As a lifelong Red Sox fan who actually thought about naming his oldest daughter "Yaz," it pains me to no end that one of my fondest memories in life involves an encounter at Yankee Stadium with Joe DiMaggio and George Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday morning at the age of 80.
It was 1986, and I was working a summer job as a sportswriter for a small paper in Northeastern Connecticut. After watching Roy Hobbs' poor display of baseball fundamentals at the end of the movie "The Natural,"--in which Roy, standing in a field of wheat with the sun setting behind him, casually catches a ball tossed by his young son with one hand (ONE HAND!!!!!)--I set out to write a story on the question, "Whatever happened to the two-handed catch in baseball?" (Every Little Leaguer who came of age before the 1980s knows exactly what I mean).
At the time, Rickey Henderson was the Yankees centerfielder, known almost as much for his one-handed "swat catch" as he was for the stolen bases and lead-off home runs that eventually landed him in the Hall of Fame. With the okay of a benevolent editor (thanks, Jay Spiegel, wherever you are), I set out to interview Henderson before a Yankees-White Sox game on Saturday, August 19th.
As it turns out, August 19th was Yankees Old-Timers' Day. And it wasn't just any old-timers' day: it was the 25th reunion of the fabled '61 Yankees, matched up against other All-Stars from the era. The game was dedicated to Roger Maris, who had died the previous December. And everybody was there, in uniform: DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto, Clete Boyer. (The only living Yankee great not there was Yogi Berra, who was just one year into his self-imposed 14 year absence from Yankee Stadium after being fired as manager in the spring of 1985).
Before the game, I wandered the field as any wide-eyed 19 year-old baseball fanatic would--standing at one point for 15 minutes in centerfield, imaging all the greats who had stood in that spot--before approaching players to ask, "Is the two-handed catch better than one?" Bobby Murcer took me out to left field to demonstrate how two hands allowed a quicker transition from glove to hand to throw. Martin took me to second base, running through a dozen scenarios why two hands helped take one or two steps away from a runner. Moose Skowron did the same at first base.
Even though he was seated next to Whitey Ford on the Yankees bench, Mickey Mantle gave the best, simplest answer about why the one-handed catch was en vogue, saying, "the bigger gloves definitely had a lot to do with it," explaining that in the 1940s and 50s, before baseball gloves had real webs to speak of, it was simply too hard to control a ball with one hand.
DiMaggio was honored before the game (a few days later, a story made the rounds that the Yankee clubhouse manager had placed DiMaggio's uniform in Don Mattingly's locker before the game on Friday night, and Mattingly had homered. On Old Timers' Day, DiMaggio dressed at Mattingly's locker, and Mattingly went for 3-for-4. The next day, the uniform was gone, and Mattingly went 0-for-3. He then hung a picture of DiMaggio in his locker, and homered into the upper deck in his next at-bat.)
The teams played to a 2-2 tie, all under the delighted eyes of Steinbrenner, watching from the owner's box. After the game, he made it down to the locker room to thank the players for coming, when he was greeted by DiMaggio.
Steinbrenner, whose father idolized DiMaggio and took him to Cleveland to watch Indians games, particularly when the Yankees came around, took one look at the graceful legend and said, "Joe, thanks for showing everybody what it means to be a Yankee."
DiMaggio took one look back at the then-56 year old Steinbrenner, who had taken over an aging and diminished Yankees franchise in 1973 and restored it to glory, eventually winning seven World Series titles, and said, "No, George--thank you for reminding everybody what it means to be a Yankee."
I never got the quote I was seeking from Rickey Henderson ("Rickey doesn't want to talk about that," I recall him saying). But my last memory of that day is looking into the owner's box during the actual game, where DiMaggio was seated next to Steinbrenner, who combatively waived his arms during the game, as the Yankees went on to lose to the White Sox, 8-3.
Two years ago, I brought my parents to the very last Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, before the team moved across the street to its new stadium. (My mom, who, like my dad, is a huge Yankees fan, made me promise not to wear my Red Sox hat to the game--"for safety," she said). Seventy-two former Yankees greats (and not-so-greats) flooded the field that day, including Rickey Henderson, who would go on to steal a base in his first Old Timers' Day game. Steinbrenner was too ill to make it.
After Whitey and Yogi (now back) were introduced to thunderous applause, my father--who can recount with astonishing accuracy nearly every game Mickey Mantle ever played, who refuses to concede that a single thing about baseball today is better than baseball in the 1950s--reviewed the men gathered on the field and said, "There's one more person who should be on that field--the Boss. It may be the House that Ruth built--but it's also the House that George rebuilt."
For all the stars who have come to define the Yankee tradition for a new generation--from Paul O'Neill to Derek Jeter to Mariano Rivera--for me, the one Yankee who will stand above them all is the one who never put on a uniform, the one who reminded everybody what it means to be a Yankee. So long, Boss. Like every self-respecting Red Sox fan, I hated everything about you from April through October. But I'll never forget the passion you brought to the game.