Last weekend my wife and son and I went to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. It was Old Timers’ Day, so the actual game between the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians was preceded by a couple of innings featuring a set of retired players who had formerly played for the Yankees. There was a lot of pomp and fanfare as these old-timers were introduced, and it was a great thrill to watch Mel Stottlemeyer, the current Yankees pitching coach, take the mound and actually throw a few pitches.

At some point during the festivities I started thinking about how this must all look to anyone who wasn’t a Yankees fan. I think it was when Wade Boggs, playing in his first Old Timers’ Day Game, was introduced; Boggs spent most of his playing career with the Yankees’ ancestral enemy, the Boston Red Sox, and will enter the Hall of Fame wearing a Red Sox cap later on this summer. But on the strength of five years in New York, Boggs was claimed as a Yankee Old Timer, something that would surely have infuriated a Boston fan. Indeed, I could imagine such a fan adducing this as yet another example of the Yankees’ arrogance, and adding it to their storehouse of Reasons To Hate The Yankees.

It’s a curious phenomenon, this Yankee-hating.

In unpacking it, the first thing we have to do is to realize that Yankee-hating uses empirical evidence, but isn’t itself an empirical claim. “Yankees Suck,” proclaims a popular anti-Yankee t-shirt, but even though this purports to be a factual claim about the Yankees, it isn’t. No amount of empirical evidence would suffice to convince a Yankee-hater that the Yankees did not, in fact, suck: not the 26 World Series victories, not the stunningly rich roll-call of talented individuals who have played for the team over the years, not the numerous great moments in the history of baseball that have involved the Yankees in one way or another. In fact, a Yankee-hater would regard these bits of information as evidence that the Yankees do suck, and thus use that data to bolster their pre-existing stance.

Yankee-hating, then, might be thought of as a set of interpretive practices, a way of making sense out of a bunch of data that is susceptible of being understood in a number of different ways. To hate the Yankees is to arrange that data so as to illustrate and highlight the Yankees’ various sins over the years, and thus to build a case against the team that will be compelling largely to other Yankee-haters — and provide ample material to fight with Yankee-lovers about. The acquisition of Babe Ruth for the 1920 season: Yankee arrogance in buying up all the good players, or Yankee foresight in signing a star about to burst on to the scene? And this isn’t the sort of question that one can resolve empirically, since all sides agree on the basic data; what is at issue, rather, is the meaning of that data.

So Yankee-hating can’t be based on any particular things that the Yankees did or didn’t do, even though those things are ordinarily given as reasons when you ask a Yankee-hater why they hate the Yankees. What, then, produces and sustains Yankee-hating?

As a first stab at an explanation, consider the role that Yankee-hating plays in the identities of the fans of other teams — and in particular of the Yankees’ great rivals, the Red Sox. If one is a Red Sox fan, Yankee-hating is simply a part of the outfit that one dons when going to watch a game. Indeed, learning to be a Red Sox fan and learning to hate the Yankees are two sides of the same coin, especially since many of the greatest moments in Red Sox team history involve the Yankees in some way (usually the Yankees are the ones preventing the Red Sox from achieving their goal). Hating the Yankees, like commiserating about the spectacular run of bad luck that affected the Red Sox’s seasons from 1918 until last year, provides solidarity to fans, shores up their identities, and gives them a target for their frustration.

But where did this situation come from? How did Yankee-hating come to play such a role — and not just for Red Sox fans, but also for many other baseball fans, and in fact for many people who have little or no regard for baseball? Here’s where the causal logic gets a bit tricky, because I’d argue that some of the Yankees’ actions did play a role here. It just wasn’t the role that one might think if one simply regarded Yankee-hating as an empirical proposition.

A little history: before the 1920s, organized baseball was a very different game than it is now. During this “dead ball era,” scoring was considerably rarer than it is today, and games were most often won and lost through base-running, base-stealing, and other elements of “small ball.” This was in part because of the composition of the baseballs used in games, in part because of the habit of using one ball for the entire game (so that as it became scuffed and scratched, and accordingly harder to hit because of the odd ways that such a ball would spin,it would not be taken out of play), in part because overhand pitching was outlawed, and in part because baseball strategy presumed low-scoring games and engaged in tactics designed to eke out runs however possible.

This all changed with Babe Ruth, who raised the home run to a central element of baseball play, thus altering strategies all along the line: with a runner on first and no one out, a sacrifice bunt that would move the runner to second at the cost of one out no longer made as much sense in most situations. Instead, the batter could swing for the fences, trying for a two-run home run. [The change in the rules about how the ball was handled — new balls were used during games with increasing regularity — also helped make this strategy possible.] The Yankees initiated this style of play in the 1920s, by signing other sluggers like Lou Gehrig and thus generating a ripple-effect through the whole of baseball: other teams had to sign sluggers of their own and modify their style of play.

Combine this strategic innovation with two other facts: the Yankees played in New York, media capital of the world, making their exploits readily accessible to baseball fans everywhere; and Jacob Ruppert, the team’s owner, determined early on that baseball was in fact a form of mass entertainment, and used his skills to market the Yankees widely‚Ķand sunk the profits from that marketing success into the acquisition of ever more talented players. What we have here is almost a perfect storm of causal mechanisms: a new strategy (widely derided by purists, especially those who were losing to the Yankees, as “ruining the game”), a savvy marketer, and a concatenation of information networks that virtually guaranteed that everyone would know who the Yankees and their star players were.

Is it any wonder that those teams who were crushed by this onslaught resented the fact? Is it any wonder that the fans of those teams, looking to cast some blame, seized on the Yankees themselves as the source of their frustrations? And is it any wonder that the sons (and daughters, although the world of sports fandom has traditionally been more of a male preserve) of those fans would grow up with “Yankee-hating” firmly ensconced as part of their identities as fans, and thus reproduce the interpretive practice at every opportunity?

The lesson here is that what the Yankees did in the past is causally responsible for the present practice of Yankee-hating, but not because present-day fans looked over the past century of baseball history and somehow came to a rational conclusion that the Yankees do, in fact, suck — for having ruined the game, for buying up all the great players, for acting in a grandiose and showy manner, etc. Instead, past Yankee actions contributed to an interpretive practice according to which virtually everything the Yankees do helps to cast them in a worse light.

The other lesson here is that if one wanted to root out Yankee-hating, changing current practice would not be enough. One would have to target the interpretive practice itself, and replace it with something less hostile. I suspect that this has lessons for the other form of Yankee-hating too — the kind of Yankee-hating that leads to terrorist attacks and similar expressions of discontent. But I don’t want to push the parallels too far.