Writing from Philadelphia to his wife Abigail Adams back in Boston in a letter dated July 3, 1776, future President John Adams presciently suggested Independence Day "ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
Americans began celebrating the holiday even before the Revolutionary War was over. According to records, Gen. George Washington allotted his men a double dose of rum in 1777 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the famous signing.
As a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1970s and '80s, my parents embraced Adams’ sentiment. We grilled hot dogs and hamburgers on our small charcoal hibachi in the backyard, played patriotic music from my brother’s stereo, watched baseball on our screened porch and swam and swatted flies down at Oceanside Pool.
The night ended with us roasting marshmallows and lighting off a small array of fireworks, mainly sparklers that my dad purchased from New York City’s Chinatown.
But by the time I reached my early 20s, I was convinced Baldwin, our small town on the island’s south shore, needed its own Independence Day celebration. I envisioned a scene straight from a Norman Rockwell painting — American flags fluttering from poles and the neighbors gathered for a recitation of Thomas Jefferson’s famous handwritten document.
Feeling especially patriotic in late May of 1995, I walked the neighborhood to whip up support and obtain the necessary signatures needed to close the street. Everybody thought it was a great idea. I enlisted the help of friends, who joined me in screwing flag brackets to utility poles and hauling loaned chairs and tables from St. Christopher’s Church.
As I laid out the program that first year, it struck me that one of the world’s best voices should read the Declaration of Independence — one of the world’s most consequential documents. I could think of no one better than my friend and neighbor Bob Sheppard, the famous, longtime public address announcer for the New York Yankees and New York’s football Giants.
When I was a young boy, I used to ride my bicycle right by Bob’s house and wave to him as he read in his backyard gardens. He’d sometimes invite me back and give me autographed pictures of my Yankee heroes. At one time, he was known to give away broken bats from the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
The Yankees happened to be on the road that July 4 in 1995 and Bob agreed to join us for the special event. He asked me to cut down the text of the Declaration, noting that nobody could sit through such a long recitation. It felt odd to edit the great Thomas Jefferson, but after Bob told me he helped Yankee great Reggie Jackson cut down his Hall of Fame induction speech from 40 minutes to 10, I was empowered to give it a shot.
And so, come the sun-drenched morning of July 4, 1995, Bob’s dignified, cathedral-toned voice rang out across Central Avenue, Jefferson’s eloquence falling as softly as the early summer breeze.
“An American Celebration” was held two more years, only ending after I moved away and headed west. Each year’s event grew in attendance.
Bob Sheppard passed away at the age of 99 in July of 2010, and had actually continued to work for the Yankees into his mid-90s. In fact, he was so beloved that Yankees’ legend Derek Jeter requested that Bob’s voice continue introducing him right up until has final at-bat in 2014.
I recently found an old VHS tape of our Fourth of July celebration. In addition to Bob, many of the people in the scenes from that morning are gone, and my heart feels both full and tender when I see and hear them 24 years later.
We all celebrate Independence Day in our own way, but it seems appropriate that America’s birthday and national pastime were and are inextricably linked, a perfect pairing of patriotism and baseball that has produced memorable Independence Day moments, including Lou Gehrig’s stirring “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech in 1939 — and a simple neighborhood celebration like the ones we had for three consecutive years in Baldwin.
In the end, I think John Adams would have approved.