New York and baseball's Yankees, it's a love affair that might've ended in some recrimination in the previous fall, but in spring, hope does spring eternal, and the Yankees become the main game in town. The Yankees, who start their 114th MLB season on April 1 on the road, launch their home opener on April 7.
Det. Sonny Grosso, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, NY Rangers legend Rod Gilbert
Fans have a passionate love-hate relationship with the team. But they're always there on opening day. One guy who'll be there from day one is retired NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whose life story was memorably played out in the five-time Oscar winning movie, The French Connection.
Grosso has been a fan of the pinstripes since he was a kid growing up in Harlem, cheering for the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. In his upcoming memoir, Harlem to Hollywood: My Real to Reel Life, Grosso spins larger-than-life tales about his on-going love of the Yankees:
During World War II, one man took our collective minds off the escalating conflict for awhile. DiMaggio had that amazing 56-game hitting streak, and he was the biggest thing going on in the country. Every day after the game, people on the subway, strangers on the street were asking, "What did DiMaggio do?" It was a like a collective hysteria about the streak. "Did he get another hit?" Everything else in the news, and there was a hell of a lot going on, was all secondary to DiMaggio, our regular hero.
Growing up as a child of the first generation Italian-Americans, Grosso and his pals were taught to reach out for the American dream. Each block in his Italian Harlem neighborhood had the smells of Sunday sauce and soft pretzels, along with the sounds of Jimmy Roselli singing "Mala Femmena" -- "every Italian guy's anthem" back then.
Grosso vividly recalls his first live Yankee Stadium experiences:
My father Benny would take me to Yankee Stadium and sometimes when he got box seats from a friend or some big shot he knew, he sold them and got us seats in the bleachers to be close to watch Joe DiMaggio in center field, and see all his moves. Real smooth. DiMaggio was the first big Italian-American hero who crossed over ethnic lines. A man who just played the game. And after that, he got married to the gorgeous Marilyn Monroe -- what a honey and what a guy! Back then I never had thoughts about becoming a cop. I dreamed about being another Joe DiMaggio and playing center field for the Yankees. I loved DiMaggio so much. I looked up to him and he was everything I wanted to be. He was elegant, dressed to kill and a gentleman at all times. An all-American hero.
Grosso, who became an award winning producer of TV series and movies after he retired from the NYPD, said that DiMaggio never disappointed him "on the field or as a human being." In fact, Grosso had a once-in-a-lifetime, four-hour plus dinner conversation at Manducati's restaurant in Queens with his hero. Set up by his pal, Dr. Rock Positano, as a special birthday gift, Grosso explains:
DiMaggio and I had an unforgettable conversation. And, just so you know, there were three subjects you didn't talk about with Joe: Marilyn, Frank Sinatra and JFK. If you did, he'd say he was going to the bathroom and then he wouldn't come back! So we spoke about everything else and about my desire to produce his movie biography. When Joe left after dinner, I said to him, "Joe, I've waited my whole life for this. So how about a little hug and kiss?" He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Well, if you have to." So joking I said, "On the lips?" He replied, "Hey, c'mon, take it easy!" We laughed, I hugged him and then Joe said, "Me and my lawyer are writing a book and I told him, If anybody films this book it's going to be Sonny Grosso." Joe left and I'm floating on air. I rushed back in and told my friends he's writing a book and he wants me to produce his movie.
As a token of remembrance for that unforgettable evening, Grosso had the chair the legend had sat on engraved with his "#5" and with the names "Sonny Grosso and Joe DiMaggio."
NY Rangers legend Rod Gilbert and Det. Sonny Grosso with DiMaggio's "chair"
Grosso adds, "When I sent Joe a photo of the chair, he wrote back thanking me but then asked, 'Hey, Sonny, who says you get top billing?' Not long after, the Yankee Clipper took ill and passed away. But that famous chair still floats around Manducati's today and the story behind it helps me keep Joe DiMaggio's memory alive."