July 4th is a most special day on the baseball calendar. What more can you ask for than baseball, hot dogs and post-game fireworks? That’s America.
And it does not have to be at a major league game.
In fact, you are probably better off going to a minor league game this weekend, your wallet will be happier. It’s a great day to be an American and celebrate the country, the flag and our freedoms. It is a day to stand proud.
The Fourth of July is a day to treasure baseball.
It’s a momentous day in baseball history, too. This was the day that Henry Louis Gehrig offered up his famous speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, one of three July 4ths I want to highlight.
The other two are Dave Righetti’s no-hitter in 1983 at Yankee Stadium and two years later the Mets crazy 16-13 win over the Braves at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that ended at 3:55 am on July 5, 1985, yet was still followed by a fireworks show.
The Yankees and Mets will be playing a split doubleheader this July 4th at Yankee Stadium so new memories will be made – but let’s start with the Pride of the Yankees and in just a bit, a most special room in Yankee Stadium that honored Gehrig, a room you need to know more about, a room with a mural of Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter, a room I was fortunate enough to visit in 2008, the final year of the true Yankee Stadium.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break,’’ Gehrig said into the large microphones as his 1927 and 1939 teams stood on the field at Yankee Stadium, and there was Babe Ruth, looking resplendent in a white suit. “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.’’
On July 4th, no matter the circumstances, the game should be celebrated.
Beautiful words from Gehrig. I have been going to ballparks for the last 61 years, and I feel the same way, too.
The Fourth is my birthday as well so, that makes the holiday even more special. I can understand what Gehrig was saying that day. When the Babe took to the microphone he said, “In 1927, Lou was with us, and I say that was the best ballclub the Yankees ever had.’’
Despite the sad circumstances of that moment, that was a day Gehrig – the Yankee Captain -cherished, and baseball fans cherish forever. Those lucky enough to be in the packed stadium between games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators were seeing history unfold before their eyes.
July 4th is a day of promise and Gehrig’s speech became one of the greatest memories in the game’s history.
On July 4th, no matter the circumstances, the game should be celebrated. Even though this was 82 years ago, baseball fans know of the Pride of the Yankees speech.
Now, let me tell you a story about the true Yankee Stadium, and a room where Gehrig used to find solace in visiting, according to longtime Yankees employee Ray Negron.
That room was beyond the indoor batting cage under the right field stands. I visited that room a couple times in Yankee Stadium’s final season, 2008. It was in July of that month that I was there with Negron, who was hired by George Steinbrenner right off the streets of the Bronx in 1973 to be a batboy. Through the years, Negron worked in community relations and became a bestselling children’s author.
Back in 2008, Negron guided me to this room that was filled at the time with hundreds of discarded Stadium seats in various states of disrepair. Next door was the indoor batting cage, nicknamed The Columbus Room, as in: “You don’t want to be sent back to (AAA) Columbus so you’d better hit.
That hitting cage area is where the Yankee players and Steinbrenner and Yankees staff held their World Series celebrations following the 1977 and ‘78 wins over the Dodgers.
The Gehrig Room is also the room where Billy Martin was stashed when Steinbrenner made the announcement in 1978 that Martin would be back again to manage the Yankees.
This area was sacred Yankee ground. Gehrig used to go to that room when he was looking for some peace and quiet, according to Negron, especially in that turbulent 1939 season when his career ended because of ALS.
Gehrig ended his iconic speech that day with “I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.’’
Less than two years later on July 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig was dead at the age of 37.
Beyond this room was a ramp and a Stadium exit. Back in those days, the Yankees clubhouse was along the third base line and Gehrig would go to this room to seek some solace. Gehrig and his wife then would leave the Stadium by this route to avoid media.
I asked Negron on Friday, “How did you first find out about this room being a place for Gehrig to find solace?’’
“Mrs. Gehrig told me about it,’’ said Negron, who used to assist Eleanor Gehrig on Stadium visits. “She told me Lou used to go to that room when he wanted to be away from everybody.’’
Mrs. Gehrig, until her death in March of 1984, and Mrs. Babe Ruth, who died in 1976, used to regularly come to Old-Timers’ Day, where they were known as the “The great ladies of Yankee Stadium.’’
In 2008 when I walked into that room there really was an aura to the room, just knowing how much Yankee history was in that building.
Negron added to the aura by having renowned sports artist James Fiorentino, whose work is featured at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, paint a mural of a weeping Gehrig on a pillar in the center of the room.
After the Gehrig likeness was painted, Negron wanted more. “I told James you know, Thurman has to go up there with him,’’ Negron explained.
“After Munson, I said to him, ‘You know who has to go up there too?’
He said, “Who?’’
“I said Jeter,’’ Negron responded.
So this became the Yankee Captains Pillar.
Derek Jeter next to Pillar of Captains at Yankee Stadium in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Ray Negron)
“James painted what I call the three Core Captains,’’ Negron explained.
In 2008, Negron took Jeter to that room and told him about the history of the place.
Soon after I remember asking Jeter about that visit and the Pillar of Captains and the present-day Captain told me, “You sort of get the chills. There’s a lot of history in this stadium. When you hear a story like that it is always pretty special.’’
Sadly, the Pillar of Captains came down when the Stadium was demolished, Negron said. It was not saved. But there are the memories and there is a picture of Jeter standing by the pillar. When Jeter first went into that room with Negron and Jeter saw the mural, Negron said, “He was in shock, you could see the goose bumps all over his arms.’’
It was a special moment for Jeter in the true Yankee Stadium.
Of course the Stadium was changed with the construction that began in 1973. The original Yankee Stadium, which I visited many times, had an incredible look to it with the pillars throughout the ballpark and that commanding façade.
Even though the Stadium changed after that construction, the Ghosts remained, and new memories were made. One of those memories came on July 4th 1983.
Dave Righetti had just come off a shutout against the Orioles when he pitched his no-hitter against the Red Sox, winning, 4-0. He ended the game with a strikeout of Wade Boggs, the second time that day Boggs struck out.
That’s how good the lefty was on that sweltering July 4th, 38 years ago.
I was at the Jersey shore that day (of course I was) and listened to the game on the beach on a transistor radio. It seemed nearly every blanket had a transistor radio tuned to the game as the sound carried over the breezes and the sand.
When Boggs stepped to the plate in the ninth, everything on the beach came to a halt.
Entering that day, Boggs had played in 75 games, was hitting .361 and in 331 plate appearances had stuck out only 19 times all season. For the season, Boggs finished at .361 to lead the American League so that 0-for-4 with two Ks was his worst hitting day of 1983. Boggs also led the AL in on base percentage that season with a .444 mark. For the season Boggs struck out only 36 times.
Righetti got him to swing through a slider for strike three and then catcher Butch Wynegar came racing out to hug an exhausted Righetti, a Rags to riches day in the Bronx and cheers along the Jersey Shore and beyond.
The Boss was not at the game for his birthday. He had opted to celebrate in Florida. Richard Nixon, though, was in the owners’ box that day and later sent Righetti a letter of congratulations.
Back when Righetti threw his no-hitter. Negron was working in the Yankees clubhouse. He worked as a personal consultant for Steinbrenner until the Boss’ death on July 10, 2010.
Before the doors of the clubhouse were opened to the media this is what Negron remembers. As all the Yankees in the room celebrated and congratulated Righetti, the left-hander broke into an Elvis Presley impersonation.
“That’s the one thing I remember,’’ Negron, who was 24 at the time, told BallNine. “After everybody was saying, ‘Great job’ and this and that, and Rags went into a little Elvis stance, the one leg, the lip and all, and in a deep Elvis voice, said, ‘Thank you very much.’
“He was very good at it,’’ Negron remenisced.
Rick Camp, July 4th.
That is quite a Fourth of July memory. Here is another.
The Mets 16-13 win over the Braves in 19 innings was one of the wildest games ever played, if not THE wildest. That’s what Braves announcer and future Yankee broadcasting legend John Sterling, who was celebrating his Yankee Doodle Dandy birthday that day, said at the time when Braves pitcher Rick Camp, batting .060 for his career, hit a home run to tie the game in the 18th inning.
With two outs and Camp coming to the plate, the Mets waved their outfielders in with catcher Gary Carter directing traffic. After strike one from left-hander Tom Gorman, Sterling said to his partner Ernie Johnson, “Ernie, if he hits a home run to tie this game, this game will be certified as absolutely the nuttiest in the history of baseball.’’
Then came strike two. Gorman threw the next pitch.
“And he hits it to deep left,’’ Sterling shouted. “Holy cow! Oh my goodness, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. Rick Camp! Rick Camp! I don’t believe it. Remember what I just said, if he hits a home run that certifies this game as the wackiest, wildest, most improbably game in history … if you told me John Sterling was going to run for president and win that wouldn’t be any more improbably and I’ve got to tell you that’s improbable. Un-Be-Lievable!’’
Of course, with today’s new Manfred Rules that have cheapened the game across the board and especially in extra innings, the chances of a game going 19 innings are pretty much impossible with the Fake Runner on second base every inning to jump start each team’s offense.
So be it. We have our memories before Manfred came along to screw up the game.
Longtime Mets public relations guru Jay Horwitz was at the game that ended at 3:55 in the morning of July 5. It was the latest ending to a game until the Padres and Phillies finished the second game of a doubleheader that ended at 4:40 in the morning at the Vet.
I was at that game, by the way, of course. Someday I will tell you that story.
Horwitz was sitting with Mets scouting director Joe McIlvaine and he remembers searching the ballpark for food in extra innings. No hot dogs in the ballpark, no pretzels, no nothing. The concession workers left at midnight.
“I remember they shot off the fireworks at the end of the game,’’ Horwitz told BallNine. “You knew it was a bad sign when you got back to the hotel and the USA Today was in front of my door.’’
Another legend in the game, among insiders was the Braves visiting clubhouse attendant John Holland. He remembers reliever Roger McDowell eating seven cheeseburgers that game. In the major leagues it always comes back to the spread. Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle. Davey Johnson was ejected. Everything happened in this game where the Mets collected 28 hits and catcher Gary Carter caught all 19 innings. The next night Clint Hurdle caught for the Mets.
The game was scheduled to start at 7:30 but there was a 90-minute rain delay at the start. There was a second rain delay and Mets starter Dwight Gooden, on his way to a Cy Young season, was pulled after the second delay and went back to the team’s hotel.
“Dwight went to sleep, woke up at 3:30 in the morning, turned on the TV and the game was still going on,’’ Horwitz said. “The game was six hours and 10 minutes plus the two rain delays. I can still remember Danny Heep’s reaction in left field as Camp’s ball went over the fence.’’
The video is classic as Heep throws his hands on top of his head in disbelief.
“What a game,’’ Horwitz said, “What a night. What a morning.’’
With fireworks and all, a Fourth of July memory for the ages.
And that is as good as it gets.