As a New Yorker I am ecstatic. As a baseball person I am immensely pleased. As a Yankee I consider suicide the easy option.
Thus wired New York Yankee President Michael Burke to his New York Met counterpart Donald Grant last September. The once unstoppable General Motors of baseball has been rolling on flat tires the past few seasons, and the Mets' sudden burst into glory was another jolt on the Yankees' long road back to success. But cheeringly, now that the Yankees are at the low point of their recent history, there are clear signs they are gathering speed. An excellent crop of young players, led by a rookie catcher with the unlikely name of Thurman Munson, has pumped life into the team, which could—the operative word is could—be a contender this season. If that happens, argues Burke, then the fans will find the Yankees equally as lovable as the Mets.
In 1969 the Yankees drew 1,067,996 spectators, the smallest number since World War II, and more than a million fewer than the Mets. Even in their last "pennant-winning year, 1964, the Yanks were outdrawn by the Mets, and since their descent into the second division they have hardly been noticed. With the departure of Mickey Mantle a year ago, the club of Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio was left with only one outstanding player. Pitcher Mel Stottlemyre, who has won 20 games in three of the last five seasons but who has about as much glamour as Harold Stassen.
Poor performance and the absence of shiny names has badly eroded fan appeal. The so-called "limousine" crowd, the New York businessmen who sit in corporation boxes and cheer as if they are afraid of dripping mustard on their $20 ties, was once a basic reason why the Yankees were considered a cold, distant plutocracy by many average fans, but they bought tickets. Not so long ago the Yankees used to be inundated each year with requests for season boxes. Now the demand has gone down drastically as the limousines head for Shea Stadium. Something similar has happened with tourists in New York. Fewer out-of-towners are coming to cheer for the visiting team against the hated Yankees. "It used to sound as though there were more people cheering against us than for us," says Yankee Vice-President Bob Fishel. "That doesn't happen anymore."
The decline of the Yankees has not been solely a result of the Mets' presence, even though there is a lingering feeling that New York is essentially a National League city. Fishel, who has been the Yankees' public-relations director since 1954, blames it on a lack of aggressiveness. "We missed the boat between 1958 and 1961 when we had the city to ourselves," he says. "We did not try hard enough to attract the kids who had been fans of the teams that had left New York. And we weren't aggressive enough signing players. We tried to economize on bonuses by telling prospects that they would make more money once they got to New York. We ended up being outbid for players like Carl Yastrzemski, Joe Foy, Rico Petrocelli, Rick Reichardt and Sam McDowell."
The Yankees still suffer from that penurious period but, paradoxically, the current revival of the team can be dated from its 1964 purchase by the Columbia Broadcasting System, which initially seemed likely to propel the Yankees to new heights of remote, corporate haughtiness. Burke, the man CBS put into the top executive position with the Yankees, is advertising smart, public-relations alert. His clothes are current, he wears his gray hair in a flowing mane and he sits and talks with fans in every part of the stadium. He even greets hippies with the peace sign.
"There were two major things that had to be done when we took over the Yankees," said Burke. "First, we had to build a new ball club of good, young players. There is nothing better than a good team to draw large crowds. Second, we had to change the whole climate of the Yankees. Whether the Yankees were really cold or not, or cared about the fans or not, was not material. What was important was that fans felt the Yankees were cold."
Lee MacPhail, the general manager, has the player responsibility, but Burke took the second problem on himself. He changed Yankee Stadium's color scheme, had extra lighting installed around the park and got New York City to help improve parking facilities. He had front-office people sit in every section to find out which seats are blocked by posts (in the future, they will be the last seats sold), and he let hordes of kids in free.
"I feel now that our efforts with the fans are actually ahead of the development of the team," says Burke. Last year's attendance figures refute this, but there have been isolated instances of fan enthusiasm that indicate if the Yankees field a good team, the turnstiles will begin clicking again. Early last season, before the Mets began to move, the Yankees' Bobby Murcer, and not Tom Seaver or Cleon Jones, was the talk of New York because of his fast, home-run hitting start. The team had the league's second best pitching staff in 1969, and if impressive youngsters like Bill Burbach and Ron Klimkowski, the International League's ERA champion, come along, the turnstiles will move that much faster. During the winter MacPhail, who said in 1967 it would take five seasons to build a good team and who after three appears to be on schedule, traded for Danny Cater and Curt Blefary, both of whom should hit well in Yankee Stadium and drive in key runs for a team that lost 28 one-run games in 1969.
However, Thurman Munson, the big young catcher, is the newcomer on whom the Yankees are putting the most pressure. "If he doesn't make it, we're in trouble," said one club official. After 38 years of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, the Yankees struggled through four seasons with workhorse Jake Gibbs catching most of the games capably enough but batting only .227. Then last summer the club suddenly found itself with three hard-hitting young receivers. One of them, 26-year-old Frank Fernandez, went in the trade for Cater. A second, 21-year-old John Ellis, was converted into a first baseman and hit impressively enough this spring to guarantee himself a spot on the roster. The third, 22-year-old Munson, has been given the first-string catching job.
Munson cut down seven of the 12 runners who attempted to steal on him when he appeared briefly with New York last year, and he has gained respect as a disciplined right-handed hitter who rarely strikes out. Baltimore Pitcher Dave Leonhard, who played against Munson in the Puerto Rican winter league, says. "He's going to be very good. He was the toughest out in Puerto Rico. I'd say from what I saw of him there that he may be harder to pitch to than any player the Yanks had last year."
Munson, who has been called too cocky, has the self-assurance that used to be associated with the old Yankees. "There's a difference between cockiness and brazenness," he says. "A catcher has to act proud. If he hustles and shows authority, he can pep up an infield and jack up his pitchers." Munson likes being with the Yankees, and it has nothing to do with the mystique of wearing the storied pinstriped uniform. "There was an opportunity to move up in the organization," he says. "Also, I like New York because of the opportunities for earnings outside baseball."
The Yankees have not been getting much of the outside income lately. "I guess the Mets got most of the money in town this winter," says Bobby Murcer. "Heck, they got it all." Which helps to explain why, when the Yankees beat the Mets the first time they met in spring training this year, lefty Fritz Peterson joyously jumped off the mound after the last out, laughing and waving his index finger in the air. The Yankees still have a long way to go before they become No. 1 in New York again, but Munson quickly showed that the new Yankees might be just good enough to match the young Mets. He hit a home run his first time up against them.