Joe Nocera is the new sports business columnist for The New York Times. You can read more of his columns here.
After the final out of every game at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees pipe Frank Sinatra’s last great hit, “New York, New York,” over the loudspeakers. The tradition, through all of its permutations, is now 35 years old; George Steinbrenner, the Cleveland shipbuilder who bought the team in 1973, started playing it during the 1980 season, a few months after Sinatra released his recording of the song on his otherwise muddled three-record album, “Trilogy: Past Present Future.”
“New York, New York” has since become so closely associated with the Yankees that many consider it the team’s anthem.
With the Sinatra centennial upon us — start spreading the news: his birth date was Dec. 12, 1915 — I began wondering about the genesis of the Yankees’ decision to play “New York, New York” after every game. What I discovered was that it’s not just a story about Steinbrenner (“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”), or Sinatra (“king of the hill, top of the heap”), or the Yankees (“I want to be part of it, New York, New York”). It’s also a story about New York City itself.
The first time Sinatra “officially” sang “Theme From New York, New York” — that’s its full title — was on Sept. 13, 1978, at Radio City Music Hall. (Although he had tried it out earlier at a charity event at the Waldorf Astoria, most Sinatra historians discount that effort because he sang it as if he were still rehearsing.) Jonathan Schwartz, the WNYC radio personality who knows as much about Sinatra’s music as any other person alive, was there.
“Sinatra looked over at Falcone” — Vincent Falcone, at the piano, was his new musical director — “and said, ‘What’s the first line?’ ” Schwartz recalled the other day. “Start spreading the news,” Falcone replied. “Shoot,” Sinatra said to the orchestra, signaling it to begin. When he started singing, the crowd was electrified. “It just hit with people,” Schwartz said. “It was a triumphant song, at a time when New York wasn’t feeling much triumph.”
New York indeed was a troubled city in the late 1970s: crime-ridden, graffiti-strewn and broke. In 1975, The Daily News wrote the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Right from the first bar, Don Costa’s arrangement of “New York, New York” — first the cymbals, then five emphatic notes from the brass section — has a defiant tone. Taking his cue from those opening bars, Sinatra sang it defiantly. It was just what New Yorkers needed. The song told them that whatever their city’s current problems, New York was still the greatest city in the world, the place where the most ambitious people wanted — nay, needed — to be, and while it might be the toughest place in America to achieve success, it was also the most satisfying. Although Sinatra never lived full time in New York (he did own Cole Porter’s old apartment in the Waldorf), he absolutely understood what New York stood for.
“Growing up in Hoboken, he used to go to the waterfront and stare across at the emerald city,” said James Kaplan, who recently published “Sinatra: The Chairman,” the second volume of his magisterial biography. “Back then, you had to take the ferry to get to the city. Sometimes Sinatra would take the ferry to Manhattan and then hit all the jazz joints. Billie Holiday was his idol. They were the same age, but she was famous and he was unknown.”
By the time he recorded “New York, New York,” Sinatra was Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, the central figure in the Rat Pack whose every dalliance, real or imagined, was chronicled in the gossip columns, and a source of immense pride for the generation of Italian-Americans who came of age during and after World War II. Even though rock ’n’ roll had overtaken the Great American Songbook — a trend that completely flustered him — Sinatra was still the most famous singer in America. In his early 60s, when he started singing “New York, New York,” his voice was huskier than when he was making his great 1950s-era albums. But he still had it — and then some.
And he loved the song. “The song meant so much to him on so many levels,” Kaplan said. “It described his own sense of triumph in what he had become.” Sinatra once described it as “one of the most exciting pieces of music of all of my years.” He had come to despise “My Way,” his longtime signature song. It wasn’t long before “New York, New York” replaced “My Way” as his concert finale. Although most of the songs in “Trilogy” quickly faded, “New York, New York” had staying power.
Theme From a Failed Film
George Steinbrenner always loved music. As a young man working for his father’s shipbuilding company, he would regularly visit cities along Lake Erie where the company did business. Jim Naples, who is now the house manager for the Metropolitan Opera, first met Steinbrenner when he was 12 or 13 in Buffalo, because his father had an association with a club called the Royal Arms, where Steinbrenner would go to hear jazz whenever he was in town. Naples’s father and Steinbrenner became friends.
Once he bought the Yankees, Steinbrenner quickly became a devotee of the Manhattan joints where the “swells” hung out, most notably at Jimmy Weston’s, a dinner club on East 54th Street that booked jazz musicians, and which The New York Times later described as “a latter-day Toots Shor’s.” In addition to Steinbrenner, its regulars included Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali, Leo Durocher and Tony Bennett. And, of course, Sinatra. Although Steinbrenner and Sinatra came to know each other, and Steinbrenner had a signed photograph of Sinatra on his office wall, they were not close. On the coasts, Sinatra had his entourage, and was not looking to expand it.
(A quick aside: Sinatra loved sports, especially boxing and baseball. One night, Naples said, the Yankees, unable to get to an away game because of the weather, went into Patsy’s, the Midtown Italian restaurant, for dinner. Sinatra, who was also there, picked up the tab for the entire team.)
Steinbrenner also frequented a New York disco called Le Club; Marty Appel, the former head of public relations for the Yankees with a deep knowledge of Yankees history, said that was where he discovered “New York, New York.”
“Theme From New York, New York,” by the great songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), was written for the 1977 film “New York, New York.” Directed by Martin Scorsese, it starred Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli as young, striving musicians. Although Minnelli recorded “New York, New York” before Sinatra, the movie was a flop and her recording went nowhere.
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(Aside No. 2: When Kander and Ebb first played the movie’s songs for De Niro, Minnelli and Scorsese, De Niro expressed dissatisfaction with the lead number, saying it wasn’t good enough to serve as a repeated motif throughout the film. To placate his star, Scorsese gently asked the songwriters to try again. Though mildly annoyed, the two men raced back to Ebb’s house and dashed off “New York, New York” in 45 minutes. “I recently had an opportunity to hear the original song we wrote for the film,” Kander told me. “It is terrible. De Niro was completely right.”)
A Tradition Is Born
The way Appel tells the story, a disc jockey at Le Club whom Steinbrenner had befriended started sending him tapes of music that Steinbrenner could play at Yankees games; the idea of using music to keep fans occupied between innings was just taking hold. One of the songs he sent was “New York, New York.” “Mr. Steinbrenner loved the words, ‘king of the hill, top of the heap,’ ” Appel said recently. And why wouldn’t he? The once-obscure Cleveland shipbuilder had transformed himself into the most famous owner in baseball.
At some point in 1980, Appel said, “Mr. Steinbrenner said, ‘You know what — we got to do it,’ ” meaning play the song after every game. But which version should the team use? By then, Naples was working for the Yankees; Steinbrenner told Naples and another young employee to play both versions over the loudspeakers, then make a decision. They agreed that Sinatra’s take better suited the Yankees than Minnelli’s version, which had more of a Broadway feel. Steinbrenner agreed. And so the tradition began.
When the Yankees started playing “New York, New York” during the 1980 season, it resonated with New Yorkers even more than when Sinatra sang it at Radio City Music Hall two years earlier. New York was seeing its first glimmers of hope. In April, the city’s transit workers went on strike. New York’s feisty mayor, Ed Koch, would go to the Brooklyn Bridge and urge on the thousands of people who were walking into Manhattan to get to work. “He would say, ‘Go to work everybody,’ ” said Neil Barsky, the chairman of The Marshall Project, who directed the documentary “Koch.” “ ‘We’re not going to let those bums bring us to our knees.’ He rallied the city.”
Then there were the Yankees themselves, one of the few bright spots during those dark days. Steinbrenner was brash and volatile, outspoken and irascible; if Sinatra was the Chairman of the Board, Steinbrenner was the Boss. He had more than his share of detractors. But he was also willing to spend money like no owner before him, using free agency to build a great team. In 1977 and 1978, the Yankees, led by Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry and Thurman Munson, won the World Series. They had another good year in 1980, going 103-59, only to lose to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series. “The Yankees provided great theater for New Yorkers in those days,” Barsky said. When the fans walked out of Yankee Stadium after another win, those lyrics ringing in their ears, they could finally feel optimistic about their city. All of New York was starting to feel it.
Another Voice Banished
At some point — nobody knows when — the Yankees’ music programmer started another tradition. The team would play the Sinatra recording when the team won, but the Minnelli version after a loss. Jonathan Schwartz realized this, and so did Paul McKibbins, Kander and Ebb’s musical administrator. (Ebb died in 2004.) One day, during a casual lunch, he happened to mention what he had noticed to a Yankees team lawyer. “The man turned white,” McKibbins said. Very quickly, the Minnelli version was banished, and the team played only Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” win or lose.
(Aside No. 3: McKibbins declined to tell me how much the songwriters make in royalties from the Yankees. He did say, however, that the tune “makes significant money for the guys.” The main competition for “New York, New York,” he added, is the Billy Joel song “New York State of Mind,” which the Mets used to play after every home game but stopped in 2008.)
In 1996, after the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves to win the World Series for the first time in 18 years — it was Derek Jeter’s rookie season — the fans celebrated by singing “New York, New York” over and over again. Although Liza Minnelli sang the song at Shea Stadium after 9/11, and the New York City Marathon began playing it before the start of the race in Staten Island — also after 9/11 — the song’s association with the Yankees has never diminished. Appel recalled that on Sept. 21, 2008, after the last game at the old Stadium, “they must have played it 30 times; people didn’t want to leave.”
The tradition is unlikely to change anytime soon. “The song is an anthem to the city, and the hardworking people who live in it,” said Randy Levine, the president of the Yankees.
But let’s let Steinbrenner have the last word. In 2005, five years before his death, he was interviewed by Michael Kay for the YES Network. At one point, Kay asked him to name his favorite song.
“Anything Sinatra does,” Steinbrenner said. King of the hill. Top of the heap.
Correction: December 11, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated a famous headline from The Daily News. It was “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” not “Ford to New York: Drop Dead.”
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