In the Bronx, Stadium Scents Take Fans Out to the Ballgame
By COREY KILGANNON MARCH 31, 2018, New York Times
Gilbert Marcus, 80, smelled the scent of a hot dog, one of six familiar smells from baseball stadiums that are part of an olfactory exhibition at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a nursing home in the Bronx. Credit Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
Rochelle Youner, who lives at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a nursing home in the Bronx, walked up to a kiosk in a common area of the home’s first floor and pressed a button below a small icon depicting a baseball glove.
“That’s the real stuff — that’s a mitt, all right,” Ms. Youner, 80, said, smelling the leathery fragrance emitted from the kiosk, which attempts to bring the ballpark, or at least the smell of it, to the residents.
Many of the Hebrew Home’s residents were born and raised in the Bronx and are lifelong fans of the Yankees, with memories of visiting Yankee Stadium stretching back to the eras of Mantle and DiMaggio, and even earlier to Gehrig and Ruth.
But many of these older fans also suffer age-related memory loss. So the home, which often finds seasonal pegs for its reminiscence therapy programs, has timed its latest program to opening day at Yankee Stadium on Monday by erecting the kiosk with the therapeutic goal of recreating the distinctive smell of the ballpark.
“Too bad we can’t be there in person,” Ms. Youner said.
This is the point of the kiosk: to once again take these fans out to the ballgame.
For residents who followed the Dodgers, the scents recalled childhood days at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and for Giants baseball fans, they brought back afternoons at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, in the days before both teams decamped for the West Coast.
The kiosk features six ballpark scents — hot dogs, popcorn, beer, grass, cola and the mitt — in separate push-button dispensers installed at a height accessible to residents in wheelchairs.
It was recently installed in the permanent “Yankees Dugout” exhibition of team memorabilia at the nursing home, which includes seats, a turnstile and a locker from the old Yankee Stadium.
The olfactory exhibit, called “Scents of the Game,” is meant to evoke long-forgotten memories from the home’s 785 residents, many of whom have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Many have difficulty with short-term memories but with some prompting can summon long-term ones, such as detailed recollections of childhood visits to ballparks decades ago, said Mary Farkas, director of therapeutic arts and enrichment programs at the Hebrew Home, where baseball has also been used in art therapy and poetry workshops.
Prompting these ballpark memories helps connect many residents with the joy they felt at the time and also helps stimulate their cognition, Mrs. Farkas said.
Dr. Mark W. Albers, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who studies the effect of scent on patients with neurodegenerative disease, said the Hebrew Home’s memory exhibit touches on fairly new territory in sensory therapy in trying to resurrect positive recollections in a small population of patients who share certain common memories.
Joe Pepitone, a former player for the Yankees, spoke during the unveiling of the “Scents of the Game” exhibit at the Hebrew Home. CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times
Memory loss in older patients can often cause “an erosion of familiarity” and be accompanied by feelings of disorientation, he said. Unearthing pleasant memories from earlier years through sensory stimulation may help patients feel more stable, Dr. Albers said.
Of course, he added, memories of Yankee Stadium might bring back very different emotions for fans like him, who root for the Boston Red Sox.
For Renee Babenzien, 89, the hot dog aroma triggered recollections of vendors selling franks with mustard and sauerkraut.
“The way they smelled at the game,” she said, “you couldn’t help but stop the guy walking up the aisle selling hot dogs.”
Al Cappiello, 68, smelled the fragrances and recalled the sensory explosion he experienced the first time he walked into Yankee Stadium as a boy.
“I couldn’t believe the colors,” he recalled. “The green grass, the brown dirt of the infield — man, I was in heaven.”
Up until then, he said, watching the Yankees meant watching games on a black-and-white television set, with the action being called by Mel Allen, the Yankees broadcaster.
And so, during his first time at the stadium, Mr. Cappiello recalled, “I told my brother, ‘I don’t hear Mel Allen,’ and he said, ‘No, that’s only on TV.’
He did see Yogi Berra, tossing a ball with teammate Johnny Blanchard, and he managed to get Berra’s autograph.
Ms. Youner also recalled being surprised by how different the ballpark seemed in person.
“The first time I walked into the ballpark, I noticed that everything was bigger — even the basepaths were so much wider,” she said.
For Terry Gioffere, 90, who grew up in the Bronx, the smells evoked memories of watching her hero, Roger Maris — although in more recent decades she became a Derek Jeter disciple.
For Joan Jackson, 84, the smells took her back to her first trip to Yankee Stadium, at age 6, but also reminded her of the role that the stadium played in helping her raise five children in the Bronx after her husband died in 1973.
“I had to do something to lift the kids up, so I said, ‘Let’s do something fun and go to Yankee Stadium,’” she recalled. “The kids fell in love with baseball,” she said, and going to games helped hold the family together.
Even Joe Pepitone, a star for the Yankees in the 1960s who spoke at the kiosk’s recent unveiling, said the smells reminded him of playing in Yankee Stadium as a rookie first baseman in 1962.
He had anticipated that the stadium would smell like hot dogs and sauerkraut, he said, “and sure enough, there was that smell of the ballpark, and you could smell it all over.”
For Frances Freeman, who grew up in Brooklyn rooting for the Dodgers, the kiosk’s beer smell did provoke a reaction. The 103-year-old woman steered her wheelchair to the beverage table and grabbed a beer.
Since scent and memory are intimately linked, using the smells of the ballpark presented “a chance to reach the residents in a special way, as a tool to unlock doors in their memories,” said David V. Pomeranz, the Hebrew Home’s chief operating officer.
Mr. Pomeranz said the kiosk idea grew out of a discussion he had with Andreas Fibig, chief executive of International Flavors and Fragrances, a Manhattan-based company that creates scents for perfumes and other products, as well as flavors for food and beverages.
The company did not have to venture to any ballpark to capture the smells — its perfumers created them from the firm’s vast catalog of fragrances, said Matthias Tabert, the company’s senior manager for strategic insights.
Scents are especially powerful in stirring memories because they register with the brain in a more direct and primal way than other senses, Mr. Tabert said. “So when you smell something, it triggers memories almost instantaneously and serves almost like time travel, to bring you back to a seminal moment.”
Some ballpark staples did not make it into the array of scents, such as peanuts and Cracker Jack. Though both could be developed as fragrances with no traces of real peanuts, the home decided against it to avoid alarming people with peanut allergies, Mr. Pomeranz said.
For Al Schwartz, 91, the scent kiosk reminded him of first visiting Yankee Stadium in the late 1930s, when 60 cents could buy a seat in the bleachers and $1.10 a seat in the grandstand.
Mr. Schwartz said the smells reminded him of the joy of watching Joe DiMaggio snare a fly ball and the sadness of learning in 1979 that Yankees catcher Thurman Munson had died in an airplane crash.
Mr. Schwartz said he attended at least two monumental events at Yankee Stadium. His aunt took him on July 4, 1939, when Lou Gehrig announced his retirement because of a terminal disease and called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Mr. Schwartz also recalled a 1942 charity exhibition in which Babe Ruth made a post-retirement appearance and struggled to hit a home run against the great pitcher Walter Johnson in front of 70,000 fans.
“The crowd kept on him, and he finally hit it out of the park, to right field,” he recalled. “The best part was seeing him run around the bases, that way he used to.”
A version of this article appears in print on April 1, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Catching a Whiff of Faded Ballpark Memories.