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Book Review: Chumps to Champs

For the past century, the Bronx Bombers have enjoyed unparalleled success. Since 1920, the Yankees have appeared in the Fall Classic 40 times and won 27 championships. Over the course of those 100 MLB seasons, the Yankees have posted a winning record an amazing 89 times. The organization has consistently fielded winning ball clubs that honor the enduring legacy of the vaunted pinstripes.

Only twice during the last 100 years have the Yankees had to endure consecutive losing seasons. From 1965 to 1967, the Bombers won less than half of their games every year. That disappointing three-season stretch occurred under the poor management of CBS, who had purchased the Yankees in 1964. The Yankees’ longest string of losing seasons, though, took place from 1989 to 1992. In many ways, those frustrating seasons represent the darkest days in Yankee history.

In his outstanding 2019 book, Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the ’90s Dynasty, Bill Pennington takes a closer look at what went wrong in New York between ’89 and ’92. Pennington gives today’s readers an all-access pass to the disorder and disfunction that characterized the Yanks during the late eighties and early nineties. In addition, he provides an unrivaled look at how the front office picked up the pieces and built a dynasty for the ages.

The Dark Times

The Yankees may have been a great organization during the bulk of the twentieth century, but they were nothing short of a disaster from 1989 to 1992. Besides losing game after game on the field, the Bronx Bombers had become a circus off of it. In Chumps to Champs, Pennington explores the drama that almost destroyed the franchise. Early chapters look at George Steinbrenner’s mismanagement of the Yankee organization, and his subsequent suspension from baseball.

For fans that are too young to remember the early ’90s, the news that Steinbrenner was actually banned from baseball may come as a shock. Pennington recalls the sad saga in vivid detail. Steinbrenner, in an attempt to discredit Yankee star David Winfield, had formed an alliance with Howie Spira. Spira, who had done some work for Winfield’s charity organization, accepted $40,000 from Steinbrenner in exchange for alleged dirt on Winfield. Pennington explains how the Spira connection eventually led to Steinbrenner’s banishment from baseball operations in 1990. George would not return to the Yankees until 1993.

A banished owner was, however, only one of the Yankees’ many problems during the early ’90s. Pennington points out that attendance at Yankee home games had dropped dramatically thanks to the club’s poor performance. He also notes that fans were turning off their televisions. From 1990 to 1992 the Bombers’ TV ratings fell through the floor. The loudest Yankee Stadium crowd of the early ’90s was the one that cheered Steinbrenner’s suspension on August 20, 1990. Things became so bad, says Pennington, that plans to move the Yankees out of the Bronx and into New Jersey were seriously discussed.

The Yankee Renaissance

Chumps to Champs really hits its stride in its second section, which focuses on the Yankees’ rebuild.

Pennington singles out Gene Michael, Bill Livesey, Mitch Lukevics, and Kevin Elfering for their contributions to the 1990s dynasty. Gene Michael, who took over as general manager in 1991, receives special praise from Pennington for the way in which he revolutionized the Yankees’ culture. With Steinbrenner gone and “Stick” Michael at the helm, the Yankees shifted their focus to player development. The organization was finally ready to build a champion from the ground up.

Pennington does an exceptional job of recounting the Yankee renaissance. He explains what scouts saw in players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. He looks at the way that Yankee greats like Pettitte and Posada honed their games in developmental leagues. Pennington even finds times to explain the comical story of how the Yankees acquired Bernie Williams. Afraid that other teams would swoop up the Puerto Rican phenom before he could officially sign with New York, the Yankees actually hid a teenaged Bernie in rural Connecticut.

The Yankees complemented their young stars with “culture creators.” Adding players like Paul O’Neill, Jim Abbott, Wade Boggs, and Mike Stanley helped build a professional and winning culture. The combination of reliable veterans and young stars would soon produce four world championships. Pennington expertly explains the impact that Gene Michael’s culture creators would have on the Core Four.

Return to Glory

The final portion of Chumps to Champs includes detailed looks at the 1994, 1995, and 1996 seasons. Pennington provides a very thorough analysis of the ’94 strike, which crushed the Yankees’ championship aspirations. The chapters that cover the strike are essential reading for anybody interested in knowing more about modern baseball history.

Pennington’s coverage of the ’95 season is also fantastic. After a slow start, the ’95 Yankees returned to form in August and September to win the first AL Wild Card spot. The 1995 ALDS against the Seattle Mariners would become a classic series, and Pennington does an excellent job covering each game. He skillfully explains all of the key decisions and recalls every crucial moment. Chumps to Champs effectively conveys just how bitter the Yankees’ loss to the Mariners was.

Pennington concludes his book with a gripping account of the 1996 season. After reading about the Yankees’ struggles in the early ’90s, the 1996 championship becomes even sweeter. Pennington allows us to go through the dark years with him so that we can appreciate the glory of the dynasty. Pennington stresses that the magical run in ’96 was the culmination of a rebuilding process that spanned multiple seasons. In his mind, guys like Mattingly and Showalter were indispensable pieces in that championship puzzle. Unfortunately, they were not with the Yankees when the team returned to the mountaintop.

The Verdict

Chumps to Champs is a great baseball book. It is well-researched, insightful, and expertly written. It is, in my humble opinion, the best book on the evolution of the 1990s Yankee dynasty. Anybody that is interested in learning more about modern Yankee history will thoroughly enjoy Chumps to Champs. I recommend that you put it right at the top of your baseball reading list.

Chumps to Champs is available in print, digital, and audible formats.

Up Next

My next book review will be a bit different. In memory of revered sportswriter Roger Kahn, who passed away earlier this month, I’ll be reviewing his classic book, The Boys of Summer. While it is not a book about the Yankees, The Boys of Summer is widely considered one of the best baseball books ever written. I’m looking forward to reviewing it for you on March 6.