The emperor-to-be and me

April 30, 2019

Akihito 1

Crown Prince Akihito tries on a Yankee cap for Casey Stengel and the future Empress Michiko/Associated Press

Considering the amount of time we spent at Yankee Stadium during my youth and adolescence, it was inevitable that we would see some familiar faces. These included Jimmy Powers, John Wayne, Sidney Poitier, and Faye Emerson. We also saw a face that was unfamiliar to us but not to a lot of other people who were in the ballpark that day—Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, who was sitting just to the left of the Yankee dugout with his wife, the former Michiko Shōda.

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Crown Prince Akihito throws out the first ball on October 2, 1960. My dad and I are clearly visible in the background./Getty Images

It was October 2, 1960, the last day of that season, and the prince got the proceedings under way by throwing out the first ball. He must have felt right at home; baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872, and it’s still one of the most popular sports for both spectators and participants. Akihito himself played some baseball, although I think he spent more time playing tennis.

Hirihito was still emperor of Japan in 1960, and his oldest son had been invited to the United States by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once had had a different kind of relationship with the royal family. We were sitting a couple of dozen rows behind Akihito and throughout the game we watched a steady stream of Japanese people slip down to pay their respects to him.

Dale Long

DALE LONG

To these spectators, the news of the day was of secondary importance: The Yankees won their 15th game in a row when Yankee first baseman Dale Long hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 8-7.

How much Akihito knew about Dale Long I am not aware, but there was a lot worth knowing. Long was in the eighth of his ten major-league seasons when he hit that home run, and the Yankees rewarded him by shipping him to the Washington Senators. He came back to the Yankees for 55 more games in his last two seasons, 1962 and 1963.

Jiggs Donahue

JIGGS DONAHUE

In 1956, Long set a major-league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games. That record has been matched twice, but never surpassed. In 1959, he tied another record by hitting back-to-back pinch-hit home runs. Although he was a career first baseman, in two games with the Chicago Cubs in 1958, he became the first catcher to throw left-handed since Jiggs Donahue who was a catcher and first baseman for several teams between 1900 and 1909.

I was 18 years old in 1960, and I’m sure I didn’t give much thought to Akihito, who became emperor and now has abdicated in favor of his son, beyond the fact that the folks who were trying to get up close to him kept standing in front of our box and blocking our view.

Margrethe II

QUEEN MARGRETHE II

Since then, I have wondered about modern states that still have monarchies. I raised the question once while I was having lunch with a chemist in Denmark. Why does one of the more advanced societies in the world still have a monarch? Apparently no one had asked him that before. He kind of sputtered around for a while until, referring to Margrethe II, he said, “Well, she is Denmark, isn’t she?” And then, since I had got him to thinking about the issue, he said that we Americans only delude ourselves that we don’t have royalty. We simply invest the same respect and adulation in the president and first lady and in other public figures. Fair enough.

Many years ago, I watched a game from the press box at Yankee Stadium, and the reporters were informally playing baseball trivia, trying to stump each other with questions about guys like Jiggs Donahue. There was a man standing behind the press box seats, and he was kibitzing in this contest. At one point, the reporter sitting next to me asked me, “Do you know who this is? It’s Dale Long!” It wasn’t Ted Williams or Stan Musial, but it didn’t matter. It was Dale Long, and he had played major-league baseball—major-league baseball!—something a relative handful of American men could say over the previous century and a half.

Royalty comes in many forms, and Dale Long was more than good enough for me.

 

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Pete Sheehy in the clubhouse of the real Yankee Stadium

I don’t think many journalists ever interviewed Pete Sheehy, but I was among the few who did. Pete, who was the clubhouse man at Yankee Stadium for about seven decades, didn’t like to talk, and I suppose that accounts for the fact that he made only rare appearances in print. I arranged an interview through a mutual friend, and I wasn’t with Pete for very long before I realized what a challenge I had taken on. In fact, Pete was forthright about it — in his way. He told me that he figured he had kept his job for so long, being in the confidence of members of the Yankees and, for a time, the football New York Giants, because he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Whatever he knew about Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle, he kept it to himself.

So I asked Pete if it were possible that a man who had had such intimate contact with the Yankees of the ‘twenties to the ‘eighties could have a favorite. This was how Pete answered: “Joe.”

He didn’t have to say any more. “Joe” meant DiMaggio, and his choice didn’t surprise me. My father had been a Yankee fan since the Ruth era, too, and although I never asked him, I am confident that he would have said “Joe” too — despite a reverence for Lou Gehrig.

DiMaggio had an outstanding career. He was among the very best hitters, baserunners, and outfielders of his time or any time. Not the very best, necessarily, but one of the best. As Kostya Kennedy mentions in his book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a poll taken in 1969 named DiMaggio the “greatest living baseball player.” DiMaggio believed it; he was that kind of a guy. But there were skeptics who noted, for instance, that Ted Williams, DiMaggio’s contemporary, outstripped the Yankee in every major hitting category and had a longer career, despite combat duty tours in two wars.

If there is an inequity in the way DiMaggio is regarded, it may be attributed at least in part to the fact that he played for the New York Yankees while they were the preeminent team in baseball if not in sports in general. DiMaggio appeared in 10 World Series in his 13 years in the majors.

But the primary reason for the aura around Joe DiMaggio may be the record he set 60 years ago this season — the record that was the occasion for Kennedy’s book. In the 1941 campaign, DiMaggio got a base hit in 56 consecutive games.

To put that record in context, Kennedy points out that more than 17,000 men have played Major League baseball, and only DiMaggio has achieved it. The only others to come close were Willie Keeler, who hit in 44 straight games in 1897 in the dead-ball era, and Pete Rose, who hit in 44 in 1978. (Keeler’s streak began on the first day of the ’97 season, so the hit he got in the last game in ’96 puts his official record at 45.)

The subtitle of Kennedy’s book refers to the fact that while DiMaggio’s record once formed a holy trinity with Babe Ruth’s single-season and lifetime home run records, Ruth’s marks have been exceeded several times and in some cases under questionable circumstances. DiMaggio’s 56 is the only individual record of its kind still standing.

Kennedy describes in his very literate book the atmosphere in which the streak occurred. It captured the attention of the whole country — and even folks in some other countries. DiMaggio’s sizable family, people who were tight with him, baseball fans, and people who didn’t know anything else about him or the game were all caught up in his day-day-progress. Everywhere, Kennedy writes, people stopped to ask each other: “Did he get a hit today?”

And, as Kennedy artfully shows, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 1941, there was something far more ponderous on people’s minds — the increasing aggression of Nazi Germany. The idea that the United States could stay out of the war seemed more and more like wishful thinking as American plants turned out material to assist the European allies and as more and more American men were drafted into military service. DiMaggio’s streak was a fortuitous respite in such an atmosphere — the counterpart, in a way, to Susan Boyle’s triumph on Britain’s Got Talent in the midst of worldwide recession and seemingly pointless wars.

The streak served another purpose, too. It was something for Italian-Americans to cling with pride as they — thanks to Benito Mussolini  — came under the same kind of suspicion that was being directed at Americans of Japanese and German background. Even at that, DiMaggio’s own father, Giuseppe, who had made his living as a commercial fisherman, was placed under wartime restrictions that kept him from approaching San Francisco Bay.

In telling this story, Kennedy carefully constructs a portrait of DiMaggio that isn’t at all endearing. DiMaggio was a cold fish. He was known from his youth for his spells of  silence. Kennedy writes a lot about DiMaggio’s relationship with his first wife, movie actress Dorothy Arnold, and that isn’t a happy tale. DiMaggio — in spite of the girls he invited to his hotel rooms — missed Dorothy when he was on the road. But when he was home, he stifled her, resented her, and often subjected her to his emotional and sometimes his physical absence.

This book is peppered with the interesting characters who played large and small parts in DiMaggio’s life — his relatives, including his major league brothers, Don and Vince; his somewhat “connected” Italian-American friends in Newark; his fans — not the least of whom were the boys Mario Cuomo and Gay Talese; and, of course, his fellow ballplayers: Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, and DiMaggio’s wacky road-trip roommate, Lefty Gomez.

On the field, DiMaggio appeared impassive as the streak progressed. If a pitcher had boasted that he would stop DiMaggio, and DiMaggio got a hit off him, there would be none of the fist pumping that cheapens the game today. Inside, however, Kennedy writes, DiMaggio’s stomach was often in knots. And, of course, if he didn’t have to talk about the streak, he didn’t:

”  ‘You nervous about the streak?’ a reporter would call out and it would be Lefty who would turn and reply, ‘Joe? Nah, he’s fine. Me? I threw up my breakfast.’ “

“Jumpin” Joe Dugan, who spent a few seasons as Babe Ruth’s teammate, had this to say: “To understand him, you have to understand this. He wasn’t human.”

I get that. Ruth may not have had it all — he wasn’t much of a base stealer — but he had more of it than anyone else. There’s no point in arguing about it. I love Aaron, Mays, Banks, and Mantle as much as the next fellow, but none of them went 94-46 with a 2.16 ERA before becoming one of the best hitters in history  and a fine outfielder to boot. In addition to that, his bombastic personality and his enormous charity revitalized a flagging game in a way that no one else could have done, making his name familiar to people around the globe — down to our own time — no matter how much or how little they know about baseball.

I get that. John McGraw didn’t get that. McGraw was the manager and a part owner of the New York Giants, and he was by reputation one of the best skippers ever. He believed in “scientific baseball,” which was the only way to play the game successfully in the dead-ball era. McGraw was all about place-hitting, bunting, stealing, studying your opponents and taking advantage of their weaknesses.

McGraw was not about the long ball — especially not the home run — which was coming into vogue at the beginning of the 1920s. As Robert Weintraub explains in this lively and entertaining book, Babe Ruth – the first home run hitter par excellence  – represented to McGraw the ruin of the game. McGraw, by Weintraub’s account, despised Ruth, called him a “baboon” and a “bum,” and predicted that he would hit into a hundred double plays a year.

Weintraub’s book covers the 1923 season, the Yankees’ first season in the original Yankee Stadium – not the knockoff they play in now. The team first appeared in the city when three New York guys bought the minor league Baltimore Orioles franchise and moved it north in 1903. The Highlanders, as they were known for most of the first decade, played in Hilltop Park — the present site of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center — until 1913, when they moved into the Polo Grounds as tenants of the Giants. At the point at which Weintraub picks up the story, McGraw was fed up with the Yankees in general and Ruth in particular.

McGraw, as Weintraub recounts, was accustomed to being the toast of the town, and he became increasingly agitated as the Yankees gained in popularity. By 1921, he engineered the Giants management’s decision to tell the Yankees to move out of the Polo Grounds. This, it turned out, was a serious error, because it spurred Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston — whom McGraw had inspired to buy the Yankees — to build Yankee Stadium just across the Harlem River.

McGraw had a brief period of satisfaction left to him, because the Giants and Yankees won their respective pennants in 1921 and 1922, so that the whole World Series was played in the Polo Grounds, where Giants pitching made a monkey of Ruth. After the ’22 affair, there was widespread talk that the Babe was through.

In the ’23 season, though, Ruth — seriously chastened by his failures — made at least a show of curbing his appetites — sexual and otherwise — and he tore the league apart, winning the Most Valuable Player award. The rest of the Yankees, led by their dour little manager, Miller Huggins, had an outstanding year, and the momentum carried them to a World Series win that finally took the wind out of McGraw. McGraw was so bitter that he made the Giants dress at the Polo Grounds for the away games and cab it over to Yankee Stadium. The manager himself walked across the Macombs Dam Bridge.

The only bright spot for McGraw in that ’23 series was his reserve outfielder, “Casey” Stengel, who hit two game-winning home runs, one of them inside the park. During the off season, McGraw traded the aging Stengel to the Braves. “It’s a good thing I didn’t hit three home runs,” Casey said. “McGraw might have sent me out of the country.”

This is a colorful book, loaded with the characters of the ’20s – Warren G. Harding, Charles Chaplin, Damon Runyon, Fanny Brice. And, of course, all those ballplayers – Frankie Frisch, Bob and “Irish” Meusel, Everett “Iron Man” Scott, George “Highpockets” Kelly.

The real heart of this book, though, is found in the stories of McGraw and Ruth, two low-born, hard drinking, brawlers who clawed their way to the top where their lives intersected at a pivotal time in baseball in general and in New York baseball in particular.

The land of the free

April 3, 2009

yankee20stadiumI realized this morning while I was shaving that when I first visited Yankee Stadium, it was not yet 30 years old. (Shaving is like hitting, Yogi: It’ s better not to think while you’re doing it.) Anyway, that calculation got me to thinking about the new “Yankee Stadium” – as though there could be such a thing – and I got angry all over again about Macombs Dam Park, a wonderful, expansive facility that was destroyed so that the Yankees could build a stadium better suited to fleecing high rollers. The park is supposed to be replaced – at an enormous expense to taxpayers, most of whom will not benefit at all from either the new stadium or the so-called replacement parks. And no matter what the city does, when it gets around to it, it will never really replace Macombs Dam Park, which was a jewel in the midst of a hard-knocks, congested neighborhood. If the Yankees and the city wanted to tell the people of the South Bronx once and for all, “You don’t matter,” this was the way to do it.