Today’s Yankee Parade for an old New York parade watcher brings back memories. We’ve had some great parades in New York -- and some limp ones.
The greatest one I ever witnessed was for General Douglas MacArthur, hero of America’s war in the Pacific. After he was fired for insubordination by President Truman, for insisting on pursuing the Chinese from Korea, MacArthur headed home. He was hailed in various cities and then came to New York.
This town -- like the country -- was bitterly divided, pro-MacArthur on one side, Truman supporters on the other. It was a torrid mix. The MacArthur supporters on that day, April 20, 1951, came out in force. The Truman backers stayed away. But the streets from Bowling Green to City Hall were jammed, mainly with the Mac Arthurites yelling their lungs out for the great general, immaculately attired in his uniform, waving regally from an open car.
He had just delivered his “Old soldiers never die” speech in Washington and he spoke in a similar vein at City Hall. The old soldier, as he bid us all farewell, brought tears to the eyes of many spectators. His motorcade wound through 19 miles of city streets. The ticker tape and confetti rained down uptown and downtown.
This ticker-tape parade had a decidedly political edge. And indeed many ticker-tape parades have had political overtones. In the fall of 1960, the presidential candidates had parades that were barely 10 days apart, just before Election Day. In the first parade, John F. Kennedy and his beautiful, glamorous wife, Jackie, were hailed by New Yorkers. A few days later, President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower and the Republican presidential nominee, Richard Nixon, stirred the crowds. If you were keeping a decibel meter on the reaction, Ike received more cheers than Nixon.
In 1960, politics dominated the parade scene. The newspapers of that day carried crowd estimates inflated according to which candidate they liked. One paper, quoting police sources, claimed that 5 million had turned out for Eisenhower and Nixon. In 1951, another police source had estimated the turnout for MacArthur at 7 million.
Mayor Wagner was upset that crowd estimates were being politicized. He gave orders to his cops to stop telling reporters how many people were watching major events.
But, under Mayor Giuliani, the crowd estimate syndrome came back. An Albany newspaper carried a story that began: “Only a grinch quibbles when, in a burst of hometown boosterism, the mayor of New York says with a straight face that 3.5 million people turned out for the Yankees ticker-tape parade.”
The writer said it was no surprise that that figure became “the almost universally cited police estimate.”
He wrote, “Move every man, woman and child in Brooklyn across the bridge to the Canyon of Heroes, then empty out the Bronx for good measure. No problem.” That would give Mayor Giuliani his total.
Another method for ranking a parade on its impact is weighing the paper that rains down on the paraders. Thus, the Sanitation Department estimated that for John Glenn they collected 3,474 tons of trash. General MacArthur brought 3,249 tons of paper. The “Miracle Mets” of 1969 got 1,254 tons.
Speaking of the Mets, when they were introducing themselves to New York, they staged a small parade in 1962. The star was the legendary Casey Stengel. We didn’t have wireless microphones that worked then, so I had my camera crew draw up parallel to the float on which Casey rode proudly, like the King of Baseball. He was throwing out plastic baseballs to the crowds in the streets.
I jumped on the float, the microphone attached by cable to the camera. I asked him a couple of questions, then I jumped back to the tailgate of the station wagon. My crew informed me that they got nothing of the interview. The cable had snapped off.
We tried it again. I said to Casey: “Sorry, Mr. Stengel, we’re having technical difficulties.”
He grumbled but did the whole interview again. When I returned to the crew this time -- more bad news. Again, we had failed to capture the words, however incoherent, of the great Casey.
For the third time I jumped on the float. Casey couldn’t believe it. “What, you again? What’s the matter with you guys?” But, for the good of the brand new Mets, he did it a third time and this time it was a keeper.
As for the limp parades, there was a time in the late 40s and early 50s when major world figures were featured in ticker-tape parades. One was Pandit Nehru, the brilliant intellectual who was Prime Minister of India. He stood in an open car going up Broadway and many people didn’t know who he was. And he acted as though he didn’t know why he was here. The unusual mores of New York must have baffled him. The same could be said for Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. Few people knew his identity but some applauded politely anyway. And, looking imperial but not omniscient, Selassie cast a slightly puzzled look in the direction of the crowds. It was lunch hour and there’s always a crowd on lower Broadway at that time.
And so we’ve reached another milestone, another Yankee triumph. Once again, we’re hearing crowd estimates ranging up to 3 million. Even if you stood people on each other’s shoulders three stories high, it simply wouldn’t be possible to fit that many into the Canyon of Heroes.
But hyperbole is part of the New York tradition. Whether it was 300,000 or 3 million more or less doesn’t matter. The fact is that, at a time of great economic difficulty, New Yorkers today were able to cheer. They were not just cheering the Yankees, a team that never gave up. They were cheering for New York, a city that never gives up.
They were cheering for themselves.