As they play the final game at Yankee Stadium today, my mind drifts back to my boyhood. Yankee Stadium is where I saw my first major league baseball game. I don’t remember what the visiting team was, but I remember the thrill of going with my father.
We sat in the right field bleachers (admission: one buck), near a guy who kept shouting, “Hey, Pepitone, cut your hair!” Joe Pepitone was the Yankee outfielder whose hair covered his ears, the first in the majors to ask for an electrical outlet in his locker so he could plug in his hair dryer. And whenever Joe trotted out to his spot on the outfield grass to start an inning, this fan started in on him.
My father — who had grown up in The Bronx, not far from the ballpark’s home on The Grand Councourse, yet somehow managed to be a lifelong non-sports-fan — couldn’t have cared less about Pepitone or his hair. He was enjoying sharing a day in the sunshine with me, his seven-year-old son who was crazy for the game. I couldn’t have been happier sitting there with him by my side, my glove on my left hand always at the ready just in case a home run came our way, a small pencil in my right hand to record every at-bat in the ten-cent scorecard on my lap.
Dad took me back to the ballpark many times over the next few summers, and when my brother was old enough, he came along, too. Sometimes we’d check the schedule and talk him into taking us to a doubleheader, which I later learned my mother referred to as Her Day Of Freedom.
The drive was at least an hour each way, up and over the Throgs Neck Bridge, off at the Jerome Avenue exit, and onto the streets Dad knew so well. We couldn’t afford to pay for a space in a parking lot, so he’d prowl the streets for a free one. Those were never close to The Stadium, but you don’t mind walking ten blocks when you’re going to a baseball game with your father.
Yankee Stadium was also where I saw my first NFL game in person. Dad took me to see the NY Giants (who played there for decades before moving to their own home in the Meadowlands) play the Dallas Cowboys. Once again, we got the cheapest seats in the house, the obscured-view seats way up in the third deck, with a support pole right in our field of vision. It didn’t matter. I brought the plastic binoculars I’d bought for 50¢ at Adelstein’s. I watched the entire game through them and told my father everything I observed, almost like his personal play-by-play man.
It was odd seeing football in a baseball stadium. The infield dirt was still there, but now with the yard lines across it. The monuments to past Yankees greats which stood in such prominence in centerfield (they were actually in the field of play in those days) now were an afterthought behind the Giants sidelines. The dimensions seemed wrong, but the smell was the same. I think it was Robert Klein who described his first visit to the ballpark as a child: “One whiff and you knew there was something important happening here — or a rodeo.”
Fast-forward two decades to 1985. I was doing mornings at WYNY/New York, and one of my listeners, the Yankees director of media relations, called to invite me to a game. My friend Steve Morris was in town, so we took the subway up to the stadium that afternoon, where she had set aside box seats for us, mere rows behind the home team’s dugout. Pretty impressive. Again, I have no memory of who the other team might have been, but there was a moment in the middle of the game that I’ll never forget.
It was between innings, and Steve and I were talking about something or other. In those days, you could have a conversation with someone at the ballpark, because there were actually times when nothing was going on. Now, when you go to any pro sports event, you’re not given ten seconds of peace, what with the promotional announcements, the t-shirts being fired into the crowd, the animated cap race on the video screen, the bloopers video, the blaring music, and on and on.
At the moment, the only sound other than conversations in the crowd was the organ music of Eddie Layton. Steve was on my left and suddenly exclaimed, “Holy Crap!!” I looked up to see what he was looking at and followed his gaze to the huge scoreboard in centerfield. There, in letters ten feet tall, were the words, “The Yankees Welcome Paul Harris of 97 WYNY.” As I read them, so did Bob Sheppard, The Voice Of Yankee Stadium.
I gulped. I couldn’t say a word. I stared at Steve and he nodded his head to indicate that he understood the significance of this moment.
Here I was, just 20 years removed from that very first visit to the most storied ballpark in the country, and my name was now not only on the scoreboard, but echoing off the facade with that baritone voice that had introduced Mantle, Maris, Mattingly, and the rest.
The moment lasted all of ten seconds, before the message on the scoreboard changed and Bob Sheppard announced, “and we’re also happy to welcome the Cub Scouts from Secaucus, New Jersey, to Yankee Stadium.”
My affinity for the Yankees waned as I grew older, became more interested in other things, and eventually moved away from New York. I haven’t been back to The Stadium, but I have been to other ballparks around the country and, of course, here in St. Louis. I’m sure each town’s residents have their own connections to those places, but it’s the memories of those childhood adventures that stick with me.
I bet the same is true for those kids from Secaucus.