Saturday, July 4, 2009

Come 4th, Yankee Fans

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1776? Or a Giant fan switching to the Yankees upon seeing Babe Ruth in 1920? Or Walter O’Malley stealing the Dodgers from Brooklyn in 1957? Or fair-weather fans switching to the Mets in 1969 or 1984? Or back to the Yankees in 1977 or 1996? Or a team owner firing a manager?

In 1903, already a Broadway legend, George M. Cohan wrote and starred in a musical, Little Johnny Jones. It featured a song titled “Yankee Doodle Dandy”:

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.
A Yankee Doodle do-or-die.
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam.
Born on the 4th of July.
I’ve got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart.
She’s my Yankee Doodle Joy.
Yankee Doodle came to London
Just to ride a pony.
I am that Yankee Doodle boy.

George M. Cohan was born on July 3, 1878 – he may have been “a real live nephew of my Uncle Sam,” but he wasn’t quite “born on the 4th of July.

When that musical hit the Broadway stage, there was a new baseball team in town. It was called the New York Highlanders. Their park, Hilltop Park, was at the highest elevation in Manhattan. They also had a team executive named Joseph Gordon – not to be confused with the later second baseman, Joe “Flash” Gordon – and at the time, the “Gordon Highlanders” was a famous Scottish unit of the British Army.

But “Highlanders” was a long name for the newspapers to fit into their headlines, so the papers generally called the Highlanders “the Americans,” since that was already a standard name for teams in the American League, especially when their city already had a team in the National League (and such teams were called “the Nationals”).

But “Yankee Doodle Dandy” quickly became the 1903 equivalent of a Number 1 hit. And, with the word “Yankee” having been already tied into the idea of “American,” the papers started calling the Highlanders the “Yankees,” which could fit into a headline. Better yet, it could be shortened further, to “Yanks.” The team made the name official in 1913.

Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island. But the man who played him in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney, was a New Yorker. Cohan, as was just about every other celebrity in New York at that time, was courted by Giants manager John McGraw, and so Cohan was a Giants fan. But Cagney was a Yankee Fan, and was even invited to throw out the first ball before a game at Yankee Stadium in the 1981 World Series.

I couldn’t find a clip of Cohan himself singing it, but here’s Cagney in what might be the film’s original 1942 trailer.

*

July 4, 1939. 70 years ago today: Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. For the first time, a baseball team retires a uniform number, Gehrig’s Number 4. It’s been debated as to whether people knew Gehrig was dying or just unable to play anymore.

The recorded text is, apparently, not quite word-for-word, if what survives of the film is to be believed. Here’s what he apparently said, extrapolating from both sources:

For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to play with such fine-looking men? Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?

Sure‚ I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also‚ the builder of baseball's greatest empire‚ Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow‚ Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader‚ that smart student of psychology‚ the best manager in baseball today‚ Joe McCarthy?

Sure‚ I'm lucky. When the New York Giants‚ a team you would give your right arm to beat‚ and vice versa‚ sends you a gift‚ that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies‚ that's something.

When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body‚ it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed‚ that's the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break‚ but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

In case it matters to you, the Yankees lost the 1st game of that doubleheader to the Washington Senators, 3-2, and won the 2nd game, 11-1.

Like Cohan, Gehrig was immortalized in a 1942 film, Pride of the Yankees. Gary Cooper had never played baseball before – no joke – but he looked a lot like Gehrig and was one of America’s finest actors.

Note that in the film version, the speech is very similar, but not exact, the biggest difference being that the key line comes at the end, not near the beginning. Note also that, standing behind Cooper, are Babe Ruth and Bill Dickey, playing themselves. So did 1927 Yankees Bob Meusel and Mark Koenig (who turned out to be the last survivor from the ’27 “Murderer’s Row”), and sportscasting pioneer Bill Stern.

Two years later, with Gehrig dead, a Monument was scheduled to be dedicated in his memory. But it rained, and the ceremony was postponed to a Sunday doubleheader, which is why the plaque reads "JULY THE FOURTH" even though the dedication came on July 6, 1941.

*

Of course, I don’t remember those 4th of Julys. I do remember July 4, 1978, when the Yankees were reeling, and the Red Sox were running away with the American League East, and the Yankees needed to win that day. They needed it very badly.

Dr. Frank Field, on WNBC-Channel 4, on what was then called NewsCenter4, had predicted beautiful weather for the 4th of July. But it rained, all up and down the Eastern seaboard.

The Yanks-Sox game was cancelled, and so were the fireworks on the beach in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, and I was very upset at both things.

People were furious at Field, and when he showed up at the NewsCenter4 studio, he had a noose around his neck. It was a joke. I think.

That Yanks-Sox game was rescheduled for September 7. And that turned out to be a momentous day, and not just because of the death of Keith Moon, the drummer for The Who: It was the beginning of a now-four-game series that was quickly labeled the Boston Massacre. Talk about fireworks: 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4. And if you’re a Yankee Fan, you know how the 1978 season ended.

I also remember the Yanks-Sox game five years later, on July 4, 1983. It was brutally hot, and the All-Star Game was two days later, and Yankee starter Dave Righetti had been chosen for the team. But Billy Martin, in his third tour of duty as Yankee manager, started Righetti, so he wouldn’t be able to pitch in the Midsummer Classic at Comiskey Park. To make matters more stressful for Rags, the game was interrupted a few times by Phil Rizzuto and Frank Messer doing on-field giveaways. But the Yankees won, 4-0, and Righetti no-hit the hard-hitting Sox, ending with a strikeout of one of the hardest batters to strike out ever, Wade Boggs.

A year later, on July 4, 1984, Phil Niekro, during his brief two-year sojourn with the Yankees, threw a knuckleball past Larry Parrish of the Texas Rangers for his 3,000th career strikeout.

Of course, while George M. Cohan wasn’t born on America’s Independence Day, George M. Steinbrenner was. The Boss turns 79 today.

Happy Independence Day, everyone – remember how we got and kept that independence, and don’t celebrate too hard. I want you to live to see next year’s 4th.

1 comment:

ceez said...

great memories.
I'll always remember the Rags gem in 1984.
Was driving back with a buddy from Freehold Raceway, flicked on the radio and heard the news.
Amazing to realize that it was 25 years ago.