New York City has had a reputation going on 400 years now for knocking down its history rather than preserving it.
That is one of the challenges for New York Sports Tours, a new venture that seeks to provide a sense not only of the city’s rich sports past but also how it ties into the larger culture — from the obvious (Jackie Robinson) to the less so.
So on a three-hour tour of midtown Manhattan, there are some existing antiquities — as in the 69th Regiment Armory, which hosted NBA Finals games in the early 1950s — but more often nondescript, modern structures where interesting ones used to be.
To make it work, the organizers integrate the actual sites outside a tour van with a video monitor that shows archival photos and footage, along with an onboard host and recorded mini-documentaries narrated by Mary Carillo.
The idea, as company president Kevin O’Keefe put it, “wasn’t just, let’s do a museum on wheels, but let’s go to the places in greater New York where this has happened. And they are not necessarily the obvious stories, but they’re places where we feel because of sports our history changed, not necessarily always for the better.”
So, for example, on a recent Saturday guests visited the former sites of landmarks such as the first two Madison Square Gardens, Toots Shor’s restaurant, the Hippodrome, the location of the first known baseball game and Madison Cottage, a gathering place for horse racing enthusiasts in the first half of the 19th century.
The tour also touches on a colorful variety of sports-related New York characters, including arguably the first great American athlete, a boxer named Bill Richmond who was born a slave on Staten Island before the Revolutionary War.
It also touches more literally on rare artifacts that are passed around for guests to hold.
“It’s not a sightseeing tour; we’re not pointing at buildings and just giving you the date it was built and what the name of it is,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a seamless narrative . . . We are not about statistics. It’s: How did sports in greater New York help change culture and society in the city, the nation and the world?”
The tours still remain in “previews,” with an official launch set for next month, as the organizers continue to tweak details such as the best size for a bus/van. About 20 guests likely will be the optimum number.
The cost is $150 for a tour-only experience and $200 for one that includes lunch or dinner afterward. On Saturday, the tour ended with dinner at historic Keens Steakhouse, where guests dined with former Yankees centerfielder Mickey Rivers.
CEO Jordan Sprechman said the roots of the tour date to the 1980s. That was when Bill Shannon, a well-known New York sports personality who among many other things was an official scorer for Major League Baseball, launched the New York Sports Museum & Hall of Fame, with Sprechman’s help.
The museum as a physical entity never came to fruition for a variety of reasons, most of them financial, but after Shannon died in a fire in 2010, Sprechman and O’Keefe sought to revive the idea in tour form.
They began with the first preview tour on July 28, Shannon’s birthday, and have been refining the idea since.
Originally the idea was a wider-ranging trip to places such as Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, but given the logistics of New York traffic, that would have been impossibly long. So the tour is limited to midtown Manhattan.
The plan is to add other, separate tours to the outer boroughs and even New Jersey.
By day, Sprechman is a managing director at JPMorgan Chase, where he works as a wealth adviser. That job helped him finance the tour project, but he has several other sports-related jobs, too.
He is an official scorer for Mets and Yankees home games, the media center steward for the USTA at the U.S. Open, the press box public address announcer for Jets games and head statistician for Columbia football.
“It’s probably just as well I don’t have children, and have a very patient wife,” he said.
Sprechman, 56, said he hopes the tour will be attractive to out-of-town visitors as another New York cultural experience, but he said that so far a wide range of customers have found things to appreciate about it.
“It sounds as though it’s something that only old guys would like, but we’ve had young folks, women,” he said. “I think non-sports fans will find it very interesting, and I think that New Yorkers will find it interesting, too.”