Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 21, 2018

Saluting The Oldest, And Cheering The Newest, At Old Timer’s Day

The summer solstice was still a few days off last Sunday, but that didn’t stop a bright June sun from doing its best August imitation as it beat down on Yankee Stadium. Although it was not yet noon, the thermometer was pushing towards ninety as fans found their way into the three tiers of seats. A good portion of what would eventually be a crowd of more than 46,000 arrived well in advance of the scheduled 2:05 start time for the contest with the Tampa Bay Rays, because this was the one day on the season’s calendar when the pregame ceremonies were as much of a draw as the game itself. For the 72nd time the Yankees were celebrating Old Timer’s Day.

The first such event, held on the final day of the 1947 regular season, was conceived by Larry McPhail, the team’s general manager and part-owner at the time, not with the intent of initiating a lasting tradition but rather as a fund-raiser for the Babe Ruth Foundation. The greatest Yankee and most famous ballplayer ever, by then terminally ill, had established the self-named charity earlier that year for the purpose of aiding underprivileged children.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978, McPhail served in executive roles with seven professional teams, including the Reds, Dodgers, and Yankees at the major league level. He hired Red Barber to do radio play-by-play in Cincinnati and later brought him along to Brooklyn. McPhail brought the national pastime into a new age by introducing night games, the televising of games, and making road trips by air rather than train or bus. Three generations of his descendants have served as baseball executives.

But his career in the front offices of the Great Game ended just days after more than forty retired players from throughout the American League gathered at the old Stadium for that first Old Timer’s Day. Described by his grandson Andy, currently the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, as “a genius when sober, brilliant when he had one drink, and a raving lunatic when he had too many,” McPhail got into ugly confrontations with both players and his fellow executives at celebrations of the Yankees’ World Series triumph over the Dodgers. He had already quit as general manager during a scene in New York’s locker room immediately after the deciding Game 7, and co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb quickly decided to buy out McPhail’s ownership share as well.

Yet the good feelings generated by the gathering of former players barely more than one week earlier was still fresh, and so while McPhail was done with the Yankees, his final innovation became an annual event for the Gotham franchise, reprised every season down through the decades, into a new century, and across 161st Street to a new Stadium. On Sunday the festivities began with a newer tradition, the recorded basso profondo voice of the late public-address announcer Bob Sheppard echoing through the stands, greeting one and all in that familiar stately cadence, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Old Timer’s Day.” It was the signal for those not in their seats to hasten to them, and for the first of many cheers to roll down onto the field.

The program started with the introduction of four widows of Yankee legends – Jill Martin, Helen Hunter, Diana Munson, and Kay Murcer. The late Billy Martin managed battery mates Catfish Hunter and Thurman Munson to a championship in 1977 and had them on their way to another the following year when George Steinbrenner’s managerial revolving door cast Martin out for the first time. He was back in 1979 when Murcer rejoined his original team for the final years of his playing career, and it was Murcer who eulogized Munson after the Yankee captain was killed in a plane crash in August of that year. Their widows return every year, a poignant reminder of four Yankees taken too soon, either by accident or disease.

Next came the retired players, and they ran the gamut from those who played bit parts on teams that were second-rate, to Hall of Famers with multiple World Series rings. But on this day, each was greeted warmly by the fans as he made his way from the first base dugout to the rows of white chairs set up on the infield along the base paths from first to third. The younger ones jogged out to their assigned seats while those with white hair and a jersey a few sizes larger than in their playing days moved more slowly.

The loudest ovations of all were for the three oldest former Yankees. First there was Dr. Bobby Brown, the last surviving member of the 1947 championship squad. Not just for the Yankees but in all the Great Game, no one remains from an earlier World Series winning team. Brown played third base and won four titles in all, batting .417 in seventeen World Series games. He went on to become a cardiologist and eventually president of the American League for ten years. The 93-year-old climbed the dugout stairs and walked unassisted to his seat as every fan stood applauding in front of theirs. Brown was followed by 88-year-old Don Larsen, still the owner of the only perfect game in World Series history, more than six decades after he hurled it on October 8, 1956. Larsen used a walker, but he too made his way onto the field to the roars of the crowd. Finally came the Chairman of the Board, as he was known during his sixteen-year playing career, 89-year-old Edward Charles Ford. Whitey is frail now. He was assisted to the top of the dugout steps but went no further as fans showered their love and respect down on the diminutive lefty. More than half a century after his last pitch, Ford still hold team career records for wins (236) and shutouts (45) as well as games started, and innings pitched.

A highlight of this Old Timer’s Day was the presence of several first-time participants. Aaron Boone, now the New York manager, was there of course. But so was Jason Giambi, and left-hander Andy Pettitte, and the irrepressible Nick Swisher. When the ceremonies concluded, and the players began the usual three inning exhibition game, Pettitte took the mound. With his cap pulled low and glove in front of his face, he stared in for the sign and even from the third deck one could almost see that famous Pettitte glare that unnerved hitters. He recorded 2,020 strikeouts while in pinstripes, and his nineteen postseason wins are the most in the Great Game. Three of those clinched each round of the playoffs in the Yankees last championship season.

Pettitte even took a couple of turns at the plate, something he did only 56 times during his fifteen years in the Bronx. While Pettitte did line a single to center, the day’s hero in the batter’s box was Swisher, who only ended his career before the start of last season. In his second time up, he drilled a Jeff Nelson pitch into the second deck in right field and the roaring crowd came to its feet as Swisher circled the bases, grinning from ear to ear.

The exhibition concluded, and another Old Timer’s Day was over. The grounds crew got busy making the field ready for the real game against Tampa Bay. In that contest, reserve infielder Neil Walker started at first base, and veteran left-hander CC Sabathia took the mound. They were the only two players in New York’s starting lineup over the age of 30. Most members of the 2018 Yankees are many years away from their first participation in Old Timer’s Day. On this summery Sunday, those young Yankees were reminded of the pinstriped legacy that is now their job to carry forward.

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