Somebody out there, I hope, remembers the late
Joe Flaherty. Back in the 1970s, I was working my way through college at the University of Alabama library, and on every break I grabbed a Village Voice and looked for an article by Joe. He was the kind of writer I wanted to be: tough, funny, unpretentious, working-class—and writing for The Village Voice. While working at the docks, the legend went, Joe wrote a story, submitted it to the Voice, and woke up one morning to find it, unedited, on the cover. Boy, those were the days!
I asked his advice about living and working in New York and trying to make it as a sportswriter—did he think it would be too much of an adjustment from small town to New York? “Boy-o,” he wrote back, “New York is just one big bunch of small towns. If the tornado that sent Dorothy to Oz had picked up some small town in Kansas and dropped it just about anywhere in the five boroughs, the people would get along just fine with the locals.”
What about sportswriting? I asked. From a distance, it seemed New York was always so concerned with the World Series or with the big fight or a big controversy—everything big. And there were so many other things going on. Did sports really matter to New Yorkers, did sports touch their everyday lives the way it did for people out in the suburbs of the country? “You’re in for a surprise,” he wrote. “Pro sports are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether it’s softball, running, skating, or pick-up hoops, you’ll find that New Yorkers aren’t just fans, they’re players.”
It took me just a few months of writing about sports for the Voice to find that he was understating the situation. In the early ’80s, whether covering kickboxing at the Garden or polo on Long Island, or taking a cricket lesson from Sir Garfield Sobers in Prospect Park, or attending the gay Olympics, New York sports proved to be an embarrassment of riches.
New York is the greatest sports town in the country. No one else is even close, especially if you extend the territory to include the entire metro area. No one else has two Major League Baseball teams, two NFL teams, two NBA teams, and three NHL teams. We have women’s pro basketball with the New York Liberty, who have made the Eastern Conference finals eight times in their 14-year history, and professional soccer with the Red Bulls, who have a brand-new state-of-the-art stadium a 20-minute train ride across the river.
We’ve got the biggest marathon, a Triple Crown venue in the Belmont, as well as another cathedral to horse racing in the Aqueduct, and the most famous tennis tournament in the country, the U.S. Open.
If you think the price of big-league baseball is too high, try the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Staten Island Yankees or, just a short drive or train ride across the river, the Newark Bears and the New Jersey Jackals, who play at the stadium adjacent to the Yogi Berra Museum on the campus of Montclair State University.
New York is a college-hoops paradise with seven tournaments at the Garden every year, including the Big East Tournament and the NIT postseason classic. Rutgers, where college football began, is just 46 miles from Penn Station, and West Point, perhaps the most spectacular site for tailgating in the country, is about an hour’s drive up the river.
For those who want to play instead of watch, we have something for everyone, from lawn bowling to table tennis, fencing, and even canoeing/kayaking at the new Brooklyn Bridge Park.
This is the home of icons. Think about baseball, and you think about John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Casey Stengel, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Leo Durocher, Gil Hodges, Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera.
Think about football, and you have the most iconic coach in pro football history, Vince Lombardi, born in Brooklyn, bred at Fordham. Or Broadway Joe Namath, who changed pro football forever in the 1968 season quarterbacking for the New York Jets.
This is the home of memories. The triumph of Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame “Four Horsemen” team over Army at the Polo Grounds in 1924; Joe Louis’s rematch and first-round knockout of Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1938, the first boxing match listened to live by millions around the world; Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939; Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” in the 1951 playoffs to win the pennant for the New York Giants, at the Polo Grounds; Willie Mays’s catch of Vic Wertz’s drive in the 1954 World Series, also at the Polo Grounds; Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series; the 1958 Baltimore Colts–Giants sudden-death “Game of the Century” at Yankee Stadium; Roger Maris’s 61st home run in 1961; Arthur Ashe becoming the first African-American to win the U.S. Open in 1968; the 1969 Miracle Mets’ World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles; Willis Reed’s miraculous return from injury to Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals at the Garden to lead the Knicks to the championship; the first Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier superfight at the Garden in 1971; the last game of Pelé’s career in 1977 at a sold-out Giants Stadium in which he played the first half for the New York Cosmos and the second half with his old team, Santos; Reggie Jackson’s three home runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series; Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in 1986 that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs at Shea Stadium. . . .
Maybe they’re not all your own memories, but what other town offers you so many to choose from? Or an opportunity to make so many new ones?