George Steinbrenner made his fortune in shipbuilding, and earned his fame in baseball. But in his heart of hearts, what Steinbrenner always yearned to be was a showman, a Broadway impresario, a little bit P.T. Barnum, a little bit George M. Cohan. The Yankees were his life, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” his muse.
“From the first day he owned the team he wanted to make the Stadium experience fun from start to finish,” says Marty Appel, who spent some time as a Yankee PR man early in Steinbrenner’s tenure and is now one of the encyclopedic authorities of Yankees history. “One of his partners was James Nederlander [producer of ‘La Cage Aux Folles,’ among many others]. He loved everything about New York City, but may have loved Broadway most.”
So it was that Steinbrenner walked from his press-level office at Yankee Stadium out into the main stadium one afternoon in the late spring of 1980. Steinbrenner was also an aficionado of the city’s finest nightspots, including “Le Club,” a trendy discotheque in those days located on East 55th Street, steps from the FDR Drive.
Steinbrenner had wanted to expand the Stadium’s musical selections from the standard between-innings organ stylings of Eddie Layton to some more contemporary-sounding numbers. A disc jockey at Le Club made a few suggestions, none of which moved the needle in his imagination.
Then the DJ sent a tape of a song he’d been playing regularly from one of Steinbrenner’s all-time favorites, Frank Sinatra. Earlier that year, Sinatra had released “Trilogy” a three-disc set that was selling well; the lead single made a slow, steady climb up the charts until it reached a peak of 32 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 on June 14, 1980.
Steinbrenner had heard “New York, New York” plenty, because it was impossible to own a radio that spring and not hear it. He was also familiar with the original version of the John Kander/Fred Ebb composition sung by Liza Minnelli, from a failed movie of the same name released three years earlier.
But he was about to hear it a whole different way.
“CBS [which owned the Yankees from 1964 until Steinbrenner took over in January 1973] didn’t leave a lot of memorable legacies,” Appel says. “One they did was install a state-of-the art public-address system in 1967, using their very best technicians to enhance the sound. That was still in use in 1980 and still gave you chills.”
Now a Stadium electrician hooked “New York, New York” into the sound system and hit play.
And it was thrilling.
Through the roster of amplifiers, spilling throughout the empty stadium, the opening tinkle of cymbals led to the soon-to-be universally memorized five-note brass explosion — for generations of overserved patrons, all that’s necessary to instantly recognize the song: “bob-bop-BOP-ba-bop …”
And then, for the first time, Steinbrenner paid attention to the lyrics — and for a kid from Cleveland who dreamed his whole life of making it in New York, you can only imagine the impact of hearing Sinatra sing, “These little-town blues … are melting away ….”
But that wasn’t what sold him.
This sold him:
“King of the hill … top of the heap … A-number-1 … top of the list …
“THAT’S US!” Steinbrenner exclaimed. “THAT’S THE YANKEES!!!”
The DJ had also included the Liza version; the Boss liked that one too, a lot, but …
“But he was a Sinatra guy,” Appel says. “Because who isn’t?”
Immediately — as in starting the very next game, a date lost to history but somewhere awfully close to now in that first-place summer of 1980 — the final out of every game was greeted with the cymbals, with “bob-bop-BOP-ba-bop,” with “Start spreadin’ the news …”
For a time, someone thought it smart to save the Sinatra song for wins and to use the Liza version for losses, but Steinbrenner was too big of a Liza fan to allow that and that Yankee tradition vanished quicker than Ruben Rivera.
Instead, 40 years later, an essential part of the rhythm of a Yankees game is walking out of the ballpark to The Chairman crooning about his vagabond shoes, longing to stray. It is no longer reserved just for wins. It just feels that way.