By Michael Lewis
When I have had the privilege and honor of being a guest speaker or a guest lecturer at journalism classes, especially at Queens College, I usually remind students that they should be ready to meet their heroes.
A few years into the world of media, reporters — written, radio and TV — will probably run into athletes they had admired while growing up.
It has happened to all of us, and yes, it has happened to me – in the most glorious way in the summer of ’73.
As a summer intern in the Newsday sports department, I was getting all sorts of assignments.
I have said this so many times that the summer of 1973 was the best summer ever. For the first time in my life I got to life the life of a sportswriter. True, it was essentially a general assignment writer, doing this, that and everything else. But I loved the challenges, covering sailboat races, shark-fishing tournaments (that was two years before Jaws) and even a tennis tournament that included Dr. Richard Raskin (the future Renee Richards).
A couple of weeks before Yankees Old-Timers Day on Aug. 11, I asked sports editor Stan Isaacs if I could have that Saturday off. I explained to him why.
As it turned out, he didn’t give me the day off. The gears in his creative brain was turning. Why not give the kid the opportunity to cover the Old-Timers ceremony and the game? It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Tony Kornheiser, of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, was assigned to cover the game that day and we worked out a game plan. My job was pretty simple. One by one I interviewed the former players on what they thought about the demolition of the original Yankee Stadium. Yep, 1973 was the final year of the old, grand stadium. The Yankees were going to share Shea Stadium with the New York Mets for the 1974 and 1975 seasons (which is another story and mess).
I got some really good comments while meeting the heroes of my youth:
Ralph Terry, then a pro golfer who won 23 games and endured the agony of giving up a World Series ending home run in 1962 before redeeming himself by pitching a game of a lifetime in the seventh game of the 1962 Fall Classic (the ninth inning was a true Fall Classic).
Phil Rizzuto, the great Yankees shortstop whom I heard on the radio and TV for years.
Joe DiMaggio, who I never saw perform, but someone I had held in high esteem.
Elston Howard, one of the classiest ball players around who was a premier catcher.
Whitey Ford, No. 16, the number I used when I played baseball with my friends.
Whitey Witt, the first player to bat at the stadium.
Gil McDougald, a great infielder who could play second, short and third.
And Don Larsen, who pitched that perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
It seemed I spoke to just about every former Yankee but the big catch of the day — The Mick. He had retired in 1969 and like many youngsters in the tri-state area, he was my hero, an icon, even if he was toppled from his pedestal in Jim Bouton’s 1970 book, Ball Four.
Hero worship from your youth was difficult to shake, at least at that time (heck, I accepted all of his warts and imperfections).
The big joke among the writers was that Mantle was hiding from the media in his favorite place in the stadium — the trainers’ room.
One by one, the writers from the other papers went to the press box to file their stories before the game itself.
Because I didn’t have to write a story, I decided to stay and wait for the big guy.
It was worth the wait. Minutes before the ceremonies were about to begin, I saw this broad-shoulder person with the No. 7 on his back walking toward the clubhouse door that led to the field.
So, it was no joke. Mantle was in the trainers’ room.
I never moved so fast in my life and got in between Mantle and the door.
Here was my big moment. Would I become a fan and slobber over my childhood hero and stumbled over my questions or would I be a professional journalist?
I was the latter and asked The Mick the same questions I had queried to his former teammates.
“I don’t like seeing them change Yankee Stadium. This has been the ballpark of ball players. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio. It’s a shame they have to change it, but that’s modern times … and I guess they have to do it.”
I returned to the press box with my prize and told Kornheiser what I unearthed, that no one else had. He wound up writing the story, but told me
Truth be told, Kornheiser wrote a marvelous story that day and I know I could not have gotten close to his prose. But, looking back, it would have been nice to have gotten a shared byline or something at the bottom of the story (which many papers and websites do today that Michael Lewis contributed to the story).
Newsday turned out to be the only paper with Mantle quotes. Kornheiser used it as his first quote in the fourth paragraph of the story.
For a 21-year-old, that was a big deal.
As for the marquee game, the Oakland A’s defeated the Yankees, 7-3, with Vida Blue recording his 12th victory en route to his second 20-game winning season. I was dispatched to the Oakland A’s locker room to interview the talented left-hander Bolstered with confidence thanks to the Mantle quote, not only did I ask questions, but essentially led the interview among the other, more veteran writers (Blue looked at me a lot during the scrum interview; perhaps because I was closer to his age than the other writers, only being three years older than me).
I returned to the press box to give Kornheiser those quotes as well.
I could write a thesis on what I learned about life and journalism during those four months in the summer of 1973.
So, what did I learn about the Mantle scenario?
Sometimes life is about being lucky.
Sometimes life is about being there.
Sometimes life and journalism is about being patient, waiting and sometimes thinking just a bit out of the box. Or in this case, just a bit out of the batter’s box.