Cooperstown Confidential: The wonder of Old-Timers’ Day

Twenty-nine major league teams do not hold an Old-Timers’ Day each summer. The reasons for such apathy vary, depending on your source. Some team officials think that it is too expensive and too time-consuming, that it is simply not worth the effort. Others think that there is little point in dwelling on the past, when most fans come out to see a team’s current-day stars.

Those teams can think all of that, but they would be wrong. That’s because Old-Timers’ Day doesn’t just serve some nebulous public relations purpose. It is a day for each team to celebrate its tradition and history, as a way of furthering its modern day brand. Old-Timers’ Day is the premier special day that any team (at least any established team that has at least 40 years worth of history) can have. Baseball is a game whose history matters, and Old-Timers’ Day gives us all a very public opportunity to celebrate that history.

Old-Timers’ Days aren’t just good promotions; they’re the best promotions that teams can stage because they offer enjoyment for all parties involved. The old-timers certainly appreciate them for the opportunities to reunite with former teammates while enjoying a brief, expenses-paid vacation. Even today’s players enjoy the experience, given the chance to mingle with some legendary figures, perhaps picking up some advice with the added bonus of a few autographs. And fans who are in their 30s or older love Old-Timers’ Days because they stir up memories of the teams of their youth, and at no extra cost. In other words, everybody wins.

So why has Old-Timers’ Day become such an afterthought in the era of the bobblehead doll? Some teams claim they’re too expensive, while others say they simply involve too much work, since there is so much planning and preparation involved. Well, both factors play a role here, but they really serve as excuses more than legitimate reasons. While an Old-Timers’ Day program is certainly more expensive than most promotional events, a good one featuring about 50 former players can still be staged for less than the current salary of a utility infielder—and that’s nothing in the multi-billion dollar industry that baseball has become.

As for the work involved, most major league teams have far more front office employees today than they did 30 to 40 years ago, when Old-Timers’ Days were all the rage. Simply put, every team has the staff to get the job done. And when it’s done right, it pays off in ways far more rewarding than yet another “Bobblehead Night” or “Key Chain Day.”

In spite of all the benefits, the Yankees are the lone team that continues to stage a full-fledged Old-Timers’ Day. They do it each summer, usually to a capacity crowd. Last Sunday, the Yankees held their 66th Old-Timers’ Day, continuing a tradition that essentially began with “Lou Gehrig Day” on July 4, 1939. Although that event wasn’t actually referred to as an Old-Timers’ Day per se, it was effectively a reunion of former Yankees standouts who were brought together to pay homage to the dying Gehrig.

Seven years later, the Yankees introduced their first official “Old-Timers’ Day” to the franchise’s promotional slate. Starting in 1946, it has been an annual event. Rather than concentrate the honors on one retired player, as with Gehrig, the event became a celebration of team-wide accomplishments that had taken place over the years. Inviting a number of the team’s former stars to Yankee Stadium, the Yankees introduced each one over the public address system, with each player acknowledging the applause from the 70,000-plus fans in attendance at the original Stadium.

The capacity of the new stadium is far less than that, but the atmosphere at Old-Timers’ Day remains electric, something tangibly different than any other home game on the calendar. On Sunday, the loudest cheers were heard for Bernie Williams, with other rousing ovations for Joe Torre and the franchise’s elder statesmen, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. For me, the introductions of the retired greats are the best part of Old-Timers Day, with each introduction stirring memories of the player during his days in pinstripes.

As each player is introduced over the public address system, I am reminded of stories and plot lines surrounding each player, some trivial and some more pertinent. Here are random recollections of some of the old-time Yankees who came back to the Stadium on Sunday:

Joe Pepitone was a colorful and outgoing player, one who was equipped with a full set of personality quirks. Pepi used to wear some of the worst toupees in major league history. He tended to those toupees with a hair dryer, creating quite a stir in the 1960s when he became the first major leaguer to bring a blow dryer into the clubhouse. That might not sound like a headlining piece of information, but back in the day, that was considered a major taboo in a major league clubhouse. Thanks to Pepitone, today’s big leaguers are now free to keep all kinds of hairstyling equipment in their lockers…

The Yankees erroneously introduced Jerry Coleman as a Hall of Fame inductee—he’s not, he’s a onetime winner of the Ford Frick broadcasting award—but he was a fine fielding second baseman long before he became nationally known for his malapropisms in the announcer’s booth. Far more importantly, he’s also an under-appreciated military hero; Coleman saw combat in both World War II and the Korean War, earning himself the nickname of “The Colonel.” As a Marine Corps aviator, he flew 120 missions in combat and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses…

Pat Kelly is the best defensive second baseman I’ve seen in pinstripes. Granted, I never saw Bobby Richardson play, but I have seen Willie Randolph and Robinson Cano, and Kelly outshined both of them in the middle infield.

Kelly had it all defensively—great range to both sides, good hands, and a fine throwing arm. It’s just unfortunate that when he came up, he found himself blocked by Steve Sax, which resulted in the Yankees moving Kelly to third base, where he was not as developed. Kelly also never developed as a hitter, which affected his staying power and prevented him from being a significant part of the 1996-2001 dynasty…

An argument could be made that Brian Doyle, and not Bucky Dent, should have been named MVP of the 1978 World Series. Dent batted .417 with an .898 OPS in the six-game win over the Dodgers, but Doyle performed even better, hitting .438 with an OPS of .938. Such a Ruthian hitting display was not typical of Doyle. After the 1980 season, the Yankees left him exposed in the Rule Five draft, where he was taken by the Oakland A’s. By the end of the 1981 season, Doyle was out of the major leagues and pursuing fulltime work as the co-director, along with brothers Denny and Blake, of a respected baseball academy in Florida…

Speaking of Dent, he achieved his signature moment on Oct. 2, 1978, when he hit that pennant-changing home run against Mike Torrez in the AL East one-game playoff, but it is his 1974 Topps card that always comes to my mind. For some reason, that card lists Dent’s position as third base, even though he played only two innings at the hot corner in 1973. In fact, Dent would never appear in another game at third base until his final season in 1984, when he filled in as a utility man for the Royals. And if you remember Dent as a Royal—I know I don’t—then you are a true baseball diehard…

Charlie Hayes became a permanent part of Yankees lore when he caught Mark Lemke’s
pop-up to record the final out of the 1996 World Series. That’s appropriate for a guy who was a fine defensive third baseman, one of the game’s best of the 1990s.

Although he always looked out-of-shape and overweight, Hayes was one of the smoothest third basemen I’ve ever seen. No, he wasn’t as good as Graig Nettles, and probably wasn’t the equal of Scott Brosius, but he had angelically soft hands and the range of a shortstop, making him a delight to watch even during some lean Yankees seasons…

I’ve written enough material on Oscar Gamble’s signature Afro to fill an E-book, but on another front his career offers a fascinating portrait into the evolution of a young player. When he was a minor league outfielder in the late 1960s, the Cubs regarded him as a slap-hitting speedster, a “whippet,” to use the parlance of the day. He never hit more than eight home runs in a minor league season. As a major leaguer, Gamble emerged as a completely different type of player, a left-handed slugger who once hit 31 homers in a season. By the mid-1970s, Gamble was regarded as an average runner at best, to the point where no one talked about his speed. Sometimes you just don’t know with young players…

Roy White has become a Sabermetric favorite, a player who was underrated throughout his career but is now correctly regarded as a fine all-round outfielder and switch-hitter. He was also one of the few major leaguers to gain traction playing in the Japanese Leagues, where he spent three seasons of his career. Batting as the cleanup man behind the legendary Sadaharu Oh, White played very well in his first two seasons in the Far East. He made the All-Star team the first season and helped the Tokyo Giants to the championship the next. In his third year with Tokyo, White found himself playing a utility role, but he fought his way back into the lineup and hit .330 the rest of the way. At season’s end, White decided to call it quits, leaving the game on a high note, very appropriate for a player of his value…

As a frontline member of four world championship teams, Bernie Williams compiled a borderline Hall of Fame resume. He was also a player whose physique and appearance changed drastically throughout his career. When he first joined the Yankees in 1991, he was as thin as Juncus Rush and wore oversized wire-frame glasses. He looked more like a grad student than a top-notch center field prospect who would provide a cornerstone to the Yankee dynasty. By the late 1990s, Williams had ditched the glasses for contact lenses and added about 30 pounds of muscle to his wiry frame. As Williams transformed himself, so did the Yankees, progressing from the embarrassment of 1990 and 1991 to three-time world championship status in the late 1990s and 2000…

Mickey Rivers liked to bet on the horses, and often lost considerable amounts of money doing so. Sometimes the financial defeats at the horse track left Rivers so upset that he failed to hustle on the base paths and in the field. At other times, he simply felt too depressed to play. Word of Rivers’ unsettled emotional state would circulate the clubhouse until it filtered into the office of owner George Steinbrenner. Realizing that something had to be done, “The Boss” would then slip some money into a white envelope and have it delivered to Rivers, whose depression would give way to a renewed enthusiasm in playing that day. Those “white envelopes” became a delicious part of Yankee lore in the 1970s…

I first encountered Lou Piniella three years after his retirement from playing. By then, he was the Yankees’ manager, with a reputation for losing his temper almost as quickly as Billy Martin.

In 1987, the Yankees played the Braves in the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown. My strongest memory of that weekend involved Piniella. Covering the event for WIBX Radio in Utica, I was assigned to do on-field interviews prior to the game. I targeted Piniella as one of my prime interviews. I made my way in his direction, winding my way through a small army of media types that swarmed Doubleday Field; we soon made eye contact. As I drew closer, Piniella’s blank expression became a scowl, followed immediately by a dismissive wave of the hand. Stopping dead in my tracks for a moment, I then realized that Piniella was gesturing toward someone else. Relieved that he hadn’t dismissed me, I was nonetheless intimidated, and gave up my pursuit of the interview. I figured I’d better not press my luck with Sweet Lou…

Reggie Jackson has never been able to steer far from controversy, even when the controversy should not have mattered in the first place. Long before he came to the Yankees as a celebrated free agent, the Mets had the chance to make Jackson the first overall pick in the 1967 amateur draft. Instead, they chose a young catcher named Steve Chilcott, who would never play a single game in the major leagues. For many years now, rumors have swirled that the Mets decided to bypass Jackson because he dated white women. Some question this rumor—and I suppose there might not be a definitive answer since many Mets officials from that era are now deceased—but I believe the story, especially given the presence of George Weiss as Mets general manager. Though he was highly intelligent, well-organized and an astute judge of talent, Weiss did not have much affinity for the cause of civil rights, at least as it applied to baseball…

In the midst of the 1990 season, I remember hearing the news that The Yankees had acquired Matt Nokes, who only three years earlier had hit 32 home runs as a rookie catcher for the Tigers. In the midst of an otherwise disastrous season, I was ecstatic that the Yankees had acquired a left-handed hitting catcher of such prominence and youth.

Little did I know that the Nokes of 1990 was not the rookie phenom of 1987. American League pitchers began to realize that Nokes could kill low fastballs, but struggled against curveballs. (On a broader level, just about everybody’s offensive numbers received a bump in 1987, perhaps because of something that appeared to be going on with the manufacturing of baseballs.) Not only would Nokes not hit 32 home runs again, but he also didn‘t draw many walks. That’s not to say that Nokes was a bad offensive player. He hit with real power for the Yankees in 1990 and ‘91, putting together a series of multiple-home run games during the latter campaign. He just wasn’t the second coming of Lance Parrish or Bill Freehan, as some Tigers fans had anticipated during the summer of ‘87…

Yogi Berra is rarely mentioned as the greatest catcher of all time, but at worst he deserves to be ranked among the top five, and might be the third greatest overall behind Johnny Bench and Josh Gibson. While those players looked the part of professional ballplayers, Berra did not. With his big ears and that frumpy build, Yogi looked more like a team mascot. And then there was his unusual approach at the plate. The ultimate free swinger, Berra liked to offer at any pitch near the strike zone. Yet, he rarely struck out. In 1950, he came to bat 597 times and struck out only 12 times, while clubbing 28 home runs. A remarkable achievement for a Hall of Fame player who defied the odds in so many ways…

Ron Guidry’s 25-3 campaign in 1978 remains one of the greatest pitching seasons of the last 35 years. It was during that season that Guidry entered the national consciousness. Pitching on a Saturday night in June against the California Angels, Guidry compiled 18 strikeouts.

I remember watching snippets of that game while attending a party with my parents at our cousins’ house. Whenever a dull moment permitted, I slipped into the TV room to catch a glimpse of the game. Guidry appeared positively unhittable. Even capable right-handed hitters like Bobby Grich, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor, and Brian Downing looked like overmatched rookies facing the fastballs and sliders of “Louisiana Lightning.” That night also marked the birth of a Yankee Stadium tradition. Each time Guidry reached two strikes on the batter, the fans stood up and began cheering loudly in anticipation of another strikeout. The custom carries on to this day…

Few major league starters employ a no-windup delivery these days, but Bob Turley used just that approach to improve his erratic control. Even with the no-windup, he still threw the ball hard, enough to earn the nickname “Bullet Bob.” With a fastball in the 93 to 95 mph range, Turley led the American League in strikeouts in 1954 as a member of the Orioles.

But it was with the Yankees where Turley gained most of his game. It took a record 17-player trade to bring him to New York, with Turley joined by Don Larsen, with the likes of Gus Triandos, Willy Miranda and Gene Woodling moving to Baltimore.

I wonder how Whitey Ford would have been treated in today’s game. While he was unquestionably the ace of the Yankee staffs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was only 5-foot-10 and lacked an overpowering fastball. He relied on a mix of breaking pitches, tremendous guile, and even a little doctoring of the ball in mastering American League hitters. With such emphasis on the radar gun in today’s game, placing a premium on fastballs that can approach 95 mph, Ford would not likely have been a high draft choice and might have been stymied in efforts to gain a fast promotion through a minor league system.

That’s not to say that Ford would not have been successful—I believe he would have been a top tier starter today—but he definitely would have needed to overcome the stigma that comes with being a finesse pitcher in today’s game…

While Ford did not have the classic build preferred in a pitcher, Luis Arroyo might have been regarded as a circus sideshow by some of today’s scouts. At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, Arroyo could charitably be described as “stocky,” though some scouts might have preferred calling him “chunky.” Arroyo did not throw particularly hard, which coupled with a streak of wildness, explained his early-career struggles in the National League.

After being acquired from the Reds, Arroyo turned his career around in the middle of 1960; he refined the screwball, which became a devastating out-pitch for him. He pitched well during the second half of 1960 before blossoming in 1961, a season that saw him lead the league with 65 games and 29 saves, while winning 15 games (all in relief) and posting a 2.19 ERA in 119 innings pitched. Remarkably, he did this all at the age of 34…

In addition to being a Hall of Fame caliber reliever, Rich Gossage was an absolute workhorse. In contrast to today’s fashionable pitching patterns, which usually require no more than one inning per night from a closer, “The Goose” often pitched multiple innings, and sometimes that meant the seventh, eighth and ninth innings on his way to recording saves.

Four times in his career, he piled up 100 or more innings as a relief pitcher. As the bullpen ace for the 1978 Yankees, Gossage pitched more innings than either Catfish Hunter or Jim Beattie, the team’s fourth and fifth starters, respectively. How many closers in today’s game log more innings than their teams’ No. 4 starters? I can’t think of any.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Considering all the crap that teams assault fans with at games these days-dancing fans, silly contests, blaring music, etc., it’s crazy that more teams don’t do Old-Timers Day.

  2. TC said...

    For it’s first 100 years, one of the things that set baseball apart from all other sports was its sense of continuity. That what a player did today was not in a vacuum but part of a rich history. The records, while not always definitive, were recognizable and comparisons could be made. With the bust up of so many records over the last 30 years, begin with the homerun records, it will take a generation or two to sanctify them, if they hold up that long. For those of you old enough to remember, there was a time when hockey’s sacred number was 50 goals per season. Then they watered the sport down and only dedicated hockey fans could tell you what the single season record is. Just like 60 and then 61 homreruns. Someday, if it holds, Barry Bonds HR record will be known to every small boy and when it is inevitably assaulted by some future slugger, it will cause a whirlwind of interest and controversy. But for now, baseballs history is pretty skewed. What are the records and what to make of them? I think Old Timers days will come back, some day, when Mark McGwire and Barry are forgiven and accepted as part of what happened in all sports. It wouldn’t hurt to move past the controversies, accept the players for the time that they played in, and begin honoring again the tremendous accomplishments and stirring events that have filled baseballs recent history.
    Baseball, more than any other sport needs Old Timers day. Without the continuity, baseball will be just “another” sport.

  3. Paul G. said...

    Pay Kelly also suffered from unreasonable expectations.  During those bad-to-mediocre teams of the early 90s, the announcers would talk him up as being the second baseman for the next decade, a piece in the future Yankee championship.  He was a decent player but anything less than Willie Randolph was going to be a disappointment in those conditions.  He also had the bad habit of going on the DL whenever he got hit with a pitch, if my memory serves me.

    Charlie Hayes is also infamous for being lost to the Colorado Rockies in the expansion draft.  The Yankees figured the expansion teams would focus on young prospects and were completely blindsided.  Oh, there were some upset people in Bomberland….

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    Paul, excellent memory on Hayes. Third base was a black hole for years for the Yankees, who finally found a decent one in Hayes. Then they lost him in the expansion draft, receiving nothing in return. At the time, I was furious!

  5. Michael Caragliano said...

    Well said, Bruce. I’m surprised that a few more teams don’t use Old-Timers Day. A tradition-rich team like the Dodgers, Cardinals, Reds or Giants should have enough stars or fan favorites that cover two or three generations worth of glory days. People talk about how baseball is a game with traditions and a storied past. Why not dust off the past in Detroit, let’s say, and have Jack Morris lob one in to Lance Parrish, or Bill Freehan throw down to second and catch Ron LeFlore?

    Teams don’t realize the marketing potential behind a day like that. One day that brings back the past should kindle the interest of a few thousand fans to snap up tickets, or inch the TV ratings up a bit as fans see the old-timers and say, “Yeah, I wondered what happened to him”. The Mets, for instance- a team that seemingly has thrown its past into the collective shoe-box of memory and stuffed it in the bottom of the closet- saw one of their biggest crowds in CitiField history when they brought back Banner Day to mark the team’s 50th anniversary.

    Let’s not forget that the present is tomorrow’s past. You think some twelve-year-old kid in the stands today in Citizen’s Bank Park wouldn’t want to go back to the park when he’s 32 and see if Ryan Howard can still reach the seats in right? “Old-timers” should conjure more of an image for the marketing deaprtment than just the bronze statues outside the park.

  6. Paul E said...

    Bruce:
      I ran across an interesting photo the other day. How about old-timers day in Houston, 1968 and Jimmy Wynn getting former Houston minor leaguer Dizzy Dean’s autograph? Jimmy’s got an old-school cardigan sweater on and Dean is in his old Cardinals uniform, about a head taller than Wynn. I’d figure out how to add the link, if I could. You’re just going to have to “google” “images” and just search “Jimmy Wynn Dizzy Dean”. There is a great article on the actual old-timers game that was played that day as well

  7. Cliff Blau said...

    Re: Pat Kelly at third-  the Yankees tried playing Steve Sax there, but that was a complete disaster.

  8. TR said...

    I am glad The Yankees continue to hold Old Timers Day. It is just you realize ones own mortality. I went to my first Old Timers game in 1968. At the age of eight the 1964 Series and the ‘62 Series win where as distant and a myth that New York once had three baseball teams. Hearing the names and seeing middle age men and distinguished older gentlemen who I had heard about from my father felt I was seeing actual living legends, Dimaggio, Dickey and seeing those two broadcasters, Rizzouto and Coleman in uniform, Mrs Ruth and Gehrig would attend some years.  As the years went by and the Yankees reestablished winning teams it was nice to see some of the guys who though they never won where part of my youth Horace Clarke and Gene Michael up the middle Jake Gibbs behind the plate. Today I’m sure youngsters will be told about the legendary performances of Reggie Jackson and Goose but when you actually saw them in there hay days it just isn’t the same you new they where not built on Mt Olympus, where Ruth and Gehrig where sculpted and gee they do look kind of old and they didn’t win every year,. And lastly you realize as they introduce Williams and O’Neill from the last Yankee dynasty that some old timers are younger then you!  Great article Bruce

  9. Joe Argen said...

    Bruce, if you are ever in Utica again, you should join us for a game of Strat-o-matic, and O’Scunizzio’s Pizza.

  10. Scottso said...

    What used to make the Old Timers’ Game more exciting for the fans is they used to have the Our guys vs Their guys squads.  The Yankees would have a team of Former Yankees play vs a squad of rivals filled with Indians, Red Sox, and Tigers.

    almost every team could fill an old timers day with players from their past and their rivals.

  11. bob magee said...

    I once met Bill Skowron at a cocktail party.  I rxplained to him that, while a lifelong Yankees fan, due to my age my clearer memory of him as a MLB player was 1963 WS when Skowron played for the winning Dodgers.

    However, I did tell him that I recalled seeing him at an Old Timers Game at the Stadium where he played LF.  During that game he made a running catch where he picked the liner up just before the ball hit the ground with his backhand while running toward the foul line

    His faced positively lit up

    He was as enthused as any weekend pick up player remembering that catch

    Hard to take out the little boy inside when playing baseball at any level

  12. Gallagher said...

    Need some help! Can anyone tell me where to get a list of who played in the old-timer game @ Yankee Stadium in 1981?

    Thank you so much~

  13. Paul G. said...

    Gallagher: There is some YouTube footage of the 1981 Old-Timers Game.  The comments list a number of Dodgers and Giants that were invited.  It probably won’t give you the complete list, but it should include quite a bit of the rosters.  Perhaps the person who posted it can be contacted to get more information.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kewC3thbTIo

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