Throwback Thursday: the 1991 New York Yankees yearbook

One of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read is Andrew Kirtzman’s Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City, about the former New York mayor. While the book is well-written and about an interesting man, what made it so intriguing is that—at least my copy—was written and published prior to the Sept. 11th attack. As such, it ends up being a biography of man who, in many ways, no longer exists. (The closest recent comparison, I suppose, would be had the Jerry Sandusky scandal not broken until after Joe Posnanski’s biography of Joe Paterno was published.)

So what does any of this have to do with today’s stated topic, the “Official Yearbook” of the 1991 New York Yankees? Because it is exactly the same thing. Of course, it is, literally, a book about a team that no longer exists but it is also, figuratively, a book about a franchise that no longer exists. While the 2013 Yankees will need a strong finish to be a playoff team, the team is still one of, if not the, most successful franchises of the last 20 years.

In 1991, though, things could not have been more different. The team was coming off a 95-loss season (still the worst since becoming known as the Yankees) and had drawn barely two million fans—placing the Yankees in the bottom half of the league in attendance. Across town the Mets won 91 games and drew nearly 750,000 more to Shea.

When it comes to success, the Yankees were also far from their status today. The Cardinals, Brewers, Orioles, Phillies, Tigers, Padres, Royals, Mets, Red Sox, Twins, Dodgers, A’s, Giants and Reds—that’s 14 teams that had been in the World Series more recently than the Yankees as 1991 rolled around.

Buck Showalter, who made his major league debut coaching with the ’91 Yankees (US Presswire)

So what did the Yankees yearbook have to say about a franchise that could, at best, only be described as looking to be on the upswing? Well, to start, there was the slogan for the team’s marketing that season: “At Any Moment, A Great Moment.” All those capital letters are theirs, by the way.

A couple of thoughts on this slogan: to start, a few years ago it was adopted by the Metropolitan Opera as its slogan. This never failed to make me laugh when walking past posters advertising La Bohème or Götterdämmerung. Second, while I grant “Looking To Be On The Upswing” doesn’t make for much of a slogan, this one is just begging to be mocked, especially given that the team ended up going 71-91. Perhaps the “great moment” was for the opposition.

Despite the slogan, the yearbook is actually fairly realistic. Player profiles are, with a couple of exceptions, best described as guardedly optimistic. Mike Blowers “has the ability and opportunity to play the hot corner for the Yankees for years to come,” but “putting [his offense and defense] together on a consistent basis is the goal.”

When it comes to Mike Witt “with a little more offensive support he could be just what the doctor ordered.” Meanwhile, if Eric Plunk “can continue to find the plate, you can bet that [he] won’t have to worry…about not pitching.” (Spoiler alert: Plunk ended up walking five per nine innings in 1991. Of course, he still didn’t have to worry about not pitching, appearing in 43 games. Pitching was not this team’s strength.)

Of course, the yearbook does occasionally get a little crazy. While it is true that “the Yankees have been fortunate enough to feature some of baseball’s best outfielders” the idea that “Jesse Barfield has taken his place alongside those names,” is a bit off. Kevin Maas might have had “a Ruthian-like swing, well-suited to Yankee Stadium,” and had his hitting coach predicting “this kid has a chance to be one of [the great Yankee hitters]” but he was also destined to hit just .220 in ’91, his penultimate year as a regular.

While these days the Yankees are relentless in the promotion of their past as a brand—this season’s slogan is “A Timeless Legacy”—in 1991 doing so had the air of tarnished grandeur. A full page is devoted to an ad for the Yankees home video library, with videos offering the chance to “experience again the days when rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel.” The implication therein is that rooting for the Yankees in 1991 was not like rooting for US Steel. Which it wasn’t. It was a lot more like rooting for PanAm.

This is also true for the two longest sections of the book, one devoted to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak (celebrating its 50th anniversary) and one to the 1961 World Series winners (celebrating their 30th). Perhaps obviously I’m as big a fan as anyone of honoring the game’s past, but when a team devotes 16 pages—or nearly a fifth of the entire yearbook (excluding advertisements)—to glories that took place decades ago, it does not reflect well upon the contemporary state of affairs.

But then, there are differences between the modern Yankee franchise and the one described in the yearbook beyond merely the tone. The very first page of actual content features, of course, George Steinbrenner but there is an equally large photo of Robert Nederlander. Nederlander—best known for his career in the theater world—is included because he was the Yankees’ “Managing eneral Partner.” That’s the title the organization settled upon for the man who would run the team while ‘The Boss” was suspended for his ill-conceived adventures with Howard Spira.

While Don Mattingly, another future manager, manned first base (US Presswire)

Finally, if there were any doubts about how different the modern Yankee franchise is from its past, one only need look at ticket prices. If I were to completely lose my mind sometime between writing this column and Sept. 25, I could buy a ticket to that night’s Rays-Yankees game for almost $1,400. Behind home plate, front row and with free food but still, that’s almost what I pay to rent my apartment for a month. That’s what one pays for sitting in the “Legends Suites.”

In 1991, per the Yankee yearbook, the highest-priced seats had no description. Instead they were merely “Lower and Box Seats.” Now, before I reveal the price of the seats, I’d like to invite you to guess what the highest-priced Yankees ticket was in 1991. Just think for a moment and come up with a number, I’ll wait.

Got one in mind? I guarantee you’re over. The figure is $12.50. That was what the highest-priced Yankee ticket cost less than 25 years ago. That means the maximum prices has grown—wait for it—112 times. 112 times! That’s more than five times per year. I’m no economist, but I bet that’s above the rate of inflation.

And now, one last thought that jumped out at me: According to the ’91 yearbook, the pitching coach of the Rookie League Gulf Coast Yankees was Hoyt Wilhelm. I have to admit that I cynically wondered what kind of pitching coach a nearly 70-year knuckleballer could make. But then, one of the best pitchers on the GCL Yankee staff that year was a 19-year old named Andy Pettitte, who led the team in wins (with four, but still) and a 0.98 ERA before being promoted to Single-A Oneonta. So perhaps “Old Sarge” had some wise advice in him after all.

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  1. Paul G. said...

    Interesting selection of players to feature.  All of them were reminders of how far the team had fallen, but four of them additionally reminded fans of painful trades.  Witt was traded for Dave Winfield, Plunk was part of the anemic Ricky Henderson package, Barfield was acquired for Al Leiter, and Blowers was straight up for John Candelaria.  Winfield and Henderson were aging but could still play, reminded fans of better days, and at least people knew who they were.  Mel Hall anyone?  Leiter was one of those prospects that the Yankees kept touting to be part of the future (see Hensley Meulens, Pat Kelly, Kevin Maas) that fizzled out, (Al figured it out eventually, though long after leaving New York.)  In a different vein of pain, the washed up Candelaria was a reminder of the many, many years of the team obsessing on aging veteran pitchers and refusing to let the kids get a chance to develop, losing out on the likes of Doug Drabek and Jose Rijo (though they did get Ricky for Rijo).  Scott Sanderson (good that year), Tim Leary (very bad), and Pascual Perez (oft injured) were the latest cadre of “proven” pitching.  In the Yankees defense, they finally gave some kids a real chance to play, but at this point the cupboard was bare leaving us with the joys of Jeff Johnson, Wade Taylor, and Dave Eiland.  It was ugly.

    I remember reading a semi-satirical article in the newspaper at the time about what the Yankees were going to do about the situation.  One of the suggestions was trading both Bernie and Gerald Williams for… I don’t remember what exactly, but something like a 35-year-old DH or starting pitcher.  The worst thing about it is it sounded exactly like the Yankees would do at the time.  Fortunately, George’s exile let cooler heads prevail.

  2. Michael Caragliano said...

    Yep, the “At any moment, a great moment” slogan left itself open to a lot of laughs. My friends and I would watch, say, a bobble on a potential double play by Alvaro Espinoza or a wild pitch with a runner on third by Wade Taylor, and all look at our watches in a race to be the first to say, “At 8:17pm, a great moment.”

    The tickets and respective prices are the thing that most amaze me, looking back. Most Yankee fans under the age of about 25 have no idea what it’s like sitting in field level seats, even about 20 rows behind the front-row, and none of them can remember seeing a home run hit into a sea of nearly-empty seats in right. In fact, they can’t try to scrounge autographs from players coming off the field before the game, because the guards won’t let anyone without a ticket go in those seats.

  3. Ted M. said...

    Paul G. – Rickey was hardly aging at that point, considering he was coming off a 1990 AL MVP season and played until 2003.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    As for the price of tickets, I believe no one in their right mind should spend their own money for MLB tickets. Corporate perks or rich bachelor uncles are something else. But go watch kids—minor league, independent, college, high school, your kid’s little league team. Unless you have some professional experience I defy you to tell the difference by sight between major and triple-A level of play. And even if you think you know the difference you can always see the stars of the future or an occasion rehabbing star of the present. That’s what I would do if I were living in the US. Israel is the ultimate small market for baseball.

  5. John Q Public said...

    “But go watch kids—minor league, independent, college, high school, your kid’s little league team. Unless you have some professional experience I defy you to tell the difference by sight between major and triple-A level of play.”

    The defensive difference is tremendous. Not so much in AAA, but in AA and A ball it is. It’s in watching minor league ball that one realizes exactly how good the pros are.

  6. Paul G. said...

    Ted M.: Noted, but Ricky only had 3 or 4 really good seasons from 1991 onward.  He was still good after that, but no longer a superstar.  Better to trade them a year too early than a year too late.  Unfortunately, the Yankees traded him about 6 seasons too early for a package worth 1 season too late.

    As to the tickets, you can save a lot of money by using the online exchanges.  Lots of people buy season tickets and then sell off the tickets they don’t need to pay the bill.  Deals can be had, at times very excellent deals.  50% discounts are common.

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