A cake in honor of Billy Salomon’s 100th birthday came out before the rack of lamb was served in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria last night.
“I’m sorry we had to do this sort of ass-backwards -- that’s the way it is in this world,” the former managing partner of Salomon Brothers said.
On the occasion of being honored at a gala for the Hospital for Special Surgery, Salomon, who wore a tuxedo, rose boutonniere and plastic watch, gave $10,000 for each year of his life so far, or $1 million, boosting the amount of money raised to $3.6 million.
In the room: Alan Greenberg, John Whitehead, Elihu Rose and Brian Williams, who as emcee gave a comic account of his knee surgery at the hospital (addressing an injury from his high school football days). One slide showed his doctor at the hospital, Douglas Padgett, as Gene Wilder in “Young Frankenstein.”
Later at Cipriani 42nd Street, Mariano Rivera -- who had his share of surgery as a professional baseball player -- was getting ready to pose for a photograph with his co-honoree Jimmy Lee when he realized something was missing.
“Where’s my jersey?” he said of the Harlem RBI number 42 shirt he’d just received.
In short order, Mo was holding up the red shirt (“red, not Red Sox,” he quipped), not too different from the ones that 1,500 kids a year wear to play baseball and softball with Harlem RBI.
The organization uses the sport, combined with academic and social enrichment, to advance children from low-income families. Since 2005, 97 percent of Harlem RBI kids have graduated from high school. Most go on to college.
The shutters snapped. Lee held out his shirt, too, also red, with the number 1.
“This is amazing,” Rivera said.
Rivera grew up the son of a fisherman in Panama, “with nothing, basically: gloves were cardboard, baseballs were old clothing, sometimes fishing net wrapped around tape,” he said at the lectern. “What we did is climb a tree and find the strongest branch we could find, cut it and that was our bat.”
His talent brought him to the U.S., the Yankees, and 652 saves and 952 games finished from 1996 to 2013, an all-time Major League Baseball record. He was the last active player to wear the number 42. The league retired Jackie Robinson’s number in 1997, the year Rivera became the Yankees’ closer.
Harlem to Panama
As for pitching, Rivera delivered last night. “I have to congratulate Harlem RBI for what you’re doing, because that’s what it is, it’s about education. I don’t put sports first, I put education, that’s my passion. You’re building, you’re putting a foundation, you’re giving opportunities to these kids to succeed, to be someone special. With that, you guys have me, anything that I can do, call me.”
Rivera’s foundation works in Panama, rebuilding schools and teaching children how to use computers, among other activities.
From its base in East Harlem, Harlem RBI runs programs after school and during the summer. Last year, it started working in the South Bronx. The youngest participants are in kindergarten; the oldest are in college, who receive support to graduate and start a career. Harlem RBI spawned the similarly themed DREAM Charter School as well.
Visualizing success is one of the Harlem RBI tenets that goes from field to classroom, as students expressed in a video, “How to Play Ball.”
Jimmy Lee, a vice chairman at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and a closer of deals in his own right, focused on how much there is to learn from Rivera.
“My hope for my children and for all the kids who are either in Harlem RBI, graduated from Harlem RBI or who are going to come into Harlem RBI is that they grow up to have the same honor, respect, and pride that Mariano Rivera has for the game of baseball,” Lee said.
“Mariano and I were talking at dinner tonight that at the high end of sports, and this is true in business, everyone has pretty much the same set of skills.
‘‘Where the band gets wide is in attitude,’’ Lee continued. ‘‘How much class do you have, how much pride do you have, how much honor, what kind of teammate are you? That band, even at the highest end of life, is much bigger than anyone really realizes.’’
On a night many remembered Tony Gwynn, the eight-time batting champion and former San Diego Padre who passed away earlier that day, Vik Sawhney, chief operating officer of Blackstone’s private-equity group and a Harlem RBI board member, recalled another loss.
‘‘The first Yankees game I ever attended was the game after Thurman Munson died. I was 9, and I didn’t appreciate 1/100th of the enormity of that occasion,” Sawhney said.
Sawhney grew into a big fan of the Yankees and was in the stadium for the 2003 World Series win. He taught his wife how to watch baseball and made her memorize all the players, though they haven’t shared every game together.
“When my first daughter was born and we were at Columbia Presbyterian and they had those little TVs in the hospital, attached to the bed, Mariano saved the game against the Texas Rangers. I remember, she was asleep, the baby was asleep, and I watched it.”
Ken Langone missed the speeches, having made a stop during cocktail hour and moved on to a benefit for the American Institute for Stuttering.
Those in the room made sure the auction was successful, making good on the name of the gala, “Bids for Kids.” The top gift was $200,000 for college scholarships.
The gala drew 750 guests and raised $3.6 million. Many guests brought their children along, including Lee’s son Jamie, who’s starting Columbia Business School in August and is getting married on Saturday in Wilton, Connecticut to a teacher, Jaime Foster, he met through his dad and Frank Bisignano.
Art Samberg, chairman of JetSuite Inc., had a table with his son, Harlem RBI board member Jeff Samberg of Acadia Woods Partners, and his grandchildren.
Blackstone’s David Blitzer brought three of his five kids, who ate fries and chicken fingers while he and the adults -- Scott Kapnick, chief executive officer of Highbridge Capital Management, Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn, Todd Builione, co-head of hedge funds at KKR, Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira -- were served imposing pieces of beef.
Blitzer told Harlem RBI Executive Director Richard Berlin that his table “almost caused a commotion” when the U.S. scored its first goal against Ghana in a World Cup match.
Berlin started calculating how the U.S. could continue its advance in the world’s foremost soccer tournament.
“This is a big deal,” Blitzer said. “I may have to book a trip to Brazil.”
Blitzer, introducing Lee, recalled their first encounter. Blitzer was a 22-year-old analyst at Blackstone four months into the job, returning Lee’s phone call.
“I remember thinking, I could get fired, or this could be a really cool moment,” Blitzer said.
He’d been given the assignment of selecting a lender to finance a deal. The choices were Lee’s Chemical Bank “and I forget the other place, maybe it was Bank of America or something,” Blitzer said.
A sticking point was a clause allowing Lee, if he didn’t like what was going on, to “call the loan, which is really not a good moment if you’re a buyer or a financer of a particular company,” Blitzer said.
So Blitzer confronted Lee. “Can’t you just change the clause, and of course we’ll give the deal to you?” Blitzer recalled asking.
“Jimmy -- I don’t know what he was laughing at from behind his own phone -- he said, ‘All right, David, don’t worry, you have my word we will never call the loan.’”
“The legend of Jimmy Lee is telling me ‘you have my word.’ And I’m sitting there like, I’m going to get fired, this sucks.”
Blackstone went with Chemical Bank, and Blitzer went on to a very successful career himself.
Blitzer’s first great Yankee baseball moment was 1996, “when we were losing against the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, where the Yankees hadn’t been for quite a long time, and they came back after being down 2 to being up 3-2, game six,” he said.
Another big event was game 6 against the Phillies in 2009, for which Blitzer and his family flew in from London.
He didn’t always have his pick of seats. “I remember going to a game in 1978 against the Dodgers when I was nine years old with my dad, in the last row of the entire stadium,” Blitzer said.
Blitzer, whose sports fandom has led him to buy stakes in the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, said he plays baseball “poorly” and is better at his job. “Unfortunately, I wish it was the opposite.”