This week marks the beginning of the end of a significant chapter in American sports history: the 83rd and final opening day at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Slated for Monday, the baseball gods, almost as if seeking to delay the onset of its final season, rained down on the storied ballpark and the game was postponed. This was fitting. Although it is not the oldest, it is certainly the most historic sports venue in the United States.
It was home to 30 championship boxing matches, the most famous of which took place in June of 1938 when America’s Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, faced off in a rematch with Germany’s Max Schmeling, who, although a favorite of Adolf Hitler, was unfairly touted as a Nazi.
Louis, the Heavyweight champion, had vowed to avenge the knockout defeat he had suffered only two years before at the hands of Schmeling, and did so. He dispatched his opponent in only 124 seconds, dealing Hitler and his Master Race a stinging blow.
The Stadium also saw its share of gridiron action. In addition to being the home field for the football Giants for nearly two decades, in 1958 it hosted what many still call “The Greatest Game Ever Played”; the NFL championship between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. It was the first NFL game to go into sudden-death overtime, and many still remember Alan Ameche’s one-yard plunge that gained victory for the Colts.
Perhaps the most famous football game played at the Big Ballyard was between two college teams. It was in the Yankee Stadium lockeroom that Knute Rockne gave his famous “win one for the Gipper” speech at halftime during the 1928 Army vs. Notre Dame game. Of course, the Irish went on to upset the powerful Cadets and gave us one of Ronald Reagan’s greatest film roles.
The Cathedral of Baseball has also seen its share of religious and cultural events. Later this month, Pope Benedict XVI will be the third pontiff to visit the U.S. and the third to celebrate Mass there. The Rev. Billy Graham has preached in the Stadium, which has also hosted Jehovah’s Witnesses conventions. And in the House that he built, Babe Ruth lay in state for two days before his funeral.
BUT OF COURSE the Big Ballpark is most famous for its long history of horsehide heroics. The Stadium has seen ten no hitters, three of them perfect games, hundreds of World Series and playoff games and some tremendous tape-measure homeruns.
Yet there are those purists who would say that the “true” Yankee Stadium ceased to exist after 1973 when it underwent massive renovations including the reduction of its huge center field and power alleys.
The original dimensions of the right and left-center alleys measured 425 and 460 feet respectively, while to clear the fence in dead-center field, a clout had to travel a whopping 490 feet. It’s often said that the short porch in right (350 straight away and 295 down the line) aided Babe Ruth’s homerun totals. While that is true to some extent, Ruth lost many more homers that were run down in the rest of the cavernous confines or dropped in for doubles and triples.
(A fascinating book on the subject of the Babe’s “lost” homeruns, The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs by Bill Jenkinson; would be perfect to peruse during the Stadium’s swan song season.)
SADLY IT IS the nature of baseball and its ballparks to change. When the Stadium is gone, its two older and much more beloved brothers, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park will remain; but for how much longer, no one knows. Surely owners — especially the Steinbrenners who actually put their profits back into the team — have the right to make more money; this is the American way and the reason professional baseball came into being after all.
But here’s hoping that the media will spare us the sight of the wrecking ball bruising what should be preserved in its entirety as a shrine, and bulldozers taking down many a young boy’s dream of gliding across the same verdant expanse as did Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
In the new home of the Washington Nationals there is a plaque with a quote from DiMaggio: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best.” In the Big Ballyard in the Bronx, there is another quote by the Yankee Clipper: “I’d like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.”
He might have added: And for making Yankee Stadium.
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