Aaron Judge spun his heels in the Yankee Stadium outfield and pointed an index finger into the vacant Section 203, usually inhabited by the famed Bleacher Creatures. Taking the cue, Brett Gardner dropped to a knee and offered a double-armed flex, imagining the chants of his name ringing across the outfield.
The stadium experience changed in every ballpark during the 2020 season, but nowhere more than in The Bronx, where the “roll call” was muted. For more than 20 years, the loudest and rowdiest members of the Yankees' fanbase have exhibited their devotion to the home team, shouting the players’ names in the bottom of the first inning.
“Guys who have retired talk about their time in New York and say that one of the best things they remember is coming up in the dugout to listen to the Bleacher Creatures do roll call every day,” said "Bald" Vinny Milano, who led the cheers from 1998 until 2015. “That’s crazy to us, because we’re just fans who want to have a good time.”
An entire generation of fans have now passed through the Stadium’s turnstiles without recognizing that the orchestrated cries of "DER-EK JE-TER!" or "AAR-ON JUDGE!" were not always part of the attendance experience. The exact date of the first "roll call" is not certain; a 1998 Washington Post article cited its debut as May 16, 1998, the day before David Wells pitched the 15th perfect game in Major League history.
Some Bleacher Creatures question that, believing it may have taken place as early as 1996, because first baseman Tino Martinez played a role. The fans in Section 39 had bantered with Yankees right fielders going back at least to Dave Winfield’s heyday in the 1980s, and they regularly exchanged pleasantries with center fielder Bernie Williams.
What can be agreed upon is that one day, John Zenes -- a foghorn-voiced lumber salesman from Matamoras, Pa., who was nicknamed “Megaphone John” -- decided to involve the infield. Zenes shouted the name of first baseman Martinez. To his surprise, Martinez turned and wagged his glove.
“He kind of turned around with a smirk, laughing and tilting his cap,” Zenes said. “So I said, ‘Well, that’s kind of interesting.’ I thought it would be great if everybody did that to acknowledge the fans.”
Zenes then yelled the name of second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who also turned and waved. As the tradition evolved, fans would start a slow clap before shouting the name of every player in the field -- excluding the pitcher and catcher, who were considered too busy to participate.
“We were just there to have a good time,” Zenes said. “We supported each other. We were truly family. It’s a part of my life that I will never forget. Now it’s part of a living legacy. I look forward to the tradition carrying on, and to never forget the true roots of Section 39 and the real Boogie Down Bronx.”
Milano believes that Al Trautwig, then a commentator on Yankees games for the MSG Network, was the first to dub the practice as “roll call.” Each player turns toward right field to acknowledge the chants. Some added personal flair; Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher were among the most inventive -- Damon would drop to a knee with a double point, while Swisher offered a military salute.
The biggest challenge to leading a successful roll call comes when a Yankees pitcher permits a first-inning homer. Milano recalled that happened in Jeter’s final home game on Sept. 25, 2014; Hiroki Kuroda’s first pitch was slugged out of the yard, putting the Creatures in the awkward position of having to continue calling out names as the Orioles’ Nick Markakis rounded the bases.
When the Yankees moved across East 161st Street in 2009, the Bleacher Creatures came with them, swapping their Section 39 digs for unfamiliar surroundings. The team coordinated with the Creatures to make sure they would be seated together in the new park, ensuring that roll call would remain part of the Stadium experience for years to come.
“Roll call belongs to the section, not any one person,” said Marc Chalpin, a New York commercial real estate investor who plans to lead the tradition when fans return to the Stadium. “The spirit is still there. That’s one of the things that binds us. We’re just a bunch of people from all different walks of life who love Yankee baseball.”