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Book Review – Gator: My Life in Pinstripes

The New York Yankees dominated the game of baseball from 1923 to 1962. Unfortunately, the Bombers began to slip during the second half of the ’60s. After suffering World Series losses in both 1963 and 1964, the Yanks would fail to return to the Fall Classic for the remainder of the decade. When Mantle retired prior to the 1969 season, the book officially closed on the team’s golden era.

While the Yankees didn’t return to the postseason until 1976, fans had reasons to be optimistic as the ’70s began. In 1970, Thurman Munson was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year. Prior to the 1972 season, the Yanks snatched Sparky Lyle from the rival Red Sox. Sparky would go on to lead the AL with 35 saves during his first year in pinstripes. Then, in January of 1973, George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees from CBS. The energetic and passionate new owner vowed that he would return the team to championship form.

With all of the excitement, it would have been easy for fans to overlook a seemingly insignificant decision at the 1971 MLB draft. However, with the 67th overall pick in that draft, the Yankees would acquire one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history. At 5’11” and weighing in at around 150 pounds, Ron Guidry wasn’t much to look at in 1971. Yet before the decade was over, Guidry would cement his place in the pantheon of Yankee legends as a dominant lefty with a pair of World Series rings. Guidry’s inspirational journey is the subject of his excellent 2018 autobiography, Gator: My Life in Pinstripes. 

The Long and Winding Road

During his fourteen seasons with New York, Guidry would win five Gold Gloves, capture a Cy Young, lead the AL in wins and ERA twice, and go to four All-Star Games. Those accomplishments are all the more impressive because of the challenges that Guidry overcame along the way. In Gator, Guidry provides Yankee fans with an inside look at his unlikely rise to stardom.

Before he was known as Louisiana Lightning, Ron Guidry was a struggling minor leaguer who was pitching poorly for below-average teams. In fact, Guidry’s pedestrian performance in the Yankee farm system led to his demotion from starter to reliever. Guidry, a constant fighter, handled himself with grace and dignity. He began to thrive as a minor league reliever and won his way onto the big league roster.

Arriving in the Bronx, however, didn’t mean that Guidry’s path to glory was clear. In Gator, Guidry explains Billy Martin’s strong preference for veteran players with experience. Ron was a rookie, and Billy Martin didn’t trust rookies. As a result, Guidry rode the pine for nearly two months before being sent back down to the minors.

Disappointed with the unwillingness of his manager to give him a chance, Guidry considered quitting and driving back to his home in Louisiana. But in the end, Guidry’s determination and competitive spirit won out. He accepted his demotion, pitched well in Triple-A, and returned to the Bronx ready to help the Yankees build towards a better future. His emergence as a starter helped bolster an already strong pitching staff, and soon, New York was back in the World Series. The rest is history.

The Bronx Zoo

One of the best aspects of Gator is Guidry’s candid discussion of the drama that defined the 1970s Yankees. The book provides readers with an inside look at the rocky relationships between Reggie, Thurman, and the other big personalities in the Yankee locker room. Guidry humorously recounts some of the edgiest moments and hottest feuds from an era that had plenty.

I expected the quiet Guidry to be critical of the off-the-field drama. However, Ron argues that the wild atmosphere of the Yankee clubhouse brought out the best in those championship clubs. Constant bickering between players, coaches, and the front office kept everybody on their toes. It was impossible for a Yankee to be complacent or disinterested during the late ’70s, and that kept the team on top.

Passing the Torch

A theme that Guidry develops throughout Gator is the role that former Yankees have always played in developing the next generation of stars. Guidry notes his appreciation for Sparky Lyle and Dick Tidrow, two great Yankee pitchers who helped him develop his game when he arrived in New York. He also makes frequent mention of Yogi Berra and the value that the former catcher added as a coach to Guidry’s Yankee teams.

Hoping to continue that tradition, Guidry has embraced the mentor role in retirement. A fixture at spring training, Guidry has worked with Pettite, Severino, Montgomery, and many other Yankee pitchers. It is a role that he cherishes, and he has inspired other former players to join him in Tampa each year. Guidry is truly a lifetime Yankee, and his genuine love for the pinstripes is evident on every page of Gator.

The Verdict

Other highlights from Gator include analysis of the ’77 and ’78 Fall Classics, a great retelling of the one-game playoff against Boston in which Bucky Dent hit his famous home run, and a heartfelt tribute to Thurman. Guidry also tells the story of his amazing 18-strikeout game in vivid detail.

Gator is a great book. It was inspirational, insightful, and downright fun to read. Anybody interested in learning more about Guidry and the Yankees of the 1970s will enjoy the book from cover to cover. It’s also relatively short, which means you can easily get through it in a few days. Gator gets two thumbs up!

Up Next

Look out for our next book review on February 7th. I’ll be taking a closer look at Donnie Baseball, a Mattingly biography by Mike Shalin.