New York Shows Off Its Sports History

New York Sports Tours
New York is the fashion capital of the world and the finance capital of the world, and if Kevin O’Keefe has his way, the Big Apple will also become known as the sports history capital of the world. O’Keefe makes a strong case for the city’s supremacy with his company’s New York Sports Tours, a three-hour van-and-video tour that launched this summer. Despite staying primarily in midtown Manhattan, New York Sports Tours manages to cover an extraordinary amount of territory, pointing out 70 newsworthy addresses while highlighting 300 individuals along the tour route. O’Keefe, the company’s president, acknowledges it’s a lot of information to consume, which is why they created a password-protected online gallery available only to tour participants. Given the breadth of the tour and the extent to which some of the information is arcane, even the most diehard fans come away having learned something new. Perhaps you knew Michael Jordan and Alex Rodriguez were both born in New York City, and perhaps you also knew that tennis was first played in the United States in Staten Island, and synchronized swimming was started in Manhattan. Well, did you know that a key part of fantasy baseball was invented over lunch at a now-defunct restaurant in midtown, La Rotisserie Française (thus the Rotisserie scoring system)? Or, since the tour involves some artifacts that are passed inside the van, have you ever held a prayer card from Vince Lombardi’s 1971 funeral (at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue) or a check signed by Jackie Robinson (whose post-Brooklyn Dodgers job at Chock Full o’ Nuts was located at Lexington Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets)? Given how sports bleed into culture, other historical information is highlighted, too, such as the hotel where Martin Luther King planned the March on Washington and the site where the first cell phone call was placed.

Managing Midtown Manhattan

The tour deftly manages the gridlock of midtown traffic by interspersing some live storytelling by a tour guide with video vignettes, narrated by Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and former pro tennis player Mary Carillo (a native New Yorker). The tour is also artfully constructed, with one story often seamlessly connecting to the next. For example, a stop at the former site of the Hippodrome, a multisport facility, brings mention of a New York basketball team called the Celtics, who played there. They were partly owned at one time by Kate Smith, whose rendition of “God Bless America” is still played at Yankees games. Across the street from the former Hippodrome was Hanover House, where Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land.” And, by the way, the Baltimore Orioles play both songs at home games. Each stop is thoroughly mined. A drive by the famed Waldorf Astoria hotel brings a photo of Olympian Jesse Owens from inside the hotel. That’s followed by a video clip of Muhammad Ali doing a press conference at the hotel (“I’m so mean I make medicine sick”), which is followed by a fun fact—the first National Football League Players Association meeting was held there. Seated comfortably in a luxury van, the midtown traffic woes suddenly fade away.

Something For Everyone

At a kick-off event in July, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman joined former New York Knick John Starks and other local athletic luminaries. Cashman, who was a history major in college, compared New York Sports Tours to the Broadway musical “Hamilton” in its ability to turn a history lesson into entertainment. Starks talked about how, even as a veteran of the New York sports scene, he learned from the tour. “You think you know a little bit about New York, but you don’t know a lot about New York until you take this tour,” he said. O’Keefe shared at the kick-off event that one early tour participant remarked “This is more of a PBS tour than an ESPN tour.” “We took that as a compliment,” O’Keefe said. Tickets cost $150 per person for the three-hour tour or $200 for the four-hour experience, which involves a post-tour meal with a former athlete like Starks. The meal is at Keens Steakhouse, which once had a Pipe Club that included members like Babe Ruth.