The first few notes of Frank Sinatra’s “Theme From New York, New York” produce a Pavlovian response for anyone who has spent a few hours at Yankee Stadium. Cymbals crash, brass horns blare, and you can envision John Sterling whirling in the broadcast booth: “Yankees win! Th-e-e-e-e-e Yankees win!”
Sinatra recorded the song in 1979, two years after Liza Minnelli’s version served as the theme for Martin Scorsese’s film “New York, New York.” But Sinatra’s link to the Yankees organization traces back decades, including a chance dugout encounter with Lou Gehrig before Game 4 of the 1939 World Series. Over the years, Sinatra was also photographed with greats like Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto.
So how did one of Sinatra’s most quoted works become so deeply entrenched as a baseball anthem? The answer lies with George M. Steinbrenner, who adored the bright refrains, drawing a parallel between his move from rust-belt Cleveland to glitzy New York with the lines: “King of the hill, top of the heap, A number one.” That was “The Boss.” That was the Yankees.
Steinbrenner was known to have a keen ear for music; he had first heard Sinatra’s cover at Le Club, a trendy Manhattan nightspot at the time. Steinbrenner was a board member at the celebrity hangout, and guests recalled seeing him dance (more likely, sway) to Sinatra’s vocals. From Catfish Hunter to Reggie Jackson, this was an era when Steinbrenner got what he wanted -- or else.
His coveted prize of the moment was Sinatra’s tune, and the Yankees' principal owner asked disc jockey Ricardo Irvin to make a tape for his collection. At an empty Yankee Stadium, someone played it on the loudspeakers; it sounded fantastic. Steinbrenner hustled to his office and dictated a letter to Sinatra’s representatives.
“Sinatra wrote back and said that he would be very pleased to have the song played at the stadium,” John Fugazy, the Yankees’ marketing director of that era, told The New York Times in 1980. “After one game, I noticed people were standing in the aisles at their seats listening or singing the song. And this was after the team lost. The song makes you feel like you’ll win tomorrow anyway.”
Sinatra had first performed the song in an October 1978 concert, just as the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees were marching toward a second consecutive World Series championship over the Dodgers -- another team to which Sinatra owned strong ties, including a deep friendship with manager Tommy Lasorda.
During a show at Radio City Music Hall that autumn, Sinatra lamented what the Yankees had done “to my Dodgers,” according to a 2015 Yankees Magazine article. Yet Sinatra had accepted a pair of choice box seats to the 1977 World Series next to the Yanks' dugout from manager Billy Martin, who never missed an opportunity for gamesmanship. From across the diamond, Lasorda fumed.
Before the days when Sinatra’s vocals accompanied the end of each Yankees game, organist Eddie Layton had played fans out to 161st Street with a series of jaunty numbers. For a brief period, Minnelli’s version of “New York, New York” alternated with Sinatra’s, sometimes played after losses. The team also experimented in the mid-1990s with a Sinatra/Tony Bennett duet of the song.
Those numbers faded over time. What endures is the remastered version of the song that prompted Steinbrenner to jump to his feet in a Manhattan nightclub more than 40 years ago -- the same catchy tune that in-house DJ Aaron Judge blasted on a boom box while exiting Fenway Park during the 2018 playoffs.
The Red Sox didn’t appreciate the free concert, though Judge expressed no regrets when asked about it the following spring. Still, the completion of each game -- whether in The Bronx or the team’s spring home of Tampa, Fla. -- brings a new opportunity for the Yankees and their fans to “start spreading the news.”