CC Sabathia and a history of Yankees with alcoholism
Dating back to the days of The Babe, the biggest tradition in New York Yankees history is winning. And going back just as far, the second-biggest tradition in the Bronx is alcoholism.
CC Sabathia is the latest Yankee to be swallowed up by the addiction, but thankfully he has come to that realization before it sent him to the morgue like Mickey Mantle. Now the organization that employs him must make a similarly bold move and create a way to better help its players from being swallowed by the dark side of Yankee success and excess.
Carousing has always been an element of Yankee lore. Babe Ruth’s drinking was as prodigious as his home run hitting. There are tales of him heading straight from speakeasies or brothels to the ballpark, where he’d still slug one out on minimal sleep.
“For Pete’s sake, that guy has a throat like a trombone,” former Yankee Tommy Henrich once said of the Bambino’s ability to down ’em.
Ruth was dead at 52.
Even after the Babe was gone, boozing continued to be a New York tradition that was perfected by the late ’50s and early ’60s teams of Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. Mantle started his days with brandy, Kahlua and cream in the morning. Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, opened that season by crashing his car into a tree during spring training. (Top that, La Russa!)
Ryne Duren, the namesake of Ryne Sandberg, once said of his teammates on the ’60 Yankees: “There were several full-blown alcoholics on that team, and there were three or four more who came pretty close.”
Mantle was one of the full-blown ones, as first revealed by ex-teammate Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four.” The Mick would die at 63 on his second liver.
Martin struggled with drinking throughout his career as a player and manager, not to mention four marriages. In 1969, he was fired despite winning a division title in his only year as the Twins manager because he beat up two of his own players in a bar fight. He died at 61 in a drunk driving accident, though it was his friend behind the wheel.
The Yankees historic stance was to treat their players’ drunkenness as part of the glitz and glamour of being the kings of New York.
Of future Baptist minister Bobby Richardson, Yankees manager Casey Stengel said, “Look at him. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t stay out late, and he still can’t hit .250.”
General manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi certainly took a different tack when Sabathia revealed he will be skipping the playoffs to check into rehab.
“I give CC a lot of credit because it takes a lot of courage for someone, a man to step up and say I need help,” Girardi said. “And when he came in (Sunday), I was no longer a manager. You know, I was someone that wanted to make sure that the proper course of action was taken.”
“Being quite honest, when I was on the receiving end of the information, the immediate response was support,” Cashman said. “And that was it. I didn’t really drill down on ‘How did this happen? When did this start? How long has it been going on? What have you been experiencing?’ I haven’t gone through any of that stuff with him. It was more like, ‘Hey, we’re here to support you in any way, shape or form.”
There are unique pressures and pleasures that come with being a ballplayer, and particularly with being a Yankee. And hopefully, Sabathia’s honesty will create a new culture in that organization and its attitude toward dangerous levels of drinking. No one is asking the Yankees to become a bunch of teetotalers, but now is the chance for them to demonstrate how to properly keep an eye on guys who may be swerving into trouble and encouraging them to get help when needed instead of carrying on with the party.
While the Yankees failed many of the greatest players in their storied history by allowing them to carry on uninhibited, in CC Sabathia’s case it appears the past doesn’t have to be prologue.
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