This afternoon the Yankees hosted their 63rd annual Old-Timers’ Day festivities — the first at the new Yankee Stadium. But as much as we enjoyed Aaron Small’s half-season of excellence, forgive us if we found the roster of attendees underwhelming. Of the four Hall of Famers on hand, two of them (Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage) played less than a third of their career in New York. For a franchise that prides itself on its unparalleled history, the fact that Small (26 total games played over two seasons) is among the limited number of invitees makes you question exactly how unparalleled it is. But the fact that Old-Timers’ Day has lost some of its star power isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s a delayed result of this: For long stretches from the sixties until the nineties, the Yankees weren’t very good — and the players from that era are increasingly becoming the alumni’s elder statesmen.
The Yankees are the only major-league team to stage an annual old-timers’ day, and with good reason: From the time Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 until 1962, the club never once went more than four seasons without winning the World Series. During this period, they also churned out not just countless Hall of Famers, but particularly legendary ones. One era just gave way to the next, providing a steady stream of stars worthy of a standing ovation at the end of Old-Timers’ Day introductions. But one by one, these great players are passing away — Mickey Mantle in 1995, Joe DiMaggio in 1999, Phil Rizzuto in 2007 — and there isn’t a comparable generation of players to succeed them.
Yogi Berra is 83 years old, and Whitey Ford, 81. We hope it’s not for many years, but when they’re gone, the greatest living Yankees will be Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. There were popular players in between, of course — from Willie Randolph to Ron Guidry to Don Mattingly — but none of them approach the achievements of a Berra or Ford. And while the team employed some Hall of Famers in the interim, players like Dave Winfield and Wade Boggs went into the Hall wearing the cap of another team. Or look at it this way: Take a team like the Orioles, whose best years in the sixties, seventies, and early eighties roughly correspond to the Yankees’ darkest days. If they staged an Old-Timers’ Day, they could invite Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, and Earl Weaver. That’s an impressive list, and it tops what the Yankees were able to do today. Hell, the O’s could even invite Reggie if they really wanted to.
Old-Timers’ Day isn’t going anywhere, of course, nor should it. It’s still a fun event, and it’s often the only chance all year to cheer on those popular-if-not-legendary players — even if many of them (like Randolph, Mattingly, or Dave Righetti) won’t be in attendance for a while because of coaching jobs with other clubs. That said, seeing Goose Gossage doesn’t register with us the way that, say, seeing Joe DiMaggio throw out the first pitch on Opening Day in 1994 did. One day, seeing Jeter and Rivera return will trigger the same thing — if not in those of us who watched them play, then certainly with a younger generation who didn’t. But that day is still years away.