I’ve never been to Yankee Stadium. Oh sure, I’ve seen the Yankees play in the Bronx more than one hundred times over the past 20 years, but Yankee Stadium, the limestone behemoth that was home to Yankee greats from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle is something I’ve only seen in books, grainy film footage, and in the background of old baseball cards. That cavernous coliseum, with its copper frieze trimming the roof that hung over the upper deck and its career-altering death valley in left center, was destroyed following the 1973 season. Its last game was a forgettable 8-5 Yankee loss to the Tigers that concluded an equally forgettable 80-82 fourth-place season for the home team.
Two and a half years later, in its place, sat a different Yankee Stadium. A modernized, yet instantly-dated, grey, concrete bowl filled with royal blue seats and orange light bulbs that relayed information from a flat-black scoreboard. The copper frieze had been melted down and replaced with a concrete replica that sat on a lower perch atop the outfield scoreboard, like an artifact on one’s mantle. The roof had been largely removed. The wall in left center was now 27 feet closer to home plate and would come in another 31 feet before I ever got to see it in person. Behind that wall, the three marble-and-bronze monuments that had formed a half circle around the flag pole in the grass of center field sat in concrete and were surrounded by a black chain-link fence that separated the two bullpens.
Still, though the structure had been changed, and the field which had played host to 27 World Series and two All-Star Games had been torn up and replaced, there remained a connection between the remodeled Yankee Stadium, as it would become unofficially known, and the original. Just as the Yankees inaugurated Yankee Stadium with the franchise’s first World Championship in 1923, the team inaugurated the remodeled Stadium in 1976 with their first World Series appearance in 12 years and followed that up with championships in 1977 and 1978. In its 33 years of existence, the remodeled Stadium hosted 10 World Series and two All-Star Games. Unless the Dodgers reach the World Series this year, no other stadium will have hosted more than four Fall Classics over that same span. The remodeled Stadium quickly established itself as a worthy successor to the original not because of its own grandeur, which was lacking, but because of the grandeur of the games which took place there.
When the last out at Yankee Stadium is recorded tonight, baseball won’t be losing a great piece of architecture; the remodeled Stadium is no beauty. What it will lose is the living memory of some of the game’s greatest moments. What makes Yankee Stadium great is not the concrete replica of the frieze in center field or the relocated monuments beyond the wall in left field. It’s not even the great views from the upper deck or the camaraderie and passion of the bleacher creatures. It’s the history that was made there.
One can look around the current park and see where legendary home runs by Aaron Boone and Scott Brosius fell into the left field box seats, Reggie’s moon-shot off Charlie Hough clanged off the black batter’s eye, homers by Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, and Chris Chambliss made post-season history by clearing the wall in right, with and without help. One can envision Mariano Rivera and Goose Gossage appearing through the bullpen gate in left center, Derek Jeter diving into the stands behind third base, David Wells punching the air and David Cone falling to his knees after the final outs of their perfect games. One can see Dave Righetti, Jim Abbott, and Dwight Gooden celebrating no-hitters, Thurman Munson crouching behind home plate as Ron Guidry strikes out 18 Angels, Don Mattingly bringing down the house with a home run into the right-field bleachers, Dave Winfield ripping bullets down the left field line, Rickey Henderson and Mickey Rivers burning up the bases, Willie Randolph turning two, Tom Seaver, Phil Neikro, and Roger Clemens winning 300, Alex Rodriguez hitting 500, and George Brett storming out of the visitor’s dugout, a victim of Billy Martin’s chicanery. One can also see Paul O’Neill meekly slumping his shoudlers as an entire Stadium chants his name, Reggie doffing his batting helmet to the crowd in front of the home dugout, Charley Hayes squeezing the final out of the 1996 World Series, Wade Boggs riding a police horse around the warning track, and both Jackson and Chambliss plowing their way through the swarms of celebrating fans toward the safety of the clubhouse.
Though the field has been torn up, replaced, moved, and lowered, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the old park. In fact, that has been one of my favorite things to do when visiting the Stadium. I’d squint at the left-handed batters box and imagine Babe Ruth taking a mighty swing and christening the new park with a home run or Lou Gehrig, hat in hand, addressing the crowd. Looking around, I could see Joe DiMaggio kicking the dirt near second base, Mickey Mantle launching a ball off the frieze, Jackie Robinson breaking for home, Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larson’s arms, the Dodgers celebrating Brooklyn’s first and only championship, Roger Maris circling the bases after number 61, and Bobby Murcer chasing a ball around the monuments in center. Because the Yankees were in the World Series with such regularity, all but a select few of the game’s greats (most of them Cubs) played there, from Ty Cobb, to Ted Williams, to Tony Gwynn, Walter Johnson, to Sandy Koufax, to Pedro Martinez, Jackie Robinson, to Curt Flood, and Roberto Clemente, and so on. In 1928, Knute Rockne implored his team to “win one for the Gipper” there. In 1938, Joe Luis beat Max Schmeling there. In 1958, Johnny Unitas beat the New York Football Giants in the NFL Championship Game there.
That is what will be lost. Not the building, but the place and the tangible connection to what happened there. The Yankees may only be moving a few hundred feet to the north to play on a field of similar dimensions in a ballpark with an identical name, but Yankee Stadium, the real Yankee Stadium, in both its incarnations, will soon be resigned to the page, the screen, and the memory of those who were fortunate enough to have seen a ballgame there, whether they witnessed a great moment, or simply gazed out at the field and imagined all the great moments that had come before.