Coronavirus outbreak puts 97-year-old’s Yankees anthem dream on hold

Gabe Vitalone remembers the thrill that filled his heart that sunny afternoon in February as he walked onto the field at Yankee Stadium, as he stared at the vast rows of seats, marveled at the famous frieze that rings the grandstand, shook his head at the utter enormity of it all.

“This,” he says, “was the land of my dreams when I was a kid.”

But that was just the warm-up. Gazing out toward the huge scoreboard beyond the outfield fence, the Pompton Plains, N.J. resident saw a most amazing thing: his name in block letters on the scoreboard. And then a Yankees official pointed to a microphone set up just behind home plate, said, “We’d like to hear what your voice sounds like over the P.A. system.”

A funny thing happened then. Vitalone says he’s hyper by nature, and there were a thousand thoughts cramming his brain, a million feelings crowding his heart. A few weeks earlier, the Yankees had spotted a video of Gabe singing the national anthem. Now here he was, and maybe he should have been scared out of his mind. But he wasn’t.

“Joe was with me,” he says. “Joe is always with me when I think of the anthem.”

Gabe Vitalone met Joe Romano met when they were 12 years old, altar boys at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Park Hill Avenue in Yonkers. They lived in the city’s seventh ward and instantly became as close as brothers. That was 1934. They shared much in common, but the primary bonds were the Yankees and a kid they adopted right away in the spring of 1936, Joe DiMaggio.

“It wasn’t easy being Italian in 1936,” Vitalone says. “Mussolini had come to power in Italy and there were a lot of mixed feelings in the neighborhood. But DiMaggio made us both proud to be Italians.”

So Gabe Vitalone cleared his throat in the empty stadium and memories of his old friend came flooding back. Vitalone was at Fort Benning, Ga. in June 1944, training to become a lieutenant in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army as it was fighting to liberate Europe when he received the impossible news that Joe Romano, a U.S. Marine, had been killed on the island of Saipan.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve lived two lives: mine and his,” Vitalone says. “He only got 20 years to live his. There’s no justice in that.”

And so Gabe Vitalone – who will turn 98 years old in May – sang the national anthem with his old friend in his soul, and soon he learned the remarkable news that he would be invited back to sing the anthem again, this time for real, just after 1 o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, April 19, just before the Yankees would host the Cincinnati Reds.

Of course, not long after that audition, the world turned upside down. There will be no game on April 19; one of the mysteries of this whole sad time is wondering when there will be baseball played at Yankee Stadium or anywhere else again.

“In the old Stadium, in the old days, you could leave the park by walking on the field toward the center-field gate,” he says. “The first time I did that, I picked up a handful of dirt around shortstop and said I’d be back. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hit the curveball. So this was a nice chance to fill that dream again.”

Gabe Vitalone and Joe Romano’s young lives were preoccupied with baseball: playing it, talking about it, worshipping DiMaggio, living and dying with Yankees games once they became a regular part of WABC radio in 1939, Mel Allen and Arch McDonald on the call.

At one of the neighborhood stores, the local bookies who took bets on races and games and policy numbers would also put together a game played by kids all over the city: every day you’d pick three players. If they got six hits between them, you were paid off 3-to-1.

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“I played a penny a day,” Vitalone said. “And sometimes I came home with three.”

The friends made it an annual rite to watch the Yankees play a game in the World Series starting in 1936 when they opposed the Giants. By 1939 they were at Yonkers High and the Yanks were trying to win a fourth straight title when their mothers finally allowed them to camp out at the stadium, hoping to get the first two tickets to Game 1 of the Reds-Yankees World Series. They didn’t quite get it.

“But we did almost freeze to death,” Vitalone says, laughing.

By 1943, both friends were in the service, and while Joe was already shipped away, Gabe was able to attend Game 1 of the Yankees-Cardinals game in his G.I. uniform. That allowed him to enter the Stadium at Gate 9, where he was first in line. Sure enough, when he received his ticket, it was Ticket No. 1. He still has the stub. It set him back $1.10. At the bottom right is the signature of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

“A shared dream come true,” says Vitalone, who spent 34 years as a professor and a coach at William Paterson University, starting in 1957.

When baseball returns, there will be another one. There will be another game, his name will be on the scoreboard, and his strong, steady voice will tumble through the amplifiers at his old land of dreams. Gabe Vitalone can wait. He’s a patient man. Besides, he may sing the anthem solo, but in his heart an old friend will be singing harmony, right by his side.

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