INTRODUCTION Top of the Heap is not just a metaphor of excellence, but a literal description.
I don’t collect baseball cards or uniforms or autographs or other memorabilia, and quite frankly I don’t understand those who do. But I do collect the sentences and paragraphs that provide the language of this game; the words vibrate between my ears in a way nothing else does. Ever since I was a kid I’ve stashed away the newspapers and magazines that spoke to me, and I have the nightmare of a basement, contact lenses, an understanding spouse, and the occasional bad back to prove it.
Although I didn’t realize it then, my tendency to collect words was the beginning of the process that led me to become a writer. For most of the last twenty years I have spent my time writing and editing more than fifty books and hundreds of articles, a career that includes the stewardship of the Best American Sports Writing series as well as books on the Red Sox, the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and a series of juvenile sports biographies. I’ve written about every major sport and many minor ones and about personalities both prominent and obscure, poring over indexes and microfilm and spending a fortune on copies and way too many hours online. For someone like me, the Internet, with all its indexes and databases, is the equivalent of an open line of credit for the inveterate gambler.
Somewhere along the line my collecting was done with an eye toward posterity. I just can’t throw away a written word that I like, one that I think I might one day have reason to return to, even if just for my own pleasure.
The Yankees, at first by accident and more recently by plan, have often been the subject of this passion. Several years ago I realized that this book already existed, that it lay buried somewhere in those piles of paper. To create Top of the Heap I culled through that collection, supplemented by suggestions and submissions from some trusted colleagues to make sure I hadn’t missed anything essential. While other anthologies of this type have tended to exhaust the same familiar material again and again or to favor book excerpts over work from other sources, I wanted this volume to be not only better but different. So with only a few exceptions, I have chosen not to reprint work too well known, instead giving prominence to writing from newspapers, magazines, and other sources.
Of course, this volume includes such heavy hitters as Red Smith, Ring Lardner, and Jimmy Cannon, as well as other recognizable names, but my open-minded approach also led me to some unexpected places. I remembered laughing till I cried when I heard Phil Rizzuto’s inimitable 1994 induction speech at the Hall of Fame, so I dug up a transcript and laughed and cried again while reading it. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy’s “Ten Commandments of Baseball” deserve revisiting for both their simplicity and their enduring wisdom; McCarthy, as much as any other man, recognized and nurtured a “Yankee tradition,” and one can find the genesis of that tradition in his brief edicts. Howard Bryant of the Bergen Record shared with me his orphaned account of game seven of the 2001 World Series, his running story in which Alfonso Soriano was the Series MVP and world championship banner number twenty-seven was poised to be raised. Of course, in the bottom of the ninth those facts became fiction, at which point Bryant and every other beat writer had to stop, turn, and write the opposite story.
The bulk of the writing in this collection is the work of a wonderful roster of writers—some famous and some forgotten—who have covered the Yankees over the past one hundred years. In a way, this book represents a source book for the history of the Yankees—the best game stories, columns, and features. All were selected without too much regard to the author or source, sometimes for their artistry and sometimes for their historicity, but always for their ability to transmit something essential about this team, to create a sense of what the Yankees are and why so many fans have been drawn to them.
And of all the many reasons that have been offered for why the New York Yankees are the most popular and successful franchise in pro sports, from the size of their market to the size of their pocketbook, from the House That Ruth Built to the Bambino himself, none adequately explains the most significant part of that phenomenon: Why do the Yankees resonate so loudly and clearly, not just in America, but throughout the baseball-aware world?
After compiling this book, I think I know. It’s the writing.
Ruth was magnificent, as were Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Maris, and Reggie and Mattingly and Jeter, but until reccent years, unless one lived near New York, fans had few and rare opportunities to actually see the Yankees, to experience the team that fooooor so long has had the word “dynasty” embroidered on its chest.
But one has never needed to live in or around New York to follow the Yankees, for the Yankees and their deeds were spread far and wide by writers whose talents at least equaled and often eclipsed those of their subject. For just as the Yankees assumed their place atop the American League standings year after year, many of the writers covering the team have held a similar place in the pantheon of American sports writing. John Kieran, Grantland Rice, Red Smith, and Dick Young are as distinguished as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle. Their skilled writing and reporting about the team, often syndicated nationwide, exalted the Yankees beyond their record. It was the writer who made Babe Ruth Babe Ruth, the writer who recognized the curious genius of Stengel and the grace of DiMaggio. It is the writer who sees within a single swing or game something singular and draws us back to it, again and again.
Despite what one might believe, I think the Yankees’ success has actually made it more difficult to write something lasting and memorable about the club. With victory so commonplace, one would expect the work of the writers covering the team to have become predictable. Yet the writers continue to put out work that is both lasting and memorable, creating their own kind of dynasty. Writing about the Yankees’ achievements has inspired a kind of verbal Darwinism among writers. In an earlier age, Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon and John Kieran and W. O.McGeehan all stood toe to toe in the press box and tried to outwrite each other, just as Bill Heinz, Red Smith, and Jimmy Cannon did a few years later, and Dick Young, Leonard Shecter, and their contemporaries, and Ira Berkow, Mike Lupica, and the writers who cover the team today. More than sixty years after DiMaggio first took the field, writers continue to try to pen his definitive portrayal. Sixty years from now they will still be trying to do the same for Derek Jeter.
Top of the Heap is the result of that competition. And page by page, byline by byline, we, the readers, are the ones who win.
Glenn Stout December 2002
Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2003 by Glenn Stout. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.