Despite the huge American flag rippling in the wind, Yankee Stadium’s center field flagpole seems naked without a championship banner billowing bellow it. I miss those sparkling, sunny, breezy summer days, when the Yankees were winning the World Series; most recently when they beat the New York Mets in 2000. Following that victory, during the summer of 2001, the large flag and the slightly smaller banner whipped back and forth, casting interlocking shadows on the brilliant green field below. Before the ‘70s, a championship flag was the only banner “allowed” in the ballpark with the stars and stripes; two flags, two symbols of victory.
At Yankee Stadium, I prefer to sit far above the ground in one of the Tier Reserved seats. The row of chairs curl around the Stadium like a rolling blue sea, arching high above the emerald grass of the outfield, outlined in stark white foul lines. From here a baseball fan can turn easily in his seat to view the entire Stadium. Sit on the field’s third base side, look left, beyond the center field wall, and there is Monument Park. It is a well-manicured miniature “park”, with small bushes and a walking path that trails past three bulky rectangular stones (these were originally placed in center field). The stones hold plaques that memorialize Babe Ruth, Miller Huggins, and Lou Gehrig. The rear wall holds more plaques for other Yankees greats, and pin stripped ovals with the retired numbers of the many stellar players whose feats put those championship banners on the flagpole.
There is Reggie Jackson, retired #44. His three home runs, against three different pitchers, in the deciding World Series Game Six on 18 October, 1977 helped defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers four games to two and clinch the Yankees’ 21st World Championship. And retired #9, Roger Maris. At the Stadium on 1 October, 1961, the season’s last day, Maris hit his 61st homerun of the season, off the Boston Red Sox’s Tracy Stallard, and broke Babe Ruth’s “unbreakable” record of 60 home runs in a season. And, of course there is the Babe himself, the “Sultan of Swat”. On opening day, in Yankee Stadium’s first game, 18 April, 1923, playing against the Red Sox, Ruth “christened” Yankee Stadium with a homerun to lead the Yankees to a 4-1 victory. The Babe’s spectacular career is the source of the Stadium’s unofficial title, which it is still called today, “The House that Ruth Built”. While you remember these dramatic individual feats, look towards the right, over home plate. Painted in bold, bright, white script letters against blue, in scribed in letters at least three feet high: “The New York Yankees 26 Time World Champions”.
Yankee Stadium has evolved quite a bit since its original 1923 construction. Far removed from downtown New York City, it originally sat at the edge of the Harlem River, just across the river from another stadium, the Polo Grounds, the home of baseball’s then reigning champions, the National League’s New York Giants. In 1923, Yankee Stadium was a marvel of modern construction. It was a modern Coliseum, the first triple deck stadium in America, waiting for future heroes Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle to make it the quintessential symbol of baseball, the national sport. On 18 April, 1923 opening day attendance was over 74,000.
The Stadium that I began frequenting in the ‘50s and ‘60s had grown since then. It grew in physical size: in 1928 and 1937 the three tiers of grandstands were extended around the right and the left field foul poles, other renovations in 1966-67 cut capacity to “only” 65,000. And it grew in baseball legend, as the Yankee championships accumulated. From 1949-53 the Yankees did what no team has done before or since: they won five championships in a row. In the following 11 years, they won nine more pennants and four more championships.
The Stadium’s dimensions were staggering: it was over 490 feet from home plate to center field. Also, in 1932, 1941, and 1949, imposing stone monuments were erected in memory of Manager Miller Huggins, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth. The monuments were actually on the playing field, in center field, 10 feet beyond the center field wall. Visiting teams’ outfielders often had to scramble after hits that bounced behind the stone monuments. In 1985 the fence in left center field was moved in, the monuments and plaques, were all moved to the new, fan accessible Monument Park. Opposing players, no doubt, were relieved with these alterations to the Stadium.
The Stadium’s design was aloof. It was majestic, cavernous, and austere, a modern day wonder of the world. Fans were not permitted to bring banners or signs of any kind into the Stadium, as these might cheapen the dignified palace of champions. Fans did cheer, and roar, but their fervor, at least as I remember it then, seemed more restrained than raucous. What need to yell and gesticulate, “We’re Number One”? That was obvious. To further the feeling of restraint, the stentorian yet carefully measured tones of announcer Bob Sheppard reverberated off the distant walls. To Yankee haters his voice sounded pompous, to we Yankee fans it was the booming voice of glory. “Now batting, batting, batting, Number, Number, Number ” Comedians have great fun doing Sheppard imitations. They mimic the announcer’s great rolling cadences, the echo, it seems, says actor, comedian, and fervent Yankee fan, Billy Crystal, “The voice of God”. In 2000, Bob Sheppard got his own plaque in Monument Park.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the long-lived Yankee dynasty, not unlike other monarchies in other places and at other times, collapsed. The champions were brought low. Albeit not as bloody, it was no less revolutionary than the political upheavals of France in 1789, or Russia in 1917. For, as my Yankee hating friends used to complain to me, “Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for US Steel!” From 1965 to 1976, we had no first place finishes, and certainly no World Series. The World Series was played in Minneapolis, in Detroit, in St. Louis, even, in 1967, in Boston! — and the Yankee Stadium, like its team, grew seedy, and dirty. The Stadium became a relic of the past, a place where one came to wallow in the glory of bygone memory. The Yankees were just another team playing in just another ballpark, now.
In a strange way, the Yankees’ collapse and the Stadium’s degradation mirrored the ongoing turmoil of New York City, which was mired in financial chaos, and physically deteriorating. Oh, for greatness lost! Oddly enough, their return to championship form, two more World Series wins in 1977 and 1978, both over the Los Angeles Dodgers four games to two, coincided with the muddle of the Carter years. And, after a Series loss to the Dodgers in 1981, even though it was, some claimed, “Morning again” in Ronald Reagan’s America, it was more like “mourning”, again, at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees wouldn’t be back in the World Series until 1996.
After 50 years of use, in 1973 Yankee Stadium was closed down for reconstruction. It would emerge on 15 April 1976, reborn in a way, both in terms of its physical structure and with newer crops of Yankee greats and championship teams. Almost 55,000 attended the opening day of this second, new Yankee Stadium. We saw the Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins 11-4; their first step on the road to the 1976 American League Pennant (though not, alas, the World Series Championship). They lost to the Cincinnati Reds four games to none. Still, it was a fitting way to open, or re-open, Yankee Stadium. The Stadium was ready, now: for Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in the 1977 World Series; for the stunning comeback World Series victory, four games to two, the Game Six winning game over the Atlanta Braves in 1996; and, for the 2000 “Subway Series” when Derek Jeter, since 1996 a thrilling successor to past Yankee greats, led the Yankees to victory over the New York Mets.
I relish my memories of the glorious “Old” Yankee Stadium. I was with my family at the first “Bat Day” in the summer of 1964. Imagine, having to entice fans to come to the home of champions by giving away real, solid wood, official Little League baseball bats, each carrying the facsimile “signature” of a current Yankee player; a startling concept and sad indication of the state of the Yankees, at the time. In the Bat Day game’s seventh inning, Bob Sheppard intoned: “Let’s hold up those bats! Let’s thank the Yankees!” And a forest of 60,000 brand new bats sprouted. What a sight!
But the “new” Yankee Stadium is a fitting place to create new memories, and nurture new champions. The Stadium now encapsulates past glory with current success in a less imposing way than its former days. Homemade banners and signs are encouraged, now. Bells ring and horns sound joyously in the bleachers. When Roger “The Rocket” Clemens pitched for the Yankees from 1999-2003, fans held up placards with rockets on them in honor of each time he struck out an opposing player during a game. And although Derek Jeter may have turned 30 in 2004, wherever you sit in the Stadium, the calls and pleadings of girls and women from seven to 70 (it’s true!) cascade down to the field when Jeter is at bat: “Derek, marry me!” “Derek I love you!” “Nobody’s sweeter than Derek Jeter!” The park still impresses with its immensity: it houses close to 55,000 navy blue seats.
Yet this Stadium is approachable, not aloof or daunting as in the “US Steel” days. Then, the walls of this great edifice were a stark, unpainted, brownish stone. The old walls now sport white paint, trimmed with blue: Yankee colors. And it’s modernized. Inside, one is whisked to the higher reaches of the Stadium on escalators, during the ride up you may enjoy pictures of Yankee greats adorning the walls. Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951), and Mickey Mantle (1951-1969), are pictured with their heads down, trotting around the bases after hitting yet another homerun. These great players didn’t grand stand or show off: they hit, they won, they went back to the dugout. There’s a photo of Thurman Munson, the pugnacious, gritty catcher indeed, the team’s anchor, from 1975 until his death in a private plane crash in 1979 standing ready to block home plate against a charging base runner.
You can skip the escalators, as I often do, and tramp up to the top seats on the long, sloping walkways which spiral upwards, hugging the inside of the outer walls. Then you wade through the throng, or drift along with it around the inside walkway. You spot your seating section, turn off the walkway, head up a short ramp towards the beckoning sunlight outside. You might squint a bit while your eyes adjust to the sun sparkling off the blue seats, white walls, and dazzlingly green grass. Off in the distance, behind the right center field wall, the Number 4 train rumbles by on elevated tracks. Below, just behind the center field wall, the monuments, plaques, and numerous pinstriped ovals with retired player numbers shimmer in the sun. The view is unimpeded, as the infamous, seat-blocking poles, which hampered sightlines behind them at all levels in the original park, were removed during the Stadium’s rebuilding. (Although, when I was young, I would have been ecstatic to have a World Series ticket, even if the seat was behind one of those hard-to-see-around poles.)
Bob Sheppard, sounding, perhaps, less pompous than he did 20 years ago, but still authoritative (and seemingly ageless), announces the starting lineups. I am comforted by his familiar voice, amplified, reverberating off the walls. His announcements are interspersed between bursts of pounding rock music echoing cacophonously off the walls. The rock and the noise from the video message board commercials are, for me, an unwelcome intruder into this baseball nirvana. I can’t remember when commercials first appeared in ballparks. They snuck into the ballpark slowly, and now they are implacable and annoying, but alas, unavoidable. But when, before the game, the more mellifluous notes of opera star Robert Merrill’s rendition of the National Anthem replaces the rock music, and, when at game’s end Frank Sinatra’s buoyant rendition of “New York, New York” fills the Stadium, you know it, you feel it: this is the place to be: the epicenter of the baseball world.
Of course, the best thing about being at Yankee Stadium is watching the game. I sit above the left field side of the Stadium, over the foul line, anywhere from above third base over to the edge of the left field wall. From this vantage point I can look down, across the field, and at the Yankees in their dugout, next to the first base side of the field. I watch the players sitting, spitting, and gesticulating to each other about that last pitch. That sight hasn’t changed in 40 years, even if the ticket price has. My old $2.50 General Admission seat, now “Tier Reserved”, costs $18.50. But, someone has to pay for those huge Yankee player salaries. Besides, looking at the “Twenty Six Time World Champion” inscription on the façade behind home plate, I feel as though my contribution to those hefty wages somehow makes me a part of those championship teams, too.
Now, as I watch the coaches in the Yankee dugout signal to the left fielder to move in and over, I notice a group of spectators sitting over to my left, and down a few rows. They are chanting, “Godzilla! Godzilla!” In fact, some of them are wearing Godzilla headgear, the famous monster’s Styrofoam teeth flashing on their heads, its plated tail hanging down their backs. Some Japanese baseball fans have come to see a new aspect of the globalization of the Yankees. Hideki Matsui, the Japanese home run king, known fondly by Japanese baseball fans as “Godzilla”, is now a Yankee. And so the team’s mix, and the mix of my fellow fans, grows ever more diverse. The Yankees, though, compared to other major league teams, were somewhat late in adding Japanese players to the conglomeration of Dominican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Costa Rican, and Cuban players, among others. In the ‘50s, the New York Yankees were one of the last teams to sign on African American players. Elston Howard, the Yankee’s first black player, came to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
Indeed, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s the Yankees, and Yankee Stadium crowds, as well, were pretty much a reflection of white elitism. The people who could get inside Yankee Stadium were quite staid and proper remember, no banners and mostly establishment types. The Brooklyn Dodgers, many times the Yankee’s “Subway” Series rival, were blue collar. They were the workingman’s team, the lovable “Bums”, as in “Can’t dem Bums ever win?” (They did. They beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series, but moved to Los Angeles in 1958. People in Brooklyn still hate the Dodgers for fleeing to glamorous Southern California.) I loved all the championships, but even I felt a bit like an outsider, especially at World Series time. It seemed to me that only the “rich and famous” could afford a World Series ticket. I loved it when the Yankees won the World Series, but I often wished that my family was rich enough to be in the Stadium, part of the crowd actually experiencing the triumphs.
New York decayed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and places like Ocean Hill, Brownsville in Brooklyn, Harlem in Manhattan, and the south Bronx were havens for drugs, murder, and outbreaks of arson in abandoned buildings. There was no money to fix subways and bridges, let alone improve the ghettoes filled with people of no political power. The South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest, meanest neighborhoods, surrounded Yankee Stadium. The film Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981) depicted well the grim desolation of the “South Bronx”. In fact, that geographical designation, “The South Bronx”, became short hand for the violence, the poverty, and the brutal existence of so many Americans who lived only blocks from Yankee Stadium which stood amidst it all; an arrogant symbol of money and success.
The South Bronx’s depiction in “Fort Apache” now seems less a description of current reality, and more a “documentary” of a terrible period in New York’s history that has, by and large, finally passed. There seems less of a chasm between the Stadium and the area around it, now, although the divide between them has not disappeared entirely. The squat, depressing façade of the Bronx County Courthouse glares down from beyond the Stadium’s right field wall. In fact, you can trudge up the streets close by the Stadium, towards that gloomy, unhappy place, turn around, and look back down the hill. There below you lay the Stadium, seeming to float over the street, like some enormous phantasm in a mythical world. As I stretch in my seat between innings, it strikes me that the “South Bronx”, though still not affluent by any measure, is now just the south Bronx. And the softer, muted blue and white Yankee Stadium sits more comfortably at the edge of the neighborhood; the Stadium less a sign of arrogance, now become a symbol of diversity. Abandoned buildings have been rebuilt, drug dealers pushed out. Although still poor, the surrounding neighborhood is no longer desolate and poverty stricken.
Around me, the Japanese fans are just part of a vast polyglot ethnic crowd. Bilingual banners wave. Yes! Banners and their accompanying (rowdiness) are now allowed! People chant in Spanish, “Viva Yankees!” or “Viva Jeter!”, or in Japanese, “Go Godzilla!” at least, I think, it must be something like that. Game over, the crowd, still large, though some dribbled away during the late innings, flows out. Some are smiling, some look glum, depending on the score. Sinatra’s timeless “New York, New York” understood in every language bounces off the emptying seats. At field level fans can detour through Monument Park, idle briefly, among the plaques and monuments, before they exit. Some stop, rub the bronze faces of Ruth or Gehrig, and look up at the flagpole, bereft of the championship banner, these four years.
Last fall, before the 2003 baseball playoffs, ESPN held a special feature called, “Why the Yankees Don’t Have Fun in the Playoffs”. The reason why: because they have to win. If the Yankees don’t win the World Series their entire baseball season, no matter how successful, is considered a failure. Sad but true. The Yankees are considered to be baseball’s superpower, and they must uphold that image. The Yankees are the most successful franchise in any of the four major team sports: baseball, football, basketball, or hockey. I’ve seen Europeans, in Prague, Budapest and Moscow wearing Yankee hats and jackets. It seems well known everywhere that they have won those 26 championships. Only the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadians, with 23 Stanley Cup Championships, come even close. And the Yankees are in and of New York, that most famous city, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” in America. If they can’t make it in their home town . . .
The Stadium is almost empty, now. The American flag is hoisted down. Frank has stopped singing. The upper levels of seats are in the shadows, the sky turned dark blue now, almost black. I make my way back down the short ramp from the “Tier Reserved” seats, to the inside, winding ramp, back towards the field through the exit by the Field Level Box Seats (When I win the lottery this is where I’ll sit!), around the dirt track at the edge of the outfield, through Monument Park. Here I stop to the Babe’s nose and look back over my shoulder as I make my way to the exit.
I see “The New York Yankees Twenty Six Time World Champions,” emblazoned on the façade above home plate. Like everyone else, I’m still waiting for number 27. They came close in 2001, but lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and again in 2003, but lost to the Florida Marlins. Would I love this place as much if it weren’t “The Home of Champions?” I’d like to think so. After all, this is the best place in the world to play baseball, and to watch baseball. I think I’ll come back tomorrow. It doesn’t matter who the Yankees are playing.