By Phil Pepe
There were times in the 1960s and 1970s when I came to think of Yankee Stadium as my second home. As Yankees beat writer for two newspapers, the New York World Telegram & Sun and the New York Daily News, I spent more time in the big ballpark in the South Bronx in those days than I did in my own home.
I’m not complaining. Covering the Yankees in those exciting and turbulent times was my job and my joy. As a result, I got to know interesting, exciting and legendary personalities: Casey Stengel, Joe DiMaggio (after he had retired), Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Pete Sheehy, Reggie Jackson, Mel Allen, Thurman Munson and George Steinbrenner. (My one regret is that I came along a few years too late to have met Babe Ruth.) And I was blessed to have witnessed so many historic moments to feed my lifelong passion for baseball, a coincidental byproduct of my position and my advanced age.
There is a sadness now, and a melancholia because of the imminent demise of this baseball cathedral where I have spent so many hours, witnessed so much history, and chronicled the exploits of so many legends of the game. The mind is cluttered with so many memories, I find it difficult, no, impossible, to catalogue them; to choose one as my greatest Yankee Stadium memory.
In no particular order of importance or historical significance, here is a list of 10 Yankee Stadium memories — events I witnessed — that easily fall under the heading of memorable and unforgettable, deeds that might make anyone’s list:
* Mickey Mantle’s blast off Bill Fischer of Kansas City leading off the bottom of the eleventh inning of a 7-7 tie on the night of May 22, 1963. The shot came within inches of being the first (and only) fair ball ever hit out of Yankee Stadium. Mantle called it, “The hardest ball I ever hit.”
It may have been the hardest ball anybody ever hit.
* Roger Maris’ 61st home run off Tracy Stallard on October 1, 1961, the “year of the asterisk.” The solo home run was the only tally in a 1-0 Yankees victory. It still boggles the mind that a mere 23,124 fans showed up (through the years I have encountered more than that number who claim they were there) to see the coronation of baseball’s new single-season home run champion.
* Ron Guidry’s 18 strikeouts against the California Angels on June 17, 1978. That was the night fans first began cheering after there were two strikes on an opposing batter, a practice that continues to this day.
* The bizarre announcement, orchestrated by George Steinbrenner, on Old Timers Day, 1978, five days after he was forced to resign, that Billy Martin would return as manager of the Yankees.
* The saddest day. August 6, 1979, the day of the funeral for captain Thurman Munson, killed tragically when his private plane crashed at the Akron-Canton Airport four days earlier. Munson’s closest friend, Bobby Murcer, who had said a eulogy at the funeral, drove in all five runs in the Yankees’ 5-4 defeat of the Orioles.
* Chris Chambliss’ leadoff home run in the bottom of the ninth off Kansas City’s Mark Littell in Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS that gave the Yankees their first American League pennant in 12 years.
* Graig Nettles’ spectacular play at third base in Game 3 of the 1978 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
* Reggie Jackson’s three consecutive home runs on three consecutive pitches, off three different pitchers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers that gave the Yankees their first World Series victory in 15 years.
* The fabled and celebrated “Pine Tar” game against the Kansas City Royals on July 24, 1983, when an apparent go-ahead two-run home run by George Brett off Goose Gossage was disallowed after Billy Martin convinced the umpires that Brett used a bat that was illegal because it had pine tar too far on the hitting surface.
* Mickey Mantle’s leadoff, game-winning home run (they weren’t called walk-off homers in those days) off Cardinals reliever Barney Schultz in the bottom of the ninth, which broke a 1-1 tie in Game 3 of the 1964 World Series.
Ah, but wait a minute. My favorite memory of Yankee Stadium is none of the above. It’s something more personal, more meaningful, the birth of my first child.
Early on the morning of August 7, 1962, my wife, who had gone into labor, awakened me. I drove to the doctor and the nurse told me to go about my business (fathers were not invited to assist in the birth of their children in those days, something I have always regretted), but to leave a telephone number where I could be reached. I gave her the number of the Yankee Stadium press box, without explanation.
The Yankees were playing the Twins in an afternoon game and I was assigned to cover the game, so I dutifully went about my business as the nurse suggested.
In the fourth inning, the telephone rang. It was the nurse calling to inform me that I was the father of a seven-pound, three-ounce baby girl.
“What’s that noise in the background?” the nurse inquired.
“I’m at Yankee Stadium,” I replied, again without explanation.
Unable to contain my excitement, I informed Yankees’ public relations chief Bob Fishel of the birth of my daughter and he announced the blessed event over the press box PA. Soon, my colleagues were coming by to offer their congratulations. About a half hour later, the incomparable Bob Sheppard appeared and handed me a piece of paper. He had spontaneously penned a poem about my new daughter, Jayne Frances.
I estimate I have attended more than 1,000 games at Yankee Stadium and witnessed dozens of memorable events, but I have only one daughter.
What better memory of Yankee Stadium can I possibly have than that?
Phil Pepe writes about baseball for YES.com.