Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 18, 2010

The Past Lives Again For An Afternoon

It is a stifling hot summer weekend in the City, but as I walk through Midtown to catch the 4 Train north there is no place I would rather be. Twenty minutes later the express rumbles up from below ground, coming to a stop at the 161st Street Station. It’s a special Saturday at Yankee Stadium; for today is the annual Old-Timer’s Day.

The celebration of a storied past is a part of every sport. The expression “frozen tundra,” while commonly used to describe the gridiron in winter, specifically recalls the 1967 NFL Championship Game, played at Lambeau Field in Green Bay at a temperature of 13 below zero. Football fans everywhere can recall Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak with 16 seconds to play that propelled the Packers to victory over the Cowboys.

Just this past winter in Boston, a statue of Bobby Orr was dedicated outside of the TD Garden. The statue shows Orr in mid-flight, just after scoring “The Goal” to defeat St. Louis and win the 1970 Stanley Cup. Every Bruins fan knows exactly which goal of the thousands scored in the franchise’s history is “The Goal.”

The recently concluded NBA Finals were a living evocation of the past. Every game between the Celtics and Lakers brought with it memories of previous battles in the rivalry, from the days of Bill Russell and Jerry West, to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

Other sports pay homage to the past as well. Horse racing’s Belmont Stakes is never run each June without one more viewing of the black and white film of Secretariat’s historic race.

But for all that the Great Game remains the one sport to which the past is most integral. It is the great American constant, played out over the longest season in essentially the same fashion, often on the same fields, for generations. It has individual records that can stand literally for a lifetime, making their breaking all the more historic. Because it has been played for so long every franchise, even those that now seem perennial cellar-dwellers, can recall moments of past glory. Even Pittsburgh has Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell. Sadly though, only the Yankees have an annual Old-Timer’s Day. Other teams should think about changing that; if not on an annual basis, at least every so often.

This day is the 64th such event, played intermittently from the late 1930’s, and a regular feature of the annual schedule for the past generation or so. Special tribute will be paid today to the 1950 team, celebrating the 60th anniversary of their World Series triumph over the Philadelphia Phillies. Before the official ceremonies begin, the giant screen in centerfield displays grainy footage of the highlights of that four game match. There is old Shibe Park in Philly, and the original Stadium across the street from where we are today. Both of the old cathedrals are but memories now. There are the fans from another era, indeed dressed as if attending church. There are Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty pitching for the Phillies, while Allie Reynolds, Eddie Lopat and a youthful rookie named Whitey Ford take the mound for the Yankees. There’s Del Ennis being robbed of extra bases in Game 2 by an over the shoulder catch in deep center by Joe DiMaggio. And there is DiMaggio winning that game with a homer in the tenth. There’s Yogi Berra’s three-run homer in Game 4 putting the Yankees on top 5-0, and finally there’s Reynolds coming out of the bullpen in relief of Ford to strike out Stan Lopata to end the game and the Series. Seven surviving members of that 1950 team will be the last old-timers introduced today. Wearing throw-back uniforms, they will shuffle slowly out to stand behind home plate and receive one more time, perhaps one last time, the adulation of the Yankee faithful.

Before that moment comes, the ceremonies will feature the introduction of the nearly 40 other old-timer’s on hand. Each is given their just due with a recollection of their greatest moments in pinstripes. It is a reminder that this game is reliant on more than just superstars. On another day the name Charlie Hays might not mean a lot. But on this day, as the big screen shows video of the third baseman, a late inning defensive substitution, clutching a pop-up in foul ground for the final out of the 1996 World Series and then leaping into the air with joy, everyone remembers Charlie Hays and everyone cheers.

One by one they come out of the dugout to line the first and third base line. The not so famous like Hays. The better known like Oscar Gamble, Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers, Roy White, Graig Nettles, and Bucky Dent. And of course the instantly recognizable, the aging to ancient heroes like Don Larsen, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, and of course Ford. As each comes forth, the big screen shows video of them today next to a photo from their playing days. This prompts some obvious amusement, none more so than when the now bald Gamble is introduced, and his image is juxtaposed with the old photo showing his wild Afro ballooning out of both sides of his cap.

When the 1950 team is introduced, one surviving member is unexpectedly absent. Yogi Berra, the most beloved old-timer of all, took a fall at his home the previous evening, and cannot attend. A palpable shudder runs through the crowd at this announcement. Thoughts of mortality, always part of Old-Timer’s Day, are especially present this year. Friday night’s game was preceded by a video tribute to George Steinbrenner. Today’s ceremonies include a similar tribute to departed announcer Bob Sheppard. The last introductions of all are of the widows of departed Yankees Elston Howard, Catfish Hunter, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, Billy Martin, and finally Sheppard. Yet while sad, it is not maudlin. Rather thoughts are of the exploits of each of these men, and of their living compatriots on the field. Happy memories of bygone summers and Octobers past are what Old-Timer’s Day is all about.

Finally those who want to are invited to play the game once more. It’s a quick two inning affair. There are pratfalls and laughs of course. But there also surprisingly sharp line drives and running catches in the outfield and a brisk infield play or two as old muscles recall their youth. One group of old Yankees defeats the other 3-2, as Ron Guidry records yet another “win” in pinstripes.

I suppose that Yankee haters look upon the whole affair as an exercise in narcissism. To the extent that is true, they sadly miss the point. This day is not about self-congratulation. That came most recently last November, with a parade up the Canyon of Heroes. Rather this day is about the constancy and permanence of this Game, and about respect for those who have come before. I see it in the adulation that the fans bestow on their returning heroes. But I see it most tellingly in the current players. My usual seat is above and behind the Yankee dugout. But today I am on the other side of the field, and from here I can peer directly into the home bench. Throughout the introductions and the exhibition contest it is populated not just by the old-timers, but by any number of current Yankees. There sit Jeter, Swisher, Petttite, Teixeira and others as well; talking to their predecessors, hearing the old stories and paying their respects. These current Yankees are less than an hour away from a deadly serious contest against their closest division pursuer. But they understand that it is always worth taking the time, and perhaps especially so in the heat of battle, to honor the past and to learn from it.

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Responses

  1. Nice, well-written piece. Love your writing style. I’m not a Yankee fan, but of course I have to acknowledge and respect their proud legacy. After all, baseball began in the Greater New York area. Great work, Bill


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