Goodbye, Yankee Stadium: A Tribute to Charmian Kaplan Freund
I've always been a nostalgic person; remembering and reflecting on the past is one of my favorite hobbies. I find that clinging to memories of simpler times can often be a comforting tool in embracing the challenges that adulthood presents.
Don't get me wrong now: I'm always excited about the future. I'm not one of those folks that lives in the past—or thinks that everything is going downhill from here. At some point or another I'm sure I'll adopt that outlook, but at 25 my general feeling is that there's plenty of living left to do. But, to pretend that I don't think about—and sometimes, yearn for—the past would be a flat out lie.
There's an innocence about childhood that has always been very attractive to me; in hindsight I had so little legitimate responsibility and true understanding of the world. My lack of sophistication allowed me to really appreciate the simple pleasures of life.
I remember how alive I felt climbing trees, perched on a branch, gazing over the neighborhood; or playing catch with my Dad and brother and the bond it fostered between us.
Those kind of carefree moments are hard to recreate as an adult, so we settle for remembering them in our hearts and reliving them in our minds.
Watching the final game ever played at Yankee Stadium last night brought a lot of the past back for me. It was a very emotional experience, as some of my fondest early childhood memories took place there.
I may be a Californian now, but for the first seven years of my life I lived in New York suburbia, in a town called Scarsdale to be exact. I was born and raised a Bombers fan, though I later switched allegiances to the Oakland Athletes upon my westward migration.
But before I tell you my memories of Yankee Stadium, it's important to share with all of you the story of one of the most special people I've ever known: my grandmother, Charmian Freund.
Grandma Charm was born Charmian Litt Kaplan in Trenton, New Jersey. In her late teens, she married my Granddad Seelig, who was serving aboard the Queen Mary as a surgeon in World War II. When Seelig was eventually discharged, the couple moved to New York City, where they would remain for the rest of their married lives.
In addition to being a mother and homemaker, Charm was a 24/7 social butterfly; she had hundreds of friends scattered throughout Manhattan and beyond. Charm developed connections all over the city that ensured she could get the best ticket in the house to a new Broadway show, or walk into a hot restaurant on a Friday night without a reservation and sit at whatever table she pleased.
That's not to say that Charm was a stuffy elitist—this couldn't be further from the truth. Charm's most special quality in fact was her ability to relate to people from all backgrounds and cultures, and to make them feel respected and appreciated.
She may have lived in America's biggest city, but she had the charm (no pun intended) of a small-town gal.
As a young child, it took me a while to recognize why Grandma Charm was such a special lady. When we visited my grandparents in the city I was highly bothered by the fact that Grandma insisted on holding my hand every time we crossed the street, that she criticized my manners at the dinner table to no end, and that nearly everywhere we went I was expected to wear an itchy button-down shirt and blue blazer with equally uncomfortable shoes.
As I matured, I began to notice a whole other side of Grandma Charm. This can be best conveyed by the wonderful experiences she provided me at Yankee Stadium and watching how she operated during the course of a ball game.
One of Charm's best friends was Char Witkin. Char and her husband Dick were two of the original investors that purchased the New York Yankees from CBS in 1973. Charm thus quickly became friends with George Steinbrenner and the rest of the big wigs at the Yankees organization. As such, the only places I ever sat in Yankee Stadium as a child were in the owner's box or the first row of seats above the home team dugout.
I have fond memories of watching Don Mattingly, my first baseball hero, up close and personal, admiring the World Series trophy outside of the Boss' office, and slugging down hot dogs and soda in some of the best seats in the house.
That said, I have even fonder memories of watching Charm work her magic amongst the stadium staff and the other people she encountered throughout the game.
Getting from the parking lot to the owner's box usually took an hour or more. Charm would ask the parking lot attendant, with whom she was on a first name basis, how his children were liking their new school and what great things she had heard about their first grade teacher. She'd then have a 10-minute conversation with the elevator attendant, with whom she was also on a first name basis, and discuss the Yanks, the weather, the traffic, and the attendant's new puppy, whose name Charm also happened to know.
It would drive my grandfather absolutely bonkers. "Stop schmoozing, Charm," he would say, standing there awkwardly while Grandma continued to make small talk with yet another person she ran into.
I felt bad for him, in a way; an outing at Yankee Stadium with Charm could take six hours when all was said and done. Seelig was in fact famous for saying that while "some people leave without saying goodbye...my wife says goodbye without leaving."
Then again, without Charm, Seelig would have hardly had a social life outside of the operating room. And he sure as hell wouldn't be watching the World Series next to Don Larsen and Yogi Berra, or whatever other special guests were up in George's box.
I remember going to the playoffs with my grandparents one time in college—it was game six of the legendary Yanks/Diamondbacks Series. We ran into Frank Robinson on the way out, and Grandma introduced me before proceeding to ask about his wife and children.
I was dumbstruck by the fact that I had just shaken the hand of the only man in baseball history to win an MVP award in both the American and National Leagues. But what was even more memorable was that this conversation Grandma had with Frank Robinson was literally no different than any other she had that evening.
To Charm, this was just another night at the ballpark. Like those who worked at the stadium collecting tickets, parking cars, and serving food, Frank was simply another person that she wanted to get to know better and with whom she wanted to have a friendly relationship.
Grandma Charm died a few years later at the age of 81. Her memorial service was a grand affair, with hundreds in attendance and seven different individuals giving speeches.
The final speech ended with everyone at the ceremony singing the first verse of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." It was a fitting way to celebrate the passing of such a devoted fan.
Throughout her lifetime, Charmian Freund watched hundreds of ball games in Yankee Stadium—I had the privilege of attending a handful of these with her. Some of my most treasured memories as a young boy were watching the Yanks in her delightful company.
Last night my family and I stared at the television with glassy eyes as Mariano Rivera threw his cutter one final time before The House That Ruth Built became a historical memory. We may have been sitting on the couch in northern California, but it truly felt as if we were back in the Bronx with Grandma Charm.
As the Yankees organization moves into their new stadium, I'd like to pay tribute to one of their biggest all-time fans: to Grandma Charm—a woman of the highest integrity who loved baseball, people, and life in general with a ferocious passion.
I know she was watching that game from wherever she calls home today…
And schmoozing with the parking lot attendant on the way out.
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