Almost Yankees: The Summer of ’81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of
By J. David Herman
University of Nebraska Press; 344 pages; hardcover, $29.95; eBook, $29.95
J. David Herman has written a poignant and nostalgic narrative of the lives and travails of Minor League Baseball in the new book Almost Yankees.
Herman focuses on the 1981 championship season of the Yankees’ Triple-A farm club, the Columbus Clippers, telling the story of a team and its players performing in the shadow of one of the sport’s most famous teams and infamous owners, George Steinbrenner.
Featuring interviews with more than thirty former players, including Steve Balboni, Dave Righetti, Buck Showalter, and Pat Tabler, and dozens of other baseball and media figures, this season’s narrative chronicles success, failure, resilience, and redemption as told by a special group of players with hopes and dreams of big-league glory.
Herman, who worshipped the team as an eleven-year-old, tracked down his old heroes to learn their stories—and to better understand his own. The season proved to be a launching pad for some, a final chance for others, and the end of the dream for many others.
This 1981 season is also an especially notable year in the annals of baseball history because of Major League Baseball’s strike in midseason.
When the strike happened, the Clippers were suddenly the best team in baseball and found themselves the focus of national media attention. Many of these Minor Leaguers sensed this was their last, best chance to make an impression and fulfill their dreams to one day reach the majors.
The Clippers’ raw recruits, prospects, and Minor League veterans responded to this opportunity by playing the greatest baseball of their lives on the greatest team most of them would ever belong to. Then the strike ended, leaving them to return to their ordinary aspirational lives and to be just as quickly forgotten.
Herman writes of the strike and the spotlight on Columbus, “Major League Baseball is over. For the moment, at least.
“The reserve clause that bound a player to a team for life has been dead five years now. With players able to sign with the highest bidder, salaries have exploded. Owners with the deepest pockets who embraced this new era, have benefited, some playing the new game better than others. George Steinbrenner, the capricious king of the New York Yankees, parlayed the biggest free agent signings into World Series titles in ’77 and ’78, and a 103-win regular season in 1980 before a loss to Kansas City in the American League Championship Series increased his mania.
“Most owners though, Steinbrenner included, have had enough. Tired of losing control over player movement and salaries, they’re demanding that every time out of their star players signs with another team, they receive a high-value player in return. Their desire to thwart the free agent market isn’t lost on the players. Ownership has underestimated their resolve and, this time, both sides are determined not to give in.
“And so the season has stopped cold, with Philadelphia’s Pete Rose just one hit from the all-time National League record, Fernandomania sweeping Los Angeles, and Steinbrenner’s increasingly harried Yankees among the teams sitting atop what will come to be known as the ‘first-half’ standings. Before it’s over, the strike will wipe out more than seven hundred contests and change the game forever.
“Yet in minor league cities such as Columbus, Ohio, there will be baseball through the rest of the spring and summer. The Columbus Clippers, the top minor league affiliate of Steinbrenner’s Yankees, stocked with an unusual blend of experience, talent, and potential for a Triple-A team, are in the midst of a blitzkrieg against the rest of the Triple-A International League. The IL is strong this season, with Cal Ripken Jr. (Rochester), Wade Boggs (Pawtucket), Brett Butler (Richmond), and Von Hayes (Charleston) among its rising stars. But for the next two months at least, the Clippers – King George’s super-talented collection of spare parts – will be the greatest baseball team on the planet.
“In my mind, they already were. And it hasn’t been close.
“I’m eleven years old, a newly minted fan living through a coming-of-age, live-and-breathe baseball summer. I’ve been devouring write-ups and box scores in the Columbus Dispatch, mourning contests wiped out by thunderstorms, and listening to every game I can on WBNS radio. Most nights the sounds of the broadcast fill my room, tucked away in the city’s Old Beechwold neighborhood, overlooking the Olentangy River amid dense tress and fireflies. Well past bedtime, I quietly click my radio back on, under the covers, and sneak in another inning. Those daydreams about the eighth-grade girl who sits next to me in the trombone section of my youth jazz band? Not even she can compete. I love this baseball team as only a shy young kid in his first season as a rabid baseball fan can love them. Even before the strike, they loomed in my consciousness, far more important than their Major League counterparts.
“I don’t care about Reggie Jackson. I have Marshall Brant, the Clippers’ veteran slugger, coming off a Most Valuable Player season. My obsession with Dave Righetti, the Yankees’ star rookie pitcher, wasn’t born out of his success in New York but in Columbus, where he started the season 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA before the big club called him up.
“The Yankees are just names in the paper. The Clippers are real. Any chance to watch them in person provides another level of magic, an extended version of that moment during any trip to the ballpark when you emerge from the walkway and catch your first glimpse of the field. The green turf, the white baselines straight as lasers, the perfectly kept infield. The buzz of the crowd. The excitement in the air…
“Tickets are only a few dollars. A family of four can see the game, park, and grab a bite for twenty bucks. A new electronic scoreboard renders pictures of players in lights against a black background like a giant Lite-Brite. A picnic area sits past the fence in left field. Mount Calvary Cemetery lies beyond the outfield fences and a row of spruce trees. Fans ring cowbells to spark rallies, and nearly every game features some kind of promotion: Farmers’ Night, Dime-a-Dog Night, Bat Day…even Halter-Top Night.
“On this evening, with Major League parks shuttered, the Clippers are hosting the only baseball in the entire country that really matters. The Tidewater (Virginia) Tides, the top affiliate of the New York Mets, are in town for two games – the completion of a contest suspended earlier in the season, and the regularly scheduled game. First place is on the line, with Columbus (34-20) up by a game over the Tides (31-19)…
“A Mets-Yankees proxy war on the strike’s first night means national attention for Tidewater at Columbus. News outlets from around the country are eager to show the impact of the strike and desperate to fill sports pages and airwaves with baseball. New York Times reporter Ira Berkow is in town, along with Moss Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger, Jack Lang of the Daily News, and Steve Jacobson from Newsday. A fledgling new cable network, ESPN, is on hand to broadcast the second game nationwide. New York radio powerhouse WABC isn’t here yet but will soon reassign its venerable Yankees play-by-play crew – Phil Rizzuto and all – to broadcast games back to New York, in hopes of filling this summer’s baseball void.
“The added attention might bother some of the younger Clippers, but it doesn’t faze Brant all that much. He’s had a handful of Major League at bats with the Yankees, and he’s been on TV before. He does worry, however, that he might swing at a bad pitch with Yankees coaches watching from their homes in New York. Under Steinbrenner, these things matter.
“The man they call ‘the Boss’ is a free agent junkie who almost always traded away his top Minor League talent, usually for over-priced Major League veterans. He hates losing to the Mets, even by proxy. And a single failure can sour Steinbrenner on a Minor League prospect forever. Righetti aside, playing your way onto the Yankees out of the farm system these days is damn near impossible. Even for Brant, the reigning Topps Minor League Player of the Year. Even for Steve Balboni, the Yankees’ best power prospect in a decade, who’s hit a few home runs that haven’t landed yet.
“Some players are traded away and inadvertently receive a huge break – a real chance to make the Majors with another team. Major League rosters these days are littered with ex-Yankees prospects who made good elsewhere. But it can still hurt.”
Almost Yankees is one of the most fascinating books you will read on baseball, including this overlooked part of the history of an illustrious franchise.