40 Years at Yankee Stadium, As a Vendor

Refreshments, souvenirs and a free beer for Jack Nicholson

Posted 5/23/21

Stewart J. Zully worked more games at Yankee Stadium than Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, or Lou Gehrig.

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40 Years at Yankee Stadium, As a Vendor

Refreshments, souvenirs and a free beer for Jack Nicholson

Posted

Stewart J. Zully worked more games at Yankee Stadium than Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, or Lou Gehrig. He wasn’t a player, or a manager, but a vendor who sold refreshments and souvenirs at one of the most famous ball parks in America.

Zully captured his experience in a book he wrote, My Life in Yankee Stadium: 40 Years as a Vendor and Other Tales of Growing Up Somewhat Sane in The Bronx. Packed with amusing stadium tales and personal anecdotes, it makes for a light and enjoyable read.

For 40 years, Zully hawked peanuts, cracker jacks, hot dogs, sodas, and beer. “When I started out, that’s all we had”, says the 65-year-old who is now retired and living in Los Angeles. “Today, they have everything from sushi to a steakhouse”.

In 1970, beer was 65 cents and stadium box seats cost $3.50. The storied Yankees were also a shadow of their former glory and their future owner, George Steinbrenner, was still an unknown figure to baseball fans in the Big Apple.

Zully was 15 years old when he began calling out refreshments. A Bronx native himself who grew up an avid pinstripes fan, his father and uncle vended at Yankee Stadium for a few seasons in the 1930s. His father sold Babe Ruth 6 hot dogs one day before a game.

Zully’s first season at Yankee Stadium led to a second, which led to a third. He enjoyed vending and loved the venue that became his home away from home. Before he knew it, he was 10 years into his job, which eventually gave way to a seasonal career that lasted 4 decades.

After the third year, he was required to join a union. Dues were taken out, but work was assured as long as he showed up for at least 35% of the games, including the playoffs. Over time, his commission on sales also grew from 12.5% to 16.5%.

Zully saw the original Yankee Stadium get renovated in 1973 and then replaced with a new one in 2009. “Fans were part of the game back then”, he recalls. “You could yell out to the players and they would hear you on the field”. The stadiums today are bigger and loudspeakers drown out individual voices.

Along with other sellers, he used to arrive early for his vending assignments. Workers with seniority got first pick on the choice of refreshments and their selling locations. On hot days, water did better than beer and after the first 3 innings, hot dog sales were known to peter out.

He learned about people and about life. Make the sale quickly and leave. There were the rude spectators who screamed at him when he blocked their view, “Hey, you make a better door than a window!” And then there were the polite Japanese tourists who purchased half a dozen T-shirts at the souvenir stand to take back home.

Vending at ball parks was hard on the body and old-timers felt it, particularly when the mercury topped 100 degrees. But the rewards were there, especially when groups of friends called out for multiple cases of beer. In a matter of minutes, the night was made.

Zully’s best day was in 1996 at the final game of the World Series when the Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves 4-2. He sold $23,000 worth of merchandise and cheered with the fans. “Everyone was living a dream that night”, he remembers fondly.

His worst memory was the day the Yankees held a memorial service for Thurman Munson, their beloved catcher and team captain who was killed in a plane crash on August 2nd, 1979. That night, the team had a game and when they opened with a moment of silence for Munson, Zully was overcome with emotion.

He was in the stands behind left field when he saw Lou Piniella break down. He then asked to be relieved from work. “I didn’t have the heart to vend that night”, he says wistfully. Management let him go home, something they rarely did since the only time vendors asked to leave the ball park was when they weren’t selling.

In general, run-ins with players were rare. On one occasion, Catfish Hunter, the Yankees’ pitcher and baseball’s first big-money free agent, was joking around before a game by throwing balls towards the seats trying to hit Zully. Angry at first, he later took it in stride and tucked it away as one of his ‘war stories’.

On another occasion, Dave Winfield, a right fielder for the Yankees, was out on injury and sitting in the stands watching a game. He asked for a beer and after Zully passed him a cold one, Zully stood and waited to be paid. No money was coming his way. He hesitated to press Winfield for the cash and just walked away, absorbing the loss from his own pocket.

But he didn’t hesitate to schmooze and hand out free beer to celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Simon. When he wasn’t vending, Zully sought out commercials and film roles as an aspiring actor. With minor parts, he appeared in over 50 films and TV shows, including The Sopranos and Law and Order.

It wasn’t just baseball games that Yankee Stadium hosted. Concerts, boxing matches, and the Pope’s visit in 1979 were among the 2,500 events he vended over the course of his career. At a U2 rock concert, he recalls working the crowd and yelling, “Condoms here, get your condoms!”.

Zully was present at the last game of the old Yankee Stadium on September 21, 2008 before it was torn down. It was a heartfelt evening with old ball players and members of their families receiving standing ovations. Babe Ruth’s 92-year-old-daughter threw out the first pitch and at the end of the night, the Yankees came away with a 7-3 win against the Orioles.

In his final years at the old venue, Zully was moving 10 cases of beer a game. But with the new stadium, the business model changed and vendors were now employed by the Yankees organization instead of the concessions company.

More vendors were now scattered across the stadium as the options for food and drinks expanded at the new $2.3 Billion facility. Despite the higher cost of eating and drinking at a ball game, vendors on commission sold less and made less.

The old camaraderie was gone and the traditional interaction with fans changed. Zully left vending in 2010 with 4 decades of Yankee Stadium memories. For many game goers as well, vendors were as much a part of the baseball experience as the players on the field.

Stewart J. Zully's book is available for sale on our website.

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