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Three Great New York Teams

By Robert Thompson
18 Jul 2013

Alan Gilbert
photo by Chris Lee

The Yankees, the Mets, and the New York Philharmonic — these three great New York City teams have more in common than you might think.

What do baseball and the New York Philharmonic have in common? Quite a bit, it turns out.

Consider that New York City is actually home to three “professional” teams: the Yankees, the Mets, and — the Penguins. Yes, you read it right. The New York Philharmonic Penguins, composed of Orchestra musicians, were organized sometime in the late 1960s by “Coach” Walter Rosenberg, the Philharmonic’s former Princi pal Percussionist. Over the years the Penguins have played softball teams all over the world, as far away as Tokyo, and have been led by famous maestros including Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, and Leopold Stokowski. One of the sweetest wins was analogous to the Subway Series, when the Penguins faced off against The Metropolitan Opera’s team in Central Park: the Philharmonic M.V.P. was since retired violinist Michael Gilbert, whose last name may sound familiar as he is the father of current Music Director Alan, who was the lead pitcher at the most recent match-up against the San Francisco Symphony’s Symphomaniacs in May 2012.

And while the Penguins may not be a major league team, the members of the New York Philharmonic certainly are. To play for the New York Yankees or the New York Philharmonic is the dream of many a young ball player or musician — an aspiring violinist dreams of being a member of the New York Philharmonic the same way a young pitcher dreams of pitching for the Yankees.

A New York Philharmonic concert and a Yankees’ or Mets’ game have many similarities. Consider this: at the start of a ball game, all eyes are on the pitcher, while at a concert, all eyes are on the conductor, who functions much like a pitcher controlling the game (the concert), and a conductor can speed up, slow down, or change tempo, much like Yankee pitching ace CC Sabathia changes pitches, from a fastball to a curve to a slider. Music Director Alan Gilbert controls the tempo and fl ow of the concert, in much the way Sabathia controls the flow and tempo of a game.

And what happens once the ball (the melody) is in play? Well, follow that bouncing ball. Perhaps it starts with a hit from New York Philharmonic Principal Cello Carter Brey, if he gets to bat (solo) fi rst. The ball (melody) gets hit to Derek Jeter at shortstop (the strings, who pick up the melody), who fi elds it to Robinson Cano (the winds), who fi res it off to Mark Teixeira at fi rst base (the brass) for a musical double play. To apply baseball terms, the musicians in the New York Philharmonic deftly pass the ball (melody) to each other through every concert.

There’s a lot of teamwork involved in fi elding a major league team or an orchestra like the Yankees or the Philharmonic. The Philharmonic musicians on the stage have to blend and function as a coordinated infi eld, responding intuitively and creatively to that musical double play. Beyond the similarities of conducting and pitching, much of the vocabulary of baseball players and orchestral musicians is interchangeable — musicians onstage and teams on the fi eld are called players, and common terms in both areas include rhythm, pitch, tempo, and time.

More than 2,500 songs have been written about baseball — more than any other sport (and, next to love, perhaps more than any other subject). The Library of Congress even has a section devoted solely to music about baseball. When Walter O’Malley told Brooklyn he was taking the Dodgers to Los Angeles, Brooklyn hit back hard with baseball’s one and only protest song, “Let’s Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.” When Joe DiMaggio went on a 56-game hitting streak, Les Brown and his Band of Renown cheered with “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” When Jackie Robinson broke major league’s color barrier in 1947, the legendary Count Basie and his band paid tribute with “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” New York City has seen a remarkable cross-pollination of ballplayer- musicians, from Babe Ruth (pianist) to Bernie Williams (Latin Grammy–nominated guitarist) and former Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Eddie Basinski (violinist), who holds the distinction of being the only major league ballplayer to play in a major orchestra in the same season — the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Buffalo Philharmonic, both in 1945.

Paul Simon once wrote, “Elite athletes and gifted musicians have a lot in common — years of training and thousands of hours of practice and an innate inclination toward excellence. But within the constellation of similarities, none is more mysterious than those rare but memorable periods of time, or timelessness, called ‘the zone.’” Hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth or playing an intricate solo passage on stage requires the same heightened level of awareness, focus, and intense concentration. You see it on the face of shortstop Derek Jeter or cellist Carter Brey (who is the soloist in this summer’s “series”). It’s this “zone” of excellence that creates something world class, singular, and unforgettable — whether it’s a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth or a comeback win to clinch the division series.

Like the Yankees and the Mets, the New York Philharmonic is full of “All-Stars” in their own right, led by a World Series “Coach,” Alan Gilbert. The New York Yankees, the New York Mets, and the New York Philharmonic — the sounds of summer!

*

Together with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, Robert Thompson is the founder of The Baseball Music Project and is the author of Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ballgame and Rhythms of the Game, co-written with former New York Yankee Bernie Williams.




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