Yankee greats -- and not-so-greats -- pay final respects to Stadium
There are only 21 more regular season games left at Yankee Stadium and each is being treated like standing room only for a smash Broadway show -- it's the hottest ticket in town. That late summer game against Tampa Bay? It's going to cost you. Seats for the regular season finale are already going for more than a thousand bucks a pop.
On damp, overcast Saturday afternoon, the Yankees held the final Old-Timer's Day at the Stadium, bringing back a record 72 players, from A-List legends like Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson to D-Listers like Wayne Tolleson and Mickey Klutts. David Wells made his first Old Timer's appearance, so did Rickey Henderson and Don Baylor, and Willie Randolph returned and received a huge ovation. "It's good to be home," said Randolph.
It is a season of curtain calls at Yankee Stadium, a series of farewells, marked by the recent passing of former Yankee player and broadcaster, Bobby Murcer and highlighted by the opening ceremonies at the recent All Star Game where George Steinbrenner made what is likely to be his last Stadium appearance, Reggie Jackson followed Hank Aaron -- the only place in the world where that could even happen! -- and where Yogi Berra took the final bow.
Yogi, along with the more private Whitey Ford, is the last of the Hall of Fame old timers from baseball's golden age. Jerry Coleman, who still looks dapper in a uniform, the affable Moose Skowron, who said "I'm not doing no interviews," and five minutes later was holding court for a dozen reporters, and the reluctant Don Larson, were in attendance. But Yogi, like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, is an icon whose fame reaches beyond just New York. He's bigger than baseball. "Yogi is the most popular, beloved figure in American sports," said veteran sports writer Murray Chass.
"Baseball's most constant constant over the last sixty-some years has been Yogi Berra," writes Allen Barra in his forthcoming biography, Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee (Norton, 2009). "Like baseball itself, Yogi has never really been in fashion. Like baseball, he is too popular to be fashionable at all, and his life and achievement transcend fashion, pointing to something indelibly good in the American character."
But if Yogi is the last link to the iconic Yankees, Jackson, another Hall of Famer, is waiting in the wings. But the legends are only part of the event which is really about the tradition of winning.
"It's the Yankee lore," said Baylor. "It's what father's tell their kids."
"Unless you are a franchise with something to celebrate an old timer's day is a reminder of the team's ineptitude," historian Glenn Stout said recently. "What do you want to remember about decades of mediocrity?"
Still, the Yankees aren't the only team to hold the event. In 1921, the 1905 Giants played some other 1905 vets at a benefit for Christy Mathewson, who was dying of TB. Before that, the Red Sox staged old timer's days as well. "Guys who played in the 1870s," according to Stout. "Talk about old timers."
In the 1980s, Equitable Insurance sponsored old timer's days for every team in the majors, but the fad didn't last. When the insurance company pulled the financing, teams balked at paying to fly players in and put them up. That's never been a problem for the Yankees, who once held the event to boost attendance. "They treat their players' first class," says Chass.
"We see each other all the time, we do plenty of fantasy camps" said Oscar Gamble in the locker room before the game, motioning to former teammates Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa, Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles. "Steinbrenner keeps us working."