By Steve Sears
The former 34-year William Paterson University professor walked out from underneath the Yankee Stadium stands, exited the visiting team’s dugout, looked up at the scoreboard, and was greeted with a message: “The Yankees welcome Gabe Vitalone.”
“You have no idea,” the 98-year-old says of that March 2020 afternoon. “I auditioned in front of an empty stadium. I’ve seen pictures of it, I’ve been to the (Yankee) Stadium so many times, but nothing looked the way it looked that day. It was surreal; there was no movement, there were no people.”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t Opening Day for the 2020 Major League Baseball season, but still, Vitalone accomplished a dream of singing the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium.
In mid-February, Vitalone’s son, Peter, posted a Vimeo Internet video about his dad’s desire to sing our nation’s anthem for his boyhood friend, Joe Romano, who died in World War II. “I had mentioned to him (Peter) that, every time I hear the National Anthem, I think of my buddy Joe (a United States Marines Corporal), and it’s been that way since we lost him in World War II.”
The film went viral, and Vitalone received an invite from the Yankees to visit. “I had to chuckle,” Vitalone, a member of the WPU’s Athletic Hall of Fame and a 2005 recipient of its Faculty Service Award, says of his special day at the Stadium. “I said, ‘My God, who ever dreamed that this would happen.’” After the audition, the Yankees then invited Vitalone to sing at the April 19th home opener against the Cincinnati Reds, which was canceled due to COVID19. However, Vitalone’s “Star Spangled Banner” performance before more than 50,000 or more fans still may happen in the future.
The March day was thrilling. As a child, Vitalone used to exit Yankee games at the original baseball cathedral by walking on the field to the centerfield exits, he one time even kneeling at second base to feel the dirt while telling himself, “Someday I’m going to be here.” “That never happened, but in a way it did,” he says. “Here I was standing there, and I had a surreal feeling about it. And when they came out and asked me to sing, I was caught by surprise because my son hadn’t told me they were going to ask me to do that.” An inner peace took over as he approached the microphone and started to sing. “I was not frightened, I was not nervous, I just sang it the way I felt.”
“I just felt Joe’s presence. I wasn’t out there alone.”
Vitalone and Romano met at age 12 when serving as altar boys while living in the Italian area of Yonkers, New York. The friendship flourished, and both became interested in baseball, especially the New York Yankees, attending World Series games from 1936 – 1939. In fact, Vitalone even snagged the first ticket to the 1943 series – a bleacher seat for $1.10. He still has the stub. Romano died 9 months after that Fall Classic, and both were such good friends, Vitalone adopted Romano’s mom as his second mother, visiting with her during holidays up until her passing, and also befriended his brother until he passed in early 2020. “He’s (Romano) still a part of me. I’m looking up now at my dresser and I can see his picture on my dresser,” Vitalone says.
Vitalone, who lives in Pompton Plains with his wife of 66 years, Evelyn, is currently writing his memoirs, and there are a few general themes. “I want to live my life to the fullest. I don’t want to change who I am, but ask God to allow me to be – as he always has – who I am. It’s necessary for me to set the best example I can for other people. I want people to say, ‘If he can do that at 98, I’m going to live my life like I can do it.’” He then adds, “I love people and people have always loved me, and that’s the cycle that keeps me going.”
“I would never have imagined this, and I’ll always be thankful for it.”
By Steve Sears