This wasn’t how I was supposed to meet 99-year-old Louis Casbar.
I should have been with 40,000 others. It should have happened at Yankee Stadium, with the World War II veteran flanked by his adoring children, his smiling face on the giant center-field scoreboard, and the Army hat he’s kept in pristine condition for 75 years resting perfectly on his head. God Bless America should have been playing. I should have been clapping from the press box.
Instead, when I saw Casbar on Wednesday, it was through the other side of a glass door. We were at the CareOne at the Cupola assisted living facility in Paramus, his home for the past six years. It was as close as we were allowed to get — in-person visits had been banned for more than a month as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. We wore face masks and talked through cell phones.
“It’s crazy,” he said about the pandemic. “The whole thing is crazy.”
Casbar had every right to shake his fist at the sky, particularly when you think about what the virus might cost him. For years, his family had lobbied the Yankees — his favorite team since 1931 — to make him one of the veterans they salute during the seventh-inning stretch of a home game.
And it was finally going to happen. On April 25, Casbar was to stand in the area behind home plate and hear his name called, the way it had been for his heroes, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Yes, he’d seen them both play in person.
“It would have been an honor for me,” he said. “It would have been a pleasure and an honor.”
Now, it’s anybody’s guess whether Casbar will get his moment. The Yankees say they still plan to honor him and the other veterans they selected, but only when things get back to normal.
Major League Baseball still hasn’t officially made plans to restart spring training or reschedule Opening Day, and until rapid accurate testing for the virus is abundant nationwide, stadiums may not see full capacity for quite some time.
Casbar will turn 100 next February. He understands the reality.
“You’ve got to accept at my age anything can happen,” he said. “If it did, I wouldn’t be disappointed because I lived my life.”
Casbar might not be bummed if the Yankees aren’t able to honor him. But plenty would be devastated, especially his four children, the countless relatives and friends who call him every day, and the people he’s grown to consider family at the Cupola.
And after the hour I spent with him Wednesday, I sure as hell would be sad, too.
Sitting across from me in pajama pants, a sweater with an American flag on the chest and a knit Yankees cap, Casbar couldn’t have been a sweeter guy. When I asked him for the first time about what it would mean to have the Yankees honor him, he didn’t even think about himself.
“My family was going to be with me,” he said.
When I asked him about his favorite all-time player, he chose DiMaggio because “he did everything right.” His favorite current player? Didi Gregorius, who became beloved in the Bronx for his infectious smile and energy. Casbar said he didn’t mind that Gregorius left the Yankees for the Phillies over the winter because Casbar believes in loyalty.
And that was clear to his children. He used to take his older daughter, Anne, to every home opener. His younger daughter, Lori, said she had warm memories of big family reunions in the backyard of their Lodi home. A former longtime Bergen County health inspector, Casbar said he cherished his friendship with Yankees legends Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto, with whom he spent time at the former Rizzuto-Berra Bowling Lanes in Clifton and at Berra’s museum at Montclair State University.
Despite his age, Casbar is still sharp. With the major-league season on pause, he rewatches old games and creates decorations using whatever materials he can find and a hot glue gun. I’m 32, and I don’t even trust myself with a hot glue gun. (Full disclosure: He gave me an enormous homemade Christmas decoration and you’re damn right it will be on my tree this year.)
He keeps a huge stack of photos he’s taken at Yankees games through the years. He also has a letter he received from the late George Steinbrenner , detailing The Boss’ “deep disappointment and total frustration” following the Game 7 loss to the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Steinbrenner even signed it.
So, the next time I cover a Yankees game and a veteran is being honored, I’ll be thinking of Casbar.
But why wait at all? Why not honor him right here, right now?
(Nods toward Yankee Stadium announcer Paul Olden.)
Ladies and gentlemen, would you please rise and remove your caps, and please direct your attention to the couch at Room No. 45 at the Cupola.
Today, we all would like to welcome an honored military guest who is joined by his family — United States Army soldier Louis Casbar, who served in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and received the Victory Medal, the European-African-Middle Easter Campaign Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.
We say thank you for your sacrifice — and your service — to our nation.
Now, ladies and gentleman, please join us in the singing of God Bless America.
© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.