Cathedral hosted plenty of characters
Yankee Stadium served as center stage to more than baseball
As Yankee Stadium turns toward its final week and we begin to wrap the long good-bye to the monuments and colonnade at 161st and River, it is worth remembering that the place hasn't always been simply a cathedral and a crucible of baseball legend.Sometimes, it's just been a cuckoo's nest. Jimmy Piersall flew over it one day in the early '60s. Cleveland teammate Tito Francona recalled how the outfielder "ran to second base and did jumping jacks. Then he ran behind the monuments and sat down." Just Jimmy being Manny -- Ramirez that is -- another outfielder who split his American League career between the Indians and the Red Sox? It hasn't always marked hallowed ground. Sometimes it's just been the playground of men with hollow heads. Left-hander David Wells, signed as a free agent, checked into Spring Training camp in 1997 and asked for uniform No. 3 -- that of his idol and body double, Babe Ruth. Told the number had been retired, only about 50 years earlier, Wells moved on to No. 33. Before Mystique and Aura, there were Marilyn Peterson and Susan Kekich. During Spring Training 1973, Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapped their wives, their kids, their dogs. Peterson and Kekich were both left-handers, what were the chances of that? Club emeritus executive Dan Topping's immediate reaction to the swap: "We may have to call off Family Day this season." You may not remember who said, "To play in the big leagues, you've got to be a man, but you've got to have a lot of little boy in you, too." But we're pretty sure the guy who added, "You also gotta be a good listener," had Casey Stengel in mind. The Yankees manager once instructed the squad, "All right everyone, line up alphabetically according to your height." Funny thing about Stengel: He is mostly remembered as the dynastic double-talking manager, but he was also a terrific player. He hit the first World Series home run in Yankee Stadium (Game 1, 1923) and, as he himself would invite, "You could look it up." As such, the "Ol' Perfessor" reflected both sides of the Yankee Stadium coin: stupendous players who could do stupefying things. Start with the man who "built" the place. Ruth, besides being a fabulous talent and the sport's patron saint, was a character who would have been as at home on Broadway's burlesque stages as he was on the diamond.
Ruth was a carouser, a big eater with a big heart, a sponge when it came to drinking. A man of flair who loved playing to crowds that adored him. He neither missed nor had to pay for many meals.In baseball, he was an original. But when it came to one-liners, he was a Rodney Dangerfield. Like the time he was pulled over by one of New York's finest for driving up a one-way street. The Babe's defense? "Well, I was only going one way!" Had curtain calls been popular in Ruth's day, doubtless he would've been elicited for countless. And when he emerged from the dugout to tip his cap, chances are he would've flashed a leaf of lettuce atop his head -- his pet way of keeping cool on summer days. But don't worry, the Babe wouldn't wear wilted lettuce any more than eat it. He used to change it every couple of innings. Stengel favored more animated things under his lid. We don't mean his brain, which was always whirring and would enable him to win 1,905 games as a manager. He once strode up to bat and, reacting to the crowd's cheers, tipped his cap -- from under which flew a sparrow he had planted while sitting in the dugout earlier. Mickey Mantle, another storybook player, had his own loose ends, mostly on the dry side. The Mick's most famous foil may have been on Phil Linz, who played both the infield and the harmonica, neither very well. Any mention of Linz, a cameo Major Leaguer who had a total of 96 RBIs in a seven-year career, triggers memories of the day in 1964 when he blew into that harmonica and Yogi Berra, then the Yankees manager, blew a fuse. Linz had been tooling with the instrument on a team bus ride from Chicago's Comiskey Park, following a loss. Riding up front, Berra turned around and yelled for him to knock it off. Linz hadn't caught all of Berra's words, and asked the center fielder sitting next to him what the skipper had said. "Play it louder," the helpful Mantle explained. Linz did, and next thing he knew, the manager was in his face and the harmonica was flying across the bus. Berra and Mantle are both in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Linz, although going on to become a very successful New York restaurateur and businessman, is still waiting for a call from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or at least The Grand Old Opry. If all the characters of an 85-year slapstick held a parade, oh, what a procession it would be: Ed Whitson, the pitcher so spooked by booing fans that the Yankees announced in 1986 that the free-agent signee would pitch only on the road. Whitson, of course, might have been better received had he broken a few more bats and one less arm attached to manager Billy Martin. Dan Cunningham's grounds crew, pausing while dragging the infield to drop their screens and form a Y-M-C-A chorus line. Mel Hall, the outfielder who rigged out each of his uniform pants pockets with three pairs of batting gloves, so they would flap behind him on his occasional home-run trots. Hall also took the "Bronx Zoo" label a little too seriously, keeping cougars and mountain lions in his Trump Towers apartment and making things interesting in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse on Take Your Pet To Work Day. Scott Harper, the fan who jumped down to and became a sitting dunce on the Yankee Stadium netting during a game in August 2000. That's when some people began referring to the net behind home plate as a "bipolar bear trap." Oscar Gamble, the outfielder who was 6-foot-7 with his Afro and 5-foot-11 without. He had a promotional deal in place with the hair-grooming product Afro Sheen before, alas, George Steinbrenner ordered him to cut it out or, rather, off. The Yankee Stadium bartender whom you don't want to ask for a Perrier or he'll disdainfully remind you, "This is the Bronx, not Paris." The inimitable Mr. Wells, who once took the mound under a genuine Babe Ruth cap he'd purchased from a memorabilia dealer. Jeffrey Maier. His name is all that needs to be said -- except for a repudiation of the rumor that he got two votes for postseason MVP in 1996, as the Yankees won their first World Series in 18 years. Cliff Johnson, the affable but physically ferocious DH, who goosed himself out of the Bronx by messing up Rich Gossage's thumb during a shower room brawl in 1979. The thousands of nameless bleacherites who shout out the names of the Yankees starters in the top of the first of every game. Alex Rodriguez, slap-happy against Bronson Arroyo in the 2004 AL Championship Series; Carl Pavano, an American Idle even Simon Cowell loves; Billy Martin in an umpire's face; Reggie Jackson on a candy bar and the one-and-only Boss changing managers the way most people change channels. They all loved to entertain New York, and it was anything but unrequited love.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.