By Kelly R. Eisenhauer
Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium is something special. It’s a day that every fan of the Bronx Bombers looks forward to seeing.
With its origin dating back to July 4, 1939, the New York Yankees held their first un-official Old-Timers’ Day to honor their captain Lou Gehrig as he delivered baseball’s version of the Gettysburg Address. It was on this day that Gehrig spoke the words that still resonate today: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
Because of World War II, it wouldn’t be until 1947 that Old-Timers’ Day would become an annual event.
Long gone are the days of seeing Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio being the last two Yankees announced. Now, that honor goes to Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. Long gone are the days of Phil Rizzuto and Bobby Murcer announcing the game from the field in their Yankee pinstripes. Now John Sterling and Michael Kay do the introductions, and New York broadcasting legend Bob Wolff, who will turn 92 this September, does the play-by-play.
As a kid growing up in the 1960s, Old-Timers’ Day was the one day of the year that I could actually see the players whom my grandfather used to brag about. I actually remember seeing in person Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, Bill Dickey, Billy Martin, Elston Howard and others play in those two-to-three inning contests with Casey Stengel watching from the dugout. Now, with the exception of Whitey and Yogi, those players are gone and only their memories and numbers remain in Monument Park.
With a new stadium being built in 2009, it’s a different set-up. No longer are the players and their families crammed into small luxury rooms that were named after Yankee immortals like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Now, the luxury suite or Party City Suite, as it is called, is where family members and friends hang out to watch the game until they are met by the players after their day of fun.
Inside the air-conditioned suite, elaborately framed pictures of all the Yankee greats that include Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, Roger Maris, Thurman Munson, Goose Gossage, Tino Martinez, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and countless others, fill the room that’s adjacent to the playing field. Lavish food spreads, including peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack and unlimited “refreshments” are readily available for one and all.
Today’s Old Timers are mostly players who excelled in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even later. Players like Ron Guidry, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Bucky Dent, Roy White, Willie Randolph, Ron Blomberg, Pat Kelly, David Cone, Darryl Strawberry, Mickey Rivers and Lou Piniella are now fan favorites, as they were the players to bring back Yankee gold during the past few decades.
Oh, yes, there are a few remaining stars from the 1950s and 1960s who still make the trip annually. Players like Bobby Richardson, two-time veteran Jerry Coleman, Don Larsen, Luis Arroyo, Bob Turley, Ralph Terry and Mel Stottlemyre still enjoy coming home to the Bronx. These are the players for whom I have a soft spot in my Yankee heart.
As for me, I have been very fortunate. Being an invited guest of my good friend Dr. Bruce Alpert of Memphis, Tenn., whose friendship with Corinne and Don Larsen and the late Johnny Blanchard, has made me privy to tag along on the “A-List” of invitees for the past 15 years. During this time, I have had a chance to hobnob with the rich and famous, so to speak. I have shaken hands and talked with Yogi and Whitey. I even talked with the late Bobby Murcer a few years back about the time he set up and had a table selling baseball cards at a show in New Jersey.
Jerry Coleman is always nice. When I asked him how his flight was from San Diego, he told me in jest that I just ruined his day because he was not looking forward to his return flight home. I even engaged in conversations with Diana Munson, wife of Yankee legend Thurman Munson; Kay Murcer, wife of Yankee outfielder and broadcaster Bobby Murcer; Jill Martin, wife of Billy Martin; and Helen Hunter, wife of “Catfish” Hunter. They were all to happy to add their signatures to my collection of famous Yankee wives.
Of all the Old Timers, two in particular stand out as this Yankee fan’s favorites. First, Bobby Richardson, whom I consider to be one of the nicest professional athletes that I have ever met. He is always the perfect gentlemen and always willing to talk and sign. My other favorite, whom I met for the first time last year and then again this year, is Joe Torre. Torre didn’t let me down. He signed four items for me and socialized for nearly a hour.
Getting autographs on this special day is never a problem. Most of the Old Timers are all too eager to sign their names and talk about old times. Since autograph requests are being made by family members and friends, most will sign all day long.
The past 15 years have been a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of great people, gotten a lot of autographs and have a lifetime of Yankee memories that would have made my grandfather proud.
Kelly Eisenhauer is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.