Bookshelf Review: Strangers in the Bronx

June 16, 2015,204,203,200_.jpgStrangers in the Bronx: DiMaggio, Mantle, and the Changing of the Yankee Guard

by Andrew O’Toole. Triumph 304 Pages, $25.95

There has been a lot written about the “changing of the guard” when it came to the Commerce Comet replacing the Yankee Clipper, but nothing that approaches the overall depth of this bittersweet tale by Andrew O’Toole.

Which of us as parents haven’t felt a tweak when our children grow up? We try to exert as much control as long as possible because it keeps us young, vital, necessary. DiMaggio understood that at a comically young age, when he realized he could no longer do well the things that made him the idol of millions. Given what we’ve been told about him through recent biographies, he was moody, self-absorbed, and not especially gracious. It should be no surprise then that his attitude towards the upstart Mantle was mixed. Yes, DiMaggio had pretty much made the decision to retire before the season, but pride will out: no one wants to be embarrassed, especially in such a high profile profession as sports.

But that’s how The Great DiMaggio perceived his treatment, with the Yankees handing the centerfield position to this young hayseed who came with such high expectations and hyperbole. (Even the selection of the photo for the cover is telling, with DiMaggio pointedly not looking at or engaging with the rookie.)

We’ve read time and again Mantle’s midseason slump that resulted in the Yankees sending him back to the minors and the confrontation with his demanding father, Mutt, challenging his manhood. These revisists take up about half the book and the actual interaction between the two men is relatively brief until the fateful World Series game in which Mantle, pulling up at the last minute in pursuit of a fly ball to DiMaggio, badly injured his knee to the extent that it hampered him for the rest of his career (Oh, what might have been!).

O’Toole’s book is not just about the two Hall of Famers; it’s the story of a tradition in transition. In addition to Mantle, the Yankees were high on other young players, like Gil McDougal and Whitey Ford, who had come on so strong in 1950 — the changing of the guard. It’s also Casey Stengel batting perceptions that he was a clown and a push-button manager. It’s also a chronicle of the day-to-day grind of the season with its ups and downs, especially for a team like the Yankees which was expected to win the pennant just about every year.

One of the aspects I found particularly entertaining was the symbiosis between between the press and the ball clubs and player. In that pre-television age, the newspaper was still the king of media; you had men (always men) like the Journal American‘s Bill Corum pumping out lines like this, following DiMaggio’s home run in Game Four of that season’s World Series

God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Galloping Charlie the Mercury-footed messenger arrived right on time to get this copy of the paper. The subways are hitting on all rails and the buttons. Times Square is breaking out all over with smiles, courteous policemen are leading pleasant old ladies across the streets, every cab driver from here to Hoboken is telling his fares how it happened. Everybody’s happy.

Ol’ Joe hit one.

They don’t write ’em like that anymore.

In those days, the writers would often travel with the teams they covered . In fact, the travel, room, and board was often paid by the team. You would think such proximity would pose an ethical issue regarding impartiality. Jimmy Cannon, one of the legendary sportswriters of all time, was quite upfront about things:

“DiMaggio has been my friend since he broke in,” Cannon wrote. “It has been more than a relationship of a reporter covering a famous athlete. We are as close as our businesses will allow. We have gone on vacations together, sat around the same restaurants, killed a lot of time together, and know the same Broadway people. It hasn’t impaired my job of writing about him.”

Can you imagine that kind of bond nowadays?

A couple of complaints, minor perhaps: The deeper history of the Yankees as pertains to this particular story strikes me as unnecessary and an attempt to flesh out the volume. Also, there is the absence of any citation or source materials, other than a brief bibliography.

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