Lee Smith, fair-weather Yankees fan
Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By LEE SMITH
The only real escape from the oppressive heat of a New York summer is a night in the open air under the lights at a big-league ballpark. That’s what my brothers and I thought, anyway, growing up as we did spending a dozen or more evenings every year at Yankee Stadium. We cut coupons from milk cartons that earned us free general admission seats, leaving our mother amazed at how much cereal we managed to eat from April to October. After a brutal day in the sun or cooped up in a Manhattan apartment, the three of us would hop on the 4 Train uptown, and by the time it rose from underground at 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx to reveal the big ballpark, we were breathing again.
We’d get there early enough to watch the opposing team take batting practice and, pressed close to their dugout, try to strike up conversations with the visiting ballplayers. The light-hitting Mario Mendoza is still a punch line for baseball writers, but I’ll always think kindly of the slick-fielding shortstop who took the time one night to explain to three high-school infielders how he’d made a certain play the day before.
We respected the opposing players, but of course it was the Yankees that we loved, enjoying their triumphs and suffering their defeats as though they were our own. We were so distraught the summer Thurman Munson died in a plane crash that our father was concerned our younger sister might think a close family member had passed away.
It wasn’t just the team that thrilled us but also the legend of the Yankees—from Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech in 1939 to the famous fight at the Copacabana nightclub in the summer of 1957, when Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Hank Bauer brawled with a bowling team. These events mattered intensely to the three of us, though they happened before we were born. Even as very young fans, we felt tied to the history of the Yankees. Call it Yankees chauvinism.
The central event of our summer was Old-Timers’ Day, when the Yankees would parade all their ancient and recent greats before a full stadium, the applause growing steadily until it reached its crescendo with the last player announced, the greatest living Yankee of them all. We’d never seen Joe DiMaggio play in his heyday, but our hearts still stirred when the Yankee Clipper walked out onto the field.
The sentimental force of Old-Timers’ Day came flooding back to me with this year’s game, which I watched on TV. When I saw Whitey Ford and his batterymate Yogi Berra take the field in a golfcart, all I could think of was the afternoon I drove around with Whitey.
It was the summer just after high school, and I was hired as a junior counselor at a baseball camp in Oakdale, Long Island—the Whitey Ford Baseball Camp. The job involved hitting pop-ups to 10-year-olds. We taught more advanced techniques as well—like bunting and running the bases, and how to take proper leads, and how to round the corners—but this was lost on most of our charges. Even getting the campers to keep their heads down to field ground balls was a challenge. “The dog catches a ground ball with his face, fellas,” one counselor explained. “Be a dog and stick your face in it!”
Another counselor and I were coming off the field one especially hot morning, dragging along equipment and lagging well behind the kids who were racing to the dining hall, when a van pulled up beside us. A familiar head of white hair leaned out the window and called us over. It was Whitey. He hadn’t been around much that summer—not that it mattered to the kids, who didn’t seem to be old-timer aficionados like my brothers and me. In any case, the Ford brand was meant to appeal to the fathers who paid the camp fees.
"If you guys are heading up to lunch,” said Whitey, “I’ll give you a ride.”
We were too nervous to make much conversation. That he was a Hall of Famer registered more significantly with us than the fact that he was also our boss. Whitey didn’t know what to say to us either, so he reached into the big cooler beside him for a couple beers and handed them to us. We hesitated, and Whitey smiled brightly. I think I saw the same mischief in his eyes that Mantle, Martin, and Bauer must have seen that night back in the summer of 1957 at the Copa. I considered myself the luckiest Yankees fan on the face of the earth.