Friday, October 22, 2010

Freddy Schuman: A New York Icon

The passing of Freddy "Sez" Schuman this past weekend brought a sense of sadness to the New York Game. Freddy and his colorful signs and frying pan were as much a staple of the old Yankee Stadium experience as were long bathroom lines, maddening traffic conditions, Bob Sheppard's elegant voice, and incredible late-inning comebacks.

Thinking about Freddy reminds me of the games my parents took me to as a boy, in the early and mid 90s, when I knew Yankee Stadium as a collection of crazy characters. There was an electric guitarist who played for tips near River Avenue whom my brothers called The Jimi Hendrix Guy, because he kind of looked like Jimi and seemed to be trying to channel him. Mostly he just made a lot of noise and appeared to be having a good time. Inside, there was Cousin Brewski, who along with his brews offered rapid-fire quips in a deadpan, heavy Noo Yawk tone. ("Cousin Brewksi's here! Get a buzz from the cuz!")

Cousin Brewksi

There was also a season ticket holder in the field level box seats known as The Scatman. He was a big guy with intense eyes and long, graying hair who gyrated like a holy roller to whatever song was playing in between innings. The stadium video crew even made a montage of his best moves, which was sometimes played after the seventh inning stretch (before Cotton Eyed Joe took a lamentable stranglehold on that spot). My brothers and I were wondering around the field level late one game, no doubt looking to upgrade our seats, when we bumped into him. "Hey, it's The Scatman!" I said. He smiled and nodded, seeming to take great satisfaction in our recognition of him. Later that game, the crowd erupted as Yankees scored. As the cheers dissipated, one baritone voice remained behind me, delivering a deep-throated aria, as if he were on stage at Lincoln Center. Several fans turned around. "Let's-a-go Yankees!" he roared in an Italian accent. He looked like Pavarotti's thinner younger brother. Only in New York. That was the old stadium.

The first time I can recall meeting Freddy was at a game in 1996. The Yankees were cruising in first place, and Freddy's sign reflected the exuberant mood: "Freddy Sez: Yankees Are Like Wow!" My brothers and I each took a turn banging on his pan. Later that year, my father, who is a Manhattan College alum, took us to a Manhattan Jaspers basketball game. Freddy was there. This guy really gets around, I thought. I banged on the pan.

At a game in '97, I spotted Freddy in the loge, and decided to walk up and shake his hand. "Go Jaspers, Freddy," I said. "Hey, alright!" he laughed, pumping my hand vigorously. I banged on the pan.

As the years went on, Freddy became friends with more and more fans, and cemented his status as much more than a minor celebrity: he become part of the fabric of the New York baseball community. He had a role in a MasterCard commercial and in the video for House of Pain's Jump Around. He made it over to the new house in 2009, but I suspect he felt out of place amidst the luxury boxes, sushi bars, and hedge fund managers in thousand-dollar seats. The posh amenities are nice, for those who can afford them, but for my money I'd rather see the old characters.

It was proper for the Yankees to honor Freddy with a moment of silence before game three of the ALCS. He represented that which is great about the New York Game.