February 06, 2007

To which Yankee Stadium will the 2008 All-Star Game Say Good-Bye?

Yankee Stadium has been awarded the 2008 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Confirmation of the designation, a given around MLB the past few months, was made at a press conference at City Hall in Manhattan last Wednesday, January 31. The Yankees are building themselves a new ballpark which will open in 2009, just north of the existing stadium, between 161st and 164th Streets. The All-Star Game will be a centerpiece of the 2008 Farewell. But to which stadium are we saying good-bye?

Major League Baseball would evoke the memories of 1923 and the 84 seasons that will have passed since the Yankees moved across the river from the Polo Grounds to the Bronx. Jack Curry reported in the New York Times on February 1, Commissioner Bud Selig saying at the press-conference: “We really believe that this is the way we can honor the cathedral that has meant so much to this sport for so long.” The problem is that this storied “cathedral” was shuttered on September 30, 1973. The current Yankees’ park is a classic in having hosted the club since 1976, but it is a legacy of 1970s municipal architecture and resembles the Stadium in place only.

How did we arrive here in 2007 celebrating a story borne of the great marketing minds of baseball than the game’s historians? The St Louis Cardinals moved into their new playground last April and christened it “Busch Stadium”. It is their third home with this name. What we call “Old Busch Stadium”, the concrete circle in which the Cards played from 1966 through 2005 – the home of Whitey Horzog’s pennant winners and Mark McGwire’s fantasy summer of 1998 – was itself called “New Busch Stadium” when it opened in May 1966. The Cardinals had just moved out of “Old Busch Stadium”, which had been called “Busch Stadium” since 1954 when the name was changed from Sportsman’s Park. The Cardinals now play in Busch Stadium III. We forget that the Yankees now play in Yankee Stadium II.

Yankee Stadium I – the House that Ruth did build with his immense popularity – opened on April 18, 1923. The Yankees had won their first ever pennant in 1921 and they captured their first World Series championship that first year at the Stadium in 1923. It was a grand stadium that featured the famous copper façade around the roof, a deep outfield (that was 463 feet to centerfield as late as 1967), sat over 70,000 fans, and was home to the Yankees, the New York Giants football team, and championship boxing matches. It was a center of the American sports-world.

By the early Seventies, Yankee Stadium I had grown old and obsolete in a decaying neighborhood and housed a mediocre team. We think the current stadium is inhospitable today with crowded restrooms, narrow aisles, tiny concession stands, and minimal parking. New York City was falling apart in the late-1960s and early-1970s and so was the stadium. The Yankees had won their last championship in 1964 but by 1972, the team was below-average and Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, and Roger Maris were long gone from the Bronx.

Yankee Stadium I needed repairs. The Yankees vacated the Stadium after the 1973 season. They took up residence in Queens where they subleted from the Mets. We forget that for two years, the Yankees’ home stadium was Shea. Not that we want to remember. The club was decent – winning 89 in 1974 and 83 in 1975 – but far from great. Most notably, George Steinbrenner was suspended from Baseball for two-years by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn after Steinbrenner was convicted in federal court for making illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon. This too is Yankees history!

Yankee Stadium II opened on April 15, 1976. The organization brought in the widows of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to bear witness. They were joined by Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen and eighty-five year old Bob Shawkey, who pitched for the 1923 Yankees at the then brand-new ballpark. The new structure was infused by the spirits of the old one.

Indeed, it was a new stadium. The ramps that curl around the stadium’s exteriors were added during the renovation. Lost were the copper façades, the view-obstructing pillars, the upper deck, and wooden seats. Gone was the limestone exterior that will be revived in 2009 in Yankee Stadium II. Luxury boxes were added. They had even dug up and removed the concrete bunker under second-base that housed the electrical equipment used for boxing matches. This was a 1970s-era stadium built on the earth of and sold on the name of the 1923 version.

There is much to be said for the sacrosanct nature of the field as distinct from the structure that rises above it and seats the fans. The Tigers left not only Tiger Stadium and the stadium’s 88 years when they moved to Comerica Park in 1999. The Tigers left the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues and 104 years of Detroit baseball played at the intersection since 1896, five years before the Tigers opened for business. The Polo Grounds, that we know as the home of the Willie Mays-New York Giants and infant New York Mets, was the fourth Giants’ ballpark to use this name and the third to rise at Coogan’s Hollow between 155th and 159th Streets in Manhattan.

Yankee Stadium may not be Yankee Stadium but Ron Guidry and Andy Petite pitched from the same geographical coordinates as White Ford and Waite Hoyt. Reggie Jackson’s and Tino Martinez’s homeruns traveled through the same airspace as Mantle’s, DiMaggio’s, Gehrig’s, and Ruth’s. Sure the grass is replanted and infield dirt refreshed and we still see Derek Jeter in 1996 covering the same spots as Tony Kubek in 1961.

There are many reasons to hold the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have not hosted the game since 1977 so we can say they are due. More so, Manhattan has yet to host what has become the MLB All-Star marketing festival in this age of the FanFest, Home Run Derby, and Future’s Game. We might even say what we all know which is that the Yankees are good for business! The NFL chooses warm weather locations for the Super Bowl for this reason (the occasional venture into places like Minneapolis and Detroit aside). Sponsors much rather party in Miami in January than in Boston! Marketing in itself is a compelling reason.

Baseball follows a thread of history, honoring tradition and the past as we play through the present. The Yankees have done very well for themselves in these past 31 years and there is much to celebrate at Yankee Stadium II. We need not make-believe that we are bidding farewell to a historic monument when we close this stadium in 2008. The House that Ruth built closed in 1973; that is o.k. We need not trot out, again, the Babe’s tired ghost. We need not recreate a non-existent history when we can celebrate the post-1976 revival of the franchise in the concrete 1970s monument that has staged 31 years of great Yankees history.


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