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Yankee greats -- and not-so-greats -- pay final respects to Stadium

On damp, overcast Saturday afternoon, the Yankees held the final Old-Timer's Day at the Stadium, bringing back a record 72 players, from A-List legends like Yogi Berra and Reggie Jackson to D-Listers like Wayne Tolleson and Mickey Klutts. David Wells made his first Old Timer's appearance, so did Rickey Henderson and Don Baylor, and Willie Randolph returned and received a huge ovation. "It's good to be home," said Randolph.

It is a season of curtain calls at Yankee Stadium, a series of farewells, marked by the recent passing of former Yankee player and broadcaster, Bobby Murcer and highlighted by the opening ceremonies at the recent All Star Game where George Steinbrenner made what is likely to be his last Stadium appearance, Reggie Jackson followed Hank Aaron -- the only place in the world where that could even happen! -- and where Yogi Berra took the final bow.

Yogi, along with the more private Whitey Ford, is the last of the Hall of Fame old timers from baseball's golden age. Jerry Coleman, who still looks dapper in a uniform, the affable Moose Skowron, who said "I'm not doing no interviews," and five minutes later was holding court for a dozen reporters, and the reluctant Don Larson, were in attendance. But Yogi, like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, is an icon whose fame reaches beyond just New York. He's bigger than baseball. "Yogi is the most popular, beloved figure in American sports," said veteran sports writer Murray Chass.

"Baseball's most constant constant over the last sixty-some years has been Yogi Berra," writes Allen Barra in his forthcoming biography, Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee (Norton, 2009). "Like baseball itself, Yogi has never really been in fashion. Like baseball, he is too popular to be fashionable at all, and his life and achievement transcend fashion, pointing to something indelibly good in the American character."

But if Yogi is the last link to the iconic Yankees, Jackson, another Hall of Famer, is waiting in the wings. But the legends are only part of the event which is really about the tradition of winning.

"It's the Yankee lore," said Baylor. "It's what father's tell their kids."

"Unless you are a franchise with something to celebrate an old timer's day is a reminder of the team's ineptitude," historian Glenn Stout said recently. "What do you want to remember about decades of mediocrity?"

Still, the Yankees aren't the only team to hold the event. In 1921, the 1905 Giants played some other 1905 vets at a benefit for Christy Mathewson, who was dying of TB. Before that, the Red Sox staged old timer's days as well. "Guys who played in the 1870s," according to Stout. "Talk about old timers."

In the 1980s, Equitable Insurance sponsored old timer's days for every team in the majors, but the fad didn't last. When the insurance company pulled the financing, teams balked at paying to fly players in and put them up. That's never been a problem for the Yankees, who once held the event to boost attendance. "They treat their players' first class," says Chass.

"We see each other all the time, we do plenty of fantasy camps" said Oscar Gamble in the locker room before the game, motioning to former teammates Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa, Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles. "Steinbrenner keeps us working."

The first unofficial Old Timer's Day was Lou Gehrig Day in 1939, which featured the most famous speech in sports history. The entire 1927 World Champions returned for the affair. Less than 10 years later, the event began in earnest. DiMaggio hit home runs the '55 and '62 exhibitions. In '73, the final year of the original Yankee Stadium, every living member from the Yankees first championship team (1923) was invited, Casey Stengel bunny-hopped from the dugout to the field during the opening ceremonies, and Mantle homered to left against his old friend Ford. "I let him hit it," Ford said later.

The following year, says former bat boy Ray Negron, "I walked into the manager's room with some balls to sign and Casey Stengel was bent over putting on his shorts. I said, 'Casey, you can sign my balls?' and he said, 'As soon as I put mine away.'"

Yet the most memorable Yankee Old Timer's Day was in 1978. BillyMartin's tumultuous first stint as Yankee manager came to an end when he said about Steinbrenner and Jackson, "One is a born liar, and the other is convicted." Martin was forced to resign. Bob Lemon replaced him though Martin called Steinbrenner and apologized.

A fan favorite, Martin had the support of the Yankee faithful, who jammed the Yankees phone lines in protest. Old Timer's Day was less than a week later and Steinbrenner had Martin smuggled into town. His instructions to his employees were simple: "Keep him out of sight, quiet, and out of trouble." At the end of the opening ceremony, M.C. Frank Messer gave way to Bob Sheppard, who said that he had two announcements to make. The first was that Lemon would be managing the team again in '79. The crowd booed. "And coming back to manage the Yankees in 1980 ... No. 1 ...

"Before he could say the name," Sparky Lyle later remembered, "the crowd let out such a roar that you couldn't have heard it if you were sitting right next to him."

"In terms of dramatic theater," says author Bruce Markusen, "it was as timely and well orchestrated as any announcement I've seen during my lifetime as a fan. It showcased Old-Timer's at its best, combining the predictable and orderly splendor of a ceremonial day with an unexpected and newsworthy development that bordered on spontaneity."

Old Timer's Day is one of the things the Yankees do well. Diana Munson was on hand today -- her husband, Thurman, died in a plane crash 29 years ago to the day. PhilRizzuto's widow, Cora, threw out the first pitch to Derek Jeter and then she gave him a big hug. Sure, the exhibition itself can be painful to watch, though Randolph looks as agile as ever making the pivot at second base. But if anything, watching regular people -- in this case, old jocks -- trying to play baseball only serves to enhance your appreciation of just how hard it is to play the game and just how good the pros are.

And despite the fact that the Yankees boast more legends and championships than any other team, the players who often get the biggest cheers are lesser, or more recent, stars -- Murcer, Don Mattingly, and now, Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez. DiMaggio may have been called the greatest living player while he was alive, but he wasn't cheered as passionately as Mattingly was in the late '90s. Which makes sense because after all, how many fans that actually saw the old guys play are still alive, let alone at the ballpark?

"It is sad without Bobby," said Gene "Stick" Michael. Sheppard, the 97-year-old P.A. announcer did not make it out. He hasn't been at the park all year, and he was missed. "I feel old until I think of Sheppard," said Michael.

The most conspicuously absent Yankee was Bernie Williams, who apparently is still sore at the organization. Whether he's being spiteful or the Yankees are giving him a hard time, is hard to say, but it's a shame, like hearing about two family members that are fighting. Bernie should have been there, one last time at the old park -- he would have gotten the biggest hand of them all.

"When they tear it down, the Gods will go with it," said Wells.

But the legends will continue to gather, regardless.

"Everything comes to an end," said Darryl Strawberry, "You can't stop it. Everyone dies, places change. But you aren't going to stop Yankee tradition just because they are in a new building."