Wednesday’s Book Review: “Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball, 1903-2003”

9780393057195_p0_v1_s260x420Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball, 1903-2003. By Henry D. Fetter. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2003.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since this book was published a decade ago. The whole world of sabermetrics has opened up and “moneyball” has become dominant among both fans and front offices. At some level, therefore, it seems that many of the lessons of this book are moot. In other ways what is presented here remains germane.

As the author notes, there are many paths to success in major league baseball; but all of them force teams at some point to take on the New York Yankees, by far the dominant team in the sport throughout the twentieth century. Henry D. Fetter states in Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball, 1903-2003 that four other teams in the National League challenged the Yankees consistently during that century. While this book is really about how various franchises have built dominant teams over the twentieth century, they always seem to have played off of the persistent excellence on the field of the Yankees, whose 40 American League pennants and 27 World Series victories far outstrip any other team.

Fetter creates the somewhat artificial dichotomy of National League teams going up against the Yankees over the course of the century. He singles out the St. Louis Cardinals (18 National League pennants and 11 World Series victories), the New York/San Francisco Giants (22 National League pennants and 7 World Series victories), and the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (21 National League pennants and 6 World Series victories) as representative of this rivalry. For Fetter, the National League rivals were dominated by the Branch Rickey innovations of the farm system and desegregation to enable them to acquire and keep economically priced talent who could challenge the Yankees. The Yankees, of course, had the advantage of enormous wealth to buy any talent that they needed to reign supreme in the American League. They did so with Babe Ruth in 1920 and they have spent liberally since that time to ensure success on the field, with only two major dry spells in their history—1965-1975 and 1982-1995.

Without the financial resources of the Yankees, the New York incarnation of the Giants followed by the Cardinals and finally by the Dodgers of Brooklyn challenged them virtually every year. The Giants did it with deep pockets and the managerial genius of John McGraw. The Cards did so with the farm system of Branch Rickey that developed a continuing parade of quality players such as Rogers Hornsby supplemented by savvy trades for such players as Grover Cleveland Alexander. The Dodgers challenged the Yankees with an infusion of superb African-American talent that started with Jackie Robinson in 1947.

This is an excellent history of how these teams have approached building dominant teams. It is somewhat narrow in that it focuses its historical discussion on these four teams to the exclusion of other questions that deserve consideration. For example, how did other American League teams seek to build their teams? The A’s in Philadelphia and later in Oakland were dominant at various points in the century, so too were the Cleveland Indians, the Boston Red Sox, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Detroit Tigers. How did they do it? Did the Yankees just outspend everyone else? What about those teams with essentially the same access to money as the Yankees but were never able to put together the dominance that the Bronx Bombers maintained? The Giants between 1937 and 1951 never finished higher than third, but why not? Money alone is not the answer to ensuring success. These are questions worthy of consideration.

Henry Fetter offers a reasoned and useful discussion of some of these questions; perhaps someone else will follow with an engaging analysis of additional themes and questions. Taking on the Yankees is fully worth the effort and I recommend it as both an enjoyable reading experience and one that helps cast into stark relief the manner in which Major League Baseball franchises have historically pursued excellence on the field.

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