased from the Red Sox, through the days of Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, Roger Clemens, and CC Sabathia, the Yanks have always been known to assemble the best collection of name-brand talent available, no matter where they may come from. So it is only fitting that to tell the story of the Yankees, you'd want to put together a fairly remarkable list of sportswriters.

Rob Fleder
"You damn well better not whine about the terrible burden of always winning—that would make you a dick and a pussy."

Rob Fleder

In a new collection, Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team, Rob Fleder does exactly that. The former Sports Illustrated executive editor and longtime SI book editor pulled together a Murderers' Row of talent to explore the Yankees from all different angles: Leigh Montville on how the Babe might've fared in today's media environment, Jane Leavy on one of Mickey Mantle's nemeses, Pete Dexter on Chuck Knoblauch, and avowed Yankees haters Nathaniel Rich on the team's win-at-all-costs attitude and Frank Deford on, well, just about everything he finds distasteful about the team.

In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for charity, Fleder describes the book's origins. He discusses how he went about putting it together, his feelings on the new Yankee Stadium, and whether there was any other team about which a collection like this could have been written.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to put together Damn Yankees?

Rob Fleder: Dave Hirshey, an editor at Harper Collins and an old friend, called one day and asked if he and Dan Halpern (who runs Ecco) could buy me a burger and pick my brain about a Yankees collection they were considering. I spent a few days noodling around with lists of ideas and writers. The team has so much history and so much baggage that ideas came easily. And the rest was kind of a Bill Jamesian exercise, assembling a dream team of writers, people I'd personally pay money to read on the subject of the Yankees. I had a lot of fun making these lists and took them to my meeting with Hirshey and Halpern, and sang for my lunch. They asked if I'd be interested in actually pulling together such a book. I had no idea that was coming, but it didn't take long to see the appeal of asking a bunch of my favorite writers to do pieces about a team I've followed all my life.

Gelf Magazine: Did the contributors know what they wanted to share or did you have to coax them in a certain direction?

Rob Fleder: When I approached writers, I always had a couple of ideas in my back pocket that I thought might suit them. But the aim of this book was always to bring together a bunch of distinctive voices going at this subject from unpredictable angles. If a writer of this caliber had an idea for a piece he was inspired to write, there was a good chance it would be something special. Of course, there were certain bases I knew we'd want to touch in a Yankees collection, but even when a topic just had to be done and was a natural for a particular writer—Jane Leavy on Mantle, for instance, or Leigh Montville on Babe Ruth—it was the writer who came up with a fresh approach.

Gelf Magazine: Are there any other teams you could have built a collection like this around?

Rob Fleder: It's hard to think of another team that has as much resonance as the Yankees and inspires such strong feelings, pro and con. That said, you might take a shot with the teams that have a lot of history and a fanatical following: maybe the Red Sox or Dodgers, or even the Cubs or the Cardinals. In football, maybe the Packers or Notre Dame; in pro hoops, the Lakers or Celtics; in college, maybe Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas. But those all strike me as primarily regional books. And I think it would be very tough to attract a lineup of writers as diverse and accomplished as this to write about any team other than the Yankees.

Gelf Magazine: Your introduction touches on the plight of the homegrown Yankees fan, rooting for a global brand but a local sports team, and often reflexively apologizing for it (I can relate). Does that remain a challenge for you?

Rob Fleder: Always. I guess it's a form of survivor's guilt. When your team wins far more often than anyone else's, you're bound to run into a certain amount of resentment, jealousy, loathing, you name it. Especially if you live—as I have—in the northeast, hard by Red Sox nation, or on the north side of Chicago, the epicenter of baseball futility. Unless you're a complete dick, you don't go around crowing about your 27 championships or your latest free agent signing. On the other hand, you damn well better not whine about the terrible burden of always winning—that would make you a dick and—pardon the expression—a pussy, which in this isolated case is not a good combination.

Gelf Magazine: The Yankees' fans seem to be coming up short these days on the home front. Do you think the new stadium is a failure?

Rob Fleder: At first, I liked the new stadium. I thought it felt a lot like the old one, only much more comfortable. Lately, I'm not so sure. There is something undeniably generic about the new park. And that enormous Steinbrenner shrine is appalling. I have to say, though, that my wife thinks the new facilities are a huge success, and who can blame her, after decades of standing in three-inning-long lines to use the ladies room in the old stadium. I consider it a welcome sign of sanity when those Legends Seats—at $2,500 a pop, or whatever—are so often vacant.

Gelf Magazine: Who are your all-time most and least favorite Yankees? Why?

Rob Fleder: Mickey Mantle was it for me when I was a kid, I guess for the same reasons he was the god to a generation of kids: He had tremendous speed and power, and came through in the clutch, did heroic things all the time and made it look fun, even though we all knew he was half-crippled. Later on, I loved Ron Guidry, partly because he was a normal-sized man doing super-human things. I loved Mickey Rivers because of the wondrous things that came out of his mouth and because he played with a kind of goofy, loose-limbed style that made me smile. I can't think of too many Yankees I really couldn't stand, though I admit I found it painful to watch

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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