The Joys and Sorrows of Being A Yankee Fan
he number two train pulled into the subway station and came to a screechinghalt. The conductor announced, “one-forty-nine Grand Concourse,” in a barely audible voice. The boys stood in front of the doors, waiting for them to spring open. Kevin, Tommy, and Louie were carrying brown paper bags which held the lunches that Tommy’s mother had packed for them, three meatball heroes wrapped in two layers of paper towels topped off with a layer of aluminum foil. This wrapping technique was the secret to keeping the sandwiches warm well into the second game of a double header. As soon as the doors opened, the boys worked their way across the crowded platform to the stairs. At the top of the landing they headed for the stairs leading to the uptown platform of the number four train. Once on the platform they walked all the way to the front, hoping to get a spot at the front window of the next train. They wanted to get a view of Yankee Stadium as the train came up out of the subway tunnel. They wanted to get a peek at the grandstands to see how full the Stadium was.
On this day, the Stadium was going to be full to the rafters. Each boy had a token for the trip home, $1.50 for a general admission ticket, and maybe a little extra for a soda or a bag of peanuts. It was a Sunday; they were going to see the Yankees play the White Sox in a double header. It was June 8th, 1969, and it was a special day. They were going to see their childhood hero, Mickey Mantle, in Yankee pinstripes for the very last time. It was the end of an era, the end to a dynasty. Kevin, Tommy and Louie were born in the wrong decade to be Yankee fans.
In the summer of 1964 Louie didn’t know anything about baseball. He didn’t know who Roger Maris was. He had never watched a baseball game. He had never been inside Yankee Stadium. Louie’s uncle Patsy was an avid Yankee Fan. He wanted to do something special for his new nephew. So on a night when the Minnesota Twins were in town, Patsy took Louie to his very first Yankee game. Louie’s uncle was originally from Queens, but when he married Louie’s aunt, he moved to the Bronx, perhaps to be closer to the Yankees.
They boarded the train at Kingsbridge Road for the short ride to Yankee Stadium. As the train approached 161st Street, the Stadium loomed large in the foreground. The lights were on and the entire neighborhood was lit up. The boy and his uncle walked under the El along River Avenue. The lights cast a strange glow on the elevated structure above. All the while, Patsy was telling Louie about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, and all the home runs they had hit. He said this team was going to be champions like all the rest. Uncle Patsy told Louie the Yankees were the best team in baseball, ever.
They waited on line at the red ticket booths and Patsy bought two general admission tickets. They entered Yankee Stadium at the rightfield gate and started the long walk up the ramps to the upper deck. The inside of the stadium looked dark but huge. The sound of the crowd and the smell of the concession stands filled the air. People were walking up the ramp at a quick pace. Patsy encouraged his nephew to walk faster if they wanted to get good seats. Once they reached the upper deck, Patsy led Louie toward the section between home plate and first base, Patsy’s favorite section. All the while Patsy explained how this was the best section to watch the game. “You can see the whole field,” he said. Louie didn’t care where they sat, he was getting excited by the quick glimpses of the inside of the stadium visible from the ramps leading to the grandstand. But nothing could prepare Louie for the sight he would see once they walked up the ramp and out to the upper deck. So, on warm night in May, on a night when the Yankees lost, Louie became a life long Yankee fan.
The bright green of the outfield grass contrasting with the red dirt of the infield was a dramatic and inspirational sight. The white lines leading to the yellow foul pole brought Louie’s eye up to the upper deck. The white arches and columns overhanging the roof captured his attention. The bright lights were almost blinding. Louie’s gaze then traveled from right field to left field. All he could see were people and seats. The numbered posts holding up the roof formed a rhythmic pattern across the huge stadium. Then another yellow pole brought him back down to the bright green field flooded in light, and the numbers on the outfield wall completed his visual journey. With the flags, the score board, the signs and the tall flag pole with the monuments at its base, Yankee Stadium was a spectacular sight. Louie was in awe of the grandeur of Yankee Stadium. You didn’t have to know anything about baseball, to know that great things happened here. Louie was a little scared by the steepness of the upper deck, so he held onto the railing as he walked up to his seat in the first row behind the posts. The seats behind the posts were “general admission” seats. The roof above, the stands to the left, and the outfield wall framed the field in front.
“Uncle Patsy, what are those stones in the outfield?”
“That’s Babe Ruth and Joe Damaggio,” Patsy replied.
Louie didn’t dare ask, but he assumed those guys were buried there. That night somebody on the field for the Twins got hit with the ball, and had to be taken off on a stretcher. That was the highlight of Louie’s first baseball game. That night when Louie closed his eyes to go to sleep, he could still see the bright green field of Yankee Stadium. He couldn’t wait to go to another game, or rather, he couldn’t wait to see Yankee Stadium again.
Patsy took Louie to many more games that year and in the years to follow. They went to the very first Bat Day and Louie got a Mickey Mantle bat. Uncle Patsy filled Louie with Yankee lore and history. The Yankees won the American League Pennant in 1964, but lost the World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Mickey Mantle batted .333 and hit three home runs, but that wasn’t enough to beat Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. It would be twelve long years before the Yankees played baseball in October again - twelve years, an entire childhood of agony. “The Mick” was approaching the end of his career, but he had a few more milestones to meet. During those miserable seasons of the mid-sixties, Louie watched many Yankee games with his fingers crossed, hoping that Mickey Mantle or Joe Pepitone would hit a home run and win the game. The Yankees finished the 1965 season in sixth place. They had lost more games than they won. What happened to that “best team in baseball, ever”?
Tommy, Kevin and Louie went to many Sunday doubleheaders. It didn’t matter that the Yankees had lost more games than they won. Louie never liked to read much, but he read as many books as he could about Mickey Mantle and the Yankees. He drew pictures of Mickey and wrote book reports about him for school. He put a picture of Mantle into his very first wallet and transferred that picture into every wallet he owned until he was sixteen. Whenever the boys went to Yankee Stadium it was always an adventure, and it was never planned in advance. Tommy,“T-Bird” to his friends, was the spark that started most of these excursions to Yankee games. It was always more fun to go to a game as a threesome. So, T-Bird would make a call to Kevin telling him that he and Louie were going to the game . Once Kevin said yes, he would call Louie and say that he and Kevin were going to the game. So Kevin and Louie were always tricked into going to the games. Later on in the day when they found out they were fooled, they would punch T-Bird in the arm, all in fun of course. Tommy, Kevin and Louie formed a trio of best friends that was destined to last a lifetime.
It was never a concern that three fourteen year old boys got on the subway and traveled through the Bronx alone. Knowing your way around the subway system was almost second nature; after all, the boys had been doing it since they were ten. Louie was probably the one that had the most experience with the subways. His family never owned a car and the subway was their main means of transportation. Louie’s mom used to take Louie to work with her on the subway to Manhattan, and the family also made a few trips all the way out to Brooklyn. Louie and his friends were allowed to take the Third Avenue El to Fordham Road and they had permission to go all the way to Yankee Stadium. But nobody ever gave them permission to travel all the way to State Island on the ferry . As long as you had money for a token and could read a subway map and could keep a secret, travel around New York was no big deal.
As the train climbed out of the darkness of the tunnel, Yankee Stadium came into view. As always, it was awe inspiring. Even though it was still early, the trio could see that the Stadium was practically full. When the boys reached the street on that June day, the streets around Yankee Stadium were more crowded than the boys had ever seen before. This was a special day. It was Mickey Mantle Day, the day set aside to honor the lifelong Yankee hero, and retire his uniform number. Mickey Mantle was one of the last Yankee greats in a line of many. He had succeeded Dimaggio who had played with Gehrig, and who had played along side the immortal Babe Ruth. Mickey had reached the 500 career home run mark a few years back, but only managed to hit another 36 home runs the rest of the way. When he reported to spring training in 1969, Mantle realized that he had nothing left. His banged up knees could not hold up any longer. That spring Mickey had announced his retirement.
The news of Mantle’s retirement broke a lot of young hearts, and Uncle Patsy’s too. The end of one great career, strangely enough, marked the beginning of another Yankee run at greatness. It would take another seven long years, but on the strengths of the new generation of Yankee greats such as Munson, Mercer, Guidry, White and a few free agents, the Yankees would once again return to the World Series. On this day, however, Tommy, Louie and Kevin were there to honor their hero.
The boys made their way under the El and around to the right field gate. On the way they passed the familiar little old nun who sat on a chair with a collection plate on her lap. Whenever the boys went to a game she would always be right there in the same spot, collecting money for who knows what. Maybe she kept it for herself. The boys bought their general admission tickets, and as usual headed for the box seats behind home plate. The Stadium was packed. They found seats a few sections away from Mrs. Babe Ruth. The Babe’s missus was always at the games. She always looked the same, with dark sunglasses and a black overcoat with a fur trimmed collar. It wasn’t long before the boys were asked to move to the upper deck by one of the ushers. But for Mickey Mantle Day there was no way they were going to sit in the nosebleed section which they had paid for. So for most of the first game, the boys moved from one section of box seats to the next, watching the game and all the while looking out for the ushers. The Yankees won the first game of the twin bill by the score of three to one, on the strength of a Joe Pepetone three-run homer. Mel Stottlemyre got the win. Then the festivities began.
Mickey Mantle circled the Stadium in an open convertible. The crowd gave him a seven minute standing ovation as his car slowly made it’s way around the fringes of the Stadium. Then the Mick made his way to a microphone set up near second base. He said that now he knew how a dieing man could stand on this very spot, and say he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Once again the crowd went wild. The capacity crowd of 67,000 bid farewell to Mickey Mantle with their cheers of adoration. The Yankees honored Mantle by winning the nightcap by the score of eleven to two with thirteen hits. As special as it was for the boys to see Mickey Mantle and say good bye, winning a double header was also a special added bonus, for the boys had not seen too many winning days at Yankee Stadium in recent times. The meatball heroes were hot well into the second game as expected. At the end of the game the boys exited the Stadium from the field and on the way had a three way catch in the outfield, with a spaldeen Tommy T-Bird had brought to the game. Tommy Louie and Kevin pretended to be Mickey Mantle one last time. As usual, the game was almost secondary; being together was what it was all about.