Editor’s note: I was going through an old box of stuff I’d written years ago and came across this article written in June, 1998. I think it is relevant considering Yankee Stadium’s days are numbered.
It wasn’t easy for me to sleep on the night of June 6 as I sat in bed anticipating my visit to Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t like it was my first visit to the stadium, but it still gave me an exhilarating feeling just thinking about the baseball monument.
When I finally drifted off into sleep, I dreamed of that first visit back in 1978 when I was a young boy, holding my father’s hand as we walked through the corridors packed with people. The place was like a giant three-ring circus to me. The noise was almost deafening. It was like one enormous shout filled with the chatter of vendors pitching every piece of Yankee memorabilia you could imagine and of the fans with their New York accents discussing whether or not their team was a bunch of bums.
The smell of the air was filled with the aromas of hot dogs, cotton candy, pretzels and beer. Though the unmistakable acrid smells of urine and mold were also present, the air smelled sweeter than any rose to me. As we got to our seats in the upper deck, I looked down to what seemed to be an immeasurable distance to see my team, the team I lived and breathed for.
I awoke on Sunday morning, June 7, the days of Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry long gone, but the Yankees had a new breed of stars like Deer Park native Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Tino Martinez, who were now winning ballgames at a .750 pace.
As I headed for the stadium on 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, I thought of the threats Yankees owner George “The Boss” Steinbrenner had made about moving the team to Manhattan or even worse—New Jersey, abandoning Yankee Stadium after 75 years.
The stadium had to be closed for repairs earlier this year due to a beam falling on the seats. Adding to the matter, Steinbrenner has blamed less than extraordinary attendance at the stadium on the notoriously bad borough in which it is located.
I had experienced the Bronx at its core back in 1990 when I was attending college in Vermont. A few friends and I had decided we would drive to New York and attend a game.
Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have a map and ended up getting lost in the Bronx. The picture wasn’t pretty as I saw streets littered with household appliances and furniture. The buildings were lined with graffiti and the streets were sometimes impassable because of abandoned cars and people filling the streets with parked cars. All the while we were lost, none of the white faces in the car felt very safe.
This time, though, I saw and felt none of that. I had read that New York had been undergoing a rejuvenation in the 90s and I guess the Bronx had reaped some of the benefits. This time, I was amazed at how many children I saw playing in the city’s many parks and the amount of trees the area had.
I reached the stadium about an hour before the game, parking in a stadium lot a good three-quarters of a mile away from the stadium. I couldn’t even see it from where I was at.
It was on my trek to the stadium that I was informed by one of the many ticket scalpers that the game was a sellout because it was “Bat Day.” I chose to believe him. This was my first mistake. The game ended up having 40,000 plus in attendance, but to be a sellout the attendance must reach the stadium’s capacity of 54,000.
My second mistake was buying tickets from him. The tickets he sold me were supposed to be behind the Yankees’ dugout. They turned out to be behind the left field foul pole. Oh well, you live and you learn.
As I neared the end of my journey, my girlfriend’s hand in mine, I saw “The House That Ruth Built,” a name that stuck after reporter Fred Lieb termed it so on the opening day of the stadium, April 18, 1928.
Yankee Stadium is actually the third home of the Yankees. The team originally resided at Hilltop Park, now the site of a hospital, before they shared the roomier Polo Grounds with the New York Giants.
The latter arrangement worked out well until the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox and began outdrawing the Giants. In 1921, the Giants evicted the Yankees from the Polo Grounds forcing the club’s owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu to build Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River in the Bronx.
The White Construction Company, working from plans prepared by the Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, broke ground on May 5, 1922. By the time they had finished the undertaking, they had used 2,200 tons of structural steel, 3,000,000 boardfeet of lumber to form 28,000 cubic yards of concrete reinforced by 800 tons of steel, and another 950,000 boardfeet of Pacific Coast fir to build the bleachers.
The playing field was made by using 13,000 cubic yards of earth, topped by 116,000 square feet of sod brought in from Long Island. By the end of the construction, Yankee Stadium was the first major league ballpark to have three tiers and it was the first to be called a “stadium.”
The original stadium measured 281 feet to left, 295 feet to right and 490 feet to dead center, which became known as “Death Valley” because it was deadly to those hitters who couldn’t pull the ball.
On the opening day of the stadium, Ruth christened it by becoming the first player to homer in it. Prior to the game, Ruth had remarked, “I’d give one year of my life if I can hit a home run in this first game in the new park.”
As I stood outside the stadium, it was apparent why Yankee Stadium is so highly regarded. Writer Laura Cunningham said in her novel, Sleeping Arrangements, “Years later, when I saw the actual Roman Coliseum, I couldn’t suppress an inner gasp of recognition. Ahhhh! It’s like Yankee Stadium.”
In fact, Yankee Stadium has become recognized as a landmark because of the contests it has hosted. “The Greatest Football Game Ever Played” was contested here, along with several college football games. Over 20 championship boxing matches were fought here. And the Yankees have won 23 championships here. As a reminder of their past successes, each championship year is chiseled into the side of the stadium and can be prominently seen by onlookers.
Along with those events, the stadium has also been the stage for numerous concerts and memorable pieces of American history. A dying Lou Gehrig uttered the immortal words, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of Earth,” here on July 4, 1939.
Ruth hit his 60th home run here in 1927 while also belting his famous “called shot” against the Chicago Cubs here in the 1932 World Series. Don Larsen also hurled the only perfect game in World Series history here in 1956 against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
As I entered through the turnstiles into the corridors of the stadium, the place was a lot like I had remembered it. There were people everywhere and it smelled like it had years before. Yet, it wasn’t quite the same as it had been when I was a six-year-old boy.
Maybe, I’ve just witnessed too many strikes, high salaries, greedy owners and lazy players to be enamored with baseball anymore. I don’t know.
This feeling left me in a hurry though when I entered the hallway to my seat and looked out at the playing field and the great stadium that surrounded me. It was huge. I know the Astrodome is just as big, but Yankee Stadium is staggering. Just looking out at the field, a “Field of Dreams” in an urban jungle, I could imagine the great players that had roamed it once, names like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Berra, Ford, Jackson, Mattingly and many others.
Even more staggering were the fans. They were electrifying. They were waving their bats—a scary sight in any city, but maybe a bit more in New York—and hollering for their Yankees.
As I looked around, I saw the monuments that only Cooperstown could compete with.
Originally located on the playing field in “Death Valley,” the monuments had been moved behind the left field wall when the stadium was refurbished in the early 70s. Monument Park, as it is called, is dedicated to former Yankee heroes like Miller Huggins, Ruth and Gehrig. The park also has a section for all the Yankees who have had their numbers retired.
The list is quite long and consists of great players and managers such as the late Billy Martin, the Yankee manager known for his outrageous arguments with Steinbrenner and his ability to get hired and fired. Then there’s my boyhood favorite, Munson, who led the Yankees to World Series victories in the late 70s before dying in a plane crash during the prime of his career.
By the time the game started, I had already devoured two of the best hot dogs in the world and bought some expensive souvenirs.
As for the game, it was a good one. Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neil and Martinez each homered and David Cone struck out 14 while pitching a complete game as the Bronx Bombers claimed a 4-1 victory over the depleted defending World Champion Florida Marlins.
For me, as I exited the stadium past the numerous Yankee shops with the subway rolling over my head, I wondered if this would be my last trip to this great stadium. It has lasted through many wars and recessions, a Great Depression and 25 years of “The Boss.”
Who knows though with the powers that be? In a baseball world where the champs can turn into chumps in one offseason, who really knows? Maybe, Yankee Stadium will not be able to survive one thing—greed.
Happy 75th, anyway, Yankee Stadium! I hope you’re around for 75 more.