The Cutoff Man: How baseball helped heal New York

On Jan. 14, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In it, Landis asked the president's opinion on the continuation of Major League Baseball games in light of America’s entry into World War II. The following day, Roosevelt replied in what has become known as the Green Light Letter.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt said in the letter. “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before. Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost.”

“Here is another way of looking at it,” Roosevelt concluded. “If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”

President Roosevelt could not have spoken truer words, and almost 60 years later, Americans once again agreed that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was sitting in my eighth-grade humanities class on 107th Street and Columbus Avenue. Out of the blue, one of my classmates’ parents came to pick him up. Nobody thought anything of it, but five more of my classmates were picked up shortly after, and murmurs began to float around as we walked to Latin class wondering was going on. Our teacher didn’t waste time informing us that earlier that, morning, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. At first, I couldn't comprehend what the big deal was. A little plane had crashed into the Empire State Building a few years prior and had hardly caused any damage. It wasn’t until I got home (after not being picked up from school early) and saw the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing into rubble that I understood the magnitude of the attack on our city. I was thankful that I hadn’t lost any family or friends in the attacks that day; my father lost two co-workers, and a few friends of mine had lost parents or other relatives.

Time seemed to stand still as New Yorkers woke up sad, worried, and, more than anything, confused on Sept. 12. School and work were, for the most part, canceled, but even as students reveled in our day off, there was still an air of “Are we supposed to be enjoying this?” The only thing we knew for sure was that the smog from downtown was horrible, and that was it. The Yankees were supposed to host the Chicago White Sox in the Bronx Sept. 11–13. The Mets had just flown to Pittsburgh on the 10th for a series that was supposed to begin on the 11th. But all professional sports, like everything else, were canceled.

As the days of the ensuing week went by, things slowly began to return to normalcy. People went back to work, school was back in session, and details surrounding the attacks on our country were becoming seemingly clearer. On Sept. 17, baseball resumed, and the Mets swept Pittsburgh while the Yankees took two out of three in Chicago. Then, on Sept. 21, magic happened.

The Mets brought baseball back to New York that Friday, and although it’d been only 10 days since the attacks, it felt like years since any professional sporting event was played in our city. The enthusiasm was undeniable and the celebration was extravagant. Diana Ross sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”and Liza Minnelli sang "New York, New York” during the seventh-inning stretch, and the Mets wore FDNY and NYPD caps instead of their usual baseball caps to pay tribute to New York's finest. Many teared up during the national anthem and again during “God Bless America,” but through it all, spirits were somewhat lifted as they watched baseball function normally, whether or not the world surrounding it followed suit.

Then came the eighth inning. The Atlanta Braves were beating the hometown Mets 2–1 in the bottom of the inning when Mike Piazza came to bat with a man on. Piazza took one mighty swing and the whole city watched as the ball flew — and flew — high over the fence and into New York history. He had given them the lead; New York had come back.

If you watch closely on the replay of Piazza’s home run, you can see a pair of firefighters sitting in the Pepsi Picnic Area at Shea Stadium as the ball flies past them. Those firefighters, whose world had undoubtedly been a wreck for the past 10 days, had just as big a smile on their face as anyone in the ballpark that night. They, too, believed that New York would come back. As Mike Piazza circled the bases, we knew we would rebound from this mess we were put in. We were New Yorkers.

That was what FDR was talking about. People needed a distraction, a reprieve from the sad reality of living in an uncertain world, and baseball was more than happy to help our town heal.