A stadium filled with memories

September 19, 2008 9:20:43 PM PDT
On Sunday evening, they will walk off America's most famous field for the final time. No more sunny days spent watching the pinstripes run out across the same ground once patrolled by Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle.

No more October afternoons with shadows creeping across the grass.

No more glorious nights with balls soaring into the upper deck as the old place shimmies from leaping, boisterous fans, their roar carrying out to the subway tracks on River Avenue and beyond.

It was an edifice built to symbolize American power, a place meant to hold the same place in New York's imagination as the Colosseum does in Rome's.

And now, 85½ years after it was opened, Yankee Stadium is about to close.

"I'm going to miss it all," Yogi Berra said wistfully.

So much of baseball's history has occurred on this five-sided patch of land near the Harlem River: Of the 601 World Series games, 100 have been played here. Eleven no-hitters have been pitched here, including three perfect games.

There are the monuments and the short porch. Before a renovation that added amenities and subtracted ambiance, there was the copper frieze and Death Valley. The new Yankee Stadium, a $1.3 billion palace rising just across 161st Street, may have the latest in comforts, food and amenities, but it will never replace the history of the original.

Ask Reggie Jackson for a Yankee Stadium memory, and he recalls his first. The date: April 15, 1968.

"What I remember most was seeing Mickey Mantle," he said. "I played against Mickey Mantle, man. I looked down at his shoes. He had No. 7 on them. He stopped and let me go past him. He knew my name."

Retracing the path of Hall of Famers often runs through players' minds - especially these days - as they walk up the five dugout steps, crane their necks up at the vast crowd, then sprint onto the field.

"Just being able to run out on the grass where all the great players once did - that definitely will be missed," Yanks outfielder Johnny Damon said. "Yeah, I kind of enjoyed being able to play on the same field that Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth did, and hit the ball into the upper deck just like those guys."

Built for $2.5 million, America's first three-deck sports showcase rose over 284 working days in 1922 and 1923 - before there was an Empire State Building. They called it "The Yankee Stadium" back then, the article importing its grandeur during a gilded age.

Constructed on land purchased from the William Waldorf Astor estate for $675,000, it was right across the river from the team's former home, the Polo Grounds, which the Yankees rented from their National League rival, the New York Giants. Cromwell Avenue had to be eliminated for the ballpark to be built.

Some of the Osborn Engineering Co.'s original design still stands. One afternoon during the final homestand, Yankees manager Joe Girardi walked down the long corridor toward right field and was able to point out the difference between an original wall, constructed with railroad ties, and one from the 1970s reconstruction, where the outlines of each block are visible.

The labyrinth below the stands has its own set of memories.

In the room where Lou Gehrig went for solitude as he became sicker in 1939, for example, Girardi pointed out a a pole with portraits of the famous Yankees captains, images of Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter alongside that of the Iron Horse.

As Yankees players walk into the clubhouse - which has been on the first-base side of the stadium since 1946 - they pass framed photos of their 16 predecessors whose numbers have been retired.

When they head down the tight tunnel out to the dugout, players pass beneath a blue sign with white lettering, quoting DiMaggio: "I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee." Many touch it for good luck. Roger Clemens used to rub the Ruth monument out by the bullpen before his starts.

What sticks with some about the stadium is the sound, a wall of primal noise unleashed by the fans.

"It's incredible that stadium, just the power of it," said former manager Joe Torre. "You can feel the heartbeat of the people in the stands, especially when you're playing the Red Sox or the Mets but especially the Red Sox. And then, of course, postseason play."

Cheers began the very first day, when Ruth hit a three-run homer in a 4-1 win over - who else? - Boston, on April 18, 1923.

John Philip Sousa led the Seventh Regiment Band during the opening ceremonies, which included players on both teams parading to the flagpole. The crowd was announced as 74,200, and one scalper was arrested when he tried to get $1.25 for a $1.10 seat. Fred Lieb of the New York Evening Telegram dubbed the ballpark "The House that Ruth Built," and the name stuck.

All 26 World Series titles and 37 of 39 American League pennants won by the Yankees have come in years they played here. The ballpark had baseball's first electric message board (1959) and first replay screen (1976).

Quite simply, there have been more momentous events here than any other place baseball is played.

There was that Fourth of July when Gehrig proclaimed himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," and the two days in 1948 when 77,000 mourners walked past Ruth's open casket.

There was Al Gionfriddo's catch of a DiMaggio drive in the 1947 World Series, Sandy Amoros' snare against Berra in the '55 Series and Don Larsen's perfect game in the Series the following year.

There was Roger Maris' 61st homer in 1961, the time Mantle hit the frieze - nearly clearing the ballpark - against Bill Fischer in 1963 and the night Chris Chambliss homered to end the AL championship series in 1976, when it seemed every single fan sprinted onto the field. There was Jackson's three-homer night in Game 6 the following year, giving owner George Steinbrenner the first of his six World Series titles.

There was the Old Timers Day in 1978 when just-fired Billy Martin was reintroduced as manager - for 1980 - and the George Brett Pine Tar game in 1983.

David Wells' perfect game in 1998 turned out to be a prelude for David Cone's perfect game a year later. Tino Martinez's tying two-run, two-out homer in the ninth inning of World Series Game 4 in 2001 was an overture for Scott Brosius' tying two-run, two-out homer in the ninth inning the next night. Then Aaron Boone made himself famous with his Game 7 homer against Boston in 2003.

"I believe it's the most important sports venue in the whole world. I don't think there's any sports venue that has more history than Yankee Stadium," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, anticipating one last night of cheering from his front-row seats.

During the 1974-75 renovation, which cost $100 million to $167 million - depending on who did the accounting - much of the distinctiveness was lost. The 118 columns were removed and the playing surface lowered, improving sight lines, but the roof was taken out and the frieze melted down. The seats, originally green and switched to blue in 1967, were replaced. Capacity was cut from 64,644, eventually settling at 57,545.

Center field, an imposing 491 feet from home plate when the ballpark opened, was shortened again and again and again and again over the years. Now, it's just a 408-foot poke.

But the electric atmosphere never changed.

"You talk about New York and playing on Broadway. It seems like it's a little darker here; the lights are a little brighter here," Jeter said. "It's like you're on stage."

There were other events - the Baltimore Colts' overtime victory over the football Giants in the 1958 NFL championship, and Knute Rockne's 1928 speech urging Notre Dame to "win one for the Gipper" against Army. Thirty championship boxing matches were fought at the stadium, including Joe Louis' first-round destruction of Max Schmeling in 1938. There were soccer games with Pele, papal masses with Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a rally with Nelson Mandela and rock concerts by Billy Joel, Pink Floyd and U2. A stadium record crowd of 123,707 attended a 1958 gathering of Jehovah's Witnesses.

But those will be remembered during a November ceremony. Baseball was the ballpark's soul.

Some artifacts will be moved across 161st Street to the new ballpark - surely the monuments to Ruth, Gehrig and Miller Huggins, which originally were on the field of play, along with three newer monuments and 24 plaques. Some history will be recreated: the original limestone exterior, the eagle medallions outside the entrance, the cathedral windows, the frieze and likely Munson's empty locker.

But the new Yankee Stadium, 63 percent larger than the original by space, won't be the same. The martini bar, steak house and art gallery for today's titans may be snazzy, but the ghosts of the greats won't be omnipresent to those walking the far wider corridors and sitting in the 52,325 more comfortable seats, which will cost up to $2,500 per game.

"You get a feeling it's baseball when you walk into this place," Paul O'Neill said, standing outside the Yankees clubhouse. "You can go to brand-new ballparks that have every amenity in the world, but you don't get that feeling and the smell that you get in this place of baseball."

To commemorate the past, Girardi has a pair of home plates saved in his house - from Dwight Gooden's no-hitter and Cone's perfect game. Torre called Lou Cucuzza Jr., the visiting clubhouse manager, and asked him to save a pair of seats from the stands. Cucuzza himself had players on visiting teams sign a door that he had removed from his office and will take to the new stadium.

Jeter says he plans to steal something - he won't say what.

"I'll miss it. It's too bad that they're going to tear it down," said Bob Feller, who pitched a no-hitter here for Cleveland in 1946. "In Europe, they take care of historical places, turn them into monuments. And here we bulldoze them to make room for something new."

After a 500-pound steel expansion joint dropped from the upper deck to the mezzanine hours before a game was to start in April 1998, plans for a new ballpark started to accelerate. Ground for the new stadium was broken in August 2006, and the team hoped for a grand send-off.

But this sorry season will end without another World Series, not even a playoff appearance. It's a melancholy coda to Yankee Stadium's symphony of success.

That makes saying goodbye all that much tougher when Frank Sinatra's recording of "New York, New York" is played after a game for the final time.

The last home run will have been hit, the last game won and lost.

"I will definitely be sad," Jeter said. "It doesn't get better than Yankee Stadium."