When the underdog Texas Rangers eliminated the “Evil Empire” New York Yankees from the playoffs last week and dispatched them back to their smoldering Death Star, millions of people across America, and around the world, cheered.
Why is that?
There was a time, not too long ago, when America loved the Yankees, and the world loved America. And no Yankee was more loved than Babe Ruth, who personified the Yankees, and the America, of his day. “Babe Ruth’s big appetites for home runs, food, drink, women, and even life itself helped deliver the message that America was an up-and-coming power. We were young, strong, uninhibited, and had that can-do attitude that war-ravaged Europe sorely lacked,” wrote Kevin O’Connell and Josh Pahigian in their book Why I Hate the Yankees.
Fast-forward to today and the New York Yankees are viewed by many as too rich, too powerful, too arrogant, and what former President Clinton advisor Lanny Davis called “the epitome of the capitalist enemy within the world of baseball,”—much the same way America is viewed within the world of nations.
If it is true that, as America goes, so go the Yankees, then what has changed about America and the Yankees since the days of Babe Ruth?
In the 1920s, America was a rising power. So were the New York Yankees. Then the Yankees and America went on winning streaks.
When Babe Ruth first joined the Yankees, the team had never won the World Series. Since then, the Yankees have won the World Series twenty-seven times—far more than any other team and almost triple that of their nearest competitor.
The Yankees and America went from underdogs to superpowers. That is what changed since the days of Babe Ruth. “In other words, the Yankees are the United States. Those Americans puzzled by the ambivalence, to put it gently, with which U.S. leadership in the world is met might consider their own love-hate relationship with New York’s finest. The parallels run deep and true,” wrote Alex Massie in The Spectator after the Yankees won their twenty-seventh World Series championship last year.
For the past five years, I have conducted perhaps the most comprehensive study ever on our love-hate relationship with underdogs and overdogs. And I noticed a pattern. When people choose sides between the Yankees and the Rangers, America and other nations—or any contest between unequal powers—they tend to choose the side of the underdog. This is no surprise.