From the April 11, 1977 issue of New York Magazine.
"There’s a lot more noise here now, a lot more kidding around. Before, we were a reserved, quiet group. We have a different type of player now,” said Roy White, the last of the quiet Yankees, a dignified, soft-spoken man who broke in with the baseball club in 1965, the year the most glamorous dynasty in American sports crumbled. He sat before a row of lockers bulging with platform shoes, blow-driers, exotic creams and lotions, S-E-X cologne, esoteric shampoos, albedo shirts advertising the charms of Art Deco women, bubble gum, tobacco, and Afro-Sheen.
“The big argument now is that we’re entertainers; people are interested in our salaries, and in what we do off the field. I don’t like that sort of attention. Entertainment is planned, but when we go on the field, it’s spontaneous, the game happens. There’s nothing planned about it, and we’re still under the same pressures as ballplayers years ago. But I wouldn’t say I’m uncomfortable. There have been a lot of changes over the last few years, particularly since Steinbrenner has taken over. It’s been surprising, but it’s been good.”
The old Yankees dominated baseball from 1949 through 1964, an aloof and arrogant collection of talents who were whittled to perfect dimensions and pressed neatly into the proper cavities by club owner George Weiss. The club offered immortality, and the price was conformity. It was no choice at all for the fair-haired heroes and rubes who considered Yankeehood the highest state of athletic grace. At heart, the classic sports hero was an organization man, and the Yankees were first and foremost organization men.
Today, with a new season beginning Thursday, all that has changed. Ballplayers have climbed out of the hayloft and won their freedom; they are no longer willing to die for the cause of the front office. “The little-boy fantasies have dissolved,” says Ken Holtzman, a Yankee pitcher. “We are not robots anymore.” The transition has been perhaps hardest on the Yankees—the conservative, image-conscious, blue-blooded Yankees.
The new Yankees, last season’s American League champions, are no longer reluctant to allow a black player to wear their pinstripes. The old Yankees were notoriously slow to integrate their club, and did so only grudgingly. The only black player of any stature during the dynasty was Elston Howard, and it is impossible to say how much sooner he might have become a star if he had been white. Unlike the Mets, who are the laughingstock of black ballplayers because of their insistence upon retaining a virtually bleached club, the new Yankees will have one of the best outfields in baseball, consisting of three blacks: Roy White, Mickey Rivers, and Reggie Jackson. The team’s silken second baseman, Willie Randolph, is also black and a typical New York hero who grew up playing ball on the cracked pavement and ravaged playgrounds of Canarsie. And it was the Yankees’ black first baseman, Chris Chambliss, who hit the pennant-winning home run last year. “This isn’t the old Yankees,” laughs Dock Ellis, a vibrant, controversial pitcher who is fond of flattering his right ear with a gold earring. “Nobody’s gonna mistake Mickey [Rivers] for Mickey Mantle, or Reggie Jackson for Babe Ruth. And I sure ain’t no Don Larsen. We could never be the old Yankees. We got too many niggers on this club for that.”
The black Yankees are extremely conscious of the changing complexion of the team without making it a matter of public debate, or allowing it to interfere with that often illusory, always fragile quality known as team unity. Since the beginning of spring training, press reports have speculated upon the likelihood of dissension on a club laden with major-league egos serving major-league talents. The team has been formed with judicious training and heavy spending, but remains by and large a puzzle which has yet to be assembled. Nobody quite knows what personality will emerge from this team, but every player understands that the club will be resented, hunted, and subjected to the highest critical standards. “We will be the little foxes that everybody wants to outthink and kill” is how Ellis put it.
When I visited the Yankees at their Fort Lauderdale spring-training base, I expected to find them defensive and uncertain, squirming under the pressure that is already beginning to bake the back of their collective neck. Surprisingly, the Yankees were an open ball club, responsive and frank, despite the fact that it is a team slightly uneasy in its own company, resembling a wedding reception dominated by too many distant relations.
The Yankees’ fortunes in 1977 may very well hinge upon the personalities of two men, provided that the rest of the team plays up to potential. They are Thurman Munson, the team captain and the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1976, and Reggie Jackson, the newly acquired free agent who is probably the most electrifying hitter in the game today. Each is a brilliant player, as well as a sensitive psyche disposed to demanding his pound of flesh, and fully prepared to carve it from the most tender portion of a detractor’s anatomy. They are men of big egos, and a number of sportswriters have predicted that those egos will clash. But without those egos, each of them might still be in Podunk, playing softball for the local tavern. What will be important about their egos is less a matter of size than flexibility, but this much has already been shown: The new Yankees will never be accused of camouflaging their personalities behind the corporate facade.