Yankees Magazine: Old Timers Days

By Marty Appel

Since the Yankees are credited with so many innovations over the years – from numbers on uniforms to triple-decked ballparks – it has become somewhat fashionable to think they invented the concept of Old Timers’ Day back on July 4, 1939. That day, which was officially called Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, brought back Lou’s 1927 Murderer’s Row teammates in tribute to their fallen comrade. By the time the Yankees moved to make a reunion an annual summer event in 1947, it was decided to call the ’39 affair “the first” and the ’47 gathering “the second annual.”

And with that, many came to think that the Yankees created Old Timers Days. In fact, if you browse through Albert Spalding’s 1911 book, Base Ball: America’s National Game, there is a fold-out photograph of a 1908 old timers gathering featuring college and professional players from as far back as 1871. In the “team photo” are such future Hall of Famers as Tommy McCarthy, Orator Jim O’Rourke, and Spalding himself. Some players are in old uniforms, some in civilian clothing. The Yankees, it is clear, did not invent, Old Timers Day.

But when promotion minded co-owner Larry MacPhail decided to make it an annual event in 1947, he really did start something. Under public relations directors Red Patterson and Bob Fishel, the event became an enormous summer attraction, bringing back the game’s greats in a Saturday that often preceded the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, so that people might stop in New York, en route to Cooperstown.

In fact, whatever each year’s theme was, until the Yankees practically ran out of themes (so long as whatever it was included DiMaggio and Mantle), the new Hall of Famers were always invited, making the Yankee Stadium stop an essential part of their induction experience. Each year, the Director of the Hall of Fame – first Paul Kerr, then Ed Stack, would be part of the receiving committee on the field to greet each guest. They would stand with the Yankee management – be it Dan Topping, Del Webb or Michael Burke, to personally greet each player and hand them a special gift.

The practice made it into the ‘70s when George Steinbrenner asked general manager Gabe Paul to represent him on the field. When it turned out there were too many former players being introduced whose contracts Gabe had cut over the years, the practice ended.

The gifts ranged from oil paintings to rocking chairs to television sets to watches to clock radios, and always had a personalized engraved plate on them.

I had the privilege of serving as Bob Fishel’s assistant in preparing the events from 1968-73, before taking over myself after he moved to the American League. An incredible amount of detail went into the planning, from doing a souvenir program, to writing the introductions, to arranging travel and hotel, to finding old time umpires, to enlisting a band and a color guard, to a national anthem singer, to inviting the Commissioner and League Presidents, to stocking the clubhouse with extra beer, to arranging for old New York Times’ writer John Drebinger to keep an official box score in the press box, to getting fill-in broadcasters to cover for Phil Rizzuto (who never made it back upstairs), or Jerry Coleman, to hiring limos for Mrs. Babe Ruth and Mrs. Lou Gehrig, to coordinating uniforms with Pete Sheehy, to preparing lineups for the game and assisting the “managers” (who barely paid attention), to arranging transportation and the post-game party at Toots Shor’s or the Friar’s Club, with a separate party for the wives. Claire Ruth and Eleanor Gehrig, always recipients of huge ovations from their box seats, would not only be the life of the party, but would usually be the first to crack the segregated code and lead all the women into the cigar-smoke filled “men’s party,” where the great baseball stories ran long into the night.

The first Old Timers Day I attended as a fan was on August 8, 1959. Former President Herbert Hoover, 85, threw out the first ball, and new Hall of Famer Zach Wheat, who broke in with Brooklyn in 1909, was a special guest. Al Schacht, a player turned “Clown Prince of Baseball” entertained with oversize equipment, tails, and a floppy top hat. That year’s event honored players and opponents from each of the Yankees 24 pennant winners. What a kick it was to see early Yankee legends like Bob Shawkey, Home Run Baker, Waite Hoyt, Wally Pipp, Earle Combs and Joe Dugan, join with Lefty Gomez, Bill Dickey, Charlie Keller, and of course, Joe DiMaggio. The “opponents” included no less than Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Jim Bottomley, Gabby Hartnett, Bill Terry and Dizzy Dean. What a feast for the eyes of a young baseball fan.

In later years, when I was involved in the planning, just getting the phone calls and letters from these people was a treat. DiMaggio would call almost daily leading up to the game to get a couple of tickets for the bellhop or the barber or the shoeshine boy. Red Ruffing would debate the policy of not paying for wives’ airfare. Jackie Robinson would say “I won’t be attending until baseball demonstrates it’s intention to hire more minorities into coaching and managing positions.” Satchel Paige would promise to leave behind his borrowed Kansas City Monarchs uniform, and then he would take it with him, much to our embarrassment.

My personal favorite year was 1970. It was the year Casey Stengel’s decade long exile ended, and he returned to Yankee Stadium to have his uniform retired near his 80th birthday. He truly had a wonderful time both at the ceremonies and at the party. He loved being the center of attention from beginning to end. He received, as did all the old timers that year, a camera with his name on it.

On Monday morning, my phone rang at Yankee Stadium. He had no any idea who had answered the phone, but he simply shouted, “Mrs. Stengel and I had a marrrrr-ve-lous time, and we just wanted to say thank you to everybody for the hospitality, and especially thanks for my prize.” And he hung up.

He called the gift a prize, which I thought was terrific. He deserved it.

Obtaining proper uniforms was always a challenge. Old caps could be duplicated at a modest cost, but the jerseys were harder to get, and as the teams modernized their looks in the ‘70s, it was just wrong to put an old White Sox player into a powder blue uniform. (We borrowed the uniforms from each clubhouse manager). One year we found ourselves without a number seven for Mickey Mantle. He was supposed to bring it with him from another Old Timers’ Game, but forgot. We put him into Gene Michael’s #17 and put a piece of tape over the 1. A lot of people wondered why his 7 seemed off center.

He managed to lose his uniform the next year too. So we squeezed him into Roy White’s number 6, the number which he wore as a rookie, which made for a nice conversation piece. As a bonus, I talked him into playing center field, for old times sake, which he hadn’t done since 1966, even in an Old Timers game, and I don’t believe ever did again. And he looked great out there, bad legs and all.

In 1974 we asked Mantle and Whitey Ford, new Hall of Famers, to select the guest list. They invited every screwball they ever played with or against, until we “augmented” the lineup with some guys who would actually be in condition to play the game. For a gift that year, we went very classy and ordered limited edition carved glass ashtrays with the Yankee logo, a very handsome, and rather expensive piece. Whitey, good naturedly, thought it was a lousy gift and tossed his into the trash. Elston Howard, taking the cue, did the same, and then about a dozen others went flying in. Whitey was also good at turning in his expense account for the day with a laugh – the 50 cent Whitestone Bridge toll, each way.

It was true that on a few occasions, some faux pas by someone would leave DiMaggio out of sorts, and we feared we would never get him back again. But time would heal, and he’d return year after year, hitting 47 of 48 after his career ended, and always greeted warmly by Anne Mileo, our dear public relations secretary, at the check-in table. It was never a problem getting Anne to work on a Saturday when Joe was coming.

When the Mets came along in 1962, they had an Old Timer’s Day right in their first season, which they certainly had a right to do, and it was a great one with old Dodgers and Giants. But from that day on, the Yankees never had a monopoly on the event, and by the ‘80s, corporate sponsorship had taken over and made the gatherings an event at every ballpark. An in-shape guy like a Jay Johnstone could get 40 at bats just making all the Old Timers Games, but somehow, it wasn’t like seeing Bill Dickey. In these years, Jim Ogle, who directs the Yankee Alumni Association, has ably orchestrated many of the logistics, a daunting task when you consider all the former players in the Association who ask to get invited each year.

Mel Allen was the on-field master of ceremonies beginning in 1947, and Mel was at his best reciting the names of those who had “left us” in the year past, accompanied by Auld Lang Syne on the organ. Mel carried on as M.C. through 1964, and then resumed doing the play-by-play of the Old Timers Game, in 1970. He would get as big a hand as anyone, so beloved was he. Frank Messer, the pro’s pro, continued the player introductions which for many were more exciting than the abbreviated game itself.

It was hard to tell who enjoyed the annual gatherings more – the employees, the fans or the players themselves. And that is what made them so special, then as now. It’s a day for everyone’s pleasure, and even after all these years, nobody can do it quite like the Yankees can.