Unless the Yankees make it to their 40th World Series this fall, Tuesday night’s All-Star Game likely is the last time a truly major national sports event will unfold at a place that has seen more of them than any other.
Believe it or not, Yankee Stadium is closing down 85 years after Babe Ruth appropriately christened “The House That Ruth Built” with a three-run homer that beat the Red Sox - who else? - on Opening Day, April 18, 1923. Next season the Steinbrenners will be cavorting in a new Yankee Stadium nearby, but it won’t be the same.
You might as well build new versions of the U.S. Capitol, Big Ben and the Sphinx. Sometimes you just can’t improve on the original, no matter how many overpriced luxury boxes you add.
In this era when stadiums sprout like steel and concrete weeds - three are rising in the New York City area alone - perhaps it seems foolish to mourn the loss of baseball’s third-oldest venue (behind Fenway and Wrigley). But this wasn’t just another jock stop.
Other teams played at “parks” or “fields.” The almighty Yankees won 37 of their 39 pennants and all 26 of their World Series titles performing in what everybody called simply “The Stadium” - always with a capital “S.”
Along with Times Square, Broadway and Grant’s Tomb, et al, Yankee Stadium was New York. And at least through the 1950s, it seemed very right for baseball’s best team to be playing in baseball’s biggest home in the nation’s biggest city.
Nowadays, much of the glow has vanished. The Yankees don’t win the pennant every year anymore, the archrival Dodgers are long gone from Brooklyn and we have become jaded about so-called “big” sporting events when three or four seem to be on TV - or so ESPN claims - every night.
Yet for those of a certain age, the magic and memories associated with Yankee Stadium will never fade.
“There are ghosts here and a rich tradition,” former Yankees manager Joe Torre once said. “You can sense it all around you…. In my office, there’s a picture of Gehrig behind my desk. I inherited it, but I wouldn’t think of removing it. That’s what the Stadium is all about.”
Ah, Lou Gehrig, the mighty first baseman who played half his 2,130 consecutive games from 1925 to 1939 at the Stadium before ALS ended his career at 36 and his life at 38. On July 4, 1939, fans and well-wishers packed the place to hear the erstwhile Iron Horse insist, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
Spectators sobbed again nine years later when Babe Ruth, two months away from death at 53 because of throat cancer, emerged shakily from the home dugout and leaned on a bat for support while gazing off into the distance as current Yankees stood with heads bowed along the first-base line.
Certainly, it is less mournful to recall some of the games people played. Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers made a miraculous catch to rob Joe DiMaggio of a home run in the 1947 World Series, inspiring Red Barber’s classic radio call of “back … back … back … back … back … back … oh doctor!”
In 1955, Johnny Podres shut out the Yankees in Game 7 to give Brooklyn its only Series title. A year later, though, Yankees playboy Don Larsen made the Bums look like bums while twirling the only perfect game in Series history.
Ruth clobbered his record-setting 60th home run of 1927 and Roger Maris his record-breaking 61st of 1961 there. In 1963, Mickey Mantle came within a foot of launching the only fair ball to leave the premises. Reggie Jackson unloaded three homers on three offerings from three Dodgers pitchers in the 1977 Series finale.
Not all the epic incidences have involved baseball. The Colts and Giants staged their famous sudden-death NFL title game in 1958, 30 years after Knute Rockne told his underdog Notre Dame Fighting Irish to “win one for the Gipper” against Army. And in 1946, the same two unbeaten antagonists struggled to a mutually frustrating scoreless tie.
Thirty title fights have caused blood to flow and throngs to gather in the Bronx. The most remarkable occurred on June 22, 1938, when Joe Louis avenged an upset by Max Schmeling two years earlier by reducing the German to sauerkraut in just 124 seconds and simultaneously devastating Nazi claims of Aryan supremacy.
Not all the epic incidences involved sports either. Three popes - Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (three months ago) - celebrated Mass between the white lines. Jehovah’s Witnesses in assembly packed the house. Billy Graham exhorted thousands to embrace the Lord. Dozens of concerts showcased entertainers of varied talent.
In the final analysis, however, Yankee Stadium has meant baseball - most significantly in fall, when the shadows lengthened about the combatants as afternoon World Series games unfolded. Of course, Lawrence Peter Berra, a left fielder in the waning days of his career, summed up this situation best: “It gets late early out there.”
Now it is getting late for Yankee Stadium itself, and that is to be regretted. Other places will come and go, but none will provide as many thrills and chills or command as much respect.