Pinstripe Nation: The New York Yankees and American Culture
Reviewed by Tony Calandrillo
In Pinstripe Nation: The New York Yankees and American Culture, Baker University professor Will Bishop explores how the success, failure, and attendant drama of the New York Yankees fits into the larger narrative of American culture, and how both the Yankees and that culture constantly mirror each other in the 20th century. In the introduction, Bishop makes this point clearly when he states that “what plays out in our little cocoons of sport is so often a close parallel of what is going on outside of them, only dramatized in a way that frequently makes it clearer.” According to the author, “the narratives that play out in the world of sport often are somehow able to help us better see and understand who we are as a society, what we value, and how we are changing.” For the particular case of the New York Yankees, this mirror narrative sees that the Yankees’ story of success parallels and is interwoven with the narrative of American success in the twentieth century. For his book, Bishop uses the work of Roland Barthes in relation to unspoken communication through symbols to illustrate how the Yankees have been used as an American cultural icon from their rise to national prominence in the 1920s through the end of the twentieth century.
Bishop accomplishes his goal by viewing the Yankees in terms of their superstars, especially during the era of their greatest successes: between 1921 and 1964, a period in which the Yankees won 29 American League championships and 20 World Series titles. During these years, the Yankee legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle became part of the very fabric of American culture and reflected that culture back to the public.
Ruth, who joined the Yankees in 1920 from the Boston Red Sox and vastly affected each team’s future narratives, comes first in the story. Bishop asserts that Ruth “made” the Yankees by creating the tradition of success that others would build upon later. In this initial chapter, Bishop casts the Yankees appropriately as underdogs upon Ruth’s arrival. The New York Giants, who played on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River, were the established kings of New York baseball. Here Bishop highlights that for sportswriters of Ruth’s time in New York, the Yankees were the “new” thing, and through a new style of baseball they were attempting to usurp the position of the Giants.
Bishop correctly notes the power and influence of American sportswriters who linked the Yankees with many of the “new paradigms that made up the cultural revolution of the 1920s.” The Yankees, led by Ruth, were “carousers,” in Bishop’s words, a trait perfectly befitting the Jazz Age sensibilities of the 1920s. Ruth’s larger than life persona and exploits on the field were perfect for the emerging media technologies of the era: radio broadcasting, motion pictures, and the expansion of print newspapers. Yet even as the Yankees were increasingly associated with the tone of the times, the process remained driven by Ruth. The rest of the team, Bishop notes, didn’t necessarily matter as much the “Bambino” did. Others would have to build on that base, and, as Bishop shows, they did.
The chapters that follow provide much the same template for Bishop’s examination: the Yankees as a baseball team followed by the Yankees' place in American culture. For example, the discussion of Ruth’s successor, Lou Gehrig, is shaped by the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper, which chronicled Gehrig’s brilliant career and tragic demise. Yet wrapped within this analysis, Bishop sees some significant differences in the way Ruth was presented to America as opposed to the presentation of Gehrig. In this section, the themes surrounding the understated Gehrig were far different from those surrounding the bombastic Ruth. Gehrig was an everyman who worked hard; his was a tale of economic improvement through cultural assimilation. Gehrig’s masculinity was also different in that he was a “self-made man.” As Bishop illustrates, these themes are all present in the film about Gehrig’s life, thus presenting a template for the American Dream. The depictions of the Yankees of this era are different as well: hard-working and disciplined as opposed to Ruth’s carousers from the Roaring '20s.
Though Ruth and Gehrig are very different personalities, there are significant reasons that possibly warranted some discussion here. Ruth, for example, was already an established star by the time he was sold to the Yankees in 1920. Gehrig, famously, only got this chance after Wally Pipp’s illness (a hangover according to the legend that grew up around Gehrig) in 1925. Gehrig subsequently never missed a game until he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in 1939. Gehrig was also a New York native, whereas Ruth was originally from Baltimore and played in Boston before getting to New York. As the leaders of the Yankees during their respective tenures, all of this played a role in how they were portrayed.
The chapter on Joe DiMaggio parallels the ones on Ruth and Gehrig. DiMaggio is portrayed as the hero--both a populist hero and a mythic hero, Bishop notes. The author notes the references to DiMaggio in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, as DiMaggio is a hero to Santiago, the protagonist of Hemingway’s novella. DiMaggio’s suffering and return to the field are noted by Bishop as emblematic of this hero’s journey.
By this point in the story, Bishop allows for the plot to turn just a bit, thanks to the upstart Brooklyn Dodgers of the late 1940s and 1950s. Through all of their success, the Yankees had become what the New York Giants were at the beginning of this story: the establishment. In this section, Bishop deftly handles the Yankees’ turn from heroes and representatives of American culture to villains in the sports and culture narrative. During this period, the Brooklyn Dodgers became the Yankees’ foil, with the Dodgers representing the underdog, and the integration of the game with the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947. Though the Yankees were still at the top of the league, resentment built among the “have-nots” of Major League Baseball during the 1950s. The Yankees were always in first place, so the rest of the league constantly chased them. Though in the National League, the Brooklyn Dodgers fit this description, having lost the World Series to the Yankees in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953 before finally achieving a short-lived victory against their rivals in 1955. In American culture at large, the Dodgers were the working class heroes, fighting against the corporatization of America that the Yankees represented.
The issue of race is also an important one in the Yankee-Dodger relationship, as Bishop points out. The Dodgers were the first Major League Baseball team to integrate when they brought Jackie Robinson to the team in 1947. By contrast, the Yankees were comparatively slow to integrate, with Elston Howard only joining the team in 1955, almost a full decade after Robinson’s debut for Brooklyn. Brooklyn now represented new thinking, much like the Yankees did when compared to the New York Giants of the 1920s, the team that the Yankees supplanted.
Eventually, this all led to the development of a Yankee-hating sub-genre of American culture, as Bishop shows in chapter five, using Douglas Wallop’s novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, and its Broadway adaptation Damn Yankees, as well as Mark Harris’ The Southpaw. While Bishop allows for some political or cultural critique in this Yankee-hating, he does state that it partially comes from a rejection of the “philosophy of triumph.” The whole edifice is torn down in the next chapter, with the demise of the Yankee dynasty and the publication of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four finally destroying the myths of Yankee supremacy, just in time for a larger cultural reexamination of America and the rise of the counterculture in the late 1960s and '70s. For Bishop, the Yankees embodied the “Me” decade with their wild free-agent spending during the '70s and '80s, but the author also places the Yankee revival of the late 1990s squarely in the rise of what he calls American baseball nostalgia.
With this work Bishop provides an exceptionally interesting explanation and analysis of the New York Yankees in American culture. For anyone who is a baseball fan, the Yankees tend to dominate the discussion of the game regardless of their position in the standings. Bishop goes to great lengths to understand why this has happened, providing readers with a well-researched book that pulls many elements together to create a story of the Yankees in the larger context of American culture. To this end, he succeeds magnificently. However, some minor issues need to be addressed. First, because of the rules of the time, Lou Gehrig did not beat out Babe Ruth for the 1927 American League Most Valuable Player award. Players were only allowed to win the award once during this period, and since Ruth had won the award in 1923, he was ineligible by rule for the award in 1927. Granted it is strange that such a record-setting year is not recognized with an award, but it is sure that Ruth would have beaten out Gehrig had he been eligible. Also, during the discussion of the Yankees of the 1970s, the Yankee outfielder Roy White, who persevered thorough the down years of the late 1960s and early 1970s is called “Ron” in the book. It must also be noted that the Yankees rose to national prominence because of their success. Many national baseball fans had contact with the Yankees because they were in the World Series so much, with those games being broadcast nationally. A discussion of this might have proved interesting. None of these quibbles are enough to cause any reservation in recommending this book, however. Bishop does a fantastic job producing a scholarly work locating one of the most famous sports franchises in the context of American culture. Scholars of American culture, sports history, and general American history will be satisfied by this work.
Tony Calandrillo is a PhD candidate at Drew University, preparing a dissertation on the American use of baseball as soft-power foreign policy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His reviews have appeared on the Sports in American History website, in the journal Africa Today, and (forthcoming) in The Journal of Sports History.