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.
What is a surprise is how some people’s natural love for the underdog has warped into an automatic, blind, irrational hatred for those who have more power (overdogs). In the case of the New York Yankees, it manifests itself as “Yankee Derangement Syndrome.” When it comes to America—even with a new, swagger-free, more globally-minded President in the White House—America is still “the Great Satan” in the eyes of millions, and the focus of scorn, resentment and rage the world over.
I call this belief system “Underdogma,” which is the reflexive belief that those who have less power are good because they have less power, and that those who have more power are bad because they have more power. According to those who practice Underdogma, the underdog can do no wrong—even when he does wrong, and the overdog can do no right—even when he does right.
So how can the Yankees, and America, overcome such hatred? Let’s ask someone who overcame his hatred for the New York Yankees.
Last year, former special counsel to President Clinton and lifelong Yankee hater Lanny Davis went against his “family history,” against his “DNA,” and did what he said would make “grand-pa cry in Heaven.” He rooted for the Yankees.
“So it happened. A miracle. In the 2009 World Series, I became a Yankee Fan. May Dad forgive me,” wrote Lanny Davis last year.
What caused Lanny Davis to break the generational cycle of Underdogma? The first crack in his belief system came in the 1980s and early 1990s. As Mr. Davis wrote, “finally, there seemed to be some economic and social justice in the world. The Yankees didn’t win a World Series for 16 years—from 1979-1995.” But then the Yankees went back to their winning ways, which led Lanny Davis—via Underdogma—back to hating the Yankees. And then a “miracle” happened: he found himself rooting for the Yankees against the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 World Series. What finally tipped him over the edge? It was when the scales of power tipped against the Yankees.
“First, they [the Yankees] hadn’t won the Series for eight straight seasons—from 2001-2008 [championing of the underdog]. “Second, the Phillies had won the year before and they were described as the ‘favorites’ by a lot of sports writers” [scorn for the overdog].
Thanks to Mr. Davis—and the underdog Texas Rangers—the New York Yankees, and America, now have a blueprint for breaking the generational cycle of Underdogma. All the Yankees and America have to do is…lose.