The Two Sides of the Yankee Syndrome

February 14, 2017
 The Two Sides of the Yankee Syndrome



            I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this winter that the other teams in the NL East are kind of taking a long-term view right now, because the Cubs are going to be so strong for the next three or four years that there is no point in butting your head against a brick wall.   I don’t believe this, to begin with.   The Cubs had a year in 2016 when most everything worked for them.    They will have a very strong organization in 2017 with a tremendous team on the field, but they are not likely to have another year when most everything works for them.   The MORE probable outcome is that some things will NOT work for them—Zobrist may be suddenly old, and Baez may strike out so much that he can’t play, and Bryant or Rizzo could get hurt, and Kyle Hendricks may discover that the ground balls are finding holes, rather than going right to somebody’s glove.    My understanding of the nature of baseball is that several things go seriously wrong for every team every year, most of the time.  

          &​nbsp; But anyway, it brings up a general subject.   I am always more interested in the underlying question than in the immediate manifestations of the question.     There are two sides to this syndrome.   There is what could be called the Yankee Syndrome, 1955, and the Yankee Syndrome, 2003.  

            When the Yankees dominated the American League from 1921 to 1963, in the long run it damaged the league.   The other teams, for the most part, gave up on competing with the Yankees.   The Red Sox took a run at competing with them in the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indians did in the 1950s, but for the most part, the league just gave up.    By the early 1950s there were three horribly weak organizations in an eight-team league—the Senators, A’s, and the St. Louis Browns—and two organizations which had not exactly given up, but were floundering, the Red Sox and the Tigers.   The White Sox were trying to get back on their feet, working on it.   The race was between the Indians and the Yankees, and the Yankees were usually four games better.    

            The American League fell far behind the National League in the overall strength of the league, in large part because of the domination of the league by one franchise.  But when the Yankees became super-strong again in the late 1990s, it had the exact opposite effect.    The Red Sox said, "No, goddammit, we are NOT going to concede this division to the Yankees and let them have it; we are going to get in there and fight."    The Blue Jays didn’t back off, either.   Rather than becoming a weaker division, because of the Yankees, it became the STRONGEST division in baseball, by far—and still is today, although the rest of baseball is catching up a little bit every year.  

            So the same cause had different effects, which is a common thing; the same cause will often have completely opposite effects in different situations.   A gunshot noise frightens one dog under the table, but causes the other dog to attack.  

            I was thinking about this because of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team.   The Jayhawks have won the Big 12 for. . .I don’t know, twelve or thirteen straight seasons now.    They are two games in front with four to play this year, so they may make it one more.

            In theory, this is not good for the league, to be dominated by one team for this length of time.  But in fact, it has been GREAT for the league, from the standpoint of competitiveness.   The other teams HAVEN’T decided "Oh, we can’t compete with the Jayhawks".   Baylor, Iowa State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and others have said "No, goddammit, we are NOT going to just let the Jayhawks have it.   We are going to get in there and fight."   The result is that the league is far STRONGER now than it was when the Jayhawks started this run.   Ten, twelve years ago, the Big 12 was the third or fourth best basketball conference in the country, behind the ACC, the old Big East, maybe the SEC, the Big 10, the Pac 10 maybe.   Now, by any objective criteria, it is easily the best.  

          &n​bsp; I have talked about this before, but when there is a fast runner in a foot race, a mile race or something, everybody else runs faster.    If the pace is slow, a runner may run the mile in 4:05, but you put a world class miler in there, the same guy will run it in 3:58.    Same syndrome; you run as fast as you HAVE to run to keep up.  

            That’s why it is surprising to me to hear people talking about the Pirates and Cardinals just backing off and letting the Cubs run for a couple of years.   That’s Yankee Syndrome, 1955.   I don’t know about anybody else, but if I was there, the hell with that.   If the Cubs catch a few tough breaks, you can beat them.   If they don’t, that’s what the Wild Card is for.   You get them in a seven-game series in October, you can beat them then.  


COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

Aren't most of these other teams just doing what the Cubs did five or six years ago?
7:45 AM Feb 18th
"In his only playoff appearance as manager of the Reds, Dusty Baker was graced with a manager's dream. How many folks remember his rotation stayed healthy and gave him ALL 162 starts."

Baker made the playoffs three times with the Reds, in 2010, 2012, and 2013. You're probably thinking of 2012, when his rotation started 161 of the 162 games, and Todd Redmond started the second game of a doubleheader in August.

The other two years, the Reds used at least 8 starting pitchers each season.
12:35 PM Feb 15th
There is the money issue also. Now teams can spend enough to compete, if you are smart about it. The gap (while still wide) is less than it was before.
10:57 AM Feb 15th
Perhaps clarifying what I asked, since Bill's answer over-generalized the question:

As per my question, I wasn't asking about the overall weakness of the American League during that era, but about the weak A.L. teams.
Bill talks about both in this article; I was asking about the latter, specifically about the basis for saying it was significantly due to the teams giving up because the Yanks were so strong.
10:55 AM Feb 15th
MLB is no longer in a situation where any team is simply willing to surrender to a supposed Dynasty. The emerging young players fear nothing anymore and are very aggressive, not “taking a year or two to learn from the veterans.” When is the last time you heard of a rookie touring “Monument Park” at Yankee Stadium and actually being intimidated by it? That old saw has been dead for years.

It takes so little to upset the perfect chemistry of a team like the Cubs they can suddenly feel like they are surrounded by sharks in six feet of water. Without an incredible year by the rotation and pen, is that defense really that good?

Seemingly unrelated injuries or poor years can have a cumulative effect on a team. Left field, second base, #2 starter and bullpen setup guy may look unrelated, but the cumulative effect of their absence or injury can be devastating.

There is also more adrenaline and energy available to the body and mind in the drive to get to the top than one can muster up to sustain that level of excellence.

The luck factor can be huge. In his only playoff appearance as manager of the Reds, Dusty Baker was graced with a manager’s dream. How many folks remember his rotation stayed healthy and gave him ALL 162 starts. How often does that happen Bill? Once every twenty years or so?

I don’t think anyone is conceding anything yet, and it is not hard to envision the Cubs having a run similar to the Giants, three championships in five years and back to reality.

10:03 AM Feb 15th
I think the primary difference between the two eras also applies to the Kansas situation: playoffs. In the 1950s only the league champion got in. If a team like the Browns didn't see a viable path to beating the Yankees, they might as well save their money. Today they can fight for a wild card spot and hope they can knock off the Yankees in a 3/5 or 4/7 series, which is far more likely than beating them out over 154 or 162 games.

Same thing with college hoops. Time was when only the conference champion got invited to the national championship tournament. Now the Big 12 might send half a dozen teams in a good year, plus there's a conference tournament, which only the ACC had back in the day. The disadvantage of not winning it all during the regular season is far less, so teams are more willing to take their chances on getting into the short season and seeing who get hot.
9:22 AM Feb 15th
Marc Schneider
I agree completely with Bill. There is no reason at all for other teams to give up. The Cubs were good, but they were hardly the greatest team of all time. And, in general, I would always bet against the defending champions for the reasons Bill mentioned; things usually go wrong the next year. And, it's not as if the Cubs swept through the playoffs; they were behind the Dodgers and, obviously, behind the Indians.

But isn't it just easier today to compete because of (1) the wildcard; and (2) the draft? During the time of Yankee dominance, there was no player draft. Teams just signed whoever they could. So, the dominance sort of built on itself; kids wanted to sign with the Yankees because they were successful. (Although they did lose out on Hank Greenberg because he saw Lou Gehrig ahead of him.) What top prospect would sign with the A's, Senators, or Browns? And with only one team making the playoffs (World Series), it was much more likely that the best team would win out.
8:33 AM Feb 15th
The division and wild card changed everything from the 50's. From 2000 to 2009, the Red Sox finished first in the division only once, second eight times and third once. Yet they made the playoffs six times, and of course took two World Series titles. A great decade for the team -- even though the Yankees had a better regular-season record over all.

Under the rules in place in the the 50's, the Red Sox chasing the Yankee dominance could not have yielded the same result.
8:20 AM Feb 15th
In the 90s teams knew they could 'peel off' players from the yanks, and that even if they didn't, some other team would. Steinbrenner's not gonna spend HOW MANY MILLION on payroll, is he?
4:34 AM Feb 15th
The Cubs are good, but they aren't THAT good. I'm not predicting this, but it wouldn't shock me if they finished below .500. In fact that would be an interesting study - how many times did a pennant winner or 100+ win team follow it up with a sub .500 season.

In college basketball, there is some prestige associated with winning your conference, but it's more about making the NCAA tournament. There's plenty of incentive for a team to do well even if they aren't as good as Kansas.
1:23 AM Feb 15th
I'm on Maris's side on that. You use the word "effect" several times to suggest precisely that relationship.​
10:47 PM Feb 14th
Thank you, Bill -- but I could swear it looks like you meant to imply that.

But just the same, my question then becomes, are you pretty sure it was a significant reason, and why? The reason I ask is the same as I said before: I've never seen this mentioned anywhere as a particular factor.
10:16 PM Feb 14th
Just a quick correction: It would be the NL Central -- not the NL East (since 1993) -- that is reacting to the Cubs' strength.
8:03 PM Feb 14th
An excellent resource on this subject is a McFarland edition, "A Calculus of Color-The Integration of the American League" by Robert Kuhn McGregor. During the early '50's, the lack of parity in the league was so evident that the front runners actually shored up the up the bottom three clubs by feeding them good prospects. This was hardly out of charity, but of necessity, as fans were not interested in going to games at Yankee Stadium, for example, to watch a foregone conclusion (versus Browns, A's, Nationals). And, the Yankees were certainly not trailblazers of integration, so most of the other AL clubs followed their thinking, unfortunately.
7:42 PM Feb 14th
Nothing in the article says that this is the main reason for the weakness of the American League in that era.
6:13 PM Feb 14th
Bill: Are you pretty sure that's the (main) reason for the weak A.L. teams around the '40's and '50's? What's the basis for it?

I don't doubt that it makes sense. It's just that I haven't seen or heard such a reason given before.
5:32 PM Feb 14th
paulw112, couldn't the AL's sluggishness in signing black and Latino players be a symptom of their lack of competitiveness as much as a cause of it? If the management and fan base are demoralized, why would a franchise owner choose the bold path if they could just find a buyer and cash out?
4:35 PM Feb 14th
Also the Cubs almost lost last year (Indians fan writing this). If they had had 2 consecutive sweeps in the final two rounds, well OK. But the Dodgers were up 2-1 and then in the World Series they had to come back from 3-1 and still almost lost the last game.
4:31 PM Feb 14th
I haven't heard people saying that, but I haven't been following any of the preseason talk, so I don't know what they're saying. As you point out, the Wildcard makes it a pretty idiotic position to take, that we're just going to be a .500 team for three years and plan for 2021. Nobody does that, indeed nobody COULD do that even if they wanted to. The rise of the Cubs and the rise of the Royals and Indians and Blue Jays and Nationals are all arguments that things change quickly and you can strike when the opportunity comes and you never know when that is going to be.
4:30 PM Feb 14th
Even if the Cubs are 75% at making the playoffs, that leaves another 3.25 teams to make the playoffs. (not counting the play-in game)

I can't imagine in this day and age of so many teams making it, that having a powerhouse team is somehow a consideration for your own building efforts.
4:26 PM Feb 14th
If you own a team and you don't have a plan to develop into a contender, then you should sell the team and use your money for something else. What the Browns, Senators, and A's did in the late forties and early fifties was shameful. We saw the same pattern in the early 00's in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Then, either the owner woke up (Baltimore) or sold the team (Pittsburgh).
4:03 PM Feb 14th
Bill, regarding the disparity between leagues in the 1950s and early '60s, isn't it also true that the AL was much slower to sign Black and Latino players? In other words, the league's descent into mediocrity wasn't just because they gave up on catching the Yankees.
In general though I totally agree with the premise of this article.
3:53 PM Feb 14th
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