By Perry Barber
Until he suffered a debilitating heart attack two years ago at age eighty, Arthur Richman was probably the oldest active man in baseball. He spent more than sixty years total as an award-winning sportswriter and columnist for the Daily Mirror and other New York newspapers, traveling secretary for the Mets, then senior advisor and vice-president of media relations for the Yankees, starting in 1990. I was introduced to him in 1983 by Dennis D’Agostino, the Mets’ assistant P.R. director at the time, now a respected author and sports statistician.
Arthur’s sixteen-year tenure with the Yankees was marked by both elation and turmoil. His showdowns with Steinbrenner were legendary, and he used to regale me with tales of how they would yell and scream at each other over some mishegos, then George would “fire” him and Arthur would just show up at work the next day, both of them acting as if nothing had happened, best friends forever.
His office looked out over the field behind the press area where the writers and announcers are stationed during games. Decking its walls were hundreds of signed photos of him and his deceased brother Milton, who is in the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame, with practically every famous person who ever lived. Arthur liked to joke that he was the only Jew who could get you an audience with the Pope! Books, media guides, Yankee give-aways, hats, baseballs, bobblehead dolls, and more lay stacked up in piles everywhere. His desk was always cluttered with notes of thanks from people for whom he had done something wonderful, or requests for help getting tickets or an audience with a player, all of which he did his best to facilitate. He was always so busy checking in with the beat writers and columnists that he could never sit still and watch a game for long.
I got to see Yankee Stadium from two unique perspectives, the one from up in Arthur’s office and the other from down on the field. I umpired a high school All-Star game there in 1985, and was fascinated to see tiny mushrooms growing in the outfield grass! Eleven years later I was writing a profile of Richie Phillips, legal counsel to the major league umpires, for Referee Magazine, and the timing proved to be fortuitous. Richie was at the Stadium to see the crew scheduled to work the 1996 ALDS between the Yankees and Orioles, whose second baseman Roberto Alomar had spit on umpire John Hirschbeck in Cleveland the week before, gotten only a deferred slap on the wrist from the league president for his crime, and was now about to face the music in the Bronx the way only Yankees fans can hum it.
My then-husband Tom Vris was with me, and we followed Phillips down into the tunnel leading to the umpires’ dressing room, a tiny cell they probably won’t be sorry to see replaced, and waited outside while he conferred with them. As the six umpires filed out to start the game, I greeted Mike Reilly and crew chief Larry Barnett, who had been a guest instructor at Harry Wendelstedt’s umpire school when I was a student there in 1984. Last out the door was Richie Garcia, soon to etch his name into Yankee Stadium mythology along with that of a young fan named Jeffrey Maier, but at that moment blissfully unaware of what was about to transpire.
I was thinking back to having shared a dressing room with Richie during spring training in Tampa six months earlier when I umpired a Yankees split-squad game in the morning and he and his partners were already in the dressing room for the afternoon game as my crew was finishing up. I was sweaty and disheveled from having worked the plate, and politely inquired if anybody minded if I showered. There was a separate area where I could disrobe in relative privacy, and when no one objected, I jumped in and yelled out that I was going to tell the umpires in my college association I had “showered with Richie Garcia,” evoking good-natured laughter.
Now, a season later, we were both standing in the tunnel beneath the Stadium, my six-foot one-inch tall husband by my side as I introduced him to the veteran arbiter, all five-foot six of him, and reminded him where we had met. Garcia was eyeing me as if he couldn’t quite reconcile the woman speaking to him with the image of the one he vaguely recalled seeing in an umpire’s uniform months before.
“Richie,” I smiled at him, “Don’t you remember? I showered with you during spring training!” Garcia, now also having trouble reconciling “This is my husband” with “I showered with you” as his head spun back and forth between Tom and me, turned a little pale. Tom, who was used to my sense of humor, chuckled as Garcia looked up at him speechless and stunned, then turned without a word and hurried to the dugout entrance leading onto the field. We watched the first inning of the game from the tunnel behind the dugout and saw Larry Barnett call Alomar out on strikes so far off the plate they might have been in Washington Heights.
Barnett was magnificent; he called each strike slowly and deliberately, drawing out his dramatic motions like a Tai-chi master while Alomar watched first in consternation, then disbelief and total shock as he realized what was happening. Fifty-five thousand fans went wild! I’ve never felt so much love directed towards an umpire as I did watching from the tunnel underneath Yankee Stadium during Roberto Alomar’s first at-bat of the 1996 ALCS.
Of course, all that love was weirdly magnified, at least in the hearts of New Yorkers, seven innings later when Richie Garcia, perhaps still fretful and distracted by thoughts of a large, angry spouse looking to exact his macho revenge on the despoiler of his wife’s virtue, ruled a “home run” for the Yankees on a ball Derek Jeter hit towards the right field stands even though a kid named Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall and clearly interfered with it. Garcia admitted publicly the next day that he had blown the call, but he never said exactly why.
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Most of my memories of Yankee Stadium spring from my friendship with Arthur. He was the one who put forth Joe Torre’s name to Steinbrenner as a candidate for manager, and both of them were crucified in the press for their decision to go with the much-maligned Torre at the start of the 1996 season. Columnist Mike Lupica injudiciously labeled Arthur “Steinbrenner’s bootlicker” in the Daily News and was angrily confronted by the normally avuncular septuagenarian in the press room one day, Arthur threatening to wipe the floor with the hapless, decades-younger reporter. Then the Yankees started to win, and Arthur and George looked like geniuses for the next ten years.
I got to be good friends with Don and Corinne Larsen through Arthur, and have seen close-up how much adoration Larsen gets from the fans on Old Timer’s Day. The night before Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, he and Arthur went out for dinner and some drinks. They didn’t stay out all night carousing and getting wasted, as some apocryphal tales have recounted; Larsen hailed a taxi to take him uptown fairly early because he didn’t know if he would be pitching the next day or not, so he wanted to be rested just in case. (He found out the following afternoon when he walked into the clubhouse and saw a baseball in his shoe, identifying him as that days’ starter.) Before he got into the cab, he handed Arthur a dollar and told him it was for his synagogue. Talk about the power of prayer!
No one before or since has done what Don Larsen did that perfect October afternoon up in the Bronx. I’m lucky enough to have gotten to know him and his wonderful wife Corinne through the good works they and Arthur do supporting a charity called the Perfect Pitch Home Run Derby, the brainchild of a young philanthropist/athlete from Parsippany, New Jersey, named Michael Pesci. Mike and his family started the tournament when he was eleven years old, and with Arthur’s encouragement and networking skills matched by hundreds of items donated generously by the Larsens, it has grown into a major event that has raised more than a hundred thousand dollars for local charities.
When I think of Yankee Stadium, The House That Ruth Built will be forever inextricably entwined with thoughts of Arthur and the Larsens. They are what has made it special. For me, it’s always been the people, not the place.
Perry Barber has been umpiring major league spring training games since 1985.