A Brief History of Booing in the Bronx

No one is immune to booing in New York, not even reigning MVPs. (via DR. Buddie)

I just bought a house. By which I mean that I have agreed to purchase a house, have funding lined up through a mortgage provider, completed the inspection process, and am prepared to fork over many, many thousands of dollars to someone for the privilege of home ownership. I have not completed the purchase yet, and I won’t until mid-May. We’ll move in in early June.

I didn’t need to do it, but I wanted to own a house again after renting for the last four years. I wanted stability for my kids and a place where I wouldn’t freak out about putting decorations up on the walls. These are all good reasons, but I don’t really know if this is the right decision. It feels right. I think it’s right. But nothing ever goes exactly the way you think it will. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. That sort of thing. The option that seems best now may turn into a disaster. I may regret my decision (I did, after all, commit to living in Iowa for the next 15 years or so). Life is full of these awful choices with potentially disastrous and unforeseen outcomes. It really is stupid that way.

All of which brings me to Giancarlo Stanton. I admire what Stanton did this offseason so much. Condemned to pay the wages of sin for Derek Jeter and the Marlins’ suboptimal debt-to-income ratio, Stanton stared down the former Yankee captain. Jeter reportedly tried to force Stanton to accept a trade to San Francisco or St. Louis. But the reigning NL MVP refused to go. If he couldn’t stay in Miami, Stanton wanted to play in either New York or Los Angeles. And, because he had both the leverage and the will to use it, Stanton got his wish and, like a reverse LeBron, took his talents out of Long Beach.

But after belting two homers on Opening Day, Stanton has been showered with boos from Yankee fans who expected better than his .239 batting average, 107 wRC+, and 40 strikeouts in 124 subsequent plate appearances (at the time of this writing). As Stanton struggles to hold back the boo birds, it’s worth remembering wanting to play for the Yankees, like wanting to buy a house in Iowa, has rarely worked out in the modern era.

Take, for instance, Ed Whitson. When people tell Whitson’s story these days, they tell it as if he simply couldn’t handle playing in New York City. But, looking back, that’s incredibly reductive.

Whitson was 30 years old and coming off of a career year in San Diego where he’d won 14 games, posted a 3.24 ERA, and become a postseason hero and then goat in the span of a week. He had hoped to stay in Southern California in 1985, but the Padres didn’t pursue him in free agency and George Steinbrenner made him the Yankees’ biggest target on the free agent market. Overwhelmed, he signed a five year, $4.4 million deal.

The trouble began immediately, with reporters wondering “Who would have thought Whitson could parlay his 53-56 career record into being an almost $1 million-a-year pitcher.” Then, he got hurt just before Opening Day and couldn’t last even two innings in his first start against the Red Sox. That loss snowballed into another and another.

By June 6, he was 1-6 with a 6.23 ERA and was being booed regularly by the Yankees faithful. But more than that, he reported being harassed and threatened off the field. As he left the ballpark, he told The New York Times, “A bunch of guys were hollering and cussing that I’d better take my family and get out of town. And that they were going to blow my head off.” Fans tried to follow him home. One day he got found three inch carpenter nails and tacks strewn across his driveway. Alarmed by the escalation and by letters he received, Whitson’s wife and daughter began leaving when Whitson was on the road. “I wouldn’t have left them there for all the money you could roll into the stadium,” Whitson said. I don’t know anyone who could adapt to that, mental toughness be damned.

The cherry on top of that awful season occurred on September 22nd at 1 AM in a bar in Baltimore, where Whitson and Billy Martin got in a scuffle in which the Yankees manager was said to have sucker punched his struggling starter. According to Murray Chass, “Witnesses said it began in the bar, moved to the hotel lobby, where Whitson kicked Martin in the groin, then moved outside the hotel, where Whitson broke away from people restraining him, rushed at Martin and knocked him down, winding up on top of him. An enraged Martin later said he thought Whitson had broken the manager’s right arm when he kicked him one of several times.” The arm was broken, but the fight continued in the hotel as Yankees players and officials struggled to get Martin and Whitson back to their rooms. And before finally (presumably) passing out, Martin came out of his hotel room to challenge Whitson to meet him in the parking garage for round two.

This was not, of course, the first time Billy Martin had drunkenly fought with one of his own players. And it was the second night in a row that Martin had gotten into an altercation after midnight in the same bar. Neither man was disciplined by Steinbrenner, who planned on firing Martin anyway, and probably figured, why bother? That offseason, Whitson would request to be traded.

The Yankees were reportedly unable to find anyone willing to take on Whitson after the season, so he remained in pinstripes to start 1986. With Martin gone, there was hope that the team would be in less chaos. But in the second game of the season, Yankees fans continued to shower him with abuse. The Sporting News wrote “The treatment Whitson gets in New York is rude, crude, and lewd. His own fans treat him like an enemy. Like Khadafy in pinstripes.” Whitson was chased by the Royals in the third inning, telling his catcher, “I can’t pitch here. I’ve got to get out of here.”

He wasn’t sleeping and just wanted out of the Bronx, so rookie manager Lou Piniella decided to only let Whitson start on the road. “I never heard of such a thing,” Whitson said. “But then again, I never heard about hate mail until I came here.” Very quickly, Whitson became a forgotten mop-up man and spot starter who was just taking up room on the Yankees roster. His dreams long since turned to nightmares, he finally got his wish and was traded back to San Diego in July.

At least Whitson got out of the Bronx relatively quickly. His teammate Ken Griffey Sr. was also traded out of New York in 1986, which was several years after he requested to be dealt. Griffey agreed to a trade to the Yankees in November of 1981 and immediately signed a five year, $6 million extension to replace Reggie Jackson in right field on a team that had just won the AL pennant. Expectations were both high and unrealistic, and Griffey would struggle to manage them from the very beginning.

Griffey was a fine player, but he also was 32 and coming off of knee surgery. For a guy who was expected to provide speed and defense, that was a problem. The honeymoon didn’t even last a season, as Griffey went from one of the most popular players in the Reds clubhouse to depressed and unappreciated on a disappointing team in turmoil. He struggled with injuries for all of 1982 and was hitting .250/.292/.333 in mid-May when the Yankees demoted him into a platoon with Lou Piniella. This was the era of peak George Steinbrenner, so Griffey began to hear about his perceived shortcoming from both the fans and from the man signing his checks. According to Chass, “The fans, apparently expecting–or demanding–another Jackson, were merciless with Griffey. Although he refused to talk about it, the mild-mannered Griffey was hurt by the experience,”

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Many who passed away this year left indelible marks on the game.

That summer, he had to put up with three managers and four hitting coaches. In July, Steinbrenner ordered Griffey and five other veterans to be drilled on “recent mistakes” they had made on the field. Willie Randolph, who was there because he popped up a bunt, called it “degrading.” On August 16, the Yankees announced that he was being “rested,” while Steinbrenner complained “sometimes I wish you could let go of a lot of players instead of the manager….We have an awful lot of players who think they’re a lot better than they really are.”

He asked for a trade in August of 1982, and the Yankees readily agreed to try and find one … right after they also traded Goose Gossage, Tommy John, Rudy May, and Dave Collins, who all also wanted out. Finally, in September, Steinbrenner changed his mind and decided Griffey should stick around.

And he did, much to the Yankees benefit in 1983. At first, there was confusion over where he’d be playing, with Griffey joking that he didn’t know which glove to take out on the field on any given day. For a while, he wasn’t even sure he would be in the starting lineup on a regular basis. But he wound up starting at first base for most of the year, which allowed his knees to stay healthy. He rebounded to hit a robust .306 with a .355 OBP and .437 slugging percentage.

But Steinbrenner was back to his old tricks in 1984, stirring up trouble and limiting Griffey’s playing time. At least eight veterans were complaining publicly and privately, including Griffey, who was in a weird two-lefties platoon with Omar Moreno where he had to face all the left-handed pitchers. Again, Griffey asked to be traded. And then again in 1985. Eventually, in 1986, less than two weeks after leaving the club without permission in June to handle a family situation, and after three years of trying, Griffey was finally was dealt out of New York to Atlanta. “I had asked out a long time ago and never got it, but I’m glad it happened,” Griffey said when asked about the deal.

Dave Winfield, who joined the Yankees in 1981, had similar struggles dealing with The Boss. While never the focus of fans like Griffey and Whitson, Winfield was under Steinbrenner’s skin early because he refused to take the owner’s interference and bullying lying down, writing in his book, “I think, as a frustrated athlete, George wants to ‘own’ his players, wants them up on their flippers barking for fish like trained seals. And from the beginning, I refused to bark.”

Winfield held Steinbrenner’s feet to the fire regarding contractually-obligated payments to Winfield’s charitable foundation that were being missed, and refused to kowtow to Steinbrenner’s insistence that all the Yankees be subject to random drug tests. And reported in his memoir that he “seldom felt good playing for Steinbrenner.” Lawsuits were filed and eventually Winfield was traded to the Angels. His best laid plans turned to dust, Winfield was relieved, “The truth is, I wanted to get out of there. They meant me no good … Boy it’s good to just focus on baseball. You know how much free time I have? There was a time in New York when I’m trying to play baseball and Steinbrenner would occupy 60%, 70% of my waking hours.

These problems were not confined to the dustbin of the 1980s either. Hideki Irabu sought out the Yankees in 1997, refusing to play anywhere else, but injuries, missteps, drinking, and abuse by Steinbrenner and the fans led to his trade in December of 1999, and eventually to his depression and suicide. Carl Pavano grew up a Yankees fan, but his time with the club was a nightmare from start to finish, garnering boos from fans as early as June 2005, and then spending most of the rest of his Yankees career fighting to come back from injuries and becoming the butt of his teammates’ jokes in the press.

And what about Alex Rodriguez? A-Rod struggled (well, for him it was struggling) from the moment he arrived in 2004 and was booed by Yankees fans as early as April 11, his eighth game in pinstripes, for having the temerity to be hitting .172. He finished with just an .888 OPS that year as he struggled to adapt to Yankee Stadium. That offseason, Steinbrenner “used select language in challenging Rodriguez to assert himself” according to Selena Roberts and he was castigated for not being Derek Jeter, who did “the small things that count in big moments, with A-Rod pulling off big moments at insignificant times.” Worst of all, he wasn’t an “authentic Yankee.”

In 2005, he won the AL MVP, but was derided by his own fans in 2006 for slumping in June. “Many fans,” wrote William Rhoden, “have a long list of reasons for not liking A-Rod, for relentlessly booing him when he fails at the plate or falters in the field. When Rodriguez does well, which is often, he is cheered. But the sentiment is that, well, he’s supposed to do well. His critics say he has never had his ‘Yankees moment.’”

Rodriguez was mocked for his perceived artificiality and for his stiffness. How he never seemed to let his guard down. Joe Torre understood the pressure A-Rod was under, and how that was affecting him, “The camera’s on him all the time. Maybe that why he always tries to control everything and be everything, because somebody watches his every move. And it’s probably the reason he can’t let go of some things, or he has to have an answer for everything, or say it just rolls off his back. He’s still human.” And all of that is before we even get into his supposed lack of success in the postseason or the aftermath of his PED suspension, for which he was castigated mercilessly. It’s easy to forget, especially now that he’s everyone’s favorite in-studio commentator, for roughly a decade Alex Rodriguez was walking on eggshells and was almost universally hated for it. He was only free when he was out of pinstripes and off the diamond.

We haven’t even gotten to guys like Dave Collins, Steve Kemp, Rick Cerone, Doyle Alexander, Chuck Knoblauch, or Steve Balboni. The list of Yankees traumatized by their time in New York goes on and on.

Of course other teams fans can be awful. Every team has “fans” who don’t see the harm in being as awful as possible to those trying to entertain them. And, of course, New York isn’t the only place with a press that hounds, or a sportspage with snarky headlines. Other clubs have had owners who bully, meddle, and manipulate their clubs. But no one seems to have hit the trifecta quite like the Yankees, and no other franchise seems to quite match the levels of misery inflicted on unsuspecting superstars as boos shower down.

There’s one thing all of these incidents have in common that Stanton won’t have to deal with. New York will always be a pressure cooker, but at least George Steinbrenner isn’t there anymore to crank up the heat. Maybe, finally, more of these stories will have happy endings. Maybe Stanton’s will. But if he gets chased out of Yankee Stadium, and needs to crash in Iowa while he ponders what’s next, at least now I have an extra bedroom to offer him. We can contemplate our (poor) life choices together.

References and Resources

  • Dave Caldwell, The New York Times, April 13, 2004, “Rodriguez Is Slower To Adjust To Yankees.”
  • Murray Chass, The New York Times, August 20, 1982 “Griffey Seeking a Trade From Yanks After Season.”
  • Murray Chass, The New York Times, September 22, 1985, “Martin, Whitson Scuffle in Hotel Bar.”
  • Murray Chass, The New York Times, September 24, 1982 “Randolph Discounts Reports of a Trade.”
  • Murray Chass, The New York Times, February 19, 1982 “Three Roles For Griffey In One Day.”
  • Murray Chass, The New York Times, December 28, 1984, “Yankees Sign Whitson.”
  • Mike Downey, The Sporting News, April 28, 1986, “Let’s Hear It For Ed Whitson – Road Warrior.”
  • Joseph Durso, The New York Times, February 8, 1982, “Quiet Griffey Talks About His Place.”
  • Tyler Kepner, The New York Times, July 4, 2006 “Even in His Finest Moments, Rodriguez Brings Out Detractors.”
  • Bill Madden, The Sporting News, April 28, 1986, “Whitson’s Theme Song: ‘On the Road…Again?”
  • Michael Martinez, The New York Times, March 17, 1986, “Whitson Recalls Unhappy Season.”
  • Bill Pennington, Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2015)
  • William C. Rhoden, The New York Times, June 17, 2006, “Finding Some Cheer In a Cascade of Boos.”
  • Selena Roberts, The New York Times, February 17, 2005, “Rodriguez’s Polished image Starting to Show Scuff Marks.”
  • Dave Winfield and Tom Parker, Winfield: A Player’s Life. (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1988)
  • The New York Times, July 23, 1982, “6 Yanks Are Drilled on Recent Mistakes.”
  • The New York Times, June 19, 1986, “Griffey Back, Fined $10,000.”
  • The New York Times, June 30, 1986 “Yanks Send Griffey to Braves.


Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for MLB Daily Dish on SB Nation. He currently cohosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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v2micca
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v2micca

List feels incomplete without at least a mention of Roger Maris. I know this was intended as a more recent history, but 1985 seems like an arbitrary cut-off for the Modern Era. It just seems he is one of the more egregious instances of Yankee Fan behavior as he was booed when he struggled, and booed when he played “too” well.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Mickey Mantle was booed too. But, clearly, what is considered “acceptable” fan conduct has declined in recent years. No one should have to worry about his or his family’s safety because of how he performs in a game.

v2micca
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v2micca

You are not describing a recent phenomenon. Roger Maris’s family received threatening phone calls during the ’61 season. And the less said regarding Jackie Robinson’s “fan” mail during his early years, the better. In fact, I would argue that fan conduct has remarkably improved in the last 3 decades. We just have outliers like Boston and New York fans making the rest of us look bad.

tb.25
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tb.25

Great read. A reminder of how human players are and how idiotic some fans can be, regardless of team (though the Yankees, by nature of the crudeness of New York, seem to have more of these fans than most teams).

CubsMLOrNah
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CubsMLOrNah

Entertaining write-up, as a Cubs fans I know we can have our moments but at least our expectations have been low due to us sucking for many years.

Also, Welcome to Iowa! I know from the outside it might seem dull but at least in Des Moines, the city has evolved within the past decade or so. You will be surprised by how “hip” a midwestern city can be!

In the end though, Iowa is probably one of the better places to raise children so you and your wife made a good choice.

williamnyy
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Though it’s always fun to remember Eddie Lee Whitson (and speaking of Whitson, in 1986, the year after his disaster, he became a kind of sympathy figure, often eliciting extra encouragement from the Stadium), this list barely scratches the surface. Also, I think there are distinctions between the types of home player booing that has occurred. I would break it down as follows: Early hazing for new players, especially those with big reputations: Stanton falls under this category. Frustration with enigmatic players: Carl Pavano is a great example. Lack of patience for poor performing players who become symbolic of organizational… Read more »
martyvan90
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martyvan90

Mike, with the affordability issues of many “Blue States” your decision is a difficult but one I would replicate at your station in life (in fact I’ll be doing it upon retirement in six years.) You jog memories and I think your article/comments lead me to believe sports venue behavior is more civil (with exceptions of course.) I can remember Yankee/Red Sox donnybrooks at games and thankfully that no longer seems to happen- in the stands at least.

Paul G.
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Paul G.
I do not remember Winfield getting booed by the fans, at least not often. He did have trouble with King George, but then again almost everyone did. If you want to discuss the Wrath of George, it often starts with Tucker Ashford. He made two errors in an exhibition game against the Mets, at which point The Boss declared “We’ve seen enough of Tucker Ashford” and demoted him to AAA. Moving onward, Bobby Meacham had the indignity of making a game losing error in a regular season game, which produced no similarly catchy quote, but got Bobby demoted all the… Read more »